Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wrap - August 8 thru 20

Lessons from Islamabad
Aug. 20, 2008

When Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf shook hands with prime minister Ariel Sharon at the UN General Assembly in September 2005, Israelis hoped they were witnessing the dawn of a new era in relations between the second most populous Muslim state and the world's only Jewish one.

There remain Israelis who think Musharraf's resignation on Monday "was a major loss." Others believe Musharraf simply wanted to capitalize on that handshake, along with an unprecedented address to American Jewish leaders in order to bolster his image in Washington as a Muslim moderate.

He never even came close to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. He did, however, let it be known that the Palestinian problem "lies at the heart of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond."

Musharraf's analysis demands a high degree of gullibility. One would have to believe that a car bombing at an Algerian police academy which took 43 lives; the deaths of 10 French NATO soldiers at the hands Taliban guerrillas near Kabul; and a suicide bombing outside a hospital in northwest Pakistan which claimed 25 lives - all incidents that took place yesterday - were somehow attributable to the Palestinian problem.

Of course, what more accurately "lies at the heart of terrorism" worldwide is the convulsive struggle now taking place within Islam itself, pitting those who want accommodation with Hindu, Christian, Jewish and other civilizations, against fanatics who demand total capitulation from the "infidels."

MUSHARRAF'S departure after nine years in power contributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty. Who will replace him? What of the war on terror? Most critically, who will control Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?

Pakistan is a failed state. It cannot provide for its 165 million people, 32 percent of whom live in abject poverty. The regime does not exercise control over large swaths of its territory. Washington, which has funneled $10 billion in military assistance to Islamabad only to discover that much of it was misdirected, would like to believe that Pakistan will "remain" an ally against the Islamists. It hopes bickering Pakistani politicians led by Asia Ali Zardari (the assassinated Benazir Bhutto's widower) and Nawaz Sharif will agree on a presidential successor. And it prays that the 18-member National Command Authority, mostly military types, will keep a tight rein on Pakistan's 150 nuclear warheads.

Musharraf claimed that A. Q. Khan, the scientist who proliferated nuclear know-how to Iran, was a rogue actor, and Washington found it expedient to accept this explanation. Now there is talk that not only will Khan be fully rehabilitated, but he just might become the country's new president.

Pakistan's military is now led by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. He presumably also oversees the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (which he headed from 2004-2007). The ISA has a murky history of divided loyalties.

In a match made in hell, it was Pakistani intelligence that first brought together Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's Muhammad Omar.

Events in Pakistan are not easy to gauge and often seem incoherent. Western analysts surmise the army does not want to fight radical Muslims, preferring to save its powder for use against India. Yet in the past 11 days, not a few Pakistani soldiers have been killed fighting pro-Taliban gunmen. Meanwhile, the head of Afghanistan's domestic intelligence agency insists that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban insurgency. US intelligence officials are reportedly convinced that Pakistan helped plan the July 7 bombing of India's embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people. And the main suspects in the assassination of Bhutto are Islamist warlords with ties to the ISI.

SHORTLY AFTER 9/11, then-US secretary of state Colin Powell gave Musharraf an ultimatum: "You are either with us or against us." Pakistan's leadership opted to cooperate with the West, champion moderate Islam and appease Islamist forces within the country.

In a sense, Pakistan has been "with us and against us."

Western observers can draw at least two lessons from the Pakistani experience. First, instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan is mostly endemic; if the Arab-Israel conflict were solved tomorrow - in its entirety - the impact on south Asia would be marginal. And second, Western leaders should stop deluding themselves about the utility of working with Muslim counterparts who cannot - or will not - deliver on their promises.

Mullahs in space
Aug. 18, 2008

The 15th day of the Muslim month of Shaban fell on Saturday. It is one of the holiest days in the Shi'ite calendar, the birthday of the 12th Imam, or the hidden savior known as the mehdi. His return at the end of history is to herald a messianic era.

Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a devotee of the hidden imam. The Iranian leader has spent a fortune refurbishing the Jamkaran mosque, a shrine outside Teheran dedicated to the mehdi.

At 7:06 p.m. Saturday, Ahmadinejad commemorated the Imam's birthday by having an entirely Iranian-manufactured satellite, the Omid (Hope), launched into space. The event was also meant to underscore what Iran can achieve despite being "under heavy sanctions" as the Iranian media put it.

