Tuesday, September 17, 2013

'Realism' for fantasists: one state, two states, and Palestine

We keep hearing that a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict is 'dead' or 'an illusion'. The way forward, we're told, leads to a single state in Palestine. This line was featured in a New York Times op-ed by Ian S. Lustick.   It had already gained sanctity from the endorsement of Tony Judt and some expatriate Palestinian academics.  If only the Palestinians who must live in the occupied territories had the luxury of immersing themselves in such fantasies!

There is a tiny grain of truth in the 'one-state' blather.  Negotiations for an independent Palestinian state won't go anywhere in the foreseeable future.  This lends initial plausibility to the idea that 'the two-state solution' is dead.  But this appearance of plausibility rests on a non-sequitur.  Negotiations, successful or unsuccessful, are of course not a 'solution', nor does anyone think that.  The 'solution'  referred to is an independent Palestinian state.  But the emergence of such a state does not require negotiation; it only requires Israeli withdrawal.  So it does not follow that the failure of negotiations excludes the emergence of independent Palestinian state.  So it does not follow that the failure of negotiations means the failure of 'the two-state solution'.

The one-staters' sophistry finds company in the bogus 'alternatives' they offer.  These resurrect, in one form or another, the tired idea of a binational state.  Binationalism went nowhere in the 1930s and is far, far less plausible today.

Are Israelis meant to have some incentive to destroy their current state and embrace binationalism?  One 'reason' offered is that Israel is in some portentous, usually cultural sense, 'doomed'.  Why anyone other than a terminally idealistic Zionist or obsessive philo-semite should give a shit whether Israel is doomed in this sense is beyond me.  Israel is about as un-doomed as a country can be.  Far from being an American client, as Chomsky robotically insists, it is one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Israel is all but invulnerable militarily.  It has a large and sophisticated nuclear arsenal which, via missiles and submarines, it can deliver destruction anywhere in the world.  It has an extensive satellite network to direct its operations.  It is not only an exporter but an innovative developer of conventional weaponry, from the world's most advanced tank-protection systems to the very latest in fighter electronics.  Many advanced US defence systems use Israeli components.  The Palestinians, in recent years, have proven incapable of presenting the slightest challenge to Israeli security.  Hizbollah, its greatest enemy, is now preoccupied elsewhere, after which it will be in no shape to make Israel do anything at all.  Whatever the future of Syria, the idea that it will continue to be a source of sophisticated weaponry for Hizbollah ia a non-starter.   Israel has already shown in two air strikes on Damascus that it will not tolerate transfers of such equipment, and - now that the EU has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization - it will have plenty of international support for that objective.  Besides, the Syrian conflict has driven a wedge between Hezbollah and Hamas, its closest ally in Palestine.

Israel's military strength comes with an ace in the hole against economic sanctions.  The world, including Middle Eastern countries, India and China, thirsts for Israeli defense exports, which hardly makes sanctions likely.  But that is not the whole picture.  For years, Israel has held back its most advanced and potentially lucrative products.  Any serious attempt to constrain Israel economically would result in the end of this restraint.  This wouldn't just be a gold mine; it would also constitute the most serious proliferation threat.  Any real economic assault on Israel would therefore be ineffective - and unthinkable.  The boycott movement has scored some successes and makes some sense, because it pressures Israel directly instead of trying to influence feckless Western governments.  But such grass-roots boycotts have never wrought change on their own, and there is no reason to suppose this one will be any different.

Israel is also, for similar reasons, strong politically.  True, it  has essentially lost the battle for world opinion.  Even the US executive branch is fed up with Israel, and Europe has seen Israel's true colours for some time now.  But this doesn't matter in the least because, for the reasons given above, none of these countries poses the slightest threat to Israel nor has any inclination of put serious pressure on Israel.  That is why Israel treats the world with contempt.  It can afford to.

So much for external pressure.  What then of the internal pressures that allegedly kill the two-state solution?

There is the 'demographic bomb';  Palestinians will eventually outnumber Jews in Israel.  It is a miracle of wishful thinking to suppose that this makes a 'one-state' solution anything but less likely.  Jews run Israel and they want to keep it that way.  If the bomb ever explodes, they can avoid its damage.  They can  institute a two-state solution in which the West Bank settlers come to Israel and large numbers of Palestinians are persuaded or 'persuaded' to move to Palestine.  Israel is entirely capable of this response.  One might add that many Israeli Palestinians seem pretty comfortable in the Jewish state and certainly prefer it to a miserable life in the West Bank or, heaven forbid, Gaza.  They don't pose a huge threat.

