The Clueless Americans in the Revoutionary Middle East

I never thought that the day would come when I would call the wealthiest country in the world, and the country with the most powerful army in the world, “pitiful.” I also never thought that I would call the citizens of that country, the nation state with the best university system in the world, “clueless” about the Middle East.


But, that day has come. For, clueless Americans have made their country pitiful.


The obvious question that then arises is: With hundreds of television channels, thousands of newspapers and journals, and hundreds of thousands of bloggers available to them, how did Americans become clueless?


One can say one thing about this syndrome with certainty. It is certainly not new. However, in the past, Americans were able to cover up their ignorance of the culture and politics of the Middle East through the use of bluster and clever spin.


For that reason, and contrary to what his critics say, America’s foreign policy weaknesses today are not solely the product of President Obama’s behaviour…nor are they the result of the policies adopted by one political party.


In part, this ignorance is the product of a refusal to learn the lessons of the past. In part it is also the product of a refusal to learn what and how other cultures think, and why those raised in those cultures behave differently than Americans. And in part, it is the product of simple laziness and arrogance.


The process finally reached its current apex only after enormous effort and the expenditure of great treasure, when America received its greatest wish, and it became the world’s only superpower.


However, despite all that investment it has become apparent that the US was vastly unprepared for the role that it had sought so assiduously. To make matters worse, too many of its political leaders and civil service policy-makers assumed that the country’s treasury of values, attitudes and assumptions would nonetheless provide sufficient guidance for it to play the role. For that reason, even after horrendous errors in judgment were made they seem not to have been willing to expend any further effort to learn what went wrong, and why.


What made it ride at the top of the world political heap even more precarious was that the US also assumed that because it had become the world’s sole superpower, it could also be the world’s hegemon—doing what it wanted, when it wanted and in the way it wanted to..


I have always found it noteworthy that all the American so-called “think tanks” specializing in foreign policy always place designing policies that further “American interests” at the head of their mission statement. It is as though they believe that they can determine what is good for the United States without taking into account how other nations might react to those supposed interests.


All the arrogant assumptions I have just mentioned form the denoument to a story that began in a very different way. For it was only with great reluctance that the United States placed itself in the position from where it would eventually tumble into the role of being a world super-power.


For almost a century and a half, it much preferred to bathe itself in isolationism, in the belief that, by standing aloof, it could be a model for others; and, no less importantly, imported foreign influences could only contaminate and undermine its “more perfect union.”


World events, though, and especially its self-felt need to save the known world by participating in the first and second world wars, eventually put paid to America’s isolationism.


However, even after it became a major world player, an underlying desire to withdraw from the messier and uglier aspects of world diplomacy remained. The current, heated debate on whether to attack Syria is the product of a renewed desire to return to seemingly simpler times that were less nationally exhausting and less costly in lives and public wealth.


Way back in the last century, the country’s leaders did overcome their hesitancy to participate in what many of its citizens continued to perceive as morally-repugnant behaviour because the US had acquired what appeared to be unrivalled domestic economic strength. That strength, when used to influence events abroad created a feeling of power. And a feeling of power, once acquired, becomes addictive.


Like many others in its position, the US had edged only very slowly into its addiction. Its first addict’s high came with the country’s successful participation in the First World War. As often happens with those on the path to being permanently hooked, though, the US first shied away from the heady feelings that it had experienced in the wake of its participation in that conflict. In the 1920s, 30s and early 40s, it was common for Americans to look down with disdain on the countries of the Old World; and so the belief in isolationism returned in force.


But America’s experience after it finally entered World War II proved to be too much of a draw. As the only country to the conflict that had not already stretched its resources to the full, the US was the only nation that could change the course of battle on two widely-separated fronts at the same time. And once it showed that it was capable of doing so, it was immediately anointed by the other, exhausted, Western nations as their leader.


America’s first moves as a super-power—leading the free nations to victory in World War II and inaugurating the brilliantly-conceived Marshall Plan—were so hugely successful that they not only reinforced the burgeoning addiction to power, they also provided the US with a feel-good, seemingly-morally-impressive, legally-based and emotionally-stirring narrative that enabled it to deny that an addiction had actually set in.


The central theme of that narrative was that the US was acting in accordance with a moral code that was superior to that of any other nation…and so, only the US, with its allies in tow, was morally equipped and able to use its economic and military power for good.


That “good” was perceived to be the advancement and propagation of the belief, which arose during the European Enlightenment and the writing of the US Constitution, that all humans have inalienable rights that demand permanent protection.


In many ways this secular narrative bore many resemblances to the three similar, fervent, Christian religious, “great awakenings” that had swept the Unite States in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.


Like many canonized manifestos, however, this new, secular one was deeply flawed. Among other things, from the outset, it set up a permanent, if irregularly-expressed conflict between Americans’ stated values and their country’s national interests.


For example, one of the prime stated aims of the manifesto—and a prime American political value—is the self-felt need to propagate the formation of democratic governments everywhere in the world. However, once some of those governments were formed, the US then put all its efforts into undermining them.


For example, the popular, democratically-elected government of Iranian leader Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown in 1953 by the US and Britain because Mosaddegh wanted to reduce the absolute power of the Shah. The US and Britain feared that if that happened, British Petroleum’s monopoly position in the Iranian oil fields would be affected.


In other words, as happened later in other places such as Chile, American leaders sometimes came to the belief that in order to foster American interests, democracy, the supposedly supreme American political value, would have to take second place in the American list of political concerns.


Nonetheless, despite all the “exceptions” that had to be explained post facto, the standard narrative created in the wake of World War II is still widely accepted and has remained largely intact. Probably the most important reason why this is so is that the model in its original pristine form, still appears to many to be the best reasoned response to the dilemma of how best to counter those international crises that have led to extremes of death and destruction in the recent past. Despite its now-proven flaws, it still maintains a strong hold on many because no competitive alternative has as yet been uncovered.


Canonization of that narrative came about because, in the immediate post-war period, the storyline was particularly appealing to that generation that had just lived through a brutal, extended war. Moreover, its members were also facing the twin threats of Communism’s attempts at world domination and the potential of a nuclear holocaust.


The model, based on the World War II experience, posits that by massing of all the industrial, economic, diplomatic and political resources that alliances of free countries can bring to bear, evil can be defeated, and its practitioners killed or made to surrender. Once those practicing evil ways have been eliminated, it is argued, the society in which the evildoers had once thrived can be fashioned into a modern, enlightened nation-state by being flooded with aid. The example always used is, of course, the Marshall plan.


The central dogma upon which the model is based holds that nations seeking the best for their citizens should pursue modernism. Modernism, produced by rapidly-evolving technology, industrialization and economic growth, it is argued, creates a strong middle class that then, as in the case of Japan, South Korea and the Philippines demands democracy as its system of rule. Those free elections and popular rule then become a vaccination against evil returning.


However, as have I already noted, very soon after it became American dogma, that model was found to be wanting. On the one hand, it encouraged the US to consider military action with the intent to install democracy in a given enemy country—not diplomacy—as a viable and realistic first option when international problems arose. Not only that, just as frequently, the model was ignored when events such as the popular revolts in Poznan, Budapest and Prague broke out.


It is noteworthy that, since World War II, the US has been involved in more than 30 military operations. However, very few have had the effect originally intended. One of the first joint military operations, the war in Korea, led to a ceasefire and the international acceptance of North Korea, which is arguably the single most evil country in the world today.


Many other later military interventions—large and small—in places like Beirut, Viet Nam and Mogadishu, were military and political disasters.


No less importantly, the intensity with which the America’s post World War II dogma was held, and its division of the world into allies and “evil empires,” also had dangerous domestic side effects such as the manner in which it polarized of American domestic public opinion. Early on, savage domestic virtual bloodletting over the question “Who lost China?,” ended up destroying an entire generation of capable American diplomats with expertise in Asian cultures.


And soon after, even more innocent lives were disrupted by the extraordinarily brutal experience of the McCarthy witch hunts. The so-called “Moral Majority” witch hunts and today’s Tea Party policy blockades are the latest examples of the same syndrome.


Another central feature of the model was a belief that American policy-makers could determine when regime change in other countries, enforced by the US, was morally and politically advisable. However, all the bungled attempts at regime change around the world should have been enough to prove to one and all that the perceptions of America’s “best and brightest” foreign policy thinkers who had been brought up to sanctify the defeat-the-enemy-first model unquestioningly, could be faulty.


I also think it is worth noting that, if nothing else, the Cuban missile crisis was useful because, thankfully, no one won that showdown. However, even more usefully, the episode did highlight for one and all that for a nation to become an effective, competitive superpower it has little choice but to accept that it has to move slowly and usually fitfully along a learning curve that cannot be replaced by a simple intellectual or mathematical formula that can be discerned in advance.


In other words, America, like all great powers that have come before it can only discover how to behave in world forums by learning through experience. And that experience can only come by interacting with countries and societies that disagree with it.


Unfortunately, just as America was in the process of understanding and internalizing that lesson, tragedy struck. At the very moment when, after decades of trial and error, America had finally learned more or less how to compete successfully with its sole competitor as a super-power, the Soviet Union collapsed.


The US was then left totally unprepared to play the new role that had been thrust upon it—that of being the world’s only super-power. Without a strong competitor to challenge it, hubris set in…big time. For more than a decade, especially during the 1990s, Washington felt itself to be politically, economically and militarily invincible. Worse still, because it no longer feared Soviet might, the United States retreated into a form of foreign policy intellectual isolationism in which aggressive advocacy in support of established positions replaced cogent debate about the impact that new social and political processes might have.


The result was that, from the late 1980s onwards, the US also began to ignore some of the long term effects that were becoming apparent in the foreign policies it was adopting. For example, while Russia was writhing in the political and economic agony that had accompanied the collapse of Communism, instead of following the magnanimous principles that had underlain the Marshall plan, the US arrogantly demeaned and insulted Russia time and again. It was a scene that a minor KGB official named Vladimir Putin would never forget.


No less significantly the US became oblivious to a rising wave of third world anti-modernizers, upon which its entire foreign policy model had been based.  The result of that blindness was 9/11. American’s belief in their invincibility meant that the United States’ rejoinders to 9/11—war in Iraq and Afghanistan—were undertaken with insufficient thought of the possible consequences that would arise from those military adventures and the lies that had been use to justify them.


The question that then arises is why, after all these failures and follies, has the United States, persisted blundering into new ones in places like Libya, Egypt, and now Syria?


Probably the most important reason is that not only did the United States change when it became the world’s sole super-power, other countries began to react to the United States differently than they had in the past.


For example, once the Soviet Union no longer appeared to be an immediate threat, the states that make up the European Union felt free to let all their beautiful dreams, noble aspirations, and utter idiocies, which had been held in check because of the immediate threat of the Soviets, take flight. Their attempts to pursue policies based on those fancies led them to become no less oblivious to what was going on around them as the United States. And it also led them to challenge American hegemony in policy-making.


In practical terms, among other things, that has meant that America’s closest allies, who should have replaced the Soviets as counselors against extreme actions and fallacious thinking, instead, have entered into a state of bi-polarism, in which the public mood has swung between euphoria over Americas continuing foreign policy mistakes to deep depression over what the European states themselves had wrought historically during the period of their colonialist adventures. The result has been European-initiated foreign policies based on logical gibberish.


The problem that then arose was that America, especially after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan had begun seeking broad international support and legitimacy for its every military move from its erstwhile allies. However, in order to accommodate the Europeans’ demands, the sometimes fanciful policies adopted jointly by America and the Europeans in the wake of the recent Arab revolts became increasingly inept.


As I noted last month, probably the stupidest thing any country can do is to embark on a military, political or diplomatic venture without deciding in advance first, what its ultimate political aim is and what should be the criteria for deciding whether that aim has been accomplished; and second, what that country’s exit strategy should be. In other words, one of the prime tasks of any government interested in pursuing a military operation is to tell its diplomatic and military minions what their goals should be and how the country will be able to extricate itself from any initiative if it fails to achieve those goals.


In the Arab world today, a place where everything seems to be swathed in opacity, one thing has become absolutely clear: The Americans and the Europeans, once they decided to enter this arena, have failed to abide by those most elementary strategic principles.


For example, to this day, I find it mind-boggling that US forces invaded Iraq without including a large force of military police in their order of battle. Without such a force, it was inevitable that anarchy and inter-communal infighting would begin almost immediately after the Iraqi regime was overthrown. To make things even worse, though, the first thing that the American administration did once it took control of the country was to fire all those who had been members of the local police force. The result of this vacuum was the instant emergence of violent, local militias bent on tribal revenge for hurts and insults suffered that day, the day before, and hundreds of years before.


Most recently, the proposal to attack Syria that was sent to Congress by the White House failed to state what the long-term goals of such an operation were, which criteria should be used to judge the efficacy of such an operation, and what the US’s exit strategy would be if it found itself sucked into a much more extensive operation than had originally been planned.


It was only very recently, by tracking everything said and reported about the events taking place in the Arab world, that I have finally been able to piece together a reasonably comprehensive portrait of why both the Americans and the Europeans have been acting in such an idiotic fashion.


As best as I can make out, since the Italian Renaissance, what we today call “the Western World” has believed in the transforming power of the pursuit of excellence in human endeavours. Among other things, that belief led to the canonization of skepticism, free expression, and later a belief that democracy as the only way to protect those values and the human exploration of the physical and intellectual worlds that they foster. Along the way, in their search for excellence, the Western countries have nurtured successive generations of a particular class of people who have been able to make their living by claiming to know everything of import in their declared field of interest. There were undoubtedly many geniuses who would never have been given an opportunity to make their contribution to human knowledge had this not been so.


However, the addiction to the idea that “expertise” is the source of all solutions has also produced a profession and social class that I have come to call the “punditocracy.” Unlike scientists and even many social scientists and humanists who are required to submit their work to intense pre and post publication examination by their peers, pundits are not required to do actual research or even present a logically-based argument.


They can take pride of place alongside all those intellectual alchemists and false messiahs of the past. However, recent demands by well-funded ideologues and lobbyists seeking public advocates for their beliefs, in addition to the broadcast media’s increasing demand for “instant analysis,” has led to a geometric growth in the number of practicing pundits.


Today, these practitioners, who may be academics or television commentators or denizens of so-called “think tanks” are only required to present entertaining opinions.


It is, however, worth remembering that Professor Phillip Tetlock of the Wharton School of Business has found that those opinionators who claim to have the greatest knowledge in a particular field are usually the least successful in predicting events in those subject areas for which they claim expertise. In fact, their success rate is sometimes less than fifty percent—or less than what would be achieved by a chimpanzee throwing darts at a target.


Too often these famous individuals are then invited to join or advise a government in power. As the “best and the brightest” liberals who went on to prosecute the Viet Nam War, and as the neo-cons who counseled for war in Iraq and Afghanistan forty years later, that syndrome is not confined to a particular political party…and it can often lead to disaster.


The Peter Principle posits that most of those in any decision-making pyramid in a particular field are usually promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. I have certainly met many of those incompetents. But I’m not sure that incompetence is the only reason why there have been so many recent foreign policy failures. I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the consistent foolishness of so many of those who are successful in peddling their opinions is that, because their livelihood depends on them becoming advocates, they have forgotten, or maybe never felt the need to learn, how to formulate useful questions.


Usually the reason for this is that the so-called “experts’” listeners are exceedingly undemanding. They would rather hear opinions that have the ring of familiarity than feel impelled to work to digest new ideas and unfamiliar data. The coverage by the media and the comments by American pundits and politicians about the events that have been taking place recently in the Arab world are exemplary cases in point.


For example, the reports that were broadcast from Cairo’s Tahrir Square that the rebels were in the van of a new era that would bring democracy to the country were taken at face value by most of the in-studio “analysts” even though the reports were patently false. They were false for many reasons. Some of the rebels were religious anti-democrats. Many of the secular youngsters in the square were more interested in just getting a job than in changing the political system as such. And maybe most importantly, the rebels did not reflect the opinion of those living outside the major cities.


So, one thing well worth keeping in mind is that, in the world of punditry, conventional wisdom, if it can be combined with long-held dreams, and especially if that combo can then be reformulated in an entertaining way, is probably the most highly valued commodity there is in medialand. In fact, is an almost hard and fast rule that Washington think tanks, in particular, are expected to “talk that kind of talk” in order to be considered relevant.


In other words, pundits may put on an image of being objective. However, unlike truly objective researchers, who ask a question and then spend as much time as is necessary seeking out hard data that will enable them to arrive at an as yet unknown conclusion, pundits are, invariably, advocates for a position that they (or their political or bureaucratic superiors) have adopted, often thoughtlessly, in advance. Any research they do is therefore devoted to seeking out support for existing positions and suppositions.


The Arab revolts were accompanied by an epidemic of punditry of that sort.


The revolution in Tunisia happened so quickly that it was almost impossible for foreigners to react, let alone intervene in the events. But the very opposite was true for events that took place in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.


The events that occurred in Libya, with the possible exception of the manhunt for and the killing of Muammar Ghaddafi, have now been largely forgotten. However, a close look at what is happening there now is very revealing about the state of American foreign policy-making elsewhere today.


After its misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US was very reluctant to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern drama. However, the advent of the United States as the world’s only super-power had created a new situation that the Americans could not ignore.


Ironically, if there is only one super-power in the world, it actually has less freedom of action and is more dependent for keeping its power on maintaining its alliances than if the world is divided into competing camps.


In the old, bipolar world, each super-power reigned over and was able to impose discipline on a coterie of dependents. Even if what the leader of the camp did displeased the less powerful members of the group, the fear of what the team leader or the other gang might do was enough to keep the super-power’s acolytes from making any untoward or outrageous demands.


By the time the Libyan crisis broke out, though, those bonds of fealty had frayed considerably. Moreover, the events taking place in Libya struck a very strong chord in the Europeans’ psyche. The brave attempt by Libyan civilians to hunt down their own, particularly vile and contentious post-colonial dictator seemed to bring forth all the angst and shame and longings for absolution that Europeans had been carrying with them since they had departed from the colonies and left those lands in the hands of monarchs or dictators.


So, almost immediately after the drama began, the Europeans demanded that the US help them to finally get rid of Ghaddafi. The US was reluctant to become involved, but eventually accepted the appeal. That incident produced one of the most absurd, internally incoherent and self-contradictory phrases of recent times: that America was “leading from behind.”


The actual clarion call for military action was issued by one of Europe’s elite “public intellectuals,” a super-pundit named, Bernard-Henri Levy. A philosopher by training, Levy was an almost classic example of what happens when a pundit, who is a powerful and emotive speaker and advocate, but is totally ignorant of the subject at hand, is actually granted power. He gained that power, in part, because the United States, acutely aware of how its single super-power status had weakened its ability to say “no!” to its allies, wanted to keep its alliance with the Europeans intact.


In an act of what can only be described as total feeblemindedness or cluelessness, the US assented to providing fire support so long as it as not required to put any “boots on the ground.”


After a see-saw battle that included massive aerial bombings and missile attacks by American and European forces, Ghaddafi was caught and killed by Libyan rebels.


However, following his death, Libya collapsed into inter-tribal anarchy that could have and should have been predicted in advance. For some inexplicable reason (other than its single-minded devotion to the spread of democracy or maybe simple its total ignorance of how Libya functions), the United States appears to be intellectually incapable of conceiving of why tribalism has so often been adopted as a method of governance, how it works, why it is so effective, and why knowing how to deal with it should have been foremost in planners’ minds if the alliance was truly serious about preparing plans for rebuilding Libya after the war was over.


Before going on, let me answer those questions because the answers will help to explain many of the other things I will be discussing.


Put very simply, tribalism works because it is based on naturally-occurring blood bonds and friendships forged in childhood. Even if it appears to be horribly constrictive and stultifying to democrats, it does provide societies with a means to create trust in each other, to establish agree-upon rules of behaviour, to ensure that lines of communication between group members remain open, to foster a self-governing hierarchy and to provide a means of group defence. In other words, it offers the opportunity to create and maintain a high degree of social stability in what would otherwise be an anarchic world. Its main drawbacks are that it is highly-resistant to change even when the need for adaptation to altered circumstances arises, and it almost automatically creates rivalries with other tribes that are seeking to compete for the same available resources.


When several tribes are forced for any reason to have to live together within the same geographical boundaries, the only way that any form of central government can be created is if one of the strongest tribes can form an alliance with the weakest tribes that have come to believe that they are in need of protection. As part of that deal, the weaker party or parties accepts the autocratic rule of the larger and stronger ally. The benefit to the larger partner is that the combined force is then usually big enough to enable it to impose its will and rule on all the other tribes.


Libya has long been an example of multi-tribal governance taken to its logical extreme. Therefore, it should have been wholly predictable to the Americans that once Muammar Ghaddafi was assassinated, those protective tribal bonds would be broken, and total anarchy would ensue.


Nonetheless, the United States did nothing to prepare for that portentous day. One result of that seminal failure was that, among other things, the American ambassador to that country was assassinated because he was not provided with sufficient bodily protection by his own government.


But many worse things also took place. Because there were no “boots on the ground,” once Ghaddafi’s bulging arms warehouses were flung open, there was no willing or able to defend the huge arms caches he had assembled. Smugglers supported by their tribes then had a field day stealing some of the world’s most advanced weaponry, and peddling it to any and all customers willing to pay the price.


Some of that weaponry made its way to Mali, where jihadist militias were then able to capture the medieval treasure of Timbuktu and begin to destroy it. Only the belated arrival of French troops prevented this Moslem UNESCO Heritage site from being leveled by the extremist jihadists.


Timbuktu may not have been on the Americans’ list of strategic interests, but Egypt certainly was. Another major market for the Libyan arms peddlers was the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, where jihadi rebels there were able to satisfy all their wet dreams about what a modern armoury should look like.


These terrorists were then able not only to threaten the American-sponsored Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement (an American strategic asset and interest if there ever was one) but also the sovereign integrity of Egypt itself.


Additional weaponry is believed to have made its way to Syrian jihadist rebels as well.


But potentially the worst consequence of the way in which the Libyan operation was planned and carried out was that, after the aerial assault ended, because there were no boots on the ground, there was no one available to take charge of the two huge warehouses where Ghaddafi had stored his huge supply of yellowcake. Yellowcake is the first product produced during the refining of uranium into fuel or weapons.


Some of the yellowcake is now believed to have gone missing. And some of the stuff that is missing is now thought to have made its way to Iran. The failure by the US to take immediate control of that uranium violates every principle that has underlain American nuclear weapons reduction policies since the days of Ronald Reagan.


What occurred in Libya was bad enough. But the confusion in American policy-making was even more evident when rebels took to the streets in Egypt.


America was caught totally flatfooted by and clueless about Egypt’s popular rebellion. Unlike the way that the Western media presented the uprising—as some sort of longing for freedom by youngsters—the battle was actually fought as yet another tribal war. Western pundits kept pointing out that Egypt has no formal tribes as is the case in Libya and Syria.  But that observation is only very partially true. Extended families play a very important role in Egyptian society; and an analysis of recent voting patterns there shows that there was very considerable voting by blocs of bloodlines.


Far more importantly, though, Egypt’s constitution establishes state-sanctioned and state-supported institutions such as the military, the judiciary, the monopoly trade unions and a whole bunch of others. As a result, they end up with turfs and interests that need to be defended in exactly the same manner that tribes defend their turf and their interests.+


Another difficulty faced by anyone trying to follow the events taking place in Egypt was that the pundits assigned to explain what was going on there kept assigning the events taking place with a mark based on the totally meaningless and statistically-indescribable term “progress towards democracy.”


The rebellion in Egypt highlighted the problem that because of the American’s fixation on whether a country is about to adopt democratic rule, US politicians and foreign policy-makers consistently end up confusing means for desired ends. And because of their single-minded focus on a means…free elections…they too often ignore the far more important issue of whether the government in question believes in or promotes values such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and minority rights.


The blind belief in democracy too often enables politicians and pundits to forget to take into account that, as in Germany in the 1930s, or more recently in Gaza, free and democratic polling can lead to the victory of rights-denying, war-inducing autocracies.


This blindness all the more remarkable because the United States itself has been afflicted by corrupt political autocracies such as Tammany Hall and Daley Chicago.


As a result, in a burst of self-righteousness and political high-mindedness—but with utter thoughtlessness—American officials, from the president on downwards, pressed for the removal of Hosni Mubarak from office, as a first step to the creation of democratic rule in Egypt.


The elections that ensued were then declared to be “progress.”


When six months later the Egyptian army retook control of the Egyptian government, many of these American analysts were appalled that the army had seized power from the freely-elected Moslem Brotherhood Government. They immediately declared that a “coup” had taken place. The use of the word “coup” became highly contentious in Washington because if that word had been used officially in reference to Egypt, it would, automatically, have led to the cancellation of all the American aid programmes to that country. Such a cancellation could have had untold, negative consequences.


These critics seemed to have been totally incapable of comprehending what it meant to have had a fundamentalist religious political party elected to head a government. Democracy can only function in an environment where compromise is considered to be an acceptable or even welcome form of political activity. By their very nature, fundamentalist religious movements cannot accept any compromise on their most dearly-held doctrines.


The critics of the military also ignored the fact that, on a practical level, because their primary concern was the imposition of Sharia law, the Moslem Brotherhood had failed all the normative tests of legitimacy, including whether it had acted to improve the economy, had protected the rights of minorities such as the Copts, had enhanced the quality of life of the Egyptian people or even protected the country’s sovereignty from encroachments by foreign jihadists in the Sinai.


The situation reminded me once again of the idiocies I heard mouthed by those who claimed that Hamas had remained the only legitimate government in Gaza even after its supporters had expelled the el Fatah by force of arms and it had refused to hold elections after its legal term in office had long expired. The argument invariably given for continuing to support Hamas was that it “was elected.”


This seeming devotion to installing democracy in the Arab world is all the more inexplicable when one sees that American support for Arab autocrats has remained intact in places such as Bahrain, where an tiny minority of Sunnis rules over a vast majority of Shiites, or in Saudi Arabia, which is renowned for being a legal hell-hole and human rights-free.


American pundit apologists try to justify this hypocrisy by claiming that silence, in the face of grossly anti-democratic behaviours and massive human rights violations, is a strategic necessity because Bahrain hosts a huge US naval base, and the US must protect its allies’ access to Saudi oil.


An unspoken but no less real reason for the US turning a blind eye is that the Gulf States strongly influence American domestic politics and elections through their capacity to create American jobs by purchasing vast quantities of American arms and investing even larger sums in the economy.


My point is that this cynical approach to world politics is held by Washington pundits and apologists to be acceptable and within the norms of international diplomacy because these sins of omission are claimed to be strategic necessities. However, because of the failures of the ignorant and clueless pundits, the American public is never given the opportunity to weigh the value of the reasons given for this hypocrisy with other values that may be of similar or even greater worth. For example, the American public might become quite upset if it realized that the tax money it pumps into the American military is used to protect a Saudi Arabian government whose foreign aid money is almost exclusively devoted to constructing and maintaining madrassas (religious schools) that teach the extremist Wahabi approach to Islam. The curriculum of these schools is layered with both anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.


The more moderate graduates of these institutions are today called non-violent “Salafis.”  But many others form the basic cadre from which el Qaeda and its offshoots draw their fighters. I’ll have more to say about this when I discuss Syria.


All the factors I have mentioned so far, and many more, have been highlighted by the civil war in Syria. Until very recently, America had tried to avoid any significant involvement in that conflict.


It is now pretty obvious that President Obama’s decision to become involved in the warfare in Syria was the product of a mistake on his part. A year ago he announced that the use by the Syrian government of poison gas would be a red line for him. Naïvely, he apparently believed that the threat he voiced publicly would be sufficient to prevent the use of the gas. But then the law of unintended consequences intervened.


For two years, Washington had been able to stand by and watch as over 100,000 people had been slaughtered, 2 million had sought refuge in other countries and 5 million others had been displaced within Syria itself. And, in the past year, the Americans had also managed to ignore the fact that even though it had promised to intervene if poison gas were used by the Syrian government, according to British Prime Minister Wlliam Haig, the Syrian government had used poison gas at least 14 times.


Then, however, a series of events occurred that left the US totally unprepared for the consequences to come. Most of these events were predictable. It was wholly predictable, for example, that at some point, if poison gas were used on a regular basis, a greater amount of gas than planned might be released, or weather conditions such as an inversion might prevent the dissipation of the gas. It was also predictable that if that scenario took place in a city, a great number of civilians, and especially many children, would be among the victims. No less predictable was the fact that if such an event took place during a holiday period, the television networks would latch onto any dramatic pictures of such an event taking place and broadcast those images endlessly because there was no other news to compete for the air time. And, to me at least, it was totally predictable that the pundits, after seeing the footage, would suddenly evince horror and squeamishness at the pictures (“What you are about to see may be very disturbing”) in order to titillate and entertain their audiences. And after having successfully appalled their audiences, it was predictable that they would then demand that the US government do something. Anything.


As I have already mentioned, once it entered the arena of world politics in a big way, the US believed that it had no choice but to support otherwise odious political groups in order to promote what it believed were its interests. I also noted that once the US became a super-power, its erstwhile allies became more independent of America. A third thing I have noted is that if a country wants to intervene in the affairs of another country it has to decide in advance what the aims of that intervention should be. That means also deciding which parties should take over the government after the intervention is over so that those interests can be fostered and protected.


Having to deal with all three of these realities at once makes any effective American intervention in Syria today almost impossible.


Syria is unique in so many ways that it almost defies the development of effective fair governance. Almost all the parties in a position to take over the reins of power once the bloodletting there ends are so loathsome and so dangerous that America is at a loss about what to do. At this moment, it is only being given a choice of supporting what is horrible or facing the ascendancy of what is totally repugnant.


The situation is further complicated by a problem I have not heard discussed at all by the pundits. As I have already mentioned, in a tribal setting—and the Syrian civil war is an ethnic and a religious and a tribal war combined—the best way for one tribe to acquire power is to take one or more smaller tribes or groups under its wing. That is how Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez el Assad consolidated his power in the first place. He took the Christians and the Druze and the urban Sunni merchants under his wing. If the current Alawite dictatorship is to be replaced, that same job will have to be done as part of the creation of some sort of unified political front. In order for it to be effective, such a front can only led by a group capable of creating a similar alliance. For that reason, the only realistic leader of the front will have to be a moderate Sunni group that is willing and capable and trusted enough to be able to take Papa Assad’s minority groups under its protective umbrella.


