Friday, March 04, 2005

 

State of the Israeli economy

In three words? Not so good. Ruth Sinai has two articles in Ha'aretz: the first is about the unemployment rate. Although the government has made a big deal (or as big a deal as you can make) of unemployment declining from 10.9 percent to 10.4 percent last year, the annual report of the Commitment to Peace and Social Justice (of course, who can trust a group with a name like that, right?) indicates that the true rate of unemployment and underemployment in Israel is at about 18.1 percent of the labor force. This figure reflects approximately 2 percent of workers who have despaired of finding work and almost 6 percent of workers who are underemployed, working fewer hours than they would like. Furthermore:
Of the 70,000 new jobs created last year, the report said, about 60,000 are part-time jobs paying low wages. The report also noted that the number of long-term unemployed has risen sharply by 53 percent since 2002.
The second article reflects similarly dismal economic news from Israel, specifically looking at communities considered "unemployment hot spots." And get this: now some of these are even (gasp) Jewish communities!
Overall, unemployment in Israel fell from 10.9 percent to 10 percent last year [see directly above]. Yet the number of "unemployment hot spots" keeps growing. In January, there were 71, more than a third of all the towns that appear in the Employment Service's monthly statistics. Sixteen months earlier, in September 2003, there were only 39. Moreover, there were 13 Jewish towns on January's list, compared to only six in September 2003....

Until 2003, the "unemployment hot spots" rarely included Jewish towns. In 2003, Jewish towns began appearing on the list, but only in the Negev. Last year, they were joined by Jewish towns in the north.
The article focuses on Or Akiva, one of these communities. This is the Likud economic program. This is the budget that Labor and Yahad and the Arab parties will vote for if they think that it's worth more to give Sharon a vote of confidence to press forward with Gaza disengagement. They will be voting for money for compensating settlers (as Gideon Levy has written, compensate them for what?), for building the wall through the West Bank, for building up settlements around Jerusalem, for increasing funding to small religious parties (as payoff for supporting, or less actively opposing, withdrawal of settlers from Gaza). Meanwhile:
At the same time, the state's investment in helping the long-term unemployed find jobs has dropped dramatically. Since 2003, for instance, many fewer job-seekers are being referred to state-funded professional training courses....

...And while there is a shortage of skilled metalworkers in the area, the new, more restrictive, rules instituted by the government in 2003 mean that most of the unemployed are not eligible to attend a training course that would give them the necessary skills.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

 

The Disengagement Trigger

Yesterday I went to see Gershon Baskin, one of the founders of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, speak. Though I enjoyed his lecture, I found myself less and less satisfied with Baskin's approach to disengagement, an approach not unique to Baskin but pretty widely held in the Israeli left (and the international left as well, for that matter). This view is that Sharon's disengagement from Gaza is going to be the snowflake that sets off the avalanche. It will begin an unstoppable and irreversible process which will end with the settlers being removed from the West Bank as well, etc etc. Allow me to explain why I do not hold this view.

First of all, this view is also held hand-in-hand with the idea that Sharon is the only one who will be able to pull off a Gaza withdrawal-type stunt. Given his military, anti-compromise, right wing, pro-settlement credentials, Sharon is somewhat impervious to the criticism of the extreme right. The protrayal of Sharon as a traitor willing to sell out the Jews to terrorists doesn't really stick to him in the eyes of the broader Israeli public. Baskin also expressed a belief that the Israeli Left parties (Yahad, to some extent Labor) would probably emerge in the next elections no stronger than they are at present. Without massive support for the left it seems true that somebody from the right, somebody like Sharon and perhaps only Sharon, is the one to be able to remove settlers from Gaza at this point in time. However, Sharon, and the right in general, does not seem interested in taking the same action in the West Bank. The statements from Dov Weisglass reflect this. The building of the wall reflects this. The continued construction in West Bank settlements reflects this, as does recognizing formerly "illegal outpost" settlements.

So where, then, will this snowball effect come from? I asked Baskin this, and he gave two possibilities (from what I gathered). One, Sharon may have more tricks up his sleeve. My response to this: I doubt it. See the paragraph above. Furthermore, Sharon has taken quite a political beating from this disengagement plan already. Polls show that Netanyahu would beat him in the Likud primary if it were held today. He has managed to slide through by cobbling together different coalitions along the way, starting with Shinui, adding far-right parties like the NRP, hauling in Shimon Peres and Labor. He counts on the votes of not only Labor, but Yahad and the Arab parties to get things done! Baskin thought that the budget would be passed, thus allowing Sharon to continue as PM, but only with the support of Yahad and the Arab parties. Although these parties would also support removal of West Bank settlements, proposing such would certainly destroy any remaining right-wing support from Likud members or any religious or far-right party.

