Archives for June 2012

The Invisible War

Salon: Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” is already the darling of the festival circuit, a documentary that won the audience award at Sundance and critical praise for its sharp, skillful storytelling. But as compelling as his film is, the director of “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and the Catholic Church sex abuse documentary “Twist of Faith” doesn’t merely want to impress you. This is a movie that intends to reform the entire United States military. And it stands a very good chance of succeeding.

Inspired by Helen Benedict’s 2007 Salon story “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” “The Invisible War” is a gut-wrenching condemnation of the way the military has, across the board and in every branch, failed to protect its members from sexual assault – and then failed them again and again afterward. In a series of harrowing personal accounts, victims – mostly women but a sampling of men as well – recount the trauma of their rapes while in uniform and the sickening personal consequences they experienced for reporting them. It’s estimated that over 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted during their service – and some believe the real figure is even higher. It’s an epidemic.

As the film demonstrates, because the military handles sexual assault internally, a stunning number of victims are simply brushed off by their superiors. But even more outrageously, many of them have faced retribution. The subjects speak of having their careers ruined, of being punished for committing “adultery” with their married rapists, or being denied veterans’ benefits for the long-term consequences of the emotional and physical batterings they received.

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Assad’s future blurry as world powers sketch new Syria transition plan

Bloomberg reports: World powers agreed today on a plan for a Syrian transition government that doesn’t directly address the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

The parties altered a draft agreement proposed by Kofi Annan, the envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, after Russia objected to language that would prohibit Assad and members of his inner circle from being part of a transitional government. The document also added a Russia-backed provision opposing “further militarization of the conflict,” alluding to Arab nations’ shipments of arms to the opposition.

International efforts to mediate a peace deal have stumbled over whether Assad must leave power before a transition can begin. The communique from foreign ministers in Geneva — which declares a “firm timetable” for actions without any dates or deadlines — may draw scrutiny over whether the U.S. and allies France and the U.K yielded too much to get a transition “road map” embraced by Russia and China.

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Israel continues its effort to drag America into a war on Iran

From Jerusalem, David Ignatius writes: A popular new slogan making the rounds among government ministers here is that in dealing with Iran, Israel faces a decision between “bombing or the bomb.” In other words, if Israel doesn’t attack, Iran will eventually obtain nuclear weapons.

This stark choice sums up the mood among top officials of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: It’s clear that Israel’s military option is still very much on the table, despite the success of economic sanctions in forcing Iran into negotiations.

“It’s not a bluff, they’re serious about it,” says Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. A half-dozen other experts and officials made the same point in interviews last week: The world shouldn’t relax and assume that a showdown with Iran has been postponed until next year. Here, the alarm light is still flashing red.

Israeli leaders have been warning the Obama administration that the heat isn’t off for 2012. When a senior Israeli politician visited Washington recently and was advised that the mood was calmer than in the spring, the Israeli cautioned that the Netanyahu government hadn’t changed its position “one iota.”

The negotiations with Iran by the group of leading nations known as the “P5+1,” rather than easing Israel’s anxieties, may actually have deepened them. That’s not just because Netanyahu thinks the Iranians are stalling. He fears that even if negotiators won their demand that Iran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and export its stockpile of fuel already enriched to that level, this would still leave more than 6,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium that, within a year or less, could be augmented to bomb-grade material.

Netanyahu wants to turn back the Iranian nuclear clock, by shipping out all the enriched uranium. And if negotiations can’t achieve this, he may be ready to try by military means.

The numbers game on enrichment reveals a deeper difference: For President Obama, the trigger for military action would be a “breakout” decision by Iran’s supreme leader to go for a bomb, something he hasn’t yet done. For Netanyahu, the red line is preventing Iran from ever reaching “threshold” capability where it could contemplate a breakout. He isn’t comfortable with letting Tehran have the enrichment capability that could be used to make a bomb, even under a nominally peaceful program.

Netanyahu sees his country’s very existence at stake, and he’s prepared for Israel to go it alone because he’s unwilling to entrust the survival of the Jewish state to others.

As Halevy says, a war against Iran would be “an event that would affect the course of this century,” but when Ignatius says Netanyahu is prepared for Israel to go it alone, the columnist is merely parroting his sources.

If Israel really has the ability or intention to go it alone, what is it waiting for? Netanyahu’s red line of threshold capability has almost certainly already been reached. In spite of this, Israel threatens military action yet doesn’t act.

What Netanyahu can do is trigger a war that Americans must then fight. Israel’s war will then become America’s war for the simple reason that no one in Washington has the guts to let Israel do what it claims it can: go it alone.

When Halevy says that the threats of war are not a bluff, what he should really be saying is that Netanyahu is willing to start a war, but he’s not willing to accept responsibility for its consequences.

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Syria peace plan failure ‘risks wider regional conflict’

The Guardian reports: There will be grave consequences if crisis talks at the United Nations fail to agree on a political resolution to end the violence in Syria, Kofi Annan has warned.

The joint Arab league-UN envoy told delegates at the emergency meeting in Geneva, including the foreign ministers of the UN security council’s five permanent members and representatives from the European Union and Arab states, that history “will judge us all harshly if we prove incapable of taking the right path today”.

Annan’s warning was echoed by the British foreign secretary, William Hague, who said it would be a catastrophe if the meeting failed to agree on a peace plan.

Hopes had been raised in recent days that the conference at the UN’s Palais des Nations was the best opportunity to find a peaceful solution to an escalating conflict that has claimed more than 15,000 lives. However, US and Russia have remained divided over key issues.

Annan said the war in Syria risked spilling over into a wider regional conflict of “grave severity”.

“By being here today you suggest intention to show leadership, but can you follow through?” he asked the delegates.

Annan all but criticised the representatives of the international community for failing to halt the bloodshed, saying the crisis should never have reached this point.

“Either unite to secure your common interests or divide and surely fail in your own individual way. Without your unity, your common resolve and your action now … nobody can win and everyone will lose in some way.”

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West struggles to understand Russia’s Syria stance

Peter Apps writes: Western states trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are increasingly struggling to deal with, or even understand, Russia’s dogged support for him.

Arms deals, Russia’s naval base in Tartus and fear of Islamist militancy in a post-Assad Syria are all held up as potential explanations. But Russian officials and some others say that misses the wider point.

They say Moscow’s opposition to foreign-backed “regime change” reflects a fundamental disagreement with the West over sovereignty and the rights of states to deal with domestic instability by whatever means necessary.

“The Russian position can be explained by their hostility to any interference in the internal affairs of a country, especially in the current climate, because at home they have things to be worried about,” says Denis Bauchard, a former diplomat and expert on the Middle East at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI).

Time and time again, Western officials have confidently briefed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the brink of dumping his long-term ally, only to be disappointed.

On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and counterparts from other major powers are due to meet in Geneva.

Once again, diplomats from several Western countries were predicting a shift. For the first time, they said, Russia had agreed with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan and its requirement for a gradual transition of power.

But late on Thursday, it emerged that Russia had put forward amendments that the United States, Britain and France said were unacceptable.

At a Group of 20 summit in Mexico this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron was embarrassed after suggesting that Putin had agreed Assad should go, only to have Putin himself dismiss the idea.

French President Francois Hollande talked at length about the importance of winning Russia over, but had an awkward press conference with Putin in May having clearly failed to do so.

For every argument Hollande made before the assembled media, Putin had a counterargument. When Hollande asked if Russia would take Assad in exile, Putin replied that the Assad family had been invited to Paris much more often than to Moscow. While it is not clear that was true, Hollande still had to squirm.

Putin said the ousting of leaders did not necessarily lead to peace. He cited the case of Libya, where Moscow believes it was tricked by the West into supporting military intervention.

“Has it become safer there? Where are we moving? Is there an answer?” he asked.

Western states are still hoping that a series of military reverses for Assad will begin to tip the balance and force Putin to drop him. But it may not be that easy.

A death toll in Syria of well over 10,000 seems unlikely on its own to change Putin’s mind. Estimates vary widely of the number of dead in Chechnya – a conflict in which he was involved as prime minister and president – but often exceed 100,000. [Continue reading…]

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At Syria’s border, after months of waiting, the weapons arrive

The Guardian reports: The guerillas of northern Syria are waiting for another special delivery. When it comes, any day now, it will make the same journey as the two previous shipments that have made their way here, across crop fields worn brown by the sun, up a steep and ragged concrete road and into a decrepit police station that is fast becoming one of the Syrian revolution’s most important clearing houses.

Here in this tiny village, men from all over the country have sought refuge. Some have stayed just long enough to be fed and watered before making the last leg of their journey to the safety of Turkey. Others have made this town of 5,000 home, arriving with their families and military weapons that they donated to the rebel cause.

Until last month, scrimping and scrounging weapons from defectors was the only way to resupply a tired and outgunned rebel army. But that changed in May, something the guerilla leadership readily acknowledges.

“True the weapons came,” said one Free Syria Army commander, Abdul-Rahman Hallak, sitting in the old police station’s meeting room. “There have been around 5,000. That’s true too. But it is not enough to win a war.” [Continue reading…]

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Egypt: Morsi, SCAF and the revolutionary left

Hossam el-Hamalawy writes: As soon as the news broke last Sunday that Mohamed Morsi was officially declared Egypt’s first elected civilian president, I could hear loud happy chants and cheers in my street. The janitors in my neighborhood gathered around the corner in their galabiyas, jumping up and down, in the same fashion I usually see them when the Egyptian national football team scores a goal in some match. Their children, in bare feet, were running up and down the street, chasing posh cars that passed by, chanting “Morsi! Morsi!”. While, fellow citizens in “working class districts in Cairo celebrate[d]… with fireworks, marches, dancing and sweets amid hopes of a brighter future,” reported my friend Lina el-Wardani of Ahram Online.

For many, including those who boycotted the elections or nullified their votes, for sure there was a sigh of relief. I, as well as millions of other Egyptians, were certain the ruling military junta will rig the vote in favor of General Ahmad Shafiq, who was to be crowned as Egypt’s next president. I am happy we turned out to be wrong.

Although SCAF mobilized Mubarak’s National Democratic Party network in favor of Shafiq, and attempted to directly intervene to rig the final count, their efforts failed. Some activists are circulating conspiracy theories along the lines of Morsi being the “real SCAF candidate” or that he won by a deal–which I disagree with. The blunt fact is, although SCAF is in still in control, they might not be as confident and powerful as most revolutionaries think.

The majority of those who are cheering the electoral results are not necessarily happy about Morsi’s victory, as much as they are relieved that Shafiq, the representative of the SCAF-backed counterrevolution is not in office.

Shafiq’s victory could have meant a wide level of demoralization among section of the people to see the regime’s loyal man coming back in power, with full force and vengeance. For example, a comrade in Assuit spoke to me in details before the second round about how former State Security officers in his town were sending messages to activists: “Wait till Shafiq gets inaugurated you sons of X#$%, you’ll disappear the following day.” Similar threats were made against activists in other provinces. Remnants of the old regime had felt confident to reappear once again. Shafiq’s loss caused mass demoralization and disarray among their ranks.

The Muslim Brothers have put themselves in a critical position now. Some on the left and in the liberal circles are more than happy to label the Brotherhood as a “fascist” organization and “just another face of Mubarak’s regime.” This social analysis of the movement is incorrect and will entail, in my view, wrong political positions to be taken vis a vis the Islamists. [Continue reading…]

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The truth about the Fast and Furious scandal

Fortune reports: In the annals of impossible assignments, Dave Voth’s ranked high. In 2009 the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives promoted Voth to lead Phoenix Group VII, one of seven new ATF groups along the Southwest border tasked with stopping guns from being trafficked into Mexico’s vicious drug war.

Some call it the “parade of ants”; others the “river of iron.” The Mexican government has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the U.S. into Mexico. The ATF is hobbled in its effort to stop this flow. No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking, so agents must build cases using a patchwork of often toothless laws. For six years, due to Beltway politics, the bureau has gone without permanent leadership, neutered in its fight for funding and authority. The National Rifle Association has so successfully opposed a comprehensive electronic database of gun sales that the ATF’s congressional appropriation explicitly prohibits establishing one.

Voth, 39, was a good choice for a Sisyphean task. Strapping and sandy-haired, the former Marine is cool-headed and punctilious to a fault. In 2009 the ATF named him outstanding law-enforcement employee of the year for dismantling two violent street gangs in Minneapolis. He was the “hardest working federal agent I’ve come across,” says John Biederman, a sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department. But as Voth left to become the group supervisor of Phoenix Group VII, a friend warned him: “You’re destined to fail.”

Voth’s mandate was to stop gun traffickers in Arizona, the state ranked by the gun-control advocacy group Legal Community Against Violence as having the nation’s “weakest gun violence prevention laws.” Just 200 miles from Mexico, which prohibits gun sales, the Phoenix area is home to 853 federally licensed firearms dealers. Billboards advertise volume discounts for multiple purchases.

Customers can legally buy as many weapons as they want in Arizona as long as they’re 18 or older and pass a criminal background check. There are no waiting periods and no need for permits, and buyers are allowed to resell the guns. “In Arizona,” says Voth, “someone buying three guns is like someone buying a sandwich.”

By 2009 the Sinaloa drug cartel had made Phoenix its gun supermarket and recruited young Americans as its designated shoppers or straw purchasers. Voth and his agents began investigating a group of buyers, some not even old enough to buy beer, whose members were plunking down as much as $20,000 in cash to purchase up to 20 semiautomatics at a time, and then delivering the weapons to others.

The agents faced numerous obstacles in what they dubbed the Fast and Furious case. (They named it after the street-racing movie because the suspects drag raced cars together.) Their greatest difficulty by far, however, was convincing prosecutors that they had sufficient grounds to seize guns and arrest straw purchasers. By June 2010 the agents had sent the U.S. Attorney’s office a list of 31 suspects they wanted to arrest, with 46 pages outlining their illegal acts. But for the next seven months prosecutors did not indict a single suspect.

On Dec. 14, 2010, a tragic event rewrote the narrative of the investigation. In a remote stretch of Peck Canyon, Ariz., Mexican bandits attacked an elite U.S. Border Patrol unit and killed an agent named Brian Terry. The attackers fled, leaving behind two semiautomatic rifles. A trace of the guns’ serial numbers revealed that the weapons had been purchased 11 months earlier at a Phoenix-area gun store by a Fast and Furious suspect.

Ten weeks later, an ATF agent named John Dodson, whom Voth had supervised, made startling allegations on the CBS Evening News. He charged that his supervisors had intentionally allowed American firearms to be trafficked — a tactic known as “walking guns” — to Mexican drug cartels. Dodson claimed that supervisors repeatedly ordered him not to seize weapons because they wanted to track the guns into the hands of criminal ringleaders. The program showed internal e-mails from Voth, which purportedly revealed agents locked in a dispute over the deadly strategy. The guns permitted to flow to criminals, the program charged, played a role in Terry’s death.

After the CBS broadcast, Fast and Furious erupted as a major scandal for the Obama administration. The story has become a fixture on Fox News and the subject of numerous reports in media outlets from CNN to the New York Times. The furor has prompted repeated congressional hearings — with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifying multiple times — dueling reports from congressional committees, and an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general. It has led to the resignations of the acting ATF chief, the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, and his chief criminal prosecutor.

Conservatives have pummeled the Obama administration, and especially Holder, for more than a year. “Who authorized this program that was so felony stupid that it got people killed?” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, demanded to know in a hearing in June 2011. He has charged the Justice Department, which oversees the ATF, with having “blood on their hands.” Issa and more than 100 other Republican members of Congress have demanded Holder’s resignation.

The conflict has escalated dramatically in the past ten days. On June 20, in a day of political brinkmanship, Issa’s committee voted along party lines, 23 to 17, to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for allegedly failing to turn over certain subpoenaed documents, which the Justice Department contended could not be released because they related to ongoing criminal investigations. The vote came hours after President Obama asserted executive privilege to block the release of the documents. Holder now faces a vote by the full House of Representatives this week on the contempt motion (though negotiations over the documents continue). Assuming a vote occurs, it will be the first against an attorney general in U.S. history.

As political pressure has mounted, ATF and Justice Department officials have reversed themselves. After initially supporting Group VII agents and denying the allegations, they have since agreed that the ATF purposefully chose not to interdict guns it lawfully could have seized. Holder testified in December that “the use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable, and it must never happen again.”

There’s the rub.

Quite simply, there’s a fundamental misconception at the heart of the Fast and Furious scandal. Nobody disputes that suspected straw purchasers under surveillance by the ATF repeatedly bought guns that eventually fell into criminal hands. Issa and others charge that the ATF intentionally allowed guns to walk as an operational tactic. But five law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious tell Fortune that the ATF had no such tactic. They insist they never purposefully allowed guns to be illegally trafficked. Just the opposite: They say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.

Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies. Fortune reviewed more than 2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviewed 39 people, including seven law-enforcement agents with direct knowledge of the case. Several, including Voth, are speaking out for the first time.

How Fast and Furious reached the headlines is a strange and unsettling saga, one that reveals a lot about politics and media today. It’s a story that starts with a grudge, specifically Dodson’s anger at Voth. After the terrible murder of agent Terry, Dodson made complaints that were then amplified, first by right-wing bloggers, then by CBS. Rep. Issa and other politicians then seized those elements to score points against the Obama administration, which, for its part, has capitulated in an apparent effort to avoid a rhetorical battle over gun control in the run-up to the presidential election. [Continue reading…]

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Video: The Mexican media scandal

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How a lone grad student scooped the government and what it means for your online privacy

By Peter Maass, ProPublica, June 28, 2012

June 28: This story has been corrected.

This story was co-published with Wired.

Jonathan Mayer had a hunch.

A gifted computer scientist, Mayer suspected that online advertisers might be getting around browser settings that are designed to block tracking devices known as cookies. If his instinct was right, advertisers were following people as they moved from one website to another even though their browsers were configured to prevent this sort of digital shadowing. Working long hours at his office, Mayer ran a series of clever tests in which he purchased ads that acted as sniffers for the sort of unauthorized cookies he was looking for. He hit the jackpot, unearthing one of the biggest privacy scandals of the past year: Google was secretly planting cookies on a vast number of iPhone browsers. Mayer thinks millions of iPhones were targeted by Google.

This is precisely the type of privacy violation the Federal Trade Commission aims to protect consumers from, and Google, which claims the cookies were not planted in an unethical way, now reportedly faces a fine of more than $10 million. But the FTC didn’t discover the violation. Mayer is a 25-year-old student working on law and computer science degrees at Stanford University. He shoehorned his sleuthing between classes and homework, working from an office he shares in the Gates Computer Science Building with students from New Zealand and Hong Kong. He doesn’t get paid for his work and he doesn’t get much rest.

If it seems odd that a federal regulator was scooped by a sleep-deprived student, get used to it, because the federal government is often the last to know about digital invasions of your privacy. The largest privacy scandal of the past year, also involving Google, wasn’t discovered by federal regulators, either. A privacy official in Germany forced Google to hand over the hard drives of cars equipped with 360-degree digital cameras that were taking pictures for its Street View program. The Germans discovered that Google wasn’t just shooting photos: The cars downloaded a panoply of sensitive data, including emails and passwords, from open Wi-Fi networks. Google had secretly done the same in the United States, but the FTC, as well as the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees broadcast issues, had no idea until the Germans figured it out.

Nearly every day, and often several times a day, there is fresh news of privacy invasions as companies hone their ability to imperceptibly assemble a vast amount of data about anyone with a smartphone, laptop or credit card. Retailers, search engines, social media sites, news organizations 2014 all want to know as much as they can about their visitors and users so that ads can be targeted as precisely as possible. But data mining, which has become central to the corporate bottom line, can be downright creepy, with companies knowing what you search for, what you buy, which websites you visit, how long you browse 2014 and more. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Target realized a teenage customer was pregnant before her father knew; the firm identifies first-term pregnancies through, among other things, purchases of scent-free products. It’s akin to someone rifling through your wallet, closet or medicine cabinet, but in the digital sphere no one picks your pocket or breaks into your house. The tracking is done mostly without your knowledge and, in many cases, despite your attempts to stop it, as Mayer discovered.

The FTC is the lead agency in the government’s effort to ensure that companies do not cross the still-hazy border between acceptable and unacceptable data collection. But the agency’s ambitions are clipped by a lack of both funding and legal authority, reflecting a broader uncertainty about the role government should play in what is arguably America’s most promising new industry. Companies like Facebook and Google are global brands for which data mining is at the core of present and future profits. How far should they go? Current laws provide few limits, mainly banning data collection from children under 13 and prohibiting the sale of personal medical data. Beyond that, it’s a digital mosh pit, and it’s likely to remain that way because more regulation tends to be regarded by politicians in both parties as meaning fewer jobs. Students will probably continue to beat the FTC to the punch: The agency just has one privacy technologist working in its Division of Privacy and Identity Protection and one in the Division of Financial Practices. “I don’t think it’s controversial to note that they seem to be understaffed,” Mayer said in a phone interview between classes. “I think that’s pretty clear.”

This isn’t the usual sort of story about regulation watered down by intimate ties between government officials and the industry they oversee. Unlike the U.S. Minerals Management Service, where not long ago a number of officials were found to have shared drugs and had sex with representatives of the oil and gas industry, key FTC officials hired by the Obama administration are privacy hawks who worked previously for consumer-rights groups like Public Citizen and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Under Chairman Jon Liebowitz, a Democrat appointed to the FTC in 2004 and tapped as chairman by President Obama in 2009, the FTC has pushed boundaries; its first privacy technologist, hired shortly after Liebowitz became chairman, was a semifamous activist who made a name for himself by printing fake boarding passes to draw attention to airline security lapses (the FBI, which raided his house, was not pleased). The agency is working with the tech industry to create and voluntarily adopt a Do Not Track option, so that consumers can avoid some intrusive web tracking by advertising firms. And it issued a report this year that called for new legislation to define what data miners can and cannot do.

Yet the FTC is ill-equipped to find out, on its own, what companies like Google and Facebook are doing behind the scenes. For instance, ProPublica discovered that the FTC’s Privacy and Identity Protection technologist has a digital hand tied behind his back because the computer in his office has security filters that restrict access to key websites. While Mayer has an ultrafast Internet connection, top-of-the-line computer, an office chair he loves and tasty lunches for free (“Stanford students do not want in any way,” he notes), the FTC technologist uses his personal laptop and, because there is no Wi-Fi at the agency, connects to the Internet by tethering it to his iPhone. He browses the Web at cellphone speed. There are no free lunches.

