Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Fantasy League

This past Sunday, the Israel Baseball League (IBL) inaugurated its first 45-game season, 6 teams playing on 3 fields. With a roster of 120 players (only 20 native-born sabras), the league is overseen by a group of American Jews who are hoping to create a new national pastime that will eventually reach beyond the initial North American immigrant fan base. Former major leaguers occupy many of the coaching and league front-office roles. Ken Holtzman (former Cubs, Oakland, Orioles & Yankees), Art Shamsky (Mets, Oakland, Cubs), and Ron Blomberg (Yankees & White Sox) are coaching, and Don Duquette (former GM of the Red Sox) is Director of baseball operations.

But this of course is baseball Israel style. Attendees reported awfully long waits at the concession stands. On-line ticket ordering is disorganized. The Hebrew web site has many broken links. There is still no useful Hebrew term for a double play: pesilah kefulah, and the Hebrew-English on-line lexicon doesn't have a phrase for a ground rule double. Already the coming week's games slotted for the Sportek stadium in Tel Aviv have been postponed or moved to the Yarkon park (due to poor field conditions at Sportek), and games are being rescheduled haphazardly at the two working fields. When week one is hardly begun, and half the week's schedule is TBA, there is no joy in Israeli Mudville.

Kudos for trying, and who knows? Maybe it will work. The Israeli game is designed for entertainment -- the DH, 7-inning games, ties after 7 innings decided by a home run derby -- so there is a real chance that ADD Israelis will find comfort in all the hyped-up action. Over 3000 fans came to the opener in which the Modi'in Miracle crushed the Petah Tikvah Pioneers 9-1. My buddy Yoav (who wishes he was American) watched the first live game broadcast on the Israeli Sports Channel, and still will never understand the double-switch (because the IBL uses the designated hitter -- in Hebrew: hovet memuneh). But I've decided to throw my support to the Tel Aviv Lightning, which won their first game, coached by Steve Hertz, who appeared in 5 major league games in 1964 for the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros). I've already ordered my team T-shirt and baseball cap -- we'll see how long it takes for the merchandise to arrive.

Erik, I see a future for you on the Pioneers -- they need pitchers!

Monday, June 25, 2007

No Window of Opportunity

As a colorful sun-drenched summit is held today in Sharm al-Sheikh between what's left of the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, Jordan, and Israel; and as the Bush White House floats the idea of appointing soon-to-be British Labour MP Tony Blair as Special Envoy to the Middle East, there is much rose-colored talk of the "new opportunities" for peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now that the initial dust has settled from the lightning-quick seizure of Gaza by HAMAS, and the Israeli cabinet decided to begin releasing the over $500 million in escrowed tax revenues to ex-World Bank technocrat Salam Fayyad (now the West Bank's newly crowned Prime Minister), the naive hope that a "window of opportunity" might emerge is widely discussed in the western press. However, there are powerful reasons to believe that nothing good will come from these developments anytime soon. Let me explain:

The combination of an accidental Israeli Prime Minister, an accidental Palestinian President, and a lame-duck American President argues for a "no forward motion" scenario.

1. The accidental Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who fell into his role when his historic predecessor became a vegetable in January 2006, is overseeing a weak Israeli government teetering on collapse. Olmert barely survived the initial shitstorm that ensued after the Winograd Commission issued its interim report on last summer's Lebanon War -- it is unlikely that Olmert will survive when the final report is issued later this summer. The new Defense Minister Ehud Barak has all but pledged to withdraw Labour from the governing coalition when the final report comes out -- and then expect at the very least a 4-month election campaign, which essentially freezes Israel from making any substantial offers or deals. Israel will soon be enveloped in electoral politics, and no forward movement can therefore be expected from Israel.

