Sociable

Saturday, December 2, 2000

Failure of First Major Attempt at Socialism

Two basic trends are making for a renewed examination of the issue of socialism. The first trend is the growing awareness that, even in times of relative prosperity, the world capitalist system is characterized by a number of serious, if not fatal, flaws. This trend found its expression in the struggle against the WTO in Seattle. Many, if not all of the young people involved – on a world scale - in this battle have come to understand that theirs is a battle against the system and not merely against some of its more sordid manifestations. Locally, this trend is expressed in the thinking and the attitudes of some of the new cadre in the Green movements.
The second trend is the rising interest in the social justice issue here in Israel. There is more and more evidence that governmental economic policies over the years have institutionalized many of the worst aspects of Israeli capitalism: large scale unemployment, poverty, economic polarization between poor and rich. Many “children of the establishment” are appalled at the sure and steady erosion of any semblance of social solidarity, and many of the younger generation from “the other Israel” are beginning to realize that the economic cards are heavily stacked against them and their families. Here, in this context, the dominant trend is the search for alternative policy framework accompanied by a deep reformist faith that a democratic upheaval can force a basic change in policy so as to “restore” social justice. Despite the reformist tendency of the criticism in the local arena, there is a growing awareness that most of the problems of capitalism in general and Israeli capitalism in particular are inherent and structural. The uneasy sense that the problem may well be capitalism, itself, is reinforced by the arguments put forward in the name of the system: the system is global in nature and leaves little or no room for local modification. These developments cause many young people to ponder whether there is any alternative to capitalism. Of course, the phenomenon under discussion is certainly marginal. That is, we are not talking about masses of people. But even so, Marxists must be as attentive as possible regarding these matters. Moreover, we are not the only ones to sense this appearance of a newfound social sensitivity among many young people. This being the case, we should sharpen our memory and our wits in order to prepare ourselves for a new round of socialist advocacy. This challenge I fear, is a lot more difficult than it appears on the first impression.Socialist Advocacy in the Post-Communist Era
There does not seem to be any shortage of effective and convincing evidence regarding the evils of capitalism. It should and can be exposed as a system that negates the most basic of human values, a system that prioritizes selfishness and aggression, a system that empties democracy of any genuine content. It is precisely the growing evidence of the ugliness of the capitalist system that evokes discussion of its alternatives.Analytically, the case for socialism must be made in the following way.We are fully cognizant of the fact that the socialist experiment developed through the October 1917 Revolution did not succeed. Our first step is to explain the highly specific nature of that experiment and how the overwhelming factors attending the revolution and its aftermath were not conducive to its success.
[The discussion of how and why the revolution failed to establish a permanently viable socialist state is pertinent only to the degree that it is probable that further attempts to establish a socialist society will suffer from the same kind of objective limitations and hostile environment. Nothing could be less productive than to insist that the study of the failure of the Soviet experiment will generate a newer, better and safer path to socialism].
What has to be re-established is the tendency of capitalism to be less and less satisfactory for greater and greater sections of the world’s population. This being the case, the people must invoke their right to revolt and to establish a new form of society that would deny the exploiting circles their access to the means of repression. Given the highly socialized nature, and the advanced state of technology of production, the problem of socialism is basically different than what faced the Bolsheviks. The message is that despite the fact that socialism has failed once, this does not mean that it must fail again.
In short, the failure of communism [socialism] does not, aside from psychological considerations, block the path to mass action for socialism, based first and foremost on the social control of the means of production. In order to pave the way for such action we must state and reiterate that the preceding failure of socialism in not, in any logical sense, a reason to believe that socialism cannot succeed in new, altered conditions.
Psychological Difficulties – Analytical Truth
I think that we have to convince ourselves that this is true before we will be able to carry this message forward. Our own doubts in this respect stem from a series of historically determined mistakes that characterized our own attitude to the socialist experiment. Indeed, these can be seen as lessons to be remembered in the heat of future battles.
1. We confused a highly specific and therefore tentative breakthrough against capitalism with the expression of the iron law historical determinacy.2. In the name of advocacy and solidarity, we surrendered independent judgment and analysis.
It is incumbent on us to summarize our mistakes and clear the path for new thinking and action. We must convince ourselves again that socialism is the only genuine alternative to the present regime and we must begin to add this dimension to our current struggles. With all the pain and sorrow involved in summarizing the world wide defeat in the first round of the fight for socialism, there are no real reasons for not returning to the deepest conviction that socialism and only socialism offers a serious life-preserving alternative to capitalism. This happens to be truer today than it ever was.

