Friday, July 24, 2009

Give Us A Border

The following column, adapted from a former post, appears in today's Haaretz.

There is something about the Netanyahu-Obama stand-off on settlements that seems beside the point. Had Ronald Reagan, following Jimmy Carter's lead, demanded a total freeze in 1980, the idea might have worked. Today the demand for a freeze reminds me of the joke about the implacable customer at a restaurant who, having waited too long for his dinner, says he can be appeased only by being served "15 minutes ago."

President Obama clearly wants to make a clean break with the past, and even make a show of force to Israeli extremists. But a total freeze is now out of the question. About 400,000 settlers live in crowded communities more or less contiguous with Israel (like Gush Etzion), or in Jerusalem suburbs (like Gilo and Ma'aleh Adumim). These urbanized areas are clearly not going to be moved or dismantled. And they cannot stop growing. Rather, a new border must be drawn around them and Palestine will have to be compensated in some way. Even the Geneva Initiative negotiators agreed on this.

The people who will be moved as part of any conceivable peace, who have turned Palestine into strangulated enclaves, are the 75,000-100,000 residents of settlements scattered around Hebron and between Ramallah and Nablus - vexingly, the very people who are most mobilized against any kind of deal and must be confronted by the international community and mainstream Israelis. (Salam Fayyad's offer of Palestinian citizenship to Jews who are more attached to the ancient land than the modern state will be scoffed at by most of these settlers.)

All of which raises a question. Clearly, the issue here is not a settlement freeze. The freeze has become a proxy for the larger question of where to locate an internationally recognized border between two states. Why, then, should Obama fight - with little chance of success - over a symbol and defer the fight over what is symbolized, which will eventually require a hard line from America and the world anyway?

Consider another approach, that taken in Geneva. The fact that large settlements are immovable means the June 4, 1967, border is not feasible, but the principle of defining a border on the basis of June 4 certainly is. America needs to offer support, and fast, for a 1:1 land swap to insure that territories allotted to Israel and Palestine are equivalent in area to what existed on June 4. It should appoint a Quartet commission, answerable to Senator Mitchell, to suggest a map. Palestine is not Israel's internal affair, nor will Palestinians ever accept the border envisioned by Netanyahu. Only a new "international" map will reconcile the Arab League peace initiative with the difficulties of moving settlers back into Israel.

Sketching a border will bring obvious immediate benefits, such as helping government officials, businesspeople and others on both sides to plan and invest. But it will also help prepare the ground to evacuate those who must ultimately be moved. This will take years, just like moderating Hamas by rehabilitating the Palestinian Authority will take years. The Israel Defense Forces and the police could never muster enough manpower to simply move these settlers by force - anyway, many IDF officers sympathize with settlement.

And to get these people out, you have to do four things: marginalize them politically, that is, create a conflict of interest between settlers living within an agreed-upon border and the more fanatic types outside; induce them to return to agreed settlements or to within the Green Line with time-limited financial compensation; threaten them with power and water cuts; and, should all else fail, remove them by siege or, if necessary, force. All that is going to be very hard. As it withdraws, the IDF should work with NATO forces to replace its own soldiers.

There is nothing fanciful about projecting a border. For most Israelis, the line between Israel and occupied territory is self-evident. Palestinian leaders have all but said they're willing to compromise on the 1967 line, and effectively demilitarize their state, so long as a way can be found to compensate Palestine with land that is as much and as good as land annexed to Israel, and compensate and resettle the original refugees of 1948 in a Palestinian state - or, as one Ramallah friend suggested, so long as the futures of Israel and Palestine are linked to larger federal arrangements. Nor do you need more than common sense to see where the contention will come. For example, Ariel (smack-dab between Ramallah and Nablus) could never be part of a future Israel. Olmert insisted that it must be, which is one reason his talks with Mahmoud Abbas went nowhere. Here is where America's view becomes crucial, so why not apprise the sides of it now?

In any case, Obama is right to try and keep new settlement projects from being added to the 160 that already exist -­ that is, to insist that Israel remove new outposts, and prevent construction that fills in the gaps between existing settlements; and to forestall projects that would further compromise the viability of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. But we are beyond the talk of the road map's freeze now, or should be. What we need is a destination and a driver.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hat On Your Head, Hope In Your Heart

Those of us who laughed and nodded our way through Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, yet put the book down thinking the author had somehow (well, entirely) missed the point, have a counter-text in Angels and Ages: Adam Gopnik's beautiful little book, ostensibly about Lincoln and Darwin, but really about how liberal minds make sense of the divine, that is, the immense thing left over once they make sense of the facts--a book as valuable for its tone as its arguments, indeed, a book whose main argument is about the tone Lincoln and Darwin needed to be trenchant and, therefore, loved.

I won't try to recapitulate Gopnik's way of getting into his subject. I'll only say that he leaves you understanding something those of us who grew up in Montreal, and came of age day-dreaming our way through McGill's Stephen Leacock Building, knew from the air--especially given the contrast between the Victorian atmospherics on the campus and the clannish residues of rural, ultra-montaine Quebec (and, for that matter, immigrant, Jewish, St. Urbain Street). It is that liberal civilization is an achievement. Liberty derives from the way we collect and adjust to evidence. It derives from the way we prepare for and argue a case in court. We are otherwise lost in our families, instincts and appetites.

