Israeli spooks vacuuming up American ‘faceprints’

Today’s NYT Business Section has an interesting article about the increasing use of facial recognition software in security/access systems in the U.S. The main subject that the writer, Natasha Singer, was describing was the emergence of serious questions about the ethics of the whole business. The piece was subtitled, “What hath facial recognition wrought? A pioneer in the field now warns of its potential for invading individual privacy.”

The pioneer in question is Greek/French physicist Joseph Atick; and Singer quotes his views at some length. For counter-point, she provides a description of– and some quotes from– an ardent advocate of the use of facial recognition, a guy called Aharon Zeevi Farkash, whom she introduces simply as the chief executive of a company called FST Biometrics which, she does admit, is Israeli.

This man wants to vaccum up YOUR face, Americans!

This man wants to vacuum up YOUR face, Americans!

But Farkash (shown left) is no ordinary corporate CEO. This is how FST’s own website describes him:

From 1990-1993, he headed the prestigious Israel SIGINT National Unit (8200), after which he held senior positions in the [IDF's] Planning Branch for five years. Promoted to the rank of General in 1998, he subsequently served as Head of the Technology & Logistics Branch until 2001; he then was appointed to lead the Directorate of Military Intelligence (Aman), where he served until retiring from the IDF in 2006.

Farkash thus spent 16 years in significant leadership positions in the Israeli military-intel system. Palestinian rights activist Kawther Salam, who tries to document the responsibility of individual Israeli commanders for gross rights abuses, writes about Farkash:

He was responsible for planning and implementing the assassinations of 544 Palestinian between 2002 and 2006.

… During 2004 he ordered the assassinations of 112 Palestinians. During the operations to carry out these assassinations, an additional 172 children were murdered.

Due to demolition orders given by Zeevi-Farkash, 2366 houses were destroyed.

… The actions of Aharon Zeevi-Farkash in office constitute genocide and ethnic cleansing in international laws and statutes which have also been signed and ratified by Israel.

I’m not sure I agree with Kawther that Farkash was responsible for giving the orders in these cases. But undoubtedly, he was responsible for the preparation of the plans given to the political leadership for these actions. (Maybe he would claim that in preparing those plans, he was “just following orders”. Have we heard that before somewhere?)

Singer’s article today describes two places in the United States where Farkash’s company– whose ‘C’ suite is stuffed with other men who are similarly proud to flaunt their experience in the IDF– has already installed its facial recognition systems. One is Knickerbocker Village, “a 1,600-unit redbrick apartment complex in Lower Manhattan,” which Singer describes as “a showcase for FST Biometrics”. The other is an un-named private high school in Los Angeles.

Singer writes of Farkash:

In essence, he started FST Biometrics because he wanted to improve urban security. Although the company has residential, corporate and government clients, Mr. Farkash’s larger motive is to convince average citizens that face identification is in their best interest. He hopes that people will agree to have their faces recognized while banking, attending school, having medical treatments and so on.

If all the “the good guys” were to volunteer to be faceprinted, he theorizes, “the bad guys” would stand out as obvious outliers. Mass public surveillance, Mr. Farkash argues, should make us all safer.

Really? And who is the “us” he was talking about there? For me, as a U.S. citizen, I certainly do not feel safer knowing that there are places in my country where a company run by a bunch of Israeli intel experts has been vacuuming up my “faceprint”.

Do such systematic capturings of my “faceprint” require any form of permit? At present, I believe not. (Singer’s piece provides a pretty good exploration of the many privacy issues these new technologies present, and is worth reading on that score.) But I am outraged that a company so closely associated with Israel’s SIGINT bureaucracy is allowed to be vacuuming up this kind of data anywhere in America.

I would hope that the residents of Knickerbocker Village and students and faculty at the un-named L.A. school would be outraged as well, and would work to terminate these very harmful contracts as soon as possible.

