Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Jewish Problem—And Ours

In 1963, the young editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, wrote a strangely confessional article (the first intimation of what, full-blown, would become his style), which he called “My Negro Problemand Ours.” Its disquieting point, made the year of the March on Washington, was that too much hatred attached to race for integration ever to succeed. Podhoretz offered himself as evidence, confessing to the fear, envy and contempt with which he had grown up in Brooklyn under the siege of “Negro gangs.” Those streets still seemed to him world-historical ground: “There is a fight, they win and we retreat, half whimpering, half with bravado. My first nauseating experience with cowardice, and my first appalled realization that there are people in the world who do not seem to be afraid of anything, who act as though they have nothing to lose.”

His solution was radical, and a little titillating, given his admitted weakness for blacks’ “physical grace”: racism could be ended only by mixed raced marriages, what was called (though not usually by people from the Upper West Side) ”miscegenation.” Ultimately, whites and blacks would pair off, have children, and raise up a new American type; “the Negro problem can be solved in this country in no other way.” Indeed, if his own daughter should wish “to marry one,” Podhoretz wrote, he would “rail and rave and rant and tear out my hair,” but then he would hope to have the “courage,” the manliness, to do his “duty” and offer his blessing.

What then of the future of American Jews? Podhoretz wasn’t sure, but then he also wasn’t sure why he should be sure. “I think I know why the Jews once wished to survive, though I am less certain as to why we still do. They not only believed that God had given them no choice, but were tied to a memory of past glory and the dream of imminent redemption.” Podhoretz thought it unnecessary to add that educated American Jews did not think this way anymore. Except for the (quaint) Orthodox—or except in the metaphorical sense—Jews did not really believe they had commandments to perform. The categorical imperative was to get a degree.

Indeed, Jews now had choices, not the least of which was how to make something interesting of Jewish origins once they had moved to Manhattan—to a world far removed from the Manichaean street fights of an immigrant childhood. This was a world where (as Podhoretz would put in his 1967 book, Making It) one might give orders rather than take them, have money rather than live in poverty, gain fame rather than die in obscurity. To call oneself a Jew was also a choice, of course. His childhood persecution—a tiny American token of the immense persecution just ended—made this somewhat daring and even cool.

But was it really interesting being, as Jonathan Miller put it, Jewish? Simply to spite anti-Semites? What would hold the next generation of American Jews together if organized synagogue life felt vaguely faked; if, for all the differences, one could feel oneself in a shared culture with James Baldwin—who admitted, at least according to Podhoretz, that all blacks hated whites; if the Ethics of the Fathers seemed okay, but not quite up to Whitman? “In thinking about the Jews,” Podhoretz wrote, “I have often wondered whether their survival as a distinct group was worth the hair on the head of a single infant.”

PODHORETZ HAS GROWN ashamed of his article, I bet, but I always thought it qualified as poignant—not, clearly, for his extrapolation from schoolyards to public policy, or his creepily sexualized panacea, or the histrionic way he grasped intermarriage. Rather, I was (and remain) impressed by the open-spirited way he questioned the future of American Jews, indeed, the way he unselfconsciously seemed to confuse American Jews with open-spiritedness itself. For the up-and-coming audience Podhoretz knew he was writing for, it was Jewish to be ill at ease, to be for the underdog and against phonies. As Lenny Bruce had it, Ray Charles was Jewish, Eddie Cantor was goyish, fruit salad was Jewish, lime Jell-O, goyish. Making sense of these distinctions made us tortured. Tortured was also cool.

Was this Jewish culture? Well, it was culture made by Jews. We had Bernstein and Bellow. Roth had Bernstein and Bellow. As my late friend (and Podhoretz’s eventual foil), Dissent’s editor Irving Howe put it, American Jews lived on “the questions.” Israel, for its part, was providing something more like answers, something more resilient and demanding, rooted in Hebrew, there for the long haul if it could survive its siege. But for American Jews before 1967—whose Major Organizations had not yet turned Jerusalem into their Epcot Center—it was American liberalism that was the triumph. Israel’s victories were admired all the more because, after the European horrors, the country was seen as something that remained distantly valiant and progressive. The Weavers sang the songs of Jezreel Valley pioneers in a medley with anthems of Republican Spain. This made Israel a really Jewish state.

And those of us who were younger, who came into our own in the Sixties, also took for granted this amorphous, self-critical enlightenment that Podhoretz took for granted. It fit with the natural defenses of classical liberalism we experienced at the university. We were citizens, there was a commonwealth: nobody had—as JS Mill had written—a monopoly on the truth. No book was sacred, but the right to interpret books was. The constitution was our real Torah, Justice Brandeis, our Rashi.

Our parents loved Brandeis too, of course. They counted -steins and -bergs during the Nobel announcements; they circulated, half-conspiratorially, the real names of Jack Warner and Bennett Cerf. Which was fine with us. If Sandy Koufax wouldn’t pitch on Yom Kippur, then there wasn’t much we needed to add. Yet we, in contrast (or in spite), spoke also of Mill or Orwell or William James at the dinner table; we plotted a graduation somewhat more ambitious than the one our parents had planned for us. Some of us even thought to take our dream of civil society to, of all places, Israel, which Commentary’s articles by liberal young Israelis (e.g., Amos Elon) seemed to invite—but that’s another story.

Most of all, I suppose, we loved the civil rights movement, for all the obvious reasons, and not only because Rabbi Heschel marched with Martin Luther King. Actually, few of us knew who Heschel was except for the fact that he marched with Dr. King. Podhoretz tried to tell us, in his 1963 article, that our “abstract commitment to the cause of Negro rights will not stand the test of a direct confrontation,” that Jews would flee to the suburbs, send their kids to private schools, etc. But here he was missing his own point. The civil rights movement was not something we did for “Negroes.” It was the very way we defined ourselves, defined the civil society we fervently saw ourselves helping to shape. Our problem was not—as Sophie Portnoy (the real spiritual guide of the neo-cons) had it—that Jews were at fault for being “too good.” Our hunger was to live in certain kind of America. It would be spacious enough for “the questions,” for a sense of tragedy, for self-criticism, for anomalies like us, free at last.

I AM RECALLING Podhoretz’s article now because there is something about the current presidential election that is teasing out a moment of truth for American Jews much like the one that article once punctuated. Specifically, there is Barack Obama, whose personification of integration in this old liberal sense can’t help but make Jews question not only what they want, but who they are.

It did not take long for the young Podhoretz to conclude that, instead of marrying African-Americans out of existence, it was simpler to push them around in ways that, as a child, he could not imagine doing. By the 1970s, his magazine was, among other things, challenging affirmative action and publishing tendentious articles about race and IQ, turning Stokely Carmichael and Ocean Hill-Brownsville into a new assault by Negro gangs. (I wrote about all of this at length in “Breaking Faith: Commentary and the American Jews,” Dissent, Spring 1981, from which some of these ruminations are borrowed.)