As for the Jews in Israel, of course there is no support whatever for a one-state solution:  this is  plain fact.  But the Jews control the state.  So there will be no one-state solution unless Jewish support grows exponentially.  But there is no reason for that to happen.  As we've seen, there's no appreciable external threat nor prospect of appreciable external pressure.  Internally, there are some economic problems, but this again is a case for a two-state rather than a one-state solution, because it is expensive and inefficient to maintain and defend hundreds of thousands of spoilt-brat settlers in the West Bank.  Certainly creating a new nation with millions of impoverished Palestinians demanding their rights will never be seen as some sort of economic incentive for a single-state.  As for the idea that such a state has become more likely because Israel is in cultural decline, or has lost its democratic or Zionist vision, that's just infantile.  It is precisely this decline or loss of vision that renders ridiculous the notion that Israelis will abolish their state in a quest for spiritual redemption.  Israeli's don;'t want to be redeemed; that's what the decline is all about.

What Israeli Jews do want, in a big way, is Israel.  Their idea of Israel is inseparable from the reality of Israel- that it is in its structure, purpose and foundations, a Jewish state.  For Israelis, to give up the Jewish state would be to give up Israel:  they have made this more than clear.  So one-staters must commit to the idea that although Israelis don't want to give up the occupied territories, half of what they have, they will give up Israel, all of what they have.  This is madness.

Some suppose that it is now 'impossible' for Israel to give up the occupied territories, because the West Bank settlers are too deeply entrenched.  Nothing supports this nonsense.  The same could have been said  of Gaza, where the settlers after some tough talk and a lot more breast-beating, left like sheep.  In Algeria, settlers were much more deeply entrenched, for far longer, than are the Jews in the West Bank:  they left.  In sub-Saharan Africa, settlers, vowing to fight to the death, have either left or submitted to the rule of the formerly colonized.  The day after Israel withdraws its forces from the occupied territories, the same scenario will play itself out.   This is so obvious one questions the good faith of those who peddle one-state solutions.  After all, the salient feature of these 'solutions' is that they leave the settlers in place,  threatened by at most the vague prospect that someone will eventually get specific about their fate.  How convenient.

In the face of all this, some contrive to dream that somehow, somehow, a single state of peace and love can prevail in Palestine.  They think of South Africa.  The apartheid rĂ©gime in South Africa did not fall because Nelson Mandela filled the land with his spirit.  International pressure played a small part.  A much larger part was Boer fear, after some reverses to Cuban troops in Angola, that the military balance with its neighbours would eventually tilt against South Africa.  The largest part of all was Boer inability to control raging internal violence, both against whites and between Zulus and Xhosa.  Moreover South Africa is a much larger, richer country with plenty of land for all, and most of its non-white population - who vastly outnumber the whites - hasn't been there for thousands of years.  The comparisons with South Africa are valueless.  More appropriate would be a comparison with Lebanon, another small state with antagonistic populations of similar size and a history of armed conflict.  The comparison, drenched with Palestinian blood, is hardly encouraging.   Why would anyone believe that forcing deeply antagonistic populations to coexist within a single state is a recipe for removing the antagonism?

Behind the invocation of South Africa is a blind,  dogmatic sort of faith in non-violence, and a misunderstanding of its very modest achievements.  Neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King offer useful tactical lessons to the Palestinians.  If Gandhi played a role in Indian independence, he played a role in ushering in one of the greatest slaughters of modern times, and indeed it was the first stirrings of this slaughter that did much to convince the British it was time to leave.  Martin Luther King achieved much, but only with the armed and active support of the federal government.  Nothing comparable applies to Palestine.

Incredibly, Lustick also offers up Algeria as some sort of lesson in resistance for the Palestinian - as if they had anything like the Algerians' resources.   Though the French did contain the Algerian revolt, the Algerian revolutionaries retained large forces supported by much of the Arab world on Algeria's borders.  Unlike Israel, France was exhausted by the conflict and  no one thought the fight was over.  Unlike Israel, France was torn apart by the most ferocious opposition to the war: in February 1962, Parisians in their hundreds of thousands turned out to bury nine anti-war demonstrators killed by police .  Moreover the French left Algeria in largely because the settlers mounted a military-supported terrorist campaign that had real prospects of toppling the French government in a coup such as nearly succeeded in 1958.   Finally, though Algeria was officially part of France, not one person considered it the French homeland.  Palestinians face far more commitment, unity, and indeed raw power, with far less.

