IPS Blog

Israel’s Real-World Flame War

Can you imagine anything more surreal than following a war on Twitter? Imagine, fiddling with your phone on your lunch break, perusing actual hashtagged death threats from representatives of Hamas and the IDF—in between all-caps proclamations from Kanye West and “Shit My Dad Says.”

If you don’t care for Twitter, the IDF is also liveblogging its latest war on Gaza on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook.

Maybe that’s just how people declare war these days. But something about the latest violence in Gaza—which is, by all accounts, utterly senseless—seems uniquely suited to the vapid virality that is the stock-in-trade of these social media platforms.

I have no idea why Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets into southern Israel, except perhaps that they lack the capacity to fire rockets at anything else. These rockets can only hit civilians, clearing away in the rubble a virtual red carpet for the IDF into Gaza. (“Who started it” is always a thorny question when all roads lead back to the Israeli occupation, but my colleague Phyllis Bennis notes that the exchanges of fire began when militants fired on Israeli military vehicles “inside the supposedly not-occupied Gaza Strip.” She adds, “Unlike the illegal Palestinian rockets fired against civilian targets inside Israel, using force to resist an illegal military force in the context of a belligerent military occupation is lawful under international law.”)

Whatever the case, with hundreds of rockets flying into civilian-populated regions of southern Israel, no one would begrudge the Israelis their right of self defense. While these rocket attacks are often little more than hapless gunplay, they do exact a human toll—three Israeli civilians were killed Thursday morning.

But that is where the clarity ends. Israel inaugurated its latest assault on Gaza by assassinating the very Hamas military leader with whom they had been negotiating a ceasefire, virtually guaranteeing that more violence would follow. When you’ve just killed your negotiating partner, after all, who’s going to take his place at the table?

The Israelis took great pains to show how targeted and carefully monitored their attack on Ahmed Jaabari was—the whole operation was essentially liveblogged and tweeted, and a video of the so-called “pinpoint strike” on Jaabari’s moving car was distributed to media only hours after it happened. Of course, if the IDF can exercise the appropriate care to liveblog a strike on a moving vehicle, then how to explain the fact that they are also firing on random houses and killing infants? At least 15 Palestinians—more than half of them civilians—have been killed as of this writing.

Next came reports of the pamphlets dropped over Gaza, warning residents to “take responsibility for yourselves and avoid being present in the vicinity of Hamas operatives and facilities.” The IDF Twitter account lauded this ostensible attempt “to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.” Right. Don’t be near the wrong guy. In one of the most densely populated enclaves in the world.

Then came the reports that the Israeli Defense Minister was calling up 30,000 reservists for a potential ground invasion. And the reports that Israel could shut down all telecommunications in Gaza.

It would be a real shame to shut down the Internet in Gaza. Because this kind of meaningless flame war belongs on Twitter—not in the real world.

Latinos’ One-Sided Love Affair with Obama

Clearly, we Latinos love President Barack Obama. He garnered nearly three-fourths of our vote. In battleground states like Nevada, Florida, and Colorado , we helped catapult the incumbent president to victory.

An Obama supporter displays an "Obamanos" sign at a campaign rally in Wisconsin. Photo by Mundo Hispanico.

An Obama supporter displays an “Obamanos” sign at a campaign rally in Wisconsin. Photo by Mundo Hispanico.

Unlike African Americans, Latinos didn’t always back Democrats by this kind of margin. In 2004, George W. Bush garnered 40 percent of the Latino vote. Had Mitt Romney pulled that off this year, he might have won the White House.

Although Obama overwhelmingly won our support, we’re still unhappy with his immigration track record. He’s made no progress toward achieving a long-overdue and comprehensive immigration reform. Even more disheartening, more people are being deported under his leadership than during Bush’s presidency. To put this in its tragic context, thousands of our families have been torn apart. Too many kids are growing up without their parents.

Obama lucked out because the Republican Party is taking such an extreme stance on immigration that many Latino voters that might have otherwise voted GOP rejected it at the ballot box.

Romney advocated for “self-deportation” and failed to distance himself from Arizona’s Republican-led state government, which passed an extremist “papers please” law that implicitly advocated racial discrimination. Most Republicans oppose the DREAM Act, a bill that would give millions of young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Republicans regularly refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens,” insinuating that they’re not only different but somehow sub-human.

We aren’t single-issue voters or a homogenous voting bloc. But we do take the issue of immigration personally. Nearly all Latino voters have ties of some sort to undocumented immigrants. We may have been undocumented at one point or have family and friends who are currently undocumented or used to be. Both my parents came to this country without legal documentation.

Ironically, they became citizens because of the 1986 amnesty law President Ronald Reagan signed. Some of my best friends are undocumented. Most of them came to this country when they were kids. This is the only country they’ve ever known. This is their home — they’re as American as me. The DREAM Act would provide my friends and others like them with the opportunity to realize their true potential as American citizens.

When Republicans label all undocumented immigrants as “criminals,” “aliens,” and “illegals,” we in the Latino community can’t help but feel that the GOP is badmouthing our grandparents, our mothers and fathers, our neighbors, and our friends. Why would any group support a political party that explicitly disrespects its loved ones?

On Election Day, we came out in record numbers in support of Obama. In tight Senate races in states like New Mexico and Virginia, the Latino vote gave those Democratic candidates a winning edge Without Latino support, the Democratic Party would have lost its Senate majority in 2010 and failed to win it back this year.

