January 5, 2009

I’ll start with the good news: I’m making good progress on my book. Learning to write a book while simultaneously trying to write one has been a long, hard, humbling process, but it’s finally starting to come into a kind of shape that resembles the image I’ve always had in my head of the finished product.

So far, two publishers have liked the first three chapters enough to want to read the next five and decide whether to buy rights to the book based on them. I’m working on the final revisions to the next five chapters now and hoping to have them done in the next two weeks. Then they’ll be off to my agent and the publishers, and I’ll be off to California.

Near the beginning of February, I’ll head to the Bay Area for about three weeks, mostly Palo Alto and San Francisco, to visit friends I haven’t spent time with in far too long. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to hang out while I’m there.

If you have any chapters of mine that you haven’t gotten around to reading yet, don’t worry — and don’t read them. Everything has been revised substantially, and after the next round of revisions are done, I’ll have all-new updated stuff. Let me know if you might like to read and offer feedback on the new stuff.

Now for the less fun part: I won’t say Happy New Year just yet. There’s still too much of 2008 clinging like tar to the present. Bush is still in office, making the same counterproductive and inhumane statements about the latest Israeli outrage in Gaza. Like in Lebanon in 2006, this assault on Gaza will only result in more carnage, suffering, rage, hatred, and hopelessness. The world is getting more and more fed up with Israel’s constant violations of international law (even if America is the last to cotton on), and peace today is farther away than it was a week ago, and becoming daily more distant.

You may ask, What about Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israeli civilian areas? These attacks are, of course, wrong. You won’t catch me justifying them on either moral or strategic grounds. However, it is disingenuous to condemn these attacks (which I do) without also condemning Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip for the past eighteen months. Israel likes to claim it pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, and it is true that the settlers were pulled out — the settlers that never should have been there in the first place, since their presence violated the Geneva Conventions.

But Israel still maintained control of Gaza’s borders (it has strong leverage over Egypt because of its strong ties to America and Egypt’s dependence on American aid, so this includes Gaza’s Egypt border), maritime borders, air space, imports, exports, water, electricity, whether humanitarian aid can get in or not, and who can enter or exit the strip. The only way Gazans have even survived is through a network of smuggling tunnels to Egypt. The tunnels have also been used for smuggling weapons — right or wrong, the only leverage Palestinians have against Israel, other than total surrender.

So did Hamas deliberately and unilaterally end the ceasefire with its rocket attacks against Israeli cities? Depends on whom you ask. The Israeli government says yes. The Palestinian people, and not just Hamas, say that the ceasefire was conditioned on Israel lifting the siege of Gaza and allowing in food and humanitarian supplies in sufficient quantities. The siege has already resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Gazan civilians because children couldn’t get food or clean water and sick people couldn’t get medicine or life-saving treatments because Israel restricted imports of humanitarian supplies and fuel for generators. Babies have died because Palestinians doctors couldn’t control the temperatures in incubators. Israel refused to lift the siege. Hamas fired its rockets.

It’s not right that Israeli civilians should die for political purposes. But it is equally wrong that Palestinian civilians should die because they elected a political party that Israel doesn’t like. Hamas could have been truly tested by Israel and the world if Israel had talked to them, offered them fair terms for a true ceasefire, including halting settlement expansion in the West Bank and allowing the Gaza Strip to begin recovering economically from the long occupation. If Hamas had refused that, then we could have said they were the main hindrance to peace in Israel/Palestine.

(Actually, Israel was besieging the Gaza Strip long before Hamas was elected — in my estimation, this is one of the biggest reasons why Hamas got elected there in the first place.)

Instead, the Israeli government has done nothing but try to overturn the democratic choice of the Palestinians by trying to destroy Hamas, first through a coup sponsored in part by the CIA that went horribly wrong, then by the siege, and now by bombing crowded civilian areas, killing and maiming hundreds, scores of them children whose only crime is to be Palestinian. This just never works. Ask Lebanon. Hezbollah is more powerful than ever after Israel’s assault in 2006 that killed hundreds of children and other civilians, and Hamas will probably be stronger after this. Certainly radical Islamists throughout the region will be stronger, and moderates will be weaker, after witnessing this latest round of pointless slaughter by a “Western democracy.” These kinds of things give both the West and democracy a bad name throughout the world.

