Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Plot Thickens

The Tel Aviv University workshop ended last night and the last few days have been non-stop. I’ve been unable to post a blog simply because we have had literally no time to attend to our own needs, and we have barely had the opportunity to decompress. Yesterday, our last day of the workshop, ran for 18 hours straight. It is a credit to the good will and great spirit of our group that we were able to hold up through this final day of presenters and programs.

As we plowed through our program, the region around us was descending into a true balagan – the Hebrew slang for a mess. The abduction of a live Israeli soldier (it is interesting that the Hebrew word for this in the media is “kidnapping”) by HAMAS militants after a daring surprise attack on a tank emplacement at Kerem Shalom (which also killed two soldiers) placed both untested leaderships – the Olmert government and the Haniyeh government – into true crisis mode. The attack, which involved the construction of a 400 meter tunnel, had been operational for weeks, and was ordered from the Damascus wing of HAMAS at the behest of Khaled Mashal. While the tunnel was being dug over the last few weeks, it was clear that the attack was intended to be another act of resistance to the current stalemate. But the timing of the attack had the added effect of torpedoing the positive efforts by Mahmoud Abbas to get the HAMAS government to agree to the “prisoners’ document” and thereby create a pragmatic national unity government which might be an acceptable negotiating partner for Israel.

The Israeli leadership then went into the equivalent of defcon 1, and has been running non-stop ever since. PM Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz are completely inexperienced in taking fateful military decisions, and at least in the case of Peretz there are public signs of a certain exhaustion in the ongoing crisis which has ensued. In a televised briefing to his Labor Party yesterday, Peretz was disoriented and stammering, and this led to a round of criticism from former military men which only engenders insecurity in the Israeli electorate. Peretz, who was hoping that his stint as Defense Minister would be the stepping stone to eventually gaining the PM’s chair, is presently regarded as a weak link in the chain of command. This crisis might very well mark the end of Amir Peretz’s political aspirations. Certainly, a Labor MK I spoke with over dinner last night was concerned over Peretz’s public display.

For the sake of a single captured soldier, the Israelis are engaging in a series of responses – both military and diplomatic – which are likely to change the regional equation; it is an irony that the seething underlying conflict has not generated a similar concentration of energized response in the last 10 months. It is bizarre that a single galvanizing incident can lead to such a massive deterioration of the situation (especially considering the daily missile shots on Sderot), but it is not the first time that a provocative attack leads to a massive response, for such is the recurring script – be it Lebanon in 1982, or Defensive Shield in 2002. The town of Sderot could be hit day after day and the response was targeted killings – a single young soldier is kidnapped and mechanized divisions are shooting into Gaza. Go figure.

As of this morning, the news is grim. A teenaged settler was kidnapped Saturday night and his body was found this morning. Overnight, the Israelis have captured dozens of HAMAS government ministers in both Gaza and the West Bank, a creative response no doubt but one that is laden with international implications. This morning Israeli tanks are laying down a barrage of fire into selected portions of Gaza. Nothing indiscriminate, mind you – all quite focused and tactical, but it is easy to imagine the shooting could spiral into a new level of barely-controlled mayhem.

While touring the Golan and the northern border area on Tuesday, we were treated to a positively ludicrous briefing by an IDF spokesperson who claimed, after my direct query, that Israel would do nothing on its northern front to apply pressure to Damascus, which provides a friendly home to the foreign affairs office of HAMAS. In fact, he claimed, the Golan had been emptied out of soldiers as they were moved south to their rally points around Gaza. Incredulously, he told us that if the ten Syrian divisions on the Golan were to move against Israel, they would be met by no more than a dozen Israeli soldiers in all of the Golan. Last night however the Israeli air force did indeed apply pressure to Damascus, flying low and unimpeded over the presidential summer home of Bashar al-Assad in Latakia, opening a further inter-state dimension to the crisis. Now Israel has raised its alert on the northern border, on the assumption that Hizballah may send a fusillade of rockets from their villages into northern Israel proper. Forty-eight hours ago we were in Kibbutz Misgav Am (which is also a lookout point manned by the IDF - see the picture of Hizballah village Adisah taken on June 27) just across from Hizballah lands as far as the eye could see. I wonder if the residents of Misgav Am will be sleeping in their homes or in their shelters tonight.