2. The accidental Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who fell into his role when his historic predecessor died in November 2004, is overseeing a weak Palestinian government teetering on collapse. Abbas barely survived the initial shitstorm that ensued after his Fatah movement was defeated in Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 -- it is unlikely that Abbas will survive in the West Bank now that HAMAS has laid down an "in your face" challenge. Abbas is now held hostage by the delicate balancing act he must strike between accepting Israeli and American support, and still acting defiantly as the defender of the Palestinian cause. If he looks too much like an Israeli collaborator, his support in the West Bank will crumble; if he follows his predecessor's script, any defiant call for "jihad unto Jerusalem" will undermine his cozying up to Israel and the US. If his weak Israeli counterpart cannot deliver a significant "victory" (a freezing of settlements, a release of Palestinian prisoners, a reduction of Israeli security presence in the West Bank -- all unlikely for reason 1 cited above), Abbas and Fayyad will be gone in short order. (Update: A few hours after writing this blog entry, Olmert announced at Sharm plans to bring before a cabinet vote on Sunday the release of 250 Fatah prisoners -- a move which Israel Channel One's Arab affairs correspondent characterized as: "too little, too late.") Even the notion that Israel might release prisoner Marwan Barghouti, the much-lauded next-generation leader of Palestine who languishes in an Israeli jail, is full of potential threat to Abbas and the elder generation of his advisers. Abbas is in the uncomfortable situation of being the recipient of Israeli and American largesse -- an untenable role for any Palestinian leader.

3. The lame-duck American President George Bush, who squandered his role as Commander-in-Chief with his failed conquest of the Arab heartland, is overseeing a weak American government running out of time. Once the American election campaign begins in earnest (approximately just after a new Israeli government is formed), Bush will lose all credibility as a broker of any Arab-Israeli deal. Lame-duck President Clinton had little credibility in the 2000 effort to bring a resolution of the conflict (and that was when it looked likely that a democratic successor would continue his policies) -- by the time the chad-dust had settled on the November, 2000 election, Clinton was a goner, and neither side respected his stature. Defiance of a lame-duck American President is standard operating procedure for Mideast leaders. With the prospects of a change in party affiliation in the White House in 2009, expect Bush to be progressively ignored as election day 2008 nears.

So forget about it. In fact, there is much reason to believe that the Fatah/HAMAS face-off is far from over. Much of the most notorious bloodletting in Gaza was nothing more than revenge killing -- HAMAS never forgot nor forgave the brutality of despised Fatah security head Muhammad Dahlan's violent and short-lived campaign in 1996 to decimate HAMAS in Gaza. Emboldened HAMAS dreams of much greater things than sinple revenge. Like the murderous bloodshed between the Husseini and Nashshashibi clans in the fight for leadership of the Palestinian cause in the 1930s, this struggle between Fatah and HAMAS is far from concluded. HAMAS won many legislative seats in the West Bank in 2006, and it is only because Israel has imprisoned most of HAMAS's leadership in the West Bank that Fatah has even a chance of surviving. Back in the 1930s, the Husseini family cloaked itself in Islam and eventually won the day to disastrous results for the Palestinian people; expect the irresistible call of Islam to eventually succeed yet again in modern Palestine for HAMAS, if for no other reason than that the Israelis can not muster the will to do what needs to be done to make Abbas successful and look like an effective leader.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A 3-State Solution

With Gaza in flames, and amid growing reports that HAMAS fighters are taking the upper hand in the vicious "civil war" enveloping the Strip and to a lesser degree the West Bank, it is time to take stock and regroup for the next set of developments. Ever since the first Intifada back in 1987, HAMAS has been on a slow and steady trajectory towards taking the undisputed reigns of the Palestine national movement, and no amount of fretting or wishing otherwise will change the outcome. The Fatah movement, once the undisputed master of the Palestinian destiny, has lost its way, lost its commanding presence, and fallen into chaos. Long before Yasir Arafat died in November 2004, Fatah was headed towards irrelevancy. If for no other reason, the grudging acquiescence by Arafat to Israel's demand to eliminate HAMAS (something Arafat occasionally agreed to, but never really effected) -- sealed the fate of Fatah. Try as it may -- adopting suicide bombing, creating a youth vanguard, mimicking the social services of HAMAS -- Fatah became a ghost. And once the "old man" was gone, all the seething disagreements and rivalries which he had so adroitly papered over for 35 years came pouring out into the open. When President George Bush, flush with talk of the spread of democracy in the Middle East, squeezed President Mahmud Abbas into calling snap legislative elections in Jauary 2006, the die was cast.

