Category Archives: HC’s travels, general

Transit systems, Turkey

I’m writing– and also, crucially, posting– this while traveling on a Nilufer long-distance bus from Istanbul to Bursa. We were promised wireless on the bus; and yes, here it is. The uniformed attendant just came along the aisle. In addition to giving me the wireless password he was doling out tea, cake, and freshen-up towelettes to all passengers.
Definitely superior service!
Superior by far to dear, grungy old Greyhound, back home in the US. Superior, too, to the service on US domestic airlines (grudging ‘service’, no wi-fi, minimal or no snacks.)
Nilufer seems to be a Bursa-based private company. The friend who booked our tickets told us the bus will at some point board a ferry to take us some of the way across, rather than round, the Black Sea. The company may or may not be one of the many that have been successfully run by piously Islamic families here over the course of several decades. At the company’s terminal in Istanbul, there was a small room designated as “Mascid”.
From what we saw during six days in Istanbul, the city’s own municipal transit systems are fabulous. Earlier this week we took the city tram (sleek, clean, very frequent) from near to our hotel down to the Eminonu stop on the southern bank of the Golden Horn, then took a ferry across to Uskudar on the other (Asian) side of the Bosphorus.
The ferry network that still forms the main arteries of the city’s circulation system is amazing! At any one time, scores of rather large ferries, for both passengers and cars, are at work either determinedly stitching their criss-crossing paths across the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, or very efficiently loading and unloading their passengers at one of the city’s numerous well-run ferry terminals. I didn’t see a single hitch in the in the system: no mechanical breakdowns, no accidents, no glitches…
(While I’ve been writing the bus attendant has come around again twice: once with sealed plastic containers of drinking water, once to pick up our trash. He also brought a hygienically wrapped blanket to the woman across the aisle from us.)
Yesterday we took part in a small conference in the amazing Sabanci Towers complex in an area called 4-Levent. We took the tram from the hotel to the end of the line in Kabatas; then the “Funiculer” that runs up to Taksim; then the metro from there to 4-Levent. The interchanges were pleasant and well-marked. The vehicles frequent, clean, and well-maintained. Each part of the trip cost about $1 (US)– probably a lot for most city residents, but cheap and efficient for us.
I mention all this not only because I’m a real mass transit junkie, but also because the state of the city’s transit systems– along with the well-planned, well-kept, and clean state of the streets, parks, historic buildings, and other public facilities is a real testament to the effectiveness of Turkey’s moderately Islamist AKP ruling party.
Before current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his colleagues in the AKP won their first national election in 2002, he had made his name as a very successful mayor of Istanbul. I believe the party still dominates city politics, though I am not sure. Anyway, the kinds of policies that make this city of around 12 million people such a pleasant and well-run place today must have been put in place a number of years ago.
Erdogan, his party, and his intriguing new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu– who previously worked as a special adviser to the PM on foreign affairs– all deserve a lot more consideration. But just for now, the legacy the party has given to the amazing city of Istanbul is certainly worth noting.
I’ve been reading Orhan Pamuk’s book of memoirs about his childhood in the city, growing up there in the 1950s. He makes a big deal about the “huzun” (melancholy) with which he judged the city to be extremely deeply imbued at the time.
Pamuk attributed that huzun to a sense of post-imperial loss and shame. Interesting. If I have the time I’d love to compare that with my sense– as someone who was also, like Pamuk, born in 1952– of growing up in an empire that was actively disintegrating even as I was racking up the inches of childhood growth.
But today, Istanbul has very little discernible air of huzun at all. It seems optimistic, self-confident, clean, purposeful– and also, extremely pleasant.