The difficulty that then arises is that none of the Sunni groups in Syria is large enough to do so. And so any group, if it is to become the patron of the Christians and Druze will have to create an alliance with some of the other Sunni groups first. Only in that way will it be able to show that it is large enough and has the capability to control all the different jihadist groups that are liable to threaten the country’s minorities.


But here come the rub. One of the larger Sunni rebel groups is affiliated with the Moslem Brotherhood. Another is Salafist.


For more than a decade, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have sought to control the alliance of the Arab Gulf States. To that end they have been seeking allies and proxies in the rest of the Arab World. Qatar has supported the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza, while the Saudis have thus been supporting the Salafists and now the army in Egypt…and el Fatah in Palestine.


Western outsiders have tried to establish a national front to run the rebel’s war against Bashar al Assad, but to no avail because the Qataris and the Saudis have so far not permitted their Syrian proxies to work together.


Another factor that Americans seem to be oblivious of is that, as was the case with Egypt, the United States cannot but become embroiled in a religious conflict if it intervenes in Syria. Since it has based its entire narrative on aiding the installation of democratic governments, Americans today will not accept anything less than that as a goal for intervention. However, as I mentioned, democracy depends upon the parties to government seeking and finding compromises. As the Egyptian example demonstrated vividly, however, battles undertaken by religious parties are wars fought to the bitter end.


As if that were not enough, the Europeans have complicated the situation enormously. After seeing the pictures of children being gassed they immediately demanded an international—that is American—reaction. This, apparently, was the final nudge that was needed to suck the Americans into intervening.


But then, just as it the Americans and the Europeans were negotiating how best to intervene together, the Europeans deserted the common front they had demanded be established. Suddenly, one European country after another announced that it would need permission from the UN if it was to even countenance any intervention Syria.


What a ruse to escape taking responsibility for anything!


For the Europeans knew that a big, past mistake had come back to haunt the Americans.


The Russians, the folks whom the Americans had demeaned just a few years ago, had retained a veto in the Security Council. And Vladimir Putin had long ago made it plain that one of his major political goals is to ensure that henceforth no major international event will take place without Russia having a say in its outcome. Furthermore, he has shown that he intends to use any opportunity he can find to avenge the insults Russia had suffered in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. As part of that strategy, he has shown that he intends to use any political and diplomatic sucesses to claw back Russia’s position as a super-power.


When the Europeans thus presented him with an ideal opportunity for him to fulfill his dreams, he seized it. His vehicle was his veto at the UN.


Not only he was able to use it to bash the US he also used it to destroy one of the most important US foreign policy successes in recent history.


Forty years ago, Henry Kissinger, spotted a crack in what had appeared to be an impregnable Soviet-Chinese communist alliance, and drove a bulldozer through that opening.


But now, because of a confluence of interests with new super-power wannabe Beijing, Putin was able to reverse Kissinger’s grand victory by forming a renewed alliance with China to confront and thwart American efforts to get UN Security Council permission for an attack on Syria.


And so now, the US is bereft of the same European allies which had lobbied so strongly for US military intervention in Syria. Washington is incapable of forming a unified rebel leadership because of the competition for influence in the Arab world between American allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And Washington is also facing a resolute Russia determined to reestablish its position as a super-power and  to extract every ounce of revenge from what it perceives to be past American slights.


No wonder the US congressional vote on whether to intervene in the Syrian civil war would have been such a close call—even though, unlike the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq there is solid proof that Bashar Assad has used chemical weapons and even though America’s status is at stake.


As that great American icon and sage, Casey Stengle once said of his beloved, but hapless and hopeless New York Mets baseball team: Amazin’. Simply amazin’.


Today I wonder what he would have said if he knew that the US president had gone so far as to corral the pro-Israeli lobbyists into supporting an attack on Syria even though the Israeli government had resolutely refused to set a policy on this issue.


Old Casey might have just shaken his head and joined me in saying “Pitiful. Simply pitiful”


So, in conclusion, I can only add that it is still too early for anyone to predict how this scenario will play itself out. But I can assure you of several things. Russia will play  the situation for all it is worth. Iran is listening to every nuance and watching every gesture from a front row seat. And Israel is listening to every nuance and watching every gesture that then comes out of the Iranians who are watching the scenario unfold.



Kerry’s Peace Inititive

Much has been said about John Kerry’s peace initiative; and much of that has been very pessimistic. But no matter what comes of his peacemaking attempts, he has already done Israelis a great service.


Most Israelis at this moment are at the beach or dreaming of being at the beach. Another big chunk of the population is going abroad or making plans to go abroad…or at least dreaming about going abroad. Many of the rest are making arrangements to do some or all of these things during the High Holidays in September. And for the most part, the country’s children are at play in parks or just driving their parents crazy with requests to spend money at this or that attraction.

In other words, to many, if not most Israelis, the world today seems to be blissful and care-free.


Kerry, however, has now taken on the role of party pooper; and has had the temerity to remind Israelis of something they would prefer not to think about. That “something” is that this country is still at war.


Kerry, of course, would never be so coarse as to talk about war. The phrase he uses is “getting a peace settlement.” But that’s just linguistic gymnastics. Israel wouldn’t need a “peace” agreement if it weren’t at war.


Even worse for those who would prefer beach reverie, though, Kerry is reminding all Israelis that peacemaking is a job that their politicians have left undone.


So, with the latest round of talks about to begin, it’s worth looking at what has happened to the peace process over the years in order to try to explain why the job has been left undone.


Just the timing of Kerry’s mission ought to tell us a great deal about where Israel is at at this moment. His peace-making project is coming at a time when Israel has had to pass a very restrictive budget; and the Israeli military is in the midst of what may turn out to be the most extensive reevaluation of the country’s military strategy in its history. The order to attack on Iran, with all that such a move implies, is also still on the table.


And to top it all off, the so-called Arab spring is now demonstrating in almost excruciating detail almost all of the pathologies of Arab politics that Israel—and specifically its military and budgetary planners—has had to cope with in the past and will have to cope with in the future.


Although it may seem at first glance that all these factors—the diplomatic talks, whether to continue building the Namer armoured personnel carrier, and whether to pay for more  firefighters—have little in common, they are part of an inseparable whole. Each influences the other—and all are bound by the fact that, because of procrastination, none of the major issues Israel has faced in the past to decades has been resolved completely.


Procrastination among both Israeli and Palestinian leaders has become a chronic and endemic illness. It is the product of what I have come to believe is one of the most devastating political pathologies of the entire region—political neurosis.


My favourite definition of neurosis is someone who says “I know that that’s a reality (whatever the “that” may be.) But I can’t take it and won’t accept it.” In other words, political neurotics see a problematic situation, but refuse to accept that it exists, or that it requires a solution, or that real work has to be invested if a solution is to be found.


Prime examples of Israeli political neuroses in action, have been the approaches taken to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the future of both peoples, the attempts to formulate the basic ideas that will guide the Israel Defence Forces in the future, and how much and to whom should Israelis’ tax money be allotted.


Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have already reached the stage where the contours of what a peace agreement will include can already be traced. The new doctrines of the Israeli military are also pretty well known by now. And it is fairly clear how advances and reforms in both these areas will be paid for. And yet, there has been no final decision on what Israel should do under the circumstances.


The knowledge that the issues that will have to form the basis for the paragraphs and sub-paragraphs of a peace agreement are to be on the cusp of being resolved, should give supporters of the Kerry initiative a great deal of hope. The same is true of those who are deeply concerned about Israel’s future security. However, the truth is that the reality that Kerry and the Israeli generals are trying to establish is actually so abhorrent to so many Palestinians and to so many Israelis that they consistently try to undermine that reality’s creation.


So let us first examine what the reality is today.


Since Israel began building the separation fence in the West Bank, its route has been reviewed by the country’s political leaders, who expect it to be the central reference point in any set of negotiations on borders, by the military leaders who were mandated to assess its value a defensive aid, and even by the Supreme Court that was asked to judge its impact on humanitarian issues. One can agree or disagree on the validity of those judgments, but the fact is that after it was constructed, the fence became a reference point—a useful aspect of reality upon which negotiators could begin to debate where final borders should be drawn.


However, Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, then refused to relate to or respond to Israel’s border proposals when they were put in the form of a map by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Instead he chose to demand that the reference point be the 1967 cease-fire lines. The subsequent debate over which line should be the reference point has thus become yet another example of the long list of ways procrastination is being practiced.


More importantly, what that refusal showed was that there are factors in the peace process that are too often ignored. Of particular importance is the fact that rational assessments cannot measure the aversion to loss that both the Israelis and the Palestinians bring to the negotiating table.


In the case of the starting point for border negotiations, the Palestinians could not accept the idea that they might lose any more land—even of that loss was merely virtual and a temporary technical aspect of border negotiations. In other words, paragraph one of the Israeli proposals shows what the loss would be, while paragraph two shows what a swap of land might entail. However, the Palestinians stop thinking after reading paragraph one.


Another example of rampant irrationality is that the Palestinians have consistently refused to agree to accept the proposition that the central purpose of  the peace talks—just like any peace talks taking place anywhere else in the world—should be that, once the agreement is signed, neither side will have any demands on the other in the future.


For most Palestinians, that objective points to a possible future reality that is almost too painful for words to describe. It would not mean giving up something that is substantial, but rather something that is ephemeral. Nonetheless that dream I am referring to is so important for the Palestinians’ self identity that they are willing to use every form of procrastination available to them in order to filibuster the peace talks to death. By this I mean that the Palestinians continue to be possessed by an overpowering dream that sometime, somehow, by some as yet undiscovered means, they will be able to return to their long-lost homes in Jaffa, Acre and Ashkelon.


The Israelis too—especially the settlers and their supporters—have tried to delay the outcome of the talks. The settlers are concerned that giving up any land as part if a peace agreement may delay the Jews’ redemption and the coming of the Messiah.


I find it fascinating that one of the people most responsible for exploring the subject of loss aversion just happens to be Israeli Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman points out that, to most people, losses loom larger in their thought processes than gains. Threats are given more attention than opportunities. And the “brains of humans contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news,” not good news. Put in numbers, five good things have to happen to you for the thought of one bad thing to be obliterated.


To this day, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have refused to address the issue of how to overcome the powerful pull that loss aversion plays in the peace talks. Both continue to talk about the sacrifices that will have to be made in order to reach an agreement rather than the positive gains that an agreement can bring with it. For example, the possibility that peace would bring economic growth has had little impact on the negotiators so far.


As a result, one of the central problems Kerry and his team will have to face is how to overcome the roadblock created by loss aversion. Usually loss aversion is overcome by a person or a group’s flight from fear. In other words, the fear of continued violence and the losses in life and property that that violence would bring with it is usually sufficient to force warring parties to come to the negotiating table and talk seriously about how to end the violence.


However, that influence does not apply in the case of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, Israel has had little to fear from terrorism emanating from the West Bank. And, since the last Israeli incursion into Gaza, even the Strip has been relatively quiet.


At this moment, the Palestinians have also come to the conclusion that they have little to fear from the Israelis. Israel cannot afford to retake Gaza, and the West Bankers know that at a minimum, Israel’s defensive fence acts as a ceiling on the extent of the threat presented by Israeli settlement. It is clear to the Palestinians that if and when negotiations are renewed, the starting point for discussing an Israeli withdrawal will begin with the current position of the fence. Israel may build settlements east of the fence, but it is highly unlikely that it will hold onto such settlements if and when a peace agreement is signed.


In other words, both sides have come to the conclusion that the other side does not represent an existential threat. And so, both sides have also come to the conclusion that they can live at present in a condominium relationship that does not force them to address their own peoples’ loss aversion.


Maybe the most graphic example of how this situation has evolved were the scenes of Palestinians gawking at bikini-clad Israeli women, as the fully-dressed Palestinians walked along the sea-shore this past month. Some were seeing masses of female flesh, and the sea, for the first time in their lives. It was hard to tell which of the two sights was more eye-opening. The Palestinians had been able to undergo this experience because Israel, for the first time in more than a decade, had issued 150,000 Palestinians with permits to visit relatives, and the beaches in Israel, during the Moslem holiday of Ramadan.


Had they been seeking peace, this reality that there could be a condominium relationship should have frightened the negotiators on both sides. But they welcomed it because it then enabled them to procrastinate even further. Even stranger, though, instead of emphasizing that this sort of human-to-human contact on the seafront should be seen as an essential part of the peace process, the politicians did the very opposite. The politicians on both sides used the quiet the seaside strolls gave them to play to their most extreme constituents.


If you listened carefully to what the politicians were saying recently, you might have come to the conclusion that both sides were on the verge of yet another round of violence. The Palestinian politicians continued to play to their constituents’ loss aversion, and especially their dream of return. And Netanyahu has felt free to allow his most extreme Likud colleagues, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, to continue to make whatever fright-inducing statements they wanted to.


In order to show more precisely where Israel is at in all this, I have to work backwards. First, I need to describe how the budgets that have been passed in recent years have been formulated. By tracing what those financial documents reveal, it is then possible to explain how and why procrastination was allowed to become a way of political life in Israel, how and why the current budgetary crisis came about, and how and why the procedures for military planning, and planning for the future of the territories occupied in 1967, were distorted as well.


Generally speaking, most democratic countries institutionalize an annual period of reality therapy and call it “the budget debate.” It is a time when all the high-fallutin’ statements by politicians are given concrete expression in dollars and cents, or shekels and agorot.


However a recent 201 page study by the Knesset Research and Information Center found that the belief that there is Knesset oversight of the government’s activities during the budget debate, or that the budget debate itself is a mirror on reality, is often little more than an illusion. The study proves decisively that, among many other negatives, successive Israeli governments have found ways to circumvent efforts to halt their attempts at procrastination.


For example, the study showed that the spending provisions, as outlined in the budget passed by the Knesset each year, bear only a passing resemblance to the real budget outlays. That is because, after the formal passage of the budget, the finance ministry invariably returns to the Knesset Finance Committee later in the year, when fewer people are watching, and requests additional spending. That request is usually given only a cursory glance before being voted on and agreed to. Invariably, because approvals for those outlays are usually not accompanied by moves that would include increases in revenues—such as the levying of new taxes—budget deficits begin to build.


The most guilty party in this act of subterfuge has invariably been the Defence Ministry. During the past 4 years, for example, it managed to boost the country’s military spending by a whopping 34 billion shekels more than had been approved by the Knesset initially. For example, last year (2012) the defence budget’s share of the total state budget was supposed to be 17.4 percent. But it ended up as taking 20.3 percent of the state budget.


That’s not the way things were supposed to be. In May 2007, a blue ribbon committee of hyper rationalists led by the former director general of the finance ministry, David Brodet, published a widely-praised report. It recommended that the military’s spending be increased in nominal terms to cope with the threats Israel will be facing in the future. But, crucially, the committee recommended that the military’s spending increases also be accompanied by huge cutbacks and savings in areas that would not affect the country’s security.


That demand for cutbacks was too much for the country’s politicians to accept; and so, as usual, they chose to delay.


For example, at the time, the media did play up the committee’s recommendation that the age for acquiring a pension by professional soldiers should be raised. However, an even more important recommendation demanded that the military adapt its budget to “the threat assessment” the country faces. In other words, it recommended streamlining the military services by eliminating those elements in the budget that do not have a direct impact of national security.


That recommendation was far from revolutionary. Israeli military officials have known at least since the peace agreement with Egypt was signed that Israel would eventually have to adapt to a new reality. But it never really did so.


Israel’s military strategic doctrine was first formulated by David Ben Gurion following the 1948 War of Independence. That doctrine stated that Israel would base its national security on a small professional army, mass conscription and a large military reserve. The task of the professional army would be to train the conscripts, keep members of the reserves in shape, maintain professional standards, and act as organizers and leaders in time of war.


Together with the conscripts, the professional soldiers would act as a tripwire should Israel be attacked. However, in case of attack, the bulk of the fighting would be assigned to the much larger reserve force. Its mandate has always been to force the battle back into the enemy’s territory as quickly as possible…in order to limit the damage to Israeli property and to provide the political echelon with the bargaining cards it needs for use in negotiating a cease-fire.


The Ben Gurion doctrine envisaged, among other things, that the great battles that Israel would have to fight in the future would be those between massive tank forces, backed up by infantry—as had been the case in World War II.


However, after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt—the Arab country with the largest tank force—Israel was less in need of a huge tank force. Not only that, the Yom Kippur War that had been fought just 5 years previously had shown that the military’s priority should be to cope with the new technical advances that were changing the nature of warfare beyond all previous recognition. These changes included the introduction of computer-assisted and stand-off weaponry such as new types of anti-aircraft missiles that had been used with devastating effect by the Egyptians and the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War.


Another major change had been the arrival on the battlefield of new, cheap and extremely effective anti-tank missiles. One major project that was designed to cope with this new situation was the building of the Merkava tank.


The thing is that even though Israel was soon producing enough Merkava tanks to suit its needs, it was still also keeping much older, obsolescent tanks in expensive storage. Not only that, Israel never developed an exit strategy to deal with the need, at some point to cut back on Merkava production. Factories supplying parts for the Merkava tank project had been set up in development towns, but at no time was consideration given to what kinds of businesses could be attracted to those towns to provide replacement jobs if and when the Merkava project ended. In other words, until the availability of alternate jobs could be assured production would have to go on indefinitely at the same pace.


No less of a problem has been the inability of the government to put the Israeli Military Industries on a sound financial footing. American military aid has meant that it is no longer worthwhile for Israel to produce certain types of ammunition—the business that the Israel Military Industries specializes in. But unlike the other two government-owned arms manufacturers, Raphael and Israel Aeronautics Industries, the government failed to reform IMI so that it could be put on a safe financial footing. The government again feared the loss of jobs and the inevitable confrontation with the Histadrut that that would bring. And so, every few years the government has had to pull a huge amount of cash out of otherwise useful budgetary allocations and use it to pay IMI’s debts.


Another militarily-irrelevant consideration of governments has been political and social in nature. In recent years, the yeshivot hesder have been attracting more and more national religious army recruits. Much has been made recently of the so-called “national need” to get the ultra-Orthodox to do the standard 3 years of national service. But few people realize that soldiers who serve under the yeshivot hesder programme do only 16 months of actual military service. The rest of their time in spent in yeshivas.


As a result, there isn’t enough time to train them to effectively use some of the more sophisticated technologically-advanced equipment being introduced into the IDF. So, these soldiers have been basically shunted into the armoured corps, where they don’t need the time necessary to learn how to operate the new computer-based systems.


As you can see, as in the case of what to do with the armoured corps, while the military should have long ago decided to do a thorough threat analysis and adapt the military to face those threats, it procrastinated—in part because the political leaders were also procrastinating.


In practical terms, that failure to reevaluate Israel’s real security needs has meant that the country has ended up lurching from crisis to crisis because the funds needed to prevent these other crises were not available. And so we have been witness to a health crisis, a crisis along the border with the Sinai that eventually required building a long, expensive fence, an education crisis, a firefighters’ crisis, a water crisis…and a peace crisis—all national security issues and all the product of procrastination and an unwillingness to confront reality.


That reality is that Israel has signed peace agreements with two Arab states. However,owever as Kerry keeps pointing out, it remains at least formally in a state of war with all the others. In some cases, such as along its borders with Gaza and Lebanon, the possibility that intense violence will be renewed remains palpable.


One reason for that reality is that, contrary to some peoples’ impressions, Israel is a tiny country with very limited resources. For that reason, it has never been able to win a war. And the country’s politicians have avoided drawing necessary lessons from that reality.


The country has survived wars, and it has entered into countless written and unwritten cease-fires. But it has never been able to make its enemies do what all generals are usually mandated to achieve—and that is to make their opponents surrender and agree to terms that will determine those opponents’ behaviour into the indefinite future.


Factors such as the size of Israel’s population, the world geopolitical situation, the very physical size of most of the Arab states, and the costs of occupation have prevented Israel from acting as a super-power might have—by imposing its will on others. Common sense should then have dictated that Israel’s politicians use the time between bouts of fighting to try to figure out which political and diplomatic replacements were available to take the place of what, to a super-power, would have been normal geopolitical military practice.


For example, in my humble opinion, Israel should never launch what is called here “a war of choice” (where Israel initiates the fighting) without first adopting an exit strategy—a plan for how to get its troops out of the battlefield as quickly as possible. It is important to remember that most of Israel’s wars since 1973 have been wars of choice; and most were begun without an exit strategy having been formulated in advance. That meant that the outcome of the fighting was always unclear.


Another area of government failure has been its inability or unwillingness to create a proper domestic and international environment in which necessary wars of choice can be fought with few untoward side-effects.


For example, it is clear that Israel’s assault on Jenin and Nablus and other major Palestinian population concentrations, where the terrorists were based, was a necessity if the second intifada and its horrible death toll was to be ended. However, because Israel had failed to deal with the perceptions in the world about why the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had failed, the assault, while a military success, turned out to be a diplomatic and PR disaster. And that was because the media, which had been so alienated by Israeli officialdom, were willing to believe even the most outrageous and false claims of massacres issued by Palestinian spokesman.
Occasionally, as in 1948 and 1967, Israel gained territory in war, and then needed to decide whether to hold onto it permanently. In 1948, Ben Gurion decided not to capture chunks of what we today call the West Bank because he feared the consequences of holding onto territories where the Arabs were in a decisive majority. In 1967, though, his successors decided not to decide.


The subsequent settlement of the West Bank in particular was the product of several factors including the adoption by many Modern Orthodox of the belief that successful settlement was the precondition for national redemption, the nostalgia by the ruling Labour Party politicians for what they viewed as the highlight of their lives—the settlement of Jews in Palestine in the 1930s despite all the restrictions placed in their way by the British mandatory authorities, sheer mental laziness on the part of many politicians, and the growing belief by many that Israel could hold out for its almost dream-like maximalist demands for the terms of a peace settlement with the Palestinians..


The underlying proposition that not deciding was a viable option became actual policy in the wake of the 1981 Lebanese war. Israel entered that war without a clue of what it could and would do with the land that it captured. Unlike the situation in the West Bank, where there was at least a debate on whether to hold on to the lands there, there was no such debate about of what was to become contagious, endemic procrastination with regard to Lebanon. As a result, Israel ended up holding on to territories there for 18 years, at a huge cost in treasury and in Israeli soldiers’ lives.


During the period when indecision grew into a policy, the world was changing dramatically. But most Israeli politicians were oblivious to those changes because their focus was almost entirely on domestic political infighting, and the growing justification that that political instability was giving to those seeking a reason for not exploring political options. As well, when not navel gazing, Israel’s leaders chose to preoccupy themselves with events taking place in the United States. Western Europe was ignored almost completely.


Put simply, that was politically idiotic. With the end of the cold war, Europe was finally free to cast off or at least question many political ideas that had been shown to have failed and whose time had passed. Classical socialism was one such idea. Another was the concept of the inviolability of the nation-state.


This would soon create a mammoth problem for Israel that was almost totally ignored by Israeli leaders. Zionism is premised on the idea that the Jews, just like each other nation have a right to a physical state of their own.


However, youngsters in Europe, who had grown up with open borders and who were watching with excitement as borders between Eastern European states and their neighbours began falling too, were beginning to question the very idea that the nation-state was the ideal system of self government. History had demonstrated, many of them believed, that the creation of national-states had led to unacceptable levels of political and financial competition. And that competition between states had led to both huge wars and inherently evil colonialism. In their minds, Israel, whose very raison d’être was based on the canonization of the nation-state as the ideal form of government, was now being held up as the model of everything that was wrong with the old order.


One reason why Israeli politicians felt free to ignore this monumental change in perceptions was that in the United States, the very opposite was happening. Neo-conservatism, with its emphasis on the belief that American national values should be emplaced everywhere in the world was growing. It would take 8 years, and two costly wars, for that belief to run it course.


But so long as the neo-con belief in the absolutism of certain values appeared to be laying the ground for military successes, it also found fans in Israel too. For example, there are those in Israel who, whenever Israel launches a punitive military attack in Gaza, want the Palestinians there bombed into oblivion. And they have blamed the Israeli generals’ inability to win a decisive victory in Gaza on the fact that Israel has, in most cases, tried to avoid inflicting unnecessary civilian casualties on its enemies, while those same enemies have never shied away from attacking Israeli civilian targets.


Fortunately for Israel, cooler heads have usually prevailed. The reasons for Israel’s lack of success in forcing its will on the Palestinians lie elsewhere.


As I mentioned earlier, probably the central problem Israel’s generals have faced over the years is that they invariably have been ordered into battle without the politicians ensuring that the country had an exit strategy. Without some idea in advance of how you expect the war to end, it is almost impossible for military leaders to develop and act according to a clearly-defined military strategy.


Another problem is that, once a powerful army captures another country, it can often force the enemy to undergo a regime change. But, in most cases, Israel is too small a country to be able force regime change on the countries that surround it. The one exception has been the Palestinian-occupied territories. Israel did eventually force King Hussein to give up his rule over the West Bank, but the Israelis then had no effective replacement for Jordanian rule once the Hashemite ruler chose to exit the scene…other than continued occupation that eventually led to the first intifada.


Not only that, Israel has also finally come to the conclusion that even if it could force regime change in a place like Gaza, the price of doing so would probably be too exorbitant. Israel couldn’t afford the huge policing expenses involved if it chose to overthrow Hamas by force.


Because Israel has never gone to war in order to fulfill a grand strategy that had been agreed upon in advance, when the fighting ends, a political vacuum is invariably created. And then, different individuals and agencies, often decided minorities, compete with each other in an attempt to shape policy. That was how the Land of Israel Movement initiated settlement in the West Bank.


However, because many of these battles are fought by minorities with narrow interests, the policy adopted may not be the best one under the circumstances. Instead, what ends up passing for policy is the product of the often temporary strengths or weaknesses of those other minorities involved in the contest.


That is but one reason why so many wars and military operations that Israel has engaged in have not had a clear-cut ending. One of the fundamental problems Israel has had to confront after each such engagement has been the need to decide whether the war should actually be brought to an end by accepting a less than satisfactory settlement. On those occasions when a less than satisfactory settlement was accepted, such as the Oslo accords, violence sprang up gain. But violence also erupted when Israel held out for its maximalist demands.


So it would appear that Israel has been permanently stuck between a rock and a hard place.


One of the reasons why Israel’s leaders have made so many inaccurate judgments is that they have invariably taken their decisions based on assessments of what they believed that they would do if they were the enemy confronting the same situation. As a result, too often Israeli leaders have misread what are the resources that the Palestinians are able to bring to the conflict. For example, for years, Israel has maintained a full or partial blockade on Gaza, hoping that the worse things got there, the more willing the Gazans would be to make a deal favourable to Israel’s interests.


They failed to take into consideration a lesson that they had been proud to show off close to home…that people are often more resilient than they are given credit for. If that had not been the case, then those Israelis living along the border with Gaza would long ago have left their homes after they had had to spend so much time in their shelters.


Another central problem Israel has faced is that there has always been a tendency by Israeli leaders to underestimate the resources that the Palestinians have been able to bring to the conflict. For example, Israeli leaders don’t think very much of the UN. So they then try to downplay its value as a resource to others—until, for example, the Palestinians launched and won their campaign for recognition as a non-member state…which then put them in a position to delegitimize Israel in other UN bodies.


So, given all these faults, will it be possible for Kerry to succeed?


It would appear that the Americans have chosen to try to put a gag on all those taking part in the talks. Nonetheless it should be possible to gauge whether an agreement is nigh if the leaders of both sides begin to show a need to prepare their people for what will have to be a significant upheaval in perceptions.


Kerry himself is already doing his bit by responding to some of the Israeli public’s longstanding demands.  For example, he has several times declared that any agreement will have to be one in which the parties to the dispute agree that they will have no more demands on the other.


Clearly, the confrontation with issues that have long been avoided will not be easy, not least because it will force both sides to define for themselves who they are, what their priorities are, and therefore what constitutes treason and what constitutes true patriotism. Maybe, in the end, creating that internal definition for themselves will be the hardest task the negotiators will have to face.



Tribalism: The Basis for Middle Eastern Politics

I long ago came to the belief that American and European diplomats, think tank denizens, NGO activists, and sundry mediators and political activists are clueless about the Middle East and what makes people tick here. That belief has only been strengthened since the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”—and the insistence by almost every American commentator and pundit I have heard that the major marker that everyone should keep in mind as the events progress is whether these events are bringing democracy closer to those who live in those countries riven by the violence.


Nothing could be more stupid than that assertion. The chances of democracy, as we understand the term, taking hold in this region range from wishful thinking to absolute nil. Tribalism has always determined the nature of governance here—and none of the conditions that could foster the development of democracy in the Arab states currently exist.


Anyone who tries to mediate their way through any of the multitude of disputes that afflict this region without taking tribal culture into consideration is doomed to failure.


John Kerry, are you listening?


Farming, pastoral living and urbanization all began in the Middle East. But before that, we were all hunter-gatherers. In those days, families needed assured manpower and a way of organizing themselves so that they could take on large projects such as killing and skinning an elephant. In order to stabilize their lives and their relationships with those who lived nearby, our forefathers began to organize themselves in a format that we, today, call “tribalism. Whether applied in the mountains of New Guinea or in an exclusive golf club in Georgia, even today, tribalism remains the most prevalent way by which people run their affairs. And that’s because it works…and works well.


In fact it works so well that it survived the social revolutions that led to pastoralization, farming, and even urbanization.


The example of Hassidic courts should demonstrate vividly for Jews just how powerful the pull of tribalism is. After the Assyrians captured the Kingdom of Israel, they sent 10 Hebrew tribes into exile and left the Hebrews with only two tribes—Benjamin and Judah. Since Benjamin was tiny, henceforth, all the Hebrews ended up being called Judeans…or Jews. The Jews were then able to survive for 2000 years without tribalism. But for the last 400 years, tribalism has once again become entrenched as the social structure for at least one part of the Jewish people. Another Jewish group, the settlers on the West Bank has now also begun adopting many of the traits of tribalists.


Tribalism is based on the premise that survival requires cooperation. The easiest way to foster that cooperation is by mobilizing, and then organizing individuals within a family…and if the project is big enough, bringing in more distant blood relatives or like minds too.


The basic rule is that, in return for assuring that support, individuals must subjugate their own interests to the needs of the group.


To reinforce those ties, the group, over time, usually assigns leadership to a specific blood line, which then is responsible for monitoring and interpreting the customs and practices that all the tribe’s members are expected to adopt and abide by.


This then divides the world into the “usses” and the “thems.”