Even the Bible only said an eye for an eye, not a hundred eyes plus scores of severed limbs plus destroyed universities, schools, homes, mosques, infrastructure, food, and medicine, for an eye. 550 Palestinians have been killed so far, at least 200 of them civilians, including many children. Hundreds of others are maimed for life. Whole neighborhoods are wiped out. And all for a threat that, despite Hamas’s best efforts, has only managed to kill four Israelis. Four is too many, of course. The death of one innocent is too many. But blowing up 550 people in the course of a week is beyond the pale, completely beyond the power of my words to describe. This video offers a fair summary.

There is no way this will bring peace.

As for the best and most realistic path forward from here, the very first step is that Israel halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. Few people in the West understand that the last scraps of land left for a future Palestinian state are daily eaten away by Israeli settlement expansion, and this more than anything else destroys Palestinian trust that Israelis are interested in a just peace. It makes them feel that Israelis are only interested in taking as much as they possibly can by force. This encourages Palestinians to respond in kind — with force.

I suppose that should actually be the second step. The first is to end the assault and siege on Gaza in exchange for Hamas stopping its rocket attacks. Hamas has expressed willingness to do this. The next is to exchange the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are being held without charge or trial. This, plus the halting of settlement expansion, could create a window of calm that everyone could be happy about. Once the window of calm is created, Israel can begin talking to the Arab League about the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which promises peace with Israel and the entire Arab world if Israel will withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, allow a Palestinian state to emerge with East Jerusalem as its capital, and negotiate a fair solution to the refugee problem from 1948.

Israel has a lot of reservations about both the idea of withdrawal and the idea of taking any responsibility for the 1948 refugees. But that’s why it’s called a negotiation. Israel should talk with the Arab world about this initiative. So far they refuse. If they can create the conditions for calm, as outlined above, and talk with the Arab world in good faith about a fair solution that respects everyone’s rights, I predict terrorism will lessen almost to nothing. Never quite to nothing — there will always be fanatics and holdouts and criminals in any society, including Israel’s — some settlers definitely won’t go quietly. But a very real possibility of decreasing all violence by 95% would, I think, be more than worth a little good faith and a few thousand acres of West Bank real estate that doesn’t belong to Israel in the first place. The problem is, the Israel government (apparently) has no faith that respecting these rights will lead to peace.

Let me tell you what won’t lead to peace. Attempting to defeat the Palestinians militarily, so that Israel can dictate the terms of a final settlement to serve their own perceived security needs instead of negotiating a just solution based on international law, won’t work. Maybe back in the days before international press, international law, and examples like Vietnam and Algeria, great powers could simply cow entire nations into total submission, or even quietly commit genocides. But that dog don’t hunt anymore. Even tiny Chechnya still hasn’t been fully pacified, and the “quiet” there now is the quiet of unimaginable devastation, not of peace. It is the “quiet” of the world failing in its moral duty, of increasingly radicalized Islamism, of ghettoes, disappearances, and torture, of Russia hollowing out its own soul and destroying the minds and bodies of its young soldiers. Is this the kind of “quiet” Israel wants?

Hamas has some realizing of its own to do as well. Namely, that terror against Israeli civilians is both morally wrong and strategically counterproductive. Every terror attack only turns Israeli public opinion further to the right.

But, after all, Israel is a modern democratic nation-state while Hamas is a stateless, besieged guerrilla organization. Forgive me if I hold Israel to a higher standard than Hamas, and for being gravely disappointed when Israel fails to live up even to that.

Feedback and questions about this analysis are welcome.

I should hasten to add that many in Israel are protesting this massacre, and they deserve our full support. The real enemy is not Israelis as such. It is a mentality that only the security of our race, our tribe, our nation matters, that our civilian deaths are a tragedy while theirs are just “collateral damage.” This mentality is making the world more dangerous by the day. We have the power to start setting things on a better course, and its time we start using it.

Here are a few relevant articles, for those who have interest.

The True Story Behind This War is Not the One Israel is Telling, Johann Hari, Huffington Post

Joe Scarborough getting smacked down by Zbigniew Brzezinski about his ignorance of the Middle East — an ignorance shared by most of the US (mostly through no fault of our own — our media is worse than useless when it comes to this conflict)

A webpage I made about the Lebanon Crisis in the summer of 2006, which has close parallels with what’s going on now.

A BBC article that debunks at least one instance of Israeli propaganda and includes a reference to the incredible fact that the Israeli government has banned all foreign correspondents from Gaza, despite a ruling from their own Supreme Court — a move that should make even the most authoritarian regime blush with shame.