Still, Podhoretz’s real breakthrough came, not when he reimagined blacks as more or less permanent adversaries, but when he reimagined Jews as a more or less permanent interest group—when he reimagined the old liberalism as a trendy behaviorism and argued that “Jewish interests” (protection of wealth, “support for Israel,” etc.) required nothing more than a common sense use of power.

This may seem an academic point but its implications cut very close to the bone now. For what exactly do Jews (or all of us, really) mean by a society of choices? The liberalism we once knew assumed fallible citizens, skeptical of received wisdoms, struggling to come up with some common, provisionally defined good. Podhoretz assumed us to be atomized bundles of appetites, organized into “socialized” groups, getting what we can from a competition for inherently scarce goods (like money, power and fame). Old liberals were interested in rights; now we were right to have interests. Hannah Arendt once wrote that this behaviorism can’t be realistic, but it can win.” More recently, Jon Stewart put things more sweetly when he told Chris Matthews that his world of power, interests, and manipulated perceptions (so much like the one Podhoretz embraced in 1970s), was “sad.”

What’s the Jewish interest? I’ll leave that to Podhoretz and (the latest tough he’s attached himself to) Rudy Giuliani to tell Florida today. But what if this was always the wrong question? What if American Jews are not an interest group but restless, loosely connected citizens—curiously proud of (what Aharon Appelfeld calls) their “fate,” not Christian but not unChristian, no longer immigrants, educated and well-off, to be sure, but still not quite comfortable, looking to make sense of themselves in an evolving America? What if, by choosing, they show themselves who they are?

THIS IS, PERHAPS, a very roundabout way of saying that Barack Obama got me with hello. Pretty much everything he’s said and done since he started his campaign makes me proud to have voted for him (by absentee ballot, from Jerusalem). But I would be less than honest if I did not explain why voting for him makes me feel like a Jew in America, and in Israel for that matter, in a way I haven’t felt for a very long time. I think of Obama’s candidacy a little like the way I think of my first vote for Pierre Trudeau in 1967, or the emergence of the European Union in my lifetime. It is a kind of show-me-don’t-tell-me proof that the essential premises of liberalism, which Jews have championed since 1848—by which they have defined themselves since Heine—are, well, true.

I know there is something terribly uncool about this. I should, presumably, focus on the subtle differentiators of Obama’s policies, like Paul Krugman and the mandates. I would shrug off Obama’s attacks on anti-Semitism and at least take seriously that his church once honored Farrakhan, as Richard Cohen warns us. I would be skeptical about callowness, as Leon Wieseltier warns himself, plumping for the new McCain; I would, like Wieseltier, not be taken in by Obama’s suave, since Wieseltier (“I am myself not unsuave”) troubles to instruct us on “how much it accomplishes and how little.” I am old enough to know better, or certainly old enough to know how suave it is to show off that I know better.

Indeed, if I weren’t uncool I would just focus on Obama’s political virtues, his detailed progressivism, his efforts to run without polarizing electors, his hundreds of thousands of donations, his courses on the constitution, his intellect, his story, his cadences. I would, like Andrew Sullivan, want to see his as the face of America, as we try to redeem America’s place in a dangerously small world. Since I live half my life in Israel, I would emphasize his evolving approach to Middle East peacemaking, his hint that we all know what the deal is, that it is time to get it, his reliance on foreign policy people who seem both realistic and fair, his even-handedness, his cosmopolitanism, his willingness to talk with all parties, his insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed cannot be ignored any longer.

But none of this gets at the big opportunity here. Imagine, by analogy, what it felt like for Frenchmen, a couple of generations after the Dreyfus Affair, to vote for Leon Blum in 1936. Don’t tell me that the only thing at stake was who was the most experienced Social Democrat to govern “on day one.” (And please, New Republic editors, if you are reading this, don’t respond that Blum had failed by 1938; Obama will have the first Congressional majority without Southern Democrats ever, not a tragic alliance with Communists following Stalin’s zig-zag line.)

Anyway, to those of us who’ve been heartsick since the assassinations, the debasement of commercial television, the political triangulations, the vaguely reciprocal threats of creationism and hip-hop, Obama’s voice sounds just prophetic enough. Der mensch tracht und Gott lacht, my father used to say, “Men strive, God laughs.” Fair enough. But I have, I’m afraid, a dream.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Eyeless in Gaza—What About Sderot?

The UN Security Council is debating the situation in Gaza. But what about Sderot, which Israel is trying desperately to protect? Israeli representative Gilead Cohen demanded at yesterday's session: “What would Security Council members do if London or Moscow, or Paris or Tripoli were being bombed? Would you continue to sit with folded hands?”

The full argument would go something like this: We left Gaza. There are no settlements anymore in Gaza. No sooner did we leave than Hamas began sending Qassam missiles down on our heads. Some land near schools: it seems inevitable, God forbid, that one will eventually hit a school. The children of Sderot often have to be treated for shock; they and their teachers go to shelters every day. And now the United Nations is, of all things, condemning us for trying to put an end to this reign of terror. So we are cutting off electricity and imposing a siege, yes, but we are not sending explosives at random into populated areas. Sderot, in contrast, does suffer random violence and is becoming a dying town in consequence. What state would stand idly by and forebear such a thing: the loss of one of its towns, its citizens crouching in shelters. How dare the enlightened world treat us this way? (Can it be some kind of double standard imposed on Jews?)

This is not exactly a bad argument. It is also not exactly a credible one. The suffering of Sderot is insufferable, and any reasonable person must conclude that the resort to Qassam missiles, like the resort to suicide bombing—to terrorism in general—is the product of a totalitarian mind. (I wrote about this at length in 1979.) But what Israelis simply have to get into their heads is that the reason why the people in the West seem so indifferent to Sderot, why they focus their empathy instead on the candlelight in Gaza, has almost nothing to do with current claims of who started it or who is fighting fairer. Rather, their reaction is something like the reticence you feel when a heavy smoker you know finally contracts lung-cancer. This has all been building for a very long time.

Let’s ignore the fact (though, obviously, Gazans do not) that the Gaza Strip was originally populated by refugees who fled a war zone in 1949 and were then not permitted to return to their homes. You can argue that Israel could not let them return.

Let’s ignore how Arafat and Fatah had been thunderously welcomed to Gaza in 1994, after signing the Oslo Accords and promising “the peace of the brave,” only to see Hamas rise as peace-talks stalled under Bibi Netanyahu. You can argue that at least some of Fatah’s loss of face is explained by Fatah’s own corruption.

Let’s ignore how, as Chris Hedges wrote in 2001, the time of Oslo proved a time of mounting despair, including a halving of Gaza's GDP. You can argue that economic hardship is the result of a mutually destructive escalation.

Let’s ignore the fact that when Israeli forces go after the people they suspect of firing the missiles, they often hit innocent bystanders, so that the attacks can seem random to the families of innocent civilians who are killed. You can argue that intentions do matter here, that Qassams are inherently instruments of terror, while Israeli actions kill innocents accidentally.

What cannot be ignored, what people in the West cannot possibly get out of the back of their minds, is that during the past forty years Israel has maintained its occupation in order to create Greater Israel. You cannot argue away almost half a million settlers, moving in everyday, little by little, bringing roads, the army, and closures. On this biggest question, people in the West have had plenty of time to assess the claims and counterclaims. They think Israel has been not only terribly wrong but self-destructive.

Israel finally pulled 8000 settlers from Gaza in 2006. But that is a little like cutting down to only one pack a day. When the Sharon government evacuated Gaza, it did so without any effort to reach an agreement, but rather under fire, as in Lebanon. It openly admitted that this unilateral move would be followed by a unilateral annexation of territories around major West Bank settlements and, of course, Jerusalem.

Now, under the Annapolis framework, Olmert is trying to stop new construction in the West Bank. But he still refuses to halt construction in the outskirts of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the wall and closures have made the West Bank, where Hamas does not rule, a Gaza-in-the-making. What can you say that has not been said?

“Our real problem is that we don’t have a prime minister who can govern,” an old friend of mine told me, a professor in a teacher’s college in Sderot, who runs with her students to the shelters every day”; “We’ve had one prime minister after another, who has been a hostage to right wing parties and their vision. We can’t talk to Hamas, we can’t talk about the division of Jerusalem, Lieberman will leave, Shas will leave.”

“I sit in the shelters intimidated like everybody else. One day I was in a parking lot and the missile exploded right in front of me. I could hardly move for an hour. But now I sit in shelters, often with Bedouin students, and I am trying to think what they are thinking. With these missiles trying to kill us. But these missiles coming from their own brothers, who are fighting a war they can hardly disagree with.”

Should the army have moved in? “What will that achieve, other than to make more mothers cry. More families broken, here and there. They are making these rockets with sugar. Sugar. We are going back to the Romans. We don't need Western sympathy. We need their intervention.”

Monday, January 21, 2008

Eyeless In Gaza—Also In Jenin

I must be the hundredth blogger to refer to—actually, defer to—the work of Gideon Levy, Haaretz’s veteran correspondent in the territories. If you have not heard of him, think of someone with the physical courage of George Orwell and tenacity of I.F. Stone. He has written two remarkable articles this past week-end on the subject of my last post, which I hasten to add to the argument. If you missed them, do not miss them here.

The first piece is a report from Jenin, which most Israeli journalists do not dare to enter anymore, in part because this would put them in mortal danger, but mainly because of the moral danger:

“The pictures of death from Gaza reach Jenin on television, but young people are killed here as well, almost every week. The latest victim fell in the neighboring village of Al Yamun. Fawaz Frihat was 17 and a half when he died. The IDF invades the city's refugee camp every night, sowing panic and sleeplessness. There are almost no wanted men left here, but the IDF doesn't give up.

“The Palestinian soldiers never dare to enter the camp itself. The residents' bitterness toward the PA is reaching new heights: 'Has the PA already solved the refugee problem? Removed the Israeli occupation? Protected the residents from the IDF? And now only the problem of the stolen vehicles remains,' Zbeidi adds bitterly. After his second car was confiscated, Zbeidi's youngest son, who is around 15, went to the Palestinian police checkpoint and tried to grab a weapon from a policeman. He wanted to avenge the blow to his father's dignity, and in the end was arrested for a few days. It could have been worse.”

The second is an opinion piece about Gaza:

“Has the daily mass killing in Gaza improved the security situation? No, it has only made it worse. Has it reduced the number of Qassams? No, it has led to their proliferation. So why are we killing? We need ‘to do something’ and there needs to be ‘a price tag.’ These are hollow cliches. A review of recent newspapers presents a clear picture: As long as the U.S. president was still in the country, Israel refrained from liquidations, and the number of Qassams decreased. When George Bush left, we resumed killing and, as a result, Sderot has faced the most difficult days it has ever known. The burning question that arises is: What are we killing for?

“For every ‘senior Jihad commander,’ for every Qassam launcher killed, seven others immediately emerge. The killing is useless, and the defense establishment boasts about it only to satisfy public opinion.”

This is not the first time (what we call) our world has seen this kind of thing. It may be the first time it just looks away. Things were no less bloody and hateful in Northern Ireland during the “troubles,” or Sarajevo during the Balkan War. Is it presumptuous to ask what method of cease fire, inclusive negotiation, international force, and investments worked there?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Eyeless in Gaza: Geometric Logic

This has been a terrible week. If you haven’t noticed—and you probably haven’t, because it would be like noticing a new patch of a Jackson Pollack painting—Israeli forces have been exchanging cruelties with Palestinian “militants” again. The IDF has killed something like 30 Palestinians since Monday (mostly in Gaza, and mostly from the air) while about 120 more Qassam rockets have landed in and around Israeli towns bordering on Gaza. I won’t say who fired first; it would get us back to the Balfour Declaration.

Defense Ministry officials say they will expand the war against terror—that this is a “difficult” war but Israelis will win it. When you are a hammer, every problem is a nail. So I will offer an axiom, implied here before, but worth stating more bluntly.

Military forces can compel obedience and secure areas; however, they cannot by themselves achieve the political settlement needed to resolve the situation. The focus must expand to include governance, provision of essential services, and stimulation of economic development.

Okay, that’s not me, it is actually General David Petraeus from his famous work, Counterinsurgency. I will, however, offer some corollaries.

*Expanding the war against Gaza militants by a factor of X also expands the pool of Gaza militants by a factor greater than X.

*Expanding the war against Gaza militants by a factor of X, expands support in the West Bank for Hamas by a factor of Y. That is why the Gaza Islamists are taunting the IDF and inviting an invasion.

*Israeli action cannot intercept the flow of arms and explosives to Gaza, since they come through Egypt; to act forcefully against Egyptian control at its border with Gaza may bring an end to the Israeli-Egyptian peace, or bring a possible reintroduction of Egyptian forces in the Sinai, or bring down the Mubarak regime, or all three. Defense officials have not been willing to risk this.

*Where there is official talk of a new invasion of Gaza, like the one in 2002, there is parallel silence regarding how the invasion of 2002 did not intimidate Hamas or Hezbollah in 2006, or indeed, prevent the new invasion now anticipated.

*A new invasion will anyway not preclude new missiles, or their threat, when the IDF vacates the area; and the IDF cannot stay in Gaza without becoming sitting ducks for a counter-counterinsurgency.

*The term war against terror really means that our kids are killing their kids; and if a rocket or terrorist will get me, the person who fires the rocket or blows me up will also be a kid.

The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that our only hope for ending this sociopathic drift begins with a cease fire, while negotiators rush to come up with a deal too fair for Hamas supporters in the West Bank and, eventually, Gaza to reject. As Petraeus wrote, at least before he took over in Iraq, a big part of the calming must be a legitimate political settlement secured by international forces. Just about any configuration of “the deal” will work to Israel’s advantage, moreover, since Israel’s intellectual capital will, over the coming generation, become indispensable for Palestinian youth, as they move to “governance, provision of essential services, and stimulation of economic development,” and away from the consolations of the gang.

A final definition, for the word “fair.” I wrote last week about the professors’ strike, which was finally resolved this morning on terms the Treasury could have offered a couple of months ago. But for reasons not worth going into just now, this is a country where all government officials seem to believe that they cannot find out what is fair unless they find out what the other side’s “red lines” are, the way a rug merchant supposedly discovers the point after which you walk away. The most important thing to avoid is being a “friar,” in Israeli parlance, a sucker.

How do we know what Palestinians will accept? Presumably, you push them to the wall, or build one. One result of this form of bargaining can be seen in this picture, which I took this morning, while walking my dog. The clothes you see lying by the garbage bin were left by some neighbor; every Friday, the day before our Sabbath, which is the Muslim Sabbath, a Palestinian father from the Hebron hills, or East Jerusalem, comes to our bins to scrounge for discarded objects for his kids. I would hate to discover their red lines when they grow old enough to become militants.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Connect the Dots #2: Parameters—What Parameters?

(Anyone can play, but this round of Connect the Dots is particularly meant for reporters covering Hilary Rodham Clinton’s campaign.)

I spent the last couple of days at Herzliya’s Daniel Hotel, at a conference organized by the leading Israeli authors of the Geneva Initiative, including Yossi Beilin and (friend of this blog) Gadi Baltiansky. Present, in addition to a good part of the Israeli peace intelligentsia, were former US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, former Clinton aid Rob Malley, and Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. President Shimon Peres addressed us, emphasizing (to his credit) the importance of Palestinian economic development, especially its private sector. Foreign philanthropists paid. The entrecote was alright.

The theme was “a peace agreement within a year,” following the high rhetoric of last week’s Bush visit. The presentations were proof, if any more is needed, that the pessimism of the intellect can really mess up the optimism of the will.

The hard logic goes something like this (and here the game begins):

  • According to Shikaki and Israeli pollster Tamar Hermann, both Abbas and Olmert have reasonable majorities for a deal that would look much like Geneva Initiative, which is based directly on the Clinton parameters of January 2001. But something over a third of Palestinians and of Israeli Jews oppose peace with the other side under any circumstances, the former because they are drawn to jihadism, the latter because they are fiercely committed to Greater Israel. Both minorities are prone to violent resistance. Polling them is not like polling, say, people opposed to an income tax in New Hampshire.
  • Olmert has a military establishment, led by political rival Ehud Barak, that will instinctively oppose any weakening of national unity, which can be depicted as a security issue. The Israeli public (according to Hermann), wants peace but wants national unity much more. “Most Israelis are focused on their private lives,” she told us; “if you ask them, do you want peace, even at the cost of removing settlements, most will say yes. But if you tell them that the country will have to be split, maybe even violently, to advance to peace, support for peace drops off quickly.”
  • The only way the Israeli right has ever been put on the defensive—that is, the only way the Israeli public has ever entertained the idea that disunity is necessary for national security—is when American policy has firmly required Israel to respect American interests. The only thing worse than disunity, most fear, is the alienation of whatever US administration happens to be in power. US public support is the pillar of Israeli security strategy. Even the effort to remove new illegal outposts was put off until Secretary Rice required it.
Question: Can there be any advance in peace talks unless Olmert and Abbas can play the I-fear-the-loss-of-America card, when the radicals play the how-can-you-trust-those-murderers card?

Hint: Secretary Rice will be gone by mid-November.

Extra credit:

  • Chief negotiator Tzipi Livni—and forget for a moment whether she or Olmert is prime minister after the Winograd Report does its job—will have to agree to reasonable but extremely divisive concessions to get to a peace any Palestinians can accept: give up Israeli sovereignty on the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, give up on the towns of Ariel and Qiryat Araba, permit some refugees to return to Israel proper, invite thousands of foreign peace keepers to replace occupation forces, etc.
  • The Geneva Initiative stipulates all of these concessions; the Geneva Initiative is based on the Clinton parameters.
  • Clinton claims to be the candidate of experience; and one critical lesson of the Clinton administration was that leaving final status issues to Israelis and Palestinians to work on alone was (as Kurtzer told me) stupid, while eleventh hour negotiations finally yielded the brilliant Clinton parameters (Kurtzer: “Sadly, Clinton did not elevate them to a national policy, so that Bush would have had to formally rescind them if he was going to ignore them”).

Question: Has Hilary ever even mentioned the parameters that carry her own name? Will she endorse them now? Can current negotiations succeed if she does not? And if she does not, do the other Democratic candidates dare?

Caricature credit: John Pritchett

Friday, January 11, 2008

Intangible Assets

One of the least covered but most serious crises in Israel at this moment is the strike by 4500 tenured professors. Sixty percent of courses at all the major universities have not been offered since the beginning of this academic year; laboratories have been hobbled; department chairs have been falling out of touch with their administrations. This has been going on for nearly 80 days. It comes on the heels of an equally fierce strike by public school teachers. The gains from that action would not exactly encourage our best and brightest students to consider going into teaching.

Most presidents of the universities have now sided with treasury officials to secure an injunction from Israel’s highest Labor Court to force the professors back to work. They have set a deadline of this coming Sunday, January 13th., warning that the semester and possibly even the academic year would have to be canceled if professors are not back in class by then. Hebrew University president (and mathematician) Menachem Magidor—who in turning to the Labor Court seems to have alienated most of his faculty—has projected that the cost to the economy of a lost academic year would be something approaching a billion dollars. A moment’s thought about the implications of a cancellation for current students on tight budgets, incoming students next fall, students who have made plans to attend graduate school, and so forth, boggle the mind.