Cease fires have come and gone, and now there is talk of civil war. It won't last long. HAMAS will soon be the supreme ruler of the Gaza Strip. The question now is whether the West Bank will follow.

HAMAS is holed up in Gaza; the more cosmopolitan and sweet-talking Fatah is based in Ramallah, the political and cultural capital of the West Bank just a short drive north of Jerusalem. Once Gaza falls to the salafis, there will be no turning back. What conceivable scenario is there for the eradication of HAMAS in Gaza? Not even an Israeli invasion and reoccupation would be sufficient.

And so now there emerges two kinds of Palestine. One Palestine is made of HAMAS, an Islamist movement wildly popular in downtrodden Gaza. It fantasizes at erasing the outcome of 1948 and relies on the Qur'an and international jihadi support. The other Palestine is made of Fatah, which enjoys great support in the relatively more affluent towns and cities of the West Bank. It is a secular movement which intends to liberate whatever portion of Palestine falls on its plate with international and Israeli complicity. The rift is so great between these two competing Palestines that each denies the national legitimacy of the other. Said one HAMAS activist of Fatah after yesterday's carnage: "They are not Palestinians, they are lost people."

For Israel and the international community, only one choice remains: isolate the new HAMAS Gazastan, and pour all remaining funds and legitimacy into the West Bank Fatahstan. When the dust settles on this civil war, we will need to talk of a 3-state solution: Israel, an internationally recognized Palestine A, and an Islamist hot-spot Palestine B.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Forty Years Later

Forty years ago this week began the 2nd most important of all the wars that mark the Arab-Israeli conflict – the Six Day War (as it is called by Israelis); or the 1967 (June) War. This war is the 2nd most important because of course it is overshadowed by the war of 1948 (Israelis call it the War of Independence) which established and fixed the existence of Israel, and created the Palestinian refugee tragedy.

These two wars, 1948 & 1967, are now sufficiently in the past that historians have been able to delve into heretofore unopened and classified archives and memoirs of key players in order to get a clearer picture of what happened and why.

Each war is remembered by Israel’s supporters as miraculous victories of the outnumbered Jewish David surrounded by an Arab Goliath calling for the total eradication of the Zionist entity; in both instances we have now come to understand that Israeli victory was, in proper hindsight, inevitable. For example, two weeks before the June '67 war, analysts predicted to Israel’s Foreign Minister Abba Eban at a meeting in the Pentagon that Israel would win any war in 2-3 weeks -- 1 week if it fired the first shot. Despite preparing the Israeli populace for a possible slaughter, the Israeli generals were excited at the prospect of going to war against Syria and Egypt, and expected an easy victory.

Both wars are remembered by Israel’s supporters as cases where a reluctant and peace-loving Israel was forced to war because of Arab hatred; today we now know that both wars were contemplated by Israel in a calculated effort to ensure the existence of a qualitatively military advantaged Jewish homeland.

The 1948 was certainly unavoidable, and the Israelis properly prepared for that conflict prudently, and won it easily. Ben Gurion understood and expected to create a homeland through the crucible of fire, and despite a few setbacks, successfully defended the Jewish homeland in a war that was planned for and coolly anticipated.

The 1967 was a war that, had cooler minds prevailed, ought never to have happened, certainly not on the scope it ultimately took. It was a war that occurred because of the hyperactivism of the Israeli army, which in the months leading up to that war, provoked a confrontation as it mis-read Arab intentions and threats, and insisted on warfare.

Much of the march to war in 1966-67 was based on a near-paranoid fear of Egypt and her leader Gamal Abdel Nasser; and a growing dispute with Syria over water rights and guerrilla attacks emanating from Syria. The Israeli COS Rabin wrote in Dec. 66 to Israel’s military attache in London: “an escalation with Syria is not against Israel’s interest, and in my view there is no better time than now for a confrontation with Syria. I prefer to go to war rather than allow this continuous harassment.”

