Monday, May 30, 2011

The Volt: More Good News

The New York Times leads today with a piece about Detroit's recovery, but somehow manages to overlook the continuing and crucial good-news story of the Chevy Volt, which will eventually do for General Motors what the iPhone did for Apple. This would only be a business story if electric cars were not so critical to American manufacturing and the planet, too.

In response to strong demand and glowing reviews--including Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" and a strong endorsement of its engineering from IEEE Spectrum--GM will increase production of the Volt (the Opel Ampera in Europe) to 60,000 a year; it had originally projected a third less. GM's Volt program is beginning to reach the point at which scale will drive down the prices of its most innovative components, as well as second generation development of its batteries and proprietary software. This will make electric mobility feasible for the mainstream market and drive, in turn, the smartening of the electric grid. "Our challenge," a friend at GM writes, "will be, going forward, how do we reach the ordinary mainstream customer so that we can continue to grow the volume and with this added scale, continue to reduce our costs."

Incidentally, customers love the car. My friend, a program insider, tells me that marketing people involved with early adopters mostly hear what car companies long to hear. The car is "fun to drive." Any Volt on a dealer's lot will not sit there for more than a day; GM has nearly 700 selling dealerships and a little over 300 units in inventory. The Volt team is not only gearing up for a full US national launch for later this year but also a global launch in Europe and China (and a roll-out the following year including Australia and Israel).

The Volt is connected to GM's OnStar network, which will eventually allow for charging information about all Volts on the road to roll up to power companies; and also allow GM to monitor cars and download software updates. (Think of OnStar as GM's iTunes.)  "We are collecting a good deal of data from our OnStar connectivity," my friend writes, "which is proving particularly rich. On average, our Volt customers are driving over 1,000 miles before they have to fill-up their gas tanks, which ends up being about once a month. Nearly two-thirds of their miles are powered from electricity from the grid. The OnStar MyLink mobile app for smart phones, which monitors and can initiate charging, has been downloaded by nearly a third of the customers (and is used many times a day)."

Early Volt buyers seem to be a fascinating group: the kind of tech pioneers who feed valuable information back to product developers. Well over a third of them were not even considering buying another car when they purchased their Volt. Toyota Prius, BMW 3-series, and Honda luxury makes were the cars most often traded in. Nearly half have an iPhone, nearly half have an iPad and nearly a quarter have or are planning to get home solar. They are highly educated and affluent: mostly male. Nevertheless, presumably, this group will not be voting Republican.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Aggressively Non-Violent: Ras al-Amud

My friend David Shulman, who has appeared often as a guest blogger here, filed the following report from our non-violent demonstration in Ras al-Amud on Friday afternoon. I particularly admire how he captured our feelings at the moment we sat down; no need for me to add anything about it. David is also the author of this lovely essay on Gandhi and Palestine in the current Harper's (still behind a pay wall, alas). And this post on Judge Goldstone for The New York Review.

Ras al-Amud, May 27, 2011

We gather at 4:00 outside the settlers’ multi-story stone building opposite the old police station at Ras al-Amud, on the Mount of Olives. This was the week of Netanyahu’s speech before Congress; if, utterly unlikely as this may be, there is anyone in the world who failed to notice that he was lying, then Wednesday’s official ceremony unveiling the new settlement here in East Jerusalem should be enough to remove the veil.

It is hot, dusty, dry, and from the start I’m thirsty, and it keeps getting worse. I’m also a little high on the mood of the crowd: I sense a savvy toughness, a clarity of purpose, and I feel the rage. The lines are lucidly drawn. Some 20 to 30 settler children, boys and girls, and a few adults line the rooftop overlooking the street and the activists milling just below them; sometimes the children spit at us, or spray us with water (not unwelcome in the fierce heat), and sometimes they sing or chant, as if to mimic the rhymed slogans we’re shouting to the beat of the drums. They hang a sign down from the roof: “refuah shlemah, Speedy Recovery,” the implication being that we are mad, perhaps suffering from some kind of mass psychosis. Perhaps
they’re right.