THE SENIOR PROFESSORS are, in effect, employees of what in America would be a great state university system, like California’s, and they have the union to prove it. The Hebrew University, which has a modest private endowment, is the Berkeley of the lot; Tel Aviv University is the UCLA, etc. All universities are almost entirely dependent on annual government budgets, which have not been kind in recent years. Tuitions remain low, even by the standards of public universities in the West, about $3000. But this is consistent with the lower earning power of Israeli students. Successive governments have not made up the inevitable operating deficits—a couple of years ago, Tel-Aviv’s was over $40 million—and salaries have suffered in consequence. One senior professor of literature I know very well indeed takes home something around $2400 per month. This is not funny anymore.

The professors claim that the erosion of their income has been around 35% since the late 1990s. They are striking not only to make up for lost ground, but also to put in place a mechanism that would prevent erosion in the future. Demands of this kind would seem unremarkable, but the professors have made (most would agree) some tactical mistakes, the most important of which was not including junior and part-time faculty in their action. Scholars are always vulnerable to the silly charge that their few classroom hours mean a cushy job; now some charge that the professors care little about younger colleagues who carry water for the university under greater stresses (including the anxiety of being judged by the senior faculty when tenure reviews come around).

And I think it is fair to say that Israeli professors have been conservative—at times in the best sense of knowing they are custodians of civilized life, but also in the sense of being unadventurous regarding the extraordinary changes in the technologies and delivery of higher education since the information revolution began. Few would concede that real graduate school is the continuous training taking place in high technology companies. One sees few online and distance learning initiatives, like the ones at MIT or Duke. Dozens of private colleges have opened up here over the last ten years, offering professional degrees in business administration, law, psychology, and education. These institutions have been a positive force, on the whole, but it is not unusual for friends of mine at the Hebrew University to express skepticism about them, grumbling vaguely about the forces of globalization, which are presumably turning colleges into businesses, and thus against the humanities—as if business executives have turned against the erudition and critical thinking one acquires studying the humanities, which is as silly as the idea that professors don’t work hard.

Still, the mistakes of the professors are, on the whole, trivial as compared with the justice of their case. Their despair will only lead to an even greater brain-drain than Israel already has. Over 3000 Israeli academics already work abroad. Do Treasury officials not see this? Or are they really turning against classical education in the public sphere, trying to privatize it, or turn higher education into a big trade school?

TO ANSWER THE question, I think we need to enter the mist-enveloped regions of our most conservative social science, the one businesspeople are supposed to worship but increasingly doubt. I mean economics, or at least the standard microeconomic assumptions that inform capital budgeting, along with the macroeconomic assumptions that purport to project growth. I haven’t been in touch with people at the Treasury recently, but I’ve known plenty of them over the years. I bet the last thing on their minds is a desire to thwart educators, or academic freedom, or the humanities in particular. Rather, the conversation at the Treasury would be conducted in front of an (imaginary) Excel spreadsheet and go something like this:

“We have laid out a budget of over 300 billion NIS (about $75 billion) for 2008, which is already just under half of this country’s GDP. Our national debt is over 70% of GDP, about 10% higher than the limits set by the EU’s Maastricht Treaty. Our debt service is something like 22%; our budget deficits have been running at way over 3% of GDP over the past ten years, which is also higher than what would, say, allow us to participate in EU institutions. We now have a small surplus, because of unexpected 6% growth, but 40-45% of the budget already goes to our social services like education. The pie has been sliced; there is simply no place to take this money from, unless we raise tuitions, which the students (and professors, to their credit) refuse to allow.

“So there is nothing we can do. If we don’t get our budget under control, world bond markets will simply not believe in the value of our paper. We have already cut services to pensioners, hospitals—cut family allowances. What do our professors expect? Do they want us to cut more from the sick or the elderly, or cut down on national defense, which is 20% of our budget? Do they simply want us to bust it, and prompt world capital markets to regard Israeli bonds as junk? We can’t go to America for more loan guarantees, when they are in the beginning of a recession. Where can we possibly get—and fund into the future—just the first expenditure of $54 million, which would pay for, say, a $1000 a month raise?”

THIS IS NOT an easy argument to refute, if you trust the professionals. I bet the political leadership has bought it, though they do not like the implications: what politician would not prefer to appear generous to professors? (The minister of education is a professor, after all.) Unfortunately, as with the 2006 Lebanon War, the politicians are listening to a professional staff who know how to win the last war, not the next one.

The Treasury's argument hinges on two very misguided assumptions. The first is that spending on education is the same thing as adding an expenditure for the “social safety net” as a whole. Actually, spending on (especially) higher education should not be thought an expenditure at all, but as a revenue-generating capital investment, like an airport. It requires separate accounting treatment. Magidor’s projections regarding the loss of an academic year makes this point nicely, if inadvertently. By the same token, what would be the net gain of getting some of the 3000 expat scholars back here, of keeping existing scholars and making them that much more productive: willing to mentor students above and beyond the call of duty, contributing their time voluntarily to commissions and non-profits, and so forth. The chemistry that evolves within a community of scholars, who have gotten to know one another intimately over many years, is extremely valuable. Companies call this investing in “retention.”

Which brings me to the second mistaken assumption, namely, the anticipated reaction of bond markets. The people who run global businesses today know very well what I’ve just been talking about. So do the people whose investments in them are what we mean by capital markets. They both know that the value of any major technology company today is perhaps 80% intangible assets—what is usually called intellectual capital, or the sheer capacity for productive innovation itself. (One expat Israeli, NYU’s Baruch Lev, has been a pioneer here.) If you looked at the relationship between, say, Google’s stock price, its earnings, and its balance sheet (the assets it owns, its cash flows as compared to its investments, etc.), the company’s financial profile would look as out of whack as Israel’s. But investors know that it is Google’s capacity to innovate—to grow from its stream of products and their anticipated cash flows—that make Google worth the risk. Similarly, Israel is credited in world capital markets for being an engine of innovation—and for good reason. It has been a seedbed of intellectual capital. The real question is, can it keep this up?

So the professional conclusion that Israel would spook international bond markets by running a slightly higher deficit—when it would do so to retain and inspire university professors—borders on incompetent, because it assumes international investors are incompetent. The latter don’t care if Israel’s deficit is higher than the European average. This is not 1984 anymore, when inflation here was Argentinean, and a browser was someone who didn’t like to pay for magazines. This is 2008, and Israel has engendered over 3000 start-ups. Investors care if Israel promises to grow 6% next year, and the year after that.

They care, mainly, about two things. One: will Israel continue be an entrepreneurial powerhouse, sprouting new business technologies, and team-building managers, the way trees give apples. This causes investors to look at the performance of Israel’s defense industries and its national service for youth, but even more at the brilliance of its university system; it causes them to research Israel’s arts and design skills, which win international awards, or medical and biotech facilities, which lead to healthcare breakthroughs. Two: will Israel be more or less at peace, so that Israeli businesspeople will be welcomed around the world, and not have their plans disrupted by violence at home and disdain abroad?