Cast Lead Plus Five

On December 27, 2008, the Israeli government launched the might of its U.S.-supplied military against the 1.6 million people of Gaza and the leadership that they– along with their compatriots in the West Bank– had elected to power back in January 2006. The Israeli war aim was to inflict such pain on the residents of Gaza that they would rise up against the quasi-government that Hamas had been running in Gaza since 2006/7. (In June 2007, Israel and the U.S. had tried to use their allies in Mohamed Dahlan’s wing of the Palestinian movement to overthrow Hamas via a coup; but that coup attempt was aborted.)

The Israeli attack of December 2008 was given the stunningly accurate name ‘Operation Cast Lead’. By the time it ended 23 days later– and with Hamas still in power in Gaza– Israel had killed more than 1,400 Gaza residents and left many thousands more maimed or wounded. It had destroyed tens of thousands of homes, just about all of Gaza’s previously bustling network of small manufacturing and ag-processing businesses, and numerous schools, bridges, and other items of vital civilian infrastructure.

International law clearly defines as terrorism any attempt to use force or violence against civilians in order to try to prod them into effecting political change. But in 2008, 2009, as in all of the past 40-plus years, Israel has enjoyed the special protection of the United States. Thus, the Israeli leaders of the time (PM Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the rest) were never called to account for the quintessentially terrorist attack of 2008-09.

Earlier this month, two rightwing Israeli strategic “experts”, Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, published in Hebrew a study describing Cast Lead as just one example of what they say now constitutes a large part of Israel’s security doctrine: A strategy obscenely called “Mowing the Grass”, which they say, is designed to:

destroy the capabilities of [Israel's] foes, hoping that occasional large-scale operations have a temporary deterrent effect in order to create periods of quiet along its borders.

I actually believe that Inbar and Shamir are painting too “rosy” a picture (from Israel’s POV) of Israel’s achievements in Cast Lead and the other examples they give of its “grass-mowing” military actions. Certainly, in both Cast Lead and in the prolonged assault against Lebanon that  preceded it in 2006, the prime war goal articulated at the time by Israeli leaders was regime change within the country/territory targeted. And by that metric, on both those occasions they failed miserably. It was only around a year ago, in November 2012, when yet another Israeli PM (Netanyahu) launched yet another completed unwarranted military operation against Gaza– just because he could!– that the “goal” of all such operations since Defensive Shield in 2002 became ex-post-facto redefined as “merely a bit of grass-mowing”, not actual regime change as such.

Be that as it may… The whole idea of launching mega-lethal, anti-humane “grass-mowing” attacks against one’s far less powerful neighbors is quite obscene– as is the tolerance with which most of the bought-and-paid-for U.S. political elite has responded to these uses (abuses) of the military support that the U.S. has continued unwaveringly to supply to Israel. These military assaults are particularly obscene, and indeed actually criminal under international law, when they are launched against communities like those in the West Bank or Gaza Strip that are under Israeli military occupation and that are are therefore supposed to enjoy special protection from the occupying power.

* * *

The deliberate and cruel way in which Israel employed its military force against Gaza’s people in 2008 constituted an important turning point in the way many traditionally pro-Israel people in the United States and other western countries came to view Israel. For many westerners who had previously been politically “progressive” on every topic except Israel, after Cast Lead, they shed that exception and determined that the government of Israel should be held to the same standards of international behavior as every other government in the world. They became transformed from being “progressive, except on Israel” to being “progressives, including on Israel,” or as the shorthand goes: from PEP’s to PIP’s. Over the five years since the launching of Cast Lead, the numbers of PIP’s in the United States have, blessedly, been multiplying.

As for the people of Gaza, the vast majority of them did survive the horrors of Cast Lead in one way or another; and most importantly, the integrity of their society survived it. They were not broken. I have had the good fortune to visit Gaza twice since January 2009 (building on the numerous previous visits I made to the Strip over the preceding twenty-plus years.) On both the most recent visits I found the key institutions in the Strip functioning fairly well. The Strip’s (elected) Hamas leadership continued to field some military forces within the Strip– the same ones that had managed to repulse the Israeli ground forces’ repeated attempts to seize control of Gaza City and other key locations during the latter stages of Cast Lead. But as I drove around the Strip in November 2009 and again in June 2011, there were very few signs indeed of a general militarization of society… and no sign at all of the kind of heavy-handed security presence that the rival (U.S.-backed) branch of the PA sees fit to deploy in the Swiss-cheese areas of the West Bank that they are allowed to police.

