Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Social Network

Back in 1983, I wrote a throw-away line in an article about George Orwell's newspeak: "The danger from computers is not that they will eventually get as smart as men, but we will meanwhile agree to meet them halfway." Unprompted, this little warning has now migrated to thousands of websites; and the surge in the past year no doubt has something to do with the rise of Facebook, and the way the brain engages and disengages as the page entitled "News Feed" rolls past.

Nevertheless, I have started taking my Facebook page seriously (well, halfway seriously) in the hope that it can be of use in supporting this blog. I have had about 18,000 "unique visitors" to the blog over the past year; about 39,000 over the past two years. But the most frustrating thing about blogging is not really knowing whom one is reaching, with no possibility of gaining a stronger sense of what is on your minds. If you come here more or less regularly, why not "friend" me (even if you cannot befriend me), and encourage people you think would be interested in the blog to do the same? I promise I shall say nothing about how much I enjoyed last night's dessert.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

J Street: Time For An American Plan

Readers of this blog know of my high regard for J Street. Its leadership has just released a statement that is worth reading with no comment from me, except to say that readers will also not be surprised by how fervently I agree with it.

In the coming days or weeks, the United States may reach agreement with Israel on an extension of the limited moratorium on settlement construction on the West Bank, and the terms of that extension may be sufficient to bring the Palestinian leadership to the table as well. J Street would welcome the resumption of direct talks, but our interest is less in reaching an agreement to keep talking or over the format of those talks than in finding a route to actually ending the conflict between the parties.

Therefore, we believe it is time for the Obama administration to adopt a bolder, more assertive approach in its efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict. The Administration should focus – with or without resuming direct negotiations and/or a 90-day extension of the moratorium – on delineating an agreed-upon border between the state of Israel and the state-to-be of Palestine, and on establishing security arrangements and that would accompany a two-state deal.

J Street supports long-standing American policy that both parties – Israel and the Palestinians – should comply with all of their internationally-recognized obligations. This includes prior Israeli commitments under the Road Map and other agreements both to stop all new settlement construction over the Green Line and to remove outposts, as well as Palestinian commitments to ensure security and prevent incitement.

However, the time has come for the United States to put forward a proposal to establish a border and security arrangements. With a border established, there will be no further need to negotiate over settlement construction. Both Israel and the Palestinians will be able to build where they please within their borders and not beyond.

Detailed security arrangements are necessary to guarantee a two-state deal and to address the full range of threats it faces (from Iran, from Hezbollah and from within Palestinian lands). Such a security plan will give Israelis the confidence that there is a U.S.-led international commitment to their long-term security as Israel pulls back from control of the territories. Finalizing arrangements on borders and security will then create a positive momentum toward addressing other final status issues.

Even if there is a new 90-day moratorium, it will pass quickly, and the Administration and the parties cannot afford to reach day 89 and suddenly find yet another impasse and crisis. Therefore, we suggest that the United States adopt a “borders and security first” strategy along the following lines:

If there is a resumption of talks, engage the parties in an exercise under American supervision to draw the actual border between the two states based on the following principles:
  • The borders should create the new Palestinian state on the equivalent of 100 percent of the land beyond the 1967 Green Line with one-to-one land swaps.
  • The borders should allow for many existing settlements, (which could account for as many as three-quarters of all settlers) to be part of Israel’s future recognized sovereign territory.
  • The agreement on borders between the states should also address the border within Jerusalem with the exception of the Old City and its very immediate environs.
  • If the sides are not able to reach agreement on borders within the 90-day period, or if “direct talks” do not in fact resume, the United States should present a proposal to both sides that adheres to the parameters presented above for a yes or no decision, with the support of the Quartet and other international stakeholders.
  • Simultaneously, address and finalize the security arrangements between Israel and a demilitarized future Palestine, and at Palestine’s external international border crossings, allowing for the deployment of an international force to guarantee the agreed provisions. The US should take this occasion to reiterate its commitment to guaranteeing the long-term security of Israel.
  • Once the border and security arrangements are agreed and in accordance with an agreed-upon timetable, Israel will withdraw from all of the territories designated for the Palestinian state and all other provisions will be implemented.
  • In parallel with implementation of the border/security arrangements, negotiations will then continue (or resume) on all other outstanding final status issues.
We also suggest that the Obama administration expressly take note of the Arab League Peace Initiative and urge the Arab League to recognize this new American-led effort as consistent with and responsive to their offer to achieve comprehensive, regional peace. To this end, we suggest opening discussions under US supervision to address the outstanding issues between Israel and Syria with the goal of achieving a comprehensive, regional agreement (including between Israel and Lebanon) that leads to full recognition and acceptance of the state of Israel by the Arab League.

