Friday, February 24, 2006


A few weeks ago, I wrote a short and wistfully hopeful blog entry marking the relatively uneventful passing of Ashura, the Shi'ite commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, in Iraq. I there noted that for the first time in two years, Sunni suicide bombers had not wreaked carnage upon the Shi'ite processionals.

Then came Samarra. One cannot overdramatize the significance of the bombing of the golden-domed Askariyya mosque on Wednesday. It is on a par with the assault on the Ka'aba by the Qarmathians in 930, who committed a slaughter and then successfully carried off the sacred Black Stone. More recently, it can be likened to the arson attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1969, when a delusional Australian tourist set fire to the structure. To this day, Muslims around the world still bitterly recall the event, and the sinister conspiratorial theories that still hold Israel complicit in the crime.

Entombed in the mosque are the tenth and eleventh imams in the Shi'ite genealogy of sainted leaders, or imams. For the majority of Shi'ites who adhere to the the lineage of the twelfth and occulted imam, this mosque is of supreme importance. Samarra, located 125 km north of Baghdad, was briefly in the ninth century the capital of the far-flung Abbasid empire. After it was abandoned by the Abbasids for Baghdad, Samarra became a pilgrimage site for Shi'ites beginning in the 10th century, as a result of the presence of the tombs of these two revered men. The mosque thus is one of the holiest shrines in all of Twelver Shi'ism.

The resulting mayhem of the last few days has put the entire country into a state of siege. Veteran Iraq correspondent Anne Garrels of NPR stated tonight that the talk of civil war is on everyone's lips. On a smaller scale, this is reminiscent of the 1928 Yom Kippur incident at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, which led to country-wide intercommunal violence in British Mandatory Palestine in the spring of 1929. The brutal events of 1929 prompted a British commission of inquiry to conclude that the Mandate was unworkable, but it would take 17 years (and another bloody confrontation of even greater carnage between 1936-39), for the British to finally withdraw from Palestine under UN cover. The debates in American society over the continued presence of American forces in Iraq are thus paralleled by the discussions in Britain over the viability of the Mandate in the 1930s. Britain poured troops into Palestine, to no avail. In present-day Iraq, the writing is on the wall -- there is nothing that the US can do to stop this intercommunal violence.

A few years ago, I asked my students at the outset of the Iraq invasion to write a short paper on the future of Iraq. The preponderant majority of my students recommended dividing present-day Iraq into its three former Ottoman provinces -- Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad, and Shi'ite Basra -- as sovereign states. Bumbling every step of the way, overwhelmed by motivations it cannot comprehend, America has done everything it is capable of doing to try to preserve the artifice of "Iraq." It is time to consider partition. In 1947, the Zionists reluctantly but pragmatically accepted the partition plan, while the Arabs rejected it. In 2006, I think that all sides could accept the fissioning of Iraq. Better to make the breakup of Iraq a normalized diplomatic process than to allow it to crack apart in anarchy, with the US blamed for letting it all go to hell.

Israeli Polls -- Any Trends?

With elections now only 31 days away, another set of polls have been produced by the major media outlets in Israel, and while nothing significant has changed -- no major break one way or the other -- some trends may be developing. The Haaretz-Channel 10 poll shows a perceptible dimunition, however slight, in Kadima's standing -- from a high in late January of 44 predicted mandates, Kadima has slipped for the first time this year to under 40 seats. But the two trailing contenders, Labor and Likud, still show no signs of strength. The Yediot Achronot poll produces similar data: Kadima - 39; Labor - 19; Likud - 16 (though Haaretz has Likud at 14). The Ma'ariv poll is no different. With such a poor showing for the two trailing lists, there is even media speculation of replacing Netanyahu and Peretz for more attractive candidates.

This week's big political story is the unification of the historic Ashkenazi National Religious Party with the secular-extreme right National Union, now tracking at 10-11 seats. The merger marks the apparent end of the venerable NRP, a once politically moderate party on foreign affairs, and oftentimes linchpin component in coalition jockeying. But in recent years the NRP has been overrun by settler sentimentality.

Undecideds continue to play a decisive role in the playing field, with Haaretz reporting that the floating vote equals 18 seats. This represents a tightening of the undecided vote. On the issue of PM leadership, Kadima's Olmert remains the strongest contender, with Labor's Amir Peretz still trailing badly. But the dominant story as reported on Channel One's Friday news broadcast is the indifference and apathy of the Israeli voter to this upcoming election. But things will soon heat up. Beginning March 7 the voters will be bombarded with televised campaign ads and jingles, and possibly at least one televised debate amongst the leading candidates. (Watch for Olmert to take a "Rose Garden" approach, and refuse to participate in a debate.) Kadima, with its vague platform, remains in the driver's seat, able to form a coalition in a multiplicity of configurations.