Open Thread, Istanbul, London

Hi, all. I’m in Turkey for a couple of weeks on a great trip that combines some good time with the spouse (to celebrate our 25th anniversary) and some good time with Turkish friends and colleagues. Not much time to blog but plenty of opportunity to do some deep thinking.
Currently, we’re in Istanbul. Ship’s horns, fresh breezes, huge bustle, excellent urban mass transit, monuments from a former empire that are far more beautiful, extensive, and impressive than those in London (where I came here from.)
Actually, part of the problem in Britain is that so many Brits have still not come to terms with the fact that the country they’re living in is indeed the head of a former empire. They still love to talk about “punching above our weight” in world affairs, the “special relationship” with the US, etc. So there hasn’t been that clean break with the past glories of empire that you had in post-Ottoman Turkey. Let alone any of that post-imperial “melancholy” that Pamuk writes about at such length, regarding Istanbul.
London, of course, was also interesting to be in, with the Daily Telegraph doling out a gob-smacking daily diet of revelations in the still-unrolling “Expense-gate” scandal. Most of the amounts involved were not large. But the fact of all that jiggery-pokery going on pointed to most MPs, from all parties–and in this, I think the DT was trying to be quite “fair”–having this strong sense of entitlement to feed liberally from the public trough, and a tin ear as to how this would be received by the now-hurting public whom they claim to “represent.” Such a sense of insulation from the public mood is something that builds up over time, of course.
It will hurt both big parties to some extent, and the institution of parliament in general. But it is bound to hurt Labour more than the Tories. Plus, of course, Labour and in particular Gordon Brown have to take direct responsibility for the economic policies that have led directly to the current economic woes. (Labour also has to take responsibility for the craven lap-dogging with Bush that, under the dreadful Tony Blair, led Britain so deeply into its expensive participation in the US’s foreign wars.)
Anyway, it was my intention not to blog much here, but to leave this post as an open thread for your comments. Have at it.

Some notes from UNESCO klatch, Doha

I got into the hotel at 1:30 a.m. last night, grabbed five hours sleep, wrote my presentation for the conference I’m at, which is jointly hosted by UNESCO and the Doha Center for Media Freedom, then have been in the conference all day. Haven’t seen much of Doha except driving through town late last night and a glimpse into the Gulf from my hotel room this morning.
We’ve had some excellent presentations, including most notably from veteran South African journo Allister Sparks. He described the current state of political discourse inside his country as “robust and passionate”, and noted that the turnout in the country’s recent election was 77.3%.
He spoke about South Africa’s deep and multi-layered multiculturalism “with eleven official languages and about the same number of religions”, and its legacies of so much violence and pain and wounding as a result of centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid. He said he is opposed to “political correctness”, and strongly supports frankness; he called for “robust journalistic independence.”
He identified a particular problem with “cultural conformity”, in which journos come to think like and share the worldview of a small circle of contacts, often people with power, access to whom they guard jealously. The prime examples he gave of this came from the US: the behavior of the MSM press in the US in “parrotting” th administration’s accusations about WMDs… Also, Brian Ross’s uncritical use of the original, waterboardng-excusing interview with John Kiriakou; the US MSM’s pussyfooting around the semantics of calling the Israeli Wall a “separation barrier”; and its whole treatment of Hamas.
“So there’s a total communications breakdown on the issue of greatest concern to peace in the region.”
Guess he doesn’t read my stuff. Well, I’m not publishing much in the MSM any more…
Qatar is such a strange place. (Okay, what I’ve seen of it.) They have this Doha Center for Media Freedom that’s doing some very constructive and gutsy things around the world– but the press here is almost completely unfree. Just about all the work here, as in the other princedoms up and down this shore of the Gulf, is done by imported contract labor, which gives the whole place an uncomfortable, apartheid-y feel.
I see that Steve Clemons traveled here today– he’s going to another conference here, organized by Steve Spiegel of UCLA.
(Steve C. had a short post on his blog about Qatar a few minutes ago, but it’s just been taken down. Interesting…. It’s still on my RSS reader, but I won’t publish it if he doesn’t want to. Yes, there is a laudable desire not to say anything critical about one’s hosts. But where, I wonder, does that cross the line into engaging in “cultural conformity” with hosts who are engaging in some practices of, I think, justifiable concern?)
My main fascination with the Qataris is not because they have scads of money. It’s not because they manage the amazing trick of longterm hosting of both Al-Jazeera and important nodes and elements of the US military’s presence in the Gulf. It’s not because they have bought and installed little boutique versions of several big-name US universities… No, it’s because they’ve been doing some very imaginative and constructive things diplomatically to reduce tensions in the Middle East. Including, most laudably, brokering Lebanon’s Doha Agreement of last May.
In addition, they have been patiently trying to help Hamas break out of the Egyptian-imposed attempts to keep it isolated.
Also, I have to say that Al-Jazeera’s smashing of the near-total domination the “west” used to exercise over the global information/discourse environment has been an amazing achievement. AJE’s managing director, Waddah Khanfar, spoke this afternoon about their media ethics, approach to newsgathering, and stress on empowering the best field reporters they can find. I thought it was a great presentation, and goes a long way to explaining AJE’s success.
… I will have to write up my notes for the presentation I gave at a later date. I also want to write up some notes from the good discussion I had with Fleming Rose, the Danish editor who published the “Prophet” cartoons. I think neither of us persuaded the other to change her/his mind, but it was a good conversation, anyway.