Is there a way out of this crisis? The capture of senior HAMAS ministers gives Israel new bargaining chips. As of this writing, Israel has yet to unleash the full force of its power against Gaza. It is clear that the gradual military pressure is being accompanied by an intensive diplomatic effort, and Egypt might yet play a decisive role in rolling back the crisis. It is clear that this crisis has forced the Israelis to talk not only to Abbas, but also to elements of HAMAS, all for the sake of identifying the location of the soldier. The Israeli military is hoping for a chanced at a focused extraction operation, but this captured soldier is not in an isolated hillside house, rather he is likely being held in the densely populated slums of Gaza. A forced extraction operation is desirable, but simply may not be possible. In that case, would Olmert dare reenter Gaza in full force? Not only would that undo his mentor’s withdrawal from Gaza of last summer, but it would permanently take off the table the disciple’s vague West Bank “convergence” plan for the future.

I think the key here might lie with a single Israeli detainee – Marwan Barghouti, one of the original drafters of the prisoners’ document, and currently serving a life sentence, standing convicted for his role in the killing of 5 Israelis. Israel has two choices – an unpredictable full-scale ground operation in Gaza, or an exchange of captives, including Barghouti (who I have thought for a long time is the sole Palestinian figure who might lead the Palestinians to a settlement with Israel – but that is another yet unwritten blog entry). As of this moment, both options – a choice between two bad options, no doubt, but one certainly better than the other – are on the table. The future of the extremely weak Olmert government is but one factor which hangs in the balance.

Update at 2300: Why does it seem that Israel becomes a front-page story whenever I am in-country? Maybe I should be banned from entry. :) As another round of reports come in about Israel blowing up transformers and parts of the Gaza power grid, my buddy Yoav told me over dinner that during the first Intifada there were threats of cutting off electricity to the Palestinian territories during the week of the quarter-, semi- and finals of the World Cup -not a stone was thrown that week. So let's see if the entire mess is cleared up before Argentina plays Germany at 1800 Friday Israel/Palestine time. I've heard crazier theories....

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Fence - First Encounter

As I sit in my hotel room watching Kokhav Nolad (the Israeli version of American Idol - just awful), I thought I would post 2 pictures from today's excursion to the security fence/wall/barrier (depends on your terminological perspective). The first is at one of the "agricultural gates" which can be opened at Israel's whim to occasionally allow Palestinians to cross over to their fields.The second shows the wall just south of Har Homah, and here it is a triple barb-wired fence with electronic monitors.

After the fence visit, we went to East Jerusalem for dinner at the Ambassador Hotel and had a fantastic Arab meal at an elegant outdoor restaurant in the hotel. The moment I noticed that customers had hookahs at their table I immediately ordered one. It was the best shisha I've had in years.

Earlier in the day we had two fantastic presentations: one by Prof. Asher Susser, head of the Dayyan Center at TAU and then a joint session from Khalil Shikaki and Tamar Hermann, two academic pollsters who monitor Palestinian and Israeli political attitudes respectively. Needless to say, no one had anything optimistic to report about how the publics look at the existential chasm which makes a settlement impossible any time in the future.

I only bought an hour of Internet time, so I must close out today's entry. More later...tomorrow we're off to Haifa.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

First Posting from the TAU Workshop

Today our workshop visited the Kenesset, the Israeli parliament, and we were introduced to two very interesting MKs: Menahem Ben-Sasson of Kadima and Natan Sharansky of Likud. Ben-Sasson is a noted Hebrew University academic, a historian of Jews in medieval Arab lands, and a personal friend of Ehud Olmert. It was charming to hear from an “outsider” academic one month into his career as an Israeli parliamentarian. Over the decades there has been a small trickle of academics who find their way into the ranks of the Kenesset and most have been insignificant presences. I wonder if Ben-Sasson will have a different fate.

Sharansky was another matter – an ideologue who has very fixed ideas about the world and the region, not a stupid man in the least, and disarming in his own understated yet pompous way. One point that Sharansky jokingly made with his friend Ben-Sasson is that Kadima as of now remains a party without an ideology. On this I would agree. One of the influential thinkers behind the neo-con plan for Middle East “democracy,” Sharansky understands the appeal of HAMAS yet decries the possibility of democracy for the Arabs. Once I had breakfast with a certain Jewish Studies professor who was then teaching at Brown University; afterwards a participant to the breakfast said it was like sitting with an extremely civilized and knowledgeable madman. I had the same feeling sitting with Sharansky.