Sunday, October 1, 2000

The Movement Against Capitalist Globalization and the Socialist Left



After the events in Prague and the recent, impressive demonstration in Tel Aviv, it seems important to review the relationship between the new movement against capitalist globalization, and its local Israeli segment , and the more veteran revolutionary Marxist organizations. This relationship can be one of great mutual benefit or it can be a source of tensions. Since there are usually more than a few many minor sectarian organizations around which will volunteer to lead the mass movement and demand that it immediately adopt a clear unadulterated program of revolutionary socialism, it is our duty to warn clearly against any such arrogant and patronizing posture.
Even among consistent radicals, very few would currently subscribe to the axiom that the fate of socialism is presently in the hands of a specific revolutionary vanguard party. This was probably true at certain stages in the past and there is enough inner logic in the idea to prevent us from dismissing its potential relevance in the future. We might even argue that the existence of such a party is a minimum condition for the overthrow of capitalism. However, neither the overthrow of capitalism or socialism is imminent, though there is still a sound basis that they can be seen as historically inevitable. Given the rise of a broad, international movement against capitalism, the resumption of socialist education and the dissemination of an alternative socialist vision are indeed an urgent task and a duty of all radicals.
However, this duty must be distinguished from any effort to impose a socialist program on the massive, developing world movement against capitalist globalization and its horrific results. Certainly, the idea that the time has come to insert a socialist plank in the movement against capitalist globalization platform seems logical and reasonable. If hundreds of thousands of young people are saying “NO” to corporate capitalism, why should we not suggest that you must have a “YES” or a positive answer to the problems of our time. Though this approach is usually well intentioned it reveals a serious misreading of the nature of the broad movement, it underestimates its collective wisdom and innovative potential. If the attempt to impose a socialist program on the MACG is carried to its full logic, it will harm the movement and the stature of the left within it.
How the Movement Deals with and Solves the Vanguard Party Dilemma
The movement against capitalist globalization is built around a broad coalition of movements. This includes in addition to the strong representation of environmentalist forces, a broad array of radical movements suggesting revolutionary answers to the problems posed by globalized capitalism. No one objects if these, and all other component parts of the broader movement use the presence of the masses in the street for education and organization. Any group, seeing itself as a vanguard party, which would seek to dominate the movement, will find itself marginalized. It will then be able to comfort itself with the condemnation of the petty-bourgeois nature of the movement and its leadership. This, if I recall correctly, seems to have happened many, many times in the past.What Can be Done
The radical left, eschewing ‘vanguardist’ conceptions and pretensions, must be a model of devotion to the general, overall, interests of the movement. There are four key areas that can be addressed at this early point in the development of the movement. These are 1) the maintenance of unity and overcoming difficult contradictions; 2) the fight against cooption of the movement by the political establishment; 3) building and strengthening links with the unions and the organized working class; 4) active struggle for inclusion of groups and constituencies that do not gravitate easily to the movement’s style and substance. This program is the program of the radical left because it is based on the assumption that the interests of socialism and radical change will best be served by the growth and development of a strong and united movement against global capitalism.
Unity, in then present context means preventing arguments and splits around what appear to be serious conflicts of interest between component parts of the movement. When, for example, a government body claims to close down a workplace on grounds of pollution in the air land or water, eliminating tens or hundreds of jobs, the environmentalists must understand the needs of the workers whose livelihood is threatened. But the workers must also be allied with the forces that demand adaptation to environmental requirements that minimize health danger to the general population. In any event, joint demands against the government should include the interests of all parts of the public, except the profit making enterprises. They make the profits, they must make the adjustments to human needs. Yes, people and not profits.
A second aspect involved in the protection and enhancement of unity is the promotion of a movement code of conduct that starts out from the premise of complete freedom of activity along with abstention from any divisive actions. The distribution of written materials can proceed on the basis of the ‘more the merrier’. The uncoordinated use of loudspeakers or indiscriminate and disproportionate of use of controversial slogans are quite obviously a source of potential tensions. Total freedom of expression must not include the right to manipulate or distort the main, consensual messages of the whole movement. A wise leadership will generate a strong movement public opinion against divisive tactics.
Co-option
One has to be blind so as not to notice the massive attempts by the world financial and business establishment to co-opt the movement or large sections of it.Listen to their latest line: They have put out the word that much of what the movement against capitalist globalization has to say is valid. The demonstrators are invited in for dialogue and informed that much more could be achieved by working in the system and with its institutions - which also want to reduce poverty and lower debt and encourage sound environmental policy. These pious wishes are designed to weaken determination and to undermine militancy. The basic movement strategy is that fighting opposition in the streets will force concessions from the banks and the funds and their buddies. The stronger the opposition is, the greater the concessions will be. Let’s stay away from the cocktail parties and out of the boardrooms. Negotiations are, of course, part of the struggle. But when these will take place, they will be between the direct victims of capitalist ruthlessness and their direct victims – the super exploited workers, the dispossessed peoples. The subject of those negotiations will be practical and to the point, such as the reduction of super exploitation or new safeguards for the environment.
Turtles and Teamsters – All the Way
One of the most conspicuous gains, perhaps one of historical dimensions, was the cooperation between environmentalists and union leadership at Seattle The organized labor movement is a complex affair. As a rule, and this is true in Israel, it seems an integral part of the establishment. But the participants in the MACG should appreciate that there are serious contradictions between the labor movement and the establishment. The potential of the labor movement as a pivotal force for serious social change should never be forgotten or underestimated. This alliance must be forged on every level, with the national leadership of the unions, with the local union counsels and with the workers in the shops and enterprises.The movement against capitalist gobalization is an international movement based on internationalist principles. It must organize, within its ranks men and women, Jews and Arabs, Mizrakhim and Ashkenazim, veteran Israelis and new immigrants, religious and secular. Some sections of the public gravitate towards the movement, and the growing presence of middle-class educated youth in our ranks is evidence of its appeal. However, we must be conscious of a ‘distance’ between the movement, as it is composed today, and broad sections of the public and we must be aware that there are forces who will make every effort to distort and ridicule our message. A large element in our organizational efforts must be outreach to sections of the public, which are underrepresented in our ranks. The movement against capitalist globalization is a movement of the entire people and this should be reflected in its composition.
The benefits of the success of any progressive mass movement to the revolutionary left are obvious. In a period of mass struggle more and more people will respond to its organizational and educational activity. The prestige of the revolutionary left will also rise if and when its activist prove themselves loyal and devoted activists of mass movement as a whole.
Build Unity, Prevent Co-option, Ally with Labor and Reach Out to All

Sunday, July 30, 2000

Poem : Pulling Teeth at Camp David



Barak is oh so brave.
He said, listen Yasser,Here’s the deal.
You’re the sewage boss in these two quarters
And here’s a great big keyFor the New Custodian
Back home the Israelis fumed.
He’s crossed his own red line.
But Ehud knew why.
He was working on his alibi.
If we do not succeed forArab recalcitrance
Then we’ll send the kids to war
With utter confidence
Our cause is right
And with all our might
We will defend security,
Our holy places and unity
Bill is disappointed,
The Pals have yet to learn the game.
Despite all this diplomatic activity
They simply lack creativity.
From secret talks, nary a leak.
Hiding the gigantic Palestinian gains
Foolishly rejected.
And for what reason?
Ah, its the old rejectionist streak.
The day after, Bill revealed all.
The honest broker was in a ‘special relationship’
He told the world what the world already knew.
Ah, Palestine is fair, but Israel fairer still.
Woe to the Arabs. They will have to learn the price of incurring the wrath
Of Clinton, gums sans novicaine.