Over the past year, I have been working with Refaat Alareer, an inspiring and committed lecturer in the English Department of the Gaza Islamic University, to publish a collection of short stories written in English by young writers from Gaza. Our goal was to bring this book out to mark the fifth anniversary of Cast Lead– and we have succeeded! The formal publication date for Gaza Writes Back, Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine, edited by Refaat Alareer, is January 15, 2014– three days before the fifth anniversary of the end of Cast Lead. But we started shipping copies of the book out to interested readers about ten days ago, and many readers now have copies in their hands.

The book contains 23 stories. So starting tomorrow, December 27, Refaat and I want to ask everyone who can get hold of a copy of the book to read (and reflect upon) one story each day… which will take us all to the end of this somber, five-year anniversary.

Here on the U.S. east coast, we’re still on December 26th, so I’m going to start by re-reading the Introduction that Refaat wrote to the book.

On pp.16 and 17, he wrote this:

During the offensive, Palestinians in Gaza realized more than ever before that no one, no matter who and no matter where, is immune from Israel’s fire. Israel cast lead indiscriminately hither and thither, aiming to melt not just our bodies, which it did, but also our allegiance and our hope and our memories, which it could not do. Twenty-three days later, the people of Gaza rose to dust themselves off and to start an arduous journey of rebuilding houses and infrastructure, and reconstructing what the missiles had dispersed and scattered. Twenty-three days of nonstop Israeli hate and hostility—and Gaza rose from it like a phoenix.

The people who queued at the morgues and bade farewell to their loved ones days later queued at bakeries that did not raise their prices, and went out to the grocery stores that also did not raise their prices. And they came back home to distribute what little they bought to the people who were unable to buy because they did not have the money. The people of Gaza were never this close before. Gaza was now more deeply rooted not only in the hearts of every Palestinian, but also in the hearts of every free soul around the globe… But this is not to romanticize war. War is by all means ugly. “There was too much pain in those twenty-three days, and some of us who wrote about Cast Lead, did so to heal some of the pain caused by the horrendous memories. And no matter how beautiful the spirit of resistance that overwhelmed us, this beauty should never override the ugliness of pure injustice,” as [book contributor] Sameeha Elwan put it.

The social psychology of what Refaat was describing there would be quite familiar to, for example, any British people like my father who survived the Blitzkrieg that Nazi Germany launched against London in 1940…

So now, over the next 23 days, we’re going to be posting a short excerpt from each of the stories, every day, on the Gaza Writes Back Facebook page. I’d like to invite all readers of Just World News to buy a copy of the book (which you can do here, if you haven’t done so already: Note that we’re offering free shipping worldwide if you place your order before December 31!) And also, to join the conversations about the stories as we post the excerpts from them on the Facebook page… and of course, to recommend this amazing and important book to all your friends!

In praise of war-weariness

This is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently… With regard to Obama’s step back (for now) from the brink of escalation in Syria and the rising possibilities of a negotiated de-escalation in Iran, some people here in America have lamented that these developments are “merely the result of war weariness”… As though being war-weary is some form of moral failing, and once Americans have just bucked up and re-gathered our national energies, we should all be “healed” of this war weariness and ready once again to ride off into yet another foreign war?

I demur. I am war-weary and proud of it. Indeed, I have been weary of all these wars since before they all started; and I only wish that more Americans– make that MANY more Americans– had also been war-weary back in those crucial weeks prior to the October 7, 2001 invasion of Afghanistan; those months of the buildup to the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq; and those crucial days and hours prior to the March 19, 2011 launching of the NATO air attack against Libya…

Not one of those wars brought a discernible net benefit to the people of the country in which it was waged. All three of those countries are still reeling today from the terrible and continuing aftershocks of the violence that the U.S. military visited upon them. All are still trapped inside pulsing circles of violence and counter-violence with no end in sight. Let’s not kid ourselves– either about the current situation of those three countries, or about the huge responsibility that the U.S. government bears for bringing them to their current plight… Meanwhile, here in the United States, every town and city is now haunted by the presence of the traumatized and often deeply troubled U.S. veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the social-service, physical, and economic infrastructure of our country has been ripped almost to shreds by the astronomical cost of the wars.