Not only Jews are here to demonstrate today; there are many Palestinians, far more than in most of the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations, and they’re up front in the thick of it, facing the police. There’s a large underground parking area beneath the massive stone apartments; we’ve taken our stand on the path leading up to it, so settler cars entering or leaving are having rather a hard time. At one point one of them, surrounded by activists, suddenly accelerates, plowing through the crowd; people leap to the side; miraculously, no one is hurt. The police bark and push and shove at us, trying vainly to clear a way. It all takes time, a long time, as the tension slowly mounts, reaching toward a climax, though there are also moments of anomie and perplexity, and the weariness of boredom, thirst, and heat.

A Palestinian boy, maybe 12 years old, takes the megaphone and boldly leads the chanting for a few minutes, half in Arabic, half in Hebrew, the languages running together on his tongue: la l’ihtilal, ken le-meri ezrahi, “No to Occupation, Yes to Civil Disobedience.” I like the sound of it, coming from him. Civil disobedience is
what is called for in the extreme conditions of Israel-Palestine 2011—and with it relentless provocation, a constant seeking of the point of friction, giving no inch. The police seem bewildered, out of their depth: what are they supposed to do with these 200 demonstrators? I can see the two commanders hesitating, uncertain; they’re not much of an enemy, this time round; for once they don’t seem eager to arrest us. Maybe—just a guess, or wishful thinking- the senior one, who carries himself with a certain dignity, doesn’t really like defending these fanatical settlers.

Still, we prod them, taunt them, we call them a “settlers’ police” (all too true), we tell them they have the right and, indeed, the duty to refuse illegal orders, we spill over the line they are trying to hold, and finally we do what many have done before us, in Gandhi’s India, in Alabama and Mississipi, in the Vietnam years, in Tibet—we sit down on the approach road, blocking access to the building and its parking lot, and wait, arms looped together, for the police to pry us loose and drag us away.
It takes some time. The usual happiness washes over me.

THERE IS REALLY nothing quite so sweet as doing the right thing. I am, at last, or again, one with myself—apart from the tormenting thirst and the occasional drizzle of spit from above. We’re packed together in an ungainly mass. Profound equality, communitas, like a physical force, binds us together in the face of what is about to come. But I’m not thinking about the future now. This moment is enough.

Of course the ranks ahead of me are rapidly thinning out, for the police have begun their attack; they grab whatever part of the body presents itself first, head, feet, arms, buttocks, they struggle to separate us one from another—it isn’t easy—and they drag us, one by one, sometimes punching us for good measure, yelling curses, to the side of the road which, of course, must be kept open for the settlers at all costs. I can’t see the larger scene very well from my small piece of paradise on the ground, but I hear the shouts and cries and the steady roar of the drums, and I can see the soldiers’ black boots getting closer and closer, the first couple of rows gone by now, only two or three meters left, they will be on me in a moment, I really ought to be
afraid but nothing seems capable of shattering my eery peace.

Perhaps, I think, I’ll be able later to write about that peacefulness and explore it further; I know I’m not the only one to feel it. Eileen will say later, when it’s over: “That moment all of you sat down was beautiful and powerful.” She’s right about that. Maybe that’s why, as she says, I love it so. Let’s say a hundred of us were sitting there, defiant, ready to be pummeled or dragged away or arrested. Clearly we didn’t have to explain it to anyone, least of all to ourselves, because the rightness of it was perfectly evident, and, after all, we’ve done such things before, many times, and by now we’ve learned what had to be learned—above all the lesson of action, saying “no” not in words but with our bodies, again and again, as long as it’s necessary to do so until some day we win. But even that thought is not right and not needed, these days we’re not thinking much about winning.

I smile at Tehila, just behind me, remembering our arrest in south Hebron just a month or so ago—her first time. But the smile is because I have just realized that we are doing this precisely because we can’t know where it will lead or what effects it will have, and I have just remembered the verse from the Bhagavad Gita which says that human beings are given the right to act but should never consider the fruits of action—it is enough that it is good, godly, and intrinsically humane.

There’s quite a lot of tugging and tearing and poking and grabbing and punching, and to my surprise I am swept, as if by a whirlpool, away from the center and toward the curb, since by now the soldiers and police have cleared just enough space for one of the settler cars to struggle through, and they’ve apparently tired of
the struggle against these interlaced arms and legs and heavy bodies. I guess I was lucky. Someone just a yard or two away was not: they shot him with a Taser, and he fell, clutching his right chest, his eyes racing wildly in their sockets, his body twitching a little, hardly conscious. I rush over, but before I can begin to dredge up my medic’s instincts, Daniel is there, cradling his head in his arms; Daniel is a doctor,with the doctor’s assurance.

We call an ambulance, but within a few minutes our friend comes to, sits up slowly, even more slowly tries to stand. Tasers are dangerous; they hit you with an electric shock that can kill. My son Misha warned me some months ago that we’d be likely to encounter them one of these days, and today it happened, my first time. Our wounded activist, uncowed, rejoins the others still sitting on the road.

THERE ARE ARRESTS, of course—six, to the best of my knowledge; but when they try to arrest one of the Palestinians, the activists swirl around and manage, with much difficulty, to extricate him from the clutches of the police. One minor victory. Meanwhile, while I was busy, many things have happened. Uli, my former student, comes week after week to hold up a black flag with a pirate’s skull and bones; some have found this banner enigmatic, though Uli says its message is self-evident, a perfect emblem of the settlers’ ways. Today one of the settlers manages to snatch it and tear it off the pole, which now, I have to admit, looks a little forlorn. Maybe it’s become a Buddhist flagpole, supporting the deep emptiness of all that is.

Then Uli’s cellphone rings, and on the line is a former girlfriend of his, whom he describes as a nihilist or anarchist, utterly apolitical; and by a strange twist such as turns up regularly in Israel, this woman happens to be the sister of one of the settlers inside the building, and the sister’s children are with the former girlfriend and are supposed to be taken “home”, if a stolen piece of Palestinian land counts as home. What to do? Uli doesn’t want the children to be traumatized: “Wait an hour,” he suggests.

And then—when? Some two hours or more have gone by-- it’s over. The police drive off with their captives. Eileen sees Palestinian children grasping stones and broken shards of ceramic in their fists. This is a new danger, worse than anything that has happened so far. She goes over to try to calm them, and others join her, and it works--or maybe the boys decide rightly by themselves. No tear gas or rubber bullets today. On the main road just beside us, while we’re still embroiled in the melée, drums beating, people screaming, a Palestinian car, brightly decorated with white ribbons, with bride and groom inside, painfully threads its way past this battle zone, somehow avoiding the jeeps of the Border Guards that block the way. Will they make
it in time to the wedding?

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position, how it takes place
When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully

The Auden poem happens to be about us, Eileen and me: we spent this morning in Tel Aviv shopping for Misha’s wedding. Should I be feeling guilty for this great joy, this pleasure, when I could have been in south Hebron or Silwan or Nabi Saleh, when I could have bound up the wounds of the suffering and tried, at least, to free the slaves?

No, I should not. But you know—it’s utterly impossible to make sense of these sharp transitions. It’s crazy. One moment we’re having our espresso in Tel Aviv, and the next we’re here with the police and the settlers and the dust and the drums and the pain and the unanswerable questions and the hopelessness and the dread. Whatever god invented the world we inhabit didn’t think things through. I wish Him a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Netanyahu's House: Knowing Your Audience

Anyone with a shred of knowledge about the Middle East conflict knows that yesterday's performance alienated its most critical audience. I am not speaking about Netanyahu's performance. He played the Israeli center, American Jews, and American media like Isaac Stern playing the Brahms. I mean the performance of members of Congress, who watched him with ingenuous smiles, and jumped to their feet to applaud every word, including, it seems, "and" and "but." Did they really not understand that, for the rest of the world, they were the more important show?

Israel, the only democracy. Cheers. Israel in Gaza, defending itself against Iran's terror proxies. Cheers. Judea and Samaria. Cheers. Israel as the reason why the Palestinian economy booms. Cheers. Conflict, not over Palestinian state, but over Jewish state. Cheers.