The second response that Baskin gave was that there is widespread public support for removing settlements. Polls show that over two-thirds of the Israeli public is no longer interested in pushing the settlement enterprise further and is willing to evacuate some settlements (most of these polls, in actuality, are not very clear about what settlements would be allowed to stay, etc.). However, the opposition to disengagement is trying to push a referendum. Why? Not only to draw the process out even further (when did we start talking about all this? it's been a while, hasn't it?) but also because there is the good possibility that the Gaza disengagement plan would not win a public referendum. The public, in general, tends toward the status quo. Given that there is the possibility that a referendum would not support Gaza disengagement, and given the fact that the Gaza settlements are much less popular than the West Bank settlements, I find it hard to believe that the public is going to rise up and demand West Bank withdrawal. Especially if the political power remains in the hands of the right-wing parties and not the left, as seems probable. This public opinion about the settlers is not new. It's been this way for years! So why will this unstoppable force spring into action now as it never has before?

So why then, do people hold this belief? First, I think it has to do with general optimism. I can understand that. Everybody wants (well, maybe not everybody, but most people do) to be hopeful about things. However, I think it also has much to do with the left convincing themselves of this justification for essentially supporting Sharon. It also allows certain Israelis and internationals to justify or avoid their failure to organize an effective leftist movement to counter Sharon and the right. And in keeping Sharon afloat and warding off the attacks from the ultra-right against him, the "left" has had to reconcile itself to many things that it may not otherwise have done. If the budget does pass with the support of Yahad and the Arab parties, it will be a budget that most on the left find unacceptable. It will slash many remaining vestiges of the welfare state that Israel once imagined itself to be, it will be very bad for the impoverished or underpriveleged in Israeli society, those groups that the left-wing parties supposedly support. And they will vote for it simply to keep Sharon, a man most of them have spent much of their lives loathing, in power. So in order to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, they buy into this idea that the Gaza disengagement will set off a chain of events that will make it all worth it.

I, personally, don't think that's the way it's going to happen.

Finally, this post should not be seen as an attack on Gershon Baskin, per se. He is hardly the only one who has expressed the ideas I attributed to him, nor is he the worst, by any stretch of the imagination. It is only that his lecture provoked these ideas that had been rattling around in my head, so I used it as the jumping off point.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

 

Columbia Truly Unbecoming

In an overall production that would make Orwell spit up in his grave, the combined efforts of the Columbia University chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and Columbians for Academic Freedom will host a conference on the Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus. It includes such "highlights" as Natan Sharansky, Martin Kramer, Alan Dershowitz, a showing of the film "Columbia Unbecoming", Edward S. Beck (president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East), Rachel Fish (of the David Project, the group behind "Columbia Unbecoming"), Charles Jacobs (founder of the David Project), Efraim Karsh, Morton Klein (President of the ZOA), Martin Peretz (Editor-in-Cheif of the New Republic), and Susan Tuchman (director of the ZOA's Center for Law and Justice) and a few others.

What a "balanced" panel. But where is Daniel Pipes? Is he not available that day? Or David Horowitz? Too busy?

On another note, is anybody else aware that there are places in the Middle East other than Israel?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

 

Hizballah: the new Taliban?

James Wolcott tells us to be on the lookout for the cable news swarm over Hizballah in the upcoming days and months. He writes:
So what we have here is another well-financed neocon operation, gearing up post-Iraq to frighten Americans about Hezbollah and to push for US premptive intervention. Hezbollah--"Iran-backed shock troops," as they're dubbed in the book's promo--will be equated with the Taliban, and just as Afghanistan had to be attacked for harboring the Taliban, countries that harbor, finance, and otherwise support Hezbollah must Face the Consequences.

Here's your homework assignment, boys and girls. Study cable news in the coming months, if you can stand the stomach upset, and see how many segments are devoted to the emerging threat posed by Hezbollah, and what America must do to protect itself. Particularly what-if scenarios about Hezbollah obtaining WMDs, and what they could do to American cities. I suspect we'll see quite an uptick.
Undoubtedly so. Especially because the Bush administration can use the Hizballah card against either Syria (especially as the Lebanon-Syria situation develops) or Iran (Shiites of a feather, et cetera et cetera). What a blessing! Wolcott mentions the authors of a book titled "Lightning out of Lebanon" who were on Wolf Blitzer shilling their Hizballaphobia (or should we call it Hizsteria?). But don't worry, there are plenty of these books that have just come out or are coming out shortly. Here's one. Oh, and here's one. Or this one? And dontcha just know it, but that suicide bombing in Tel Aviv (which was claimed by Islamic Jihad) is being blamed on Hizballah and Syria (not that it's out of the question that Hizballah was involved, but there is an obvious attempt recently to focus attention toward Hizballah, Syria, and to some degree Iran).

 

Blame Islam

An interesting point from Jihad al-Khazen's column in al-Hayat:
Europe's extreme right parties are witnessing an increasing and worrisome support, from the Austria's Freedom Party, to France's Popular Front, to Germany's National Democratic Party; but nowhere has the right's revival been as swift or as strong as Belgium's Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, where support for Dewinter's Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, has surged from 10% of the electorate in 1999 to nearly 25% today.

Such a development is worrisome in itself, as the anti-Semitism revealed by the extremist parties is not restricted to the Jews, and it is rejected even if it consisted of the Jews only, but includes the immigrants, especially the Muslims.