Discipline is imposed not merely by the threat of punishment, such as shunning, meted out by the group. More importantly, the tribal members each agree, voluntarily, to abide by the tribe’s code of behaviour.


Inevitably, in such a closed environment, group members come to believe that their social code is inherently vastly superior to the code of any other tribe (even when the actual differences between the two codes are trivial).


Those differences, small as they may be, though, enable the group to provide individuals within the group with positive reinforcement for remaining loyal. This is because defending the tribe and the code it has adopted brings the individual what the tribes call “honour,” or social stature. Gaining honour, often through the use of some form of violence, or mock warfare, then grants those individuals within the group the kind of prestige that they can use to raise their social status. Enhanced social status can then lead to all sorts of special perks, from marriages to increases in personal wealth.


In many ways, well-run tribal governments are not all that different from constitutional monarchies. At its best, tribal rule can be representative and consultative—precisely what we expect of democracy. Tribes may have a single leader, but he may also be expected to consult with clan leaders and tribal elders (the equivalent of a parliament) before taking a decision. Tribal elders may also hold regular audiences, during which ordinary tribal members can raise issues and seek redress.


For all its strengths and advantages, however, there are also a great number of drawbacks to tribalism, and that is why it has now been abandoned in most Western countries.


The most notable of these is that tribalism is the enemy of modernity and technological progress. Tribalism’s raison d’être is to provide individuals and groups with comforting social stability. Therefore any new ideas or attempts at leveraging risk to gain new advantages are generally shunned.


Another notable drawback is that tribalism wastes precious human and material resources. If tribes are successful and continue to grow in size, they inevitably end up competing with their neighbours for resources—whether it be pasture land or influence with municipal officials. That competition, if carried on too long or too intensively, is inherently wasteful. Competition of this sort can also, and usually does have the effect of diverting attention away from the need to confront and find solutions to other, often intransigent problems.


One of the greatest problems that democracies have in accommodating tribalism is that tribes demand to right to protect their members by using violence if necessary, while democracies usually demand the government be invested with a monopoly on the use of violence.


An important fault is that if tribal governance is used as the basis for large social units such as a nation-state, that state ends up lacking many of the components necessary for long-term domestic social stability. For example, tribes do not usually have a written constitution laying out an individual’s rights and responsibilities. Interpretation and enforcement of tribal law, therefore, then becomes a matter for negotiation. When that happens, domestic corruption and unfairness can become endemic. Saudi Arabia is a good example of this syndrome.


In some cases tasks end up being done ad hoc or haphazardly. For example, if the police force is weak, arrests are often made by self-appointed vigilante committees—which may be undisciplined and therefore lead to unfair search and seizure.


On an international level, this belief that anything and everything is negotiable can lead to delays in dealing with real issues…and distrust and interminable disputes…as one government tries to gain advantage over another without using force. That, for example, is the technique that Iran has used in dealing with its far stronger adversaries.


In general, tribal governance requires the establishment of a two-headed government—one responsible for taking care of peoples’ material lives, and another that is charged with dealing with the spiritual needs of the population. To work properly, one head must reinforce the other.


That is the reason why, in many areas of the world, the need to respond both to peoples’ spiritual and their material requirements has led to the establishment a condominium relationship between the armed aristocracy and what we have come to call the clergy.


Since time immemorial, this system’s great advantage has been that it enabled the strongest clan or tribe to incorporate many tribes under one political leadership using a common religion or set of spiritual beliefs as their social glue. In return, the religious practitioners are able to use the lay leaders and their armed employees to enforce the norms they wished to impose.


Before I go on to deal with how tribal governance has affected people in the Arab world, I have to explain, at least in brief, why it eventually broke down in Europe and never took hold in America.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, responsibility for governance was transferred to the invading tribes, the other tribes that were the invaders’ competitors, and the Catholic Church which made up the other half of the condominium government. It was at this time that the names of tribes such as the Goths, the Visigoths, the Huns and the Celts entered the historical record.


Beginning in the 11th century, though, the merchants of southern Europe, and especially Italy were becoming wealthier than the aristocracy because of trade. They were selling some specialized manufactured goods such as swords, but especially Slavic slaves to the newly wealthy Moslems on the other coast of the Mediterranean in return for silks and spices. That trade and exposure to other cultures, made these merchants more receptive to new ideas. Within 150 years, this openness led them to seek out ideas from the past, especially Greek culture, that had been lost…and to accept and even embrace new explorations in artistic expression such as Giotto’s revolutionary painting style. By establishing an alternate body of leaders, the ground was laid for undermining the power of the aristocracy—and eventually the Church.


The tool used by the condominium’s enemies was the adoption by artists, some intellectuals, and even some clergymen of skepticism as a way of approaching situations and existing beliefs.


A weakened aristocracy, however, would not have been enough to set in motion a revolution powerful enough to undermine something as potent and dominant as tribalism. It was only with the arrival of and public acceptance of the ideas of Martin Luther, and later, John Calvin that the real revolution to bring down the tribal condominium could begin in earnest. However, it nonetheless took the widespread adoption by intellectuals of the scientific method as the primary format for discussing and judging the truth of theories and claims, together with almost 400 years of some of the bloodiest warfare that the world had seen up to that time, before the condominium was undone.


Amazingly, further south, in the Moslem lands, the very opposite scenario was taking place.


Mohammed had created Islam in the 7th century in an attempt to unite otherwise constantly warring tribes under a single spiritual and legal umbrella. However, he apparently felt the need to adopt many of the features of tribalism as integral elements of his new religion. For example, he divided the world into the dar al-Islam, his religious equivalent of the tribal usses and the dar al-harb…the infidel “thems.” As part of that supposed world order, jihad, or war against infidels, became not only acceptable, but a duty and a potential source of honour.


That format worked. Because Persia and Byzantium has exhausted themselves from their incessant warfare, Islam spread quickly and widely. Those conquests brought the desert warriors into contact with the outside world for the first time.


Much has been made of the brilliant exploration of ideas that took place in the countries conquered by those warriors in the early years after the birth of Islam. However, many people fail to recognize that the conquering tribalists rarely participated in that effort. In fact, with the exception of a few caliphs in Baghdad, most of Islam’s leaders were either uninterested in or openly opposed the growing influence of the scientists and thinkers.


However, the new rulers did need people to run their newly-conquered areas. And the only trained civil servants available were the Persians and Byzantines whose worldview, even after they had converted to Islam, continued to be fashioned by their previous exposure to and their attachment to the Greek intellectual tradition.


As a result, for almost 300 years, the ultimate fate of Islam hung in the balance. The Moslems could easily have made the same shift to skepticism that the Christians to the north had begun. However, in keeping with their tribal outlook, the Moslems continued to view themselves as superior to any other group, past or present. Therefore, they were convinced that they had nothing to learn from the non-Moslem world.


The age of Moslem intellectual dynamism was finally killed off in the 11th century when the attacks on philosophers by a Persian mystic, al Ghazali, were accepted as binding by almost all Moslems.


One reason why the Moslem rulers chose not to engage in intellectual exploration was that they still controlled the trade routes to Asia. They therefore had access to and could afford to purchase those intellectually-based items that they could not construct themselves.


This belief, that there is a fixed amount of technical knowledge in the world, that it is distributed at random among the nations, and that it can be purchased, remains a powerful, determining belief among many if not most Arab Moslems today.


I can recall my own shock when I first interviewed Kadri Toukan, the principal of the Nablus High school, and widely believed to be the leading Moslem intellectual on the West Bank. It was 1969, two years after the end of the 6 Day War.


I suggested to him that it might be wise if Israeli and Palestinian scientists worked together to develop new agricultural crops. Toukan, a fierce nationalist, was only concerned that the Israelis lift their occupation immediately. When I noted that because Israeli agriculture was so much more advanced than farming on the West Bank, it might be worthwhile to develop long-term relations for the sake of Palestinian farmers, he responded. “Then let the Israelis teach us what they know and get out.”


The consequences of that kind of thinking became apparent after the Portuguese and then the Spaniards developed a small ship, called the Caravel, that could nonetheless survive sailing in deep seas. The Caravel would soon take Columbus to the New World, and a similar ship would enable Vasco Da Gama to round the horn of Africa. The Age of Naval Exploration had begun and the monopoly on trade with the Far East that the Arabs had had, ended.


That change in the world balance of power came to a head during the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian navy destroyed an Ottoman navy in the last great battle of oared galleys in history. One of the main reasons for that victory was that the Christians had by now acquired Far Asian commodities such as Chinese gun power and had begun to craft brand new weapons such as brass cannons and personal firearms. The Turks had relied on their trusty bows and arrows.


The final attempt by Moslem Turks to initiate a war, whose purpose was to gain land and wealth through plunder, took place in Vienna in 1648. The Turks lost again.


They were traumatized. But instead of looking for ways to foster original Moslem military scientific research, they made the great error of simply trying to buy both the weaponry and the battlefield ideas that had given the Christians their victory. No major attempt was made to alter Moslem society from within.


By contrast, in Europe, the revolution directed at building a new society based on new scientific, economic, social and political principles, was continuing apace. There were any number of reversals, but the end product was the creation of a viable, new model for effective self-governance—the nation state as a replacement for the aristocratic-clerical condominium.


One of the first ways that that viability was proven was the success Europeans had in capturing and subsequently colonizing of much of the Arab heartland in the 19th century.


Among the prominent features of this new political model was popular democratic rule through the use of bi-cameral legislatures, where one house would be based on the principle of one man one vote, and the other on representation for a country’s geographical regions. Regional representation was, in many ways, also a proxy for giving minorities rights as well, since minorities tended to live together in one geographical area.


Another major advantage of the new system was that it reduced many of the obstacles to trade that had existed when each duchy or principality—the European equivalent of tribal landholdings—could set up customs posts. This increased industrial productivity enormously, which, in turn fostered new technological breakthroughs.


But the successes that have been wracked up by modern nation states were no less due to the extraordinary leaps made in developing a new intellectual approach to governance and law-making. Today we consider many of those concepts to be the norm when, in fact, freedom of speech, judicial independence, universal values, civil rights and the construction of a civil society were not even on the mental radar screens of many European politicians as late as  150 years ago.


During the colonial era some Arab Christian intellectuals, especially members of the Western-based sects tried to import some of these ideas, but to no avail. The consequences of that failure are all too visible today.


Once the colonialists left, the Arabs had a real chance to introduce democracy, but they failed to do so because they were not prepared to do so either intellectually or socially. Most of the colonial overlords, especially the British and the French did try to leave a democratic-looking political format before they gave up their rule. But those formats, whether it was the parliament in Syria or the constitutional monarchy in Egypt, broke down almost immediately.


The primary reason, in my opinion, was that the tribal ethos has penetrated the Moslem Arab psyche so completely that even so-called secular Arab nationalist parties win office, they then govern using tribal principles. This has had enormous implications for regional diplomacy and the peace process. But it is too often ignored.


For example, Libya is, arguably, the most tribally-riven Arab country. Nonetheless, when the Western nations came to decide whether to bomb Libya in order to get rid of Muamar Ghadaffi, they failed to take into consideration what would happen next—especially, how Libya would be governed…and by whom. As it turned out, Libya, despite it vast oil wealth, is now a political basket case.


It’s not that the Western nations didn’t have sufficient forewarning. The Iraqi war, and the subsequent Sunni-Shia tribal battles for power should have provided a sufficient cautionary lesson.


As Egypt has shown so vividly, you don’t need to have tribes in order for political parties to act in a tribal manner. All you need is a tribal mindset.


What do I mean by that?


As I noted earlier, Mohammed embedded much of that tribal mindset in his new religion. Islam, as a religion, is held to have surpassed Judaism and Christianity in legitimacy and is held to be superior to any other religion. That is not unlike the tribal belief that it is superior to any other, and it therefore has a greater legitimacy to rule. In Islam, defending or propagating the religion is a track to gaining that most coveted of tribal awards—honour. As in the use of inter- tribal warfare, violence against outsiders—in this case anyone who can be labelled an “infidel”—is an acceptable and accepted way of gaining honour.  Most of all, only success in an endeavour can bring honour.


On the other hand, failure brings dishonour. People who present themselves as victims are despised. Only authority and “strong leadership” are respected.


The most obvious example of this attitude and approach to politics has been the treatment meted out to the Palestinians by the other Arab states. Israelis have always questioned why it is that the other Arab states never took in the Palestinian refugees and rehabilitated them. The reasons are actually quite simple. The Palestinians were viewed as an “other,”—a different tribe, one not deserving of any special boons. Moreover, according to tribal culture, they were a tribe of losers, who had dishonoured themselves even more by subsequently presenting themselves to the rest of the world as “victims” in order to gain alms though UNRWA.


Yassir Arafat almost succeeded in overcoming that perception in the 1970s when he managed to persuade the Saudi leadership that he would be able to undermine their rule by organizing and radicalizing the poor tribes in the Saudi peninsula. For several years he was then able to extract huge sums from the oil sheikhs. But once Arafat’s threats were found to be empty, he came to be even more despised than ever by all the oil sheikhs.


The new Moslem Brotherhood government in Egypt is providing us now with almost a perfect model of what happens when a political group with a tribal mindset takes power in a nation-state…and why tribalism and democracy are incompatible.


Because of the “winner-loser” mentality, even though the Moslem Brotherhood won only 47 percent of the seats in parliament, it immediately set about ensuring that this election would be treated on the basis of “one man, one vote, once.” Moreover, it chose to ignore the problems and prejudices minorities, such as the Copts, were now facing.


And instead of dealing with the crushing economic problems the country faces, the Brotherhood spent most of its time introducing Islamic legislation and trying to take control of the instruments of state—especially the secret services and the interior ministry. In effect, it was announcing that it was adhering to one of the principle tenets of tribal rule: only winners have rights.


As a result, it had difficulty in governing on even the most primitive of levels. In particular, it could not guarantee that it could continue feeding the Egyptian people, or that it could control the Sinai, or that it could find sources of national income, or that it could even decide what to do now that Ethiopia has begun to dam the headwaters of the Nile. All told, it made it appear that it was more concerned with the Brotherhood’s survival than with Egypt’s survival.


One very important feature of the Brotherhood’s rule was been the way that it negotiated, or ignored negotiating, or put on a show of negotiating with “others.” As I mentioned earlier, tribalists believe that everything should be negotiable. However, they conduct negotiations in ways that are very different from those conducted by Westerners. There are times, though when they refuse to negotiate, lest the very act of taking part in a negotiation is perceived to be a grant of honour.


For example, the Moslem Brotherhood government refused to negotiate with Israel. One immediate consequence was the loss of over 4 billion dollars a year in income when the gas pipelines bringing Egyptian gas to Israel were blown up and the gas supply contract cancelled. Another no less important consequence was that responsibility for Israeli-Egyptian relations has been transferred to the Egyptian military, which does conduct regular talks with Israeli officers. This transfer of power to the military then undermined the government’s attempts to take control over all the instruments of state. As well, no only were direct, bilateral Israeli-Egyptian relations have been affected, but so too were relations with the US military.


Maybe the most important feature of Arab tribal negotiating is one that the Brotherhood highlighted but that has been ignored by almost everyone. It is that deals can be struck after bargaining. But under no circumstances can those agreements appear to have been arrived at as a result of a compromise. It is noteworthy that the word “compromise” does not even exist in Arabic. There are terms such as “mid-way,” but they are terms that position the agreement. They are not active terms such as the word “compromise.”


As the stalemated American congress has shown so dramatically, democracy cannot exist or function properly without compromises.


The problem is that compromise usually implies that you gave up something that really mattered to you in return for a deal. In other words, in the Arab tribal mindset—which is not all that dissimilar from that of the American Tea Party—you “lost” something important. Under tribal negotiating rules, that is a dishonourable act. So, in order to preserve one’s honour, one then has to find a way of presenting the deal as an unalloyed “success.” Sometimes this requires extraordinary mental gymnastics.


If you think back to the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, you will understand what I mean. As the Yom Kippur War drew to a close, the Egyptian Third army, which had crossed the Suez Canal, was surrounded by Israeli troops and was in danger of being wiped out.


In an act of extraordinary wisdom that has been lacking in American would-be mediators since that time, Henry Kissinger demanded that Israel agree to a cease-fire before the third army was defeated.  Anwar Sadat could then proceed with the disengagement agreements and the final peace agreement because he could claim that he was bargaining from a position of strength that had come from the Egyptian army’s “success” in crossing the canal.


Later, when Sadat began his peace initiative, he made only one declaration: “This land is ours.” In other words, success and national honor would be dependent on Egypt getting back all of the Sinai. As long as he achieved that, he could also agree to limitations on the Egyptian army’s presence in the Sinai because he could argue that the deal did not involve a “loss.” Rather, the deal was merely an “incomplete success” that could be dealt with and added to later. Or put in another way, Sadat didn’t have to admit that he had given up anything. He simply presented the pact as a deal, like any other struck in the Suk, where he didn’t get all he wanted—but he didn’t lose anything.


If we now apply all this to the Israeli-Palestinian bailiwick, we can see why the Fatah/Hamas talks keep breaking down, why Salaam Fayyad had to be fired, why there have been no new elections in Gaza or the West Bank and why American diplomats, journalists, academics and NGO’s pleas to the Israelis and the Palestinians “Can’t you just compromise,” invariably falls on dead ears.


Certainly Barack Obama’s approach to Middle East peacemaking, when viewed from a tribalistic perspective, has been nothing less than disastrous. By demanding that Israel halt all settlement construction and that it agree to use the 1967 boundaries as the basis for negotiations on borders, Obama effectively set an impossibly high bar for Abu Mazzen. From that point on, Abu Mazzen could not accept anything less than the American president had demanded lest he be accused of being a dishonourable loser by his own people and Hamas.


John Kerry is now trying to restart the peace talks, but it is unlikely that he will be able to get anywhere unless he can find a formula that will enable Mahmoud Abbas to drop his current demands without losing honour. And so, as you can see, a thoughtless move by the White house three years ago, one that failed to take into account a Middle Eastern mentality, has now created a stalemate that Kerry may not be able to break.


Middle East Water Crisis–Lecture at Waterloo University


There is no more precious a commodity in the Middle East than water. Historically, when the Saudi peninsula had plenty of water, about 40,000 years ago, it acted as the land bridge to Europe during the second great exodus of early man from Africa. The fertile river valleys further north, in what is today called Mesopotamia, created the environment that led to the invention of farming. Because of the need to store water, to move it from place to place, and to build walls to protect harvests stored in newly-populated towns, these interconnected valleys also led to the invention of centralized government and the profession of engineering.


Further west, when the lush lands in what is today Saharan Africa dried up, and its population moved to Nubia, the Nile Valley too came into its own as an opposing centre of empire based on a relatively assured water supply.


The invention of terraced farming and the liming of cisterns to waterproof them enabled other tribes, including the biblical Habiru, to farm the mountainous areas between the great river valleys.


But, as I speak, something very strange is taking place in all three areas. Only three decades ago, people in this vast area were talking about “peak oil,” or the coming of a great shortage of oil, as the great threat to regional stability. However, today, because of global warming and increasingly severe droughts, together with huge population increases, the catch-phrase has become “peak water.”


Today, there are 4 geographical areas where there are major, water-caused political crises. Each area is also the site of at least one archetype of a potential casus belli. The regions are: Classic Mesopotamia (including the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys) the area between the Mediterranean and the mountains on the eastern side of the Syrian-African rift, the Mediterranean coast, the Nile Valley, and the headwaters of the Nile headwaters. The archetypes are: control of the headwaters of a river system, catastrophic water mismanagement, shared underground aquifers, the destruction of coastal aquifers, the control of water rights by downstream nations and the purchase of water through the leasing of land.


The crisis in Mesopotamia is an example of what happens when a state that controls the headwaters of a major river, unilaterally dams up the river and its tributaries and then reduces the flow of water to the downstream states. The story in the area began in 1975, when Syria completed the construction of the Tabqa dam on the Euphrates, which cut the flow of water to Iraq.


More importantly, though, in that year Turkey announced that it was undertaking what it called “the southeast Anatolia project,” which will eventually include 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power stations. When the project is completed in 2017, 10 percent of Turkey’s surface area will be covered with the water held back in the artificial lakes that are being created behind the dams. It is estimated that once the project is completed, the flow of water to Iraq will be reduced by 80 percent and to Syria by 40 percent.


As might be expected, them’s fighting figures.


However, because of the American invasion of Iraq and the destruction of the army there, there is little Iraq can do. And Syria too is too preoccupied with its civil war to even threaten Turkey verbally.


As a result of the decline in water flows, from 500 cubic metres per second in the Tigris and Euphrates, to 150 cubic metres per second, huge areas of southern Iraq have, for the first time in history, become useless for farming. Groundwater salinity has reached as far as 150 km inland, up to the point where the Tigris and Euphrates meet to form the Shaat al Arab River. According to UNESCO, 70 percent of the ancient underground canals in Iraq have now dried up.


The decline in water levels and the increase in salinity have led to an ecological disaster for the waterfowl and marine animals in the area. At the very time when ecologists are trying to reconstruct the great marshlands that were dried out by Saddam Hussein in a fit of anger against the Shiites who populated the area, farming and fishing in those southern marshlands are in the process of collapsing.


Not only is Turkey using the water to satisfy its own needs, caused by rapid population growth and industrialization, the dams have become one of the major tools Turkey has available to it as it tries to impose its political hegemony on the region and as it attempts to take on the mantle of the senior and primary Moslem Sunni state from Egypt. To that end, it intervened directly on behalf of Sunni political parties in the last Iraqi elections and it is currently supporting the Sunni rebels in Syria. In both cases, Ankara need not fear retribution for holding water as a political hostage because it not only has the second largest army in NATO, it is capable, at any time, of literally turning off the taps in Aleppo and Baghdad.


Syria too is going through a water crisis. A primary reason for the outbreak of civil war there was domestic water mismanagement.


Syria’s economy was crumbling long before the civil war broke out. In fact, for years there had been widespread shortages of even basic foods because of water shortages.


This had led the government to inaugurate a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and even the export of agricultural products. That policy, coming not long after Turkey had begun its dam-building in earnest has had disastrous results.


In particular, the government ordered that arid and semi-arid pasturelands be turned into wheat-growing areas through the use of irrigation. These pasturelands had provided sustenance for tens of thousands of herders from time immemorial. The problem with this new farming policy was that the only water available to grow crops in these arid areas had to come from underground aquifers that had been deposited during ice ages 15-40,000 years ago, and were non-renewable. Not only that, the soil in these areas was such that it did not absorb water very well, and this led to runoff, waste and the salinization of the soil.


As a result, over the period of a decade, the water table in these regions dropped by as much as 500 meters and more. When the latest drought struck the region just over 5 years ago, the farmers no longer had any water in even their deepest wells to tide them over the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats died, and 600,000 families fled to the slums of the main cities in order to survive.


But because modern industry had not been developed in Syria, there were few if any jobs available for these refugees.


So dire did their condition become, that many began to feel that they had nothing worse to fear—not even the power of the Syrian military. That loss of fear led directly to the civil war we see today.


All the protests in Syria were triggered by one seemingly insignificant event—the arrest of a group of teenagers in the southern city of Der’aa for having painted some graffiti on some walls. After being arrested, they had had their fingernails pulled out as punishment.


Der’aa had been particularly badly hit by the drought—and the government’s failure to provide any relief. The treatment of the children further inflamed passions, and people began to demonstrate. The protests then spread to the slum areas of the bigger cities, where locals had already been in competition for jobs with newly-arrived, ruling ethnic Alawites, and the dispossessed farmers who were willing to work for a pittance in order to survive.


The country, which had once benefitted from an abundance of water, is now running out of the stuff—and the water that is available is not being brought to where it is needed.


As I mentioned earlier, the country has now wasted most of its ancient underground water reserves. But because of increasing drought, a rapidly-growing population, and water usage by its neighbours, it is now also running out of surface water as well.


Largely because of climate change, the river flow in the Yarmouk River Basin, which among other things, supplies water to the beleaguered town of Der’aa, has declined by more than half since 1960—from an average of about 600 million cubic metres a year to about 250 million cubic metres. During the summer months, the flow falls to as little as one tenth of that level.


The same is true for some of the other rivers. One of the country’s most important water sources, the Orontes River, which flows from Lebanon, through Syria to Turkey, has now become a polluted cesspool. In fact, because the government has failed to invest in sewage treatment plants, pollution has become so bad in some areas that epidemics of e. coli and salmonella have become a regular occurrence—which has led the government to ban food production on some river banks that used to be among of the most productive agricultural areas of the country.


Turkey’s decision to dam up the Euphrates River, the biggest river running through Syria, has, of course, also had a major impact.


But even if Syria did want to pump more water from the Euphrates to more arid regions, it couldn’t because it has failed to build the necessary pipelines—and if it did take more water, it could invite war from Iraq.


Then there are the corollary problems. The influx of refugees into the Damascus area, has led to the drilling of 25,000 illegal wells, which has pushed the water table there down to unprecedentedly low levels, and has led to increased salinity in an area that has been a human inhabited oasis for 5000 years. Incredible as it might seem, it may not matter which of the opposing sides in the Syrian civil war actually takes permanent possession of Damascus, because at current pumping rates, the city may simply become uninhabitable within a decade.


Put in the simplest of terms, because of all of these water-related factors, Syria now faces the threat that huge semi-arid areas may turn into deserts. Currently, about 60 percent of the country is desert or semi-desert. In the near future that may grow to 75 percent of Syria’s land surface area.


Water is a crucial aspect of the Israeli-Arab dispute as well. Israel bombed Syrian construction equipment, and the two countries almost went to war in 1965, when Syria tried to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River.


Israel has the region’s most sophisticated water management system. But it is also embroiled in some of the region’s most complex water politics. In the 1950s, Israel nationalized much of its water supply and created a water network similar to its electricity grid. Today, about 60 percent of the wells are part of that net. At roughly the same time, the government began planning and building the national water carrier, which is designed to bring water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev Desert. As a result, the Dead Sea today, is at modern historic lows.


Israel has three main natural water sources: the Sea of Galilee, the coastal aquifer, and the mountain aquifer that it shares with the West Bank Palestinians.


Since the Israeli settlement project in the occupied areas began in the 1970s, the Israelis have modernized the water system in the West Bank—but primarily for the benefit of the settlers. Today, the settlers use about three times more water per capita than do the Palestinians. While that is undoubtedly unfair, it should be noted that those water and sewage management projects established by the Palestinian and their donors have suffered from theft from pipelines and poor maintenance. As with so many aid projects around the world, there has been enough money to build projects, but not enough to maintain them after they have been completed. As a result, many Palestinians still have to rely on truck-delivered water.


But the main problem is that the main mountain aquifer is shared.


This has led to any number of accusations and counter-accusations. The Israelis charge the Palestinians with over-pumping, while the Palestinians, whose population is growing rapidly charge that the Israelis take a disproportionate amount of water.


Despite the current political, social, economic and military pressures resulting from the joint use of the mountain aquifer, those problems may be the most easily solved should the two sides ever come to a peace agreement.


The recent regional drought forced the Israelis to alter their water management policies. New sewage treatment facilities and BOT-funded water desalination plants have been built. The objective is to recycle 90 percent of sewage waters (primarily for agriculture), and artificially produce 50 percent of the nation’s drinking water by next year.


As part of this project, water distribution has been taken out of the hands of municipalities. In many cases the cities and towns had failed to maintain the pipe network, and had used the profits from water distribution for other purposes.


All told, within three years, 50 percent of the country’s water usage will be artificially produced. The cost to consumers, however, has been high. Some people are now paying three times the amount for water that they paid only four years ago.


Gaza is a special case. It is totally reliant on the coastal aquifer. Unlike inland aquifers, the water in coastal aquifers flows in only one direction—from inland sites to the coast. The aquifer under Gaza, is an extension of the aquifer that runs up the Israeli coast. So, when the level of the Gaza aquifer drops, it cannot be replenished by water from the Israeli one.


At that point water seeps in from the Mediterranean and the aquifer is permanently salinized. When the Israelis occupied Gaza, they put strict limits on well-drilling in the Strip. Following the signing of the Oslo accords in the mid 1990s, and the first Israeli withdrawal, the new Palestinian government permitted virtually free well-drilling. Five hundred new wells were dug in the first months after the new administration was installed and another 3,500 have been drilled since then. The result has been that the aquifer has now been permanently salinized.


While competition over water supplies has usually been a source of great international tension, in the case of Israel and Jordan, water management it has been a cornerstone of their peace agreement. As part of that agreement, the two arranged a trade. Jordan agreed to allow Israel to pump water from wells on the Jordanian side of the southern Arava Valley. It is located in a brutally-hot desert. In return, Israel supplies 50 million cubic metres of water from the Sea of Galilee to the farmers in Jordan’s central Ghor Valley. Those deliveries continued even during the great drought.


Most recently, seemingly out of the blue, Jordan’s King Abdullah issued a public statement highly praising Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. That announcement was so out of character that I couldn’t believe it. Abdullah has usually been heavily critical of Netanyahu’s attitude towards the peace talks with the Palestinians. After intensive checking, I finally found out why. Jordan too has been suffering from a huge water shortage. That shortage became critical with arrival of a million Syrian refugees, who were literally about to die from a lack of water—until, that is, Israel secretly agreed to supply an additional 10 million cubic metres of Sea of Galilee water.


Incidentally last month, for the first time in years, Israel opened the dam at the Sea of Galilee to allow water to flow into the lower Jordan River, in an attempt to clean up what had become a cesspool. Israel needed to “waste” the water because baptismal ceremonies at a site on the river just north of the Dead Sea, where John the Baptist dunked Jesus, has now become one of the major sources of tourist income for both Israel and Jordan.


Saudi Arabia is suffering the same kind of growth in population and youth bulge that is driving the long-term water crisis throughout the Middle East. A big difference, though, is that the Saudis also use an average of 950 cubic metres of water a year per person—twice the world average, three times as much as Israelis use, and nine times as much as West Bankers use.


But, and this is a big “but,” only 10 cm of rainwater falls on the country each year.


Just to give you some idea just how acute the water shortage is, despite having spent more than 20 billion dollars, or about 20 percent of Saudi oil revenues in the construction of a water infrastructure during the past decade, Riyadh still only gets drinking water once every two and a half days and Jeddah gets it only once every 9 days. Virtually every house in these cities has a huge water tank on its roof for water storage.