The onus is now on the White House to prove that he deserved our votes.

In his most recent press conference, Obama said he supports “a pathway for legal status” instead of citizenship. This is discouraging news. We voted for him because we want our loved ones to become citizens. We won’t settle for less. Obama must push for bills like the DREAM Act, and fight for comprehensive immigration reform, but more importantly he must ensure that these are legitimate pathways to citizenship.

We may love President Obama, but now it’s time for the entire Democratic Party to prove it loves us back. How long can this one-sided love affair last?

Javier Rojo is the New Mexico Fellow at Institute for Policy Studies. IPS-dc.org

Israel Ups the Stakes With Assassination of Jaabari

First posted at the Nation.

Ahmad Jaabari and Gilad Shalit.

Ahmad Jaabari and Gilad Shalit.

Tuesday’s Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Gaza and Israel collapsed today when Israel launched a major escalation. In airstrikes almost certainly involving U.S.-made F-16 warplanes and/or U.S.-made Apache helicopters, Israel’s air force assassinated Ahmad Jaabari, the longtime military leader of Hamas. As the Israeli airstrikes continued Wednesday, seven more Palestinians were killed and at least 30 were injured, ten of them critically.

Jaabari had been chief negotiator with Israel in the deal that led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners held illegally in Israeli jails. He had negotiated the ceasefire that had mostly held over much of the last year or more. The attack, code-named “Operation Pillar of Defense” [sic], also killed someone else in Jaabari’s car, and quickly expanded with additional airstrikes against Palestinian security and police stations in Gaza, making it impossible for Palestinian police to try to control the rocket-fire.

So why the escalation? Israeli military and political leaders have long made clear that regular military attacks to “cleanse” Palestinian territories (the term was used by Israeli soldiers to describe their role in the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza) is part of their long-term strategic plan. Earlier this year, on the third anniversary of the Gaza assault, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Army Radio that Israel will need to attack Gaza again soon, to restore what he called its power of “deterrence.” He said the assault must be “swift and painful,” concluding, “we will act when the conditions are right.” Perhaps this was his chosen moment.

It is an interesting historical parallel that this escalation – which almost certainly portends a longer-term and even more lethal Israeli assault – takes place almost exactly four years after Operation Cast Lead, the last major Israeli war on Gaza that left 1,400 Gazans dead in 2008-09. Then, as now, the attack came shortly after U.S. elections, ending just before President Obama’s January 2009 inauguration.

But the timing for this escalation is almost certainly shaped more by Israel’s domestic politics than by the U.S. election cycle. The most likely timeline is grounded in Netanyahu’s political calendar – he faces reelection in January, and having thoroughly antagonized many Israelis by his deliberate dissing of President Obama, needs to shore up the far right contingent of his base. With regional pressures escalating, particularly regarding the expanding Syrian crisis, Netanyahu needs to reassure his far-right supporters (an increasing cohort) that even if he doesn’t send bombers to attack Damascus, he still can attack, bomb, assassinate Arabs with impunity.

There is a U.S. connection, of course – however much domestic politics motivated Tel Aviv’s attack, Israel’s backers in Congress (lame-duck and newly-elected) will still demand public U.S. support for the Israeli offensive. Netanyahu will get that backing – there is no reason to think the Obama White House is prepared yet to challenge that assumption. But it’s unlikely that even Netanyanu believes it will somehow recalibrate his tense relationship with Israel by forcing Washington’s hand to defend Israel’s so-called “right of self-defense.” They will do that – but Obama will still be pretty pissed off at Netanyahu.

As is always the case, history is shaped by when you start the clock. In the last several days U.S. media accounts have reported increasing violence on the Gaza-Israel border, most of them beginning with a Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers on Thursday, November 8th. What happened before that Palestinian attack?

For starters, the soldiers, part of an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) squad that included four tanks and a bulldozer, were inside the Gaza Strip. According to the IDF spokeswoman, Palestinians fired at “soldiers while they were performing routine activity adjacent to the security fence.” Really. What kind of activities inside the supposedly not-occupied Gaza Strip, by a group of armed soldiers, tanks and a bulldozer (almost certainly an armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer manufactured in the U.S. and paid for with U.S. taxpayer military aid to Israel), could possibly be defined as anything close to “routine”? Unlike the illegal Palestinian rockets fired against civilian targets inside Israel, using force to resist an illegal military force in the context of a belligerent military occupation is lawful under international law.

Later that day, an 11-year-old child was killed. Israel was “investigating the boy’s death.” Not many U.S. media outlets reported that within the next 72 hours the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented five more Palestinians killed, including three children, and 52 other civilians, including 6 women and 12 children, wounded in Israeli airstrikes. Four of the deaths and 38 injuries resulted from a single Israeli attack on a football playground in a neighborhood east of Gaza city. Twelve Israelis, four of them soldiers, were injured by Palestinian rockets fired into Israel.

The cross-border clashes continued, until Egypt was able to negotiate a ceasefire on Wednesday. Today, that fragile ceasefire was violently breached as Israel sent warplanes to assassinate a Hamas leader and destroy key parts of Gaza’s barely-functional infrastructure.