What worries me the most in this issue is that I am reading time after time that the reason for the increase of the support for the extreme rightists in Europe is the fear from Islamic Fundamentalism. The Flemish Interest's office, which is located in a 19th century building, shows a poster of a Muslim minaret rising menacingly above the gothic steeple of the city's cathedral.

In other words, we are held responsible for the extremists among us, and now we are held responsible for the extremists among them, because we are the reason behind the increase of support given to them.
So Islam is the root of all problems, foreign and domestic.

Oh, but let's not forget the liberals! They're the ones that let these heathens and Ayrabs into the "homeland" to begin with. And they let them get away with it abroad! They want to give in to the terrorists and talk with Iran and cut and run in Iraq. And Clinton could have had Osama but he didn't get him. And blah blah blah blah blah. Oh sorry, I got off track. In any case, I thought it was an interesting point. I'm sure somebody could do some good discourse analysis if they wanted to. At the moment, that person isn't me.

 

Foreign powers and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In the news today is Tony Blair's meeting with Mahmud Abbas, Kofi Annan, Condoleezza Rice, and some other folks. I honestly cannot see much in this meeting, other than the continued decision by the Israelis to avoid any serious negotiating toward a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. The Israelis were not involved, in fact refusing to participate, though Blair made sure to praise Israel's "courage" in putting forth a plan to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip. Also today, the International Crisis Group released a report on "Disengagement and After: Where Next for Sharon and the Likud?" (It is available in pdf format and as a word document.) The report describes the reasons that Sharon's disengagement plan will continue unilaterally despite the "renewed peace process" or prospects thereof:
In reality, while Sharon's initiative is of recent vintage, its unilateral aspect is rooted in three interconnected core beliefs which explain why it is likely to survive Arafat's passing and Abu Mazen's advent. The first, as seen, is his desire to assert control over the diplomatic process, taking the initiative to preclude it being taken by others. By acting unilaterally, he believes, he was able to extract commitments from the U.S. on the shape of a final settlement that would have been far harder to obtain in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The second is his long-standing and deep-seated distrust of negotiated agreements with Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. The third, and most crucial, is his belief that there is no prospect of ending the conflict with the Palestinians any time soon, regardless of who is at their head. Certainly, he cannot imagine ending it on terms he could accept; as for the terms contemplated by Clinton, in Geneva, or indeed by much of the international community, he is not prepared to accept them (in particular with regard to East Jerusalem and the scope of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank), and he appears convinced they would become a recipe for further instability.
The key here is that the international community (and the Palestinians essentially depend on the international commitment to the consensus that has been spelled out in UN resolutions, etc. That is, ending the occupation of lands conquered by Israel in 1967) is much more willing to shift it's standards, or this is how Sharon perceives it. It is not going to shift overnight, nor is it going to shift if it is asked to shift too far. The ICG report quotes an Israeli analyst as follows:
Sharon is actively lowering expectations, seeking to convince all parties -- not least the international community and the Palestinians -- that he will agree to far less than what was on the table at Camp David and Taba, assuming that this will serve him when he surprises with concessions that are only slightly below that. His 'generosity' could be a vital component of his plan.
His ability to substantively shift the expectations of the Palestinians is doubtful. But the international community is a different subject. The relationship with Egypt is exemplative. And most countries will have a much easier time than Egypt, given the sentiments of many Egyptians.

The issue that is going to most shape the future of the Palestinians is the wall, which effectively annexes all of Jerusalem, the areas surrounding it, and parts of the West Bank. The Palestinians have not helped themselves in the meantime. They won a very powerful opinion in the International Court of Justice, but what have they done with it? They've wasted too much time and the wall may be fully built (now that the route has been passed by the Israeli cabinet) before there is an organized Palestinian approach to defeating it.

They can meet with Tony Blair, but only if the Israelis are not involved. They cannot talk about anything with him other than reforms in the PA. There can be no criticism of Israel, only praise of their "courage." And Blair talks about peace not because of Palestinian rights, justice for the Palestinians, upholding international law. No, it is important because:
the Palestinian struggle was probably the most "used and abused" grievance by extremists.
And so the international community has drifted further and further of this idea of international law and human rights and all this. And that's why it is so much easier for Sharon to negotiate with them, especially Bush, and to leave the Palestinians to meet separately to discuss reform in the PA.

Monday, February 28, 2005

 

Abyss Ahead!


From Yedi'ot Aharanot:
The government is planning a construction boom in West Bank settlements that includes authorizing existing illegal outposts, Yedi'ot Ahronot reported Friday. Under the scheme, 120 unauthorized West Bank outposts, which the United States wants to see dismantled, would be retroactively approved, the newspaper said.

The Israel Land Authority, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is planning to build hundreds, and in some cases thousands of new residential units in several West Bank communities.

The town of Maaleh Adumim is at the top of the list and is expected to see 2,100 units built this year. Other communities that are slated to benefit from the plan include Modi'in Ilit, Beitar Ilit, and Givat Ze'ev.
(photo by my dad, Nakhal Poleg nature center, April 2003)

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