If the Treasury and the university presidents knew their jobs, in other words, they’d worry mainly about one convention of accounting, which is a semantic, not a quantitative one. It is that when assets are intangible, they may be written down as “goodwill.” It is almost too late to retrieve that crucial value. But not quite.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

W. in Jerusalem: The PowerPoint

George W. Bush is in Jerusalem and so are the journalists who cover such events. Here are some slides of what every reporter should know before he/she sits down to write.

Please note
: For discussion purposes only; not complete without various admixtures of dread and wishful thinking that determine analysis. (As in this conversation with the New York Times's Steve Erlanger and Open Source's Christopher Lydon.)

One (A): America—Policy
  • Bush is commander-in-chief of forces occupying Iraq
    • Finally dawned on him that this makes him ex officio member of Arab League
  • Arab League states are mainly Sunni
    • Kings/presidents-for-life afraid of Islamist fanaticism
    • Challenge of Iran roiling Arab capitals
    • Egypt could be next, if Al-Jazeera keeps showing Israeli military actions
  • Europe wants a deal; keen to influence events with diplomacy, money, and federalist example
    • Fear Muslim backlash at home
    • Wary of “one-state” sentiment among intellectuals
    • Dismayed by longstanding American coddling of Israeli annexationists
    • Wary of oil disruptions, violence on margins
  • Bush, Rice, etc., will not attack Iran’s nukes, centrifuges, etc., after CIA assessment
    • But willingness to entertain the idea a proof of its friendship
      • hatred of “Islamofascists,” toughness, difference from Democrats, etc.
Conclusion: Bush—so goes the safe lead—has come to “push” (that is, not pressure) Israel to negotiate “seriously,” make concessions: stop settlements, release prisoners, reduce checkpoints, make Blair happy, etc.


One (B): America—Politics

  • Bush wants “legacy”
    • Peace, a counterweight to being thought the worst president in American history (though who really remembers Buchanan?)
  • Condoleezza Rice will want to run for something after her husb…, er, boss is finally gone

Conclusion: Bush, Rice—so goes the edgier lead—will be tougher in private than in public.


Two (A): The Palestinians—Policy
  • A Palestinian State

Conclusion: Off the record, PA people will tell you they are offering “Clinton bridging parameters,” Taba, etc.; want international forces to replace IDF; will try for deal that effaces towns of Ariel and Qiryat Arba, which require fingers of land making state contiguity impossible.


Two (B): The Palestinians—Politics

  • In polls, Hamas just 7% behind Fatah, closing in
    • “West Bank” same as Gaza
  • Fatah group (“Ramallah mafia”) still unpopular for manifest corruption
    • e.g., chief negotiator Abu Alaa’s oil and gasoline distribution monopoly
  • But Fatah assumed necessary to keep donor money flowing
    • Has become the party of “let’s give the process one more chance”
    • Borrowed time
  • Fatah also the party of Palestinian secular, educated bourgeois elite

Two (C): The Palestinians—Politics (cont'd)
  • Hamas: knows attacks on Fatah, terror attacks, missile attacks not popular (in that order), but IDF retaliations, targeted assassinations, etc., even more unpopular
    • So attacks will continue: vendetta climate works to Hamas's benefit
  • Rivalry between Fatah and Hamas will not be decided in polls
    • “The street”: reacts to the presence, activity of militias
    • Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, strong for Fatah; Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, edge to Hamas
    • PA trying to advance “law and order”
  • Over long run, split between Fatah and Hamas exaggerated
    • Rivalries personal, and bloody, but the status quo (poverty, “martyrs,” youth culture, 540 checkpoints, etc.) drives all together
    • Nobody likes separation between West Bank and Gaza

Conclusion: No matter what the PA leadership in Ramallah tells you, Fatah, etc., need a deal now. May hold power this year, but cannot survive for long without repairing relations with Hamas even (especially?) if Barghouti is freed.


Three (A): Israel- Policy
  • Peace good, stability indispensable
  • Olmert, Livni, Barak, “the center”: stop occupation from burdening Israel’s drive to become the Silicon Valley of Europe and South Asia
  • Undisturbed economic growth is urgent
    • Rebuild education, build roads and rail for the choked coastal plain (i.e., choked because of roads, etc., built for settlers)
    • Keep kids of elite here
    • Pay off the ultraOrthodox
    • Make jobs for unemployed Israeli Arab youth, who can start Intifada of their own
  • Olmert (or Livni, Barak, etc.) will not offer Clinton parameters, Taba, etc., because afraid of immediate rightist reaction to threat to Ariel, Qiryat Arba, etc.
    • Offer principles consistent with Taba
  • War against Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.
    • Does not mean general war, but escalation
    • Freeing Barghouti, reducing checkpoints, etc. does not mean peace
    • Both are interpreted as strengthening the Palestine Authority

Conclusion: Olmert will continue negotiating with PA, probably also in secret, just as he says. He'll not push hard for Bush, Rice, etc., to attack Iran’s nukes, centrifuges, etc., but will continue to make US willingness to entertain the idea the test of love of Israel (respect for Israeli intelligence, neocons, etc.).


Three (B): Israel- Politics

  • If Winograd Commission Report (investigating the 2006 Lebanon war) is damning, Olmert will be gone by mid- February
    • Haaretz types really don’t like this guy
    • Barak will feel he must bolt, though not an MK, and therefore unable to become PM right away
  • If Winograd Commission Report is merely grave, Olmert will survive
  • Either case, Olmert’s government should survive until 2009
    • Livni replaces Olmert
    • Barak wants more time to prove he's new Sharon
    • Shas and the Pensioners’ Party don't want election
    • Lieberman may leave if core negotiations advance publicly
  • Key unknown: How many Kadima people (e.g., former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz) would want to rush back to the Likud before a Bibi victory?

Conclusion: To stop Bibi, the Olmert government will want to pull a rabbit of the hat—a negotiated peace plan that can be presented to the electorate as a package. But this is not to say they have the courage or prestige to do what they want (see below).


Four (A): Implications for the Peace Process

Please note: The following bullets cannot be grasped by reporters who, either young or coming to the conflict recently, lack a basic understanding of the concept "repetition compulsion."
  • Abbas needs “two-state solution”
    • Cannot split the country further (i.e., face down Islamist, populist) opposition for the sake of “giving peace a chance”
    • May arrest Hamas people, but cannot arrest growth of Hamas attitudes
    • Young people may wave Fatah flags but all incipiently insurgents
  • Olmert wants “two-state solution”
    • Cannot split the country either (i.e., face down rightist opposition in the streets) for the sake of “giving peace a chance”
    • Moving 75-100,000 settlers means bloody fights between IDF and rightists
    • Backlash in and around Jerusalem, overwhelmingly rightist and Orthodox
  • While US pushes privately, both sides drawn into escalations by violent hardliners on each side
    • Makes progress seem Utopian and leaders vaguely treacherous
    • Olmert coalition unravels

Conclusion: Abbas and Olmert (or Livni, etc.) will argue for self-determination in negotiations, but neither can take dramatic initiative. Again, their domestic weakness is not just personal, but built into the charge that they are “splitting the country” for the sake of murderous enemies on the other side.


