Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Death of the Israeli right

It was just over 5 years ago that commentators were saying that the Israeli left was dead, and that with the breakdown of the Camp David talks and the start of the intifada their position had proved untenable.

5 years since then it can be said with far greater confidence that the left is not dead (although signficantly weakened) but that it is the right that is dead. Whilst at the sociological level, the Israeli electorate has overwhelmingly supported territorial concessions this has not be reflected at the political level. Following the disengagement and the formation of a centrist party Kadimah, the right has been exposed for what it has always been - intellectually bankrupt.

Now with the Likud team consisting of Netanyahu, Landau, Shalom and Feiglin, free of any moderates who have now left, the hollowness of Likud has been exposed for what it is. What does the Likud party now stand for? Certainly, settlement expansion. Certainly, aggressive and excessive responses against Palestinians or other Arab countries (ala Iran). And certainly not territoral comprome. Bibi - of course phrases things differently - he talks of terrorism, Hamastan, reciprocity, legitimate self-defence. When all said and done - Bibi wouldn't give a crumb to the Palestinians - whether they were Finns or terrorists. He simply does not at the emotional or intellectual level accept that a viable Palestinian state should exist next to Israel. In other words, he rejects the international concensus concerning the resolution of the Israel/Pal. conflict. Bibi, more then anyone else is simply incapable of negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians - anyone intimately familiar with the Hebron and Wye accords know the shananagan's that Bibi played during these negotiations. Clinton it is well known despises Bibi.

And this is why Likud and the extreme right are intellectually bankrupt. They simply have no solution to the Palestinian problem beyond force, more force or more force. The Likud's leading visionary Vladamir Jabotinsky developed the concept of the "Iron Wall", which unfortunatey is horribly misunderstood by the Likud. Whereas for them the "Iron Wall" suggests that Israel must always be strong and that a militaristic response is the only deterrant against the Palestinians, what Jabotinsky really meant by the "Iron Wall" is that yes initially Israel in order to be recognised by the Arab world must be strong and ready to defend herself but fighting is not an end itself. For Jabotinsky, once the Arab world has accepted Israel's existence (not to be confused with the Palestinians accepting Israel's moral and historical legitimacy which the Arabs unfortunately do not accept) then the "iron wall" has achieved its goal - stage 2 is to embark on a process of conciliation and dialogue with its neighbours.

Likud have no response to the demographic problem, to the problems posed by the occupation of the Palestinians, to Palestinian independence, to the threat continuing occupation poses to Israel's standing in the world. Their course is a dangerous one. It is for this reason that the electorate will be leaving them in droves. With a strong leader like Sharon out of the picture and with extremists such as Moshe Feiglin getting a significant share of the primary votes, the road to Likud becoming a small party is a short one. Ironcially, Likud may now win votes from the extreme right - National Union, NRP - since their basic viewpoints are now not much different to Likud (they just have a more religious feel to them).

Whilst the left has started to recover over the shock of the intifada 5 years ago, the right will never recover. Like the Herut of old, Likud is returning to its roots - small and irrelevant to the Israeli political scene.

Israeli elections: an update

So my predictions I made in an earlier blog are not entirely correct. You will recall I predicted that Bibi Netanyahu would win the Likud vote (correct), that Shinui and Shas would have reduced votes (correct), that Labour would recruit more new stars to their team (correct), that the NRP would merge with the National Union (not correct) but most importantly that Labour would win the elections (looks incorrect on current polls).

So what is the situation at the moment. Well it looks like Sharon's party Kadima is miles ahead getting in the vicinity of between 36 and 40 seats whilst Labour is getting between 21 and 24 seats and Likud 10 to 16 seats. Sharon's enormous lead is difficult to deplete. On the right Sharon is getting votes from those on the right of centre, who consider Sharon a "strong" leader but not on the extreme right ala Bibi Netanyahu. On the left of centre Sharon is getting votes since Sharon is seen as decisive and on a belief that only Sharon can carry out serious peace moves ala disengagement. Sharon seems to have an incredible pull over this large section of the electorate - which covers sephardim, russian, ashkenazim and religious. No other party has the ability to win such a cross-section of the electorate. Peretz whilst having a strong secular ashkenazi vote and a promising sephardi vote is particualry weak on the Russian vote.