Another day in Jerusalem, with some walking

More blustery and foul, rainy weather in Jerusalem today. In the morning I did great back-to-back interviews with Naomi Chazan and Yigal Kipnis. Naomi’s the Chair of the Meretz Party, a former leading Meretz MK, and one-time deputy speaker of the Knesset. Yigal is a farmer/settler on Golan who’s very supportive of the idea of a land-for-peace deal with Syria and has written a lot about the history of the Golan. Two peaceniks with interesting perspectives on the decline of their country’s peace movement– which is what I was principally asking about.
I did those interviews holed up at one end of the lounge at the American Colony Hotel. Time was, I could afford to stay there; but its prices skyrocketed a while ago so now I just go and get the occasional coffee there.
One interesting thing about the vast majority of Jewish Israelis– even peaceniks– is that they don’t know much about about the geography of the predominantly Palestinian portions of East Jerusalem and often seem a bit confused if you mention the name of any hotel here other than the American Colony. That probably dates back to the ‘Good Old Days’ of the First Intifada when most of the press conferences held by intifada leaders were in the National Palace Hotel, which is now closed, and many of the other meetings– like the ones between George Schultz and Faisal Husseini, or Hanan Ashrawi– were in the American Colony Hotel. Since Oslo, however, the Rabin government and all the governments since then have worked hard to try to eliminate all Palestinian political activity from Jerusalem… Once the PLO people came back to their homeland, they were not allowed to live or run offices in Jerusalem at all, and the center of their West Bank activity was established in Ramallah…
Anyway, I enjoy sitting around in the lovely spaces of the A.C. and can just about afford a cup of coffee there.
After those interviews I came back to my hotel to do some logistics. I called young Jason in the Government Press Office, to check on the progress of the application I made seven days ago for a foreign press pass. He checked up on my file and said he could make me a “freelancers’ press pass” within about an hour– and that yes, that would enable me to go to Gaza.
Yay!
I told him I’d be by his office later in the afternoon to pick it up.
Half an hour later he called back and said, Oh dear, there’s been “a problem” (unspecified.) He can’t, it turns out, make me any kind of press pass until unspecified further things have happened. No, there’s nothing I can do to make this happen faster.
(Jason: You reading this? Give me a call! Tell me what’s happening!)
By that time I had about 90 minutes spare time before my next interview. Just enough to walk at a rapid clip down to the Old City, have a quick walk round there, grab a sandwich, and do a few errands. It was raining and blustery on and off. The kind of day when you don’t know if it’s worth putting up your umbrella because at any moment the rain might stop or the umbrella get blown inside out and ruined. Or, the rain might get a lot harder and your umbrella get blown inside-out and ruined.
Once inside the Bab al-Amoud (Damascus Gate) I headed down the Souk Khan el-Zayt. The two Israeli soldiers were guarding the Bab were down at street level, standing around under an awning with their big assault rifles dangling down by their shins. In the Khan al-Zayt, most little storefronts have a plastic or metal “lid” that projects between two and three feet out into the narrow stone-paved alley. These give some protection from the rain if you keep under them, but of course the rain then just torrents down from the edge of the lid, sometimes forming an almost solid sheet of water down the middle of the alley. The shops were all open and there were a few other hardy shoppers dodging between the raindrops like me.
I ducked into one of the restaurants there that look small on the outside but that, once you go in, have several rooms set deep back into beautifully arched and stone-vaulted interior space. Had a quick shawerma sandwich with fries. Continued on to the Via Dolorosa and found a great little store near the 8th Station of the Cross selling beads and nice assembled bead-and-silver necklaces. (Presents for the daughters.)
It’s amazing how the history of Jerusalem is layered and layered upon itself. Was this indeed the Via Dolorosa, I wonder? And anyway, when did anyone start observing “the Stations of the Cross” and when did they get inscribed onto the floor-plan of this ancient city in this way?
I went back down the Via Dolorosa to Al-Wad (Valley) Street and turned back up it toward the Damascus Gate. In the middle of Al-Wad Street you have to walk right under the enormous great edifice– built right across the street– that Ariel Sharon bought as a second residence for himself sometime back in the 1980s. Israeli flags waving limply from several places along its roofline. No sign today, though, of the huge security presence that used to be required to guard it. A handful of small Palestinian-run stores operated at street level in the arched space beneath it.
… Well, back along Salahuddine Street to the American Colony for the third interview of the day, this one with Efraim Inbar, a pro-Likud strategic-studies specialist (and Director of the “Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies” at Bar Ilan University) with whom I’ve kept in some degree of touch over the years. We talked for over an hour, me furiously scribbling notes because he talks fast and said a lot of extremely interesting things.
So it’s been a good day. This evening I’m going for dinner with an old friend, walking (I think, weather permitting) along a route that will take me directly past the tent where an elderly Palestinian woman called Um Kamel has been living for a number of years now, after settlers and the police evicted her from the family home she and her husband (who passed away a few months ago) and his family before him had lived in for 150 years.
I believe she was the same one who was there when we interviewed a family in just those circumstances, in just about that same exact place, seven years ago.
In this weather. Tents– here in Jerusalem and there in Gaza.

A walk in West Jerusalem

I woke to sun, blue skies, and a light breeze here in Jerusalem today. My first appointment was with Daphna Golan, a veteran leader of the Israeli peace movement who runs human-rights education programs at the Hebrew University. We met in the cafe linked to the Wise auditorium at the university’s Givat Ram campus in West Jerusalem. “Come to where you hear the piano playing,” she said; and indeed I heard the lovely chords of the piano as I approached the building.
What a beautiful idea: a university cafe with a huge grand piano in the middle! Given that the music school is right nearby, Daphna said there’s always someone who wants to sit down and play. As the kippa-ed young guy got his hands around those flowing arpeggios, a security guard by another door was swaying back and forth saying his prayers. The cheerful Palestinian guy behind the counter served me a large cappucino, and Daphna and I sat in a sunny spot and talked.
Like most of the conversations and interviews I’ve conducted since I came here, the tenor of this one was very gloomy. She was reading a couple of Hebrew-language newspapers as I arrived, and informed me that Avigdor Lieberman would almost certainly be in the government, where he was asking for (though might not get) no fewer than five seats… With for himself, either the foreign affairs or finance portfolio.
She talked a little about whether Livni is just hanging tough in the coalition negotiations to try to get a better deal for herself and her part– or whether she would be happy ending up in the opposition, instead.
“Not that it makes much difference,” Daphna said. “Sure, Livni talks about a two-state solution. But what she means by it is not what you or I mean.”
I asked about what had happened to the Israeli left. “There is no Israeli left any more,” she said bluntly.
She noted that Meretz seemed to have shot itself in the foot in the recent elections, in a number of ways. Firstly, it had come out in favor of the war– “So people on the left were asking, ‘So why is Meretz any different from anyone else?” Meretz had also tried to present itself as “new and improved”, but had completely failed to do so. As for the Labour Party, she said that though it still probably has a stronger core of support than Meretz, that support is ageing and is seen as linked to much earlier generations when kibbutzes were still important in Israeli life.
The one good thing about Israeli public life is that people seem to want to vote for women, she said, adding that she thought that was a big reason for the amount of support Tzipi Livni got. “But then, look at Labour and Meretz: no women made it high enough onto those parties’ lists to get elected. What are those parties of the so-called ‘left’ thinking of?”
The only portion of the left that she saw as having much good life left in it is Hadash, the former Communist Party. Though Hadash has been mainly supported by Palestinian Israelis in recent years, she noted that one of their most interesting new MKs will be Dov Chanin, an explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish Israeli who ran for mayor of Tel Aviv last November and amazed everyone by winning one-third of the votes there– more than Meretz.
Golan talked a bit about how isolated she and her pro-peace friends had felt during the Gaza war. She recalled there had been huge pro-war mobilizations on many Israeli campuses. One day during the war she had arrived at the Ramat Gan campus of HU and found large, very belligerent posters calling for the bombing of all of Gaza hung up around the entrance. (She tried to tear them down, herself, right then, and was then threatened by a group of young students who stood around her and called her filthy names. Perhaps some of the same nasty, misogynistic names that get thrown my way from time to time…)
I was deeply moved and personally delighted to catch up with Daphna. She needed to bring the interview to a halt and invited me to walk with her to her home in a leafy nearby neighborhood, where she was engaging in an ingenious bit of civil disobedience. A while ago someone she knows started a project to import organic produce into Jerusalem from the West Bank– defying the whole forest of administrative and financial obstacles with which the Israeli occupation authorities try to prevent or minimize that from happening. So Daphna knows a group of people who form one of the distribution nodes for this cross between a regular veggie coop and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project. When we reached her front yard the friends had nearly finished the sorting. Before us were a dozen produce boxes brimming with beautiful veggies: cabbage, lettuce, green onions, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, etc., all ready to be distributed to the members of this node.