Everybody should just be wise.
Let’s solve this question by compromise.
Who needs the UN resolution
When Bill has the best solution
But Arafat, the dear old man
Just wasn’t buying any.
Myths and spin replete
In exchange for his patrimony

Friday, June 16, 2000

Shas, Barak, Sarid and the left



Barak Government Suffers a Stinging Blow – Its Stability Endangered and its Prestige Diminished.
Last Wednesday, the right-wing opposition in the Knesset succeeded in convincing three governmental partners to vote, in a preliminary reading, for a bill preparing the way for new elections. Barak had threatened the Shas party with dire consequences should its 17 member parliamentary group join the opposition. When Shas did precisely that and the government was on the losing end of a 61-48 vote, it became clear to all that Barak was bluffing and that he could not discipline Shas without threatening the very existence of his government. The only mystery was why this was not clear to Barak.
Parliamentary Background of the Current Crisis
Numbers are a vital element in the formation of a government on the basis of an elected parliament. Barak was highly successful against Netanyahu in the separate voting for the premiership. But, his party did poorly in the Knesset elections, dropping from 34 to 26 seats.. The right-wing annexanationist Likud, in addition to losing the premiership, also did poorly in the Knesset losing 11 seats of its previous 32 . The big winner was Shas, which emerged with 17 seats (more than a half a million votes) as against 10 in the previous. It was crystal clear that if Barak did not want to scuttle the peace process by including the Likud, and its rabid militarist leader, Sharon, in his cabinet, he would have to include Shas as a major partner. . This had to be done despite the fact that the tremendous Shas victory spread panic among large sections of the pro-Barak secular electorate. For many Israeli secularists, Shas is an anathema, an Israeli version of Iranian fundamentalism. Barak was certainly wise to reject the suggestion to invite the Likud, as a major partner, into his coalition. Such an act would have been properly understood in the Arab world and in the diplomatic community as a decision by Israel to turn its back on peace and to prefer domestic, internal peace with the Israeli right over any chances for peace with the Arab world. It was either Shas or the Likud, headed by that arch war criminal, Sharon. Shas was certainly preferable, despite its theocratic tendencies and its single-minded concentration on its own sectoral interests. The “Threat” from Shas
A few words regarding Shas are in order, especially for the non-Israeli reader who may be unaware of the developments that propelled this orthodox, Mizrahi, communitarian force, into the third largest faction in the Knesset with 17 out of 120 seats. Shas has increased its strength in every election over the last15 years.
What is the secret of its success? Who does it represent? Whom does it threaten? Shas is a success because it has rallied under its flag and channeled into its ranks the fifth of the population whose origins are in the mass immigration to Israel from the Arab countries during the first years of Israel’s existence, during the early fifties. The absorption of the new immigrants created a tremendous backwash of resentment and bitterness among the immigrants. We do not have the time or space here to go into the entire story, But, as a matter of routine, the newcomers were forced to adapt to the new conditions by changing their outward behavior, by joining the ruling parties, by learning how to please their superiors in the national and local political hierarchies. In Zionist lore, the absorption of the mass immigration is a success story, which proved, conclusively and thoroughly, the vital need for and the total justification for the young Jewish state. The Israeli establishment never stopped complimenting itself on the absorption and the modernization of huge populations. There was a tacit assumption that with their integration into the labor market (and usually the bottom rungs thereof), the new immigrants would learn to admire and adopt the values and the style of the absorbing society, which as the legend goes, was making tremendous sacrifices to ensure their successful assimilation. In immigrant eyes, the whole process was degrading, their traditions and customs were ridiculed, their own rabbinical authorities demoted and insulted.
In any case, we do know that the mass of the new immigrants felt exploited and manipulated, that they harbored deep and festering dislike, if not outright hatred for the apparatus, which unceasingly declared its dedication to their welfare. The Mizrahi population, along with its entrance into the labor market, was also co-opted into the lower rungs of various Israeli political parties and religious blocs. The story of Shas is the story of the progressive disenchantment of the Mizrahi masses from the predominant Israeli politics and culture. This process of alienation nurtured the formation of political blocs in the major political groups. From 1988, the Mizrahi, religious forces, banded around their own rabbinical authorities and created their own political party. In a relatively short period, this party grew into, for Israel, gigantic proportions. A set of complex and multi-faceted processes resulted in a new cultural and political identity of the Mizrahi masses.
In short, the Mizrahi masses resented the social-economic exploitation and the cultural discrimination that characterized their place in Israeli society. As they succeeded more and more in openly articulating their own resentment, the Ashkenazi establishment began to fear and resent the growing political and cultural strength of Shas. Through Shas, the Mizrahi masses have reasserted their own social dignity, their own values and aspirations as individuals, as groups and as a social movement. The characteristics of this movement do have something in common with the reemergence of fundamentalism as a political force in other places. However, there are also many highly specific characteristics of Shas that must be taken into account if we wish to understand the specific role of Shas in Israel. But this discussion will also have to wait for another occasion.

