IPS Blog

Israel: When You Circle the Wagons, Shoot Outward!

Were it not for the ongoing humanitarian tragedies, it would be amusing to watch Israel self-destruct. For a regime that once seemed the embodiment of competence and self assurance, it now appears to be suffering some sort of terminal grand mal, thrashing around and blindly smashing the crockery and furniture.

An Israeli holds a national flag on the beach near the Ashdod port in southern IsraelIsrael seems clearly bent on demonstrating what its opponents have long claimed — that it is a dangerous and illegitimate regime operating beyond the confines of international law and moral principle. The attack on the Gaza flotilla — with lethal force, in international waters — is the latest demonstration of its apparently infinite counterintuitive capacity. The offered defense of these indefensible actions — “They made me do it!” — would embarrass even a petulant five-year-old.

Complexity science heads don’t do prediction. In a non-linear system, where slight changes in initial conditions, agent interactions and perturbations across systems boundaries combine to generate unpredictable outcomes, the future is always uncertain. But we can learn over time to see patterns and probabilistic vectors, and therefore better anticipate surprises.

So, taking all that into account, let me suggest that Israel as we know it, will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. Its own internal inconsistencies — multiplied by demographics, and the continuing evolution of sociopolitical and humanitarian norms — will administer the coup de grâce.

Here’s why.

Social systems — which include communities, companies, marching bands and nation states — succeed or fail because of their relative coherence, which is what underpins their adaptive capacities. Adaptiveness is key, because as anthropologist L.S.B. Leakey put it so beautifully, “The lesson of evolution is, change . . . or perish!”

System coherence is determined in large part by:

  • The strength of shared “identity.” (Who are we? Why are we here? What are our values?)
  • The relative facility or friction of interactions. (How easy or hard is it to take concerted action?)
  • The strength and clarity of networks and information flows. (Does the intelligence necessary to make informed decisions get to those who need it in a timely fashion?)
  • The strength of relationships within and across system boundaries. (Because structures and actions are relationships made visible.)

These are all “nested” within a complex stew of interconnected and often fluid boundaries, continually evolving “initial conditions” and the (often contradictory) rules of the overlapping systems.

In a nutshell, Israel lacks coherence. The narrative that has held it together for the past 60 years — and blinded the outside world to the uglier realities — is eroding rapidly. The political divisions within the country make concerted action almost impossible. The social networks lack “requisite variety,” so objective realities are ignored. And relationships are dissolving as even traditional supporters back away from a regime increasingly seen as rabid and isolated.

Bottom line, Israel has become “condensed” and non-adaptive. And if a system can’t adapt — if it can’t “co-evolve” with its environment — it dissolves.

Time frames are always uncertain. Sometimes they are longer than one would imagine, because the system has more resilience than expected. More often, however, they tend to be shorter, because of another characteristic of complex systems, which is “iteration.” What that means is that small changes can have significant effects after they have passed through the emergence-feedback loop a few times. This is sometimes called the “snowball” effect. (A snowball gathers more snow on each roll and quickly goes from a ball the size you throw, to one that throws you.)

Israel cannot survive as a pariah/apartheid state. Like any modern state, it is entirely reliant on trans-boundary relationships and flows, from diplomatic recognition to raw materials and export markets. Its vaunted high-tech industry is worthless without willing foreign buyers. Because those markets can be served by a number of competitors, client loyalty is vital to success. As Israel slips further beyond the pale of civilized behavior, that loyalty will prove both highly transient and nearly impossible to recover once it’s gone.

So what will emerge in Israel’s place? After all the pushing and pulling, a bi-national, and perhaps even a bioregional state seems most viable. (See “The Only Path to a Middle East Picnic?“) After all, Palestine (like all the nations surrounding it) is a made-up entity. A vestigial remnant of European colonial days with arbitrary, and often irrational, boundaries. Redrawing those lines with goals of equity, diversity and social justice would have profound benefits for residents of the region and beyond.

One way or another, Israel appears to be on the way out. The big question is whether it will be with a bang or a whimper.

Israeli Attack on Palestinian Flotilla

The “Freedom Flotilla,” a group of six ships carrying much-needed supplies for Palestinians, was attacked today by the Israeli military. Initial reports say as many as 16 unarmed activists were killed, and dozen more wounded. It seems that Israel’s disregard for the international community and human rights law is becoming more and more pronounced.

You can find an extensive compilation of information on the flotilla raid here and here, courtesy of the Gaza Freedom March and the US Campaign to End the Occupation.

From UN expert Richard Falk’s press release:

The UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, urged Monday the international community to bring to justice those responsible for the killing of some 16 unarmed peace activist, when Israeli armed commandos stormed a convoy of ships carrying aid to Gaza.

“Israel is guilty of shocking behavior by using deadly weapons against unarmed civilians on ships that were situated in the high seas where freedom of navigation exists, according to the law of the seas,” Mr. Falk said. “It is essential that those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behavior, including political leaders who issued the orders, be held criminally accountable for their wrongful acts.”

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu cancelled plans to meet with Obama in Washington this week. The attack comes just as long-delayed indirect talks between Israel and Palestine were getting underway.

From the US Campaign’s site:

The reaction of the Obama Administration to Israel’s attack on the humanitarian aid flotilla, which included U.S. citizens, has been tepid. A White House spokesperson stated that he “deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained.”

Of course, this statement completely ignores U.S. complicity in arming Israel and enabling its human rights abuses. In July 2008, the United States signed a contract worth $1.9 billion to transfer the latest-generation of naval combat vessels to Israel at U.S. taxpayer expense. Currently, Congress is in the process of appropriating a record $3.2 billion in military aid to Israel this budget year.

The raid is also expected to worsen relations between Israel and Turkey. And you can learn more about the history of the human rights situation in Palestine from Falk’s site.

You can take action here.

Readers’ Challenge: Why Ahmadis Now?

Yesterday was almost equally violent for both India, where suspected sabotage of train by Maoists left at least 74 dead in West Bengal, and Pakistan. In Lahore, an equivalent number were killed in the attacks on the two Ahmadi mosques. According to the New York Times: “Geo TV, a leading news channel in Pakistan, reported that members of the Punjab branch of the Pakistani Taliban were claiming responsibility for the attacks.”

The Los Angeles Times reports:

An Ahmadi elder from the Model Town mosque said the mosque had been getting threatening phone calls for some time, and had reported the threats to Lahore police. “We asked the government and police several times to enhance our security, but we didn’t get anything,” … After the [first] attack, Ahmadi worshippers . . . were angered by what they said was a delayed response from police once the attack began. Though a police station is near the mosque, the Ahmadi elder said police arrived about 50 minutes after worshippers called for help.

Elsewhere, another survivor said: “We are peaceful, law-abiding citizens and we get no protection.”

Persecution of the tiny Ahmadi sect has in fact been legislated. As ReligiousIntolerance.org reports:

In 1974, the National Assembly of Pakistan approved the Second Amendment to the Constitution literally excommunicating Ahmadi Muslims and banishing them from the fold of Islam. … In 1984, General Zia-ul Haq, promulgated [an ordinance] branding Ahmadis as criminals liable to fine and imprisonment if they practiced their belief in Islam.

In 1993 the Supreme Court of Pakistan heard a case by a number of Ahmadis who asserted that they were being deprived of their religious rights and freedoms. … The majority opinion of the court stated that many Islamic phrases were, in effect, copyrighted trademarks of the Islamic faith. Thus the use of these phrases by Ahmadis was a form of copyright infringement [violating] the Trademark Act of 1940.

Hmm, Islam as a brand. But what do Focal Points readers think inspired the Taliban to divert manpower and resources to attacking the Ahmadi, who arguably outdo the Taliban as cultural outlanders (since the latter enjoy some support in the Army and ISI), now. Why not keep their sites set on attacking the Pakistani government, which has caused it such grief in the frontier provinces?

From the Frontlines: May 28th, 2010

People will be marching against hate in Arizona this weekend, joining the AFL-CIO, SEIU, PDA, and the National Day Laborers’ Union.

Sudan inaugurated incumbent President Omar Al-Bashir with pomp and circumstance yesterday in Khartoum. While well attended by neighboring Arab leaders and Sudanese representatives, western and sub-Saharan leaders notably boycotted the ceremony, hoping to delegitimize the controversial elections last month.

Obama affirms moratorium on deepwater drilling and defended his administration’s response to the Gulf oil leak. In conjunction with the president’s press conference, the head of the Minerals Management Service in charge of the Gulf’s drilling operations announced his resignation.

A liability cap is just another term for “bailout.” And it looks like, thanks to Mitch McConnell and others in the Senate, BP (yes, that BP) is poised to get one heck of a bailout for polluting our Gulf.