And so, just a few months later, there was a major air clash between Israel & Syria in April 1967, which started as a minor water/fishing skirmish but by the end had become a major dogfight involving more than 130 planes, with Syria losing 6 MIGs and Israel 0. In April and May, Egypt began to build up forces on its international border after the USSR communicated an errant warning of an Israeli build-up on the Syria border, and a specific warning that they would attack. In mid-May, Egypt decided to move divisions into the demilitarized Sinai and requested the removal of a 4500-man UNEF peacekeeping force (made mostly of Indians, Canadians, Swedes, Danes, Yogoslavs). After only the slightest hesitation, and only after India and Yugoslavia agreed to pull troops, the UN as a whole agreed, and UNEF withdrew from the Sinai on May 19. All these changes in the Sinai caught the Israelis a bit off-guard, and began a period known as ההמתנה, “the waiting”. It was the excuse the Israeli military was looking for. Within a few days, Israel went on high alert and begins a call up of its reservists, a debilitating blow to its economy. Once the reservists were called up, a clock began ticking which would inexorably lead to war.

The sabra generals were pressing for war and the diaspora-bound civilian leadership was counseling diplomacy. It was sometime in the 3rd week of May that Rabin first proposed a pre-emptive attack upon Egypt – and instigated a major call-up of reserves. Nasser dispatched his top general, Muhammad Fawzi, to Damascus, where he uncovered the nature of the Soviet false alarm, but now Nasser refused to back down. On May 22 Egypt declared a blockade on Gulf of Aqaba and closure of the Straits of Tiran, thereby blocking all shipping to theIsraeli southern port city of Eilat.

It was a week later that COS Rabin (who had been championing the pre-emptive war option unceasingly) had his famous 30-hour breakdown – he simply disappeared from the Tel Aviv battle headquarters known as "the pit." Some say it was a drinking bout; others claim it was a nicotine and caffeine induced panic attack. Whatever the case, the Israeli leadership moved into a kind of panic mode. Rabin's assistant Ezer Weizman ordered immediate preparations for an attack on Egypt, defying civilian authority. At one point Ariel Sharon suggested to the new Defence Minister Moshe Dayan that the civilian leadership should be locked in a room so that the generals could do their job -- as close to a military coup d'etat that Israel has ever experienced.

The Israeli PM Levi Eshkol was hoping to induce the US to come to Israel's aid and thereby subvert the military's pressure for war. The US tried to talk Israel off of a war, assuming the Israelis were exaggerating the Egyptian threat and suggested instead running an international regatta against the Egyptian blockade. But these negotiations proved fruitless, and on May 29 the Israeli cabinet voted 9-9 to go to war, essentially accepting President Lyndon Johnson's plea for a 48-hour extension. The waiting continued, even as the generals pleaded that with each passing day, the likelihood of easy success was being reduced.

On May 30, King Hussein of Jordan made one of the most fateful errors of his long reign. He flew to Cairo and placed Jordanian forces under Egyptian command. He had warm relations with the Zionists and admired them, but could not resist the siren call of Arab solidarity in the face of the growing provocative situation. By choosing to go to war with Egypt and Syria, Hussein put at risk his hold on Jerusalem and on the breadbasket of his kingdom, the West Bank of the Jordan River. The Israeli General Staff had 6 months earlier advised against occupying East Jerusalem and the West Bank in some future war, but once Jordanian artillery opened fire on West Jerusalem, caution was thrown to the wind, and Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in less than 2 days.

On June 2, Israel formed a national unity government, and for the first time Menahem Begin's Herut party joined an Israeli government. With all the parts of a national consensus in place, on June 4 - just as France announces an arms embargo to the Middle East, the Israeli civilian government relented, and -- with three dissenting votes -- agreed to go to war.