Iran's military, too, noted the significance of the launch date, "On the birth anniversary of the last Imam of Shi'ites, Hazrat Mahdi (May God Hasten His Reappearance), thus illustrating the auspicious name of the Imam in space."

Such messianic references may be lost on Westerners. That does not make them any less consequential.

SATURDAY'S launching may also have been intended to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities as well as announcing that Iran was already a regional power to be reckoned with.

Geography is sometimes even more consequential than ideology. Russia was a major power under the czars, communists, and is now resurgent under the popular autocrat, Vladimir Putin.

Persia once swept westward into the Middle East building an empire that encompassed Egypt, Babylon, and the Greek colonies in Anatolia. Its ruler, Cyrus (circa 539 BCE), granted Jews the right to rebuild their Jerusalem temple demolished earlier by Nebuchadnezzar.

Alas, Iran's present-day leader has other plans for the Jews.

Were Teheran to achieve regional hegemony the consequences would be profoundly destabilizing. For the mullahs are fueled not just by geography, politics and nationalism, but by a sense of invincible messianic imperialism. Their ambitions may well extend beyond our region.

THE DIMINUTIVE 20-kilogram Omid satellite is of minor concern to Israeli observers - one called it "space junk." And it will take a while for analysts to determine whether the satellite has achieved a stable orbit. If not, the effort will be judged a failure.

The Safir (emissary) vehicle that carried Omid into space is an improved version of the Shihab-3, which has a demonstrated range of about 1,500 km. (930 miles) - capable of reaching Israel. But the Jewish state has long been within range of Iranian missiles.

The implicit message of the latest launching may be directed at Europe: The Islamic Republic already has surface-to-surface missiles capable of reaching parts of Europe. It is just a matter of time before the Shihab-4 extends that reach even further.

Iran's achievement in space also provides insight into the scope of the country's military industrial complex. Ahmadinejad boasted that 7,000 scientists and engineers were involved in the satellite project. Iran has uranium mines and facilities to enrich the mineral so as to produce a controlled nuclear reaction; it has the brainpower necessary to militarize these capabilities. It certainly appears poised to achieve the capability of placing a nuclear device on a ballistic missile.

IRAN IS explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel - so Jerusalem must worry day and night about Teheran's nuclear program. At the same time, the Iranian military industrial complex is so vast, advanced and diversified as to make incredibly complex any last resort to military action.

Europe and the international community, meanwhile, dawdle rather than apply the kinds of meaningful sanctions that could conceivably force the mullahs to reconsider their bellicose posture.

Thus by avoiding a confrontation with Iran today, the international community is setting the stage for a far more perilous future - and not just for Israel.

Is it not clear how emboldened, empowered and belligerent the mullahs already are? The threat to world peace grows exponentially with each week, each month.

Either the Iranian regime must be made to go, or a strategy needs to be developed to ensure that Iran does not attain the military capability to achieve its imperial aspirations.

There really are no other options.

Boundaries for Israel
Aug. 14, 2008

Early this week Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly handed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Israel's detailed proposal for a "shelf agreement."

Olmert offered an Israeli pullback from 93 percent of Judea and Samaria, "compensating" the Palestinians with territory from the Negev. A 40-km. link would provide unfettered passage between Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized and "right of return" for refugees would be exercised almost entirely within "Palestine." The Jerusalem issue would be put off by mutual consent.

The Prime Minister's Office did not deny the proposal, reported in Haaretz, which aims to preserve settlement blocs such as Ma'aleh Adumin and Gush Etzion. Israel's hopes for Ariel, the strategic Jordan Valley, and other places were not revealed.

According to the proposal, after the "shelf agreement" is signed, the Jewish communities on the Palestinian side will be evacuated in a two-stage process: the first, voluntary relocation and compensation; the second - presumably involuntary - contingent on the Palestinians fulfilling various commitments.

By Tuesday night, however, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh provided the Palestinian response: "The Israeli proposal is unacceptable, it is a waste of time. The Palestinian people will agree to a state with territorial contiguity only in a way that includes Jerusalem as its capital." Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian negotiator, described the report as full of "lies and half-truths" - a public relations campaign against the Palestinians.