[Read more…]

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Israel’s preference for a no-state solution

Israel does no more than pay lip service to the two-state solution as it steadily appropriates more and more Palestinian land, writes Akiva Eldar.

In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government. . . . If we get a guarantee of demilitarization, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state.

—Benjamin Netanyahu, June 14, 2009

Seemingly, it was a historic moment. The prime minister of Israel and leader of the Likud Party publicly embraced the two-state solution. A short while into his second term in office, ten days after the newly inaugurated president of the United States promised in Cairo to “personally pursue this outcome,” Netanyahu declared an about-face, shifting from the traditional course he and his political camp had once pursued.

Thus, more than ninety years after the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, it appeared the successors of the founders of Zionism were moving toward a historic compromise to resolve the conflict embedded in that intentionally vague statement. It is the conflict between “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Now it appeared that this dispute, which for decades had split Israeli society into rival political camps, could be resolved. Forty-two years after the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, formerly held by Jordan and Egypt, a right-wing prime minister declared his willingness to return these territories to the people living in them, as well as his consent for the establishment of a new, independent state of Palestine.

But almost immediately, other voices emerged questioning whether this solution—dividing the land into two independent, coexisting states—was still feasible; whether the “window of opportunity” that might have been available in the past had already closed for good; whether the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank had reached a point of no return, creating a new situation that did not allow for any partition; and whether the division of political powers within Israeli society had changed, making the dramatic move impossible. As Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, put it:

If the parties do not grasp the current opportunity, they should realize the implication is not merely slowing progress toward a two-state solution. Instead, we could be moving down the path toward a one-state reality, which would also move us further away from regional peace.

This article focuses on the Israeli side of this equation in part because the Palestinian leadership, as far back as 1988, made a strategic decision favoring the two-state solution, presented in the Algiers declaration of the Palestinian National Council. The Arab League, for its part, voted in favor of a peace initiative that would recognize the state of Israel and set the terms for a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Meanwhile, various bodies of the international community reasserted partition of the land as their formal policy. But Israel, which signed the Oslo accords nearly two decades ago, has been moving in a different direction. And Netanyahu’s stirring words of June 2009 now ring hollow.

Israel never overtly spurned a two-state solution involving land partition and a Palestinian state. But it never acknowledged that West Bank developments had rendered such a solution impossible. Facing a default reality in which a one-state solution seemed the only option, Israel chose a third way—the continuation of the status quo. This unspoken strategic decision has dictated its polices and tactics for the past decade, simultaneously safeguarding political negotiations as a framework for the future and tightening Israel’s control over the West Bank. In essence, a “peace process” that allegedly is meant to bring the occupation to an end and achieve a two-state solution has become a mechanism to perpetuate the conflict and preserve the status quo. [Continue reading…]

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The European atrocity you never heard about

R.M. Douglas writes: The screams that rang throughout the darkened cattle car crammed with deportees, as it jolted across the icy Polish countryside five nights before Christmas, were Dr. Loch’s only means of locating his patient. The doctor, formerly chief medical officer of a large urban hospital, now found himself clambering over piles of baggage, fellow passengers, and buckets used as toilets, only to find his path blocked by an old woman who ignored his request to move aside. On closer examination, he discovered that she had frozen to death.

Finally he located the source of the screams, a pregnant woman who had gone into premature labor and was hemorrhaging profusely. When he attempted to move her from where she lay into a more comfortable position, he found that “she was frozen to the floor with her own blood.” Other than temporarily stanching the bleeding, Loch was unable to do anything to help her, and he never learned whether she had lived or died. When the train made its first stop, after more than four days in transit, 16 frost-covered corpses were pulled from the wagons before the remaining deportees were put back on board to continue their journey. A further 42 passengers would later succumb to the effects of their ordeal, among them Loch’s wife.

During the Second World War, tragic scenes like those were commonplace, as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin moved around entire populations like pieces on a chessboard, seeking to reshape the demographic profile of Europe according to their own preferences. What was different about the deportation of Loch and his fellow passengers, however, was that it took place by order of the United States and Britain as well as the Soviet Union, nearly two years after the declaration of peace.

Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland. As The New York Times noted in December 1945, the number of people the Allies proposed to transfer in just a few months was about the same as the total number of all the immigrants admitted to the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. They were deposited among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could. The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people lost their lives in the course of the operation.

Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor (or, in the Allies’ cynical formulation, “reparations in kind”) in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. As Sir John Colville, formerly Winston Churchill’s private secretary, told his colleagues in the British Foreign Office in 1946, it was clear that “concentration camps and all they stand for did not come to an end with the defeat of Germany.” Ironically, no more than 100 or so miles away from the camps being put to this new use, the surviving Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies in the courtroom at Nuremberg on a bill of indictment that listed “deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population” under the heading of “crimes against humanity.”

By any measure, the postwar expulsions were a manmade disaster and one of the most significant examples of the mass violation of human rights in recent history. Yet although they occurred within living memory, in time of peace, and in the middle of the world’s most densely populated continent, they remain all but unknown outside Germany itself. On the rare occasions that they rate more than a footnote in European-history textbooks, they are commonly depicted as justified retribution for Nazi Germany’s wartime atrocities or a painful but necessary expedient to ensure the future peace of Europe. As the historian Richard J. Evans asserted in In Hitler’s Shadow (1989) the decision to purge the continent of its German-speaking minorities remains “defensible” in light of the Holocaust and has shown itself to be a successful experiment in “defusing ethnic antagonisms through the mass transfer of populations.”

Even at the time, not everyone agreed. George Orwell, an outspoken opponent of the expulsions, pointed out in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that the expression “transfer of population” was one of a number of euphemisms whose purpose was “largely the defense of the indefensible.” [Continue reading…]

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What would Rousseau make of our selfish age?

On the tricentenary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birth, Terry Eagleton writes: Much of what one might call the modern sensibility was this thinker’s creation. It is in Rousseau’s writing above all that history begins to turn from upper-class honour to middle-class humanitarianism. Pity, sympathy and compassion lie at the centre of his moral vision. Values associated with the feminine begin to infiltrate social existence as a whole, rather than being confined to the domestic sphere. Gentlemen begin to weep in public, while children are viewed as human beings in their own right rather than defective adults.

Above all, Rousseau is the explorer of that dark continent, the modern self. It is no surprise that he wrote one of the most magnificent autobiographies of all time, his Confessions. Personal experience starts to take on a significance it never had for Plato or Descartes. What matters now is less objective truth than truth-to-self – a passionate conviction that one’s identity is uniquely precious, and that expressing it as freely and richly as possible is a sacred duty. In this belief, Rousseau is a forerunner not only of the Romantics, but of the liberals, existentialists and spiritual individualists of modern times.

It is true that he seems to have held the view that no identity was more uniquely precious than his own. For all his cult of tenderness and affection, Rousseau was not the kind of man with whom one would share one’s picnic. He was the worst kind of hypochondriac – one who really is always ill – and that most dangerous of paranoiacs – one who really is persecuted. Even so, at the heart of an 18th-century Enlightenment devoted to reason and civilisation, this maverick intellectual spoke up for sentiment and nature. He was not, to be sure, as besotted by the notion of the noble savage as some have considered. But he was certainly a scourge of the idea of civilisation, which struck him for the most part as exploitative and corrupt.

In this, he was a notable precursor of Karl Marx. Private property, he wrote, brings war, poverty and class conflict in its wake. It converts “clever usurpation into inalienable right”. Most social order is a fraud perpetrated by the rich on the poor to protect their privileges. The law, he considered, generally backs the strong over the weak; justice is largely a weapon of violence and domination, while culture, science, the arts and religion are harnessed to the task of preserving the status quo. The institution of the state has “bound new fetters on the poor and given new powers to the rich”. For the benefit of a few ambitious men, he comments, “the human race has been subjected to labour, servitude and misery”. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s weak president poses no problem — yet — for the U.S.

Tony Karon writes: If Mohammed Morsi were really going to be the president of Egypt, Barack Obama’s administration might be a tad more alarmed than it actually is over the changes in Cairo.

The cruel truth, however, is that while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) will allow Mr Morsi the title and symbolic accoutrements of the presidency, the executive powers of that office have been usurped by the generals.

Mr Morsi will have no control of the budget, foreign policy, the armed forces, defence matters or national security. Not only has the junta claimed those powers for itself, it has also dissolved the democratically elected parliament and, effectively, the assembly tasked with writing a new constitution, claiming their powers.

The generals could opt to curtail Mr Morsi’s term once a new constitution has been tabled, while their allies in the judiciary might even pull the rug out from under him by reviving the old regime’s ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. In any case, Mr Morsi’s authority will be largely restricted to domestic matters, such as the economy, education and social policy – the subjects usually overseen, in a presidential system, by a prime minister.