The war began on the morning of June 5. Within the first 3 hours of the war, the Israel Air Force essentially destroys the Egyptian & Syrian air forces. Israel destroyed over 350 out of 600 Arab planes, mostly on the ground. And in open-field warfare, he who controls the airspace wins the war.

Gaza fell on the first day; the blockaded Straits of Tiran on the 2nd. By June 7th all of the Sinai and East Jerusalem were in Israeli hands; the last few days of the war were devoted to Syria and Israel captured the Golan Heights.

The 1967 war resulted in Israel gaining 3 times its size (28,000 sq. mi.) in a week; all of the holy city of Jerusalem came under its rule; and it suddenly found itself the ruler of over a million Palestinian refugees, on top of the 600,000 living inside pre-1967 Israel. It is clear that the Six Day War was not intended as a war for expanding territory; but that was its principle outcome. The war changed the geopolitical structure of the Middle East.

The Six Day War was called last week by the British newsweekly The Economist “Israel’s wasted victory.” The magazine stated: “In the long run, the war turned into a calamity for the Jewish state no less than for its neighbors.”

Why the overly harsh judgment? First, argues The Economist, the war gave birth in Israel to a messianic religious interpretation of the sudden and one-sided victory. The Israeli population was preparing for a debacle, and instead was delivered a monumental victory. Intoxicated by victory, Israel embarked on a policy of dominating the region and settling the newly conquered lands. The settlement enterprise was largely driven by a new kind of Jewish fundamentalism, which has corroded the entire fabric of Israeli society.

Second, the Arabs were humiliated by defeat, and stung doubly by the inflated media reports of stunning lopsided victories against the Zionist regime, which turned out to be lies. The Arab political leadership would not engage diplomatically with a triumphant Israel. The three no’s of the Arab League Summit at Khartoum in September 1967 stated that there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” It would take 35 years for the Arab League to formally change its tune.

Third, the war united and reinvigorated the Palestinians. The Palestinian national movement had been ineffectual in the 1920's and 30's, and had become a pawn of larger Arab interests. Before 1967, Palestinians were scattered in Gaza and the Jordanian West Bank, riven by internal clan squabbles and corrupt leadership. Suddenly, Palestinians were gathered together in a common dilemma under Israeli occupation. Palestinian nationalism and armed resistance became an internal and an international issue, all because of the 1967 war. Yasir Arafat and the PLO found its lost voice through 1967.

In the 40 years since this war, there has been a sizable effort to move away from warfare and towards peacemaking – the 1973 war was an Egyptian effort to undo the humiliation of 1967, which opened the way for peace-making; since that war, Israel and Egypt and Jordan have established peace agreements.

But the Palestinian issue will not go away, because it hinges not on the '67 war, but on the '48 war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a territorial dispute to resolve the issues of the '67 war. But the Palestinian-Israeli conflict involves both issues raised by '67 and '48. The '67 issues are easy to solve; the '48 issues (e.g., refugees) are existential, and do not exist in the interstate conflict. Hence it is possible for an Egypt and an Israel to sign a peace treaty based on a readjustment of the Israeli border and dismantlement of settlements. But the domestically wrenching unilateral departure from Gaza brings no resolution for Palestinians.

From the Zionist perspective, the creation of the state is an act of self-defense. From the Palestinian perspective, it is an act of aggression. 1948 for Israel is the greatest victory of the Jewish people in 2000 years. 1948 for Palestine is the nakbah – catastrophe, disaster, & even“holocaust”; a traumatic defeat and dispersal of people. It is the formative incident of their identity.

In Arabic, a nakbah can also be a natural disaster (a tsunami); there is a sense that it is a trauma that is not your fault. It is not your responsibility. It is the Israelis’ fault.

The '67 questions are 3: borders, settlements, and Jerusalem. All of these have to do with Israel’s extent, width, and girth.

The '48 questions are 2: refugees, and national rights of Arabs in Israel itself. These are existential questions going to the very nature of the Jewish state.

So 40 years later, and while there are some reasons to think it was not completely a "wasted victory," it is certain that this 40 year-old war will be resolved long before the 59 year-old war becomes a memory.