Four (B): Inference For Action

  • If Bush wants a deal, he'll have to endorse the deal, i.e., the Clinton parameters, Taba, etc.
    • Call it the Quartet Plan
    • Rally all parties in a rounds of public diplomacy
    • Jordan's King Abdullah: “You have the road map, you have Taba, you have the Geneva Accord. So, we don’t have to go back to the drawing board”
  • Gives Abbas and Olmert an “American policy”
    • Scare Israeli right: reckless to defy America
      • defiance of America will be strong, but will last a month
    • More Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil
    • Gives Abbas and Olmert something to uphold without appearing to trust one another
  • America: offer Israel a defense treaty, NATO membership
    • European Union:
      • offer Israel a path to membership, like Turkey
      • offer Palestine 50 billion euros in development aid
Conclusion: All reporters should go see the new Israeli film, The Band’s Visit, which is the best proof we have that, for ordinary people, peace is already here.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Dictatorship Of The Bourgeoisie, Please

“On average, donors annually injected $350-450 million into the Palestinian Authority from 1994-2000,” my friend, the Ramallah entrepreneur and consultant Sam Bahour, lamented to me; “from 2001-2007, about $650 million annually; this amounts to over $7 billion, more per capita than anyplace in the world except for Israel, which is heavily subsidized by the U.S. Yet of those funds, less than 5% were invested in the development of the private sector. This underinvestment in businesses is a disaster.”

If you think these are the sour grapes of a Palestinian capitalist, feeling cut out of a feeding frenzy, you don’t know Sam or Palestine. An MBA raised in Youngstown Ohio, the scion of a grocery business, Sam came to Ramallah in the early nineties to build a country (though the Israeli government has, perversely, made it hard for American-Palestinian professionals like him to get permanent visas).
It is fine and well to talk about a secular national movement, Sam understood, but what this ultimately means is Palestinian contractors, software engineers, etc. who'll be using their freshly printed passports to get out and compete in the world; Palestinians who have the technological and management know-how to make things regional—even global—customers really want, while providing rewarding jobs for youth who would otherwise seek solidarity in gangs and meaning in noble deaths.
“Everywhere you go in Palestine you see pictures of martyrs,” he told me, driving me past a large poster in a square, commemorating the deaths of two youths killed by stray IDF fire; “The pictures of the Israeli army’s innocent victims merge into pictures of suicide bombers and real insurgents, looking sincere and ready for sacrifice. This kind of thing works on our young people. We are surrounded by a kind of big, morbid memorial. We have got to create another reality fast.”
THE REALITY SAM created is a shopping center, the first in Palestine with an genuine supermarket called (fittingly) “Bravo” serving as its anchor store; a center complete with an Italian restaurant and play-jungle upstairs where kids can go to climb, burrow, play fussball or video-games, while their parents shop for food. “There was an initial idea that we would charge admission to the play area, but I said ‘no way.’ These kids are lining up at road blocks all the time. Could you imagine a line of kids waiting to get into the slides and jungle-gyms?”
Security is provided by an independent force, to preclude any discomfort some would feel if this or that militia showed itself. The supermarket, only a couple of years old, is starting to turn a profit. The shopping center has prompted construction of another one across the street (“It took away our ‘Colors of Benetton’ store—fine with me...”), and directly across the street a new ten-story office tower is rising. (“There was supposed to be a limit of three stories, according to municipal regulations, but somebody got Arafat's approval,” Sam winked.)
“BRAVO” STRIKES THE eye as an unremarkable supermarket, which is precisely what makes it remarkable, particularly coming off the helter-skelter streets of Ramallah. The floors and shelves are organized and immaculate; the bar-codes are neatly lined up on products from everywhere, including Israel (“how could we not offer Israeli products, when our economies are entwined?”), but emphatically not from Jewish settlements across the Green Line. What doesn’t meet the eye is even more significant, for it is a microcosm of the entrepreneurial efficiencies, pragmatism, and cooperative groundwork that makes the peace process less abstract for Palestinians and Israelis both.
“The point-of-sale system here is Retalix, the Herzliya solutions company,” Sam told me, recalling the days when he was CEO of Bravo. “I told my board, I can go to Houston, look at the price-performance specifications of all the systems, and buy a more expensive Retalix product in the form of their American version. Or I could go to Herzliya and get a better deal, save the time and airfare, and get them involved in helping their neighbors become world class. My board went along. They made the right decision.”
For Sam, doing things well at these subtle levels will amount to a Palestinian counterlife, the alternative to a bureaucracy by turns starved or bloated by donors, or PA officials whose legendary corruption fuels Hamas’s rise. He is creating the DNA of a Palestinian national home. He's even persuaded one of Palestine's first banks, Arab Islamic Bank, to begin making business loans based on the strength of business plans, not only on collateral.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH this picture? In a nutshell, for DNA to propagate itself, cells need to divide, clone, connect and be nourished. Bravo cannot, and this is the disaster. The systems underlying the success of Bravo are really meant for a chain, you see. A whole network of Bravo stores would help revolutionize Palestinian merchandising, prompting copycat retail clothing and other chains; it could provide a natural channel for new food processing companies, which might go head-to-head with Israeli companies across Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. It could stimulate the creation of shopping centers in every Palestinian city, anchoring new construction projects that would define neighborhoods, preparing the ground for new housing stock—something you already see a huge demand for in Ramallah, which is developing quickly but in a less coherent way.
The problem is that no matter how good your inventory systems, they are pretty much worthless unless your suppliers can restock your stores in a predictable way. Supermarkets are really the hub of a complex system of logistics: the transportation infrastructure must be reliable, geographies must be convenient to one another, deliveries must be timely. This is exactly what Palestine lacks owing to the occupation. The most terrible cost of occupation is what businesspeople call opportunity cost.
THE BURDEN OF 540 checkpoints across the territories is not simply that individuals cannot get a spouse or child to a hospital, or that you cannot know if getting to the wedding of a cousin will take you 40 minutes or four hours. These are disgusting things, but they do not cripple a whole nation. The problem of so many checkpoints is that it makes things virtually impossible for the Palestinian middle class to build businesses, which create hope, which creates businesses, which create a secular civil society.
Bravo could be 40 stores. It has only three, two in Ramallah, one in Hebron. Investors, reasonably, hesitate to fund its expansion. This is a source of frustration for Sam, for he knows that in part he must deal with the inertia of a business class that has a very local and conservative mentality. But most of all he knows that they must deal with the occupation.
How do you convince investors to expand a grocery business when you cannot assure that produce will not rot on a truck, stranded at one of five checkpoints, along the road from Ramallah to Nablus? How can you believe in the future of cooperation when the reason for the checkpoint is not the fear of a suicide bomber in Tel-Aviv, but the protection of Jewish settlers on hills between Ramallah and Nablus? Worst of all, perhaps, how can you believe in peace, which will mean the return of millions of refugees, when the Israeli government continues to ring Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods, as if Hebron and Ramallah were not, in effect, suburbs of a future East Jerusalem metropole?
I don’t mean to underestimate the risks. Checkpoints are a network of their own, aiming at controlling a dangerous situation—a network of informers and inspections, which has grown over the years in a cycle of revenge (see my previous post from December 28). It is very hard to let go of the tiger’s tail; just last week, tons of material that could be used for explosives were uncovered by the PA.
Nor does Sam underestimate the dangers. He is far more vulnerable to radicals and killers than Israelis are, there on the other side of the wall. With poverty all around, it is easy to imagine Hamas militants carping at the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie; imagine that they’ll depict Bravo’s profits as a kind of theft from the hungry, depict Bravo’s organized way of making profit as a kind of corrupt materialism that must be countered by Islamist humility. But Sam, tooling around in his beaten up Hyundai, is willing to face the dangers. He knows that hopelessness is fueling the fanaticism much more than the other way around.
ISRAELIS AND AMERICANS do not seem to realize, Khalil Shikaki told me later, that the rise of Hamas can be directly traced to the compounded misery created by things like the internal checkpoints. The wall is a disgrace, but shouldn’t this be enough to give Israelis the sense of security that they need? “We get a lot of talk about improving things on the ground, but not one checkpoint has been removed. Olmert and Barak talk about security, or even coalition politics. These are very shortsighted considerations. We are seeing the imminent end of a secular national Palestinian movement. We have to see a dramatic improvement in people's lives this year, not somewhere on the horizon. If not, people like me will go plant gardens.”