They gave me a crunchy little cucumber to snack on, and I went on my way. I love walking around Jerusalem. My next walk took about 40 minutes: back past the HU campus, up around the new Foreign Ministry building, along Rabin Boulevard to a little park, then up the steep and intimate confines of Bezalel Street, across King George V Blvd, along to the Government Press Office at Beit Agron.
There the cheerful young English-Israeli, ‘Jason’, who’s been sitting on my application for a press card for four days now, told me once again that he’s “on top of it”… But that for some reason The Nation, who have commissioned some of my writings from here, has never applied for a press card here before, so the Israeli consulate in NYC has to do a bit of additional paperwork… Or something. Most strange: I mean, I am in their computer already from the last time I was here, in 2006. On which occasion, yes, they did let me into Gaza.
I asked Jason whether there are any particularly interesting press conferences or other media opportunities coming up. He said no, but tried to sell me on doing a story about the horrors of the “politicization” of many western-based NGOs. I took the brochure he was handing out about this, and proceeded on my way.
I usually enjoy the Jaffa Road/ Ben Yehuda shopping and pedestrian area, but there was ways too much construction there today, so I didn’t linger. I made for Helena Ha-Malkha Street, one of my favorite ways to go– and not only because of the name. (Actually Queen/Saint Helena is a bit of an embarrassment to Quakers and members of other peace churches. It was through her possibly lunatic importunings that her son the Emperor Constantine became a Christian… and a large chunk of Christianity became transformed into the state religion of a huge empire… Among other distortions of the old faith, that whole theory called “Just war” was thereafter introduced. Heck, maybe I should even change my name…)
On the right as you walk along HHM, the ghastly bricked-up windows of the cells in the Moscobiya prison in which the Israelis hold– or certainly have held, in the past– many longterm Palestinian political prisoners. I made a point of singing cheerful songs in English about liberation as I walked past, so maybe people inside those cells could hear me through the few tiny holes they have for ventilation and know that someone was thinking about them.
On the left, the “Sergei Court”, a beautiful large courtyarded structure built by the Russian royal family in the late 19th century to serve as a hostel for high-class Russian pilgrims visiting the city.
After the communist takeover of Russia, the Brits expropriated all the Russian state’s holdings in the city; and after the Brits left the Israelis took them over in their stead. But in recent years the post-Communist Russian state has been working hard to regain control of these lovely pieces of Jerusalem real estate. (Which include, as I’m assuming from the name, the Moscobiya itself?) Anyway, I see from today’s paper that the Israeli government has greed in principle to let the Russian government regain control and ownership of the Sergei Court, though its actual control will start in the first instance with only one wing of the building.
The paper (J. Post? Haaretz? I forget which) said the Israeli government had been reluctant to accede to the Russian demand for its buildings since it was afraid that other countries might also seek the return of city buildings expropriated from them. H’mmm…
Anyway, on down Helena Ha-Malkha to Nevi-im, past the Nablus Road “Arab” bus terminal, and back to my hotel. Made a few calls; and now here I am.
(I have to say I have so much material from the past three weeks that it’ll take some time to sort it all out and write it up. Tuesday I did an interview with Salam Fayad which was pretty interesting. And yes, I’m still hacking away at a broader “mood” piece about Ramallah but it ain’t ready yet… )