And on the other side of the Capitol, the House rebuffs a veto threat on the fighter jet engine program.

A landslide election in Ethiopia Monday reinstated four-time incumbent Zenawi Meles and his EPRDF party, despite a trend towards more open, democratic elections in the previous 2005 election cycle.

“If the mine would leave, it would leave us in peace and we would live as before, happily. No more women would be persecuted and criminalized.” Women stand their ground against a Canadian gold mine in Guatemala.

Indonesia announces a two-year moratorium on logging in an unprecedented climate change effort, acknowledging scientists’ estimates that deforestation accounts for 20 percent of all CO2 emissions.

House Rebuffs Veto Threat on Fighter Jet Engine Program

Saving taxpayers half a billion dollars isn’t that simple. Defying the threat of a presidential veto, the House of Representatives voted Thursday to authorize a alternative engine program for the F-35 fighter jet. The backup plan is projected to cost $485 million next year. The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, gave this program a thumbs down on the same day. That means it won’t be included in the Senate’s version of the defense spending bill. Read Chris Hellman’s recent op-ed, which notes that increases in military spending affect the rest of the federal budget. “While domestic spending increased by approximately 24 percent from FY 2001 to FY 2010, military spending (including war costs) surged 71 percent,” he said.

Obama at the BP Press Conference

Obama at the 5/27 press conference. Credit: US White HouseCompetence. Obama oozes it. He always seems at ease during these press conferences, calmly slapping away questions like so many flies (yes, I’ll admit it, the only reason I’m employing this simile is so I can link to this really cool video of the President killing a fly just as it lands on his hand. You’ve seen it before but watch it again! It’s cool! He’s cool!).

And there was much substance too; just about everyone knew going in that this press conference would be all about BP and the oil spill in the Gulf, and the president was prepared. He defended his administration’s response to the spill, he accepted the blame when necessary, and at the end, he even deployed what has become a trademark Obama tactic: He utilized a seemingly innocent question from one of his girls — this one from Malia — as an opportunity to reinforce how deeply he feels about a particular issue and to place everything into warm and fuzzy context.

Somehow, Malia’s innocent Daddy, have you plugged the hole provided a segue way to a brief monologue about his love for the environment, his concern for the future, and his feelings about Simon Cowell’s departure from American ldol (ok, everything except for the American Idol bit, but one can never be sure), which caused me to wonder, for a brief moment, if Malia had actually uttered those words. No matter. It was great television.

There were a few awkward moments however, and all came towards the end. The first came when Chip Reid of CBS News asked the president whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, former director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service — the agency within the Interior Department responsible for regulating offshore drilling — had been fired or if she had resigned. The president said he didn’t know, and when Jackie Calmes of the New York Times followed up with the same question, the president eventually replied: “Come on Jackie, I don’t know.”

To the untrained ear (my ear, I suppose), this response almost sounded like an admission from the president that he wasn’t completely in control of the situation. After all, the employment status of the top official in his administration responsible for regulating offshore drilling seems to be precisely the type of personnel decision the president would ‘know’ something about unless, of course, he was attempting to signal that, yes, he didn’t fire her because she had resigned, in which case why not just say it? And if he did fire her, why not just say that? So confusing.

The second awkward moment came when the inimitable Helen Thomas, doyenne of the White House corps, asked President Obama the following:

When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse and don’t give us this Bushism “if we don’t go there they’ll all come here.”

Her question was incredibly important for two reasons. First for President Obama’s seemingly exasperated response. The President outlined the Bush administration’s reasoning for entering the war in the first place as if he was explaining the utility of Facebook to his dotty grandmother. Second, because his reasoning was accepted wholesale by the press. Most of the press conference related news coverage on Thursday evening focused on President Obama’s oil spill responses.

This is especially troubling because it seems to be an indication that, for now, the press has moved on from Afghanistan. The BP spill is quite important, and could have long-lasting implications for the gulf and the rest of the country, but more members of the press should be asking about Afghanistan, if only because the 1,000th US soldier has just died there. And, oh yes, the Senate has just approved a $58.8 billion war spending bill that is likely to be approved by the House.

So, Ms. Thomas, for your continuing courage: Bravo!

The Times, Lula and Lily Tomlin

Reading the New York Times (5/25) on Brazilian reaction to President Luiz “Lula” da Silva’s deal with Iran over uranium enrichment brings to mind comedian Lily Tomlin’s observation: “No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.”