This is primarily about Netanyanu shoring up the right-wing of his base. And once again it is Palestinians, this time Gazans, who will pay the price. The question that remains is whether the U.S.-assured impunity that Israel’s leadership has so long counted on will continue, or whether there will be enough pressure on the Obama administration and Congress so that this time, the U.S. will finally be forced to allow the international community to hold Israel accountable for this latest round of violations of international law.

Will Obama Back Israeli Punishment of Palestinians for U.N. Overture?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The arrogance of the man seemingly has no bounds but still it seems highly presumptuous for Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to claim to speak for the United States. However, according to AFP, last week, on the eve of the U.S. Presidential election, he said the U.S. would subject the Palestinians to “severe measures” if their leaders go ahead and seek non-member status at the United Nations General Assembly. Israeli television Channel 10 reported that the rightwing minister said the U.S. would join Tel Aviv in assuring that the Palestinian Authority would “collapse” if the initiative proceeded.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is planning to take the bid for recognition and admission to the UN assembly November 29. The body’s approval by majority vote in the 193-member body is considered a foregone conclusion.

The strange irony of all this is that for months now the Israeli leaders and their supporters in the U.S. and Europe, and most of the major media in this country, have insisted that a UN vote in favor of the Palestinians would be meaningless, have no effect on the situation in the region, and that a Middle East settlement can only be secured through negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Somehow that view doesn’t mesh with the near hysterical response and threats emanating from the Israeli government in response to the decision by Palestinian President Abbas to seek UN recognition. What is obvious, however, is that the Israelis are aware that the UN action would only increase the growing isolation of Tel Aviv in the international community, and lay bare the opposition to the continuation of Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the unrelenting Israeli colonial settlement expansion.

On November 9, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Lieberman has also threatened to accelerate settlement building in the occupied territories should the Palestinians go to the UN.

Much media attention in the U.S. over the past couple of weeks has centered on the consequences of the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama on U.S. –Israeli relations and the outlook for moving ahead with the “peace process.” It appears the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu was badly misled by its supporters in the U.S. Sensing some diplomatic advantage, the Israeli Prime Minister injected himself into U.S. politics on behalf of defeated candidate Republican Mitt Romney. Now that Obama has returned to the White House, the Israeli leadership has – at least in public – adopted a more conciliatory attitude toward the Administration. Supporters of the Netanyahu government, both in Israel and here, appeared to have concluded the prime minister’s bold intrusion into U.S. politics was unwise.

However, the official Israeli response to the prospect of a vote at the UN remains unchanged. “Only in direct negotiations can the real positions be clarified,” Netanyahu says. Adding that if the Palestinians are serious about a peaceful settlement they would agree to sit down together “immediately” and negotiate. A bid for UN membership will “only push peace back and will only produce unnecessary instability,” Netanyahu says.

Not all the hawks in the Netanyahu’s Likud party government are being restrained. Last week, Danny Danon, deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, reacted to Obama’s re-election by telling reporters that “Obama’s victory demonstrates that the state of Israel must take care of its own interests.”

“We cannot rely on anyone but ourselves. Obama has hurt the United States by his naïve leadership in foreign policy, which prefers the Arab world over the Western world, along with Israel.” Dayan continued, “The state of Israel will not capitulate before Obama.”

“Recent second-term presidents, most tantalizingly Bill Clinton, turned their attention to the Middle East,” the British newspaper The Independent said editorially November 8. “Mr. Obama, faced with the complexities of the Arab Spring, a civil war in Syria that threatens to destabilize the whole region, and pressure to use force to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, may have a unique opportunity, post-Afghanistan, to address Israel-Palestine in a wider context.”

On the day of the U.S. election the Netanyahu government’s nine senior ministers were scheduled to discuss the Palestinian Authority’s decision to request an upgrade of its status at the United Nations. According to Haaretz, they were to “consider a range of retaliatory actions against the Palestinian leadership,” an official in Jerusalem said.

“This unilateral step has broken the rules and crossed a red line,” Lieberman said before heading to Vienna to attend a gathering meeting of Israeli ambassadors to Europe where, according to the Jerusalem Post, they were to “discuss ways to lobby European governments not to support the plan and to pressure the Palestinian Authority to either delay, or drop, its bid.”

A Palestinian official recently told Reuters that the votes of 12 states of the 27-member European Union states are committed to vote for the admission of Palestine and that some were still undecided. Among the European delegations expected to vote “no” on the admission of Palestine are the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Georgia. Palestinians can expect overwhelmingly support from the delegates of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The ambassadors evidently won’t have to spend much effort on France. Last month Netanyahu met with President Francois Hollande in Paris after which the Israeli leader slammed the Palestinian efforts toward international recognition, saying, “Going to the UN with unilateral declarations is not negotiations. It’s the opposite of negotiations.” The Socialist Party President called for an “unconditional” resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. According to the Israel media, he added that France was still committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East but warned the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas against trying to force the issue unilaterally.

Following Netanyahu’s visit to France, Hollande called for an “unconditional” resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “There is the temptation of the Palestinian Authority to seek at the UN General Assembly that which it fails to obtain through negotiation,” he said. However, without at least a settlement freeze the likelihood of a resumption of talks is remote.