Compromise must reflect settlements since 1967. Cheers. Israel will not make the lines of 1967 the basis for negotiation. Cheers. Israel will take in no refugees at all. Cheers. Jerusalem must remain Israel's united capital. Cheers. No negotiations with Abbas if Hamas is in the government. Cheers. (For a more comprehensive analysis, read Mitchell Plitnick's fine post.)

"American members of Congress did not seem to realize that this speech was tuned in by young people across Palestine and the Middle East," my friend Sammy Abu Dayyeh, the CEO of Net-Tours, told me over a gloomy lunch at his Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem. "I was shocked, I admit. Everything Netanyahu did and said was predictable. Okay. But the way he was received--that I did not really expect. It was as if the Congress was actually trying to incite the Arab street just when, since three months ago, everything is changing, and Obama is trying to show himself on the right side of things."

No doubt, Netanyahu's speech will be seen as historic. It may well turn a tide, just what Netanyahu needs to wrestle Obama into submission, even silence internal critics accusing him of alienating Washington--a masterful job, ingratiating, clever, poised.

But Congress's enthusiasm for its slyness may also mark the moment the rising Arab world, including what will rise in the streets of Palestine and on the borders of Israel, dismisses America as a misguided empire. The speech may eventually prove a world-historical photo-op as damaging in its way as Abu Ghraib; the moment to despair, once and for all, of America's once-promising young president being seen as even-handed.

This reaction of Congress may also mark the moment when intellectuals across Europe and Latin America--also on American campuses, for that matter--claim absolute proof that America's Middle East diplomacy is bought-and-paid-for by the people Netanyahu romanticizes. It is a people they are inclined to romanticize, too, though in a quite different way, alas.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Decoding 'The Speech'

Encrypted: [T]he bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad.

Unencrypted: "Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae, et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum..." and so forth.

Encrypted: As two vibrant democracies, we recognize that the liberties and freedoms we cherish must be constantly nurtured. And as the nation that recognized the State of Israel moments after its independence, we have a profound commitment to its survival as a strong, secure homeland for the Jewish people.

Unencrypted: "I know very well that I'm going to lose some Jewish donors, and even some voters; but if I cannot get the 78% I got last time, I know how to fight for the 65% or more who want a two-state solution and will take Jon Stewart's send-up of Joe Lieberman over the real Lieberman any day of the week? Do you really want to fight me as a Foxy Republican, Bibi? Have you noticed what's going on on American campuses?"

Encrypted: ...homeland for the Jewish people.

Unencrypted: "This is not quite the same thing as a 'Jewish state,' which some of your coalition partners think of as a Jewish theocracy, so I am qualifying the phrase as 'democratic and Jewish' (see my speech continuing below). Anyway, given Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, better get used to American and European diplomats defaulting to this vaguer but truer formulation."

Encrypted: And that includes additional support–-beyond regular military aid-–for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

Unencrypted: "Okay, let's talk about what long-term technologies will reassure you, or even about close military cooperation as part of a deal. But let's stop hearing about how Israel is 8 miles wide. The real problem, as everyone knows, is the settlers you put in around mile 9, and then mile 20. Besides, the crudest missiles travel 40 miles, but I'm getting ahead of myself."

Encrypted: When an effort was made to insert the United Nations into matters that should be resolved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, we vetoed it.

Unencrypted: "I made myself look ridiculous vetoing the Security Council's condemnation of settlements, which was formulated in my own Cairo speech's language. I gave Dennis this victory to reinforce the idea that bilateral negotiations are the only way to peace; though you destroyed the chance to resume bilateral talks by refusing to stop the building, and the rest of the world is calling on me to impose a plan."

Encrypted: First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly...This will make it harder and harder -- without a peace deal -- to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.

Unencrypted: "Oh, by the way, I know how to speak the language of the Israeli opposition, Kadima, Labor, etc., and play to it, whatever I really think of it. Two can play this game, Bibi. You have an election coming up, too. Do you want to run as the leader who screwed up relations with Washington, while Livni and others run as the saviors of our common language?"

Encrypted: Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace."

Unencrypted: " Look, AIPAC, can you please tell your Bibi to stop pandering to his nutjobs and try forming a coalition that will, say, take us back to where Olmert and Abbas got stuck before the region explodes? Israel is fit to repel any invasion; no more wars like 1973. But can't you see Israel is prepared for the last big war, not the next one? It is facing 40,000 missiles that cost a few thousand dollars each with anti-missiles that cost over a million each. Its air force and smart bombs can level the apartment buildings from which the missiles are launched, but then what happens when CNN and Al Jazeera start running 24/7 videos of children's bodies pulled from the rubble? Which brings me to..."

Encrypted: Third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region. A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.

Unencrypted: "The Arab street is rising and hates Israel. I'm doing my damnedest to help young Arabs see that I, as the poster child for democratic globalization, can still be their friend. Does your Bibi really expect Western powers to defend Israel, which means his occupation just now, at the cost of alienating a whole new generation that's shown an almost unimaginable courage to face dictators' guns? What will Israel do when thousands more march on Israel? Mow them down like Qaddafi?"

Encrypted: And just as the context has changed in the Middle East, so too has it been changing in the international community over the last several years. There’s a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations. They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one, not just in the Arab World -- in Latin America, in Asia, and in Europe. And that impatience is growing, and it’s already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.

Unencrypted: "Actually, I mean every word here. And I could rally the rest of the world to put the screws to Bibi in a heartbeat. My trip to Europe, starting tomorrow, will prove this. Have you noticed who are Israel's most important trading partners? Have you noticed how Israel's debt structure looks like Greece? What do you think will happen to Israel's hyper-globalized, start-up economy if Palestine is recognized by most of the world, and Israel is considered in breach of international law? Wake up: I'm the best, if not the only, friend you've got."

Encrypted: No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations or in any international forum.

Unencrypted: "I know Israel can make statehood merely symbolic--at first. How can the Palestinian state grow while the Israeli army sits in Area C to protect the settlements? And I can withhold recognition and maybe even get away with this in the Arab world until the 2012 election--if, that is, I keep encouraging the youth and sending aid packages to Egypt. But can you not all see the writing on the wall?"

Encrypted: ...Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist. And we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and for their rhetoric. But the march to isolate Israel internationally -- and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations –- will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.

Unencrypted: "I can help Abbas & Co. to pressure Hamas to get real. But, Jesus, can you really not see how Bibi is the best friend Hamas has? Are you actually trying to bring Abbas down by making his past concessions to Olmert seem ludicrous?"

Encrypted: There was nothing particularly original in my proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations. Since questions have been raised, let me repeat what I actually said on Thursday--not what I was reported to have said.

Unencrypted: "Condi Rice set this formula to get Olmert and Abbas going. Bush adopted the framework, too. Bibi wants you to think Israel has some new threat in me because he is counting on you to panic like Pavlov's dog salivating at the sound of a bell."

Encrypted: The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

Unencrypted: "Forget Ariel and probably also Maale Adumim. Abbas offered a 1.9 percent swap, with 62 percent of the settlers staying in place. Olmert offered 5.something percent. And Jerusalem is part of the deal, as Olmert agreed. It's time to get used to the fact that Abbas's offer is the best one Israel will ever get."

Encrypted: As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself –- by itself -– against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.

Unencrypted: "I'm willing to put troops on the Jordan. But forget about a permanent presence in the Jordan Valley."

Encrypted: The ultimate goal is two states for two people: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people--each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

Unencrypted: "Your most winnable fight is over the number of Palestinian refugees who'll be repatriated to Israel proper under the "Right of Return" provision, UN 194, of the Arab League initiative. Who knows how integrated Israel and Palestine will eventually become. But if you want to keep the number of returnees low, the US and most of the world will back you. Then again, the longer you keep the settlement project going, and/or complain about disrupting settlers' lives, the more you turn every Palestinian's attention back to 1948, and strengthen the logic of a bi-national state. Notice Abbas's oped from last week?"

Friday, May 20, 2011

Abbas And The 1967 Border: In His Own Words

President Obama has now stated that it is the policy of his administration that a Palestinian state should rise in the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately called those borders “indefensible,” insisting that Obama should instead honor “U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004″ by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in an exchange of letters with Ariel Sharon.

Bush wrote Sharon:

As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties. … In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.

Clearly, Bush's letter can be interpreted in various ways, including an invitation to consider the land swaps Obama anticipates. More important, Obama's formulation is precisely the same as that of Secretary Rice, who stipulated the 1967 border when she kicked off negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas three years ago. Those negotiations broke down over the extent of the swaps, not over the principle of using the 1967 border, which Netanyahu now rejects.

As to whether the border would be "indefensible," perhaps it is best to listen directly to how President Abbas conceived of a deal when I spoke with him in Amman on January 21. Much has transpired since then, but I suspect that any reasonable person, listening to Abbas stipulate in his own words the suggestions, claims and conditions he put to Olmert, will doubt Netanyahu's effort to discredit the 1967 border or Abbas as a negotiating partner. You can listen to the entire interview here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Berlin: A Coda

A note from a reader:

I really enjoyed your recent column on Berlin... I'm living here for 6 months, running an exchange program for my university. I was particularly struck by your line: "Can you not see how we reject what was monumental here?"

For an excellent example of that, I'd suggest a visit to Tempelhof airport, which is now no longer an airport, but a huge area for roller skaters, kite flyers, bicyclists, dog walkers, grill parties, and so forth. It's an amazing re-purposing of the space, and it's best to see it soon, before it's more "developed," which is happening to much of Berlin (they're apparently going to add a big climbing wall, etc.).

The airport buildings are some of the most striking examples of "monumental" (i.e. facist) architecture, and from the street, as one always had to approach them in the past, they are overwhelming. But from the airport runways and fields, with the perspective of a distance that was normally not available to the public, even these buildings don't seem monumental anymore, but strike me as almost graceful, but also insignificant. Interestingly, the architect for Tempelhof, Ernst Sagebiel, had been project Erich Mendelsohn's architectural practice in the '20s. Mendelsohn is one of my favorite architects, and in Israel he designed among other things Chaim Weizmann's house.

Also, one of the more bizarre relics of Hitler's megalomania is the Schwerbelastungskörper, which was built to study the feasibility for building a massive "arc de triumph" on the north-south axis of "Welthauptstadt Germania," as Hitler (and Albert Speer) imagined the future of Berlin. It was to be several times larger than the Arc de Triumph in Paris.

The Schwerbelastungskörper is located several blocks west of Tempelhof airport, a 15-minute walk far from the S-Sudkreuz S-Bahn, and very close to the 104 bus. From U-Tempelhof, or you can take Bus 104 to the Kolonnenbrücke bus stop (heading west--just a few stops).

Best regards,

Jeffrey Wallen, Professor of Comparative Literature,
Hampshire College

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Berlin And Tel Aviv: Independence Day

This is Berlin, and we are traveling on Israeli Independence Day; so the little piece of moral kitsch on our breakfast table felt curiously precious, a little reminder of how many decisions people have to make to infuse a society with civilized responses, or to serve notice of the lonely other’s story—the counterintuitive principles, curricula, and “recommendations” that pull us out of our tribe and into the human condition.

You see a great many such decisions in Berlin, so many you get the feeling the city was rebuilt as if from tiny liberal bricks. Almost nowhere is there a German flag without the flag of the European Union flying beside it. Berlin, indeed, is the informal capital of the EU, not only because of German banks, but because the city would never aim to be anything so vulgar as the formal capital.

The architecture is almost transparent in its intent. The Reichstag, just to the left of the Brandenburg gate, is rebuilt to “quote” the way the building looked after it was bombed; also to reveal the people—citizens, tourists, though the words "Dem Deutschen Volke" is still carved into its walls—walking a circular path to the highest point in its rotunda. Watch them, and you hear in your mind the word Deutschen Volke spoken gently, tragically, maybe a little neurotically, the cadences of Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem, which was written back when German meant something liberating and secular. Transparency is itself an architectural principle here. The chancellery next door looks like a small mountain of glass blocks, inviting us to spy on Angela Merkel yawning after a long day.