Iran inked a nuclear fuel swap deal in Tehran

Iran Deal Seen as Spot on Brazilian Leader’s Legacy,” reads the headline by Times correspondent Alexei Barrionnuevo, who tells the readers that Lula “has returned home to a cloud of criticism by opinion-makers and lawmakers” for his role in helping to engineer the deal.

The Times’s sources? For starters, none of them were “lawmakers,” and whether any of the three men cited are “opinion-makers” is certainly up for debate.

First out of the blocks was “political analyst” Amaury de Souza, a PhD from MIT in political science, and a consistent critic of “Lula” and his Workers Party. Besides being a “political analyst” he is a business consultant, a strong supporter of privatization, and a backer of the previous conservative government of Fernando Cardoso.

Next cited was Luis Felipe Lampreia, “former foreign minister,” who writes in the newspaper O Globo—the flagship of Brazil’s largest media conglomerate—that da Silva’s diplomacy could “cause incalculable material and political losses,” a statement he never explains or the Times bothers to examine. Lampreia is not only a Cardoso man, he recently criticized the Lula government for giving refuge to Manuel Zelaya, the president of Honduras ousted in a rightwing coup this past summer.

Lastly, Barrionnuevo cites columnist Clovis Rossi, who has been a consistent critic of Brazil’s efforts to construct a Latin America free of U.S. interference.

In short, the “cloud” is two opposition politicians and a columnist.

What the Times did not bother to mention until several days later was that according to Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy, Brazilian newspapers and Reuters reported that the Obama administration green-lighted the enrichment deal and then reversed itself because of homegrown congressional criticism.

Buried in Barrionuevo’s second to last paragraph is an almost impenetrable piece of prose on a recent poll suggesting that 48 percent of Brazilians “seemed proud to see Mr. da Silva mixing with world leaders.”

What the poll actually found was that 76 percent of Brazilians rated Lula and his government “excellent or good,” a three point jump over this past April.

In fact, most “opinion-makers and lawmakers” in Brazil have supported the Iran initiative and reacted sharply to U.S. criticism of the diplomatic breakthrough by U.S. The newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo headlined its editorial “Lula’s Feat,” and said the President’s “tenacity has triumphed.”

One would never know all this by reading the New York Times. Black Commentator and Portside columnist Carl Bloice suggests the reason is that the Times must have a banner over its Latin American desk reading, “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.”

Art & Culture Helps DC Get to Detroit

There was a show last Saturday, May 22nd tailor made for progressives; a classic intermingling of art and social justice. The DC Labor Chorus held its annual concert and this year the proceeds are going toward helping The Greater DC Social Forum Committee get area residents to the US Social Forum in Detroit.

The approximately 100 people in attendance seemed very pleased with the evening, so we laced together some audio clips in a way that will give an entertaining sense of it, in case you missed it. Hope you enjoy!

Pollan Digests the Latest Food Politics Books

Are you too busy cooking fabulous meals to read a book about how costly cheap food is for America? No problem. In his essay in the June 10 edition of the New York Review of Books, Michael Pollan discusses five new books on food politics, a diverse movement that’s about more than how broccoli sprouts taste so much better than wedges of pesticide-imbued iceberg lettuce. “Perhaps the food movement’s strongest claim on public attention today is the fact that the American diet of highly processed food laced with added fats and sugars is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system,” Pollan explains. And despite its proponents’ many perspectives, he says that they all generally believe “that today’s food and farming economy is ‘unsustainable’–that it can’t go on in its current form much longer without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether environmental, economic, or both.” OtherWords will run a related op-ed in our next editorial package by Kristi Ceccarrosi.

Split This Rock Poem of the Week: Remica L. Bingham

Remica BinghamA weekly featured poem of provocation and witness. You can find more poetry and arts news from Blog This Rock.

Final Exam Administration

I enter to find all the students in uniform
occupying a small room.

I hand out pencils and registration forms.
Some begin without orders.

I remind them to remain anonymous
no names, just ID numbers should appear

on the waiting pages, white and clean
as unwritten letters or discharges.

Just a number the private
in BCGs and fatigues mumbles

from the back that’s all
we are. A number

and a gun. His comrades laugh,
erasing what might have been.

Do your best I say,
and they settle, salute.

-Remica L. Bingham
Used by permission.