Following announcement last week that the Israeli government intends to build 1,200 new houses in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, expressed Europe’s “deep regrets.” She wrote, “Settlements are illegal under international law. The EU has repeatedly urged the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, in line with its obligations under the roadmap.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the Israeli decision a “hindrance” to the peace process

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn this week told Spiegel Online that the Palestinian application to the UN “is an absolutely justified request and not a provocation. It is often forgotten that the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of 1948 provided for two states — Israel next to an Arab state,” said Asselborn. “After the Palestinians failed in their bid last year to be recognized as a state by the UN Security Council, Abbas announced he would follow the Vatican model and apply for the status of an observer state at the General Assembly. He even offered to formulate the resolution together with the Israelis, but Netanyahu refused.”

The real question is whether the Israelis are committed to a “two-state” solution, or any solution, or whether their strategy is to continue to establish “facts on the ground” through continued settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

On November 12, Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian team working on the UN bid, said President Obama had voiced his opposition to the UN move, but that the Palestinian leader made it clear the decision was final. “I find it extremely shocking that the US and Israel would oppose this step,” Shtayyeh was quoted by Prensa Latina as saying. “What did we do to deserve this punishment? Did we declare war?”

Another Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, told official Voice of Palestine radio, “Obama did not utter any threats but there are threats from the [US] Congress, which has a draft bill, according to which it would demand closing the PLO office in Washington and cutting off aid if the Palestinian leadership pursues any move at the UN and its related agencies.”

This week the U.S. stepped up efforts to defer the Palestinians from going to the UN, including sending a special envoy to Europe to meet with Abbas. “We’ve been clear in the past about what some of the consequences that this would generate, or engender,” State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said November 13.

“The stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the lack of prospects for their resumption anytime soon has persuaded the Palestinian Authority (PA) to chart its own course by applying to the United Nations General Assembly (U.N.G.A.) as a non-voting member state,” wrote Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow at New York University, at the Huffington Post October 31. “However uncertain the prospect of such a move may be from the PA’s perspective, there is very little to lose at this juncture and perhaps much to gain in taking such a unilateral step.

“The Palestinians are counting on Israel’s increasing isolation in the international community and the overwhelming political support for their cause, which is also the official policy of the U.S. The forthcoming elections in the U.S. as well as in Israel, regardless of their outcome, will provide the Palestinians with an opportune time to thrust the nearly forgotten Palestinian problem into the Israeli and American political agendas while ensuring that the conflict returns to the forefront of the international community’s attention.”

Ben-Meir pointed to the recent uniting of Netanyahu’s Likud Party with the Yisrael Beytenu group, led by Lieberman, seriously suggests that coalition government “will hold onto even more extremist views than the current one, which will further diminish any hope for achieving a peaceful solution if Netanyahu wants to legalize settlements.”

Lieberman’s threats to harm Palestinians have included withholding from the Palestinian Authority government the tax and tariff revenues Israel collects and canceling working permits of Palestinians who are in Israel. “If the Palestinians go to the UN General Assembly with a new unilateral initiative, they must know they will be subject to severe measures by Israel and the United States,” Lieberman said, adding, “If they persist with this project, I will ensure that the Palestinian Authority collapses.” So far, there has been no word as to whether the Obama Administration will go along with what would amount to not only collective punishment but action taken against a whole people for an action that involves no violence.

The U.S. State Department is trying to twist the arms of the Europeans to induce them to act against the Palestinians at the UN and Washington’s seeming willingness to let the far right in Israel speak for it in the international arena and make threats on behalf of the Obama Administration is not a pretty sight. Carrying out such threats would be ugly. It is not in the interest of peace in the Middle East. It would be a mockery of the lofty pledges the President made at Cairo University three years ago and it is not the kind of thing the people who gave Obama the Nobel Peace prize had in mind.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

An Appeal to Canada to Stand with El Salvador, the First Nation to Halt Gold Mining

I paid a visit this week to the Canadian Embassy with colleagues from the Institute for Policy Studies and other environmental and public policy organizations to deliver a letter to the Canadian Ambassador to the United States. We are demanding that his government tell Pacific Rim — the Vancouver-based mining company — to stop bullying the people of El Salvador.

John Cavanagh, IPS Director, speaks with Canadian Ambassador to discuss how Canadian company Pacific Rim is bullying El Salvador.

Our letter was co-signed by Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, Earthworks, the Center for International Environmental Law, and others. We wrote:

“Given the severe environment and human rights implications associated with Pacific Rim’s investment in El Salvador and the gold mine and cyanide leach-water processing plant it is proposing, we urge the Canadian government to alert Pacific Rim that its investor-state claim against the Salvadoran government for enforcing its own environmental laws and striving to protect its water and communities tarnishes the image of the Canadian mining industry.”

Salvadoran community leaders tell us that, since 2009 when they came to Washington DC to receive the Letelier-Moffitt human rights award from IPS, Pacific Rim has been trying to transform itself from victimizer to victim. This behavior is reprehensible. Some have lost their lives due to anti-mining activities, such as Marcelo Rivera, the brother of one of those who received the awards, who was assassinated for speaking out about the perils of gold mining.

This is the effect of free trade agreements.

Despite the prospect of major environmental damage, Pacific Rim says it has the “right,” under the investor–state regime allowed by investment rules in free trade agreements, to reap the profits that would have been brought by gold mining. In pursuit of these so-called lost profits, Pacific Rim is demanding up to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation at the International Centre for Settlement of International Disputes (ICSID), an unaccountable World Bank tribunal that operates behind closed doors.

The Sierra Club “opposes trade and investment agreements that allow foreign corporations to attack environmental and public health protections in secret trade tribunals,” says Ilana Solomon, trade policy expert at the Sierra Club. “This lawsuit by Pacific Rim, which threatens the health and safety of communities in El Salvador, is a case in point for why we oppose these secret tribunals.”