Stage Set for Conflict
The stage was set for internal cabinet tensions and crises when the Meretz leader, Sarid was given the Education portfolio, placing the Shas educational system under his departmental jurisdiction. Meretz, basically a dovish concentration, has come to symbolize, for many of its voters and opponents, the cause of militant anti-clericalism. Shas had used its growing parliamentary clout to build and develop, over the years, its own pre-school and elementary educational system. In this respect it is important to note that the national religious movement, the MAFDAL, (National Religious Party) the main political sponsor of the settler movement, runs its own massive, separate, educational system, and a separate system, run by the ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi groups is a permanent feature of the fractured Israeli educational network..
Shas has felt from the beginning of the Barak government that Sarid used his ministerial powers in order to starve and strangle its educational system to death. This same system is the very apple of the eye of its unchallenged aging spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Sarid claims that he is only doing his job in subjecting the Shas school network to a modicum of sound administrative and accounting practices. The conflict centering on appropriations for the Shas educational system has been festering for almost ten months. Barak, by virtue of his office, should have squelched the squabble in its earliest stages. Later, it became a wonderful opportunity for Ovadia Yosef to incite his followers against Sarid as the enemy of Torah and for Sarid to present himself as the last living barrier to Shas’s march towards a theocratic Israel.
Confused Priorities, Racist Tendencies
Shas does pose a serious problem for the secular majority in Israeli society. However, there happen to be several more urgent and pressing problems facing Israel. The first is the need to take advantage of what appears to be a serious opportunity to reach peace with its Arab neighbors. The cost, in human life and aspirations, of missing this opportunity is incalculable. Moreover, Israeli society has become, over the years, a classic example of the growing divide between the rich and the poor and is winning in the competition for the world record in the gap between the wealthy and the poor. These issues are more important than the religion-state issue and they are probably an important key for solving it. The relations between Shas and secular democrats must be seen in the light of the main priorities, peace and social justice.
Even if we assume that Sarid is right about the operational level of Shas school system, and this is far from certain, his intervention is inevitably seen by the hundreds of thousands of Shas supporters as the secular revenge for Shas’s successes. It would appear that the inefficiencies and inefficient administration of the Shas school system, to the degree that they do exist, are not something all that rare and unknown in the Israeli governmental apparatus. Shas is absolutely right when it feels that almost every area of administration would produce embarrassing data if and when submitted to tight financial, accounting and organizational surveillance.
While it is true that Shas’s theocratic tendencies are a genuine source of concern, it is also true, that many Ashkenazi middle class Israelis fear and abhor Shas on a racist basis. For them, the rise of Shas seems to be the rise of the rabble, and they are unable, or unwilling to understand that Shas expresses decades of exploitation and frustrations. The strength of fundamentalist sentiments cannot be vitiated by preaching modern liberal values to the victims of free market economic vicissitudes or by invoking socialist-Zionist ideals to a public which feels that it has been insulted and degraded by the socialist-Zionist institutions which ‘absorbed’ it into Israeli life.
Secularists who want to pursue the fight against Shas here and now and with all the power at their disposal claim that Shas is really a right wing outfit which will defect from the government in any critical vote on the peace issue and leave the peace camp high and dry. In Shas, there are such tendencies, but there are other, important counter-tendencies. Time and again, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has issued clear dovish statements that have the force of religious rulings. It is clear that Rabbi Yosef, the absolute leader of Shas, is in many senses, ‘to the left’ of large sections of his constituency.
No one can deny that Shas, as far as the peace process is concerned, is a typical fence sitter. It would be naïve to consider it as a consistent force for peace, but it would be equally wrong to refuse to make every effort to make it easier for Shas to join the peace front. This is no easy matter for it, as the peace camp is lead by militant secularists like Sarid and his party, Meretz. At any rate, Sarid’s eagerness to lead the campaign to modernize and rationalize the Shas school system has caused tremendous harm to the cause of peace. Given, the hard-line positions and the hawkish discourse of Barak and his main buddy, Foreign Minister, David Levy, it is hard to blame Shas for refusing to run up the flag of peace. It is hard to make demands on Shas when Barak and his government consistently hide from the public the truth that peace is possible only on the basis of genuine concessions. Barak, himself, has never inspired the peace process and constantly presents himself to the Israeli public as even less forthcoming than his predecessor, Netanyahu. When the Syrian peace track was effectively scuttled by Barak, neither Meretz nor the Labor doves, such as Beilin and Ben Ami, had anything to say. Why must Shas be more consistent than Barak who drags his feet, without any vision or inspiration? Is Shas, with its large nationalist, hawkish constituency, supposed to antagonize much of its own support by favoring concessions towards a peace that never gets off the ground? Is Shas supposed to go out on limb even as Barak and Levy continue to determine that Arafat and the Palestinians are ‘not ready’ for peace and ‘have not internalized’ the need for peace??
Barak has displayed every single one of his negative qualities in dealing with the Shas-Meretz crisis. First of all, he stalled and then he stalled some more, for months and months. Shas spoke with complete candor: unless its demands regarding its school system, phrased as a demand that all Israeli children be treated equally, were met, it would not consider itself a loyal member of the coalition and enjoy the option of voting with the opposition. Instead of solving the outstanding problem in the Ministry of Education, Barak decided, rather suddenly and petulantly that Shas’s behavior was unacceptable and that they had to prove their coalition loyalty before he would deal with their demands. He was bluffing and Shas called his bluff. Barak suffered a stinging blow when a 61–48 vote approved the first legislative step towards new elections.
Sarid dragged Meretz into a battle with Shas that could not be won. Unable to make up his mind on the issue, Barak convinced himself that Shas would have to recognize his special status as the prime minister. The Meretz-Barak ‘squeeze play’ on Shas flopped miserably and ended with a resounding victory for the right and the anti-peace camp.
Confused priorities in the Meretz leadership and Barak’s arrogance have pushed the government to the brink. This is especially appalling because these developments may well obliterate the shrinking prospects for peace. The peace process, as we all know, was not doing too well before this new obstacle was laid on its path. The death of the Syrian president, Hafez Assad, yesterday is yet another proof, if any such proof was needed, that time is a limited commodity in the Middle East.