A comprehensive regional deal will significantly reduce Iranian influence and its capacity to act as a spoiler in the region, posing the following choice for the regime in Tehran: either join the consensus for peace and recognition for Israel or be further isolated. The former option will open new horizons for negotiations with Iran while the latter would increase U.S. and regional leverage with Iran as the international community re-dedicates itself to preventing Iranian obstructionism and development of a nuclear weapons capacity.

The parties and outside experts are more than familiar with the options and trade-offs needed to establish a border and with it a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. This proposal puts the key question squarely before both the leadership and people on both sides and asks them to express their political willingness to actually achieve a viable solution – rather than continuing to put the spotlight on talks about talks and the conditions for entering into them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Jerusalem: Time To Clear The Air

From Canada's Globe and Mail, former Canadian Ambassador to Israel Norman Spector challenges former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler. Spector's trenchant little piece proves, as if we needed more evidence, that Jewish leaders in the Diaspora can no longer hope to finesse the critical question of Jerusalem's status, and cannot avoid public differences, even at the cost of long-standing personal relations. (Spector's column caught my eye and touches me for personal reasons, too; Spector was my college buddy and Cotler my camp counselor. We were all so callow, back in 1967, when Teddy Kolleck seemed heroic, and one could barely imagine a contradiction between a "united" Jerusalem and the peace of Jerusalem. Alas.)        

Globe and Mail
Posted on Wednesday, November 10, 2010
by Norman Spector

I see in my morning read that The Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (ICCA), which has been meeting in the nation’s capital this week, ratified the Ottawa Protocol yesterday. And, from the closing press conference, the National Post reports:

Irwin Cotler, chairman of the international coalition and a noted human rights activist, told a news conference the protocol breaks new ground. For the first time, it provides detailed definitions of what constitutes anti-Semitism and puts in writing what the group sees as the distinction between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the state of Israel, the Liberal MP said.

“Let it be clear: Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is wrong,” the protocol says. “But singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium -- let alone denying its right to exist or seeking is destruction -- is discriminatory and hateful, and not saying so is dishonest.”

Also this morning, I see that The New York Times reports a heated U.S.-Israeli exchange at the highest levels concerning Israel’s plans to construct an additional 1,000 housing units in East Jerusalem:

Mr. Obama said, “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations.” “I’m concerned that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough,” the president added during his visit to Indonesia. “Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking trust.”

A few hours later, Mr. Netanyahu’s office responded with a statement, saying that “Jerusalem is not a settlement; Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel.”

So here’s the question I would have asked Mr. Cotler at the press conference in Ottawa yesterday: Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israeli construction in East Jerusalem?

And here’s the follow-up question I would have asked: “What’s your position on that construction?”

I would have asked Mr. Cotler these two questions because of an incident that occurred when I was ambassador to Israel and he was a McGill University law professor who periodically brought justices of the Supreme Court of Canada to Israel to meet with their judicial counterparts.

The program had the backing of the Government of Canada. And the incident involved Antonio Lamer who, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, stood No. 3 in Canada’s Table of Precedence.

When I learned that Mr. Lamer was to be escorted on a visit to East Jerusalem by Israeli officials, I sought direction from Ottawa. I was advised by officials at the foreign ministry that this was not the first time the Israelis had tried such a manoeuvre in order to buttress their claim to that part of the city. And I was directed to discourage Mr. Lamer from carrying through with the visit under these arrangements, which he readily agreed to. Mr. Cotler was furious, and he severely upbraided me in the local press. Which I thought at the time, and still do, was entirely inappropriate.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Chevy Volt: Crossing The Chasm

Yesterday's announcement that the Chevy Volt won Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" Award is not just a bit of Motor City hype. It is the beginning of a palpable solution to climate change.