Gaza ceasefire-consolidation talks update

I’ve been busy recently: I’ve been in New York with editors and (separately) the new grandbaby… Also, preparing for my next reporting trip to the Middle East, which starts this afternoon as I head off from freezing Washington DC to Cairo.
Cairo is the place where negotiations have been continuing over the past two weeks to consolidate the still extremely shaky, in-parallel, and un-negotiated brace of reciprocal ceasefires across the Israel-Gaza border that went into operation January 18.
A negotiated, and therefore mutually agreed, ceasefire is absolutely essential if the military actions that have already marked the period since January 18 are to be prevented from escalating, at any moment’s notice, into yet another full-blown war between Israel and Gaza. This negotiation need not be direct. In fact, both sides at this point probably prefer strongly not to deal directly with the other. But it does– as Jimmy Carter’s point-man Bob Pastor pointed out at the excellent panel discussion of his that I attended last week– need to be written down, and to have some form of third party authentication, oversight, or even more preferably still a continuing, third-party verification and monitoring mechanism. (Evident parallels there with the development of Israel-Hizbullah relations that took place between 1993 and 1996. Btw, the 1996 war was also launched by an Israeli PM as a part of his general election campaign… )
Bob Pastor said that Hamas and the Israeli government had notably disagreed, thoughout last summer and fall, about what exactly Israel had promised, regarding lifting the siege on Gaza, in the Egyptian-negotiated, six-month-long, mutual ceasefire (tahdi’eh) the two sides reached on June 18 last year; and that’s why, if the new ceasefire is to have any durability t needs to be written down, signed, and counter-signed. It also makes elementary sense that, in a situation of such grave mutual distrust, any agreement needs to be written down, signed by authorized representatives of both parties– and those signatures and texts authenticated by a third party whose third-party role is trusted and authorized by both of them.
Several Hamas people have expressed grave distrust in the role that Egypt has been playing as mediator/intermediary. But apparently Egypt– and in particular, Egyptian intel boss Omar Suleiman– is still trusted “enough” by both parties that he is once again the main intermediary/channel between them.
That’s one reason why it’ll be interesting for me to be in Cairo. From there I’ll proceed to Amman, Israel, and Palestine and perhaps also Syria, depending on a number of things.
As far as I understand the Hamas-Israel negotiation, Hamas has been adamant that any renewed ceasefire agreement must include solid provisions for lifting the siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza ever since Hamas won the January 2006 elections. The present Israeli government, for its part, is facing tough elections next Tuesday. The war on Gaza did not go nearly as well as Olmert, Livni, and Barak had hoped. The intermittent descent of Gaza-launched rockets onto southern Israel that has occurred– along with many Israeli military actions against Gaza– even since January 18, reminds Israeli voters that the Olmert government has not “solved” the problems with Gaza that the war was, they had promised, intended to solve. Pressure from (and support for) the rightwing Israeli parties has intensified…