Much of my work involves economic analysis. Generally-speaking, when I discuss the economics of the region, I naturally put a heavy emphasis on current account deficits—the difference between export earnings and import costs. Analysing Saudi Arabia, however, requires a very special form deficit accounting, because there the major deficit is a water deficit. Some of the deficit is made up through desalination. But that doesn’t help many areas in the country’s interior—with the exception of Riyadh, which is fed by a 476 km-long pipeline that brings it desalinated water from the coast.


Incredibly, all told, Saudi water demand has increased by 500 percent in 25 years, and it is now expected to double again in the next 20 years. But one of the major problems with desalination that most people don’t take into account, is that not only it is a heavy polluter because it demands a lot of fuel and it thus creates climate change, even worse, the salt waste from desalinating has meant that parts of the Arabian Gulf are now 8 times saltier than normal, and this has affected marine life and fishing catches—an important source of protein.


The difference between what Saudi Arabia uses and what it gets in the form of rainfall or from desalination is covered by dipping into what is called “its fossil aquifer”— the same sort of underground reservoir found in Syria. The Saudi’s aquifer was laid down during the last ice age 15,000 years ago. And as in Syria, any water that is taken out of that aquifer is literally irreplaceable.


Part of the problem is that agriculture uses up more than 85 percent of the country’s average annual water usage. As happened in Syria a couple of decades ago, the Saudis began planting huge areas with wheat—and had to use huge amounts of water from the fossil aquifer for irrigation. The idea was to provide food security. But this was hugely wasteful of an irreplaceable resource. So, in 2008, the government decided to phase out wheat growing and to end it by 2016.


But then new problems arose. The farmers began planting date palms and growing more forage for animals—both of which need more water than does wheat. Since date-growing and the raising of livestock have a strong pull on the Saudi national psyche, the government has been hard-pressed to prevent this shift to even higher-water-use agricultural production.


To make up for lost domestic wheat production, the Saudis began importing water in the form of crops grown elsewhere. Beginning a few years ago, the Saudis began following the initial example of the Chinese, Indians and South Koreans and started leasing huge tracts of land in Africa from corrupt governments for a pittance. In some cases it has paid little as 75 US cents per hectare. Crucially, that price has included the water rights to the property as well.


That has had a major impact on the region and the world. First of all, almost all the land that was leased is in Sudan and Ethiopia, which control the headwaters of the Nile. But Egypt too is now suffering from a peak water crisis and needs every drop of Nile water that it can get. Any water used upstream is no longer capable of being used downstream in Egypt. In other words, in their search for food security, the Saudis are not above weakening the poor Egyptians—their ostensible allies.


But that’s not all. A few figures should give you some idea of what is involved. The latest statistics indicate that Saudi businessmen, using Saudi government loans, have bought or leased 5,520,000 hectares of land in Sudan and Ethiopia. All these properties come with water rights.


Not only that, the Saudis not only use the land to grow wheat, vegetables and cut flowers for sale in the Arabian Peninsula, they also use the land—and the water—to grow a lot of rice. And while it takes 1400 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of wheat, it takes 3,400 litres –two and a half times that amount to produce an equivalent amount of rice. The Saudis now say that they intend to grow 7 million tons of rice over the next 7 years. That means that they will be effectively importing 2 quintillion, 380 quadrillion litres of water from growing rice alone.


But that’s not all. In order to give the Saudis that land, the governments in Africa had to declare the properties as “state lands”—even though, in many cases, they had been communal property, in the hands of the same families for generations. This has turned hundreds of thousands of people, especially the pastoralists, into serfs—a sure recipe for eventual social unrest in a strategic part of the world where rebellion is already endemic.


And to top it all off, the terms of the leases permit the Saudis to repatriate 75 percent of all the produce. So, in 2011, after a devastating drought in the region, because the food the Saudis grew was being exported instead of being consumed locally, Western taxpayers had to send relief supplies to the affected region through the UN World Food Program in order to prevent famine. Even then, tens of thousands of people are still estimated to have died from hunger.


Egypt, my fourth subject for discussion, is suffering from an economic catastrophe both because of its inability to reform its economy and as a result of the revolution there. But is may soon also suffer from water catastrophe as well.


Egypt could not exist without the Nile. But now, the flow of the Nile is endangered–-as is the prime agricultural area in the Nile delta.


Part of the problem is historical, part is cultural, part is political, part is social and part is the product of climate change.


The bottom line is that, today, Egypt is suffering from a major food shortage. One reason is that the population continues to grow at a rapid rate. Another is that a fundamental assumption in Arab culture is that those who have are bound to share some of their wealth with those who don’t have. In practical terms, this has meant that food subsidies eat up a major part of the government’s expenditures. Those subsidies cover basic things like bread, rice and cooking oil.


A third problem is that farmers have always considered the water from the Nile to be a gift to the nation, and therefore should be free. This has meant not only severe waste, but, just as importantly, there has been very little money available to expand or repair the water pumping system. For example, it has also been estimated that because some of the piping is very old and corroded, 40 percent of the water drawn from the Nile by pipe leaks out on its way to the fields and the cities.


To keep the cost of food subsidies low, the government pays local farmers low prices for their crops. This has meant, though, that farmers have been unable to invest in newer, more productive wheat seeds or pesticides, so production is low. Only about 10 percent of Egypt’s farms have been modernized. As a result, even though Egypt was once the breadbasket for Imperial Rome, today it has to import about 60 percent of the wheat it consumes.


All these economic distortions, and others, have led to total absurdities. Egypt, for example, is, a major producer of high-quality rice, which is in demand throughout the Arab World. Recently the rice producers managed to persuade the government to lower the rice ration that is subsidized and replace it with macaroni so that more rice could be sold in foreign markets at a higher price. And what is macaroni made of? Wheat flour that has to be imported!


Another threat is the fact that if climate change goes on as anticipated, the level of the Mediterranean will rise by about half  meter, which means that the Nile delta will become totally salinated.


Many of the absurdities in the Egyptian agricultural economy can be traced to the 1929 treaty negotiated by the colonial British, which was designed to protect cotton growers who were selling their crops to British mills. Under the terms of the treaty, Egypt was given the rights to 85 percent of the Nile waters; and Sudan was given the rights to 13 percent of the water flow. The 6 countries at the headwaters of the Nile—Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Congo were not even consulted.


Now, these countries are demanding a fairer share of the water flow. Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and parts of the new country of Southern Sudan recently went through the worst drought in sixty years; and, according to the UN, millions of people remain on the verge of starvation. To give you some idea of just how severe this drought is, the UN last summer issued a report that 80 percent of the goats and sheep, and even half the camels in the affected region had died of hunger and thirst.


But the fact is that, for example, while Ethiopia supplies 85 percent of the water flow in the Nile, it is only permitted to use 1 percent of it.


Two years ago, the 6 headwaters countries signed what has been called the “Entebbe Pact,” which will enable them to use more water once 5 of the six countries ratify the agreement.


And Ethiopia, is already constructing a massive dam, designed to produce more than 6 thousand megawatts of electricity—three times the amount produced by the Aswan dam downstream. The Ethiopians say that they need the dam only as a source of income from electricity that could be sold to neighboring countries. But once it is completed, possibly by 2017 there will undoubtedly be a growing temptation to use the dam as a source of water for irrigation as well.


Any reduction in the flow of water to Egypt could create an incredible upheaval there. Filling the lake behind the dam is expected to take 6 years and cause a water deficit in Egypt of 10-20 billion cubic meters, (or 20-40 percent of current water flows) per year. That would not just affect the amount of water available for Egyptian agriculture, the drop in water levels could have a major impact on electricity production at Aswan and shipping traffic on the Nile.


On a cultural level, the Nile is viewed by Egyptians as a patrimony and a national right. In what would be a major cultural upheaval, the Moslem Brotherhood government may very well be forced, finally, to ration water, or charge for it, as is the case in most countries.


Such a move could lead to massive riots. It may very well have been the fear of Nile-water caused unrest that led the Egyptians to convert the civilian airport at Abu Simbel, near the Aswan Dam into a military one. The assumption by analysts is that the conversion was carried out so that Egypt could launch, or at least threaten to launch, a major punitive military assault against any upstream country that chose to divert the Nile headwaters.


However that may be easier said than done because the geopolitical framework in the region has been changing dramatically. Somalia has been weakened, which has increased Ethiopia’s relative influence. To Ethiopia’s north, Egypt’s ally, Sudan, has now split into two separate countries. And Sudan has also been weakened in international fora because of the slaughter in Darfur.


No less importantly, ties between Ethiopia and the United States have recently been strengthened. And just to add a bit more salt and pepper to this cauldron, Ethiopia’s ties with Egypt have been very strained for a totally different reason. Since the election of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, there has been an increase in the number of attacks on Christian Copts in Egypt by Moslem extremists. While the Copts are a minority in Egypt, they are a majority in Ethiopia. And, as if that were not bad enough, China is now seeking not only contracts to build additional dams in Ethiopia, it is also negotiating to lease more land and water rights there as part of its long-term plans to provide food security for its people.


But that is not all. There is an even greater problem than all that I have already said put together. The flow of the Nile into the delta on the Mediterranean is now controlled by the Aswan Dam. Water is stored behind the dam in what is called Lake Nasser. The underlying problem with Lake Nasser is that it is very wide, but not very deep. That means that evaporation rates can be very high—up to 12 percent of the water flow. And evaporation leads to an increase in the salinity of the water. Salinity can only controlled by ensuring that there is a constant flow of fresh water into the lake that then dilutes the amount of salt in the water. If the flow rate into Lake Nasser is reduced because the countries at the headwaters begin taking a greater portion of the water, the salinity will increase. And that could be disastrous for all types of Egyptian agriculture and lead to permanent damage to fields.


Scary, ain’t it?



Welcome y’all to Israel’s goat-hunting season. This celebration of the verbal blunderbuss is one of those really strange events that only Israelis could have invented.


The name was taken from an old Yiddish folk tale about a poor fellow in a shtetl who has a dozen children, lives in a one-room house, and is going out of his mind because of the noise. To make a very long shaggy goat story very short, the man goes to his rabbi to seek advice on what he should do before he loses his sanity. The rabbi tells him to bring a goat into the house. Two weeks later, the man returns to the rabbi and complains that his household is now far worse…a total wreck. The rabbi nods in understanding and tells the man to take the goat out of the house. The man is skeptical, but does as he is told. The next day he returns to the rabbi, a big smile on his face. “Why are you so happy?” the rabbi asks.


“Ah…the house is so quiet,” the man replies.


With that story in mind, I dedicate this piece to goats everywhere.


When an Israeli budget is introduced, the tax and spending proposal is invariably full of weird proposals…and with good reason. Those proposals are goats I am talking about.


In most democratic countries, budget time is a period of deep introspection, a time to assess which government policies have worked, and which haven’t—and why. Then come the crucial questions: What haven’t we done that needs doing? Do those things that we have done that have worked well deserve more money—or maybe because they have been so successful, they now need less money? And if that money is now available, what should be the priorities in deciding how to spend it.


In other words, budget time shouldn’t be a time only of financial accounting, it should be the moment when all the foreign and domestic challenges a country faces are given due, thorough analysis. It’s should also a time when, as in Lent, politicians give up their favorite little sins like populism for a simpler diet of honest introspection.


In Israel, though, that process is as rare as the sale of bacon in the Knesset dining room. Instead, the Knesset members usually spend most of their time making sure that their pet projects, wasteful as they may be, have been fully funded. Then they go out on their goat hunts, with the news cameras obediently in tow to celebrate how they have embarked on a campaign to save the whole nation from perdition.


As might be expected, the finance ministry attentively monitors each of these moves.


The reason is that the finance ministry needs to assure itself that the Knesset members will then busy themselves with publicizing their successes on the goat hunt to such an extent that they will ignore more important budget taxation and spending proposals.


A good example of the goats I am talking about can be found in the current draft budget. The budget proposes, for example, that if an apartment-owner sells his or her apartment in order to buy a larger one, he or he should pay a 3.5 percent tax on the differential in the price between the two flats. That proposal seems to me to be a more effective form of birth control for married couples that anything that Planned Parenthood could come up with.


Another goat in the budget would have unemployed housewives pay Health Tax for the first time.


But hunting goats is just one of the amazing things necessary to get a budget passed in this country.


So, what I would like to do tonight is to take you on a guided tour of what is Israel’s version of economic wonderland. Alice and the Mad Hatter would have been totally at home in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv at this time of year.


But first, as in all great tragi-comedies, I need to give you a bit of context and set the stage.


All the economists in Israel have been saying or months that because of the record-breaking deficit, the new budget will have to include record-breaking tax increases and record-breaking cuts in spending.


From their remarks, you would think that Israel had not faced economic crises before—and hadn’t learned important lessons from those disasters that are already being applied today.


Nonetheless, despite those lessons serial economic crises remain endemic to this country. Just to give you a short reminder:…Among other economic crises, in 1965, the government initiated a disastrous recession that only ended with the 6 Day War. In 1982, the banks played footsie with their share prices and wiped out most peoples’ savings. In 1984, the government’s budget was greater that the country’s GDP and that had led to hyper-inflation. 1996 saw the collapse of the Histadrut pension funds. And 2003 was the time of the internet bubble collapse and the second intifada.


So, the fact that this year the new government is facing a large budget deficit is neither novel nor particularly special.


Another thing that is not new is the way that the government is trying to extricate the country from the mess it is in.  As has occurred too often before, most of the rises in taxation and cuts in services will hit the working classes disproportionately.


One thing that is new this time, though, is that most of the rest of the world is also going through a period of economic instability. So, this has given the pundits and some of the politicians a sop because they can now compare Israel’s situation with that of Spain or Greece…or even the US.


That attempt at comparison is, of course, absurd. The situations in which the parties find themselves are totally different. Among many other differences, the Europeans and the Americans are trying to resolve their problems by introducing greater transparency into their financial markets and into their economic planning. Israel, on the other hand, continues to use opacity in economic planning–and at times to even raise the act of opacity formation into an art form.


For example, over the past few years, one of the finance ministry’s favourite gambits has been to hide potentially contentious and controversial budget proposals in a mass of utterly blinding transparency. The technique is brilliantly simple. Basically, the treasury is saying: You want transparency, I’ll give you transparency.” And so the whole civilian budget is now published as a single document. That means that anyone really wanting to make sense of the document has to make his or her way through 110,000 line items.


It is the rare person who reads more than the carefully-edited executive summary…and any specific provisions he or she may be interested in.


So, let me now walk you through the Israeli budget process, and explain how, among other things, it was created. Up until the victory of the Likud in 1976, tracking budget planning was relatively easy. The government was run by socialists, and so only the socialists’ friends—the tycoons, the bankers, the settlers living along the country’ borders and the Histadrut—were able to extract special favours from the government. Ordinary folks had to cope with poor services, bureaucratic arrogance, high prices and high taxes to pay for that largesse.

Now, though, the government is in the hands of capitalist free marketers, so that only tycoons, bankers, settlers and the Histadrut can extract special favours from the government.  And only ordinary folks have to cope with poor services, bureaucratic arrogance, high prices and high taxes to pay for that largesse.


For those who love horse races, you will see that there have been more economic crises during Likud-led governments than during Labour-led ones. That is because the Likud never had an economic ideology, and never really pretended to have one. That made it different from Labour, which once did pretend to have an ideology, but, at least since the 1970s, hasn’t even claimed to have one. And so the real reason that there have been more Likud-induced economic crises since 1965 is that there have simply been more Likud-led governments than Labour-led governments.


The current format for preparing and passing the budget was essentially developed in 1984, during the height of hyper-inflation. Basically, the government was henceforth prohibited from borrowing money from the Bank of Israel. It was only permitted to borrow money on open markets, where it would be punished with high interest rates if it did foolish things like running up huge budgetary deficits that foreign investors thought would be hard to pay off. In other words, since the Israeli public had been unable to discipline the politicians, the politicians themselves, under intense American pressure, decided that it was simply safer to let the goyim mark the country’s economic exam and publish the report card.


At the same time, the workers in the finance ministry were given a firm mandate to prevent such deficits from occurring. This then set up a situation in which the politicians kept complaining bitterly that the civil servants were doing as they had been told.


In order to allow the civil servants to do their job effectively, Israel also invented something no one else had—what is now called the “arrangements law.” That law is an omnibus bill, submitted to the Knesset together with the budget itself. It was originally designed to provide the enabling legislation needed to accomplish the goals set out in the introduction to the budget bill.


However, over the years, the arrangements’ bill has become a monster legislative package of reforms and other items that have nothing to do with the economy that, if they were submitted individually, the civil service planners know in advance would undoubtedly be buried or held up in committee at the urging of one lobbying group or another.


By packaging all this legislation together and by making passage of the budget also dependent on the passage of the arrangements law, the civil servants have been able to introduce major and necessary reforms. However, this has also lessened the capacity of the Knesset to exert oversight over the government.


To create a sense of urgency, a law was also passed stating that the budget had to be passed by December 31. But if that was impossible for one reason or another, the budget debate could be extended to no later that March 31. Otherwise new elections had to be called.


However, at about the same time that all these reforms were taking place, a whole series of other, seemingly unrelated events were also underway; and these events ended up  undermining any and all efforts at ensuring that there would be real, long-lasting changes in the economic infrastructure.


The first, but not necessarily the most important change was the decision by the Likud to invite the ultra-Orthodox to join the government for the first time. Their presence in government changed the nature of the government and the budget debate beyond all previous recognition.


As I have mentioned many times in the past, the ultra-Orthodox are ideologically anti-Zionist. Therefore they have no political stake in the success of the secular Zionist experiment. They really don’t care whether the government’s management of the economy is a success or failure. Their only interest in joining the government has been to foster blue laws, find jobs for their otherwise unemployable cronies, protect their interests from the demands of encroaching modernity and, especially to extract funding for their rapidly-expanding constituency and institutions.


This has had enormous economic repercussions. First, by elevating lifelong Torah study to the socially-acceptable level of “work,” the ultra-Orthodox have reduced total national productivity. As well, their refusal to teach the core curriculum has meant that many skills needed by the economy, from computerized tool and dye makers to agricultural workers must now be imported. Welfare payments to the unemployed have meant that not only do the ultra-Orthodox not pay taxes, they remove available cash from the financial pool used to pay for services needed by the rest of the country’s citizens.


At the same time, an internal revolution was taking place in the National Religious Party. Quite quickly, the party was taken over by the so-called “Young Guard.” At this point, the NRP shifted from being a party primarily interested in using its electoral power to resolve social and religious issues to its one seemingly interested only in funding settlement in the occupied territories.


As well, third event was taking place…hidden in the bowels and corridors of the Knesset. The business of being a professional lobbyist expanded enormously. Now, those with money were at a distinct advantage in the battle for the allocation of government funding for major project such as infrastructure.


Maybe, most importantly of all, without a Labour government to protect it from its own incompetence, the Histadrut, which was the second largest employer in the county and which ran the largest industrial conglomerate, was proceeding blithely to the point of economic and moral collapse. It continued to make a lot of noise, but its membership list continued inexorably to collapse. It became less and less interested in and more and more unable to defend small workers because it was becoming increasingly dependent on the support of powerful works committees at government-controlled monopolies for its very survival.


If the needs of the guys and gals working in cut-throat, open, competitive markets now came into conflict with the desires of the monopolist workers, it was the monopolist workers, who were earning two to three times as much as anyone else doing equivalent work, who would now invariably get the support of the Histradrut.


And last, but certainly not least, the advent of party primaries in the largest political parties sent all the candidates for office running around seeking funds to pay for their campaigns. This gave those with open cheque books unprecedented access to those who would be deciding how much tax money the government would try to extract from companies…and how that money would be spent. In other words, some Knesset members effectively became some companies’ paid representatives in government.


In total, what all these changes in Israeli society meant was that the government very soon became a federation of narrow sectoral interests.


Unfortunately, this change in the nature of Israeli democracy led many people to assume that the competition between the seemingly innumerable, narrow interest groups would bring about balanced decision-making.


However these analysts and pundits failed to recognize that one sizeable group—the middle class mainstream—was not a member of the governing federation, and therefore it had no way of influencing the final draft of the budget because it was largely absent when the budget was discussed.


Eventually, the secular middle class did find its voice in the protests that broke out in the summer of 2011. I emphasized that those demonstrations were by the secular middle class because the religious middle class, a particularly narrowly-focused sectoral group, feared that the money needed to resolve the problems the middle class was facing would have to come from the monies allocated to the settlements in the West Bank. So, they refused to take part in the protests.


Budget debates, therefore, began to look something like this: Certain items, such as salaries, pensions and debt repayments, which were largely fixed and which took up a little more than a third of the budget were passed without any real thought. The Defence budget, which kept growing inexorably, took up another huge chunk of cash. Long-term commitments, such as maintaining legations abroad, building schools and maintaining hospitals ate up the bulk of the remaining available funds.


As a result, the budget debate eventually degenerated into fights between narrowly-based self-interest groups for whatever funding scraps could still be found. Precisely because these fights were so heavily reported, most people assumed, as I said, that the major issues facing the country were somehow being addressed.


That assumption too turned out to be false. One of the major reasons was that the Labour party could never accept that it had lost an election. It therefore tried by every means possible to join every government that was formed. In order to do so, it, effectively, could not afford to formulate a policy on any subject under debate lest it find itself in the political wilderness without a single publicly-funded car and driver to be found anywhere. As a result, for most of three decades there was no effective opposition available to critique the government’s spending plans—and no thoughtful opposition in a position to posit spending and taxation alternatives.


The current feral opposition by many party Labour Party functionaries to party leader Shelly Yachimovic’s decision to build a real opposition party for the first time is evidence of how deeply embedded these beliefs continue to be.


Even worse—far worse—every government, with the exception of the one led by Yitzhak Rabin decided not to come up with a social policy to guide it and police it when it had to decide how to spend the discretionary funds available.


The situation was made even worse by the fact that the civil servants were neither trained nor mandated to enunciate a social policy. Their mandate was restricted to ensuring that the basic budget provisions would not be breeched. Dealing with growing income inequality or the dramatic increase in poverty levels was not seen by these officials to be part of their job.


This perception then led them to engage ever more intensively in the goat farming business. As part of that programme, they began suggesting increasingly outrageous ideas on how to keep the deficit under control. Because of carelessness on the part of Knesset members, some of these suggestions were actually adopted.


For example, suggested cutbacks in funding that were adopted meant that whole areas of basic public need eventually ended up being ignored completely. Hospitals began to collapse for lack of funding. The fire department was left understaffed and underequipped. The county was left without alternative water supplies in times of drought. And the country was even left without the means needed to fight the Second Lebanese War.


Instead of thoughtfully assessing which spending issues should be prioritized, the budget debate took on the form of a play in which the minor coalition parties, which now controlled the passage of the budget package, spent most of their time rushing around, as if in some farce, opening and slamming shut the doors to the Knesset finance committee, yelling slogans in support of their narrow interests while trying to avoid any substantive discussion of national issues.


Invariably, in their search for ways to increase payments to their narrow interests, the first item the politicians plundered was the budget provision labeled “reserves.” The reserves had two purposes. The first, following British parliamentary practice, was to act as a hiding place for the budgets of the secret services. The reason is that reserves, by their nature cannot be divided up into line items because you don’t know what you are reserving money for; and the secret services also oppose any detailed discussion of what they do. The secret services’ slush funds, of course, couldn’t be touched. But the second part of the section on reserves was designed to provide a store of ready cash that could be called upon immediately for use in case of emergencies, such as wars or natural disasters.


These acts of piracy by the politicians meant that the finance ministry officials had to find other places to hide the money intended for use in emergencies. For people like me, this meant embarking on a treasure hunt each year. Sometimes the task was merely wearying. But occasionally, it turned out to be great fun as I tracked the blows and feints of the politicians and the civil servants as they did battle far from the eyes of the general public.


For example, one year there was a provision in the budget for the upgrading and extension of a rail line. That looked like a perfectly simple matter unless you also knew that construction approval by regulators for that line was being held up by a lawsuit. Chalk up one reserve fund oblivious to most of the world.


In another real-world case, a seemingly innocuous line item allotted the same amount for debt repayment as had been set aside the year before. But, because interest rates had already fallen and were expected to fall even more in the coming fiscal year, part of this seemingly innocuous line item too was also being set aside as a reserve item.


My favourite example of these shenanigans was a ploy whose motives may have involved revenge, or elements of a prank or a practical joke. I’m not sure which.


In any case, what happened was that, as was their wont, the ultra-Orthodox parties managed to force through a spending proposal that was intended to provide unprecedented special advantages for their young married couples. The bill was intended to provide 1,000 low-interest government mortgages to that designated group. Among other things, the law laid out criteria for deciding who could apply for the mortgage. The criteria were such that only the ultra-Orthodox who had gotten married early and who had not served in the IDF could apply.


The finance ministry officials dutifully did as they were told and included the provision in the next year’s budget. In keeping with the politicians’ demands, they also set the interest rate for the loan at half a percent less than the bank interest rate was on the day the measure was originally passed.


Fine. Except for one thing. The Haredi politicians were horrified, and apoplectic by the result. Towards the end of the first fiscal year after the bill had been enacted, they went looking for a way to boast to their constituents and to their rabbis about all their successes. Among other things, they asked for an accounting on how many mortgages had actually been provided. The answer came back: Only two had been approved.


The reason? Since the mortgage bill had been passed, bank rates had fallen dramatically—as most people had expected; and bank mortgages were now cheaper than                                         the government ones.


For some “inexplicable” reason no one in the finance ministry had thought it necessary to inform the Haredi Knesset members that the interest rate on the government mortgages might need updating. In the meantime, that line item too had provided a very nice and cozy reserve fund.


But now let’s look at how the budget game has played out his year.


If you have been following the news lately, you will know that Knesset members have demanded, and the State Comptroller has agreed to investigate how the budget deficit grew to such enormous proportions. Well, let me tell you something. No such formal investigation is needed. Last October, Shaul Mofaz was the leader of the opposition, and in a Knesset debate, he revealed that the budget deficit had already reached 40 billion shekels—almost dead on.  So all you have to do is to ask Mofaz how he knew what nobody else knew.


But if you are afraid that this could become a political matter, God forbid, there is another way to uncover the reason—and that is to trace how government budgets are actually formulated.


Establishing an up-to-date format for any new budget takes about 6 months of staff work. Unfortunately, when it is presented to the cabinet for review, it is already usually packed with flaws. That is because each budget is invariably based on outdated data that are, in some cases, 2 to 3 years old. That is because some surveys undertaken by the Central Bureau of Statistics are what are called “longitudinal studies,” that are only taken every three or our years. And in Israeli society, things sometimes change very rapidly.


That can create extraordinary distortions in spending programmes. Take the current budget for example. One of the things that former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz most prided himself on was his decision to introduce two year budgets. Not only did this reduce the already almost-insignificant role of the official opposition even further, it made introducing mid-course corrections in taxation and spending almost impossible.


So, because of the election, we are now well into the third year of a two year budget. Think of what Steinitz’s brilliance hath wrought. The budget was drafted beginning in 2009, based, in part, on data from 2007. It as passed in 2010, before the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, before the Syrian civil war, before the massive doctors, nurses and social workers strikes, before the huge street protests and before the Trajtennberg report—all of which have led to huge, unanticipated government expenses.


Not only that, two mammoth new expenses, for which the government did not even designate a source of funding, ended up leading to a significant increase in the growth of the deficit. Free schooling for 3 and 4 year olds was introduced, and, depending who you believe, 11-13 billion shekels was spent on preparing for an attack on Iran.


However, other line items that could have been cut, had there been an agreed social policy, were ignored. For example, because of the change in the strategic map of the Middle East in the last two years, Israel no longer needs the vast number of Merkava tanks that it continues to produce. Today, there is no Arab country or coalition of Arab countries capable of launching an old-fashioned open-field war against Israel.


However tank production lines have not been shut down because many factories making parts for the tank were established in development towns. And because there was no social policy, no government was able to create conditions that would encourage companies to establish businesses there if the Merkava programme were shut down.


But, let’s get back to this year’s budget. As I go through my tale, always keep in mind that most of the monitoring of the previous year’s budget and the data necessary for planning for the future are available these days precisely because of reforms that were introduced, via the arrangements bill, when Bibi was the finance minister under Ariel Sharon. In other words, the politicians cannot say without a smirk “how were we to know?”


Up until the time that Bibi took over the finance ministry, ministers were able to mess around with their accounting by, for example, spending money, but only paying for the item or service purchased after the next year’s budget had been introduced. In other cases, ministries would award a tender to a tycoon based on a price that everyone knew was ridiculously low. But once work had begun on the project, the contractor could and would demand a higher price. Invariably a revised, much higher price was agreed upon. And the ministry’s budget grew commensurably.


All that hanky panky ended when Bibi, as finance minister, appointed Yaron Zelikha as the ministry’s accountant general. Zelikha succeeded in changing the rules so that a member of his ministry’s accounting staff was stationed in every other ministry—except the defence ministry. Data gathering improved immeasurably; and the Israeli government was no longer the body in Israel with the worst record of paying its bills on time. Not only that, if a tycoon submitted a bid just to get a contract—with the intent of revving the price upward after the work had started—he was now forced to complete the work, at a loss, under threat of court sanctions.


But the biggest reform of all came when, after years of costly delays, the finance ministry finally began using a new computer programme, also, incidentally, called the Merkava, that had cost hundreds of millions of shekels. This programme was able to give an instantaneous read-out of what had happened to every agora that had passed through the ministry’s accounting system.


That system alone should have provided fair warning of the dire straits in which the economy had descended last year. And, in fact, the projections it produced were probably the reason why the government did introduce a series of new taxes in August and September 2012. But that attempt at emergency first aid ended in early October after new elections were called.


From that moment on, no information of any substance was released until after the elections were over and the deficit had grown outrageously. The Knesset members could have asked for a continuing read-out of Merkava computer data.


The problem was and is that this cyber system is too good for its own good. Knesset members are terrified of it because it can produce data sets that are politically embarrassing beyond belief. Therefore, since the system was introduced, all finance ministers have avoided ordering up all sorts of surveys that the system is capable of providing. And these ministers have also forbidden Knesset members from using it for going on fishing expeditions.


For example, one of the things every government has avoided like the plague has been any attempt to do an accounting of how much the settlement of the occupied territories has cost. Budgets for the project have been divided up among so many ministries and agencies as to be untraceable—except by using this programme. In other words, should an anti-settler politician get access to the programme, the result could be a political disaster for the party in power.


