Sunday, March 14. 2010
Justin Elliott: Conservative Bloc Prevails in Latest TX Textbooks Standards Vote: I take two positives away from this news item. One is that Kansas is no longer in the running for dumbest state school board in the country. The other is that it will be all the more obvious to Texas schoolchildren that their teachers are lying to them -- an insight that will prepare them for a lifetime of political flacks and businessfolk of all stripes. Neil Postman once wrote that the most important thing a student can learn is to develop a fine-tuned bullshit detector. Texas students are sure going to get a lot of practice. Of course, in the long run ignorance only gets you so far. Sooner or later you need to learn something, and it's actually easier when you're young, so in that regard this is a tragic waste of youth, as well as a self-defeating assertion of mindless authority.
It's always tempting to read too little into the recent contretemps between VP Joe Biden and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel timed its announcement of additional settlement building in East Jerusalem to coincide with Biden's arrival to try to force engagement in some sort of back-channel talks with rump PA president Mahmoud Abbas. The least Abbas could insist on was a settlement freeze, so Netanyahu's government's action was a deliberate attempt to undermine whatever scant chance the talks might have had. The Obama administration had also insisted on freezing settlements over a year ago, but had yet to push back when Netanyahu failed to restrain the settler movement. Still, this timing was shock enough to force Biden to "condemn" the plans -- a position that was reiterated by usually compliant state secretary Hillary Clinton. In widely reported "private" talks, Biden lectured Netanyahu on how failure to make progress on Palestine was endangering US troops in "Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan." To my knowledge, that is the first time any official US source, at least since 2001, has identified Israel-Palestine as a liability, hence as a strategic interest, to US interests in the region. All of this suggests that Obama is finally trying to get back in charge of the diplomatic initiative he started over a year ago with appointment of George Mitchell. Obama has become widely viewed as an ineffective leader, mostly due to his inability to lead Congress, but he has more effective power to direct foreign affairs, so this would be one way to burnish his credentials as a world leader -- a long shot, given Israel's past performance, but also a huge win if he can only pull it off.
For his part, Netanyahu has more experience than any other Israeli leader at thwarting American wishes for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he is very good at it. It mostly means that the Americans have never been serious enough persistently enough to overcome Israeli resistance -- even though there have been clear instances where Israel has bent to US will: the Madrid talks forced by Bush I (which, by the way, resulted not in agreement but in Shamir's loss to Rabin, which in turn led to the Oslo agreement), and Bush II's embargo of military aid which held Sharon to go through with his Gaza disengagement plan. If he wanted to, there are lots of ways Obama can apply pressure on Israel -- both behind the scenes and out front. He could even give Israeli voters reason to change their government, which would not be hard to do given Netanyahu's rickety coalition.
As always, the question is American willpower. Before Biden left, he conceded that, "the United States has no better friend in the community of nations than Israel." As Paul Woodward pointed out, this is on its face ridiculous. Israel may have no better friend than the US, but the US has plenty of friends who cause us no trouble and don't require the constant stroking that Israel does:
Early on, you should recall, Netanyahu's game plan was to pump up the Iranian threat and insist that the US solve that before getting engaged with the Palestinian issue. Unfortunately, Obama obliged, instead of pointing out the obvious: that the two are separate and independent fronts, connected only in the sense that a Palestinian settlement would make Iran much less threatening even without Iranian agreement.
Woodward has another update here. Also see Stephen M. Walt: Welcome to Israel, Mr. Vice-President. The most interesting paragraph here came as an aside:
One way to look at this is to imagine Israel as being caught in quicksand: the more they struggle, the quicker they sink, but they have to struggle, because they're sinking anyway. The quicksand is the fundamental contradictions at the root of their power: the idea that they can fight the entire world forever to establish a Jewish State that can lord it over everyone else who happens to be in the way. In this they are struggling against history: against the main thrust of the last century toward equal and individual rights, and against the declining power and influence of their imperial sponsors, who are themselves ever more conscious of how Israel stands apart.
Israel exists to a large extent because of David Ben-Gurion: in particular because of his cunning in playing off the various angles of world opinion. Regardless of which angle he was playing, he was always consistent in his endgame: that Israel should emerge as a respected member of the world community. Israel has lost that aim, and with it any hope for living peacefully in a world which really, deep down, is ever more disenchanted by war. The turning point was the 1967 war, which the retired Ben-Gurion opposed, at least until he got a glimpse of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and blinked. (Of course, there were other turning points, as he built up Israel's military juggernaut, as he played up the trauma of the Holocaust in the Eichmann trial, as he compromised his secular-socialist ideals in deals with the religious right and any white colonial power that would work with him.) But in his quest for respect, it's hard to imagine him turning down the Arab League proposal of recognition in exchange for return to the pre-1967 borders: that very deal would have been the vindication of everything he stood for.
On the other hand, Netanyahu can't make that deal, because Israel has swallowed the poison pill of the settler movement. To do so would tear the right apart in Israel, and there is no left anymore (cf. the Gideon Levy quote in There has never been an Israeli peace camp). As such, there is no Israeli political force that can extract the country from the quicksand of its delusions. That leaves the US, which isn't much hope given that we're stuck in our own quicksand, but at least it's easier to recognize someone else's problems. And it's certainly positive that Obama, Biden, and Clinton even, have begun to see that this quicksand is something we share -- that may even justify all this talk about there being "no space" between Israel and the US.
PS: Some more info on why the above took place is in Paul Woodward: Isreal is putting American lives at risk and the article quoted/linked to: Mark Perry: The Petraeus briefing: Biden's embarrassment is not the whole story:
Israel's reaction to Biden's visit was to announce that it was building more settlements, explicitly contrary to US policy (not to mention a couple of UN Security Council resolutions). Then:
Also: Dmitry Reider: Israel Punks Itself: A little something on Israel's latest PR campaign. The author sums up: