NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: The rise of Israeli religious nationalism

Worried about apartheid? Too late, Mr Olmert, it’s already here

In one of her last acts as US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice had Nelson Mandela’s name removed from America’s terrorist watch list. Many Americans were shocked to learn that their favourite former political prisoner had ever been deemed a terrorist. That is because they had forgotten, or were too young to know, that the US under Ronald Reagan – like Britain under Margaret Thatcher – had backed the apartheid regime in South Africa as a Cold War ally.

Isolating South Africa through sanctions and boycotts was certainly not the choice of Mrs Thatcher or Mr Reagan, but their governments were eventually forced to take action by the outrage of their own electorates at the suffering apartheid inflicted. The international anti-apartheid movement began at the grassroots among religious, community and labour groups, but it grew sufficiently powerful to force governments to distance themselves from a regime that they had viewed sympathetically. And that is a lesson that terrifies Israel’s leaders. [continued…]

A religious war in Israel’s army

The publication late last week of eyewitness accounts by Israeli soldiers alleging acute mistreatment of Palestinian civilians in the recent Gaza fighting highlights a debate here about the rules of war. But it also exposes something else: the clash between secular liberals and religious nationalists for control over the army and society.

Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When a new Israeli government is formed, the campaign to focus the world’s attention on the Iranian nuclear threat will shift into overdrive.

Barack Obama’s Nowruz message might have struck a conciliatory tone, but so far there are no clear indications that his administration has enough backbone or will to resist Israeli pressure on Iran.

But as the drumbeat grows louder, there is another threat that actually seems much less speculative, more imminent and in many ways much more dangerous than Iran’s nuclear ambitions: the threat that Israel’s nuclear arsenal will come under the control of Israeli religious nationalists who are fighting a religious war.

Israeli soldier says military Rabbis framed Gaza mission as religious

A soldier involved in Israel’s recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip said in published reports Friday that the military’s rabbinical staff distributed material characterizing the operation as a religious mission to “get rid of the gentiles who disturb us from conquering the holy land.”

In the second day of published accounts from soldiers critical of the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, the daily Maariv ran excerpts of an interview with a squad commander in Israel’s Givati Brigade. He was identified only by his first name, given as Rahm.

The daily quoted him as saying that the Gaza operation from the beginning had “the feeling of almost a religious mission.” [continued…]

Dead Palestinian babies and bombed mosques – IDF fashion 2009

The office at the Adiv fabric-printing shop in south Tel Aviv handles a constant stream of customers, many of them soldiers in uniform, who come to order custom clothing featuring their unit’s insignia, usually accompanied by a slogan and drawing of their choosing. Elsewhere on the premises, the sketches are turned into plates used for imprinting the ordered items, mainly T-shirts and baseball caps, but also hoodies, fleece jackets and pants. A young Arab man from Jaffa supervises the workers who imprint the words and pictures, and afterward hands over the finished product.

Dead babies, mothers weeping on their children’s graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques – these are a few examples of the images Israel Defense Forces soldiers design these days to print on shirts they order to mark the end of training, or of field duty. The slogans accompanying the drawings are not exactly anemic either: A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription “Better use Durex,” next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A sharpshooter’s T-shirt from the Givati Brigade’s Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull’s-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, “1 shot, 2 kills.” A “graduation” shirt for those who have completed another snipers course depicts a Palestinian baby, who grows into a combative boy and then an armed adult, with the inscription, “No matter how it begins, we’ll put an end to it.” [continued…]

‘Shooting and crying’

“At first the specified action was to go into a house. We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified – we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?

“From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault … [continued…]

Obama’s YouTube diplomacy

Continuing a practice that President George HW Bush began in 1992, President Barack Obama issued a Nowruz message marking the traditional Iranian new year holiday. In a break from former presidents, Mr Obama addressed his message to both the Iranian people and the Islamic republic’s leaders and delivered his statement by video with Farsi subtitles making it accessible to many of Iran’s 23 million internet users. [continued…]

Did Israel intentionally undermine Obama’s outreach to Iran?

Yesterday, when the New York Times inexplicably gave Shimon Peres’ insulting message to Iran equal play with President Obama”s, I thought it might be no coincidence.

Peres, who is an uberhawk on Iran, suddenly sends “greetings” to the Iranian people urging them to rise up against their government at the same moment that Obama respectfully addressed the “Islamic Republic of Iran” with the most conciliatory US message in decades. Coincidence? Maybe.

Of course, the Iranians would not view it that way. They would see America and Israel playing “good cop, bad cop,” diminishing the effect of Obama’s remarkable overture.