Saturday, May 27, 2000

IDF Leaves Lebanon - Questions and Answers



Q. Barak has fulfilled his promise and pulled the IDF out of Lebanon, retreating to the June 1967 border. Isn’t he to be commended for this? Why does the left always refuse to recognize that the Israeli government and Barak can do good things?
A. Yes, Israel, it appears, is retreating to the international border. This, in and of itself, is a positive development. It does mean that the Hizballah cannot continue to claim that its fight is one of national liberation from foreign occupation. Any attack on Israel by Hizballah that would be based on the claim that it is part of the struggle to liberate Palestine is unacceptable. But it would be wrong and even naïve to disregard important official Israeli policy declarations that accompany the withdrawal. These threats dramatically escalate regional tension.
Q. Israel is merely demanding stability and security along its northern border. If the Syrians who control Lebanon join in an effort to pacify the area, then they have nothing to worry about. But if tension and violence continue to plague Israel, isn’t Israel justified in threatening to retaliate against Syria?
A. Israel has been victimizing Lebanon, in one form or another for twenty-five years. The punishment included full-scale war, frequent military incursions, massive interference in internal politics, exploiting sectarian tension, and extended occupation of Lebanese territory. Israel has established and armed pro-Israeli militia, destroyed parts of the country’s infrastructure, converted hundreds of thousands of its citizens into refugees and totally destroyed the fabric of social life during years of occupation.Realistically, Israeli withdrawal is only a first prerequisite for the creation of stability and normalcy. Tension, hostility, disputed lands, are just a few of the possible sources of violence. Israel has the right of self-defense, but knows full well that calm and quiet depend on many complex factors and processes. Instead of assisting in this process, Israel has declared that it holds Syria responsible for the absolute pacification of the area, and is threatening massive retaliation against Syria for any incident that involves the IDF or Israeli civilians.
Q. Barak would really be in real trouble domestically if the border re-ignites and would have to make a major move to deflect criticism against the withdrawal.Even if we condemn the Israeli threats, wouldn’t Assad be wise to avoid giving Barak any pretext for attack?
A. Syrian does have influence in Lebanon. But this does not mean that it can effectively police southern Lebanon, even if it was convinced that this is its responsibility. The needed pacification and reconstruction of the area require time and resources, which can be mobilized only on the basis of international agreements and a perspective of peace in the region. Barak knows that, in present conditions, absolute serenity along the border is highly improbable if not downright impossible. Despite this, he has announced that he will refuse to deal with possible tensions on a local basis and has committed himself to large-scale reprisals against Syria and the Syrian army.
Q. Why can Barak hope for U.S. and even UN support against Syria?
A. Hizballah’s success, in US eyes, requires some form of containment. This could come in different forms, including its conversion into a political force in Lebanese politics. Syria must demonstrate its respectability by, at the least, moving to restrict Hizballah. Syria is in some sort of diplomatic doghouse since it embarrassed Clinton at the Geneva summit. For the US, the details are not that important, nor do they care that the summit fiasco resulted from an Israeli-inspired attempt to force Assad to be a bit more ‘elastic’ regarding the border issue. Despite the present pressure on Damascus, it is very far from certain that Barak will receive international backing when he starts to bomb. Q. You, on the left, keep talking about a war and the threats of war. Despite morbid predictions, there has been no serious war since 1982. Aren’t your warnings a bit exaggerated and overblown?
A. When we talk about the danger of war and increased tension, we are not making a deterministic forecast that war must occur. The dangers and the tensions that we cite are real and demand the response of Israelis who sincerely want peace. Of course, there are countervailing forces and processes in international life. Of course, there are forces and interests that will not support Israel’s adventurist tendencies. However, it is important that peace forces in Israel stay alert and refuse to ignore the sad fact that we still have not witnessed any genuine shift or change in the guiding principles of Israeli policy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Leaving Lebanon

Precis: Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon does not signify a change in policy or in heart, but only a strategic shift. Israel now insists that Syria police the border for her or pay dire consequences. The United States, still peeved at Assad’s obstinacy at the recent Geneva summit, is helping Israel put pressure on Damascus.
No Cause for Rejoicing
Since progressive public opinion has been insisting for years that Israel withdraw from Lebanon unconditionally, some might argue that we are duty bound to complement Barak on his ‘brave’ step. Sections of the dove community indeed believe that Barak has finally, at least in one matter, done their bidding. It would be nice if things were so simple. Unfortunately, Israel’s decision to leave Lebanon does not auger any genuine change in the thinking of the political-military leadership Our refusal to rejoice stems from the simple fact that the Israeli withdrawal is accompanied by a series of threats that might ignite a full-scale war. These threats are part and parcel of a new, different and even more dangerous Israeli strategy. Israel found it politically and morally disastrous to fight a protracted land war against a guerrilla army in Southern Lebanon. This war had already resulted in hundreds of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was unable to bring its superior military technology and fire power into play. Soldiers died and were seriously wounded every week in a largely unsuccessful attempt to maintain control on the ground necessary to equip its forces and maintain its lines of supply. Modern western-style bourgeois democracies have somehow learned a lesson that it is imperative to stay out of this kind of confrontation, whenever possible. Instead, of the old artillery-infantry game, the latest doctrine suggests a military strategy based on air power and smart bombs.
Barak and the Israeli military establishment were far from having admitted defeat and the argument in the establishment and the media about the IDF presence in Lebanon was entirely tactical. Assuming tension and dangers along the border, is it better to defend the border by the so called security zone carved out of Lebanese territory, or is it better, considering the complications rising from the successful resistance to the occupation, to move back behind the border? The border, then, is to be ‘protected’ by military deterrence, and, if necessary, large scale bombing operations.
Before managing to leave Lebanon, the Barak administration did suffer a tremendous blow to its prestige and its deterrent capacity by hanging on to their illusions that the puppet SLA would survive an Israeli withdrawal. Barak and the IDF had hoped the SLA would use their weapons to negotiate some sort of lenience on the part of the Lebanese authorities. Instead, the SLA fell apart, forcing the IDF to leave ahead of schedule. The IDF military withdrawal was orderly, but its ally left in panic and total disorientation. Propaganda wise, it was a tremendous victory for the Hizballah. 1The Real Test
Unable to fight a land war, Barak has thrown the responsibility for the security along its northern border on Lebanon and Syria. The official Israeli view is that Lebanon is under de facto Syrian control. Should the Syrians fail to perform as demanded, they will be bombed. The rational for this kind of strategic planning is that if the Syrians really wanted to disarm the Hizballah, or any other potential threats to Israel they could do this.
Barak has justified the withdrawal by promising that any infringement of Israeli interests in the border region will be met with large-scale retaliation. . Even if we assume, that the IDF will act with angelic restraint regarding border tensions, incidents of various levels of gravity are so probable as to be almost inevitable. One could compose tens of scenarios that would spawn tension and armed confrontation by individuals and groups. For example, any minor action by any one of the many break away Lebanese splinter groups that have grown and developed precisely on the background of twenty five years of Israeli intervention in the internal affairs of Lebanon could serve as an excuse for a major Israeli operation. Given the near inevitability of further tensions and clashes on the border, Barak has used the withdrawal to issue himself a carte blanc to attack Lebanon and Syria. Barak has emphasized that he is not talking about retaliating against the local perpetrators of any small-scale violation of quiet along the border. Israel will hold Syria and Lebanon responsible for any disturbance in the border region. If they refuse to see themselves responsible for absolute quiet along Israel’s northern border, then Israel’s superior air power and the smart bombs will be activated to convince the Syrians that they are being derelict in their duty.
Thus, the Israeli withdrawal has been accompanied by the announcement of a clear, definite, new strategic doctrine. Israel will hold Syria responsible for absolute calm and quiet along its northern border. If Syria refuses this assignment or fails to fulfill it to Israeli satisfaction, then Israel will consider this a causa bella. The Israelis are claiming, with some degree of justification, that they have mobilized important international backing for their new strategic doctrine. Israel and the U.S. refuse that they must pay a price for its long-standing support for the SLA and very existence of the Israeli security zone. The zone was an essential element in Israel’s ambition to dictate policy to Beirut. This policy decimated Lebanese sovereignty and developed local forces that must be respected and heard if stability is to be restored to the region. No power play or strategic doctrine can fill the vacuum in Southern Lebanon. The sufferings, needs and aspirations of all the population of Southern Lebanon must be addressed. There must be international commitment to economic reconstruction and full respect for political importance of all the groups including the Hizballah. This is what is needed and not a new strategic doctrine that can ignite a new war in the region.