That fact may also have determined why Bibi has acted as he has throughout this crisis. During his period as finance minister he showed that he was a great manager of the country’s treasury. However, since becoming prime minister, he has been more interested in preserving his position as prime minister than in doing what he knows is the right thing for resolving the current crisis.


Yair Lapid has said that he has set his eyes on becoming prime minister within two years. His Yesh Atid party and Habayit HaYehudi, with whom he is allied, already have the same number of seats in the Knesset as the Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu grouping. Therefore Netanyahu sees him as a constant threat


Lapid’s spectacular success in the last election was the product of a brilliant strategy. He recognized that the government was a federation of narrow minorities. And so he fashioned Yesh Atid as yet another minority party—but one representing the biggest minority in the country, the Middle Class. This was the same middle class that had taken to the streets in the summer of protests.


Unfortunately for Lapid, although he had run a smart campaign, he had never had to put together an operative plan for how he would help the middle class when he took over the finance ministry. For example, he had no package of economic reforms ready to be introduced. He has thus been almost totally dependent on the ministry civil servants for advice. One of the reasons why the current budget proposal has elicited so much criticism is that the civil servants simply handed him every goat that had been rejected by finance ministers in the past.


Lapid therefore had the choice of formulating a budget for only this fiscal year, and then introducing a huge reform budget for 2014, or waiting a bit longer, until the 2015 budget comes up for debate in a years time. He has chosen the latter option, which will give him more time to come up with something more coherent.


The current budget debate therefore must be seen as the first shot in the next election campaign, currently scheduled for 2017. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, has already announced that he intends to run for the prime ministership at that time.


However, the Israeli public has always voted for political leaders based on their experience as political operators and their knowledge of security issues and/or economics. Lapid is inexperienced in all three fields. To prove himself, he will now have to make his mark by launching a series of economic and social reforms, some of which have stymied more experience politicians than he.


Polls show that the public is seeking reforms that will confront growing poverty, income inequality, and the cost of living.


However, the most difficult and economically-important issues that Lapid may eventually have to face are: How much gas to export from Israel’s newly discovered offshore fields, and how to revise the budget of the defence ministry. Major sales of gas might solve the government’s current revenue problems. However, the influx of foreign currency may lead to a revaluation of the shekel—which would hurt all the other exporters.


Maybe the biggest goat of all in this year’s budget is Lapid’s promise to cut the defence budget by 3 billion shekels. That budget has grown from 42 billion shekels in 2005 to 57 billion shekels today and has resisted all attempts at cutbacks during budget time. Worse still, every year for the past decade the defence budget has been increased by billions of shekels by having additions to its budget passed in mid-year.


Reform of the defence budget will undoubtedly require a top to bottom reassessment of the threats Israel can be expected to face, the military’s likely missions in the years ahead, the training the soldiers will require, and the matèriel that will need to be purchased. At the moment, Lapid knows nothing about any of these subjects. So, he has a lot to learn and will need to be a speedy learner.


In the meantime, we will have to live with the current budget proposal, which seems to contain the worst of all possible worlds. It will put an undue strain on the poor by, for example, raising the regressive VAT tax. Taxes for Lapid’s precious middle class will also rise by an average of 7,800 shekels for a family of five. And the reforms needed to produce long-term economic progress and cut consumer costs will be delayed indefinitely.



The Aftermath of Obama’s Visit to Israel

The Obama-Netanyahu summit was one of the most carefully choreographed “reconciliation” meetings in recent history. When it was over, a poll found that 39 percent of Israelis said that their opinion of Obama had changed for the better, and 58 percent said that they now believed that the United States would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.


The surprising success of the visit lay in the fact that, while the two leaders did not broach a single new issue or resolve a single old problem, Obama did say almost all the things that the Israelis, for four years, had pleaded with him to utter…such as that Israel is a Jewish state. And Netanyahu did or agreed to do almost all the things that Obama, for four years, had been pleading that he do…such as repeat that he supports a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.


According to well-informed Israeli sources, the immediate outcome is that they now anticipate that Secretary of State John Kerry will spend most of the next six months shuttling into and out of the region in an attempt to prepare the groundwork so that the United States can present a new peace plan next fall.


Formulating a peace plan will probably be easier said than done because, while the two leaders may have finally gotten around to doing what they should have done years ago, during the interim period when nothing of any import was said or done, the diplomatic and political playing field in the Middle East had changed beyond all recognition. The result is that the impact of their statements and their actions this time are unlikely to have the impact they could and would have had even two years ago.


So the most important question that has arisen out of the Obama visit is: What is Kerry capable of accomplishing?


Before I go into greater detail about the difficulties that lie ahead, let me just survey quickly, the baggage that the protagonists are now bringing with them.


I’ll start with the Americans.

The formal agenda of the Obama visit to Israel, as relayed to the media, was that the bilateral talks were to focus on events taking place in Iran, Syria, and among the Palestinians…in that order. However, it is clear that, from the outset, all three issues were inter-twined.


The reason is that, since the so-called Arab Spring began, the US has been searching, almost desperately, for a policy framework it can adopt in order to protect and further its interests in the region.


In the past, its policy was designed to ensure oil supplies, to protect regimes that were amicable to the United States, and to prevent another destabilizing Israeli-Arab conflagration.


But since the revolts in the Arab countries began, most US decision-making has been ad hoc—and the results prove it. The US supported the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt, only to see the anti-American Moslem Brotherhood take power. It supported the bombing of Libya, only to have the US ambassador there killed by Salafists, and governance there degenerate into brutal clan infighting.


Many have urged that the US become more involved militarily in Syria, but that would mean having the US Air Force face Syria’s Russian-built modern air defences; and the possibility that US forces might end up assisting jihadists to take power in a post-Assad Syria.


So, with no comprehensive long-range plan in the works, the basic strategy of the Obama administration has been to try to create the seemingly impossible—a regional alliance that would be both anti-Iranian Shiite and anti-Sunni jihadist.


In practical terms, this would mean somehow getting Turkey, the Gulf States, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians—at a minimum—to climb into bed with each other…without biting each other.


But, as the old political framework in the region continues to collapse, the potential coalition partners appear to be preoccupied with other things, especially the contest for power that has been created by the recent upheavals.


As we saw, even before John Kerry returned to Israel, he had to spend time in Turkey trying to shore up the deal that the US had brokered between Erdogan and Bibi that was in danger of almost immediate collapse because Erdogan just couldn’t conceive of giving up the pleasure he gets from using Israel as a punching bag. No less importantly, he could not conceive why he should give up his public enmity towards Israel when it serves his aims of imposing Turkish hegemony on the region so well.


At least in the short term, this competition for power has led to a geometric growth in the level of distrust among all those parties the United States wants to bring into its alliance.


In the past, when the region was divided up by the cold war, everyone knew, more or less, whose side each country was on. Then, when Russian influence collapsed, there was a modicum of trust between the Americans and the Israelis, and the dictators in the region who were addicted to maintaining stability.  That trust was the product of the fact that all the dictators in the region had put most of their efforts into ensuring that they controlled all the instruments of state, such as the army and the courts system.


One of the notable features today of the Arab countries where rebellions have taken place is that the instruments of state have weakened and the relationship between those various institutions has broken down. This has led to weak, and therefore inherently untrustworthy governments.


For example, in Egypt, the relationship between the government and the courts and the government and the military leadership has deteriorated to the point where the sides are almost in open war with each other.


But that is not something Israelis should gloat about. There is even deep distrust between the Americans and the Israelis over what to do about what both view as the core regional problem that they face—how to deal with Iran’s search for nuclear weaponry.


For example, both Israel and the US fear that the other might not give it sufficient advance warning if the other party changes its current approach to Iran’s nuclear threat. The Americans fear that the Israelis might attack Iran without warning. And the Israelis continue to fear that the United States may extend its diplomatic efforts to the point where the threat of a military campaign might not prevent the Iranians from building a bomb.


So, the only agreement the two sides have been able to come to in the wake of the Obama visit to Israel is that they should continue to disagree on the criteria that should be used to determine when and if the use of military force is required in Iran.


That was a non-solution to a pressing problem, if there ever was one.


The thing to keep in mind is that no matter where you are in the world, a failure to find real and effective solutions to pressing problems always ends up making things worse. For example, The Israeli-American non-solution has already had at least one very unfortunate negative outcome.


Last year, the Israeli-American disagreements over what to do with Iran impelled Bibi to do the very thing that many of Israel’s top strategists had consistently opposed and that almost all those who have studied the Cuban missile crisis warn about.


If you recall, for years, Bibi had been pressing Obama to set red lines that would force the US to act in a certain way if the Iranians continued with their nuclear weapons project. But the Americans, realizing that doing so would limit their maneuvering room, and that that could create new dangers, refused to do so.


As a result, Bibi felt he had to do something—especially since so many top level Israel security experts had come out publicly against an immediate Israeli military strike on Iran.


So, in order to play the role of a tough guy and in order to box himself into a position where he would be forced to act militarily if Iran reaches the point where it is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear bomb, in his UN speech last October, Bibi laid out, for the first time, what was Israel’s “red line” with regard to Iran’s nuclear weapons development efforts. By doing so, though, he both bound Israel not to act so long as the red line was not crossed, and he freed Iran to do anything and everything else it could think of to acquire those very weapons…other than to cross that line.


Think for a moment about the real implications of what Bibi was doing when he held up his cartoon of a bomb at the General Assembly meeting. He was saying that so long as Iran didn’t go beyond the limits Israel had set for producing uranium enriched to more than 20 percent, Israel had no excuse for attacking Iran. And the Iranians, once they understood what that limitation entailed, were freed to figure out what they could do to promote their development effort without giving Israel a prima facie reason for launching an attack.


We were witness just recently again to why setting formal limits under these circumstances is a mistake. North Korea has launched yet another example of its penchant for nuclear gamesmanship. In effect, Kim Jong Un, forced all the Western nations to reveal most, if not all, their secret, non-violent plans for coping with nuclear proliferation. Most of those plans do not include a military adventure. Teheran certainly could not have asked for a better act of good fortune than to have its suspicions confirmed or undermined.


Despite, or maybe because of the election campaign and its aftermath, Netanyahu prepared extremely carefully for the Obama visit. One of Netanyahu’s primary objectives prior to the visit was to demonstrate that the claim by Israeli and foreign pundits that the extreme right had taken control of the cabinet is simply not true. The extreme right wing is in a majority in the cabinet, but it is not in control of policy-making. Netanyahu understood that he couldn’t allow that to happen.


But before I get to what Netanyahu did, let me just review what some of the country’s top security experts have been saying about the region in recent weeks, because their assessments played a major role in Bibi’s efforts to limit the far-right’s freedom of action.


In the weeks preceding the Obama visit and the coalition negotiations, top Israeli policy advisors, ranging from the right-wing former Head of the National Security Council Uzi Arad and the right-of-center former Head of the National Security Council Giora Eiland, to the left of centre former Director General of the Foreign Ministry Shlomo Avineri and the leftist former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami,  had independently published or been interviewed about their assessments of the potential for the negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.


As I noted last month, their conclusions and the reasons they gave for reaching those conclusions were unanimous. The conclusions were that:


  • A full-fledged peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians is highly unlikely or impossible to achieve because each side is incapable of accepting the minimum demands of the other side. For example, the Palestinians have been unable to agree to an Israeli and American demand that the Arabs accept the concept of Israel as a Jewish state and give up the “right of return.” Likewise, Netanyahu had refused to accept a division of Jerusalem so that it could become the capital of two states.
  • Since Hamas would not be a party to talks involving real concessions, any agreement would apply only to the West Bank. But, even negotiations on limited concessions by the West Bankers would be almost impossible to achieve because they too would be opposed by Hamas.
  • Mahmoud Abbas will have difficulty renouncing his preconditions for renewing peace talks, such as a freeze on settlement construction. The only way Mahmoud Abbas would be able to overcome this problem would be by appealing to the Arab League for support. However, given the situation in the Arab world today, unanimous support by League members for such move is unlikely.
  • Therefore, the only agreement worth pursuing is a partial one, based on elements on which the two sides are known to be willing to compromise further, such as water allocations and reduced restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank.
  • And for that reason, some items that had previously been high up on the American peace-making agenda, such as first negotiating an agreement on final borders, should be ignored for the moment.


These conclusions appear to have had little impact on Kerry’s perceptions. But they do appear to have had a profound impact both on the way Netanyahu negotiated the makeup of the new Israeli government…and on the way in which he prepared for the Obama visit.


In the weeks prior to Obama’s visit, Netanyahu was under pressure from the Americans to renew his commitment to a “two-states” solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. However, he was also in the midst of difficult coalition negotiations, especially with the settlers’ political allies, the HaBayit HaYehudi party.


Naftali Bennett, the leader of the HaBayit HaYehudi party, had been regularly calling for the annexation of most if not all of the West Bank.


However, the deeply pessimistic consensus of the analysts had a totally unexpected impact than might have been expected. It enabled Netanyahu to convince Bennett to announce publicly that he would not object to renewed negotiations with the Palestinians because he doubted that the talks would make any progress.


Having thus guaranteed the success of his coalition negotiations with a hardliner like Bennett, Netanyahu could then set about silencing the extremist pro-settler radicals within his own party—even though they would become a majority of the Likud ministers.


He did so by first allowing the two moderate parties in the coalition to take control of those ministries that would allow them to directly influence the rate at which any pro-settler legislation is actually enacted and paid for.


For example, since all Knesset bills must be vetted by the justice ministry before final reading, Justice Minister Tzippi Livni is now in a position to delay the presentation of any pro-settler bills still requiring final reading.


Likewise, the head of the Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, was awarded the finance ministry; and he is now in a position to block any and all government funding to the settlers. For example, Uri Ariel, the Habayit HaYehudi Housing Minister proclaimed on Independence Day that he would begin building in the extraordinarily sensitive and controversial area of E-1. But because Lapid, is now on a huge cost-cutting exercise, that is highly unlikely. aYehudi housing ministerH


Finally, Netanyahu made the pro-settler advocates within the Likud offers that most of them could not refuse—prestigious but inherently uninfluentual deputy ministerships and the chairmanship of Knesset committees. Zeev Elkin got the post of deputy foreign minister, which means almost nothing because Netanyahu is the foreign minister pro tem while the trial of Avigdor Liberman proceeds; and both Yuval Steinitz and Tzippi Livni have carved out for themselves all the fiefdoms held by the ministry relating to peace negotiations.


Danny Danon has been made the deputy defence minister. But anyone who believes that the thoughtful Defence Minister Moshe “Boogie” Yaalon will give up any substantial power to the extremist Danon is a fool. And Tzippi Hotovely, the princess of the extreme right, agreed to be made deputy Transportation minister. Since the transportation ministry is expected to take the biggest hit of all the so-called “civilian ministries” in Lapid’s cost cutting, exercise, there will be little of any substance for her to do there.


Two other extreme right wingers, Yair Levin and Miri Regev have been buried in the positions of coalition chairman and Knesset internal affairs committee chairwomen respectively. Netanyahu’s obvious expectation is that now that the radical rebels have agreed to take up these positions they will find it difficult to openly criticize cabinet policy from inside the government.


In effect, by not making a major issue of the differences he has with Obama over when to employ military force against Iran; by agreeing to apologize to Turkey over the deaths of Turkish citizens trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza; and by silencing, at least for the moment, the most vocal settler supporters in his government, Netanyahu has protected his backside by doing all that Obama has asked for so that Kerry’s mission can proceed.


That does not mean, though, that this mission will succeed.


That is because 3 other parties that are crucial to negotiating any peace settlement are so dysfunctional and in such turmoil that it is difficult, if not impossible to negotiate with them.


The Egyptians, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza are totally different political entities by almost every conceivable political, economic, demographic and military measurement. Nonetheless, as a result of all the upheavals that have been taking place in the region, all three have been exhibiting similar perceptions about the world around them. They thus have been acting in remarkably similar ways. So, for the purposes of this talk, I am going to treat them as a single bloc.


All three are suffering from economic crises, and all three are totally dependent on external aid for their political and economic survival. Nonetheless, all three carry with them a conviction that the financial aid they are being given is a right—or what economists would call “an entitlement.” Not only that, they believe that they need not take economic planning seriously—economic planning that might lower their dependency on outside donors—because they are absolutely sure that the Americans, the Europeans and the Israelis have come to the belief that they (Egypt, the PA and Hamas) are like the Western banks—too important to be allowed to fail.


In other words, no matter what mistakes they have made, no matter what they say, and no matter what obstacles they put in the way of the Americans’, the Europeans’ and the Israelis’ plans, they are convinced that they cannot and will not be punished for having failed to govern or to come to a compromise deal with Israel..


But these 3 groups, the Israelis, and the Americans are not the only actors in this ongoing drama.


Another group of states that has increased its influence over the course of events as a result of the rebellions includes the Gulf states and Turkey. That is because all the recent events have significantly altered perceptions of what sociologists call the “patterns of deference” in the region.


The most notable example of this phenomenon has been Turkey. Turkey is determined to come out of all of this as the country to whom all the others must defer. So far, it has had only a few, very moderate successes in achieving that aim. For example, just after the Egyptian elections, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan had the temerity to lecture the new Egyptian government on how it should run its business. In return, the new Moslem Brotherhood government, very politely, told Erdogan to get lost.


In recent months, tiny Qatar has been no less bold. It may not have Turkey’s population and military strength, but it does have substantial funds at its disposal, and it owns and controls the most important media franchise in the region—al Jazeera television. Qatar has recently been going out of its way to put on a series of exhibitions of its self-perceived importance and place in the social hierarchy. For example, significantly, when the latest meeting of the Arab league was held in Doha, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh a-Thani did not even go out to the airport to greet the King of Saudi Arabia (who is his royal equivalent) or the President of Egypt (once acknowledged by all to be the leading political entity in the Arab world). These were obvious, deliberate snubs designed to show that the sheikh does not consider either of these two rulers to be his equal.


So, where does this leave the Kerry mission, and the whole peace process? Kerry has not yet revealed what his objectives are. However, sources in Washington have said that, in the next few months, he will be trying two diametrically opposed tactics. The first will be to try to get an agreement on final borders. If that fails, the second will be to try to cobble together a whole bunch of small agreements and then present them for approval as a large, single package deal.


Bibi ha s already rejected the very idea of participating in talks on boundaries—unless they also include comprehensive talks on security issues, which the Palestinians have refused to take part in.


Nonetheless, a shuttle mission by an American Secretary of State, even if it fails totally, cannot but have an impact on the region. So it should be tracked closely.


To my mind, the easiest way to follow the Kerry mission successes and failures will be to book a seat in the stands overlooking the money trail.


Once you have done that, you will have to mark where every actor now is on that trail.


Actually, I’ve already done that for you.


I’ll start with Israel.


Israel, is now confronting a major economic crisis. Budgets are having to be cut. So no one wants to alienate Finance Minister Yair Lapid. During the election campaign, Lapid stated that not sitting down to the negotiating table with the Palestinians was a mistake because it had lost Israel support from the Europeans. So, for example, he will certainly not look kindly on those vocal settlers who oppose all negotiations.


That, of course, doesn’t mean Lapid is a lefty. During the campaign, he also came out against the division of Jerusalem.


But, one thing we can be quite sure of is that Lapid will also not want to alienate the United States, especially since as the trip here by Chuck Hagel has shown, the US has agreed to foot a large part of Israel’s defence equipment procurement bills over the net decade.


Lapid’s good buddy HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett has said that Lapid opposes a withdrawal from the West Bank. But Lapid himself didn’t confirm that claim.


My hunch is that Lapid will probably follow the guidance of Yaakov Perry, his party’s defence expert and the suggestions of the other professional defence policy specialists. In any case, for financial reasons, he will not openly oppose American demands for territorial compromise.


As you can see, Netanyahu has done a pretty good job of ensuring that there will be few major, open divisions within the Israeli government on how to approach the Kerry mission. Getting such a broad agreement was relatively easy because there is a general agreement in the cabinet that Netanyahu’s previous decision to play to his hard right flank by not showing a real interest in renewing the peace talks was a mistake. It lost Israel international support, especially in Europe, while providing no other benefits. One important side-effect of that loss of European support was that it enabled many European states, which might otherwise have abstained from the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, to vote for the resolution.


As many pundits have pointed out, that victory, in itself, was essentially meaningless because it did not bring the establishment of a true, independent Palestinian state any closer. But it did help to confirm Mahmoud Abbas’s perception that he can create the appearance of political victories without having to compromise on anything. And, as we have seen over many years, appearances can have as much of an effect on political processes as realities.


Fortunately for Netanyahu, because Bennett was persuaded that nothing substantive would be discussed in the Kerry talks, he chose not to oppose the reopening of negotiations as such. In order to quieten his own extremist flank, he has now promised to reserve any criticisms he may have for that indefinite time in the future when the negotiators may come up with an actual proposal to present to the cabinet.


In sum, the Israeli response to the Kerry mission is now fairly clear. Israel will not present any preconditions unless the Palestinians do so, and it will try to present itself as doing nothing to delay progress in the talks. To that end, Bibi will also continue to try to silence his far-right critics. And there will likely be a silent halt to settlement construction outside the settlement blocks and Jerusalem. In the meantime, as demanded by the voters, the Israeli government will put its emphasis on domestic issues and the economy.


However, as a backstop, should the current government’s planned scenario not work out, Bibi has to create a situation in which he believes that he can put any and all blame for any failure in the peace talks squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians.


One thing Israel will try to avoid is becoming a player again in the Palestinians very successfully game of reverse auctions. Each time the Americans or the Europeans proposed something and Israel responded negatively, the Palestinians were able to take advantage of the situation.  When the Israelis were eventually forced to back down, as usually happened, and even when they were not forced to back down, the Palestinians then felt free to up the ante for rejoining the negotiations as payment for their renewed participation in the talks. The term usually used to describe this ploy was “to provide signs of good will.”


The reason the Palestinians could get away with these maneuvers was that Bibi’s original actions had, in effect, turned what the Western countries wanted, (an attempt at conflict resolution), back into what these countries were tired of, (conflict management). So, so long as the Palestinians could present Israel as the party responsible for avoiding conflict resolution, the Palestinians could escape having to present a reasonable proposal of their own.


So, now, all the Israeli efforts, at least in the early stages of the negotiations will be focused on trying to present the Palestinians as the intransigent party that is preventing diplomatic progress. This plan appears to be an attempt to provide a justification for adopting a later-stage strategy that has already been laid out in a paper that will soon be made public by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. That paper recommends that Israel court the Europeans to the point where, if the Palestinians continue to be unwilling to say yes to anything, the Europeans will be forced to accept Israel launching a series of unilateral actions, such as lifting a few roadblocks in the West Bank in return for intensified settlement building in the established settlement blocks.


What are the Palestinians now planning to do?


That is difficult to say because the Palestinian Authority appears to be in greater disarray than ever before; and, no less importantly its economy is more vulnerable than ever before.


The resignation of Salam Fayyad as prime minister has put the PA into a situation that, at least at the moment, is a lose-lose one. Despite all of Fayyad’s efforts to rebuild the Palestinian economy and cut down on corruption, he was never able to totally undo the legacy left by Yassir Arafat’s corrupt, economically-destructive regime.


Ever since taking office, Mahmoud Abbas has continued to feel obliged to pay off Fatah party leaders with perks such as licenses and jobs. That worked so long as Fayyad was able to continue to attract Western donors, and Abbas was able to keep money flowing in from the Gulf states. The international economic crisis and the rebellion in the Arab states has ended that particular and peculiar form of condominium rule under which Fayyad spent the donor money he got from the West on institution-building, and Abbas spent the money he got directly in an attempt to preserve Fatah’s control in the West Bank in the face of constant attempted predations by Hamas. The departure of Fayyad will now undoubtedly put heavy strains on Abbas’s relationship with the Western donor countries.


But, Abbas had little choice. Polls have continuously shown that the top items on the Palestinian public’s agenda are Palestinian unity, ensuring that the salaries of civil servants are paid on time, and the release of prisoners in Israeli jails.  However, the polls also show that the public is also totally opposed to those concessions that the Palestinians would have to make in order strengthen their economy and get the Israelis to release those prisoners. The best-known of these concessions is, as I said earlier, acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.


Abbas’s weakness, though, is not unique. It has now become one part of a larger battle by all the Arab states to protect or advance their position on the social and political ladder. For this reason, Abbas is now no longer concerned just with coping with the complexities of Palestinian politics. He is having to deal with a battle for power that goes way beyond anything the Palestinians could have imagined. If it is any comfort to him, though, he is not alone. His arch-rival, Hamas, is facing similar problems.


It was initially expected that after Hamas shut down its offices in Damascus, the head of its political department, Khaled Meshaal, would retire. Instead, after more than a year political jockeying, Meshaal was reelected. As Meshaal himself admitted, he beat local leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh because he could argue in back rooms that no other Hamas leader has the experience and contacts to ensure that money will continue to flow into Hamas coffers, in the wake of Hamas’s decision not to support Assad in the Syrian civil war, and Iran’s decision to shut off its aid spigot to Gaza.




I hope I have now convinced you that money will play a significant role in the outcome of Kerry mission. However, the financial wheeling and dealing that we are already witnessing will soon get mind-bogglingly more complicated. So let me walk you as carefully as I can through the scenario that appears to be developing


As I have shown, the Fatah and Hamas leaders pursuing the same pot of gold. But—and here is a point that is too often ignored by the pundits—both Palestinian leaders are despised by the very oil-supported moneybags whom they are calling upon to save them.


The biggest Arab donors from whom the Palestinians are seeking financial support are the Saudis and the rulers of the other Gulf States. However these oil barons have always given most of their donations to the various extremist Salafist movements. That is because, while many people use the term “Salafist,” they too often don’t take account of the fact that the word “Salafist” is, effectively, an abbreviation used to describe those extremist Moslem groups whose members live outside Saudi Arabia, but who have adopted the Saudi Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, and receive money from the Saudis and their Wahhabist allies in the Gulf to support their activities.


Fatah, though, is a secular political movement, and Yassir Arafat often tried to blackmail the Saudis by threatening to train terrorists on Saudi soil. These are facts the Saudis have never forgotten. And Hamas is the child of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood. The Gulf State Wahhabists have always viewed the Moslem Brotherhood’s adherents as religious deviants. One of the reasons why the Saudis and the Mubarak government enjoyed such good relations was that, while Mubarak cracked down constantly on the Brotherhood, he left the Egyptian Salafists alone.


Not only that, Egypt, signed the peace agreement with Israel, Fatah, signed the Oslo accords, and Hamas, finds it sometimes useful to control Salafists operating in Gaza against Saudi wishes. Therefore, as the Saudis view things, the three are not natural or preferred political targets for donations. When the Saudis and their religious allies do give out money to non-Salafist entities, it is normally only to those countries and institutions that allow or even foster Wahhabi teaching and preaching that usually get the money.


And so the plot thickens.


After the Moslem Brotherhood took power in Egypt, Hamas had assumed that it would be the recipient of Egyptian government largesse. But Egypt is now broke and cannot afford to support Hamas economically. So, Hamas too is broke. And in recent years Fatah has also not been getting enough money from the western states to compensate for the loss of Gulf financial support over the past few years. This situation has given those Arab countries that do have cash in hand and a willingness to part with it unprecedented political leverage.


Anyone else need not apply.


For example, Turkey thought that the current situation would give it a low-cost opening to foster its drive for hegemony in the area. It couldn’t supply money, so it tried to pay off the Palestinians, and especially the Moslem Brothers in Egypt and Gaza in kind by lavishing political attention on them. The whole Mavi Marmara affair is but one example of its efforts in this field.


This neo-Ottomanism did scare the Gulf states, but not enough for them to open their purses to Egypt or the Palestinians in a big way.


The Turks entry into the field, and the rumors that, if Turkey also started playing nice with Israel the US might welcome Turkey as a mediator with Hamas, only backfired. It

gave tiny Qatar an unprecedented opportunity to increase it chances of raising its status  within the Arab world. Qatar has long been a major funder of Fatah, Hamas and Egypt. Even more importantly, it has been the only Salafist state to decide to take the Moslem Brotherhood under its political wing. For example, al Jazeera has become virtually a Moslem Brotherhood mouthpiece.


After hearing that Qatar was open to appeals, Egypt, Hamas and Fatah began competing harder than ever for Qatari funding. This has naturally given the Qataris unprecedented leverage over Egyptian, Hamas and Fatah policymaking at the very time that the Kerry mission is underway.


Hint. Hint. The Qataris now want Kerry to give them due deference.


How has all this played out so far? There has been a lot of coded shadow-boxing. In public at least, Qatar and the Saudis main activity has been to try to force Fatah and Hamas to do what a majority of Palestinians have already said they want the two parties to do—to set up a national unity government. The thing is, should that happen, the Kerry mission would collapse instantaneously unless Hamas changes its basic political tune.


Hint. Hint. Both Qatar and the Saudis want Kerry to give them greater deference.


If this kind of behaviour continues, Kerry may very well find himself stuck between a rock (the Saudis and Qatar) and a hard place (Turkey, a member of NATO).


But that is not all. Behind the scenes, a no less crucial battle is going on. The Saudis and their allies have so far managed to force Hamas in Gaza not to crack down too heavily on the Salafists there. However, that agreement has already left Hamas vulnerable to attack. Salafist fire on Israeli towns and villages led the Israelis to launch Its “Defence Pillar Operation,” its latest, highly destructive assault on Gaza.


Hamas’s inability or unwillingness to control Salafists in Gaza has also led to a very costly rift with the most important and influential non-Brotherhood institution in Egypt—the Egyptian military. The army is convinced that Hamas has been assisting Salafist jihadi terrorist groups that are using the Sinai as base from which to attack not just Israel, but also Egyptian soldiers.


For example, the army has never forgiven Hamas for having  supposedly provided shelter for a jihadist group that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai who were sitting down to dinner to break their Ramadan fast.


In an attempt to punish Hamas (and, indirectly the Moslem Brotherhood government), and in an open gambit to restore its honor, the military responded by flooding some of the tunnels leading from Egypt into Gaza—thus not only creating shortages of  consumer goods, but also cutting the earnings Hamas extracts by taxing those goods brought in through the tunnels.


The military is also trying to crack down on the Salafist and Jihadist groups in the Sinai, that, among other things have virtually destroyed the Egyptian leisure tourism industry. As part of this operation, the military has charged Hamas with having supplied these religious rebels with direct aid. Potentially, these are fighting words.


So now, where does that leave Kerry?