AT ALMOST NO place in Berlin can you see buildings rising above the human level, five or six stories, perhaps, each building renovated slightly differently (that is, with window treatments and colors), aiming for simple bourgeois elegance. They look like new condos in Cambridge Massachusetts, except perhaps for the commercial buildings in Potsdamer Platz, announcing the pleasures of Sony and Disney. The other exception is the violently ugly radio tower in the Alexanderplatz, built by the DDR to make a statement now received ironically as a symbol of the regime’s hubris and failure. Everywhere are tributes to cosmopolitanism, a museum of world cultures, an institute of world science, a street of world cuisines: a world of self-chastisement for the treatment of Turkish workers. And tributes to the once quintessential cosmopolitan Germans, German Jews, are now memorialized in every possible conspicuous space.

Irony is the key to Berlin, I think. The winged victory tower anchoring the Tiergarten, pointing to the Brandenburg Gate, or the Von Moltke Bridge over the Spree, or the Soviet Army Memorial, or the Checkpoint Charlie museum—all of these monuments—seem to say: Wars are over; Europeans have manifestly outgrown them, just by putting some familiar laws and protections in place: permeable borders, a common currency, the kind things Pennsylvania did with Virginia long ago. And wasn't Bismarck and his generation hopelessly unimaginative, at least as compared with what Germany and Europe have become?

The Winged Victory is just what the city needs to remind it of its pathetic story. The Junker imperial ambition, so blinkered by a world of marches and bayonets, so oblivious to machine guns, so innocent in its mimicry and stupidity, lead the world down a path unimaginable in its catastrophe, then on to the madness of bloodlust and revenge. Bismarck, the monument’s real creator, now seems such a smaller than life figure. Bigger than life is the Holocaust memorial, an abstract cemetery of stones at the other end of the boulevard, just to the right of the Brandenburg Gate, occupying nearly as much real estate as the Reichstag itself.

Of course, Germany being Germany, the card on out breakfast table does suggest a kind of social engineering, or at least some transcendent coordination. Make a friend: it is something Absolute Mind recommends, like an Audi blinking you to an oil change. Yet the whole city seems to be saying, in every corner, You didn’t expect this, did you? Can you not see how we reject what was monumental here? Can you see how modern we’ve become, how we see that we preserve our past only by holding it at arm’s length, using it as material for the individual’s muse—that we, better than anyone but the Jews, perhaps, know where things lead when you fail to put up a thousand little barriers against what comes naturally.

I AM THINKING of Israel’s Independence Day in Berlin, at breakfast, though not for the obvious reasons.  Actually, no other city in the world feels like the new Berlin to me as much as the newer Tel Aviv. No other city shares so deeply in a common ambition and common horror out of which each newness is sprung.

Externally, Israel’s great city is renovating itself in much the same way as Berlin, taking socialist blocs and fitting them out for a bourgeois revolution.  And Tel Aviv’s irresistibly cosmopolitan nature impresses itself on the senses in much the same way: Russian theater, Arab melodies, Thai food, American everything: the place ostensibly closed to Arabs yet where gay Arabs find a refuge. But at a deeper level, the old modernism of the new Tel Aviv, what we used to call Zionism, seems to me a precursor of this rehabilitated German way of looking at the nation. Independence Day always makes me wish Israelis had not forgotten this modernism, even if Tel Aviv unselfconsciously practices it.

To have a Jewish state meant a place where Jews could breathe in what was best in the cultures of Europe and breathe out what was enduring, or innovative, in a civilization of ancestors, Rabbis, and dissenters. It would be a nation of people holding “the people” at arms’ length. It would be egalitarian, internationalist, progressive. Otherwise, why not just go to America? Then again, ironically, were it not for this transcendent dream, would Zionists not have taken Arab objections to dispossession more seriously?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mofaz's Permission

Should Mahmud Abbas tell Bibi Netanyahu that he would not engage with the Israeli government unless every minister was, individually, prepared to endorse a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, renounce the use of force in the occupied territory, renounce settlement, oh, and represent a faction with no civilian blood on its hands?  It would be a small coalition, without Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, National Union, and half of the Likud. Secretary Clinton, so far, is striking the right note.