BEYOND the intriguing question of why the story was leaked by the Israeli side, what impresses is how faithfully and unwaveringly Erekat and Abu Rudeineh adhere to the Palestinian line. They demand an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 boundaries; territorial contiguity; the "right of return;" Jerusalem as their capital; and the removal of all Jewish communities beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines.

By contrast, to this day Israel has yet to officially declare which territories it insists on retaining in any deal with the Palestinians. This black hole in Israeli diplomacy explains why international public opinion believes, wrongly, that Israel should be, and even would be, prepared to withdraw to the 1967 "borders" assuming the details can be worked out. It will be an uphill battle to disabuse the world of the notion that Israel can safely return to the indefensible 1949 Armistice Lines - and to make a clear and unequivocal case for the borders the Jewish state can live with.

GRANTED, IT sometimes seems as if the Abbas-Olmert talks are being conducted in an alternative universe.

Discredited and unpopular, the premier has already announced he's stepping down. The chances of him winning Knesset ratification for any "shelf agreement" are close to nil. Abbas has limited influence in the West Bank, and none in Gaza, which he has lost to Hamas. A referendum among West Bank Palestinians alone would have limited legitimacy.

Yet the bargaining is very real, taking place on several planes - between the two sides, among the parties' internal constituencies, and in the arena of global public opinion.

As to substance, the Palestinians may well be right that the issue of Jerusalem and the holy places can't reasonably be postponed. For what future would a shelf agreement have if, at the end of the day, no accord was reached on Jerusalem?

Hard-nosed specificity trumps vague, feel-good pronouncements. For any deal to garner support from the Israeli mainstream it must nail down the tough issues, especially in the security realm. For instance, would "Palestine" have the sovereign right to invite Iran to establish a military presence on its territory? The Palestinians are demanding an airport and seaport. They want an army. What is Israel's position on these?

THE STATUS quo is untenable politically, diplomatically and demographically, making a two-state solution the preference of most Israelis. Yet Palestinian spokesman are saying that unless Israel capitulates to their maximalist demands, they will promote a one-state solution - aimed at the demographic destruction of Israel.

That's why Israel needs to define, finally, the boundaries of the Jewish state in the context of its vision for a viable two-state solution - and to place the onus for failing to achieve "two states for two peoples" squarely where it belongs: on 100 years of Palestinian intransigence.
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Rationalize the budget

Aug. 13, 2008

The most reliable indicator and truest measure of a society's priorities is how it allocates its resources. You can tell a great deal about Israel by studying how it spends its money.

The Finance Ministry has unveiled its proposed NIS 319 billion budget for 2009 and on Sunday the cabinet will begin debating what legendary political scientist Harold Lasswell called the politics of "who gets what, when, and how."

Approval by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet would bind the next Kadima government (assuming one is formed). The Knesset is obliged to pass a national budget by December 31.

Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On cunningly submitted two alternative, comprehensive schemes for cabinet consideration. Since the Treasury is loath to increase either taxes or government spending, both versions demand that ministries make do with less. In one version the bulk of savings would come from defense; in the other, the axe would fall more heavily on social programs.

"Budget 1" would command NIS 2.1b. in defense cuts, along with NIS 117 million in social spending reductions, and a cut of NIS 30m. in monies for local government. "Budget 2" would cut NIS 900m. from defense, but NIS 1.2b. from social welfare, while hacking NIS 160m. off local government.

Bar-On recommends Budget 1 - cutting defense so social programs suffer less. Too bad he hasn't offered a third, less draconian and more equitable reduction plan.

To be fair, Israeli "hyper-pluralism" - in which single-issue parties act as if there was no collective interest - tempts the Treasury to rule with an iron hand. Recently, for instance, the legislature went off and spent NIS 740m. beyond the NIS 301.5b. budget for 2008 without making provisions for covering those new expenses.

REGARDLESS of which 2009 budget is adopted, the Treasury wants to cut subsidies for extra-curricular education, road safety instruction and government contributions to the health funds. Citizens will have to pick up the slack. We will also likely be paying more for public transportation, saying farewell to educational television and the post office bank, as we know it - perhaps, gasp, even to the police orchestra.

The news isn't all gloomy. The Treasury wants to spend more on improving the infrastructure in the periphery; to create incentives for cheaper cable and satellite television; and to press transit cooperatives into purchasing more large-capacity buses.

THE PROCESS by which Israel develops its budget is not the most rational method for allocating resources. With the Finance Ministry's monopoly on the data, there is really no one who can authoritatively challenge Bar-On.

Who is in a position to ask whether cutting defense makes security sense? Could citizens trust self-interested Defense Ministry bureaucrats' claim that proposed cutbacks go too deep? Did the Treasury take into account that procuring weapons systems is not like buying widgets, and that annual budgetary fluctuations can wind up costing more than they save? Can the Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee be counted on to scrutinize the defense budget and make informed decisions?

In the social sphere, the Treasury proposes to reduce the universal child stipend from NIS 153 to NIS 135. As a bargaining chip against Shas, which is demanding an increase in child allocations, this may be a smart political gambit. But if the goal is genuinely to save money, what does Bar-On propose to do with that money?

Israel needs to develop a culture of budgetary oversight beginning with the ministries themselves. The Treasury must stop demanding across-the-board cuts that slash blindly at deserving and undeserving outlays alike. Instead, the prime minister should be demanding that his ministers go through every item in their budgets, then propose rational savings to the Treasury.

The Knesset needs to establish a nonpartisan structure - akin to the US Congressional Budget Office - to objectively evaluate the Treasury's budgetary proposals. Perhaps the existing Information and Research Center of the Knesset could evolve into such a mechanism.

Moreover, individual MKs need resources to hire expert staff who can help them evaluate the budget, make informed decisions and conduct oversight hearings.

Instead of a false debate that asks MKs to "choose" between security and welfare - why not develop the tools for informed and rational decision-making?
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Putin's pique

Aug. 11, 2008

Russia has been teaching Georgia a bloody lesson on the consequences of crossing the Kremlin. Having reportedly forced Georgian forces out of contested Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will Moscow now accept an EU cease-fire proposal?

Moscow may also have wanted to teach Europe and the US a lesson about the limits of their influence in Russia's "near abroad" - the Caucasus included. For instance, it may be signaling the futility of circumventing Russia by using Georgia to pipe natural gas and oil originating in Central Asia and bound for Europe.

It may also be teaching the world a lesson about the consequences of forcing its ally Serbia to acquiesce in Kosovo's independence. Finally, by making an example of Georgia, Moscow may be sending this not-so-subtle message to Poland and the Czech Republic: Don't let the US install an anti-missile shield on your soil.

How the fighting in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia was ignited isn't easy to determine; nor is it, at this stage, of paramount importance. Maybe President Mikhail Saakashvili was keeping his promise to impose Georgian rule on the separatist areas, and Russia acted only after its peacekeepers in South Ossetia were attacked. Maybe, by responding to alleged provocations in those areas, Saakashvili was, foolishly and impetuously, giving Vladimir Putin a pretext to invade.

THE AREA'S intricate and complex history suggests that today's political conundrums are deeply rooted and intractable. Long under Persian and Turkish domination, (Christian) Georgia was grateful, in 1801, to be incorporated into Czarist Russia. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Georgia became independent, but was forcibly annexed by Russia in 1921.

It was during the Soviet period that the stage was probably set for the ethnic and national tensions now playing themselves out. The old Soviet Union encompassed 53 administrative and territorial subdivisions reflecting the complexity of its ethnic and national mishmash. The Communist Party gerrymandered Georgia's borders to include the autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - Stalin's way of playing off various ethnic groups against each other to protect the center's power.

The Abkhaz always wanted to be part of Russia. The Georgians, fighting to preserve their own culture and language, saw them as tools of Moscow. In order to diminish the influence of the Abkhaz within their autonomous area, Georgia settled its people there. Paradoxically, the Abkhaz are also worried about being smothered by Russia's embrace.

Ossetia's story is similar. Stalin divided the Ossetians into two regions and placed South Ossetia inside the borders of Georgia.

Thus was created a situation in which the Georgians constantly worried that the minorities in their midst were a fifth column, while those minorities found themselves under unwanted Georgian jurisdiction.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the autonomous areas sought to join Russia. Bloody conflicts were waged in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia during the early 1990s. Ultimately, Russia brokered a cease-fire that was policed by its forces acting under the rubric of the Commonwealth Independent States.

That left the situation, as James Traub, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine put it, with Russia threatening Georgia, and Georgia threatening both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

THE DISQUIETING question of the day is: What will now satiate Putin? Not only have his forces defeated Georgia in the separatist areas; by taking the war into Georgia proper, the Russian leader seems intent on humiliating Saakashvili and perhaps driving him from office.