Clearly, he has to figure out how to deal with the economic roles that the Saudis and their allies are playing in the politics of the region. The Americans have intimated that they would like to draw the Saudis into helping Kerry’s effort by supporting the Saudi peace initiative and by using it as the basis for the final American proposal.


But the Saudi proposal was presented years ago, and the situation in the Middle East has changed since then.


Can the Americans pressure the Saudis to doing more to pressure Egypt and the Palestinians?


That is highly unlikely. The reason? Again, money.


At the moment, for financial reasons, the Americans need the Saudis more than the Saudis need the Americans.


The American economy needs a huge boost, and the Saudis are obliging by buying billions of dollars worth of American arms.  The Europeans, one of the Americans’ most important trading partners, need cheap oil in order to keep their own economic recovery efforts from collapsing. Only the Saudis can guarantee that—and they are stabilizing oil prices. And everyone knows that if Israel or the US eventually attacks Iran, only the Saudis have the oil reserves to take up the slack and cover the shortages of oil on international markets that would result.


Like I say, Kerry may be spending a lot of time flying around the region, but, back on earth, the money trail is where the action is at.

Speech Delivered for Israel Independence Day 2013

It has been 45 years now since I set foot in Israel and in Jerusalem. I first arrived here in 1967 to cover the 6 Day War for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. So I have seen a lot.


Tonight I’ve been asked to share some of my experiences and impressions over these years.


I am somewhat leery. Whenever I speak at a Jewish venue, I’m usually asked “Are you right or left? Our congregation is split…so I have to know if I need to balance what you have to say with another speaker.”


In other words, the implication is that the substance of my talk is less important than which political camp I support.


Nothing like being made to feel welcome. I then know, from the outset, that half the audience, no matter what, is going to hate me.


One thing I have learned over the years is that, in Israel, everything is politics.  But, what is right or left about trying to make the point that, in this city, there are more folks paid to guard the parking meters that steal our money than there are cops to protect us from theft?


Parking meters are a classic example of grand theft. Our taxes had already paid for the parking space or the roadway before the meter was installed.


Did you know that when I first came here, there were no parking meters. One great feature of the city, now remembered only by old fogies like myself, was that because most people used the buses, you could easily find parking anywhere—even on places like Shamai St.


Another great thing about the good old days was that parking wardens hadn’t even been invented yet. Responsibility for giving out tickets, if they were given out at all, rested with the police. All the beat cops—and, yes there were real beat cops in those days—wore a pouch to hold the ticket forms—just where they wear a gun today. Most policemen were unarmed—just like the British Bobbies. And most went to work using the busses, just like everybody else… so they could sympathize with the problems of the average Yoske.


Jerusalem in those days was a special city to live in.

You see, it wasn’t so much a city as an overgrown small town that would have been even smaller had it not been for the fact that it housed a university and was the seat of the country’s government. The city shut down at 10:00 at night, and the last bus disappeared off the streets at 10:30.


One of the things that made Jerusalem such a pleasant place at that time was that most of its citizens were mild-mannered. Each seemed to believe that God was on his or her side, so there was no reason to pick a fight with anyone else.  Unfortunately, today, most folks here still believe that God is on their side. But now they are convinced that that is the best reason of all for picking a fight.


For those of you who don’t drive, I should point out that there is also a third breed of Jerusalem morph—those who believe that God is on their side, so they can ignore all the traffic rules. Ever try driving in Givat Shaul? Don’t….especially if you’re not suicide prone.


In the old days, there were certain courtesies that were simply never ignored, but have now disappeared. For example, unless you wanted to be the subject of a supremely-well-articulated curse that promised that you would be sent to the far reaches of some very uncomfortable place because God was on the side of the curser, you never telephoned anyone between the hours of two and four. Those were holy sleeping hours, known popularly as “the schlofshtunden.”


The thing is, though, that it was highly unlikely that you would sin in such a way anyways because it was highly unlikely that you would have a phone to make such a call—or that the person you would have wanted to call would have a phone either. Phones were considered to be luxury items—like baking ovens. They were distributed based on a set of priorities enumerated by government fiat, and published in full on the first page of the phone book just so that the bureaucracy could remind you where you stood in the country’s social order.


The most important criterion for getting a phone, though, wasn’t printed in that list. It was called “Vitamin P,” short for proteksia—and it was the most important medicament for anything you suffered from from the bureaucracy.


Unless you could trace your lineage back to Machiavelli, vitamin P was always in short supply. If you couldn’t get some, even on the black market, you might have to wait as long as 12 years for a telephone party line to become available. And of course that was not necessarily a blessing because you could also end up sharing the line with someone who was so enthralled with finally having gotten a phone after so many years that they couldn’t stop talking into it. So you ended up paying for the privilege of having a phone. But it was really only a piece of decoration and something to boast about to your friends because you couldn’t actually use it.


The lack of phones had led to a very common custom in the city. If you wanted to go and see someone, you were never required to phone in advance. You simply hopped over.

And if someone suddenly appeared on your doorstep just after you had had a raging fight with your husband or wife, (or the baby had just finished five hour crying session) you had little choice but to grit your teeth, apologize for the mess in the living room, and be all smiles as you asked whether these folks wanted tea or coffee.


Another marvelous custom was that, if you were a stranger in town, you need not have worried about being lonely. Just as on weekdays, 2 to 4 was the time of the schlofshtunden, on Saturdays, it was the time of open house, with the samovar lit and the dining table full of cakes. Most of the people who lived in Rehavia and Talbieh would use that time to hold open house. And since most of the people who lived in Rehavia or Talbieh either worked at the university and knew everybody who was worth knowing, or worked in government and was therefore worth knowing in his or her own right, open house was also a time for dosing up on Vitamin P.


Jerusalem, in those days, was a surprisingly pluralistic place. The people who really ran the show in the city were the Yekkes, or German Jews who had come in the 1930s and often spoke English better than they did Hebrew. To cater to their needs and the needs of other people of central European origin, the city, at time, had 4 excellent Jewish pork butchers. And, when the old city was captured, there was still enough business left over to provide the Christian pork butcher in the Christian quarter with additional business.


By the way, all the best restaurants in the city were also treif. The first decent kosher restaurant was only opened up in the late 1970s…by an Australian goy who had come to manage the Plaza hotel and couldn’t figure out why the Jews had ignored such a great money-making venture as feeding tasty kosher food to Jews.


Another thing that may come as a surprise to you is that, in those days, most of the Haredim in the city worked. And so the standard of living here was about equal to that of Tel Aviv. Not only that, those Haredim who worked added a lot to the general atmosphere in the city. For example, I found it quite amazing that after the old city was captured in 1967, the first group of Jews to cross the old armistice lines to try to make contact with the Arabs on the other side were the Haredim who had lived in the city before 1948. Unlike the young Israelis who knew no Arabic, these Yiddish-speakers, who worked for a living and who had had to have business and friendly contacts with the Arabs, were often fluent in Arabic too. That they were never exploited to bind the city’s residents closer together is one of the biggest, most wasted political opportunities of recent times.


By the way, the following Pesah I saw a mirror image scene on the part of older Palestinians who had lived in Jerusalem prior to 1948. Totally unafraid, lines of them would trek into the new city to buy as many 21/2 kilo packages of matzah as they could carry on their shoulders or backs. Believe it or not, throughout the Middle East, Arabs who had lived in cities with sizable Jewish populations had always looked forward to Pesah. Even though Jews view it as the bread of all afflictions—especially constipation—Matzah is considered by most Arabs to be a special gastronomic treat.  The fact that a secular, socialist Jewish government had been installed in West Jerusalem, brought with it an extra special treat. In those days, matzah was subsidized.


But it wasn’t long before the bad times arrived. The first terrorist bombs began to explode in the city in 1968. The problem was that the city’s 3 part-time bomb disposal experts, (who were also only partly expert at their jobs) had to get to the site of the bomb using the bus too. It took years before a van was budgeted for them.


Jerusalem’s great fortune was that the Arabs were as amateurish at setting off bombs as the Jews were in preventing them.


For example, one of the first such bombs to be brought into the new city was a fridge, stuffed with explosives, that was deposited on the sidewalk of Ben Yehuda Street. Discovering it didn’t take a lot of brains. After all, a full fridge plunked down on the sidewalk of a main street on a boiling hot day should attract some interest—if only because it wasn’t plugged into any outlet. I have always feared that if a “for sale” sign had been posted on it, though, it would probably been ignored because then it would have looked too normal.


Living in Jerusalem has always required a special mindset. In most places in the world, there is always a huge debate on whether events are correlative or causative. In other words whether one event causes another to take place or whether two events just happen to take place at the same time.


In Jerusalem, though, there is a mindset called the Jerusalem Syndrome. It posits that every event is the product of God’s Great Plan. In its most extreme form, those afflicted by the syndrome can come to believe that they are the mouthpiece of God or even the messiah. According to Health Ministry statistics, about 360 people catch that very severe version of the disease each year.


It is quite easy to catch the disease—at least in a form that doesn’t require hospitalization. There are two very common symptoms of the weak form. Each, on its own, is not too serious. But, you should still watch out. If you catch both symptoms, you are liable to face a fate worse than death because then you are likely to be enticed into becoming an Israeli politician.


One symptom is the product of a great temptation. As Menachem Begin once put it, when a person in Jerusalem wants to speak to God personally, his phone (if he has one) is billed only for a local call. In this version of the disease, God becomes your all-knowing buddy because, no matter what happens, everyone then counsels you to talk to Him directly. For example, if you have got a pothole in front of your house, and you call the city to get it repaired, and the city, as usual, fails to do so, you call your elected representative to complain. When you then have the gall to ask the representative when the repair will take place, you actually believe him when he replies:  “God only knows.”


The other main symptom of the Jerusalem Syndrome is what I have come to call “Pontificate on Pilot.” Once you contract it, your jaws go on auto pilot.


You may not have noticed it but almost everyone in Israel, and especially anyone, and especially anyone who has visited the Knesset, suffers from that particular version of the disease. And gender makes no difference. Once he or she is infected, he or she comes to believe that he or she is always speaking Gods own truth. This then means that he or she becomes that he or she is a better speaker than anyone else.


Because this condition is so widespread, the basic rule of rhetoric here has become this: everyone should always try top talk louder than anyone else, faster than anyone else, and prevent any potential debating partner from talking at all. The premise is that if the other guy can’t talk, then you will win the debate by default.


When they tried to bring Muzak here, the entrepreneurs flopped. Normal Israeli voices would always drown it out.


Journalists here, of course, understand the Israeli rules of rhetoric only two well. That is the reason why, if you have noticed, their questions on television are often longer than the answer they expect to elicit. It also explains why they rarely let their interviewee complete a whole sentence, before interjecting something. The impression given is that the interviewee has been invited to be questioned, not to elicit information, but to make the interviewer look important.


For example, without fail, every time I’m asked to appear on television here, the person who welcomes me (if you can use the term) at the studio, at some point whispers to me so loudly that everyone in the building can hear “We actually wanted Tom Friedman or Bill Clinton. But they were both busy. We tried everybody else we could think of, but, in the end, we had to settle for you.


Nice to feel needed and wanted…isn’t it?


And Jews abroad ask why Israel has such a Hasbara problem.


Israel’s problems with the rest of the world actually begin at a much earlier stage. Israelis call themselves Sabras, because they think that they are prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. I think they are more like rubber bands. They are smooth. They can’t be shaped into anything recognizable to anyone else. Most say things that are totally tasteless. But if their words are taken with even with just a grain off salt, they are totally indigestible.


What makes Israelis that way? Well, I have come to one basic conclusion after living here all these years. Israelis have little to fear from the Arabs. Israeli citizens are pretty good at fighting wars. Their deadly enemies are their own politicians; and so all Israeli patriots’ behaviour patterns are directed at saving themselves from their representatives whom they freely elect time and time again.


I collect statistics in much the same way other hobbyists collect stamps or coins or hotel towels. My favourite statistic about this country comes from the annual survey conducted by the Sderot Conference. Every year, the conference conducts a poll and asks ten basic questions. And each year, one of the questions gets the same answer. The question is: Do you trust the political party you have just voted for or are about to vote for? And every year, the answer is the same. Only 7 percent of Israelis trust the party they have just voted for or are about to vote for.


I suspect that that 7 percent that is trusting is also the percentage of people in the country that suffers from dementia.


In addition to having contracted a severe version of the Jerusalem Syndrome, maybe, one reason why Israeli politicians score so low in the public’s ladder of esteem is that they simply don’t have the words to describe what is going on around them. If that is so, I can actually sympathize with them. When I try to talk politics using Hebrew, I too find that I simply can’t express myself as I can in English.


I don’t know whether any of you have ever noticed it, but there are lots of words in other languages that simply don’t exist in Hebrew—and that is deliberate. Two good examples of words missing from the holy tongue are: “mainstream” and “accountability.”


I assume that the word “mainstream” is never used because no one here expects anyone to agree with anybody else about anything. By definition in order to have a mainstream, you need at least two people to agree on something.


Accountability is what you have left over when no one takes responsibility for the way things turn out. You see, you can’t even invent a word like accountability, when there is no one around who can even imagine taking responsibility for that.


You can see the evidence for this phenomenon on all the nightly newscasts. There is always a crush in front of the television cameras as people jostle to take credit for anything that goes right—even if somebody else did it.


But if there has been a snafu, everyone involved seems to be abroad on a trip—paid, of course from the public purse. I have yet to see an Israeli politician or bureaucrat take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.


I once called up the Hebrew Language Academy, which is charged with inventing new Hebrew words, and asked them why the distinguished folks there had never gotten around to creating Hebrew equivalents for the words that are necessary for good government that are common in other languages, but are absent in Hebrew. Their answer was “nobody ever asked us.” I’m sure that that response has a deep, philosophical meaning. I’m just not sure what it is.


As you may have gathered, after all my years here, I really do have problems figuring out what Israeli politicians have on their minds—or whether they have minds at all.


Maybe one reason why that is so is because Israelis, as a group, have an extraordinary capacity for improvisation that usually allows them to extricate themselves from the messes the country’s politicians create.


I’ll give you but one example of a mess for which Israelis haven’t yet been able to find an improvised solution.


One of the most joyous, improvised events that I ever attended in this country took place a couple of weeks after I arrived. It was Shavuoth. The army had spent the previous two weeks demolishing and clearing a bunch of homes and small shops in the newly-liberated old city; and the government as part of the Shavuoth celebrations, had decided to allow people to enter the old city for the first time. Of course nothing was planned out in advance. And so the results were truly beyond any single person’s control.


Entrance to the old city was via what was then called “The Pope’s Road.” That was a great idea because the road, which had been built and paved in 1964 as part of the preparations for Pope Paul VI’s visit to the city, was actually brand new. It had been used only once—so that the Pope could cross the buffer zone in the city and reach the Dormition Abbey and the old city’s Zion’s Gate when coming from the Israeli side. No one had used it since. Now the spending of all that taxpayer money could be justified.


I can vividly recall that the day was brutally hot and dusty. Nobody knew what to expect. Naturally, there were no signs and so it was easy to miss the entry point into the old city itself at the Dung Gate. Once I got there, I can only say that what I saw was a disappointment. There was this flat area that was hard to walk on because of the rubble. All the hikers had kicked up the dust, so that it settled on all the other pilgrims like a light, beige talc. That dust was one reason why it was also hard to distinguish between secular, religious or Haredi women. Everyone looked the same; and everyone needed to wear a shmatte on his or her head to cope with the sun and dust.


To tell the difference between the religious or non-religious at this, the holiest of Judaism’s shrines, you had to look really carefully.


This was the time of the sexual revolution. So secular women wore miniskirts, supporters of the National religious party wore skirts down to their knees, and most Haredi women, wore their skirts at half calf length. Extremism in clothing had not yet caught on here, except among the wild-eyed Eida Haredit supporters who shaved their heads; and the denim maxi skirt that has now become a de rigeur uniform in modern orthodox areas of the city hadn’t yet been invented.


Just to the right of this plaza was the spot we had all come to see–a big flat wall made up of huge stones. Women and men, young and the elderly all crowded and jostled with each other to pray and slip bits of paper into the cracks in the wall. Nobody had even thought of putting up a “mechitsa” in front of the Western Wall.


This site had instantly become the “people’s place.” The atmosphere was such that it was hard to tell whether that was because the site belonged to the people who had come to reclaim it, or the wall had special powers that enabled it to reach out magically to reclaim the people who had been away for so many years.


But as was to happen so often in the years to come, the government of the time couldn’t figure out what to do. It had a choice: to declare the area a religious site, under the supervision of the Religious Affairs Ministry or to label it as a national heritage site under the supervision of the National Parks Authority or the Tourist Ministry.


Naturally, it decided to do neither. And so, slowly, responsibility for order at the site was taken over by the rabbinate. Today, the self-felt need by the Women at the Wall to wrest back at least some rights that were available to anyone on the first day that the wall had once again become accessible to Jews could have been prevented with just a bit of foresight.


Parenthetically, I should remind you that the complaints about women praying out loud in an open public venue or singing in public, is actually also a relatively new phenomenon.


In the early 1980s, the ultra-Orthodox had been invited to join the government for the first time. Almost immediately, welfare payments to Yeshiva Bochers, Kollel students, and children of large families had increased by leaps and bounds. As a result, more Haredim began having more children.


Also, at about that time, another, special historical event was taking place at the determinedly secular Kibbutz Shamir in the Galil. The kibbutz opened a factory to make what it called Tafnukim—Israel’s own disposable diapers. Although disposable diapers had been on sale in America for many years, their leading manufacturers, Proctor and Gamble and Kimberly Clark hadn’t brought them to Israel because of the Arab boycott.


How boycotting disposable diapers was supposed to aid the Arab cause has always been beyond me. But, then again, unlike so many foreign would-be peace mediators, I didn’t come to this region searching for logical reasons for anything that happens here.


Be that as it may, one of the biggest changes that took place at that time in Israeli society was that the Haredim began to complain more and more, and more and more openly about having to hear women’s voices in public. Again, I don’t want to suggest that God was not directing events, but it seems to me that this distaste for hearing women’s voices came about just as the number of tafnukim that were being deposited in garbage bags was growing geometrically; and women’s voices rose to the occasion with the call “Haim, it’s your turn to take out the garbage”.


Now, I don’t want to blame the Hashomer HaTsair kibbuzniks, but it was at that moment that all the men’s voices in Mea Shearim seemed to rise as one to declare: “I can’t stand hearing women’s voices any more; it’s time to go to the kollel,” which, among Israeli Haredim, has also become their equivalent of an English gentlemen’s club.


Isn’t it interesting that everywhere in the world, men claim to be stronger and smarter than women, but always seek out a place to hide from women and find a fancy name for it?


There is so much more to say about Jerusalem, our home town. But my time is up because the moment has come to join in that great national celebration—the lighting of the mangal. Just the term, lighting the mangal sounds so spiritual and other-worldly, like lighting the Hannukia.


Actually there is a truly strange history to this popular ceremony. In all the 3800 years of Jewish history, there is no precise precedent for it.


As you may know, most modern Israeli holidays, such as Rosh Hashana, originated before the destruction of the Second Temple, or as was the case with the Kibbutz movement’s celebration of Shavuoth, they began during the pre-state period.

The thing is that you couldn’t celebrate Independence Day before there was an Independence Day.


After 1949, the bureaucrats and the political aristocracy, as was their wont, tried to take control of this new holiday, and tried to force folks to celebrate it by dancing the Hora in the streets, as Tel Avivians had done spontaneously after the UN resolution on partition  in 1947.


But ass these social bosses should have known, there is no bigger downer than organizing a spontaneous anything. So, inventive Jews sought a different way. To the horror of the powers that be, a few of them even went sop far as to set up little grills in Zion Square. The cultural commissars decided that things like that just weren’t done in these parts—especially since they reminded the political bosses of the grills that the Arabs set up in the evenings to break the fast during Ramadan.


Outrage became the order of the day.


In 1954, Maariv even went so far as to publish a scathing editorial condemning the lighting of barbecues on Independence Day, for what it called “the rise of Levantinism.” In those days, there was no greater and more hateful epithet in the Hebrew vocabulary than the word “Levantine.”


But Israelis have since made some other Levantinisms such as houmous and falafel their own—and have even falsely spread them around the world as original Israeli goods. So why not make another Moslem custom Jewish too.


The reason why the custom, has spread is that lit mangals can be used to celebrate whatever we want to celebrate. The members of the far right wing Temple Mount faithful take it as needed practice for the day when animal sacrifices will return to the Temple Mount. Thousands of graduates of anti-Zionist kollels, thank God for this festivity. Most are otherwise be unemployable. But in the weeks leading up to this day, they can find seasonal work supervising the slaughter of the thousands of cows and tens of thousands of chickens that will placed on the fires.


And even left-wingers have a reason to rejoice. After all, there is no better example of equity and equality than those celebrants who end up smelling equally badly from the acrid smoke.



The New Normal: The descent into Tribalism in Israeli Elections

We have certainly been going through topsy-turvey times. Israel bashed the hell out of Gaza, but Hamas was able to claim victory…and was actually able to channel that claim into real diplomatic, political and economic gains.


A national election has been underway now for weeks, but the only real fight has been between Shelly, Zippi and Yair—and maybe Bibi and Bennet.


Actually, the two events—the cease-fire in Gaza and the Israeli elections—have a lot in common.


I know that the idea may be abhorrent to many, but I think that I can prove my point.


Early elections were called in Israel because none of the parties in the coalition was willing to take responsibility for the inevitable—the need to cut the budget and raise taxes in order to cope with the downturn in the global economy. Most worrisome to the sectoral coalition members is the fact that the budget will require a re-prioritization of government spending; and they are liable to lose some of their hard-earned perks.


It’s quite amazing that, although the campaign has been underway for more than a month, not one of the political, diplomatic, social, economic or military issues that need to be dealt with in depth has even been discussed.


Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his stump speeches, has been talking about every subject except those items that are most on voters’ minds. If he has his choice, that tactic will continue. And if the opposition continues to act as it has up to now, he is likely to get his wish.


It had initially been expected that the election campaign would be fought over those issues that had been at the forefront of the news for the past two years, such as what to do with Iran, compulsory military service for the ultra-Orthodox, and how to respond to the social and economic demands made by the demonstrators who took to the streets a year and a half ago.


Interestingly, though, just in time for the election, the highly-respected, politically-neutral, Sderot Conference published its annual survey on what really concerns the Israeli public most. There is a vast gap between those concerns and the issues that most people expected would be at the forefront of the campaign.


I find it particularly fascinating that the issues that the survey pointed to as being the most on people’s minds are also the very ones that have been the least discussed. Maybe that is because they are simply too embarrassing for all the parties running for office to even mention.


In order of importance to the public, those issues are:




The least-trusted bodies in the country are the political parties now running for office. According to the survey, only 7 percent of the public trusts the party they actually intend to vote for.


They have good reason to be skeptical.


One of the first surprises of the campaign was the decision by Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Foreign Minister Avidgor Liberman to form a joint list to run in the campaign. Netanyahu hoped that the combined list would give the Likud an electoral safety margin it had lacked. In the previous election, although the Likud ended up leading the coalition government, the Kadima party actually won more seats.


Liberman, most of whose supporters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, had found that he had run out of potential new voters. Even though he had made a major effort to attract native Israeli voters, he came to realize that heading yet another sectoral party would never allow him to reach his ultimate goal—becoming prime minister. So, in the next stage in his odyssey for power, he has set his eyes on gaining the leadership of the Likud.


However, the Likud is now in an embarrassing position, having discovered that Liberman is about to be indicted for fraud and breach of trust.


And so what did Netanyahu do? He has reserved a place for Liberman in the next cabinet even if the court case is protracted.


And of course, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has chosen Aryeh Deri as one of its three leaders, despite the fact that he was sentenced to jail a decade ago for fraud and breach of trust.


No less annoying to the public has been the ease with which Knesset members have been switching their party allegiance. One after-effect of so many Knesset wannabes shopping around for a party that will provide them with a safe seat is that the campaign has degenerated into a grudge match between the various opposition leaders. For example, former foreign minister and Kadima party leader, Tzippi Livni, who lost out to former chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, in the Kadima party primaries, has set up her own party. The number two and three on her party list are two previous Labour Party leaders, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz—both of whom lost out to Shelly Yacimovich in that party’s primaries.


Another focus for the public has been the role that vote contractors have played in the party primaries. Contractors are folks who trade votes for perks, power or outright cash. Basically, any person who can guarantee the votes of a clan or enough friends can play this game. In the case of Kadima, Tzippi Livni won the first round of the leadership contest because her vote contractors did a better job than Shaul Mofaz’s gang. Mofaz never forgave Tzippi for what he thought was the theft of the job from him; and in the second round, his vote contractors beat Tzippi’s. The only problem is that Kadima’s voters wanted Tzippi, not Mofaz, and so the party collapsed.


Over at the Likud, Knesset member Haim Katz, who also just happens to be the union boss at the Israel Aeronautics Industries bussed about ten thousand of those workers to nearby polling stations to cast their ballots according to the white list and black list of candidates he had drawn up. I’m sure that, as in the past, everyone on the white list will be forever grateful to the honourable Mr. Katz.


The same sort of scene took place during Labour’s primaries. Unionists from the Electric company and the ports, and of course the usual band of Arab and Druze clan leaders all ensured that the victor would be decided in advance.




There has been a significant rise in concern about domestic violence and violence in the streets, primarily by drunken youngsters on the weekends. This has reinforced long-time perceptions that the police force is among the country’s least trustworthy institutions.




A third of the country’s children live below the poverty line—an increase of 60 percent in the past 5 years. Successive surveys have also shown that the gap in incomes between the rich and poor in Israel is second only to that in the United States among Western nations. This has been largely due to the absence of ultra-Orthodox males and Arab females from the workforce. The result has been a constant growth in welfare payments from 683 shekels per capita in 1995 to 1123 shekels today.


Moreover, there has also been a steady growth in the number of working poor as well.


The need to make these transfer payments has resulted in higher taxes paid by the middle class and in budget cuts for the health and education services that they use.


Of even greater concern is that the schooling given to the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox and the Arab populations does not prepare them for the workplace later in life. The ultra-Orthodox do not study subjects such as math and science. Therefore, according to a recent study, the average ultra-Orthodox 17 year old has the equivalent education of a grade 4 drop-out from the general population.




Only the Labour party has so far made the economy the central feature of its campaign. However, its proposals have been heavily criticized by many economists. One reason for this is that, while the Likud-controlled finance ministry has assembled all the projections necessary to prepare the budget for 2013, it has refused to publish its updated revenue, spending and unemployment estimates until after the elections are over.


God forbid that the public should actually know what the folks in power are doing with their money…before they cast their ballots.


In the meantime, though, what the public does know is that real salaries have dropped and consumers’ costs have risen. For example, housing costs, which had sparked the demonstrations, have risen a further 34 percent in the 18 months since the demonstrations broke out.




Most of the local pundits had predicted that Netanyahu would try to divert attention away from domestic social and economic issues by focusing on security problems. However, he has avoided doing even that.


Instead, he has been running a “non-campaign,” spending most of his time sloganeering and complaining about statements being made by Palestinian leaders and the criticisms being leveled by European leaders about the government’s plans to revive settlement activities in the occupied areas.


The issue of whether Israel should attack Iran, for example, has only been mentioned in passing in the campaign to date.


Peace Process:


This issue is far down the list of public concerns. Livni’s party has made the peace process the centerpiece of its campaign, but after a series of hardline statements by Palestinian leaders such as Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal and Mahmoud Abbas, she is not making significant headway.


It had been expected that Netanyahu would try to attract centrist voters by at least being as ambiguous as possible on this issue. However, during the Likud party’s primaries, all the party’s moderates were voted off the Knesset candidates list, and their places were taken by religious and pro-settler candidates. Fear of a backlash by moderate Likudniks has now led the party’s campaign managers to forbid most of these candidates from speaking to the media.


However, it is likely that anti-Palestinian rhetoric will soon increase because polls are showing that the rejuvenated, even more nationalist, religious Habayit Hayehudi Party has been gaining supporters at the Likud’s expense. This explains, in part, why the government has announced a renewed building spree in the occupied areas.


Habayit leader Naftali Bennett handed the Likud a wonderful year-end present by suggesting that really loyal Israeli soldiers like himself could not carry out orders to evacuate settlements. The Likud immediately pounced on the statement, with Netanyahu warning that he would never have anyone who had called for insubordination in his cabinet. And the Likud headquarters directed all their speakers to talk about nothing else. What the Likud conveniently forgot to mention is that three of the candidates for safe places on its electoral list— Energy Minister Haim Landau, Tzippi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin—have also called for exactly that kind of insubordination.




None of the politicians wants to be caught out the kind of boo-boo that Bennnett made. So, the focus of the campaign to date by almost all the parties has been on personalities and minor disputes between those parties that are vying for the support of the same group of voters.


The biggest unknown so far is what the voter turnout will be. The religious parties and the settlers always vote in greater proportions than do the secularist liberals.


Over the years, growing disgust at the constant bickering and power plays within the so-called “centre-left camp” has led its potential voters to boycott the polling booths or to vote for parties that have no chance of being elected. Over the past two decades, the number of centre-left voters who actually go to the polls has dropped by about 20 percentage points.


Ironically, precisely because Israeli Arab politicians have focused on the Israeli-Arab conflict rather that pressing domestic issues such as unemployment, there has been an even greater, 33 percent drop in voting by the country’s Arab citizens.


Should those numbers improve this time, which currently seems unlikely, the centre-left and the Arab parties would be able to create what is known as a “blocking coalition.” This would deprive the Likud of a majority in the Knesset, and force it to seek out more moderate coalition partners.


One of the most interesting features of this campaign, at least to me, is the fact that the pattern one sees on the diplomatic and military battlefield with the Arabs, is almost identical to the one that takes place in the domestic media and in the Israeli meeting halls prior to balloting.


And here a bit of linguistic study is very useful. Words are invented in order to give us a convenient and short reference point for describing something of importance to us. So, it’s extremely helpful to look for words that don’t exist in a country’s political lexicon because they are not required. In fact I have found that looking for words that don’t exist helps explain more about politics in the Middle East than all the verbiage that is spewed out.


In Hebrew, for example, there is no word for the English term “mainstream.” And in Arabic, there is no equivalent for the word “compromise.”


And now I come back to what I said at the beginning of the similarity between Israeli politicking and Arab negotiating and political posturing.