There is no way to materially reduce greenhouse gas emissions without electric vehicles connected to a smart grid--that is, smart enough to charge batteries with power taken from renewable sources like hydro, sun and wind. But there is no incentive for power companies to make the enormous investments in such grids unless, first, the cost of oil and gas threatens to rise, and, second, electric vehicles are common enough, and concentrated enough in urban areas, to threaten neighborhood brownouts. The first condition is pretty much guaranteed by demand from China, India, Brazil, etc. And what of the second?

THIS IS MORE complicated, for it depends on electric vehicles being accepted, finally, by the mainstream market--not thousands of vehicles, but millions. As Geoffrey Moore put it, wonderfully, in his famous 1991 book about Silicon Valley, Crossing The Chasm, you can always get "innovators" and "early adopters"--you know, Wired, then Brad and Angelina--to try a technology, but to get to the larger market, the "early majority," you need to offer ordinary customers a strong value proposition: business-school jargon for making them an offer they can't refuse.

The Web would not have developed as quickly, if at all, if the personal computer had not been ubiquitous. But this depended--not on the promise of the Web, which ordinary customers could not fathom--but on the magical way computers allowed us, then and there, to avoid retyping documents or crunch columns of numbers one at a time--also on the deep pleasures of graphical interfaces. Word, Excel, Windows 95, etc. were "killer apps" that, inadvertently, laid the ground for the internet. What is the killer app for the smart grid?

THE CHEVY VOLT is, and Motor Trend's award is its certificate of fitness. Because the Volt gives ordinary customers, here and now, the serious benefits of electric mobility without requiring the revolutionary changes in infrastructure that electric vehicles will ultimately occasion. On the contrary, the widespread adoption of vehicles like the Volt will force those changes.

What benefits? In a nutshell, the cost of running an electric car is attractive: about 1-2 cents a mile as compared with 15-18 cents a mile for a gas-powered vehicle; cheaper maintenance; the chance to feel cool about oneself. Moreover, the Volt will allow 80% of customers to run on electricity alone for about 80% of the time, etc. The sticker price is still comparatively high for Gen 1, but remember when cell phones were $600?  But most important, the Volt uses the existing gasoline infrastructure to extend the range of the vehicle to what gasoline-powered vehicles get: about 300-350 miles. (I laid this out in this space here and here. The longer version, again, was a year ago in Inc. Magazine here.)

Industry insiders report that the Volt is about to win other awards, too. The 2011 Automobile Magazine "Car of the Year." The 2010 Popular Science "Best of What's New" Award. The 2011 Car and Driver "Ten Best Cars" distinction. This is a big f**cking deal, to recall a quote from a senior member of the administration.

And while we're on the subject. It has become so fashionable these days to belittle the achievements of the Obama administration, which has been judicious and successful in so many ways, that I know I risk being anything but cool by saying that its handling of the auto industry was inspired. Obama's investments in GM, his demand for a reworked business plan which showcased Volt technology, his change in company leadership, his "stimulus" investments in batteries and the grid--all of these--suggest a proper role for the commonwealth.

Obama did not just save "manufacturing" jobs; he put federal dollars underneath a technology that will prove as critical to green industries as the iPad will to publishing. It would be good to hear some praise for a change.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Coming To The Table, Redux

An old Soviet joke. A customer enters a fish market, asks for the last pathetic mackerel, and the clerk behind the counter is out of newspaper. So the clerk goes to the complaint box, pulls out the sheets, and wraps the fish. "Wait," the customer says. "You can't wrap fish in those." "Then write a complaint," the clerk says.

I'm not entirely sure why, but I thought of this joke listening to Arye Golan's circular questioning this morning of Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida, a senior Fatah official, who is close to Abu Mazen. It is important to understand that the program, on the IBA's Reshet Bet, is the equivalent of NPR's "Morning Edition," perhaps even more influential. Golan himself recently won the Solokov Award, something like a Pulitzer. Reshet Bet has over a 40% market share. (Hebrew speakers can listen themselves: click "Haboker Hazeh," and move the slider to about 1:34:40)

What makes the interview so interesting, in other words, is that Golan is probably our perfect representative of what Israelis call the "center." I might add, the entire conversation was conducted in Hebrew, which Dr. Abu-Zaida spoke fluently (the translation, perhaps a little rough here and there, is mine):

Here with me on the line, Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida, a senior Fatah official, good morning:

Good morning Arye.