So yes, I am war-weary. Or maybe, since I don’t want to make this only a retrospective sentiment, let me use the term war-averse instead.

Please! Let us take advantage of the present moment of sanity (in halting the rush to U.S. military hostilities in and against Syria), to connect once again with the ancient wisdoms that time after time after time have told humanity that war is (a) always harmful to the civilians in the war zone, despite all the claims about “precise targeting”, “surgical” strikes, and such; (b) always unpredictable in its political course and outcomes; and (c) always inimical to basic freedoms at home… and that tell us, therefore, that we should exert every possible effort to use means other violence and war to resolve our differences.

Yes, I am a pacifist– and more convinced of this stance than ever, these days… so you could say I am an “ideologue” on the matter, impervious to counter-arguments and un-swayable by new facts. (But really, what new facts could anyone adduce today, to persuade any reasonable person anywhere that the U.S. war on Afghanistan was, on balance, a good thing; that the U.S. war on Iraq was a good thing; or the war on Libya… or, looking forward, that a U.S. war or escalation against Syria would be a good thing, or ditto against Iran?)

But you don’t have to be a complete pacifist to reach these conclusions. There have been many, many smart thinkers throughout history, people who may not have absorbed all the wisdom of the sages of nonviolence but who, while allowing for the possibility of “ethically” waging a war in some circumstances, have nonetheless cautioned strongly about the dangers that any war carries. I’m thinking about St. Augustine, a man who broke from the nonviolent teachings of the first 400 years of Christianity and for the first time posited the idea of a “just war”– but who was so intimately familiar in his own lifetime with the destructive animal spirits that any warfare unleashes that he defined many layers of conditions and prohibitions that would be needed if any war could earn his label of “just”. Or more recently, the framers of the U.N. Charter– men reeling from the effects of two global wars within just one generation, who had seen the damages that both those wars (and also the obsessively punitive “peace” of the Treaty of Paris) had wrought. And thus, while the U.N.’s originators allowed for the possibility of some “legitimate” wars in the order they sought to build, they too defined their own tough layers of conditions that should be met if any war fought in the post-1945 world could meet their standard of “legitimacy”. And equally importantly, they issued passionate pleas for the nonviolent, negotiated resolution of international conflicts and built whole edifices dedicated to providing the mechanisms for doing so.

So yes, let’s hear it for war-weariness once again. And this time, please let the sentiment last a long time. And let’s start seriously planning how to divert all the efforts that have until now been directed to designing and building machines of destruction, control, and war into building structures of peace and human development– for all the world’s people– instead.

The Russia-Syria deal: What it means and what now?

Watching Syrian FM Walid Muallem on the TV news announcing his country’s acceptance of Russia’s plan to consign all Syria’s CW stockpile to international control and then destruction was an amazingly powerful sight. With this one stroke, all the air went out of the campaign Pres. Obama has been ramping up, to win public and Congressional support for a U.S. “punitive” military attack against Syria. (Shortly after Mouallem’s announcement, the Democratic leader of the senate, Harry Reid, withdrew the war resolution from consideration there…)

As of now, the Moscow deal looks like win-win-win all round for everyone with legitimate interests in the Syria situation:

  • First of all and most importantly, it is a win for the vast majority of the Syrian people– those who are desperate for an end to the conflict and want nothing more than to go home and see their country’s war-ravaged fabric (physical and social) repaired. Under what political circumstances? Still to be determined. But at least they have a much better chance of this happening now than if U.S. Cruise missiles had been used to further stir up the  stew of their country’s conflict.
  • It’s a win for both Pres. Obama and the American people. The American people had shown, overwhelmingly, that they (we) neither wanted nor needed this war. But Obama was still kind of hoisted on the self-created petard of his various pronouncements about Syria’s CW– not only the various ‘Red Lines’ statements he made earlier, but also all the recent statements claiming a surety of knowledge about what happened August 21st that has never yet been backed up by the public provision of any evidence. Here in the United States as around the world, there were loud calls for him to present his evidence. He never has. As this made-in-Moscow deal goes forward (which I expect it will), Obama will likely be relieved that he never has to show what, by many accounts, seems to have been a very weak evidentiary hand. Continue reading

Syria in the crosshairs of the west

2013 is very far from being the time that independent Syria has been targeted by the west (sometimes, including Israel.) The history of western intervention in the country has been long– starting from, of course, the protectorate that France established there in the wake of World War I, under the guise of a ‘Mandate’ from the League of Nations– though not, of course, from the Syrian people. In 1949, just three years after Syria won its independence from France, the CIA engineered a coup by the head of the Syrian armed forces, Hosni Zaim, against the democratically elected president Shukri Quwwatly. CIA operative Miles Copeland wrote later (Game of Nations, 1969, p.50) that he and his colleagues had judged Quwwatly “not liberal enough”… and therefore he had to be toppled by a coup. (Echoes in Egypt today, anyone? People organizing a military coup in the name of “liberalism”?)

Sticking, for now, with the record of purely American interventions in Syria, this record is long indeed, running (in more recent times) through:

  1. 1979, when the State Department put Syria on the list of “states supporting terrorism” back in 1979– which triggered economic sanctions that have lasted until today, and have been progressively tightened ever since;
  2. December 2003, when Congress– in the first flush of enthusiasm that the U.S. victory in Iraq could be speedily replicated in Syria and Lebanon– passed the punitive “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA)”. In late spring 2005, after the growth of the Lebanese popular movement that followed the killing of former PM Rafiq Hariri, Syria did indeed withdraw from Lebanon the troops that had been deployed there since they first went in (at, it has to be said, Washington’s urging) back in January 1976. But even the restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty was not enough to ease up the sanctions Washington maintained on Syria. Actually, the SALSRA was a great big dog’s breakfast of a sanctions bill; and it has been cited more recently as a source of legitimacy for U.S. punitive action against Syria on account of Syria’s CW capabilities.
  3. From 2009 until today: The funding of clandestine opposition movements in Syria under the MEPPI program that George W. Bush launched (with Liz Cheney supervising much of it in the early years.) Crucially, after Pres. Obama took office, he continued this program– as was revealed in some of the Wikileaks cables in April 2011. Continue reading

Notes as the imperial will starts to collapse, Pt. II

(Part I of this was here.)

Citizens here in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world have had ample chance, in the 12 years since 9/11, to see the results of U.S. military actions– in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya and (a little covertly), in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. In none of these cases have the results been anything that anyone can take pride in, to say the least.

Americans (outside the Washington Beltway) are not stupid. We have seen all these terrible outcomes… outcomes, that is, that have been terrible for our fellow-humans who are citizens of those targeted countries– but also, terrible because of the way they have helped to make the world a much more unstable and terrifying place and to further deepen the hatred for Americans in many parts of the world. The U.S.’s profligate use of military power in all these situations in the past 12 years has ended up being quite counter-productive in terms of making the word a better, safer place for Americans (and others.) And somehow, finally, an increasing number of Americans are seeing that this has been so.

Two years ago, on September 10, 2011, I wrote:

I believe that today, more Americans understand the futility and damaging nature of wars– all wars– than did ten years ago. But still, far too many of our countrymen and -women remain susceptible to arguments like those made in favor of the military “action” or military “intervention” in Libya earlier this year.

That was two years ago. Since then, a lot more Americans’ eyes have been opened as to the counter-productive nature of war– whether in Libya, in Afghanistan, Iraq, or (I hope) anywhere else in the world.