The Obama administration publicly presses the generals to hand power to elected civilians, but that may be a largely pro-forma objection to the arrangements put in place by Scaf. Consider, after all, that the US response to the uprising that saw Hosni Mubarak forced out in February 2011 was to back a transfer of authority to General Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief. What they have with Scaf is not that different, at least not on core US concerns: that Egypt maintain the Camp David peace deal with Israel, and that it support, or at least not obstruct, US regional policy. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s Tantawi to remain defense minister — general

Reuters reports: Egypt’s armed forces chief will keep his post as defense minister in a new cabinet to be formed by President-elect Mohamed Mursi, a member of the military council said.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, who served as defense minister for two decades under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, will keep his post after Egypt’s first Islamist president takes over, Major-General Mohamed Assar said in a rare appearance on a talk show on privately-owned CBC television on Wednesday night.

“The (new) government will have a defense minister who is head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” he said.

Asked if this meant Tantawi would keep his defense portfolio, Assar said: “Exactly. What is wrong with that? He is the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the defense minister and the commander of the armed forces.”

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Syria’s widows: Hungry and homeless, but undefeated

The Guardian reports: With criminals and rebels helping them on their way, Syria’s army of refugees marches by night, in single file and silence, towards the Jordanian border. More than 140,000 desperate people, many of them women and children, have sought sanctuary from their neighbour since the uprising in their homeland began 13 months ago … and most now face an uncertain future.

Unlike Turkey, Jordan does not have a refugee camp and new arrivals are left to fend for themselves. They escape mostly “through the fence”, too frightened to leave Syria by its official borders.

For some this is because their documents were burned when the army torched their homes; for others it is because they are being hunted by the government because someone in their family is, or was, a fighter.

In Jordan most of the aid they are getting comes from local Islamic and Christian charities with limited resources. They get boxes of food from one group; another donates mattresses and kitchen sets. But it is not enough, and many wonder where the international NGOs are.

“They [the international aid agencies] have a lot of meetings,” said the head of one local charity well known to many refugees. “But I don’t see anything on the ground. There is all this talking and still the Syrians need beds and food and stoves.” Many live in buildings that were formerly abandoned and lack basic necessities like water and ventilation. Some of the poorest families are living in tents made from old jute sacks.

The border town of Mafraq in Jordan now hosts around 10,000 Syrian refugees, almost all from rebel neighbourhoods of the city of Homs, where the fighting has left many of the women widowed.

“Everyone from Homs is either dead or escaped,” said Miriam, a resident of the city who came to Mafraq four months ago. “Even the birds left.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkish generals look to life beyond prison bars

As Egypt’s military rulers consider how or if they manage a transition to civilian rule, they will no doubt be clearly mindful of the fate of their counterparts in Turkey.

Reuters reports: They once bestrode Turkey the masters of all they surveyed. Governments were swept aside, a prime minister dispatched to the gallows. Even in quiet times, from their staff headquarters opposite parliament, they commanded obedience.

Now around 20 percent of serving generals are in prison accused of plots against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, imaginatively codenamed Sledgehammer, Ergenekon, Blonde Girl, Moonlight.

So sudden has been this reversal the generals appear robbed of their voice. Erdogan has for now succeeded in his aim of taming the “Pashas”, officers, who disdain his Islamist roots. But as coup trials stutter over technical appeals, his position ranging over a demoralized military has its perils.

Turkey’s military guards the front line in the West’s campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and may yet be called upon to fight. Last Friday saw a Turkish warplane shot down by Syrian air defenses. Public sympathy may grow as fears of a war spread. An officer in jail is one less in the barracks

“We spend our time writing letters and books,” said one senior officer held at a military prison in the Hadimkoy neighborhood of Istanbul.

“To explain how the future of our country has been darkened, putting the screams of our souls down on paper,” he added in comments relayed to Reuters through his lawyer.

The resort to literature finds an ironic echo in the past.

Bulent Ecevit, a prime minister arrested and interned by the generals in a 1980 army coup, wrote poetry during his captivity, his verse mostly an avowal of love to his wife, Rahsan.

Erdogan himself fell foul of the military in the years before his election and served a jail term for publicly reciting a verse declaring “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets” – words considered by a court to be incitement to religious militancy.

Now the Pashas take their turn in court. Even the 94-year-old leader of the 1980 putsch, general Kenan Evren, is on trial over hangings, torture and disappearances.

“I never really thought that one day I would see this,” wrote Mehmet Ali Birand, author of books on Turkey’s military.

The main military prison at Hasdal in Istanbul is now so overcrowded that many serving officers were transferred to the smaller Hadimkoy, while retired officers are held at Silivri jail outside the city, where the biggest trials are being held. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Robert Wright talks Syria with Reem Maghribi (@ReemMaghribi)

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