February 25 Update:

I've just had a chance to go through Uri Blau's laundry-list article in this weekend's Haaretz magazine concerning Olmert's many run-ins with the law (see the truncated English version here). In my first blog post on Olmert, I mentioned his lavish tastes and questionable financial associations. Now it is all laid out.

Missing from the English-language version is the following damning line: "Possibly the most outstanding thing in his path to the PM's chair is that Olmert was transformed from an invesigator into a serial target of investigations." Amongst the issues raised in the Hebrew version is a sidebar article concerning the January 2004 sale for $2.69 million of Olmert's Jerusalem home to S. Daniel Abraham, an American-Jewish peace activist and co-owner of Slim Fast. Olmert still lives in the house, awaiting work on a new residence on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv -- of course, soon he will have another residence in Jerusalem. The sidebar notes that Olmert's public turning-point endorsement of withdrawal from large chunks of the Palestinian territories came in an interview published by Yediot Achronot's Nahum Barnea in December 2003.

Another sidebar, entitled "Where is Yosi?" features younger brother Dr. Yosi Olmert and his problems in paying back a 2 million NIS loan (to 7 banks and private loansharks) over a failed business venture. The sidebar asks the questions where exactly is Yosi Olmert (since he left -- some say fled -- Israel over 18 months ago) and what is he doing? Well, we know more than the newspapers: Dr. Olmert (promoted in advertising as "brother of the acting Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert") will be speaking here in Hartford at the JCC on March 2.

At least two columnists refer to Blau's article in Friday's edition of Haaretz. Will this investigative article affect Olmert's already mediocre standing with the Israeli electorate?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Deadly Game of Chicken

So now the new 132-seat Palestine Legisltive Council has been sworn in, with its new Hamas-led majority. And on cue, the Israeli cabinet, having considered a range of options, has formally announced the suspension of transfer of payments collected by Israeli tax and customs authorities to the executive branch of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Earlier, there had been much speculation that Hamas would try to create a "technicians'" government, and the early wishful-thinking on the part of Western and Arab diplomats is that Hamas would tap Salem Fayyad, the squeaky-clean former finance minister (with no ties to Hamas), as Prime Minister. In the end, Hamas legislators turned to 42 year-old Ismail Haniya, one of their own, for PM. Haniya is described as a "pragmatist" insofar as he wishes to create a national unity government with the now-deposed Fatah party, still represented by President Mahmoud Abbas, who apparently is petrified to act, and therefore will not resign, will not abandon the diplomatic process, and will not use the security apparatus to disarm those illegally bearing arms. For its part, the lame duck government of Acting Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is continuing to work off an old script -- conducting raids on the ground in Nablus and in the air in Gaza, killing 4 today.

Haniya himself was once the in the crosshairs of an Israeli air strike in September, 2003, in one of the unsuccessful attempts by the Sharon government to kill Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of Hamas (eventually Israel would succeed in killing Yassin). At the time, Haniya was "chief of staff" of Yassin's home office. One of the 400 Islamic activists once exiled to South Lebanon in 1992 (now a badge of pride in the pantheon of Palestinian resistance), Haniya has also done time in Israeli prisons.

Israel has decided for the moment to make a distinction between humanitarian aid -- which it claims it will continue to funnel through to the PNA -- and the $50 million monthly transferral, used to pay the salaries of at least 130,000 Palestinian security men and bureaucrats -- which it will not. By taking this tack, Olmert has eschewed the more comprehensive quarantine of the PNA and Gaza advocated by some in the Israeli security establishment last week, but on the other hand Olmert is pulling the trigger of financial blockade well before the actual formation of a Hamas-led government, which for the Americans is the preferred jumping-off point. The difference is whether the PNA will receive its February transferral -- and Olmert, running for elections, cannot afford to look too weak with Benjamin Netanyahu breathing down on his right back. So no February transferral. Basic utilities, such as electricity and water, will nevertheless continue to come off the Israeli infrastructural grid. The New York Times last week reported in a front page story that Israel and the U.S. are coordinating a scenario in which the PNA is financially starved into chaos which would then lead to the demise of the Hamas regime -- and the report was immediately disputed by both the Americans and the Israelis. A senior Sharon and now apparently Kadima advisor, Dov Weissglas, was quoted as saying that Israel needs to put the Palestinian nation on a diet, but not starve it. If that arrogant and high-handed statement was designed to allay fears of Israeli intentions, it has certainly had the opposite effect.