We definitely heard some of that during the meeting we had with Rep. Robert Hurt here in his district office in Charlottesville, on Thursday. And he told us, then, that the calls he’s been receiving on the Syria issue have been running “overwhelmingly” against the idea of a U.S. military attack. This is great. This is new. This is the result, in part, of new great awakening of Americans on issues of war, peace, and security. It’s the result, too, of the patient work of everyone in the anti-war movement who has kept on steadfastly organizing and making their (our) case even throughout the past 12 years of the crazy American wars.

There are three main groups of people here in the United States who, as of now, don’t see things this way. They are:

  1. Leaders of the military-industrial complex and their flaks.
  2. AIPAC (the America Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the leaders of some other prominent pro-Israeli organizations.
  3. Some liberal hawks.

Okay, let’s take the liberal hawks first, because they are the smuggest and the least well informed.

Continue reading

Notes as the imperial will starts to collapse

In 1997, I had the good fortune to move with my family to a place sufficiently far from the hype-soaked, MIC-funded confines of Washington DC that a person could actually have real conversations in public about issues like the Palestine Question without immediately being accused of being a traitor, or an anti-semite, or worse. Our Member of Congress here in Virginia’s 5th district is currently Robert Hurt, a pleasant but fairly good-old-boy-ish Republican who first won the seat in the Tea Party-inspired upheaval of 2010.

On Thursday, I was part of a 20-person citizen delegation organized by the indefatigable peace activist David Swanson that went to see Rep. Hurt, with the two goals of (1) pressing him to express his own position on the possibility of a US military attack on Syria and (2) expressing our own opposition to such an attack. (A fairly good local-news report of the meeting is here.) On the first point, Hurt said he “remained to be convinced of the need for the attack”, but he would “listen to the president and hear the administration’s briefings with an open mind.” During the meeting, I pressed him to listen to the admin’s briefings with a critical mind, as well, and not to be afraid to ask for questions and clarifications. He said he would. This seems all the more important in light of Rep. Alan Grayson’s account in today’s NYT of just how unsatisfactory he found the briefings that he was given on the subject, in his role as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Grayson, a Democratic member from South Florida, has emerged– along with libertarian-inclined Rep. Justin Amash of Wisconsin– as a leader of the DontattackSyria movement. (Any US citizen reading this who has not yet signed the petition there should do so asap.) All the more surprising because, as MJ Rosenberg has noted, Grayson had previously had something of a reputation as an AIPAC dupe.

* * *

Continue reading

Asad’s survivability, and US MSM

David Sanger in NYT today:

How did Mr. Obama find himself in this trap? Partly, it was an accident of history: in the early, heady days of the Arab uprisings, no one bet that Mr. Assad would survive this long, in a country where his Alawite sect is a minority.

Not true. Of course, responsible analysis of foreign affairs is not a casino, so what analysts do is not “bet” on possibilities; rather, they make their best assessment based on the knowledge/experience base they have and their powers of analysis. On that basis, since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, I have expressed my judgment that Pres. Asad has had much stronger support in Syrian public opinion than, for example, former Pres. Mubarak had; and that all the pundits saying “Asad won’t last until ‘the end of 2011′,” or whatever other timeframe they put on it, were ill-informed and wrong.

In 2011, based on my many decades of experience analyzing and writing about matters Syrian, I was able to have my views heard in Washington a tiny bit– at two small think tanks. Did David Sanger or any other wellpaid participant in the MSM ever seek my views, or those of other analysts who, also knowing a lot about Syrian internal affairs, voiced the same conclusions? No. Instead, they all just kept quoting the same denizens of the media-Beltway bubble (with the ‘quoting’ often led by people at the so-called ‘Washington’ Institute for Near East Policy, which is actually the AIPAC-spawned Institute for NEP… not designed to be a source of cool, impartial analysis or policy advice.)

This bubble/echo-chamber mentality among the MSM and the rest of the along-the-Acela-line elite had consequences. In April 2012, one mid-level official in the U.S. diplomatic machine told me in exasperation, “We never imagined that Asad would still be in power this long! We were convinced he would be out by the end of 2011.” I reminded this person that I had warned all along that Asad’s regime had more popular support and political resilience than the other regimes that had toppled the previous year.