I hear that the White House is furious. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The White House has acknowledged that “we notified allies about our message last evening.” But note: Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did not reveal when this notification was made.

The idea that Shimon Peres’ message to Iran was wholly independent of Obama’s seems highly implausible. That is to say, whether or not the White House was given any indication about what Peres would say, the Israelis most likely received notice not merely of the fact that Obama would speak but also the content of his message. Not only that, but they were also given notice with sufficient time to prepare their own message. Coordination does not have to have risen to the level of mutual agreement about each president’s message, but the idea the Obama got blindsided seems, at least to me, to be a bit of a stretch.

If however that’s really what happened then the White House needs to get that story out a bit more forcefully (more than a rumor that they were furious). It would be useful in exposing the fact that the two government’s interests do not perfectly coincide.

Do they want that to be understood or are they content to sustain the myth that Israel and the US have some kind of immutable alignment?

Don’t buy the chirpy forecasts

The good news from our historical study of eight centuries of international financial crises is that, so far, they have all ended. And we confidently predict this one will end, too. We are just not quite so sure it will be nearly as soon as the chirpy forecasts coming from policymakers around the globe. The U.S. administration, for example, is now predicting that growth will renew in the latter part of this year and continue at a brisk pace of 4 percent for several years thereafter. Is this a fact-based forecast or wishful thinking?

A careful look at the international evidence on severe banking crises suggests a far more cautious assessment. The recessions that follow in the wake of big financial crises tend to last far longer than normal downturns, and to cause considerably more damage. If the United States follows the norm of recent crises, as it has until now, output may take four years to return to its pre-crisis level. Unemployment will continue to rise for three more years, reaching 11–12 percent in 2011.

The news on housing prices and the stock market is arguably a little better, mainly because there has been so much damage already. The typical fall in inflation-adjusted stock prices is 55 percent, a benchmark the U.S. has more or less achieved. The typical decline in housing prices is 36 percent. According to some indicators, inflation-adjusted housing prices have already fallen roughly 30 percent. The bad news is that these down price cycles typically last for several years. So, even if the big hit on stocks and house prices has come already, the bottom might not be reached until the end of 2010. [continued…]

Despair over financial policy

The Geithner plan has now been leaked in detail. It’s exactly the plan that was widely analyzed — and found wanting — a couple of weeks ago. The zombie ideas have won.

The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system — that what we’re facing is the equivalent of a run on an essentially sound bank. As Tim Duy put it, there are no bad assets, only misunderstood assets. And if we get investors to understand that toxic waste is really, truly worth much more than anyone is willing to pay for it, all our problems will be solved.

To this end the plan proposes to create funds in which private investors put in a small amount of their own money, and in return get large, non-recourse loans from the taxpayer, with which to buy bad — I mean misunderstood — assets. This is supposed to lead to fair prices because the funds will engage in competitive bidding.

But it’s immediately obvious, if you think about it, that these funds will have skewed incentives. In effect, Treasury will be creating — deliberately! — the functional equivalent of Texas S&Ls in the 1980s: financial operations with very little capital but lots of government-guaranteed liabilities. For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem.

Or to put it another way, Treasury has decided that what we have is nothing but a confidence problem, which it proposes to cure by creating massive moral hazard. [continued…]

Obama told us to speak out, but is he listening?

The president is getting what he asked for, but perhaps not what he had in mind. During the campaign, Barack Obama beckoned Americans to put aside their cynicism about politics and re-engage as active citizens. They are now doing so with red-hot anger. They are outraged by events and forcing their way into congressional affairs and behind closed doors where policy wonks discuss issues with cerebral civility. The president is now trapped between these two realms — the governing elites who decide things and the people who are governed. Which side is he on? If he does not choose wisely, the anger could devour his presidency.

The immediate impetus is the latest outrage from the financial sector. AIG, the failed insurance giant on government life support, proceeded to hand out $165 million in employee bonuses. Because Washington has pumped $170 billion into this zombie corporation, people quickly grasped that AIG was redistributing their tax money. On March 13, the White House sent out Larry Summers, the president’s economic adviser, to explain things. Government has no choice, Summers said, because this is a government of laws and we must honor contracts. On Monday, the president scrapped that line, hoping to dodge the outrage.

Something fundamental has been altered in American politics. Encouraged by Obama’s message of hope, agitated by darkening economic prospects, many people have thrown off sullen passivity and are trying to reclaim their role as citizens. This disturbs the routines of Washington but has great potential for restoring a functioning democracy. Timely intervention by the people could save the country from some truly bad ideas now circulating in Washington and on Wall Street. Ideas that could lead to the creation of a corporate state, legitimized by government and financed by everyone else. Once people understand the concept, expect a lot more outrage. [continued…]

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