Yesterday our group of Middle East studies professors took a small side-trip on our way to Jerusalem to stop at the site of the Dir Yassin massacre, which took place on April 9, 1948, and still reverberates to this day. Today it is an unmarked spot in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul, and is now the site of a mental institution and a bus storage terminal. But 58 year ago it was an Arab village which was overrun by Lehi and Etzel forces, and where 100-110 unarmed villagers – men, women, and children – were killed in what has become the most notorious atrocity committed by Jewish forces during the War of Independence. One of our group is carrying with him Benny Morris’ definitive history Righteous Victims, and I was able to skim the 2½ pages of the book devoted to the massacre while sitting in our tour bus as it lingered over the site. I won’t go into the controversy here (Morris’s version is as condemning as any you’ll find) – you can Google or Wiki the name and find all the relevant debates which occupy pages of virtual space. We then proceeded over to the Shaykh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to the scene of the ambush on a Jewish hospital convoy which occurred four days later and left more than 80 doctors and nurses dead. These two interlinked events – and much more – are part of the litany of memory to which both sides cling as they reconstruct their respective narratives of independence and catastrophe. It is worth noting that one site bears a somber marker and the other goes unmarked. You can guess which site is which in Jewish “unified” Jerusalem.

We also stopped at Har Adar, a Jewish community in the West Bank which abuts the security fence – though at this site it is really only a fence and not a wall – and saw how the fence’s route snakes around the Arab village of Bayt Ai’anan, cutting through some of the attached farmland and incorporating another part, all determined by the Israeli Supreme Court after the international effort to have the fence better conform to the economic interests of Palestinian farmers.

Yesterday for the third straight day Israel attempted a botched air attack in Gaza to stem the wave of Qassam missile launches of recent days: yesterday it was 3 children killed; today it was a mother in her home in Khan Yunis. Israeli TV led with the story and showed many minutes of mournful wailing from the Khan Yunis hospital. In the last week the IAF has killed 13 innocent civilians in collateral damage incidents – and I wonder how long these deaths will go unanswered. There is usually a price to pay by innocent Israelis, whether Israeli missiles are accurate or not. There can be no other reason for Israeli state television to dwell on the images of outrage and mourning from Gaza than to prepare the population for the inevitable HAMAS or Islamic Jihad “response.” It is silly to think that Palestinian terror is unleashed as a tit-for-tat response to Israeli attacks – the effort to penetrate Israel’s security cordon is constant and unremitting – but you can be sure that the rhetoric of revenge for the innocents will certainly be employed.

Yesterday we had some fireworks in our workshop when a Jewish professor from Bar Ilan and an Arab professor from Haifa University made presentations. As usual, the two learned men pretended to speak to each other but were actually functioning in different universes, in fact talking across each other. It was sad but very typical.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Arrival (almost a travelogue)

Don't even ask. To give you the punch line, I arrived 24 hours late, no harm done. A line of thunderstorms crossed through Connecticut on Wednesday; my scheduled flight never left Hartford altogether; having missed my flight in Newark, the best Continental could do was to put me on the same flight set for Thursday. So I went back home, slept in my own bed, and then started all over on Thursday morning, taking an early flight from Hartford that was designed to avoid the remnants of tropical depression Alberto, spending 8 interminable hours in Newark, and then making it off to Tel Aviv.

One interesting aspect of the trip was when I tried to print out my new boarding passes from home. Continental's system wouldn't let me do so, and in the morning when I went to the kiosk it pushed out a boarding pass marked with the infamous "SSSS" code ("Selected for Secondary Security Screening"), which meant I would get the full treatment by the TSA staff at Bradley. Wanded, patted down, all my carry-on subjected to some hi-tech sniffing (and I even got a false-positive). It was almost quicker than the normal line, and not a single intrusive question asked of me. So much for security.

Once here, everything has gone swimmingly. I've spent a couple of days with my buddy Yoav and family. Last night I went to the final session of a national event known as Shavua ha-Sefer ("Book Week") where publishers sell books at enormous discounts. Normally, I go nuts at this event, but for whatever reason my heart wasn't in it this time and I bought a paltry 2 books. Today I'll have lunch with a former Trinity student and her husband, and tonight begins the Tel Aviv University workshop on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Not much else to report: the weather is fantastic with pleasant evenings; Yoav's new Loewe LCD TV is quite a German technological marvel; and the United States scored a point in the World Cup. I also learned the best way to handle jet lag: drink large amounts of 18 year-old single malt on the first night; I slept for 12 hours straight and have been fine ever since.