Anyway, all this is just for the record at this point. But please, don’t let David Sanger get away with his claim that “in the early, heady days of the Arab uprisings, no one bet that Mr. Assad would survive this long.” I was there, David Sanger, and I was presenting my analysis. It was just that you– and too many others like you– weren’t paying attention.

Crucially, if more people in the U.S. power elite had tried to really understand the dynamics inside Syria, the Obama administration would not have taken the step, in August 2011, of declaring that “Asad has to go before there can be any intra-Syrian negotiations.” It is that position, steadfastly hewed to by the administration since then, that has condemned the Syrian people to two additional years of wrenching internal struggle and horrific levels of destruction of their infrastructure and their society.

Kerry’s road to nowhere

So PLO negotiator Saeb Erakat and Israeli minister Tzipi Livni have met in Washington, shaken hands, and agreed to sit down and talk some more… and this is considered an achievement by Secretary of State Kerry? Give me a break. Twenty years ago, negotiators from the PLO and the Israeli government who had considerably stronger mandates and positions than these two people were sitting down in Oslo and Stockholm and were far deeper into negotiators than these two are today. (Those Oslo-launched talks continued for many years but with rapidly decreasing momentum. In the Oslo agreement the two sides signed on Sept. 13, 1993, they agreed that they would conclude their final-status peace agreement in May 1999. We are now 14 years and 3 months behind that deadline– which was missed primarily because of the machinations of Israel’s PM at the time, a man named B. Netanyahu. Meantime, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has nearly tripled since 1993….)

In today’s WaPo, David Ignatius tries to present the ‘best case possible’ as to why this time around, the talks convened by Sec. Kerry will ‘succeed’. It is a sad and pathetic attempt.

He writes:

Skepticism about Kerry’s project is nearly universal, and it’s understandable when you look at the graveyard of past negotiations. But some interesting dynamics beneath the surface should make observers cautious about premature burial announcements.

What Kerry has done, in effect, is get the two sides to grab hold of a stick of dynamite. If they can’t defuse it within nine months through an agreement, it’s going to blow up: The moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank would collapse; militant Palestinians would take statehood to the United Nations, probably this time with broad European support; an angry Arab League would withdraw its peace initiative. It would be a big mess for everyone.

Riiiiight. Like the Obama administration’s last big attempt to use the ‘threat’ of a big-bang deadline to scare reluctant negotiators to reach agreement worked so well? I refer, of course, to the threat of a government-spending sequester if Congressional negotiators failed to reach agreement on a budget. That worked really well, didn’t it? No reason to think a similar big-bang deadline threat will work any better on the Palestine issue, now.

This time, the scenario that threatens is one that might be seen as a ‘big mess’ by liberal Zionists and all that top rank of PLO leaders who have been living high on the US/EU payroll for the past 20 years… But, ahem, those two groups of people are not ‘everyone’. (Actually, David, in case you hadn’t noticed, the situation in which many millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and the extensive Palestinian diaspora have been living for several decades now can certainly be characterized as an existing and chronic ‘big mess’. Protection for the 500,000 stateless Palestinian refugees in Syria, anyone?)

I don’t know how much slack I want to cut Ignatius for a piece that, at its best looks like a piece of lazy, access-ensuring backscratching. But really, I think he knows better than to come out with some of the statements he makes today.

Like this one: “If they fail this time, it will cost the parties dearly, probably Israel most of all. That provides harsh leverage for Washington.” Oh come on. This week, AIPAC just lazily rippled a little of its congressional muscle on two issues: increasing the pressure on Iran, and continuing U.S. support for Egypt’s coup-committing military. If there’s any kind of a showdown between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration, you think Obama would be in any mood to exercise “harsh leverage” on Israel? Get real.

And then, there is this stunning assessment from Ignatius: “The borders question is, at bottom, an Israeli political issue.” Whaaaat? Like, um, it has no particular consequence for the Palestinians?