With regard to construction in Jerusalem, you're demanding that it be frozen for the next three months; this is more important to you than negotiations over a border finally?

First of all we have had nothing official; it's not at all clear what the details of the agreement, such as it is, are…

Abu Mazen, the chairman [of Fatah], has not been updated?

I'm not sure because, even on the Israeli side, it is said that nothing is written, nothing is finalized; and that the negotiations are continuing to reach an understanding…However, if the issue of Jerusalem is divorced from the whole question of the freeze, I don't think you'll find one Palestinian, smart or stupid, will accept such a thing…

But in the past, there were all kinds of negotiations, and during times when a massive amount of construction took place in [East] Jerusalem. So Palestinians were idiots then?

I tell you, any Palestinian will say that during those years we made a very serious mistake: to sit at the negotiation table while the Israelis continued to build settlements. But we had made a calculation, that within 6 months or 12 months, we would get our state and we would live in peace, we with you. Until we realized that this is a "process" and not "peace." So Palestinians have understood, that we are not going to make exactly the same mistake again. We learned from our past mistakes. Moreover, everything Israel has done for the last 40-45 years has been aimed to divorce Jerusalem from all the other issues. You tell me, what is the difference between building in Givat Zeev or Maale Adumin...; what does Givat Zeev have to do with your holy Jerusalem, or mine.

But it seems the issue is…

...just because the government of Israel decided in 1967 to expand the borders of Jerusalem from 11 sq. kilometers to 70 sq. kilometers…

Actually Givat Zeev is not a part of Jerusalem, but a municipality of its own. But this is not the issue. There is the feeling here that you're always looking for excuses to flee negotiations:

You mean all that time we were negotiating we were looking for excuses not to negotiate. Why? We are living, where? Do we not live with only marginal rights? Where does this logic come from that we flee negotiations? We are simply not interested in continuing with the process that is merely called negotiations. We are actually looking for a solution.

But a solution is only at the table. And there is always something else, now it's Jerusalem now it's a settlement freeze; and these give Abu Mazen a chance to say, "I’m not in the game." Maybe it's worthwhile to sit and talk, to clarify all matters at the table:

You speak as if we didn't sit and talk and debate all these issues, including the question of Jerusalem, including the border. We have debated all of these issues. The problem is that the answers we've gotten have not been encouraging--no point in sitting for nothing. For example, we’ve been saying all along: "My friends, tell us where are the borders of our state." Netanyahu, through all of the indirect talks and even in the 3 or 4 weeks of direct talks, when Abu Mazen sat with him 3 or 4 times…well, he asked him, or you prepared to talk about the boundaries? And Netanyahu answered that he isn't prepared to talk about the boundaries. He's prepared to talk about security, he's prepared to talk about other things. But about the border, no. Why? Not because he doesn't know we will ultimately have to talk about the border, but because he knows that, politically, he cannot talk about any withdrawal.

Well, what about the famous case when Ehud Olmert gave Abu Mazen a map and said, "Think about it and get back to me," and to this very day he hasn't been back:

Not true, not true, Arye. He did get back to him; he did get back to him. Olmert gave him a map which had about 7% of [Palestinian] land going to Israel [presumably, in anticipation of a land swap], then corrected it to about 6%--what disinformation! Look how the Israeli public is building its positions on things that are simply not true--and Abu Mazen came back to him with a map of 1.9%. He came back to him. But then there was the war in Gaza, and then there were elections in Israel…

Oh, let’s stop debating history. Let’s think how to go forward...

But you should know in Israel that there are many things that explain the situation that are not true.

Okay we will have to leaves things here. Thank you very much Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida.
Now read the interview again, and look at the sequence of questions more carefully. Ask yourself if Golan's challenge to the Palestinian leadership to "come to the table" is not something like that clerk's invitation to file a complaint: You are looking for an excuse not to come to the table: building in Jerusalem is just an excuse not to talk about a border. Okay, the matter of Jerusalem is relevant to the border, but you talked before when we were building like crazy. Okay, you got nothing, and we kept building, but, look at history, we offered you a reasonably deal and you refused it. Okay, you didn't refuse it, but why are you debating history? The question is how to go forward. Why won't you come to the table?