A general article, from the Israeli press, about the habitual lies of the Israeli army, even to their own people.

Finally, a Vanity Fair article called The Gaza Bombshell. An excerpt:

“After failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory over Fatah in 2006, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. With confidential documents, corroborated by outraged former and current U.S. officials, the author reveals how President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.”

In other words, the violent coup in Gaza that Hamas won in the summer of 2007, and was roundly condemned for, was in fact touched off by our own Bush Administration. Heckuva job.

Sorry to bring this bad news to your inbox. But next year is a new year — I will consider the new year to start on January 20, because this is when we will finally start to see what this new year might bring. Obama campaigned as a centrist, so I won’t be shocked if he doesn’t immediately start governing as an outright progressive.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic. After living in Washington, and seeing from the inside how things work, I think that if I were President, I would do something similar to what Obama is doing — invite people from all sides to have a voice (I might not have chosen Rick Warren to speak at my inauguration, but I think I understand why he did — in any case, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt), put people on my cabinet who know how to get things done but who also understand that I am the Commander in Chief and they ultimately answer to me, and start building political capital by starting out on consensus issues. This will give him more room to maneuver when he starts making his big moves.

Of course, we can’t just sit back and watch and wait and see what his big moves will be. Politics is a delicate business, and American democracy, as it is set up now, encourages politicians to pay special attention to well-organized and wealthy constituencies, no matter how unreasonable, immoral, and/or harmful they are to real American interests and principles — i.e., yours and mine.

The questions is, as always — what can we do to change things? Pointing fingers, while useful to a degree, isn’t enough. As a friend of mine said, “If more people had rational thinking skills, there’s no way a couple of people with fucked up ideas could control everybody.”

There is hope, but only if we organize and educate. Most people in Washington are followers, not leaders. We may think sometimes, in our more cynical days, that politicians know everything and purposely, even gleefully, ignore human suffering. But mostly they are just preoccupied with trying desperately to keep their seats, because they know they can’t do anything else unless they take care of that first. It’s not necessarily because they’re bad people. It’s how the system works. Democracy is not something that we can sit back and expect it to work out well on its own. If we do that, the special interests win every time. I think a lot of politicians actually want to be able to take more principled stands, but if they don’t have an organized constituency behind them, they can get creamed by the special interests.

In order to make sure Obama’s moves are in the right direction, we have to make it clear how we feel about things, before they happen and as they happen, in as organized and respectful a way as we can. (When politicians hear name-calling and sarcasm, they tend to tune it out, no matter how good the message may be, and no matter how apt and clever the sarcasm. This is something I have to watch out for, too. I do enjoy me some sarcasm.) Obama’s people don’t seem nearly as intellectually small or shamelessly venal as Bush’s men. But they are, after all, politicians, which means they operate under certain constraints. Still, I think they can be swayed, to a significant extent, by rational argument and pressure from constituents. It’s our job to make those arguments and build that pressure.

Slavery wasn’t ended in a day, and women weren’t given the right to vote after asking once or twice or complaining about it amongst themselves. These things required generational shifts in consciousness and a lot of hard, humbling work. The wars and occupations today are clearly on the wrong side of history. But history doesn’t make itself, and politicians (usually) won’t often take principled stands on their own.

Ideally, politicians should be willing to give up their seats in order to stand up for, e.g., oppressed and helpless people being blown apart on international television. The tragedy of politics is that if one person does take a stand, he or she is (generally) simply replaced by someone with even fewer principles. In other words, principled acts aren’t rewarded by our system the way it’s set up now, so you can’t expect to see them pop up very often in our system. This is the nature of democracy in an apathetic, disorganized, generally uneducated population. (Uneducated when it comes to political, economic, and scientific matters, that is, and a lot of that can be blamed on our nearly-useless press.) So we see no action on Darfur, Tibet, Rwanda, Palestine, etc. We see our sons sent to die in Iraq for no reason, we see our pensions disappear on Wall Street, and then our tax dollars disappear there, too. We see our bridges collapse and our cities drown.

It won’t take much for Obama to be a better President that George W. Bush. But in order for him to live up to his potential as a leader, a healer, and a peacemaker, he needs us to have his back, and to nudge him (respectfully) in the right direction when he fails to have ours.

Well, I meant to make this email a super short one, and I totally failed. Apologies. But anyway, hopefully if you’re in the Bay Area, you at least read the part about me coming to California. Looking forward to seeing you there, if so.