Using large roll-out maps of El Salvador watersheds that he brought along, IPS director John Cavanagh explained to the First Secretary of the Canadian Embassy that, though there is always danger from the mining and processing necessary to extract gold, Pacific Rim’s activity in El Salvador is particularly threatening given that El Salvador is the second most water-starved country in our hemisphere. A full 98 percent of El Salvador’s surface water is contaminated, some of it from mining activity halted decades ago. Yet Pacific Rim stands to exacerbate El Salvador’s water problems, threatening the river that supplies water to over half the population.

There is a broad consensus in the department of Cabañas and throughout the country that opening a mine in the Lempa River watershed presents a dangerous risk that El Salvador cannot afford. Polling shows that the people of El Salvador oppose gold mining and the government supports this mandate.

Pacific Rim claims that those who oppose gold mining are “certain,” “rogue,” and “anti-developmental” organizations. But hundreds of environmental organizations in the United States, Canada and globally stand firm to defend the right of the people of El Salvador — the first nation to halt gold mining — to defend their environment and to implement public policies to this end. Yesterday we asked the embassy official to notify his government that we expect an escalation in worldwide protests demanding that Pacific Rim drop its suit at the World Bank’s ICSID, and leave El Salvador.

In addition to environmental concerns, Pacific Rim’s project has caused divisions and severe human costs. As our letter states:

“We are deeply troubled by the human rights abuses associated with the Pacific Rim mine. Already, four environmental activists have been assassinated and many more have been threatened, including journalists who operate a local radio station.”

No company should have the right to threaten a country like this.

This Week in OtherWords: November 14, 2012

This week, OtherWords features an op-ed by Sarah Anderson and a cartoon by Khalil Bendib that highlight the dangers of the “Fix the Debt” campaign. Spearheaded by big corporations and their CEOs, this slick and well-financed initiative could only make our national financial situation worse by slashing tax revenue and cutting Social Security and other earned benefits.

As always, I encourage you to visit the OtherWords blog and subscribe to our weekly newsletter if you haven’t signed up yet.

  1. The Trojan Horse in the Debt Debate / Sarah Anderson
    Dozens of CEOs are running a misleading campaign that would just make matters worse.
  2. Our Nuclear Insecurity Complex / Peter Stockton
    The government has yet to address the lapses in bomb-grade uranium storage security that an 82-year-old nun and her accomplices revealed months ago.
  3. Fracking our Thanksgiving Feast / Joel Greeno
    Could mining Wisconsin sand lead to butter and cranberry shortages?
  4. Voting Can Be Good for Your Health / Hillary Gibson
    Obama’s re-election means insurance companies won’t be able refuse to cover the treatment I will need for the rest of my life.
  5. The Return on Those Bad Bets on Romney / Sam Pizzigati
    Billionaires can win politically even when they lose on Election Day.
  6. Without Unity, We’ll Tumble Over the Fiscal Cliff / Mattea Kramer
    Our lawmakers have an opportunity to negotiate a better budget deal for this country.
  7. The Biggest Loser in Politics / Jim Hightower
    Billionaires expect better returns than Karl Rove pulled off on Election Day.
  8. Please Don’t Shoot the Messengers / William A. Collins
    Official secrecy doesn’t just shield high-ranking officials from the personal embarrassment that comes with taking the term “embedded” too literally.
  9. The ‘Fix-the-Debt’ Racket / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
The 'Fix the Debt' Racket, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The ‘Fix the Debt’ Racket, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Equatorial Guinea Briefly Disappears Dissident

Human rights lawyer Fabian Nsue Nguema.

Human rights lawyer Fabian Nsue Nguema.

Equatorial Guinea is one of those friends Washington generally prefers not to publicize. A most recent embarrassment only adds to an international reputation as one of the most corrupt and unjust nations on the planet. One of the nation’s leading human rights lawyers, Fabian Nsue Nguema, was temporarily disappeared.

After vanishing on October 22nd, he was presumed to be under secret detention. He was released on October 30th after enduring nine days of solitary confinement. Such are the punishments for dissenters in Teodoro Obiang’s fiefdom.

Nsue has been tortured and harassed by the government for years. He was held during his recent stint at the gruesome torture chamber Black Beach prison.

Black Beach Prison.

Black Beach Prison.

Obama has not substantially altered the Bush administration’s reopening of relations with Equatorial Guinea. The reasons are the usual ones. EG is the “Kuwait of Africa” and Obiang is happy to arrange greater profits from the natural national resource for foreign oil companies than the general citizenry of his country. The nation is a major supplier to the U.S. crude market, situated as it is, on the West African coast – a source Washington has increasingly favored for domestic consumption. The U.S. is EG’s largest buyer.

President and Mrs. Obiang and friends.

President and Mrs. Obiang and friends.

For this reason, relations between the two nations are “positive and constructive” according to the State Department. In September 2009, Obama even consented to a photo with Obiang and their spouses.

Obiang’s rule is so corrupt however – per capita the nation is one of the world’s wealthiest, at parity with Belgium, though citizens live in grinding poverty and die young – that he enlists extra help to manage his image from the likes of the notorious pal of Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis.