At present its difficult to see how Sharon could lose. It seems as Uri Avnery describes that Sharon is the Pipe Piper from Hamlen, with the Israeli people following him to the cave. There is still, however, some chance he could lose. For one thing, Sharon's son Omri is being sentenced shortly and details concerning the Kern affair which effects Sharon himself may be disclosed shortly. There is also the issue of Sharon's health, and say for example Sharon were to have a further stroke this could have electoral repurcussions. In truth, however, it seems that regardless of how good Peretz performs, if Sharon doesn't make any mistakes or there is no scandals brewing in the winds, I can not see how Sharon can lose.

I for one think that Kadima, Sharon's party is a significant improvement then the current Likud government and should Kadima and Labour have over 60 seats in the Knesset yjru could form a unified bloc in the next Knesset sittings free from the normal wheelling and dealings that go on with small parties. Moreover, Sharon's party contains a number of moderates - Olmert, Livni, Peres, Ramon.

At the same time, I am not convinced that such a government is willing to make the necessary concessions and develop the necessary approach towards the Palestinians. I am very concerned that Sharon has promised Mofaz the defence ministry again. Mofaz is probably the most militant chief of staff the IDF has ever seen and he has been equally aggressive as defence minister. Similarly, the prospect of Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet taking a leading role in next government is of concern. Dichter more then anyone else recommended some of the more brutal measures against the Palestinians - it is was Dichter who always pushed for harsher responses against the Palestinians then that of the advice of the IDF.

Sharon himself is likely to make further withdrawal of territory from remote parts of the West Bank. I can not, however, see Sharon engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinians and I can see the usual pretexts regarding security and terrorism being mooted as reasons why there is no Palestinian partner and why diplomacy can not be advanced. I can not see Sharon compromsing on Jerusalem or agreeing to a partition that will satisfy Pal. demands.

For these reasons I still hope, despite the odds against him for a Peretz victory. Despite what Peretz has said recently, he is the only credible candidated who can make genuine attempts to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I have no doubt Peretz would negotaiate directly with Palestinians without the typical arrogance and patronising approach that has typified Israeli/Pal. negotiations in the last 12 months. Peretz would return to the maps of Taba in Jan. 2001 and despite what he is saying on Jerusalem would divide it on the Clinton formulation - whatever is jewish is under Israeli sovereignty, whatever is palestinian is under Palestinian sovereignty. This approach is the only paradigm for peace. There is simply no other -a piecemeal unilateral approach as Sharon will no doubt do is not the answer.

What's more I am confident that with people of the likes of Ami Ayalon, on the side of Peretz, things would be smoother then anticipated. Ayalon, a former Shin Beit as defence minister would be a perfect antidote to the aggressive style of Mofaz. The question is, is this possible. At present no - but 3 months is a long time in Israeli politics so you never know.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The right wing "meme"

The biologist Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene" coined the word "meme" describing a cultural phenomana for many perculiar enduring traits in societies. In the same way genes replicate through the process of random mutation and natural selection, Dawkins posited that certain cultural traits have certain qualities about them which ensures their survival, which he calls "memes". The fact that these traits are longstanding does not mean they are based on rational criteria. On the contrary, the distinguishing quality of a "meme" is that it is able to infect the minds of individuals despite it being irrational. A "meme" in a sense is a cultural virus, which despite the trait having little value at all manages to penetrates the cultures of various societies. Dawkins for example as an aestheist insists that religion is such a meme, which though despite its "non rational" qualities derives its popularity through fear, reward and punishment etc.

But what's an example of a modern day meme. I would suggest that the rise of the "right wing perspective" is such a meme poisoning the minds of people with utter rubbish. When I say "right wing" I am in particular focused on issues concerning social and foreign policy issues, as opposed to economic issues. When one looks at the last few years at various countries (most notably the US) we have seen a strengthening of the right wing. But what could account for the right wing position being so strong? Surely its not rationality sustaining their positions.

Rather, this meme is being sustained as other memes have been sustained by non-rational influences. The right wing position is nourished on fear and in times of instability, fear is a sure winner at election times. The right, which asserts aggressiveness over responsibility, rashness over caution, simplicity over complexity is a sure simple cure for people's insecurities.