Though Georgia is a US ally, Putin must be taking with a grain of salt Dick Cheney's admonition that Russian "aggression" will not go unanswered. No one imagines that the US would go to war with Russia over Georgia - even if America were not tied down in Iraq, Afghanistan and also worriedly focused on Iran.

Putin may have set out to make an example of Georgia. But in the process he has also brought relations with the US to a post-Cold War nadir and provided useful instruction to, among others, Europe and the Ukraine that a resurgent Russia will not hesitate to use disproportionate force to achieve its political objectives.

These lessons may yet come back to haunt him.
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The Russian riddle

Aug. 10, 2008

It was Russia's use of disproportionate force against Georgia, its relatively defenseless neighbor - and not the Beijing Olympics - that dominated the weekend news.

In the wake of a roadside bombing that killed six of its police officers, Georgia sought to retake the disputed enclave of South Ossetia. The Russian military is forcing it to withdraw.

Russian-supported rebels in another contested region, Abkhazia, have meanwhile launched a separate assault against Georgia.

As in many international flare-ups, neither side is completely right nor completely wrong. Yet the world may be witnessing a resurgent Russia attempting to reassert influence over territory it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

AS FATE would have it, the bloodshed comes days after the death of Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, at age 89. Solzhenitsyn was as fierce an opponent of Soviet Communism as he was a champion of Russia nationalism.

He left a testament of astonishing power that bears great relevance today - even after the tyranny he helped defeat lies in the dustbin of history.

In 1945, after serving in the Red Army, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to a labor camp for making a disparaging reference to Stalin in a letter to a friend. Horrified by his glimpse into the dark heart of the Soviet Union, he resolved to tell its terrible secrets. In his eight years of imprisonment, he committed tens of thousands of lines to memory.

After he was released, but still under the most difficult conditions, he penned a series of searing novels - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and The First Circle - that illuminated the horrors of the prison camp hell which devoured tens of millions of his fellow citizens.

But what finally destroyed Western illusions about the Communist experiment was Solzhenitsyn's monumental non-fiction exposé, The Gulag Archipelago.

Writing in impenetrable solitude, its dissident author said he wished to carry "the dying wishes of millions whose last whisper, last moan, had been cut short on some hut floor in some prison camp." In doing so, he added, "it seemed as if it was no longer I who was writing; rather, I was swept along, my hand was being moved by an outside force."

The masterpiece was smuggled to Paris, where its publication got Solzhenitsyn expelled from the USSR in 1974 - but not before it had sensational effect. "My face was smothered in tears," one Russian wrote to the author. "All this was mine, intimately mine, mine for every day of the 15 years I spent in the camps."

LIKE ANY hero, Solzhenitsyn had his flaws. In the 18 years he lived reclusively outside Cavendish, Vermont, certain reactionary habits of mind came to the fore. He found Western democracy "weak and effete" and regarded Westerners as afflicted by shallow materialism, moral flabbiness and complacency. "Excessive ease and prosperity have weakened their will and their reason," he intoned.

When Solzhenitsyn returned after the Soviet collapse, such sentiments, together with a heavy dose of Slavophilia and Russian Orthodox piety, would eventually endear him to Vladimir Putin. The former KGB man admired the writer's idea that after the struggle with the Communist state there loomed a greater challenge still: resurrecting the Russian spirit and reviving its national memory.

The Russian leader also applauded Solzhenitsyn's insistence that Russia was a world apart. "Any ancient, deeply-rooted autonomous culture... constitutes an autonomous world, full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking," Solzhenitsyn said. Last June, Putin visited Solzhenitsyn's home to give him Russia's highest award, the State Prize.

His fervent support of Israel notwithstanding, Solzhenitsyn was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism. In his last book Two Hundred Years Together, a history of the Jews in Russia, he emphasized the prominent contribution of Jewish revolutionaries to the Bolshevik seizure of power.

Yet, in the end, Solzhenitsyn presents us with the example - urgently needed just now - of a writer of the highest moral seriousness, a man of unyielding honesty whose decision to expose injustice and identify evil carried enormous personal risk.

Today's Russian leaders, no less than their Soviet predecessors, could benefit from a patriot-prophet to remind them that war-making is an unhealthy basis for national renaissance.

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