Lustick suggests that eventually a Palestinian state could eventually emerge from a single state as did Ireland from the UK.  Why, you might ask, does he prefer that to having two states without a one-state interval?  apparently because the Irish process was 'organic' as opposed to negotiated by diplomats.(*)  'Organic' in this case seems to mean 'involving centuries of misery and bloody conflict'. Lustick has the long-distance courage to see a slaughter of Palestinians in the occupied territories as progress. He thinks that if negotiations stopped and the PLO collapsed, Israel would have trouble controlling the bloody chaos that ensued, and this would bring an end to US unconditional support for Israel.   But Israel doesn't need unconditional US support, and the idea that America will stand up to bloody repression is truly comical in the midst of the Syrian catastrophe.   However it's nice to see that   And why?  Because Israel will be 'stigmatized'!  Yeah, that'll teach 'em!

No doubt a two-state solution is very unlikely.  The best hope would be that resurgent Arab and Turkish power convinced Israel its occupied territories were more trouble than they were worth.   But if the two-state solution is unlikely, a one-state solution is unlikelier still.  If the Israelis are under little pressure to withdraw from the occupied territories, this will hardly encourage them to give up control of Israel itself.  That some seem to suppose otherwise is only a testimony to rampant self-delusion.


*  Israel's  un-negotiated withdrawals - total from Lebanon, partial from Gaza - don't seem to have made it into Lustick's consciousness.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A dozen bad reasons for staying out of Syria

We hear that the situation in Syria is 'complex'.   Perhaps complexity, not patriotism, is the last refuge of a scoundrel.  Health and education are complex; does that mean we shouldn't get involved with them?   Can't complex situations contain problems which have simple solutions?   No doubt the reasons a child is being tortured by his parents may be very complex:  that complexity does little to complicate or obscure the response.   The same may hold for a child being tortured by Assad.

This survey of bad reasons tries to make 'the problem', or at least the solution, seem a little less complex.  Here's hoping it succeeds.

"It's all for show.  It won't be effective."

This is unfounded.  Any strike at all proves US willingness to strike.  This gives Assad much more reason to expect future US actions than he had before.  So even a cosmetic strike has deterrent power.

"No US interests are at stake."

It's true that no direct interests are at stake.   The US has less and less need for Middle East oil, and in any case the Gulf States' oil is not in danger.   But the US has vital interests stemming from its pronouncements, alliances and commitments in the region.   Very simply, it frequently approves and disapproves of goings on there.  But even in the recent past, it attempts to enforce its wishes have basically failed.  Iraq was a humiliation and Afghanistan is another, in progress.  So already the US was perceived as ineffectual.   Now its long-standing 'outrage' against Assad and its utter inability to give that outrage some substance has made it a laughing-stock.   This has to be very dangerous.  It essentially says you can do what you like without regard to the US and get away with it, not only in the region but in the world.

You might conceivably argue that the US would have had no vital interests if it had shut up about Syria, but even that is implausible.

Whatever the real strategic importance of US influence in the Mediterranean, the US has always assigned that region great importance.  This means the US has to be interested in what's going on in Syria.   To have that interest and lack any ability to assert it is, again, dangerous, because, again, it shows weakness.

"Congress must approve going to war."

Yes, but there is no conceivable way to construe any of the proposed attacks as a war.   Against such a weak opponent, they can't even be considered likely to cause a war.   Even if they could, nothing says that the Executive can't pursue a course of action that might lead to war.   Maybe this should be illegal, but it isn't.

Any claim to illegality therefore has to rest on the War Powers Resolution of 1973.   This does require Congressional authorization for what Obama has in mind.  However no president has accepted the constitutionality of the Resolution, some have violated it, and none of the violators have been sanctioned.  So the legalities are moot.

Most important, this 'reason' in no way implies that the US should stay out of Syria.  It simply implies that, if the US should get involved, Congress should approve, and if it shouldn't, Congress shouldn't.   It doesn't even address which of these alternatives is desirable.

