Wednesday, November 26, 2014

identity trumps rationality

The Enlightenment concept of rationality and rational discourse, whereby all people should notionally be capable of participating in a common conversation about reality (or just about anything else) has been one of the most powerful ideas in history. Democracy in its modern form is based on it, because of the assumption that the citizenry can have that common conversation about how to arrange their society. It's the basis of modern diplomacy, assuming that people with differing interests will still be capable of finding enough common ground to work out some sort of compromise. It's at the foundation of modern economics, with the assumption that people have a generally common form of rationality which guides their actions. Not to mention the entire apparatus of the UN, international law, and international organizations in general, which all assume that with a spot of patience and good-will, different groups can cooperate for the general good, because that's the rational thing to do.

Sometimes there are indications this isn't all as sewed-up and finished as that, such as when enemies can't be cajoled out of being enemies, though the customary practice in such cases is to admonish one or both sides for being non-rational.

Sometime even really rational types have to admit that living the reality of what they're so convinced of is hard. The folks negotiating with the Iranians, for example, would have reached an agreement long ago if it were only a matter of a calm and patient rational discussion - which of course it isn't and probably never really was.

The events in Ferguson underline how shaky the entire philosophical underpinning of our modern assumptions are. Take this article from the NYT, simply as en example, not for its specifics. Most Americans are Americans. They speak English, and even though their vocabularies, accents and syntax can differ, it's all one language when you compare it with French, or Arabic. They're citizens of the same country. They all have the same president, the same foreign relations, and the same dollar. Yet they don't see the world in the same way. Their ethnic identity trumps the other ones. If that's the case among citizens of the same country, why would one ever assume that any conflict between folks of differing ethnic, cultural, historical or religious groupings, will by necessity be susceptible to working out commonalities?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Prime Minister and the Soldiers. A true story.

We went to present Prime Minster Netanyahu a commemorative volume of documents dedicated to Menachem Begin. With us was professor Arye Naor, who had been Begin’s Cabinet Secretary, and the prime minister was interested in hearing from him how Begin and managed the war in Lebanon, and to compare notes with his own methods in Protective Edge. From there it was but a short and natural step to a discussion about Begin’s agony at the deaths of IDF soldiers, and Netanyhau’s own difficulties in sending men to die.

It proved harder than he had expected. “I thought a lot about Begin this summer, and I understood him better”
“I spoke to each of the parents [of fallen soldiers]. If there were divorced, I spoke to each of them separately. It was very hard”.

There is a profound difference between hearing about bereaved families, and actually being in one: he knows about that difference, and understands it from personal experience. But to his surprise – this was my impression – sending soldiers to their death turned out also to be hard to a degree that one cannot appreciate in advance.

We had expected to spend ten minutes in his office. The ten minutes became fifteen, then twenty; the twenty minutes became thirty, and the prime minster spoke of the horrible price of war, and of the difficulty in deciding to pay it.

“The soldiers fear death. They try to strengthen each other, and try together to be strong as a group, but they are afraid.” He knows they are afraid, and that some of them will be killed, and he sends them. A ground operation, he knows what awaits them, what preparations the enemy has made: “Some of them will die. It is inevitable.”

“They must be sent only when there is no other choice left. They must be brought back at the very first possible moment, as soon as the immediate goal has been achieved. Later, once they’re out, we’ll see what happens, but first, get them out, out, out.”

“And every night I’d get home in the wee hours, and my wife would be awake, waiting for me. She spent the days visiting the bereaved families. I only spoke to them on the phone, with each and every one of them, but she sat at their side, and at night she would tell me about them. We must send them, and we must bring them back, and I didn’t appreciate how hard it would be. A leader who loses the understanding of how difficult it is, ought to lose his job.”

“I thought a lot about Begin this Summer.”

Beyond the window it was dark, gray, and raining.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A comment on the fate of the three kidnapped youths

On June 12th 2014 three Israeli youths - Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach - were kidnapped on their way home from school on the West Bank. Their bodies were discovered buried in a field 18 days later. In between Israel carried out a massive search for them, which included the arrest of some 400 Palestinians, most of them affiliated with Hamas. This operation was the backdrop for an escalation of rocket firing from Gaza. After the discovery of the bodies three Israelis allegedly kidnapped and murdered Muhamad alKhdeir of Jerusalem (they have been indicted and await trial).

Once the bodies were found it was clear they had been murdered almost immediately after the kidnapping. Since the event proceeded the Gaza war of this summer, many of Israel's usual enemies have made the claim that Israel knew the boys were dead all along, and cynically hid this fact to justify its broad action against Hamas on the West Bank, thus provoking Hamas to retaliate from Gaza, thus enabling Israel to kill lots of Palestinians, as is it likes to do.