The ties to the U.S. go beyond government relations. Teodoro’s son has a mansion estate in Malibu and calls himself a prince, requiring his employees to line up to greet him and bid him farewell as he comes and goes, as if he is living out a sinister version of Eddie Murphie’s Coming to America. The excellent journalist Ken Silverstein depicts a man who literally does no work: “His days consisted entirely of sleeping, shopping and partying.” His theft of his country’s resources has financed such an array of luxury cars he is able to tell his drivers things like, “I’m wearing blue shoes, so get me the blue Rolls today.”

This spoiled child of the ruling class has been treated gently by the U.S. government, which continues to suffer his presence in the country in apparent violation of U.S. law against the entry of foreign corrupt officials. Despite amassing a damning amount of evidence on his corruption on an epic scale, the government has declined to prosecute him. Why alienate the future ruler of such a useful ally?

It is worth pausing to emphasize that everyone who collaborates with Equatorial Guinea’s oil exploitation, from governments, to foreign oil firms like Exxon, to private security companies like Virginia’s Military Professional Resources Initiative, are complicit in the theft of an entire people that should be living comfortable lives off the wealth under their soil, not the destitution they are currently condemned to.

Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinean human rights advocates like Nsue and the writer Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, who fled to Spain earlier this year after going on a hunger strike in protest of Obiang’s rule, continue their lonely fight against the superpower’s partner in crime.

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.

The U.S. and the Middle East: The Next Four Years

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Conn Hallinan outlines and analyzes them, starting with the Middle East.

Syria

The most immediate problem in the region is the ongoing civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the regime’s army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to extremist jihadist groups. The US and Britain are trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by the opponents of the Assad regime.

Efforts by the United Nations (UN) to find a peaceful solution have been consistently torpedoed, because the opposition and its allies insist on regime change. The goal of overthrowing the government makes this a fight to the death and leaves little room for political maneuvering. A recent ceasefire failed, in part, because jihadist groups supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia refused to abide by it and set off several car bombs in the capital. The Sunni extremism of these groups is whipping up sectarian divisions among the various sects of Islam.

There are a number of things the Obama administration could do to alleviate the horrors of the current civil war.

First, it should drop the demand for regime change, although this does not necessarily mean that President Assad will remain in power. What must be avoided is the kind of regime change that the war in Libya ushered in. Libya has essentially become a failed state, and the spinoff from that war is wreaking havoc in countries that border the Sahara, Mali being a case in point. In the end, Assad may go, but to dismantle the Baathist government is to invite the kind of sectarian and political chaos that the dissolution of the Baathist regime in Iraq produced.

Second, if the US and its allies are enforcing an arms embargo against Assad’s government, they must insist on the same kind of embargo on arms sent to the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Third, China and Russia should be asked to negotiate a ceasefire and organize a conference aimed at producing a political settlement and transition government. China recently proposed a four-point peace plan that could serve as a starting point for talks. A recent Assad government controlled newspaper, Al Thawra, suggested the Damascus regime would be open to such negotiations. A key aspect to such talks would be a guarantee that no outside power would undermine them.

Palestinians

The conflict that will not speak its name—or at least that is the way the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians was treated during the 2012 US elections. But as U.S. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, the military formation responsible for the Middle East, said last spring, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East, particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of their populations” that support the Palestinians.

Rather than moving toward a solution, however, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently announced yet another round of settlement building. There are approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers currently on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although all such settlements are a violation of international law. While Netanyahu says he wants negotiations, he continues to build settlements, which is like negotiating over how to divide a pizza while one of the parties is eating it.

Proposals to annex the West Bank, once the program of far-right settlers, have gone mainstream. A conference this past July in the West Bank city of Hebron drew more than 500 Israelis who reject the idea of a Palestinian state. The gathering included a number of important Likud Party officials and members of the Knesset. Likud is Netanyahu’s party and currently leads the Israeli government.

“Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a solution—applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority,” Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely told the audience.

Conference organizer Yehudit Katsover put the matter bluntly “We’re all here to say one thing: the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!”

A major argument against absorbing the West Bank is that it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel and threaten the country’s democratic institutions. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

But right-wing conference goers dismissed that argument because they reject that there is a demographic threat from the Palestinians. According to The Times of Israel, former ambassador to the US Yoram Ettinger told the crowd that estimates of the Palestinian population are based on “Palestinian incompetence or lying” and that there are actually a million fewer than the official population count.

Legal expert Yitzhak Bam said he expected there would be no fallout from the Americans if Israel unilaterally annexed the West Bank, since Washington did not protest the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Both areas were conquered in the 1967 War.

The Times reporter Raphael Ahern writes that that the conference reflects “The annexationists are growing in confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so publically.”

The expanding settlements are rapidly making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible. Eventually there will be no pizza left to divide.

The Obama administration has dropped the ball on this issue and needs to re-engage, lest the “pot” boil over.

First, the Tel Aviv government needs to be told that all settlement expansion must cease, and that failure to do so will result in a suspension of aid. At about $3.4 billion a year, Israel is the US’s number-one foreign aid recipient.

Second, the US must stop blocking efforts by the Palestinians for UN recognition.

Third, negotiations must cover not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the status of East Jerusalem. The latter is the engine of the Palestinian economy, and without it a Palestinian state would not be viable.