Yesterday, on Israeli radio, there was report that Shaul Mofaz, the former Chief of Staff and Kadima's Number Two--the Chairman, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and former Defense Minister to boot--told Yediot's Nahum Barnea in a soon to be published interview that Palestine's unity government is an opportunity that cannot be missed. Watch this story. Mofaz may well give the Israeli center, and the whole of the Western diplomatic community, permission to support Abbas's efforts to make unity work--perhaps even give Palestinian democracy the respect it deserves.

Note: I'm going to be traveling for a couple of weeks and will be blogging haphazardly. This is probably a good time to sign up for email delivery of the blog. New Yorkers: I'll be appearing at YIVO on the evening of May 18 on a panel honoring Philip Roth. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Palestinian Politics: Getting Interesting

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project revealed that among six predominantly Islamic countries, Muslims in the Palestinian territories "voiced the most support for the assassinated al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden." Something like a third of respondents admired him and trusted that he "would do the right thing in world affairs."

Yesterday, also, Hamas officials in Gaza condemned the killing of bin Laden, and Ismail Haniya, the leader of the Hamas government about to sign a unity deal with Fatah, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction.” PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad strongly condemned bin Laden and applauded his death. But credible reports suggest Fayyad, among every Israeli's favorite Palestinians, will likely be ousted from the prime minister's job as a consequence of the deal.

It is hard to imagine more perfect evidence for Netanyahu's case that Israel has no partner; that the unity deal should result in the West's boycott of the Palestinian government; and that continuing the war on terror means strengthening Israel's hand in dealing with the territories. And just to show it is not afraid to lead, Netanyahu's government, led by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, announced that Israel has suspended the routine transfer of customs and VAT paid by Palestinians to the PA, some $88, or about 70 percent of PA revenues.

IT IS DANGEROUS to ignore this evidence. It is even more dangerous to ignore mitigating evidence. The Pew poll actually shows a precipitous drop in support for bin Laden since the dark days of the Intifada, when his popularity ran as high as 70 percent. Hamas's antipathy for Fayyad may be great; but even Fatah moderates from Gaza like former minister Sufian Abu Zaida--whom Hamas physically attacked a couple of years ago--openly support the unity deal (he reiterated this at a J Street panel in Jerusalem we appeared on last Saturday night); and Abu Zaida, too, expressed skepticism about Fayyad's legitimacy, since the prime minister was appointed by Abbas and has never been elected.

At the same time, Fayyad's popularity far outstrips that of Hamas. Pollster Faysal Awartani said 58 percent of respondents now say they want Fayyad to be head of the new government.  Fayyad himself insists that suspending payments should not stop unity. Abbas (as I wrote in my last post), would easily beat Hamas's Haniya. By the way, about a third of Israelis would like to see Rabin's assassin freed; the power of fanatic and orthodox nationalists in various Israeli governments has not prevented the world, or even Palestinians, from dealing with them.

The point is that Palestinian politics is on the verge of becoming electoral politics, which means on the verge of becoming interesting. Fatah is now the party of state building, Hamas, the party of resistance to occupation. Hamas has committed (or endorsed) terrorist acts and is still an unlikely partner for peacemaking. But it is a faction representing residual hatred and desperate poverty, not the secret psyche of every Palestinian. Thwart state building and economic growth as Steinitz is doing--increase Palestine's sense of isolation--and Hamas will gain ground, in spite of the drop in its standing. But show Palestinians that a state is imminent, and that Hamas has been compelled by Abbas's success in recruiting support from global powers, and Fatah gains.

Tomorrow we learn the details of the agreement and probably a good deal of the government's composition. Expect the finance ministry to remain in Fatah's hands, if not in Fayyad's. In any case, now, more than ever, Abbas's hands need to be strengthened. I trust Clinton's State Department understands this, even if Netanyahu's cabinet has other ideas.