"You have to be taught to hate," we hear from "South Pacific." Nonsense. Every child knows how to hate. You have to be taught toleration, which is not a simple thing, and takes years of learning moral tact. And yet what an enlightenment education cannot teach you, or even explain, is the need to assume ordinary human dignity: the personal poetic that distills from one's culture, the desire for fugitive truth. For this you need a leap of (there, I've said it) faith. "There is more to man than the breath in his body, if only the hat on his head, and the hope in his heart," Gopnik ends his book. Every sentence that gets you to that succinct conclusion is worth your time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The New GM: Maker Of Mobile Devices

Wilmot, New Hampshire. It is hard to think of a more wrong-headed take on the new GM than today's Times report on how a new muscle car will save the company. Imagine someone writing that a new Bee Gees will save Warner Music; imagine a government stupid enough to be 2/3 owner in such a venture, especially a government committed to reducing global warming and greening the economy.

In fact, the government gets one real prize with the new GM and that's Voltec, the working name for the electric power-train that is being integrated into the Chevy Volt, Cadillac Converj, and other vehicles scheduled for release over the next couple of years; a power-train whose 40-mile range will be extended by a 1.4 liter engine, acting as a dynamo when the battery pack runs down. (The tough little engine, by the way, was snared from Opel before its sale, a good example of finding components from within the global GM group, something the company will have to be great at in the future.)

I'll be saying a lot more about this electric vehicle and its commercial "ecosystem" in the weeks ahead (I'm writing a feature for Inc., and will be blogging about it with the magazine's permission). Suffice it to say for now that Voltec has a fighting chance to remake GM the way cell phones remade Motorola in the 1980s (a failing consumer electronics company in the early 1970s). Indeed, GM has a chance to be the first to reconceive the car as a the ultimate mobile device, embedded in both a rich information network and a smart electric grid; the first, that is, to set standards for the operating system that will manage the battery pack, and the communications protocols that will allow millions of electric vehicles to syndicate information and communicate their requirements to smarter (hence, greener) public utilities.

In short, GM has a chance to become the software powerhouse of the newest new economy, not just a manufacturing and assembling company (margins from these activities will drop to near zero, as with the manufacture of laptops and cell phone handsets), but primarily a design hub and anchor for hundreds of new software solutions companies that will focus on the tiers of communication the electric car portends: battery-pack to vehicle, vehicle to electric utility, and utility to sources of renewable energy. (Think of GM's OnStar's global positioning platform migrating to a communications platform that collects and interprets information about the timing of recharging of vehicles for power companies; think of, say, Accenture working with a half dozen start-ups to smarten Duke Energy's grid in a way that communicates with OnStar.) This would mean tens of thousands of new economy jobs, and little companies going global, much like Qualcomm did. It means utterly transforming what GM means by a supply-chain.

Of course, GM could blow it. Apple was hardly the leading contender to launch a digital music player and, hence, come to dominate new generation mobile PDAs. For GM to win, it will have to think of the car in the context of its various networks, much like Apple did with the iPod. The fact that the government both owns GM and also has the capacity to create convergent standards for environmental and safety reasons should give GM a great initial advantage. But none of this will happen if GM management, and the business press aiming to keep it honest, thinks about (or with) muscle.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Chess, Not Checkers

The following notes may be found in President Obama's breast pocket.

Opening: Make Hilary Secretary of State (that is, remove the leader of the opposition from New York). Show the Arab and Muslim world--a place where honor matters--an abiding respect. Embrace the Arab League peace initiative of 2002 and frame the Israel-Palestine conflict in regional terms. Set out the long range goal of a Palestinian state, albeit in vague terms, but along with the insistence that settlements cease--code for some variation on the 1967 border. Draw Egypt and Jordan into the mix, implying their participation as forces on the ground. Open a diplomatic channel with, and through, Syria.

Middlegame: Cultivate the Palestinian Authority's new government, providing training to its police forces, while providing the promise of new investments to its business class. Use channel to Syria to bring Hamas into negotiations with the PA. Encourage rejection of Islamist radicalism in Palestine by implying American pragmatism; leave the Iranian regime to discredit itself and, in the process, the democratic pretensions of Hamas and Hezbollah. Challenge Israeli government on settlements' "natural growth" to establish future position on a 1967ish border. Work with Quartet to establish a consolidated front of world opinion and great power fiat; imply complete diplomatic isolation of groups in Israel/Palestine that defy the "peace process."

Attack: Broker a deal, with Egyptian participation, for the return of Gilad Shalit, in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and the opening of the Gaza crossings. Visit Russia. Visit Damascus. Prepare the ground to isolate Iran diplomatically. Welcome the creation of a joint Palestinian negotiation team, led by the PA, but including Hamas officials; accept the principle that any deal will be put to a referendum; accept that all groups that agree to abide by a referendum can enter into a dialogue with Washington. Call for renewed, bilateral negotiations between Israel and the PA presided over by George Mitchell.

Endgame: Present American formulations (Clinton parameters, etc.) to resolve the problems of Jerusalem, refugees, and borders; make these public as the negotiations proceed. Announce that the result of the negotiations will be presented to a regional peace conference, including the Saudis and the Syrians. Meanwhile, the latter establish low level diplomatic and commercial contact with Israel under American auspices. In advance of the conference, announce a Syrian-Israeli peace deal based on a demilitarized Golan, returned to Syria, but open to Israeli tourism and including Israeli commercial interests. Rally Europe and the Quartet to Marshall Plan scale investment package for the Palestinians. Provide for a three year plan to isolate the settlers who must be repatriated and compensated. Announce inclusion of Israel in NATO, and sign Israel to nuclear non-proliferation agreement. Prepare speech for Oslo prize ceremony.