Iran

The immediate danger of a war with Iran appears to have slightly receded, although the Israelis are always a bit of a wild card. First, the Obama administration explicitly rejected Netanyahu’s “red line” that would trigger an attack on Teheran. The Israeli prime minister argues that Iran must not be allowed to achieve the “capacity” to produce nuclear weapons, a formulation that would greatly lower the threshold for an assault. Second, there are persistent rumors that the US and Iran are exploring one-on-one talks, and it appears that some forces within Iran that support talks—specifically former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani— are in the ascendency.

Netanyahu continues to threaten war, but virtually his entire military and intelligence apparatus is opposed to a unilateral strike. Israeli intelligence is not convinced that Iran is building a bomb, and the Israeli military doesn’t think it has the forces or weapons to do the job of knocking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Polls also indicate overwhelming opposition among the Israeli public for a unilateral attack. This doesn’t mean Netanyahu won’t attack Iran, just that the danger does not seem immediate. If Israel should choose to launch a war, the Obama administration should make it clear that Tel Aviv is on its own.

US intelligence and the Pentagon are pretty much on the same page as the Israelis regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Even with its powerful military, US generals are not convinced that an attack would accomplish much more than delaying Iran’s program by from three to five years. At least at this point, the Pentagon would rather talk than fight. “We are under the impression that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” says Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Polls also indicate that nearly 70 percent of the American public favors negotiations over war.

In short, a lot of ducks are now in a row to cut a deal.

However, the US cannot make uranium enhancement a red line. Iran has the right to enhance nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as long as inspectors are in place—as they currently are—it is virtually impossible to create bomb-level fuel in secret.

Not only has intelligence failed to show that Iran is creating a nuclear weapons program, the country’s leader has explicitly rejected such a step. “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons,” says the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, calling nuclear weapons “a great and unforgivable sin.” The Iranian government has also indicated that it will take part in a UN-sponsored conference in Helsinki to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

The Obama administration should endorse this effort to abolish nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although this will force it to confront the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is not a NPT signatory and is thought to have some 200 nuclear weapons. Such a monopoly cannot long endure. The argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because it is so outnumbered in the region is nonsense. Israel has by far the strongest military in the Middle East and powerful protectors in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While Egypt and Syria did attack Israel in 1973, it was to recover territories seized by Tel Aviv in the 1967 war, not an attempt to destroy the country. And that was almost 40 years ago. Since then Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and Gaza once. Countries in the region fear Israel, not vice-versa.

While the White House has recently eased restrictions on the sale of critical medicines to Iran, the sanctions are taking a terrible toll on the economy and the average Iranian. So far, the US has not explicitly said it will remove the sanctions if talks are showing real progress. Since no one likes negotiating with a gun to the head—in this regard Iranians are no different than Americans—there should be some good faith easing of some of the more onerous restrictions, like those on international banking and oil sales.

Lastly, the option of war needs to be taken off the table. Threatening to bomb people in order to get them not to produce nuclear weapons will almost certainly spur Iran (and other countries) to do exactly the opposite. A war with Iran would also be illegal. The British attorney general recently informed the Parliament that an attack on Iran would violate international law, because Iran does not pose a “clear and present danger,” and recommended that the US not be allowed to use the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to launch such an attack.

The Gulf

Because US relies on the energy resources of the Persian Gulf countries, as well as strategic basing rights, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will challenge the foreign and domestic policies of its allies in the region. But then Washington should not pretend that its policies there have anything to do with promoting democracy.

The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are monarchies that not only suppress dissent but also systematically oppress women and minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, the Shite majority. The extreme jihadist organizations that the countries of the Gulf fund and arm are destabilizing governments across the region and throughout Central Asia. Washington may bemoan extremism in Pakistan, but its Gulf allies can claim the lion’s share of the credit for nurturing the groups responsible for that extremism.

The Gulf Council is not interested in promoting democracy—indeed, political pluralism is one of its greatest enemies, nor does it have much interest in the modern world, aside from fancy cars and personal jet planes. This past summer Saudi Arabia executed a man for possessing “books and talismans from which he learned to harm God’s worshippers,” and last year beheaded a man and a woman for witchcraft.

Lastly, the Obama administration should repudiate the 1979 Carter Doctrine that allows the US to use military force to guarantee access to energy resources in the Middle East. That kind of thinking went out with 19thcentury gunboats and hangs like the Damocles Sword over any country in the region that might decide to carve out an independent policy on politics and energy.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Attacks on First Responders Transform Criminality of Drone Strikes to Sadism

Remember the “dead bastards” — as in “look at those” — video, which was the first of the Bradley Manning stash released by WikiLeaks? It depicted an April 2010 Apache helicopter strike that killed a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters employees. Its impact was fourfold because it featured:

1. an attack on civilians
2. an attack on journalists
3. callous pilots, and the icing on the outrage cake …
4. a second round of missiles launched at those who arrived in a van to assist at the scene.

Those of us on the left who came of age during the Vietnam War, as well as the period when CIA meddling in foreign affairs to deadly effect was at its peak, may have thought we’d lost our capacity to be shocked at what the United States has shown itself capable. But attacking those coming to the assistance of the injured, which the military calls “double tapping” and doesn’t even attempt to hide, caught me off-guard with its cold-blooded cruelty. It’s not only used in helicopter attacks, but in drone strikes as well.

A February article by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) provides more insight into this insidious practice. TBIJ also served as a key source for the landmark report Living Under Drones released in September by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law. The TBIJ article reads:

A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims.