(Incidentally, the best record we have so far of the Olmert negotiations with Abu Mazen can be found in this report of the James Baker Institute. See especially the maps, pp. 63-65)

Which brings us back to the future. I wrote yesterday that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have bought themselves an opening. If they are not prepared to cut into Golan's creepy circularity they can forget about a settlement. Very soon, they will have to make clear to the Palestinians, privately, if not publicly, that they will see to it that East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, and that Israel's border cannot include places like Ariel and Kiryat Arba. Otherwise, the only thing Palestinians would be coming to the table for is an argument about why they should come to the table. I suspect they know why already--and why they shouldn't.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Problem With Boundaries

There is something deeply unsatisfying about the reported deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Hillary Rodham Clinton: 90 days to stop building in the West Bank in return for F-35s and various diplomatic guarantees. Presumably, the Obama administration (to paraphrase Churchill) has had to choose between humiliation and the aura of diplomatic failure. It has chosen humiliation now, and will get diplomatic failure later.

But then why is Netanyahu's cabinet in an uproar?

Because what this deal actually does is provide the various parties to the negotiation an opportunity to delineate a border. As New York Times correspondent Mark Langer writes, burying his lead:

The logic behind a 90-day extension is that the two sides would aim for a swift agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. That would make the long dispute over settlements irrelevant since it would be clear which housing blocks fell into Israel and which fell into a Palestinian state.

As with healthcare, the administration is taking a path that is not easy to watch, but may be the most practical. I have argued here before that the US government must have, and eventually convey to the parties, a view regarding the elements of a final status agreement: more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil. But the occasion for putting a thumb on the scales should be a negotiation over the border, not a dispute over continued settlements, which has been clouded by past negotiations over the border. Various talks between Israelis and PA officials, from the Geneva group, to the Olmert meetings, portended land swaps. These first efforts to draw lines, all of which assumed the Eztzion bloc would be part of Israel, say, cannot simply be erased from everyone's consciousness.

THE ANALOGY TO healthcare may be pushed further. The administration has been criticized for allowing Senate committees to debate the shape of the healthcare bill before committing itself to a final plan. The process was ugly; and the administration sweetened the outcome for resistant blue-dogs along the way. In the end, however, it got senators who had skin in the game, and it used their disagreements to define the "solution space" in which to intervene. And once (as Jonathan Cohn has shown) Obama saw the shape of the bill he could get, he still had to choose: let it go, for political reasons, or campaign for it, for historical ones. Had he not chosen the latter course, we would not have had a health reform bill at all.

Something like this moment is now in the offing in the Middle East. What the administration has done is allow Netanyahu the equivalent of (forgive me) pork to bring the Israeli state, so that the most critical issue defining a Palestinian state can be brought into relief. Israeli ministers most vociferously opposed to any state are justifiably in a panic (a "honey-trap" says Moshe Yaalon). Like Republicans who had hoped to kill any reform in committee, they are not so much convinced that they have lost the game as understand that now they are in one.

This is not to say the actual placement of a border is going to prove all that important in the long run: Israel and Palestine will be two interlocking city-states in any event. Still, it is crucial to have one somewhere, so that each city-state will know where its zoning rights begin and end. Anyway, the debate over the definition of a border will immediately occasion a triangular split in the Israeli government right between Land of Israel fanatics, for whom no settlement is a bridge too far, Orthodox fixers, and mere reactionaries, for whom Jerusalem is the main chance and security guarantees actually matter, and globalists, who fear most of all international isolation if the PA collapses and relations with Washington get freighted.

So the Netanyahu-Clinton agreement, should it be accepted by all sides, will not save Obama from choosing. Ensuing negotiations, over the next couple of months, will almost certainly not produce an agreement. But they will define the solution space Obama will have to move into and the line he will have to publicly fight for.  It will tee-up perhaps the most important foreign policy test of his presidency, and set up the right moment to visit Jerusalem. As with President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis--who had previously been thought weak, but proved how shows of strength require a sense of timing--it may be Obama's best chance to reignite the global hopes invested in him.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gone Quiet

You may have noticed that I've gone quiet over the past 10 days. I am finishing work on my new book, about Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, and have found little time for blogging. I expect to post sporadically over the next few weeks; I'll pick up the pace again in early December. In the meantime, regular readers who are not subscribing by email may want to consider doing so. It saves the bother of checking for new posts.