"The strike would be illegal under international law."

Sometimes international law deserves respect.  The adjudicating bodies that resolve trade and boundary dispute have proven their worth and, for practical reasons, gained something a bit like real authority.   Here international law rests on a 'concert of nations'.  When addressing these less than life-and-death issues,  it's practical to suppose that, if the parties agree - that is, if the governments of the countries agree - that's good enough.

Unfortunately the 'concert of nations' approach becomes a bitter joke when there's slaughter within a single nation's boundaries.  If the UN's involved in such situations,  'international' often becomes 'at the good pleasure of murderous dictatorships'.    The UN started life by giving both Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek permanent Security Council veto power over all important matters.   The concert-of-nations approach perpetuates this sort of absurdity and is illegitimate twice over.

For one thing, if  the assent of 'nations' is supposed to confer legitimacy, it should really be the nations that do the assenting, not, for instance, tyrants who claim to represent a nation.   So the assenting governments would themselves have to be politically legitimate.   Political legitimacy is normally thought to obtain when the government rests on the consent of the governed.

Well of course we have no international institutions of any sort that can claim political legitimacy in this sense.   All these institutions are either the work of a few legitimate governments, leaving much of the world's population unrepresented, or of the often illegitimate governments of 'all nations'.   So it would be absurd to suppose that we have anything like authoritative international institutions for matters that go beyond trade and boundary disputes.

That isn't all.  On matters of life and death, political legitimacy wouldn't really be enough.   Even if a concert of legitimate 'nations' agreed to outlaw mass slaughter, the details of adjudication and enforcement would depend on the consent of these nations.  And the peoples of these nations may ignore or consent to atrocities as they please.   The interests of populations themselves can clash dramatically, even on matters of life and death.  Western nations, for instance, might and do establish 'international' institutions that reflect their own interests, with possibly fatal consequences for others.  So the idea that conventions dependent on states accountable only to their own populations are somehow legitimate the world over is absurd.

But even if current international institutions had some form of popular legitimacy, and even if popular legitimacy was considered adequate authority, these institutions couldn't be considered authoritative in any practical sense.   International law has no settled method of enforcement or adjudication outside the more commercial side of things.   War crimes tribunals, for instance, pretty much make up rules of evidence and procedure as they go along.   Judges are unaccountable; no authority reviews their conduct.  Standards of evidence rest on sheer caprice.   The offences are identified in vague documents never subject to serious interpretation, much less refinement through case law.   How such institutions are supposed capable of conferring legitimacy on anything having to do with catastrophic horror is a complete mystery.

Some would object that international institutions, though imperfect, are the best we have, and must be respected if we are to get anything better.  But one could just as well say they must be disrespected - not accepted - if we are to get anything better.  It's not clear what wars or genocides 'the international community' has ever stopped or prevented.   They've been stopped due to the unilateral actions of single nations, like Vietnam in Cambodia, or France in Rwanda.   International institutions have done little more than count the bodies and conduct generally inconclusive trials of a comically tiny proportion of the offenders.   Fans of existing international institutions should explain why respect for them should prevail over preventing the murder of many tens of thousands of innocent people.

"We shouldn't attack a sovereign nation."

Sure we should, sometimes - the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was 'naked aggression'.   Besides, this allegedly sacred principle doesn't apply in Syria, any more than it did in Libya.

When the government has lost territorial control - not episodically, but for over two years - it has become a mere party in a civil conflict, not a genuine government.   An attack on that party is not an attack on a nation, or even the government of a nation.  Of course this has to be considered when it's said than such an attack 'violates international law' or constitutes 'aggression'.

Legalities aside, even an attack on a sovereign government shouldn't be  considered an attack on the nation unless the government represents the nation.  Attacking me isn't an attack on my country just because I claim to represent my country; I must really be their representative.  Of course lots of governments don't, and Assad's, if considered sovereign, would be one of them.

"It will only make things worse."