Attempting to prove its legality is a non-starter.

… Naz Modirzadeh, Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University, said killing people at a rescue site may have no legal justification. ‘Not to mince words here, if it is not in a situation of armed conflict, unless it falls into the very narrow area of imminent threat then it is an extra-judicial execution’, she said. ‘We don’t even need to get to the nuance of who’s who, and are people there for rescue or not. Because each death is illegal. Each death is a murder in that case.’

It’s hard enough to digest the information that the nation in which one lives and to which one pays taxes attacks those rushing to the aid of the injured. But it gets worse.

More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.

One scheme was positively diabolical.

On June 23 2009 the CIA killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud, a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander. They planned to use his body as bait to hook a larger fish – Baitullah Mehsud, then the notorious leader of the Pakistan Taliban.

‘A plan was quickly hatched to strike Baitullah Mehsud when he attended the man’s funeral,’ according to Washington Post national security correspondent Joby Warrick, in his … book The Triple Agent. ‘True, the commander… happened to be very much alive as the plan took shape. But he would not be for long.’

The CIA duly killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud in a drone strike that killed at least five others.

You can see that Langley remains as much of a conceptual charnel house as ever.

Up to 5,000 people attended Khwaz Wali Mehsud’s funeral that afternoon, including not only Taliban fighters but many civilians. US drones struck again, killing up to 83 people. As many as 45 were civilians, among them reportedly ten children and four tribal leaders. Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud escaped unharmed, dying six weeks later along with his wife in a fresh CIA attack.

None of this, of course, is new. If not by the United States, medics have long been attacked in war. Today, Israel has targeted Palestinian medics and the Syrian army has targeted resistance medics. Meanwhile, Bahrain persecutes medical personnel who have assisted the injured opposition.

But, in the case of the United States, drone attacks are intended, in part, to act as an alternative to — and method of fending off — a declaration of war on another country. Yet, with its barbaric tactics, the drone program not only apes the tactics of war, but draws the opposition into believing all-out war is what both sides are fighting.

Petraeus Biographer Strokes More Than Just His Ego

While interviewing General David Petraeus’s co-biographer Paula Broadwell, John Stewart asked her what it was like to be “embedded with a person at this level.” Little did he know how embedded she was.

Of course, Petraeus resigned after his brief affair with Ms. Broadwell — and his obsessive attempts to revive it in the form of over one thousand emails — were discovered. Still, today’s climate is forgiving enough to allow someone in such a high position to continue his job. One thinks of President Clinton.

However, it was out of the question in Petraeus’s case, not only because he was head of an intelligence organization, but because Ms. Broadwell is under investigation for reading sensitive emails that Petraeus wrote. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The computer-security investigation … points to one reason Mr. Petraeus and the White House decided he couldn’t remain in the senior intelligence position. An extramarital affair has significant implications for an official in a highly sensitive post, because it can open an official to blackmail. Security officials are sensitive to misuse of personal email accounts—not only official accounts—because there have been multiple instances of foreign hackers targeting personal emails.

FBI agents on the case expected that Petraeus would be asked to resign immediately rather than risk the possibility that he could be blackmailed to give intelligence secrets to foreign intelligence agencies or criminals. In addition, his pursuit of the woman could have distracted him as the CIA was giving Congress reports on the attack on the Benghazi consulate on Sept. 11.

Conservatives had already been claiming that someone at the CIA was “asleep at the wheel” of the Benghazi train wreck. Some now view one-time favorite Petraeus as a means by which they can further savage the administration over the attack. At Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman writes:

The Wall Street Journal cites several anonymous officials who go after Petraeus hard. The CIA [presence in Benghazi] … with the mission of hunting down ex-dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s unsecured rockets and missiles … operating out of an “annex” near the 13-acre consular compound, dwarfed the regular diplomatic presence in Benghazi. That apparently led to an expectation at the State Department that the CIA would secure the compound in the event of a disaster, which never congealed into a formal arrangement.

Worse …

The CIA had 10 people to protect its annex in Benghazi, but the State Department relied on a previously obscure British firm, Blue Mountain, [which] … paid its Libyan guards $4 an hour … to guard the entire compound. … It’s speculative, but the State Department’s expectation that the CIA would be “the cavalry” in an assault … might have contributed to State’s relatively lax security posture at the consulate.

Meanwhile, let’s try to envision a scenario in which Ms. Broadwell perused Petraeus’s official email account.

1. While he’s deep in post-coital sleep, she sneaks off to his laptop. He has carelessly failed to log out of his email account.
2. While he scrolls through his emails, he lets her look over his shoulder.
3. He actually gave her his password. His intent might have been to allow her to log on and view saved drafts of emails he’s written, but refrained from sending to avoid tracking. But, the sheer volume of emails he sent otherwise tends to invalidate this hypothesis.

Still a key question remains: was Ms. Broadwell just poking around on Petraeus’s account out of curiosity? Or was she looking for something specific? If so, what?

In the end — in fact, this story is just getting started — it’s ironic to those of us who have long stood in opposition to Petraeus that the woman who helped “hagiograph”* him was the catalyst for his fall from grace. Thanks to Petraeus’s fatal encounter with Ms. Broadwell, he was transformed from engaged CIA director and “national hero” to a man who wrote over one thousand emails to the woman who’d broken up with him — a common cyber-stalker, in other words.

*Write an idealizing biography.

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