2
Why Must Syria Be Punished?
The accounts that we have of the failure of the Clinton-Assad summit raise more questions than they answer. We are asked to accept the following version:Clinton informed Assad that Barak is ready to withdraw to the June 1967 borders, except for a small stretch of footage on the north-eastern shores of the Lake of Galilee. Assad refused anything less than a full retreat. Barak refused to give in on his demand that the Syrians forego the pleasure of wading in the blue waters of the lake. Nobody has given any explanation of how Clinton was conned into a meeting with Assad without assuring that it would not end in a fiasco of mutual recrimination.
But the sloppy staff work by the White House staff, an interesting matter in itself, is not the main issue. Clinton, and this is quite certain, would not have agreed to meet with Assad unless all the other questions aside from the border question had been worked out in a compromise satisfactory to both sides. Why did Clinton decide to try and pressure precisely Assad, and not Barak, on the last outstanding issue of contention blocking a full peace agreement between Syria and Israel? Since the fiasco at Geneva, news reports have cited any number of possible compromises regarding the lakeshore frontage. Israel claims it cannot bend on the issue because this would endanger its water supply. However, the water issue was fully negotiated and solved to the satisfaction of all sides in a separate section of the agreement in the making. Barak, it appears was ready to convince the Israeli public that it was worth its while to make peace despite the loss of strategic advantage by ceding the Golan Heights. The strategically insignificant return of the Syrian to a few hundred meters of lakeshore would not have caused Barak any major problems. Of course, as it turns out, he did find it convenient to dig in his heels on the issue.
It is almost inconceivable that we are facing war between Israel and Syria instead of rejoicing in peace because of 150 meters of non-strategic property along the shore of the Kinneret. I find it hard to believe that this was the real reason for the breakdown, despite the fact that we do not have any other reliable information. I find it much more reasonable to try and fill in the picture by what we are seeing in the looming new round of Israeli-Syrian confrontation. The United States and Israel have decided to demand Syrian aid, assistance and cooperation in Lebanon as a precondition for any serious discussion of Syrian demands for the recognition of its own territorial integrity. In diplomatic terms, one might say that Syria must agree that its final acceptance to the U.S. alignment in the region, a process that began during the 1991 Gulf War, depends on its willingness to recognize Israel’s special, superior status in the region. Syria’s willingness to understand the facts of life will be measured by its role in establishing a new, stable situation in Southern.
Barak might succeed in convincing the U.S. to go along with its new plans.But Barak will find it more difficult to drag the U.S. with him into a new Middle East adventure. Right now, all the powers that be in the region are hurrying to reorganize Southern Lebanon. For the moment, Humpty-Dumpty is sitting on the wall.

Monday, April 3, 2000

Sweet Illusions - Rude Awakening

Since the Madrid Conference in 1991, diplomatic activity and policy shifts by the governments of the central players in the Middle Eastern fired the hopes for peace in the Israeli public. The Oslo Accords, and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and agreements, the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the fall of the Netanyahu government and the renewal of negotiations between Israel and Syria could reasonably be seen as evidence of forward motion. It was easy to see the delays, the retreats and continuing Israel settlement activity as functions of a tough negotiation posture. Many in the peace movement were ready to forgive Barak for unsavory declarations and ugly maneuvering. It was suggested that this sort of stuff helped Barak build up credibility with the hawkish elements in the public. The idea was that Barak could cash in on this credibility when settlements were finally hammered out. He would explain how hard he had pressured the Palestinians and the Syrians and how much he had achieved for Israel when he finally presented peace accords which had to be sold to all sections of the Israeli public.

There were other reasons to be patient. MERETZ and the Labor doves held high positions in the new government. The efforts to keep SHAS in the coalition were justified by their pivotal potential role in approving peace agreements. Barak set time tables for forward movement. The United States, and especially Bill Clinton, appeared very much to wind up the Israeli-Arab conflict before the approaching end of the Clinton presidency.

For the record, it must be stated that there were scattered voices that warned against any illusions regarding Barak and his intentions. But by and large, most people, encouraged by the media and their subjective hopes, felt that Barak was going to follow through on his promises to bring Israel into a new era of peace.

The Clinton-Asad Summit Fiasco

Towards the Clinton-Assad summit, Israeli intelligence sources had been vigorously selling the information that Asad would not scuttle a deal over short tracts of land near the north-eastern shores of the Lake of Galillee. Everyone agrees that this disputed territory has no specific strategic importance. It appears that these intelligence reports were marketed to the United States which was prepared to offer Asad all sorts of goodies for his readiness to cede the territory to Israel. The only difficulty is that Syria has stated again and again, before the talks and during them that its demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 borders was not negotiable. It said this to Israel, to the U.S. and to anyone else who was willing to listen.

The United States allowed itself to play a rather shabby role. It invited Assad to a meeting on the assumption that Israel had given it “something to work with.” The idea was that Clinton with additional contributions of what are called “sweeteners,” could close the deal. Neither Clinton or Barak dare to claim that Assad had ever given them any indication that he was willing to bargain on the withdrawal issue. Thus, the United States, seemingly in a big hurry, allowed itself to be used by Israel, a highly inappropriate action by a power which like to present itself as a honest broker and not a bone cruncher. There is deeper reason that the United States allowed itself to be exploited. By pressuring Asad, Clinton wanted to make it clear that Syria was not being invited into the regional alliance with a status equal in any sense to the key pivotal role of Israel.