In both cases, the only terms that come close to “mainstream” or “compromise” are the Hebrew or Arabic equivalents of “centrist” or “mid-point.”


The thing is that centrist or mid-point are positions on a scale—not political concepts.


The word “mainstream” means that there are concerns or interests that the majority shares, such as, as I have mentioned, political corruption or violence in the street or in the home. But as we have seen, none of the parties here seem to be concerned with these matters. Instead, they act like tribes that fight over which policies any particular minority can and will impose on the majority.


Now let’s look at the word “compromise.” Compromise is the basis for effective, democratic majority rule. It implies that the opposition has points to make that are well worth taking into consideration when drafting policies and laws.


The thing is: Tribalism abhors compromise. Tribes invariably demand victory. Western journalists and pundits have been disappointed that the Arab spring did not turn Egypt or Tunisia or Libya into western-style democracies. That is because those societies are based on different principles—especially the deep-seated belief that the only real protection a person can have against the vagaries of politics is that which is provided by mutually-dependent blood relations.


But Israel is no less afflicted by political tribalism. As I have long said, Israeli coalition governments are ad hoc tribal federations. The best examples of tribalism in Israel are the ultra-Orthodox parties, the Arab parties and the supporters of the settlers. They almost never discuss or debate issues of true national importance, such as how to deal with the economy. The reason for their existence is to promote the wishes and interests of one minority sector of the population.


What does this mean in practical terms?


To begin with, every political tribe believes that it is inherently superior to and forever at war with every other tribe. Tribes, because they feel innately superior, see no reason to compromise. At best, they are willing to trade things that are of less importance to them in return for concessions by others that are of greater interest to them.


At worst, they engage in endless war, interspersed by cease-fires that allow them time to trade or to nurse their wounds and regain their strength.


Essentially, tribal parties remain parties of “protest,” not parties that prepare themselves for “rule” by adopting comprehensive, coherent platforms.


No less importantly, tribes view any government of which they are not a part as being inherently illegitimate. And courts that do not accept tribal laws and norms are viewed the same way. At their most extreme, tribes reject one of the fundamental premises of stable government—that the government should have a monopoly on violence.


For example, is there any real, inherent difference, other than degree, between Hamas’s summary street executions of Fatah opponents or people claimed to be Israeli agents, and the Israeli hilltop youth? The Israeli, Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas attacks on their respective judicial systems are the product of the same attitude.


In practice, political tribes believe that ultimate victory will be theirs, and so they cannot allow any another party to claim a permanent victory—or even an advantage.


Elections, because they have rules, are viewed as form of non-violent jousting or playing a game.


But just as vote contractors assure who will be nominated, real policy-making does not take place during elections, but only afterwards when the trading to establish a coalition begins in earnest.


And then, once all the trades have been completed a couple of years later, the government loses its raison d’être and it falls.


It’s important to remember that no Israeli government in recent years, even when it had a comfortable working majority in the Knesset, actually served out its full term in office for precisely this reason.


The frustration of the Israeli public at his approach to politics has been palpable for years. To counter this, the politicians’ spinmeisters have come up with a fiction that, because it has now been repeated so often, has become accepted at a “truth.”


For some peculiar reason, unknown to me, almost without exception, Israeli political pundits have welcomed the spinmeisters’ claim that Israel is divided into two political blocs—one made up of the so-called “right,” and the other of the so-called “centre and left.” Basically, the spinmeisters’ aim has been to divide the country into the “usses and the thems”—just as we do during a war—because they think that in this way it is easier to rally wavering voters who are susceptible to calls to vote against a party rather than for one. Remember what happened in the last campaign? Kadima’s final rallying cry became “Tzippi or Bibi.” The result was that Labour and Meretz voters abandoned their parties in droves in the hope that Netanyahu would be defeated


The very idea that Israel is divided into two blocs is a truly preposterous idea. To begin with, there are at least five large, clearly identifiable political blocs in Israel—the so-called left, the so-called center, the neo-nationalists, the Arabs and the Haredim. They have very little in common and are highly unlikely to ever join together in anything more permanent than a specific, ad hoc coalition government.


It is no wonder that the architect and chief cheerleader of this fiction is the American Republican Party strategist and spinmeister, Arthur Finkelstein, who is advising the Likud.


The idea is an almost perfect replication of the strategy adopted by the Republicans in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That approach, as anyone can see, has now led to the total stalemate in decision-making in Washington.


In the three decades following World War II, the battle for the control of Congress was fought out by two umbrella parties. The Democratic Party counted liberal, coastal urbanites, Midwestern progressives and diehard Dixicrats among its members. The Republican leaders included intransigent conservatives, Western libertarians and liberals such as Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller.


In order to accommodate such different world views, the parties engaged in intensive internal debates even before their party planks were decided upon. Those discussions then led to compromise proposals that took into account the most important concerns of all the different party factions.


It is therefore no wonder that the work of Congress was also characterized by innumerable bi-partisan deals.


But in the wake of the Warren Court decisions and the civil rights legislation, in the run-up to the first Reagan election campaign, the Republicans decided that they should present themselves to the voting public as a much clearer ideological alternative to the Democrats. They set up their own, independent think tanks to come up with policies that would distinguish their ideology from that of the Democrats, and actively courted the Southern Democrats. They succeeded only too well.


When a party believes it needs substantial support from the centre in order to win an election, it tends to have a broad frame of reference. In a two-party system, that would mean adopting far-left to left-of-centre, or far-right to right-of-centre platform planks. The election results are then determined by a relatively small number of floating voters in the centre, who act as a strong counterbalance to the extremists.


But when a party takes on a more ideological or dogmatic bent, then the more stringent ideologues and dogmatists, although they are fewer in number, are in a position to gain strength within the party because they are more fierce believers and are often better organized.


For example, the very word “liberal,” which has a very long and impressive political history, became an epithet in the mouths of George Bush and his aides.


In the case of the US, this kind of approach initially resulted in the nomination of candidates such as George McGovern and Barry Goldwater, both of whom were soundly defeated with the help of centrist voters. But that American consensus against extremism has now been weakened.


And the reason for that shift is that the Republican Party, in effect, went in the direction of tribalism. It is no coincidence that most of the so-called “red states” were first inhabited by Irish and Scottish tribalists.


When politics veers into tribalism, certain attitudes are almost always present.


The first and maybe the most important is that the tribal-oriented political parties almost always adopt two totally different and wholly opposite attitudes to policy-making. On the one hand they claim that they are victims of some greater outside force, while at the same time they also adopt a triumphal attitude. During Labour’s heyday, it claimed the triumphal position as the party that founded this country. On the other hand, it also claimed that it was the saviour of the poor and distressed.


Hamas claims that it is a victim of Israeli imperialism, but then also claims that it defeated the Israelis in battle.


In the US, the Republicans claim that their voters are victims of big government budgets, but then claim victory when they are able to staunch cuts in the defence budget.


The Likud too has adopted a similar posture in recent years. The Kahlon phenomenon was an extreme example in point. Knesset member Moshe Kahlon became an instant celebrity for being both an extreme nationalist, who among other things, opposed the withdrawal from Gaza and supported heavy funding for the settlements and, at the same time, adopted an extreme socialist position by demanding more government spending on welfare projects. He never explained where all that money could come from—or whether, if he had to chose between the two, which one he would prefer to fund.


Another feature of tribalist politics is that in order to achieve a cease-fire, both parties to a dispute must be able to declare victory first. That was the basis for the peace accord with Egypt and Jordan, and the cease-fire with Syria. Henry Kissinger prevented Israel from wiping out the Egyptian third army that had crossed the Suez Canal, but was surrounded by Israeli troops in 1973. Jordan won the permanent rights to 50 million cubic metres of water from Lake Kinneret per year even though that water came from what is Israeli property. And Syria was granted the town of Kuneitra, which had been captured in 1967, even though Israeli troops were encamped at that time, far to the east—only 40 kilometers from Damascus.


So too, today, the chances of a cease-fire with Hamas holding have increased because Hamas can claim victory after operation Defensive Pillar.


In Israel, the ruling coalition broke down when reality, in essence, forced the government to cut the budget so severely that Shas could no longer claim even a partial victory.


Interestingly, the Likud is currently undergoing a similar movement towards a narrow platform as the American Republicans did, while Labour, under Shelly Yacimovich, is moving towards a broader frame. She has even gone so far as to claim that Labour in not a “leftist” party.


For this reason, if there is a central theme to this election, it is whether the country’s voters should support the continued slide into tribal politics or support the concept of majority rule, with adequate protections for minorities.


When looked at in detail, the real choices are pretty stark.


Majority rule is inclusionary. Tribal rule is exclusionary.


Majority rule means that the public is the sovereign and is the source of authority in the country. Tribal rule means that the source of authority, whether they be rabbis or charismatic ideologues, are not necessarily elected.


Tribalism rejects the idea that the government should have a monopoly on violence.


And maybe most important of all, government policies are not the product of analysis and prioritization, but the outcome of erratic and incoherent trading of public assets between the respective tribes. When there is a genuine attempt to produce a mainstream policy document, one that demands compromises for all sides, such as the Trajtenberg report, tribalists too often gut the proposal of any coherent meaning—as occurred just this year.




Israel and the US Elections

The final results of the US elections are now in. And, according to all the polls, the Israeli public decided that Romney should have won—even though his electoral promises about issues related to Israel did not go beyond those made by Barak Obama.


Why the Israeli public reacted as it did says a great deal about Israeli-American relations—and especially about a particular aspect of Israeli-American relations that is rarely if ever discussed.


In all their statements to the media  and to the pollsters, the Israeli public made no reference to what was the biggest item on the American voters’ agenda—the economy and the deadline of December 31, after which a whole list of budget cuts and cuts in tax benefits goes into effect.


The economy may have seemed to many Israelis to have been strictly an American domestic issue. But it should have been a major consideration for Israelis too because America is Israel’s biggest trading partner, Israel receives more military aid from the United States than any other country, and the health of the American economy has a major impact on the Israeli economy.


It should also be noted that the group most affected by the cuts will be the American military. The Defense Department has already had its budget cut by more than 470 billion dollars. (That, by the way, is more than twice Israel’s whole annual GDP). Additional cuts, if they go into effect on December 31, would double that figure.


Those additional cuts will come at the very time when the United States has announced that it is going to shift its whole strategic emphasis to the Pacific bowl in order to try to contain China’s ambitions there. What is now being called the “pivot” to Asia will involve huge expenditures on new bases and equipment.


As well, the US is going to have to pay for the enormous logistical operation that will be required to get the NATO forces out of Afghanistan by 2014, as scheduled. And after 10 years of war, the US military is also going to have to resupply and reequip its forces.


Taken together, those costs are so huge that they cannot but affect any plans the Americans may have for fighting an extended conflict with Iran.


Another thing the Israeli voters ignored is that there is a whole menu of major foreign policy issues that have little or nothing to do with Israel that will keep the American foreign policy establishment busy and divert its attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Some of those issues are far higher up the Republican Party’s list of priorities than is Israel.


There is the economic crisis in Europe. Both Russia and China are challenging American super-power hegemony everywhere. Nuclear-armed North Korea remains a threat that needs constant watching. New policies will need to be formulated to deal with the fall-out from the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. And as the bloodbath in Syria increases in intensity, and as the number of Islamist fighters there continues to grow, pressure to intervene there will grow too.


Then there are a whole bunch of other issues that will preoccupy American policy-makers in the next year as well, including the need to figure out what to do with Pakistan and Turkey.


Another thing Israel’s Romney supporters failed to take account of is the praise that most Israeli officials, but not Netanyahu, had showered on Obama for all the military and intelligence assistance he had provided to Israel.


And to top it all off, when Obama and Romney held their foreign policy debate, all Romney could do was to agree with every point Obama made. Essentially, Romney admitted that there would have been no change in the American foreign policy agenda if he had won.


So why, then did Israelis overwhelmingly support Romney?


I think that the key comes down to three key words:–“sympathy,” “empathy” and “realism.”


Israel, in the years after its founding, based almost all of its diplomatic efforts in eliciting sympathy, in the wake of the Holocaust. But, in recent years, for any number of reasons—its military successes, its continued occupation of territories captured in the 6-Day War, the fact that those people who had witnessed the Holocaust have been dying off or retiring, and because of the way Washington works—Israel has based almost all its diplomatic efforts in the United States on what is often called “a realist approach.”


What do I mean by a “realistic approach?”


The “realist” school of international diplomacy is one of the leading ways politicians and diplomats have of looking at the world. Its main practitioners have included such very different people as Austria’s Count Metternich and France’s General Charles De Gaulle. Among the leading American practitioners of the realist school of politics have been such notable figures as Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker—and most recently, Barack Obama.


Among the basic principles or dogmas of realist politics is the premise that national self-interest and the need to acquire power to pursue those interests should take precedence over all other factors when policies are decided upon.


The lack of a realist approach can lead to wishful thinking, as the war in Iraq demonstrated. It can also lead countries to appear to be supplicant dependencies, for whom any largesse can be cut when the country’s patron needs to cut costs. This is the very position that Mahmoud Abbas’s government finds itself in right now.


On the other hand, at its worst, a realist approach can even become a fixed ideology that determines how its practitioners relate to almost every political subject, be it the economy, social problems or foreign relations. This means that issues that cannot be quantified in terms of cost and benefit, such as shared values, are ignored.


Another primary weaknesses, is that it is so analytical and so cold a framework for assessing human problems that it does not allow for alternatives to the use of strong-arm tactics when polite requests fail to provide the response requested. In particular, it cannot, on its own, be used to rally the public in democracies, if their governments do not accept the proposals being presented. That is because it ignores people’s fundamental need for expressions of empathy.


As we saw in this past election campaign, when candidates, especially the Republicans, failed to show empathy to women voters, for example, they lost. Maybe the best example was the series of comments by two anti-abortion candidates who, using pseudo-science to back their claims, came out against abortions even in the case of rape.


People too easy confuse empathy with sympathy. So, let me define how I use the term. When we engage in sympathy we describe how we feel about a certain situation. Empathy is the capacity to understand and show how and why the other side is reacting to that same situation.


As I will try to show tonight, when it comes to Israel, the need to show empathy towards what the country’s citizens have gone through over the years is one of the main factors that have influenced foreigners ability or inability to influence Israeli policy-making.


Empathy is an important analytical tool because it enables an analyst to get inside the mind of someone else. It is one of the few techniques anyone has for judging that hardest of all subjects to understand…the other’s intent. Sympathy, because it is an emotionally-driven, one-sided approach, usually leads only to political and diplomatic dead ends.


The ability to show empathy is not the exclusive possession of one American political party or another. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush showed empathy towards Israel, while George Bush Senior and Barack Obama have not. George Romney didn’t indicate which way he would lean.


In general, though, the hard truth is that when it comes to issues related to Israel, it ultimately makes little difference who is elected president in the United States. American policy towards Israel is basically unchangeable, no matter whether an empathetic or a sympathetic or a realist president is elected. That is because American policy, in the end, has little or nothing to do with the reality in which Israelis live, or any prior feelings a president may have had towards Israel. However, policies towards Israel are heavily influenced by the reality of the political environment and political culture in Washington.


One of the most powerful sources of influence on policy-making in Washington is what can be termed “the Washington political consensus.” So strong is its impact on policy-making that it has always shaped presidential approached to issues.


In the period up to the 6-Day War, that consensus stated that the Arab states, and especially Arab oil and the Arabs geopolitical position, were more vital to American interests than tiny Israel.


For that reason, beginning in the 1970s, successive Israeli governments have tried to influence that consensus by putting almost all their diplomatic and lobbying efforts into eliciting empathy and into trying to prove that a strong, powerful Israel is in America’s national interest.


That effort began in earnest, after the world had gone through the two great oil shocks of the 1970s.


Then, in the run-up to the 1980 US presidential election, the Israeli foreign ministry was tasked to determine whether a Democratic or a Republican president was better for Israel. The conclusion of the team that prepared the study was that it made no difference to Israeli-American relations whether a president was a Republican or a Democrat. What did matter was whether the president was an incumbent or not, because, the report stated, it takes about 18 months to break in a new president to the realities of the Middle East. In other words, it takes that long to at least elicit some real empathy for Israel’s position from a novice president, whether he is inherently sympathetic or not to Israel’s fears and concerns.


The Israeli assessment did not, however, take into account something far more important to decision-makers in Washington than Israeli education efforts. Israeli officials proudly proclaim that Israel has become a bi-partisan issue. That is why Netanyahu was condemned so much for appearing to have sided openly with Romney.


But, to the best of my knowledge, Israeli policy makers have never addressed the issue of how and why Washington comes to a consensus in the first place.


So, to get to the heart of that critical issue, let us now fast forward to July 2012, in the wake of the failures by the US intelligence agencies, the National Security Council and the State Department to predict the upheavals in the Arab states and their aftermath.


On July 19, 2012, the Los Angeles Times published an article quoting David Shedd, the Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, publicly admitting that US intelligence agencies have a systemic fault that has prevented them from predicting events such as the outbreak of unrest in the Arab world. He might just as well have included Israel in his assessment—and for the same reasons.


To old-time foreign correspondents, Shedd’s admission was nothing new. Writing on a Pentagon information wire, Shedd had declared that the failure to predict the so-called “Arab Spring” had been the product of the fact that American spies had focused on collecting information from power elites, and were thus unaware of the dissatisfaction growing among the general population. He should have included American diplomats, think tank analysts and journalists in that same critique.


Even more fascinating than Shedd’s candor, though, was the fact that, at least according to Google, not one other major news outlet, and especially not one of the media outlets that prides itself on its detailed coverage of Washington, carried the story.


No wonder. It was too much of an embarrassment to all those involved—including the media.


In politically and intellectually incestuous Washington, the people who have an overwhelming impact on the formation of the Washington consensus, the American media and the so-called “experts” and government officials they rely on for comment, have been no less guilty of that same sin of omission. To give but one simple example, I, for one, have yet to see a foreign diplomat visit a moshav with the intent of talking politics to its residents.


A very good example of an outcome of the failure to talk politics to the hoi polloi was the huge mistake that Shedd talked about. It wasn’t as though there wasn’t ample evidence that a social volcano was about to erupt in the Arab World. More than five years ago, I predicted that because of the so-called “youth bulge” in the Arab countries, which had led to vast unemployment among young men who could not then earn enough to pay the prevailing bride price, a violent social explosion was almost inevitable.


Nonetheless, the expectation in Washington was that the dictatorial rule in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria would continue indefinitely.


Why was there such resistance to doing basic research?


It is a fact of life that Washington has long been obsessed with the idea of power as expressed by what is believed to be the celebrity political elite, wherever they may live. The hoi polloi, the average Joes and Janes, are ignored because they are believed to be unable to effect social change.


This, by the way, was the same syndrome that afflicted the Americans in the run-up to the so-called “surprising” expulsion of the Shah from Iran.


A fundamental accompanying assumption to this consensus is that the “good guys,” those who are enlightened “like us”—those with whom we can reason—must be those who speak English. This approach had led to such appalling mis-assessments in the media and in academe as the once-widespread belief that Seif el-Islam Gadaffi and Bashar Assad, who would soon become their country’s butchers, were actually good guys because they had studied in the West and spoke smooth English.


More recently, we saw the same syndrome at work in Cairo. After the demonstrations and rioting broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the American media were giving the events 24/7 coverage. In a vain attempt to determine who was in charge of the demonstrations, in other words, who were the leaders behind the rebellion, they competed furiously among themselves to interview the young, English-speaking liberal democrats. They assumed that it would be these spokespeople who could reinforce the beliefs and aspirations that the foreign interviewers were already expounding—even before the facts had been established.


Revealingly, few if any of the foreign journalists ventured even a block or two away from the square—let alone to the wilds of the Upper Nile or the coastal desert areas west of Alexandria—to see what was taking place in Egypt’s Arabic-speaking “real world” –the world of small shops, craftsmen’s workshops, cafes, mosques, open souks, intense family ties, and especially clan and religious leaders.


It was clear from the statements and leaks in Washington that the spies, the diplomats and the think tank types who were in Egypt at the time had behaved in a similar manner.


Most of the journalists, in their commentaries and interviews, were then quick to lump the participants in the demonstrations into three categories long-used by Washington foreign policy-makers, journalists and pundits as a kind of behavioural shorthand: Those who are like us (youngsters who use Facebook and Twitter). Those who want to be like us (the hapless and the unemployed or underemployed who need our way of life). And those who aren’t like us at all (Salafists).


For those old geezers like myself, who were able to remember all the way back to the Cold War, and the reports about the children of the Soviet apparatchiks who “wanted to be like us” because they were paying astronomical sums for smuggled jeans, the message was all too familiar. The only difference was that iPhones glued to the youngsters’ ears had now become the symbol of “want-to-be-just-like-us-edness.”


The underlying reason for that simplistic approach is that in-depth reporting, which includes empathetic listening to learn the answers to questions no one thought to ask, takes time and tries most viewers’ and readers’ patience. It is not believed to be time or cost effective.


No less importantly, though, for all of America’s stated devotion to the fostering of democracy, Washington’s foreign policy fraternity and its journalistic dependents are endemically anti-democratic. Theirs is a world where one of the primary dogmas is that elites have a right to rule. The only job that should be assigned to Joe or Jane everyman/everywoman is to go dutifully to the polls to decide which member of the elite should rule. Therefore the only people whom these diplomats and journalists deem worth talking to are members of the supposed elite…folks who appear to be like themselves.


There is a very practical reason for this approach, of course. Going out to the hinterland in order to listen to people not only takes time, money and work, it rarely brings the researcher kudos—especially if the conventional wisdom on which current policy is based ends up being challenged.


But maybe most importantly of all, talking to the natives implies to the researcher’s peers and patrons that he or she believes the unthinkable—that the masses are capable of making policy.


Not only that, it lays the researcher open to that most devastating critique and career-killer—the charge that the person has “gone native.” A person tarred with such an epithet is believed to have lost his or her objectivity because he or she is now believed to care more about the other side than about their own government’s concerns.


A no less important feature of the foreign policy fraternity is the so-called “revolving door.” Journalists join academe. Professors spend time in government and then recommend favoured students for government jobs. Government workers become pundits in the media and then affect the agenda of the journalists. And on and on. This then creates a closed intellectual circle, where new ideas—especially those that appear to come from a farmer in a field somewhere—that challenge the consensus are unwelcome at best and forcefully excluded at worst.


Members of this closed circle may argue bitterly with each other over one policy issue or another, but they rarely, if ever, question whether the assumptions underpinning their argument, are correct or valid.


One need not go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan to see the results of this mindset. There is no place on earth where the “they are like us or they want to be like us” has taken hold of America’s perceptions than Israel. And there is no place where this assumption is less justified.


Too often, when American policies in the Arab Middle East have failed, the excuse has been that “we didn’t think to look at this subject,” or “the data wasn’t available” or “the locals wouldn’t talk to us,” or “even the natives were surprised at what happened.”


The same excuses cannot be used with Israel. Israelis are compulsive talkers, obsessive public navel-gazers, and devoted collectors of easily-accessed public opinion and other social and economic data. Therefore, if analyses of Israel go badly awry, then the normally-used excuses fall by the wayside, and the mindsets that lay at the heart of those assessments can be examined in depth.


Until the 1967 war, Israel wasn’t even a back-burner issue for Americans. If anything, it was a back-of-the-closet issue—somewhere behind the funny souvenir hat and the never-read coffee table books on the kibbutz and the holy shrines.


In other words, it was ripe for cold, clear analysis. But that never happened. Israelis blamed the new wave of criticism that was being mounted against the country as being renewed anti-semitism. That may have been a factor for a small minority of foreigners. Of greater significance was the fact that, virtually from the outset, Israel was viewed through the prisms of almost every item on any responsible political analyst’s “don’t do” list. The long-term effect of this was that after early, inaccurate assumptions went unchallenged, there was a cascade of consecutive misperceptions—each based on the previous misconception.


There had been some small changes in the regional environment that had taken place before the Six-Day War, such as President Johnson’s decision to sell Israel Hawk anti-aircraft missiles for the first time, and the fact that a new Palestinian organization called “el Fatah” had been formed. But this had not required any extensive rethinking about how to approach Israel.


In the wake of the war, two issues immediately came to the forefront of international discussions about Israel—the country’s borders and the fate of the Palestinian refugees. These two subjects would frame diplomatic approaches to Israel for the next 45 years.


There are many reasons why these problems, and not many other no less important ones that influence the state of war and peace in the region, took center stage.


To begin with, world diplomats have long believed that these two issues—resolving humanitarian problems and resolving crises caused by border disputes—are within their particular area of expertise and are a fundamental part of their job description. Therefore, as part of the incessant turf wars for power and influence in Washington, it was in their own interest that they emphasize these aspects of the crisis, and not others over which they have less influence and less of a claim to being able to change matters. Put bluntly, highlighting these issues was a form of job creation and job protection.


For the media too, the aftermath of the war was a godsend. And for that reason, journalists were more than willing to mouth the American diplomat’s presentation of the developing narrative. The diplomats provided great, short sound-bites and visuals of foreign policy celebrities coming and going to meetings. The renewed violence following the war provided much-needed dramatic images. The refugees provided emotionally-stirring stories and images too. And maps showing the changes in the cease-fire lines (Israel, at the time had no legal borders) provided easy, clear graphics that could be posted behind news readers.


I am not saying that these were not important issues—just that they were not the only important issues.


Totally ignored by the diplomats and the journalists alike were the huge upheavals taking place within all the Middle Eastern societies—events which would exert a far greater long-term influence on the region than the boundary disputes or the Palestinian refugee problem. The reason for this failure was that the societal changes that were taking place were messy, incremental affairs that required a lot of background knowledge, and an extensive knowledge of history to comprehend, explain, and put in context. Most importantly, they required the employment of empathy in order to gain that knowledge.


If one wishes to be empathetic to these journalists and diplomats, one should look at their behaviour from their point of view. Studying societal changes in the Middle East takes a lot of time, money and work, for very little expected benefit to those expected to pay for the effort. That is because, for journalists, reports of this type could not be put into an article of 800 words or a 2 minute television news report that required a “wrap”—a beginning, middle and neat ending. Reports based on extensive research would have taken weeks to prepare, when the demand was for an article or assessment each day.


As a result, very quickly, the refugee and the border issues, together with the ongoing violence became what are often called “anchors” in the ongoing narrative. In other words, as with any narrative told as a serial, the authors needed a frame for the story and a reference point to alert the audience about what was going to come next in the report. So often were these anchors repeated that they became assumptions that required no further clarification or examination. These “axioms” quickly included oft-repeated absurdities such as that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the key to resolving all the problems in the Middle East.


In addition, two additional, formative changes were also taking place outside the Middle East in the 1970s that were to have a profound affect on perceptions of the region. First and foremost, the condominium relationship between the so-called “left” and the so-called “right” that had existed in the legislatures in Europe and the United States, and which had not only been the product of  the unity needed to fight World War II, but also the subsequent Cold War, began to break down.


One reason was that many socialist doctrines, when implemented and then field-tested had been found to be wanting. As a result, many of those on the left, especially the hard-line ideologues, were left intellectually depleted and bereft of new ideas. For their own purposes, they needed an enemy and an emotional cause around which to rally their supporters. As a result, they reacted to events arising from the Israeli-Arab dispute with emotionally-driven sympathy for whoever could be chosen as a downtrodden individual—not thoughtful empathy for those trying to cope with extraordinarily complex issues.


No less importantly, the right-wing politicians in the United States began to abandon compromise solutions on Capitol Hill. Instead of seeking “compromises” with the Democrats, beginning with the run-up to the Reagan election campaign, they began to emphasize “alternatives” to policies that had once been the product of joint “across the aisles” efforts. This would eventually lead first to neo-con dogmatism, and eventually to the rise of such phenomena as the Tea Party, congressional catatonism and the advent of super-pacs that are designed to enable to wealthy to try to buy political influence and election results. Political polarization was setting in.


As part of this process, American conservatives believed that they had to establish their own think tanks to provide academically-blessed and data-supported alternatives to the established research bodies such as the Brookings Institution and the universities which they believed had a left-wing slant. As a result, the American Enterprise Institute was reinvigorated and research centres such as the Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute were established.


In a parallel vein, the next decade saw a fierce competition between the newly-wealthy Gulf States and wealthy Jews to establish endowed chairs in Middle Eastern, Arabic and Jewish studies at American Universities as an indirect means of influencing American public opinion through teaching, academic research that could be quoted, and op-eds by the endowed professors. As with the think tanks, appointment to these new positions and research money became dependent of whether the individual involved would focus his or her research and teaching on issues that supported the dogmas of the donors, who were even less interested than even the diplomats in showing empathy to those considered to be “the enemy.”


As the competition between the donors increased, so did the number of think tanks and university positions—and the frame of the debate was strengthened, as were the vested interests of those making their living from the polarization.


For that reason, whole areas of potential research such as the entrenchment of tribalism in both Israel and the Arab states were almost totally ignored.


And as part of this process, new, populist advocacy organizations such as CAMERA, Honest Reporting and CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) also began to appear alongside established lobbying organizations such as AIPAC.


What united all these different bodies was their need to ensure continuous funding…which meant, in effect, proving to the donors that their ideologies were being given wide play in the media over time.


That task became infinitely easier because of the humungous changes which the media were undergoing at that time. In 1958, the giant advertising agency J. Walter Thompson began a multi-year survey of the American public, now largely forgotten, that eventually found that the average American high school graduate could only concentrate for a grand total of 28 seconds. Up to that time, the standard length of a television commercial had been 1 minute. However, the survey showed that Thompson’s clients could actually get more than twice the bang for the buck by cutting the ads to half a minute and four times the bang for the buck by cutting them to 15 seconds.


It took a while for the findings to sink in. It was, after all, hard for most people to believe that they couldn’t concentrate for even half a minute at a time. So, in television newscasts, for example, in the 1968 presidential election, Hubert Humphrey was still given as long as a minute and 20 seconds to speak on the nightly newscasts.


But by the 1980s, the average sound-bite had fallen to 12 seconds, in line with the Thompson findings. People can’t say very much in 12 seconds. There is no time for nuance. And, most recently, Twitter has been based on the findings that most Americans can’t concentrate on a text message that uses more than 140 characters.


The 1980s were also a time of massive changes in the newspaper industry. Newspapers at that time were making an extraordinary 35 percent per year on invested capital—largely through the sale of classified ads. But that wasn’t enough for Wall Street. Investors demanded an even greater return on capital and began to demand a cut in costs. That led not only to the premature firing of old, experienced hands and the employment of youngsters who were paid much less, but also to the search for free or at least cheap content.