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Council On Foreign Relations

I was in Ramallah on Thursday, the unofficial capital of the unofficial Palestinian state—about which more in my next post. But a little exchange at the end of the day explains something about why the absentee vote I cast for Barack Obama in the upcoming New Hampshire primary is my proudest since checking the box for Pierre Trudeau in 1967.

I got into a cab taking me back to the Hizma checkpoint. The driver, a cousin of the driver normally called for guests of the office I was visiting, spoke virtually no English. He was eager, nevertheless, to connect. “Deutsch?,” he asked me. I replied, jauntily (and a little cautiously), “American.” His face took on a pensive look and fell silent for a moment.

“American bipple very, very good.”

“Yes,” I said, nodding approvingly.

“Bush very, very bad.”

I smiled. What the hell, I thought. “Yes, Bush bad,” I agreed, “very bad.”

It is important to know that I had just spoken with Khalil Shikaki, founder of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, who had just told me, gloomily, that his polls were showing Hamas making a kind of comeback in recent weeks, holding steady at something like 7% behind Fatah in the West Bank as in Gaza. For the dramatic peace process promised by America to Abbas was bearing little fruit. George Bush, for his part, would be landing by helicopter in Ramallah, probably on Tuesday. PA police, mainly loyal to Fatah, and in newly starched uniforms, had been out in force all day.

“American bipple very good, Bush very bad,” my driver repeated, sealing the point, encouraged.

Then he raised his bid: “Jew very bad,” he said. “America Jew bad.”

“No, Jews are not bad,” I said in my most Pickwickian voice, blowing my cover. “Jews good and bad.”

He stiffened, realizing his offense with a kind of perfunctory regret. He refined his point. “Tzioni bad, Tzioni bad.” He searched my eyes in the rear-view mirror; I decided, under the circumstances, not to challenge the point. I buckled my seat-belt. I wondered about the mere 7% that separated one cousin from another. Then I got an idea about how to change the subject:

“Do you know Barack Obama? Barack Obama, good?,” I asked him.

My little poll did not go exactly as planned. “Barak..?,” he asked skeptically, trying not to show annoyance, obviously assuming I was referring to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who had just recommitted Israel to all 540 checkpoints in the West Bank. “No, no, not Ehud Barak,” I laughed, a little too Hilary-like. “Oba-ma, Oba-ma” I said, “Barack Obama.” “Oba-ma,” my driver repeated slowly, confused and a little abashed, obviously not up on what I was talking about. Then, suddenly, he stopped the car. A friend or relative who had flagged him down jumped in beside him and looked me over. He was, apparently, going to keep us company the rest of the way. Our foreign policy conversation had ended.

NOW AND THEN I could make out that the driver was replaying it all to his passenger: an American he had picked up, going back to Israel, through Hizma, Bush. “Yehud,” he said gravely at one point, and I confess feeling a slight chill. We drove past a fruit stand, and I noticed a very faded poster of Mohammed Ali. We heard what sounded like gunfire along the road, and an Israeli troop carrier sped out a block in front of us, out of the Kalandia refugee camp, and turned off to the Kalandia check post. “Soldier Israelian,” my driver said, as if apologizing for the slowing traffic, but also pointing out one of the natural wonders of his landscape. Then silence again, until we got to Hizma, and he pointed to the town on the hill. He wanted me to understand that Hizma was a town before it was a checkpoint. I paid him. He shook my hand warmly. I felt a little ashamed for imagining myself in danger, which I suppose I was to some degree.

Still, it occurred to me yesterday, as I woke at dawn to hear the results from Iowa, that my driver would soon hear about Barack Hussein Obama. It also occurred to me that Americans sometimes get too fancy about what kind of foreign policy will work here. We speak about a war of ideas; some go on about a clash of civilizations. We hold seminars about the relationship between Islamic theology and Islamist ferocity. But like most people without a lot of time on their hands, this cab driver had simply put a face to the problems he was experiencing, as he navigated through an infuriating life. That face was George Bush’s, who was somehow (and a little magically, perhaps) not considered a part of the American people. The answer to Bush was Khaled Meshal.

But what if the face of America were Obama’s instead, and the warmth of feeling extended to Americans could not instinctively be denied their leader? What if the posters of Mohammed Ali would come down and posters of, of all things, the US president would be filling their spaces—filling, that is, some of the holes in the hearts of fruit vendors, terrified by globalization, from Palestine to Jakarta? Obama’s campaign, and many pundits, have made the point, so I won’t go on about it. But I thought I might report that one cannot take a cab in Ramallah and not run into what this means.