Anyone who understands any conflict with depth understands that matters are never black and white, and require careful reflection and thought. The right wing perspective on the other hand view the world through simplistic glasses viewing reality ahistorically, conveniently positing a narrative that supports their position. Self-righteousness is seen as a virtue, self-criticism a weakness. For them the media, whose job is to monitor the centres of power and act as a watchdog against any abuses of power, is by definition biased. For the right, the media is not an avenue for honest reflection but is a portal for reflecting their position. Anything that does not conform with this vision (even if it is the truth) is biased.

The question arises how do responsible citizens rid society of this meme. This is a difficult question. Once in the minds of individuals the right wing meme may be difficult to remove. In some cases (notably Murdoch paper columnists) the condition may be incurable. But there's hope. Fundamentally, we are all thinking human beings and for the most part moral. The consequences of the "right wing meme" (such as the ongoing conflict in Iraq) are ever slowly registering in the minds of the citizens. Sooner or later, this meme will be weeded out with more intellectually robust and honest memes taking its place. For the moment, societies are stuck with it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A small earthquake rocks the Israeli poliltical landscape

Well - the next defect has arrived - Shimon Peres joining Sharon's party. Who would have thought just over 10 years ago whilst Sharon was screaming invective over Peres's Oslo accords that today they would be sitting in the same party with Peres insisting that only Arik Sharon can bring peace.

So what can explain Peres's dramatic change. There are several explanations:

1. Revenge - being a loser for so long having lost every election, it was time to take revenge on Labour and Amir Peretz.

2. Betting on a winner - this explanation assumes Peres feels that Kadima will win the election and wants an active role in it. Peres can't standing sitting on the side-lines; Peres has been in so many coalitions whilst in opposition to get a ministerial seat, so perhaps this is just a continuation of this tradition.

3. Friendship - Peres is 82, Sharon is 78. There's not may guys there age in politics (Sarid has indicated his resigning - he says he doesn't want to end up like Peres). Peres and Sharon despite their political difference have a warm friendship, although knowing Sharon he know doubt has a good laugh with his aides about Shimon behind his back.

4. Racism - Maybe Peres can not stand the fact that now a Morrocan Amir Peretz has taken over the quintessential Ashkenazi establishment - the labour Party. Peres's brother suggested this and some have thought that Peres's brother was simply reflecting what Shimon Peres thinks. With Arik, Shimon is with a fellow establishment Ashkenazi. Remember, Sharon when all said and done is a prodigy of Ben-Gurion not Jabotinsky.

I would like to suggest a fifth explanation, a more cynical one then the one's above. If there ever was someone in Israeli politics who is perceived as a dove it is Peres. So how could Peres go to Sharon's party. Does he think Sharon will make significant progress beyond the disengagement? Sharon has said there will be no further unilateral withdrawals and says the Road Map is the way forward (which ironically says that a Pal. state is meant to be established in 2005 - one month to go). Sharon has so far not engaged in any serious discussions with Abu Mazen, the gaza crossing points were resolved after tortorously long negotiations with pressure from Rice and Woofellson. At the same time the illegal outposts have not been taken down despite the fact that Sassoon's report was produced months ago. Settlements continue to grow and the fence is slowly encircling Jerusalem.

Does Shimon really think that Arik can bring peace better then the Labour party under Peretz. It is Peretz after all who wishes to return to Shimon's baby - an Oslo kind of process with direct negotiations with Abu Mazen. Surely this should excite Peres.

Perhaps- the truth is Peres is not so dovish has he pretends to be. Perhaps in fact his political positions are not that much different to Sharon himself. After all would Peres have disengaged from Gaza? During the Oslo process it is reported that Rabin stressed that the Palestinians would need territorial continuity whilst it was Peres who suggested the Palestinians simply needed 'functional continuity'. This definition is remarkably similar to Sharon's belief that a Palestinian State needs 'transportation continuity' - a kind of road and tunnel network criss-crossing settlements so that Pal. can get between their towns and villages.

One wonders how dovish Peres really is. After all Peres never went to Camp David in July 2000 (mainly due to Barak making sure he was not on the Israeli team), never participated at Taba in 2001, has not been involved in initiatives like Geneva so it is unclear where Peres stands on these final status issues. Sure he approved the interim Oslo accords but that gave the Palestinians less than 50% of the territories so Peres's attitudes on the big issues has never been tested.

Is Peres the peacenik he claims to be?