Under these circumstances, it’s unclear to me whether Olmert even has any motivation at all to conclude– far less announce!– any ceasefire agreement with Hamas before next Tuesday. Probably the only thing that just might make such an agreement acceptable to Israeli voters, in their current state of great anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and anti-Hamas frenzy, would be if it included the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli POW who has been held by unidentified militant groups in Gaza since June 2006, and by Hamas since it took control of the Strip in June 2007.
Hamas wants to keep the prisoner-exchange negotiations separate from the Gaza-ceasefire (and siege-lifting) negotiations. More than two dozen elected Hamas negotiators from the West Bank– including the speaker of the Palestinian parliament– have been held by Israel, without charges, as apparent bargaining chips for Shalit. Israel also holds a further 11,000-plus Palestinian detainees in its extensive complex of prisons for political prisoners. Most of these are being held without trial. Many of them are Hamas supporters and activists– though they come from all branches of the Palestinian national-liberation movement.
The rightwing Likud party is now clearly expected to win in Tuesday’s elections– and parties even further to the right like Avigdor Lieberman’s “Israel Beitenu” party have been moving up in the polls. Israel Beitenu now outranks Ehud Barak’s Labor Party as #3 in the opinion polls. (This marks yet another phase in the long decline of Israel’s once completely dominant Labour Party, which I have chronicled since 1998.)
… In other news, George Mitchell returned to DC a couple of days ago after completing his first “fact-finding” tour of the Middle East in connection with his role as the special envoy appointed jointly by Pres. Obama and Sec. Hillary Clinton. He reported back to both Clinton and Obama– in the White House’s Oval Office, yesterday. Tuesday, Clinton had earlier jumped the gun in terms of public announcements, by declaring that Hamas would still have to meet the three tired old, and very exclusionary “requirements” before it could be included in any US peacemaking. (Commitments not to use armed force and to recognize Palestinian rights have notably not been reciprocally required from the Government of Israel.)
Time has been running out for Obama to say something principled and clear about our country’s own strong interest in and commitment to a fair and durable Israeli-Palestinian peace, in time for that statement to resonate effectively with Israeli voters before they go to the polls Tuesday.
That’s a pity. I guess Obama has had a few other things to deal with, like the still-imploding national economy and the tanking of his nomination of old buddy Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services. But he really does need to keep his eye on this Israeli-Palestinian ball; and I hope that george Mitchell is dedicated to helping him do that.
This matter certainly can’t be left to the uncertain capabilities and understanding of Hillary Clinton.
Well, that’s it for now… Watch this space for continuing field updates as I travel. (Also, given how clunky the hosting service has become here at JWN, I’m considering shifting over to WordPress sometime soon. No change for JWN readers, though Don and Scott, as occasional authors, will need to get the new info when I do that. But until I can get that switch organized, I’ll probably be doing a lot of Delicious-ing of online resources I find helpful– check them out on the JWN sidebar. I’ll also be Twittering as the spirit moves me. So check that out, too. I’ve figured how to do that from my cellphone… I think.)