Not only were they paid less, these new reporters were expected to provide more content. The only way they could do so was by assembling entertaining quotes and colour, rather than substantive information based on intensive and extensive research. Today, the average news story has about 70 percent quotes and colour, and only about 30 percent substantive information. And who did they get their quotes from? From an almost standardized list of think tank residents and academics who had a personal, financial stake in appearing in the media, and from government spokespeople who had a stake in promoting their office’s agenda and interests.


Another result was the almost astronomic growth of unpaid or lowly-paid op-ed and opinion pieces by these same new media stars. The so-called “experts” who had just moved into their newly-endowed chairs at universities and think tanks needed an assured vehicle to prove to their sponsors that they were putting out the message expected of them.


Another fast-rising group were witty, opinionated writers who could use their appearances in newspapers and television to provide them with the publicity needed to foster their far more lucrative appearances on the lecture circuit.


And in their search for entertaining drama, the speakers and writers were encouraged to adopt ever more polarizing positions.


By the way, for all their yelling and screaming at each other, thorough studies have found that these television pundits got things right only about half the time—about the same as if they had simply flipped a coin.


One of the most insidious outgrowths of these developments was that the easiest way the officials and the pundits had of making their position understood to the American public was by using terms that were familiar to Americans—even though they may have had no relevance to the cultures of foreign countries the opinionators were talking about.


For example, one of the most egregious errors was to assume that all the actions of a foreign state should be judged by their adherence to that most basic of American principles—that the primary role of the state is to protect individual rights. In Israel, though, for example, the supreme ethos is group responsibility. This is the polar opposite of the American one.


From there on, the mistakes about Israel came thick and fast. Because of their lack of familiarity with the internal workings of Israeli society, American diplomats and journalists began using more and more labels to describe personalities and events that bore no relationship to the way those terms are used in normal American parlance. Maybe the best example was the use of the term “right-wing” to describe the Israeli neo-nationalists who were intent on settling the newly-occupied territories.


A seminal failure by the wordsmiths and political analysts of the time was their unwillingness to ask the simple question: “Right wing, compared to what?”


At the time, most of the newly-founded “Land of Israel Movement’s” members were, in fact, stalwart Laborites who had grown up on the ethos of settling the land. And it was consummate Laborite Shimon Peres who negotiated the outcome of the first exercise in the settlement of the area of Samaria in the northern West Bank.


When religious settlers eventually began to take control of the movement, they too were hardly followers of that classic conservative philosopher, Edmond Burke in their approach. Contrary to the admonitions of Burke, they disregarded the property rights of the Palestinians, and favored heavy doses of preferential government funding, centralized planning and high taxation to pay for their projects. The combination of nationalism and central planning bears more the marks of old-style Russian Bolshevist nationalism than any other system of governance.


A similar, very recent use of fallacious and misleading labeling has been the all-too-common use of the term “moderate” when the Moslem Brotherhood is discussed in the American media or in Congressional testimony. Again, the question should be: “Moderate compared to what?”


Another too-often used misnomer is the phrase “Western-oriented,” as in the term “Western-oriented Saudi Arabia.”


Israel too is invariably labeled as “Western,” when in fact two thirds of its population is made up of people who grew up in or are first generation prodigy of people who grew up in authoritarian, anti-democratic societies in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa, where the European Enlightenment had never reached.


This, for example, explains the recent, meteoric rise of Likud politician Moshe Kahalon. He is both more “right-wing” on nationalist issues than the average Likudnik and more “left-wing” on social matters than the average Labour Party supporter.


Therefore, one conclusion I have come to is that, despite the acres of trees that have been felled, the barrels of printers’ ink that have been poured, and the kazillions of electrons that have been sent whizzing around the world, Israel is probably the most reported on but also the most misunderstood country on earth—by its friends and foes alike. Contrary to Edward Said’s assertions, the Arabs come only a close second.


By now, you may have asked yourselves: Why have I given this long-winded account of Washington consensus-making?


The fact is that despite all its efforts, Israel has found that, over the years, it has been incapable of countering the mammoth system of consensus-making in place in Washington. At times, Israelis have blamed the media, or the so-called “Arabists” in the State Department, or anti-Semites, or anti-Zionist academics for these failures. But the one indisputable fact is that American policy towards Israel has been relatively unchanged for decades, no matter who was the president.


Ironically, Israel has only really succeeded in seeing Washington’s perceptions change when one of its opponents has acted in such a way as to shatter the existing consensus. Massive military aid to Israel was the product of Anwar Sadat’s peace initiative. The sanctions against Iran were only imposed after Ahmedinejad directly threatened not only Israel, but the Gulf States as well.


Therefore, the reaction of the majority of the Israeli public to the American election was merely the product of their frustration with Israel’s consistent inability to influence something as powerful as the Washington consensus.


Moreover, Obama is an unabashed supporter of the realist school. Therefore, even if he is sympathetic or empathetic to Israel’s needs and concerns, he refuses to show it.


On the other hand, even before the days of Kissinger, Israelis have always demanded that before anyone offers the country advice that they must show, as a minimum, an empathy for the country’s citizens.


Thus, even though he had nothing new to offer, Romney was chosen as the preferred candidate by a majority of Israelis because he was the default option and because some Israelis misconstrued his statements of sympathy for real empathy.


I, for one certainly don’t think that in any of his public statements he demonstrated any new insights into Israeli predicaments based on his empathy for Israel’s citizens. More importantly, he showed no interest in confronting or wanting to change the existing Washington consensus about Israel.


That being so, it is worth considering whether had Romney won, his election might actually have been a serious blow to Israel’s efforts to contain Iran. After all, as the Israeli task force concluded, it would have taken him 18 months to fully formulate a coherent proposal of his own for dealing with Iran. And by then, both the Obama administration and the Israeli government agree, Iran would have passed the red line in its efforts to produce nuclear weapons. And had that occurred, all that Israel would have been left with was American sympathy.

Israel’s Election Campaign

We’re into a new Israeli election season. All the politicians are out telling anyone who will listen about all the wonderful things they have done and what they will do…if elected.


But, as I have been cautioning for years, be careful. All this hoopla can be, and already is, a descent to that most common Israeli political activity—what Harvard lecturer Ronald Heifetz calls “work avoidance.”


It’s a subject I bring up often because it is the only explanation I have been able to find for some of the extraordinary and otherwise totally unreasonable behaviour of Israel’s politicians. As anyone can tell from watching the televised so-called “debates” in the Knesset, Knesset members rarely address issues using classic rhetorical devices, wit or carefully prepared and well-researched arguments. Instead, these sessions are too often characterized by cutting others off, contesting who can speak louder and longer without saying anything of substance, sloganeering, and personal attacks on others…precisely because the members choose to avoid learning how to use those techniques that are normal in other democratic legislatures.


Heifetz defines “work avoidance” as a technique by which people deliberately make themselves appear to be so busy that they are then able to claim that they have no time to deal with the real work that they have actually been mandated to do. In Israel, elections can, and usually are, perfect venues for work avoidance.


For example, election campaigns should be an opportunity for the politicians and the public alike to undertake a thorough assessment of what the country has gone through in recent years and where it is going. It’s called “admitting past mistakes,” “setting goals,” enunciating a vision” and “taking responsibility.”


But that rarely happens.


And when people do not take responsibility for their actions or inactions, as usually happens here, what you are left with is accountability.


But, significantly, there is no Hebrew equivalent for this English term—so there are not even any linguistic tools in Israel for holding politicians accountable.


Even independent, judicial commissions of inquiry have failed to make Israeli politicians take responsibility for their actions or inactions. As a result, if work avoidance has become a national political pandemic, then amnesia has become its most notable side effect…in the same way that the most common side-effect of flu epidemics is deadly pneumonia.


The behaviour of the current Israeli cabinet is a particularly good example of work avoidance. The ministers’ mandate is to make tough decisions that will affect the welfare of the country’s citizens. But this early election campaign that we are now embroiled in has been called for no other reason than that the cabinet members have refused to make tough decisions…not on the budget, not on Iran, and not on the peace process.


Netanyahu, as a prime minister, has been a master at work avoidance—as the reports from the State Comptroller have shown repeatedly. The latest of these reports lambasted Netanyahu for having failed to provide that most elementary and important of government services—food security for all, and reasonably-priced water. Another good example is Netanyahu’s failure to obey a Supreme Court decision and find a reasonable replacement for the Tal Law that permitted wholesale exemptions from compulsory military service for the ultra-Orthodox.


Work avoidance, though, is not confined to individuals. Early elections are one of the best examples of group work avoidance.


For example, the reason being given for holding early elections is that the cabinet has been unable to pass a new, austerity budget. We have been lectured for more than a year that, because of the world economic crisis, Israel will have to do some severe economic belt-tightening. The problem that has now arisen, we are now being told, is that the cabinet ministers can’t decide whose belt should be tightened. Everyone blames—and the Haredi parties boast about—the fact that the stalemate has come about because the Haredi politicians have refused to allow cuts in those budgets that most affect their voters…such as a reduction in child welfare payments for those who refuse to seek gainful employment.


But we are also being told by all the pundits and pollsters that Bibi is very likely to be reelected. And these same folks say that if he is re-elected prime minister, he will continue what Likud politicians have been calling “the historic relationship” with the Haredi parties. If that is so, what will change after the elections are over?


In other words, this country is about to spend about a billion and a half shekels to enable the country’s politicians to avoid having to make decisions for at least another six months—and possibly longer.


So let’s first look at the political timetable as it now seems likely, and then take a gander at the decisions that will be delayed.


The elections will be held on January 22. Once the final electoral results are known about a week later, the president will have two weeks to interview all the leaders of the political parties before choosing someone to try and form a coalition government. That individual will then have six weeks to try to negotiate a coalition agreement.


If you look closely at the political timetable, you will then notice that, if the coalition negotiations drag on to mid-March, they will end just in time for the Knesset’s Pesah to Shavuot break.


Since the Knesset debate on the budget usually takes two months, that means that we won’t have this urgent budget passed until mid-July—just in time for the summer Knesset break.


But that’s not all. Bibi has now set his “red line” for attacking Iran. That red line will appear the moment that Iran has produced 260 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity—which, at present rates of production, will probably occur sometime around mid-June. So, the budget debate could, of course, be cut short if Israel attacks Iran.


And if Bibi does choose to attack Iran in the early summer, as is not inconceivable, that budget will have to be changed, and a supplementary budget will have to be introduced immediately because wars cost money.


The thing is, though, the Knesset goes on vacation in mid-July until late October, when the first item on its agenda is supposed to be the budget for 2014. In other words, the first, full, meaningful, debate on the country’s economic, social and military priorities may not now take place for more than a year.


But, let’s step back a bit. What are the issues that are likely to be discussed during those coalition negotiations? First and foremost, of course, is the budget. What changes in the budget proposal can be made then that cannot be made today? And if passing an austerity budget is such an urgent matter, why wait?


I haven’t heard or seen a single politician in this country make even a passing referral to this potential timetable. In effect, all that they have been saying is that passing a budget now isn’t such an urgent matter because, by law, if a new budget isn’t passed before December 31, then the current budget remains in effect; and the money is doled out by the Treasury to the ministries at the rate of 1/12th of the 2012 budget each month.


If everything is so simple, then why the urgency?


Well, for one thing, the budget for 2012 was passed in 2010, because Bibi wanted a two year budget. A lot has happened since then. And the data on which the budget was based, came from 2009…and even before that. In other words, the government will be operating in 2013 on the basis of data assembled at least 4 years earlier.  If nothing else, adjustments have to be made because the population has grown by about 5 percent in that time.


But, I guess, that is what the politicians mean by the word “urgency”—otherwise translated into political Hebrew as “smoch alai,” or “yiyeh bseder” (“trust me” or “everything will be fine”)—instead of using the word “responsibility.”


Not only that, as I noted at the beginning, the politicians will be using their time over the next few months to boast about the things that they have done. The trouble is that everything they will be boasting about costs money; and most of that money can only be appropriated if a new budget is passed. Among the things for which there won’t be any money are the wage rises that have been promised to the doctors, the social workers and the teachers on January 1, following their recent lengthy strikes.


That would put the government in breach of contract, but it would suit the finance ministry just fine because it would be an effective way of lowering the budget deficit in the short term.


Even if a new budget is not passed, the finance ministry is permitted to transfer funds between ministries in order to pay bills. But who will then take responsibility and decide which ministry and which government projects will lose their funding if the ministers can’t do so? In other words, one of the founding principles of democratic rule, that it is the duty of the public’s representatives to decide how involuntarily-paid taxes should be assessed and spent, will be undermined.


Of course, the country can also borrow money. That is what Barak has been suggesting. But the more Israel goes into debt, the more money it has to pay in interest. That means that, in the long term, there is even less money available for spending on important projects. But worse still, at a certain point, if the country goes into too much debt, the interest rate goes up too—as has recently happened in Spain and Greece. In other words, procrastination costs money, lots of money.


But that’s not all. The delay in the submission of the budget also means a delay in the implementation of several critical economic laws. Among the most important is the law that is supposed to restrict the centralization of the Israeli economy by oligarchs and their pyramid holding companies. This has led, among other things, to horrendous inefficiencies in the economy and some outrageous price rises. Then there is the law, based on the so-called Kedmi report, that is supposed to cut food prices by increasing competition. It was just passed by the cabinet, but, while its passage is intended to make it useful for campaign fodder by the Likud, it was so watered down that its real impact on prices will be minimal.


A survey conducted by the Haaretz business supplement, The Marker, conducted the day after Simchat Torah was over, showed that, overnight, food prices had risen by 24 percent in local supermarkets. Worse still, he major food manufacturers have announced that more price rises are expected, beginning November 1.


As I mentioned earlier, according to economists, the election campaign will cost the economy 1.2-1.5 billion shekels. But that’s without the costs that will be incurred by the public by the ongoing delay in passing all the major economic reform bills that are awaiting approval.


Another no less important cost to the public is the one that will arise immediately after the elections are over. The Haredi parties forced the country into early elections because they opposed spending cuts. But does anyone in his or her right mind think that when the coalition negotiations get underway that these same parties won’t try to use the leverage they are given by these time-limited negotiations not only to try to prevent the necessary spending cuts, but, in fact to raise spending for their favourite projects?


So, why did Bibi call for elections now? There are plenty of reasons, especially if you have a penchant for conspiracy theories. But the main ones appear to be:


  • The centre and centre-left parties are in disarray, even though they have had months to prepare for this moment. They have no common agenda, no common platform, no announced common budget priorities, and no leader who can unite them.


Among other things, Labour, even though it has recently gained substantially in the polls, still cannot present itself to the public as an alternative to the Likud because no one among its current leaders has a background in the critical fields of defence and foreign relations. Labour has attracted a couple of successful soldiers, Maj. General Uri Saguy and Col. Omer Bar Lev to its ranks. But a couple of soldiers is not enough to make up a defence and foreign policy team. As Ariel Sharon and Yitzchak Rabin showed, it can take years for successful generals, who have been socialized into a rigid hierarchical system, to make the transition to messy politics where everybody has a say and can even hire experts in the form of lobbyists to apply pressure to have their will implemented.


Moreover, Labour leader Shelly Yacimovich has not even served a single term a minister, so we have no idea what she would be like as an administrator.


Kadima is in an even greater mess. Its functionaries and vote contractors managed to get Shaul Mofaz elected as the party leader. But that’s not who Kadima’s voters wanted, and so they have been deserting the party in droves.


In desperation, the party’s hacks put in an almost frantic effort to get Ehud Olmert to lead it again—even though he is a felon, who has been convicted of four counts of breach of the public’s trust and faces a trial about the Holyland affair that could take years to move through the courts. His need to appear frequently in court would mean that he would be a part-time prime minister at best.


For a party that has long promised to reform the political system, the very idea that Olmert should be brought back to lead the country is one of the best examples I have ever seen of political cynicism.


And, of course, this year’s new political pop star, Yair Lapid, has no experience at all in government.


In other words, while the three previous elections he participated in as a candidate for prime minister degenerated into two camps—Bibi or anyone but Bibi—this election can be framed as Bibi…or, well, um, there is no one but Bibi.


Netanyahu’s Haredi allies have also been having their share of problems. Shas is still divided on what to do about Arieh Deri after the elections are over; and the Degel Hatorah faction of Agudat Yisrael is in the midst of a bitter succession battle in the wake of the recent death of it previous undisputed leader, Rabbi Shalom Eliashiv.


  • The opposition parties have claimed that they can and should replace Netanyahu. But they are offering no alternative to Bibi. Since ideologically-based parties died in the late 1970s, politics in this country have degenerated into personality contests. One result of this phenomenon has been that all the parties that try to portray themselves as alternatives to the Likud, have been rent by personality squabbles. Those disputes almost destroyed Labour, and are the reason why every so-called “centrist party,” beginning with DASH in the 1970s, has collapsed. It is a historic fact that when the charismatic or erstwhile charismatic leaders fail to do what they claim they will do, and there are no ideas and visions to rally around, the party collapses.


To her credit, Yacimovich has managed to breathe new life into Labour by giving it at least a few social dogmas to act as her party’s political glue.


  • The Iranians have gifted Netanyahu with an out that even he could not have dreamed of. Bibi had been keeping everyone on tenterhooks on whether Israel would attack Iran soon. It had become clear by September that a possible attack on Iran, with or without American backing, with or without the support of most of the country’s past and present security officials, with or without a majority in the cabinet, and before or after the US election campaign, would become a central election issue.


But then, just days before he was scheduled to appear before the UN General Assembly, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been charged with monitoring the progress of Iran’s nuclear  programme, came out with it quarterly report.


One small section of that report, which was barely mentioned in the press at the time, was a godsend to Netanyahu. It noted that while the Iranians had been progressing quickly with their efforts to produce uranium with 20 percent purification, 60 kilograms of that uranium had been crushed to a powder that could only be used in Iran’s small nuclear medicine reactor.


That then meant that, after demanding that the US and Europe set red lines past which yhey would not allow Iran to go in creating nuclear weapons, but deliberately avoiding drawing a red line for Israel, Netanyahu could announce that he had decided to draw that line at the point where Iran would have enough uranium processed to 20 percent purification to make one bomb—sometime in June or July. The Iranians are unlikely to keep crushing more purified uranium into a powder because they have already produced enough to feed their medical reactor for 6 years. But the delay in reaching Netanyahu’s red line means that Netanyahu should be able to get through both the elections and the coalition negotiations without having to make good on the threats he has been issuing. In other words, like so many other issues, Iran too could wait.


But all this does not mean that Bibi is going to have easy sailing. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that for political junkies, geeks and nerds like myself this could turn out to be one of the most deliciously complex and even historic election campaigns in the country’s history.


Let’s begin with the Likud itself. The settlers and their supporters have been signing up for membership in the Likud in droves, and these new members are determined to shift the party to the right. Moreover, the leader of the party’s ultra-nationalist faction, Moshe Feiglin, has now announced that he will run in the primaries for a realistic place on the party slate. One of the main reasons why Bibi decided to delay calling elections in May was that he feared that he would lose control not only of the primaries, but also of the party platform when the party’s convention was held. If that does happen now, he might lose the support of at least some of the party’s moderate voters to one of the centrist parties. Political insiders believe that Likud moderates are worth about 5 Knesset seats.


Although the campaign has just begun, one thing has already become apparent—at least to me. The politicians want to fight this campaign the same way that they always have. It is already obvious that Bibi will try to fight the campaign, as is usual for the party in power, on security issues, because this diverts attention away from pressing domestic issues. On the other hand, Labour has announced that it will do battle by focusing on social issues. As is their wont, the centrist parties seem to want to be all things to all secular people.


A major factor that will determine who will gain from such an asymmetric race is whether those who have abstained from voting recently will choose to make their way to the ballot box this time. In the ten years between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of eligible voters who actually cast ballots fell from 75.5 percent to 62.5 percent. Those abstainers now have it within their power to elect as many as 20 Knesset members. Most of the abstainers are believed to be centrist or left of centre voters. Nobody, though, seems to have clue whether they will be influenced by last summer’s consumer revolt to turn out to vote this time.


Not only that, only 52 percent of Israeli Arabs voted last time. If for some reason, they do vote in greater numbers this time, that could enable the anti-Bibi camp to create what is called in Israeli political parlance, a “blocking coalition.” A blocking coalition is one which, while it cannot agree among its own members who should lead the country or what its agenda should be, is large enough to prevent the other bloc from forming a coalition too. By the way, the Likud-led bloc also has it within its power to create a blocking coalition in opposition to the centrists and the left.


And that means that Shas may end up with unprecedented power because it is the only party that will have the ability to break the impasse if the balloting produces a political deadlock.


Another no less important “unknown” is how the public will respond to the challenge laid down in September by the Israeli courts. When the Jerusalem District Court chose not to decide whether to add the punishment of declaring that Ehud Olmert was guilty of moral turpitude after he had been found guilty of breach of trust, it threw the entire issue of national political norms into the public domain. The court was effectively telling all the civil rights and good government types “you keep appealing to us, the courts, about the government’s behaviour. Now it’s your turn, the turn of the public, to decide what those norms should be because you are the sovereign and you too have been guilty of work avoidance.”


And while many berated the court for its decision, it did highlight one of the most noteworthy things about the Israeli political system: There are too few publicly-accepted rules on how politicians here should behave. One of the reasons for this is that the Knesset has resolutely refused to pass a new code of ethics for its members.


This situation is not unique to Israel, of course.


But in most other democratic countries where politicians are inherently distrusted, a constitution is imposed. And in countries where there is no constitution, such as Britain, well-established norms nonetheless do guide politicians’ behaviour. For example, in Britain, if you’re even under suspicion that you have done something that isn’t right, you are expected to resign, if only because “it’s (whatever the “it” may be) is just not done.” But Israel has neither a constitution nor such norms. In Israel, even if a Knesset member has been served with a criminal indictment, he or she can continue to draw a salary and perks until the trial is over and he or she is found guilty.


For decades, proponents of good government in Israel have been appealing to the Supreme Court when the country’s politicians have refused to deal with issues of political malfeasance. But since the courts can only rule on those cases brought to them for adjudication, this has led to a crazy-quilt of precedents that have left gaping holes in how politicians are expected to behave.


That is why, for example, Ehud Olmert, if he were elected to the Knesset, would be allowed, at present, to serve as a Knesset member, and even as the prime minister. But he would not be allowed to be a minister in the cabinet, because there is a Supreme Court ruling forbidding those who have been indicted for a crime from serving as a minister. Even stranger, if Olmert were chosen to be prime minister, then, because the prosecution has decided to appeal the lower court decision, it is entirely possible that he could take office, only to be ordered out of office the next day by the next Supreme Court decision.


You should remember that this time round, not only did the court rule that it was the task of the public to decide whether two convicted felons, Olmert and Shas’s Arieh Deri should once again be entrusted with the public’s welfare, neither man has ever even expressed remorse for his actions.


Because of this order Deri is even more of a special case than Olmert. He was convicted of fraud, bribery and breach of trust…and moral turpitude. He served his time in prison. And he has waited the required 7 years after being released from prison before reentering politics. In other words, he has done everything that is legally required of him. But is he therefore worthy, in the public’s eyes, of being given a position of trust again?


The fact that Shas leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, chose to include Deri in the Shas Knesset slate is yet another example of the fact that while all the religious parties want to impose Halacha on this country, they do not seem to believe that morality and ethics should be a fundamental influence on their religious legal rulings, or on the behaviour of their political representatives. Another example, by the way, has been the refusal of most of the National Religious Zionist rabbis to condemn the plague of attacks by the so-called “hilltop youth” on innocent Palestinians.




I have been living in this country now for 45 years, but I can’t remember an election campaign before this one that has, in effect, forced Israelis to confront questions of public values such as these. In effect, Israeli voters this time are being asked not only to elect their representatives, but to sculpt their own self-image. Put another way, Israelis are being charged with deciding what values they have in common, what their priorities are, and how the country should cope with what is obviously a broken political system.


In this sense, this Israeli election is not dissimilar from the recent elections in Egypt. This time, the balloting here, as in Egypt, may not just be about policies and personalities. It may very well be a historic moment in the development of Israeli democracy, when the public will be given a choice whether to vote tribally, as they have in the past, or to put the long-term needs of the country ahead of sectoral demands.


For that reason, another thing to watch is the so-called Mizrahi vote. About 40 percent of the Likud’s total vote comes from Mizrahim, te Jews of Asian and African origin. But in the last cabinet, in line with past Likud-led cabinets, only 2 of the 15 Likud ministers were Mizrahim. It is possible that those Mizrahim living in the development towns, which get less government funding than the settlements, and in those urban areas in dire need of public housing, may revolt. A not unlikely scenario is that they may, as they did I the 1990s, choose to vote for Arieh Deri and Shas instead of the Likud. The latest polls we have seen show that with Deri running, Shas is likely to pick up 2-4 seats—all of them from the Likud, and almost all of them from development towns and slum areas in the major cities.


Now, if you total up all these numbers, it is not implausible that, just as in the previous election, the so-called “nationalist bloc,” made up of Lieberman, the Likud and the religious parties, may get a majority of the votes, but the Likud may not gain a plurality.


According to the current polls, the Likud will get fewer than 30 Knesset seats. But if Shas takes 2 seats from the Likud, and Lieberman takes 2 more seats, and Lapid takes 2 more seats from the Likud, it is not implausible that Labour could end in a dead heat with the Likud.


As I said earlier, the run-up to this round of balloting is deliciously complex.


And to top it all off, there is another, external factor that may complicate things further. During the American election campaign, Bibi made no secret of his preference for Romney. That show of support could now backfire on him.


Obama was obviously displeased with Netanyahu’s open show of partisanship. If Obama is reelected, he could very well decide to extract his own revenge. Among other things, he could raise the issue of the peace process while the Israeli election campaign is still underway.


And even if he is defeated, he nonetheless has until two days day before the elections here (when the new US president will be sworn in) to make his opinion of Netanyahu known.


Obama certainly has plenty of fertile ground for such an exercise.


There are a number of political activists here, especially on the left, who do want to make the question of whether Israel will become an apartheid state a central issue in the campaign. This could give Obama a particularly good opening, especially since the finance ministry here has recently released updated data that shows that the Palestinians are now in a majority in the area between the sea and the Jordan River. The data indicates that, officially, there are now 12 million people living between the sea and the river, and only 5.9 million of those people are Jews.


These figures have been rejected by a group of extreme neo-nationalists led by Yoram Ettinger. But I have checked the numbers, and the situation is even worse than that described by the finance ministry. Ettinger claims that, because of the resistance of the Haredi parties to the mass conversion of Russian immigrants, 300,000 official Israeli citizens are not registered as Jews.


But when doing a full calculation, you also have to add in the 250,000 foreign workers who live here legally and illegally, the 100,000 people who came here as tourists but never left, and the more than 60,000 infiltrators who have arrived from Africa via the Sinai—none of whom are included in the statistical tallies. They may not have the right to vote, but they certainly do have the ability to influence government policies—and the ability of the country to provide vital services, such as caring for the elderly during wartime.


If he wished to do so, Obama could influence Israeli voting patterns, not by actually coming out in support of centrist or leftist candidates, but by frightening the far-right that the settlement issue could once again come to the forefront in the election campaign.


If this does happen, these voters have the option of voting for the reunited National Religious Party or, as I said, for Lieberman. Lieberman is actively courting the secular far-right voters because he realizes that he has effectively reached the limit in the number of voters of eastern European origin whom he can attract. And, if as now appears likely, Naftali Bennet, the young darling of the settlers, wins the leadership race for the NRP, he will definitely be an extremely attractive choice for the religious members of the Likud. Both could thus cut into Bibi’s pool of voters.


Within the next few days, Bibi is going to have to choose whether to court his far-right voters or the more moderate factions within the party. At the moment, it appears as though he will make his decision based, based not so much on ideology as on which group will provide him with the most floating votes.


On the one hand, if he appeals to the extreme neo-nationalists, he may lose more moderate voters. But if he appeals to the centre, he could lose voters to other parties within his own bloc.


If that were to happen, it is very probable that a coalition between Shas and Lieberman could give those two parties effective control over cabinet decision-making, and Netanyahu, even if he becomes prime minister may end up as little more than a figurehead.


It is clear which way the Obama administration wants Netanyahu to tilt—and the Americans do have leverage. We have already been witness to the leak to Yediot Aharonot about the American-mediated attempt to begin peace talks with Syria two years ago—and the claim that Netanyahu was willing to withdraw from the Golan, in return for peace. In other words, the revelation implied that Bibi is more flexible on  settlement policy than he lets on; and so he might actually be willing to withdraw from more of the West Bank than he has admitted to in the past.


Netanyahu has vigorously denied the claim, but further revelations of this sort could, nonetheless influence Bibi’s ultra-nationalist voters to find another home.


But that’s not all. Obama could take another tack as well. He could offer Bibi a deal he can’t refuse. According to a very senior figure in the Democratic Party, Obama is contemplating a trade—a guarantee from the United States that it will attack Iran if the Iranians do not agree to a halt in atomic weapons development, in return for a guarantee from Netanyahu that he will renew of the talks with the Palestinians. Again, even if this is merely a trial balloon and there is no actual basis for such a deal, a leak to the Israeli press that such an agreement is even being contemplated, could have a significant impact on the elections in Israel.


If you look closely, you can see that the Obama administration has already set the stage for such a trade. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s speech earlier this month firmly emplaced the Iranians as a security threat to the United States—a justification for going to war—because of the Iranians’ attempts at cyberwarfare against American banks and the Saudi national oil company, Aramco.


As well, we have also seen the leak to the New York Times that a White House official has said that the US is contemplating secret one-on-one talks with the Iranians. Both the US administration and the Iranians have denied that they have agreed to such talks. But, whatever you may think of the Times, it is very careful about issues like attribution. So if it says that a White House official said those things, the Times report is likely to be true.


If, then, what we have been witness to in the month of October, it is very possible that for the rest of the Israeli election campaign, Israelis may be bombarded by trial balloons of unknown origin.


And if that happens, it is very possible that instead of clarifying issues of great importance to this country, the election campaign may be decided not even by negative campaigning, as is too often the case, but by something even worse: Who is most successful, through the use of selective leaks, and the hysterical responses they induce, in spooking voters to cast their ballots based on emotions. In other words, this campaign may be most affected by who can foster work avoidance at its worst.