Syria Must Be Taught A Lesson

Monday, March 6, 2000

Letter from Jerusalem

I fear that yesterday’s Israeli cabinet decision to withdraw from Lebanon by July of this year is not an occasion for too much rejoicing. First of all, attention should be drawn to the very clear ‘escape’ clause that calls for the reexamination of the withdrawal in a few months should it become clear that there is no chance for an agreement with the Arab side. Moreover, the deep concern regarding the Israeli decision stems from the relation between that decision and the stalemate in the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

In plain language, Israel is promising (or threatening) to leave Lebanon unilaterally in July, if no agreement reached on the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.Well what’s wrong with that? Why should we have cause for concern when the Israeli government plans to implement what has been for years a clear and consistent demand by the more militant sections of the Israeli peace movement? It is true that the left has been calling for a unilateral retreat from Lebanon for years. So what is the problem? Is it our habitual, irrational reflex to find fault with any and all decisions of the Israeli government?

The difficulty is that all serious commentators here in Israel see the Barak gambit as a form of Israeli military pressure on Damascus. Official Israeli propaganda insists that Lebanon is responsible for Hezbolla activity, but goes on to argue that anything and everything, including Hezbollah activity, that happens in Lebanon is subject to Syrian control and dictation. Thus, if tension of any sort continues after the withdrawal, Israel will reply militarily against Lebanon. This was the signal sent by the recent Israeli bombardment of Beirut.

The immediate reason for the portended withdrawal is no less ominous. Lebanon is widely seen here as Israel’s Vietnam. The relevant aspect here is that Israel, like its NATO mentors has decided that it cannot afford the domestic costs of land war in Southern Lebanon. The aversion for land fighting has not changed NATO policy for the better or convinced the United States and its closest allies to renounce of de-emphasize force in international relations. The solution is the adoption of high technology warfare. Israel has had enough of the face to face, high-casualty combat with the Hezbollah in the mountains and the valleys of Southern Lebanon. For Israelis it is a war of little glory and excessive pain. The solution is to fight Hezbollah by deciding to leave Lebanon and then to hold Lebanon responsible for quiet on the border. Should Lebanon fail in this mission to reign in Hezbollah, Israeli bombs over Beirut will convince it to “try harder.”

It is, of course, unclear as to how Hezbollah will use its new set of options. It will certainly enjoy tremendous prestige as the force that finally evicted the Israelis. It may, justly or not, consider the withdrawal as partial; it may, on the basis of its own ideological and political strategy, decide to continue or discontinue the confrontation with the IDF. At any rate, it has not made any binding commitments.

Should tension continue in Southern Lebanon, Lebanon will face the choice between policing the Hezbollah or suffering from massive Israeli retaliation against the Lebanese ‘infrastructure.’ Syria would be seriously humiliated, if its deep links with Lebanon prove to be helpless in the face of Israeli smart bombs. Thus, according to Israeli military thinking, if Lebanon cannot restrain Hezbollah, Damascus will either have to pacify Hezbollah or face an inevitable rise in tension between Israel and Syria. No one can pretend to make accurate and exact predictions on future developments here, but the logic of the present dangers is clear. If the peace talks with Syria do not reconvene and end in an agreement, then the arrow points to increased tension and danger of war. The Palestinian track remains paralyzed. The Israeli government claims that the Palestinians are throwing a tantrum to pressure Israel into concessions that were never agreed on. The Palestinians have a convincing list of unfulfilled Israeli commitments. There are more and more signs of frustration and despair among the Palestinians. Barak and Arafat have at least this in common. Both of their approval rates are plummeting.

Sunday, February 27, 2000

Backtracking with Barak

What was left of the peace process stutters, gasps and stalls. For the peace camp which supported him and voted for him overwhelmingly, it is becoming painfully clear that either Barak was never serious about real concessions for peace or that he cannot summon up the political courage to make the necessary concessions – a classic failure of nerve. The reader can choose his or her own version. The result is the same: dashed expectations, ignored deadlines, mutual recrimination. It wasn’t easy but Barak has “succeeded” in stopping the peace process dead in its tracks simultaneously on all three tracks. Quite an achievement when one considers that very recently Barak was being complimented for having created a situation in which he could play one track off the other.
This diplomatic catastrophe is a direct result of Barak’s illusions that he could move towards peace without clashing with the settler right and its political allies. The ability to confront and disarm the settler right appears to be the only genuine litmus test of any sincere desire for peace by an Israeli politician. We will never know if Rabin would have passed this test, but it is clear that Barak never came to grips with the problem. The settler right continues to threaten the government with vicious, violent confrontation should it make any serious move towards peace. Moreover, the settlers in the Palestinian territories have found a new lease on life by teaming up with the Golan settlers. Barak has waffled every time he had to make a clear move that would mean a face off with the settler right and its allies in the government. This is why he backtracked on his own commitment towards meeting one of the most modest of Palestinian demands (transfer of a single neighborhood in the Jerusalem district, Abu Dis), this is the reason that Barak refused to talk business in Washington when the Syrian-Israeli talks renewed. We do not have to know whether Barak is merely using domestic pressure as a subterfuge or whether he himself never intended any real moves towards peace, hoping to use his international prestige to force the Arab side into agreements which conform with Israel’s political and strategic needs. The end result is the same. These policies guarantee frustration and violence in the not too distant future.

Israel’s strategic decision to stand pat and try and force the Arab side into a new round of painful concessions suffered a serious blow from the Hezbollah. It was quite ignominious to suffer serious political and strategic defeat from a small guerilla type movement at the very moment that Israel was trying to prove to the entire Arab world that it has no choice but to surrender to Israel dictated terms on all the fronts. This is the reason that successful resistance by the Hezbollah drove the Israeli body politic over the wall. It is difficult for the Israeli regime to admit that it has lost a serious local war in Southern Lebanon. The loss of seven IDF soldiers in less than a week, after a period of relative quiet, threw the military and political establishment into panic. Barak had to renew his promise for withdrawal from Lebanon by July with or without an agreement. However, given the murky political scene, a unilateral withdrawal can be interpreted as a power gambit against the Syrians and a direct threat against the Lebanese government. Thus, the Lebanese government will be held responsible for curtailing the Hezbollah, no simple matter after the latter can justly claim the credit for expelling Israel and the IDF from Lebanese territory. Barak’s decision to attack the Lebanese infrastructure in Beirut, in addition to being a retaliation for Hezbollah successes, is a sign of how Israel intends to respond to Hezbollah actions after the IDF will leave Lebanese territory. Thus, the IDF withdrawal, instead of relaxing tension, will tend to ‘up the ante.’ Instead of cutting its losses, Israel is ready to convert the war which it lost to the Hezbollah into a major confrontation between Israel and Syria, Lebanon and Iran, all of whom have sinned by recognizing the Hezbollah right to resist Israeli occupation. Theoretically, the Israeli withdrawal could solve the problem, but things are usually not quite that simple. Almost anything can go wrong with a unilateral withdrawal.