Going to Syria

This afternoon I’m leaving for Syria. I’m part of a delegation of (non-governmental) US citizens– most of whom are considerably closer to the “Establishment” here than I am– whose goal is to explore with Syrian counterparts and colleagues the possibilities for improving the US-Syrian relationship.
After eight years in which Dick Cheney and Elliott Abrams systematically blocked any attempt to do this, I hope the time is right for some real change.
It won’t be easy. The extremist pro-Israeli lobbying groups in this country still have considerable, continuing clout in Congress (as was demonstrated by this past week’s “Swift-boating” of any attempts at balanced congressional resolutions on Gaza, which was orchestrated completely by AIPAC.) Regarding Syria, back in 2003 the US congress passed into law the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA) which sought to place considerable additional sanctions and restrictions on Syria– additional to those that already stemmed from Syria’s longstanding identification by the State Department as a State Supporter of Terrorism.
The US has not had an ambassador in Syria since 2006. There are huge numbers of issues that need to be untangled…
I’m not sure our little group can untangle them all. But I hope we can do something to improve and expand bilateral ties at all levels.
Dick Cheney and the people whom he had carefully placed throughout the Bush administration argued that Syria is both a state supporter of terrorism and a highly dictatorial state… and because of that it should not be “rewarded” in any way by being engaged with in the conduct of normal diplomacy, or even treated as a normal member of the “family of nations”. Instead, it should be ostracized, excluded, and punished until such a time as either President Bashar al-Asad raised a white flag of complete surrender to US power, or he was overthrown.
Even when Israeli PM Olmert opened up his indirect final-peace negotiating channel with Asad through Turkey 18 months ago, Cheney and his supporters tried to dissuade him from doing that!
I find it highly ironic, regarding the whole “democratization” business the Bushites were– oh-so-briefly– enamored of in the Middle East, that actually the government of Syria reflects the will of the Syrian people in matters of national policy to a considerably greater degree than the governments of Egypt or Jordan, both of which are staunchly and generously supported by Washington. (Actually, that’s a big part of why their citizens don’t like those two governments. That, and the extremely repressive practices of their US-funded “security” services.)
Right now, getting a decent working relationship with Syria’s government and people is more important for the true interests of the US citizenry than ever before. Syria is a key actor in all the problem/crisis areas of the region. The relationships it has with all parties in Palestine and all parties in Iraq are a considerable resource for peacemakers.
Of course, in the negotiations for a speedy and robust ceasefire for Gaza, Syria is one of the key actors.
I probably shan’t be blogging here much for the next week. But who knows? Who knows what fascinating experiences I might have in Syria?

Notes from Southern California

Coming here has reminded me (again) of what a huge, diverse country this is. First observation: There are almost no public signs here that there’s a national election afoot, whereas back home in Virginia there are Obama or McCain yard signs nearly everywhere you look and the airwaves are saturated with the two candidates’ advertising. That’s because Virginia is seen as “in play”, whereas California is seen as so solidly in the Obama camp that it’s not worth much of anyone’s time to do much organizing for that race here.
I have seen a couple of Obama t.v. ads here.
Another difference: “Back east,” which is how a lot of Californians refer to the east of the country even if they’re not personally from there, we celebrate this annual holiday called Columbus Day. I think it was established as a means of secular afirmation/self-affirmation for Italian-Americans… Anyway, there’s a big Italian-American fraternal organization called Knights of Columbus that I think has worked hard to try to win maximum observance of Columbus Day. Here, as far as I can tell, few institutions observe it. Indeed, the Columbus “brand”: is viewed by many Californians as racist and possibly also genocidal. My son, who recently moved to Berkeley (N. California) said that there the day– which in the east was observed on Monday– is instead observed as “Native Peoples’ Day.”
Yesterday I drove from LA around 75 miles east to a small city called Riverside. For some reason these often scary, traffic-clogged highways are called “freeways.” So this is the “freedom” GWB seeks to impose on everyone else around the world? Yikes! (Not having a decent mass transit option strikes me as distinctly restrictive rather than liberating.)
At lunch at Riverside Community College, my hosts talked some about the terrible effects the mortgage/housing collapse has been having on the local economy and on the quality of life of some local people. One person described her mother now living in a house “surrounded by heaps of junk” which are all that’s left of a new multi-house development that went bust and couldn’t be finished.
In that context, I found this post yesterday from Calculated Risk pretty poignant. It’s the juxtaposition of the two items from above the fold yesterday’s LA Times… The photo there, which is of the wildfires now threatening some places in the northeast of Los Angeles’ massively sprawled out conurbation, sits right under a headline announcing, in effect, the “end of casino capitalism as we know it”, i.e. Paulson’s decision to injact $250 billion of taxpayer money into nine big national banks.
Will it indeed be the end of casino capitalism as we know it, though? Who knows? That depends a lot on how the re-regulation gets enacted, as well as how Paulson and his successor use the extraordinary powers the Treasury department has been given…
Anyway, I gotta run to prepare for my two talks today.