Also now widely reported is the polling data adduced by Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, indicating that Hamas did not garner a majority of votes in the January 25 election. Rather, because of the serious divisions within Fatah, a number of seats went to Hamas when competing Fatah candidates split their vote. So it turns out that the Palestinian people as a collective community did not choose to create a Hamastan, but that once again their feckless Fatah failed them. I've read some lionizers of the Palestinian cause argue that this vote was a brave and steadfast message by the Palestinian people as a whole to return to the base demands of the movement: resistance to occupation, return of the refugees, the right to oppose Israeli policies with violence, if that is what is needed. Turns out the January 25 vote in Palestine wasn't a collective statement neither for "heroic" Hamas nor against nepotistic Fatah -- it was just sloppy and inept political machinations by the ruling party that brought Hamas to power.

So now it is a game of "chicken." Hamas says it can replace the $50 million from Arab and Islamic states...and the Israelis say they have more possible sanctions in their pocket to put in place if things take an even greater turn for the worse. Destabilizing radical regimes is never as easy as it seems -- just ask Fidel Castro -- there is always a way for Palestinians, armed with little more than their collective sumud-ethos, to survive for a time. The Israelis seem to feel that international diplomacy has swung to their side for the moment and do not want to lose the mojo, so don't expect Olmert to go any further (unless of course a terror campaign begins). Everyone is preaching caution -- even the usually straight-shooting Tom Friedman could not conjure up a specific course of action for the Americans and Israelis to follow, other than a generic appeal to tread carefully. But at some point people on both sides are going to ask: when will this game of Middle Eastern chicken -- which obviously impacts the lives of many innocent people (and because of the devastating economic situation in Gaza -- the Palestinians most of all) -- when will this game come to an end? Who will blink first, and turn this trajectory of hatred and mutual recrimination into something hopeful that simple people can seize upon? Ah, but that is always the question in this conflict. Haaretz commentator Ari Shavit has produced a pat and self-serving narrative: at the very moment that the Israeli electorate has endorsed a two-state solution, the Palestinians have reverted to an extremist one-state path. But it simply isn't that clear-cut. The vague Kadima prescription for more unilateral withdrawals and a wall of separation is hardly a ringing endorsement of a peaceful two-state compromise. No leadership from Washington, no leadership from Jerusalem, no leadership from Ramallah: it all makes for a recipe of more of the same -- if not an unmitigated disaster -- on the near horizon.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Rang De Basanti - A Short Review

One way I know that the world is flat is that new Bollywood movies open in my town the same day as in India. Last Friday night, my daughter Sara saw Rakeysh Mehra's strange new mainstream movie Rang De Basanti ("Paint It Yellow") at a premiere in Mumbai - one week later I saw it in East Hartford (only because I couldn't make it on the opening Friday night). This is another one of Aamir Khan's "politico-historical" vehicles, as it revisits the brutality of the British occupation of India in the first half of the 20th century. The movie revolves around an attempt by a British neophyte filmmaker to reenact the very real events growing out of the 1919 Jalianwala Bagh massacre, and the revolutionary heroes of the Indian Freedom Movement Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. Throughout the movie there is a back-and-forth between present-day India and British-occupied India in the 1930's. Thus, most of the actors play dual roles. I must say that one of the hardest aspects of the film to swallow was accepting the conceit that the 40 year-old Khan could convincingly play a 20-something present-day BMOC (as he did 5 years ago in the much more entertaining Dil Chahta Hai). One of the nicest touches was the casting of Alice Patten as Sue, the fledgling British filmmaker (who hilariously surprises Khan with her fluent Hindi). Patten herself is the daughter of the last British governor of Hong Kong, making the casting a bit of an echo of the movie's plot.

As Bollywood fare goes, Rang De Basanti is not a great dance or music movie. Parts of the plot are predictable, and the third act is absolutely improbable. Still, this is a "serious" movie with a thought-provoking message about the hopelessness generated by modern Indian corruption. It is a fiercely patriotic movie, but in a perverse kind of way. Imagine for a moment a mainstream American movie which makes patriotic heroes out of a group of assassins who murder a corrupt Secretary of Defense. Even Hollywood wouldn't have the balls to do that, but this is precisely what Mehra offers up, and in doing so harkens back to the equally strange 1998 movie Dil Se.

Aamir Khan needs to try something else for his next foray. While still successfully evoking the impish qualities of the infamous Akash character from Dil Chahta Hai, the political seriousness of his roles is becoming tiresome and unidimensional. Clearly a talented actor, this is not one of his better roles.

There is no doubt that the movie leaves you thinking. But it is not a great movie. It has many of all the right elements, but as a mainstream effort, it also has many ridiculous moments that leave you scratching your head -- problems with narrative continuity, a suspension of reality, and a kind of overblown political message. Unlike most Bollywood movies of the last few years, Rang De Basanti requires a great deal of thoughtfulness from its audience, but fails to deliver the goods.