The reason I think this is a lazy, access-ensuring article is that David appears not to have either talked to anyone except ‘special envoy’ Martin Indyk (whom he describes as “a longtime friend”), or to have done any thinking of his own as he composed the piece. As I know well, David has a lot of “longtime friends” he could have talked to– including many Palestinians, who could have set him right on many issues. But hey, maybe he was hurrying to get to the beach so just doing stenography for his buddy Indyk seemed like the easiest and quickest way to get today’s column written.

Stenography is not, of course, anything like the writing of a broadly informed and well argued opinion piece. But it does have a value, if it helps reveal what the policymakers are thinking. Maybe this is the money-quote from David’s piece: “An intriguing option for Kerry is a settlement that leaves unresolved some especially difficult issues, such as the status and division of Jerusalem.”

So it seems that Indyk and Kerry are not really insisting on concluding a final-status, i.e. conflict-ending, full peace agreement, at all. Which was, let us recall, what Israel and the PLO absolutely both committed themselves to concluding, back in the Oslo Agreement of 1993. So now, the relationship between the two parties seems less robust than it was 20 years ago… and what Kerry is aiming for, at best, is a renegotiation of the terms of the ‘interim self-government deal’ they reached at Oslo that year.

What a deeply tragic farce.

Meantime, the concrete continues to get poured in new emanations of Israel’s appalling, 19th-century colonial settler project throughout East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Israel continues to maintain its tight, life-denying siege around Gaza. Jerusalem’s ancient and proud society of Palestinians continues to get squeezed extremely hard. Young Israeli conscripts continue to operate the cattle-pens known as ‘crossing points’ throughout the West Bank. The PLO/PA, lacking anything like sovereignty status, remains quite unable to offer its own, Palestinian, land as a safe haven to Palestinian refugees facing terrible assaults– from both sides– in Syria’s civil war…

And western governments continue their bizarre practice of financing Israel’s continued operation of all aspects of its military occupation of Palestine. Which means, basically, that it looks as if it can go on forever. Truly a diplomatic road to nowhere.

Thinking about Egypt, and how it affects Palestinians

Events have been moving very fast in Egypt– and they continue to do so. Right about now, longtime ‘liberal’ icon Mohamed ElBaradei is being sworn in as PM of the new, coup-birthed order in Cairo. (Update: Or not… )

My instincts from the beginning were to be very wary of the ‘popular’ movement that started gathering in large numbers on Cairo’s streets last weekend. Yes, I knew that the youthful-idealist movement Tamarrod had gathered large numbers of signatures on their ‘Recall the president’ petition (though the real number of genuine, unique signatories will never be known.) Yes, I knew that the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, and his government had made many, very serious mis-steps throughout their 12 months in office. Several of my friends have expressed great public enthusiasm about the popular, anti-Morsi movement.

But still.

Still, there were always many indications that this ‘popular movement’ was not all it was pretending to be. There was evidence of it being connected to a deliberate, lengthy, and well-funded campaign of defamation against Morsi, as Issandr Amrani has well documented. There was evidence of significant funding for the ‘popular’ movement, whose bilingual laser lightshows, fireworks displays, etc.,took a page right out of the theatrics  of the (also Saudi- and U.S.-backed) March 14 movement in Lebanon… And when, after the coup, the supply of gasoline and fuel oil suddenly resumed, it seemed very clear that the military-industrial complex in Egypt had previously been hoarding supplies to sow nationwide eco-social mayhem, in a page right out of the anti-Mossadegh coup of 1953.

I recall the discussion that Bill the spouse and I had with longtime MB spokesman Dr. Esam El-Erian in Cairo in June 2011, when he warned: “Without a change in the policies of Saudi Arabia, these current revolutions won’t succeed… In Egypt, Saudi Arabia is the main force of counter-revolution.”

Now, Borzou Daragahi and Heba Saleh have done a great job reconstructing some of the lead-up to the coup, in this article in the Financial Times.

Continue reading