This is insidious because the truth is no one knows the ultimate effects of any sort of intervention.  It gets plausibility from imagining all sorts of terrible but possible outcomes.   But if you imagine such outcomes, rationality also commands that you imagine no less probable good outcomes

Maybe Assad is on the verge of collapse, and his fall will be followed by the establishment of a democratic state, with minimal strife.   Maybe there will be strife, but neighboring and Western powers will easily find allies in Syria and contain it.  Maybe the 'Al Qaeda' Islamists will dissolve because much of their membership simply joined up to fight Assad, and the rest fritter away their strength in infighting.  Maybe a successful revolution in Syria will re-kindle the 'Arab Spring' and re-invigorate the whole region.   Or maybe not, but these are no less plausible outcomes than the doom-and-gloom scenarios, some of which will be examined below.

It's also worth asking just what is meant by 'making things worse'.   If the US delivers substantial support to the Free Syrian Army, OF COURSE things will get worse, because they will win, and before they win the fighting will intensify.  After that it will get much much better, because the fighting will end.  As for sectarian warfare, see below, on Islamists.

"Look at the US track record on intervention."

"The US" is an abstraction - the objection is an abstract way of saying that past administrations have done badly on intervention.  That's not very compelling:  there is no reason to expect an intervention conducted by a moderately intelligent coward to go the same way as one conducted by a dim-witted John Wayne wannabe.  Besides, if you're going to arm-wave in the general direction of 'history', you should pay some mind to changing circumstances.  It's not just that the US isn't very concerned about energy security any more.   It's also that Israel no longer needs US support; that the Red Menace has vanished; and that the US is no longer sees itself in a life-and-death struggle against 'terror'.  The country and its circumstances have changed. A track record doesn't mean much if both the runners and the track have changed.

"It's a quagmire"  or "we'll be sucked in to an open-ended conflict".

Again, how is this supposed to work?   The US has never been 'sucked in' to anything; it has freely decided to get more and more involved.  What exactly would prevent the US from packing up and going home when it pleased?   In the past, it's been presidential hubris.   However the current president has done nothing but (a) get out of quagmires, in Afghanistan and Iraq and (b) not get into them, as in Libya.   So this worry is the product of an evidence-free perspective.

Sometimes we're told how terrible it is that the US doesn't 'have a plan' for Syria.   Because Syria's future is so uncertain, you can't expect much of a plan - as is often the case in war, plans need to be revised in the light of changing circumstances.  But this is part of the reason that fears of a quagmire are exaggerated.   Part of the reason the US got stuck in Vietnam and later, Afghanistan, is because it did have plans with clear objectives - to prevent the domino effect, to build a democratic nation - and the plans were too rigid.   The 'no-plan' complaints suggest that this mistake isn't likely to be repeated.

"This will empower Islamists."

When Western anti-intervention types say this, it's much less persuasive than it looks. Syrian revolutionaries understandably fear this prospect, because they believe it to be terrible for Syrians.   But of course Western anti-interventionists don't give too much of a shit about Syrians, which is why they oppose intervention.   But for non-Syrians, empowering Islamists in Syria is not much of a problem at all.

Syrian Islamists may harm Syrians, but they are no danger to others.  Before the defeat of Assad, they couldn't possibly do much elsewhere.   But after the defeat of Assad, assuming that happens, pretty much every country in the world, from Turkey and Jordan and Israel and Iraq to Russia and China and Iran and the Western powers, will be dead set on eliminating or containing the Syrian Islamists.  The idea that the Islamists would overcome all this opposition is a non-starter.

"Assad will react."

Really?  Like he reacted to two powerful Israeli air strikes?

"We should seek a political solution."

This doesn't deserve refutation, but it carries dishonesty to the point of sadism.   Perhaps if you have a psychopath who's taken over a school and has already shot, singly and in groups, 200 of 1000 children, what's required is more negotiation.   But it's even worse than that, because Assad isn't just a mass murderer.   He has also shown himself completely immune to keeping promises or agreements of any sort.   In two and a half years, he and his allies have shown nothing but contempt for any 'solution'.   What's stunning here is not just the persistence of this patent nonsense in the face of extensive experience.   It's also the repulsive sense of leisure that informs its every utterance.   (After two and a half years, we still hear concerns about 'rushing in'.)  These negotiation-lovers might not be so laid back were the murder and torture closer to home.

"We should focus on the humanitarian crisis, not on making war."

There is indeed a terrible humanitarian crisis and yes, it is vitally important to help the refugees.  But this is the most cynical of maneuvers.  If your heart really bleeds for the refugees, get rid of Assad, so they can all can go home.   It's not as if you can't aid the refugees and also topple Assad.