Recidivism – Back to the Stuff

Any neutral observer will be shocked and pained to see how easily Israel has slipped back into previous forms of addiction. Any political or military setback is an excuse for threats and war hysteria. The setback set off a series of internal developments demonstrating that the Israeli state apparatus is in a state of extreme dysfunction. After the spate of losses, the Chief of Staff, Mofaz, openly demanded greater ‘freedom of action’ from the political echelon. This open challenge to the political echelon supplied incontrovertible “proof” to the right and the public that Israel’s losses in Lebanon had indeed stemmed from hesitation and indecision at the top. The generals on the front began to badmouth their own ‘crybaby’ soldiers and came out with a vicious attack on the media and peace movement. Our ‘dovish’ Foreign Minister decided ‘to save the peace’ by warning the world that the Lebanon would go up in flames and that Israel would take vengeance, ‘blood for blood, child for child.’ Levy, visibly in a state of extreme excitement, demanded that his audience here and abroad understand that he was issuing this warning in the name of peace, so that Israel would not have to implement his horrible threats. In this kind of atmosphere, it was only natural that he remind the Israeli public that Israeli Arabs are supporters of Israel’s enemies.

Perhaps the saddest element in the picture is the dire lack of any serious opposition to the attack on peace by the Israeli government. Barak and his intimates had never really agreed to moderate their hegemonic, hawkish discourse during the negotiations. Barak’s main effort was to convince the public that no one (even Netanyahu) could be tougher on the Arabs. The Israeli in the street could only conclude that this peace was a kind of war by other means and that Barak was going to teach the Arabs that they could never expect to get anything that inconvenienced Israel and the settlers.

This dominant discourse was not challenged by those elements in the ‘peace camp’ who assumed, mistakenly and fatally, that it was just a clever technique for convincing the right to go along with Barak. In these circumstances, how can one fault the general public, which has been conditioned to see the whole process as one of unilateral Israeli generosity. The public was made to understand that Israel had all the cards and total military superiority at its disposal.

Neither the Meretz ministers nor the leading doves in the Labor party were willing to challenge Barak’s moves. Meretz, despite Barak’s candid declarations that he considers himself closer to the settlers, allowed Barak all the leeway in the world. Barak was supposed to bring the right into the peace camp, but instead the right effectively turned him around. Some Meretz leaders will try to place the blame for the crisis on the Arab side, citing the recent flood of ugly rhetoric from Arab sources. But the chain of cause and effect is clear. This time it was Israeli policy, Israeli military action and Israeli rhetoric, which buried any hope for peace. The Israeli right is rushing to defend the government and Meretz spends its time debating marginal elements in Barak’s policy. So far, it has assumed total responsibility for Barak’s policy and its inevitable results. Instead of exposing Barak’s full-scale retreat from peace, Meretz keeps hoping that , at the last minute, Barak will swoop out of the dark sky and rescue the peace process by some spectacular and daring moves. However, it will be very hard, if not impossible for Barak to make any concessions at this point without admitting that he and his policies are responsible for the impasse and the crisis.Thus, before our very eyes, the peace process is deteriorating into a process of preparation for a new war. The elements of escalation and destabilization are already in the air. One can already hear the Israeli apologists in the Western media explaining that Barak, as the leader of a democracy, had to go slow because of legitimate domestic considerations. But the truth is that less than a year ago, in the May elections, the Israeli electorate gave Ehud Barak a totally convincing mandate to make peace. The forces which openly opposed the Oslo process were roundly defeated and totally marginalized. Barak has squandered a clear mandate for peace and the entire region may have to pay the price.

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Letter to the Editor

Dear sir,

Ehud Barak enjoys the support of the dove public for resuming peace talks with Syria. That support is especially justified considering the difficult battle facing him to have an agreement ratified by a general referendum. Even so, it does not necessary follow that those supporting peace with Syria must or should embrace Barak’s tactics in the negotiations. In particular, one must question the refusal to announce Israel’s readiness in principle to retreat to the June 4th border. The Syrians might not be the most pleasant partners in negotiations. However, they did make it clear in all contacts – open and secret – that concessions on their part regarding the various elements of an agreement are conditional on Israeli readiness to retreat to the June 4th border.

Netanyahu has claimed in a recent letter to Ha’aretz that he refused to agree to a return to the June 4th border. He also asserts that he refused to renew the negotiations at the point that they were broken off so as to evade a valid Syrian claim to the effect Rabin had indeed agreed, in principle, to such a retreat. Barak’s associates claim that Netanyahu did agree in principle to return to the June 4th border. All agree that Rabin had agreed, in principle, to the 4th June withdrawal. Why then should Barak block the path to peace with the Syrians by backtracking on an obligation that seems to have been clear to all concerned.

Everybody wants to show that she (or he) is a tough negotiator and that he (or she) are nobody’s easy mark. However, Israeli agreement to renew the negotiations with Syria is not a step towards peace without the readiness to withdraw to the June 4th border. Barak’s inflexibility on this cardinal issue is rather mysterious since it is clear that the negotiations take place on the “everything is agreed or nothing is agreed” principal. Israel can announce its readiness to accept the June 4th border without in any way weakening its demands regarding security arrangements, water rights and normalization between the two countries, and any other matter that it considers important. It is very convenient for us to ascribe the present crisis in the talks to Syrian obstinacy, but we should not ignore the severe contradiction in the government position. Israeli recognition of the June 4th border can be a catalyst for achieving a peace agreement that will insure Israel’s vital interests.