Not every idiotic claim made by Israel's enemies needs to be responded to, and this one was never particularly convincing. Any kidnapping anywhere in the world could cause a manhunt - that's why the English language has a word for it - and certainly one in which the kidnappers belong to an organization known to engage in lethal kidnappings. Even had the Israelis known with certainty that the three youths wee dead, they still would have needed to find the bodies, and, at least as important, to apprehend the perpetrators before they acted again. Or even not before they acted again: simply as a matter of law and order. Isreal's enemies would have us accept that the correct response to a triple murder which is no longer a kidnapping, is to go home and go to sleep.

The other day, however, there was an interview in Makor Rishon with Brigadier General Tamir Yedaya, the ranking IDF officer in charge of the search. Makor Rishon, in case you've never heard of it, is the main newspaper of the settlers. It is published only in Hebrew, and only on paper. There's no online version. This is an interesting phenomenon, which I'm not going to get into today, but it should be said that it's a high-quality publication, easily the intellectual counterpart of the only other Israeli newspaper which aims at the intelligence of its public, Haaretz. And Makor Rishon is no more driven by its ideology than Haaretz is, so that it can be fun to read both.

Anyway. Since most readers won't have the ability to read Makor Rishon, here's a synopsis of that interview with the General. He was repeatedly asked what he knew, and when. He repeatedly explained that by the morning after the kidnapping he knew there was a high likelihood at least one of the youths was dead. Indeed, many of the efforts made by the searchers were in places only a dead body could be found in, such as the bottom of water reservoirs. And yet, he said, one is not three. And a high likelihood is not certainty. And into that crack of uncertainty you can insert large doses of hope. Throughout the days of the search, he says, he repeatedly had dreams of bringing home one, or perhaps two, of the youths. Even once the bodies had been discovered, he said, even as they were being exhumed, he still had a last sliver of hope that it wouldn't turn out to be three bodies they were exhuming, but fewer.

So what's the moral of the story? That human beings, and hence their actions, are complex. That we can operate on conflicting assumptions simultaneously. That knowledge and hope aren't always compatible, and yet they can co-exist. 

That Israel's enemies like to pretend that we're malicious cardboard figures, not real people. But then, that part you knew all along.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Civilian casualties in the war on the Islamists

Last night the US launched a new chapter in the war on the Islamists. This is a war which has been underway for many years, but on 9/11 2001 it leapfrogged to great prominence, and for the past 5 years or so folks have been pretending it isn't really happening. I have no reason to think it will be over anytime before the 2040s, but that's a topic for a different post.

I dislike war, and unlike most Western interlocutors my dislike comes from personal acquaintance, not theoretical articulation of lofty principles. Yet I recognize that war is not the worst thing that can happen. Allowing evil people to dominate helpless people is worse. Since the supply of evil people eager to harm the helpless is not running out, the use of violence against them, in self defense or otherwise, will continue to be necessary for quite a while. Centuries, probably, or longer.

So I'm not one to damn the Americans for bombing Islamist targets, in whatever country they need to be bombed in. (Simon Jenkins at The Guardian penned just such a damnation first thing after breakfast this morning). But I am interested in the way such wars are understood. Just recently for example, Israel had a small war with avowed and accredited Islamists with a long track record of murdering Israelis over a quarter of a century. In what was perhaps the single most important article of the summer, former AP journalist Matti Friedman described how the Western media always gets the Israel-Palestine story wrong. His main thesis is that the media sees the Israel-Palestine story as being almost exclusively about how powerful Israel harms weak Palestinians. Thus, reports on Israeli military action always include description of Palestinian suffering, and of course detailed enumeration of Palestinian civilians casualties, whether the reports are true or not,credible or not, likely or not.

America has been bombing Islamists this summer, too. I've seen hardly no reports on civilians casualties these attacks are causing, and certainly no detailed enumerations. But forget this summer. Lets look at today's reports about lest night's US attacks:

In the NYT, the only mention of possible civilian casualties is in the 21st (twenty first) paragraph of their report:
In addition to Islamic State bases in the provinces of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo, strikes also hit bases belonging to the Nusra Front further west, killing at least seven Nusra fighter and eight civilians, according to the Observatory, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts in Syria.
(Paragraphs 24-25 in the item about US attacks tell of how Israel has shot down a Syrian plane).

The BBC says the US strikes killed 70 Islamists (1st paragraph), and mentions the same 8 dead civilians in the 20th paragraph.

The top item in the Washington Post, which is long and meandering, doesn't mention numbers of people killed in the attacks at all. Not fighters, not civilians.

CNN has a long report, with nothing about casualties except a laconic note in the 11th paragraph that numbers are not known.

The Guardian's top report doesn't mention casualties of any sort.

I think these examples are sufficient to make my point. The media's knee-jerk response to Israeli force against Islamists is different than its knee-jerk response to American violence.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A quick rumination on Scotland and rationality

The Scotts are voting today to separate or not from the English (and, I suppose, from the Welsh, tho I doubt that's the issue). I have no expertize in the matter, and no position, either. It's not my business. Yet as I've followed the story from afar, it has been rather clear that the vote isn't about rational arguments. If folks all based their decisions exclusively on calm rational considerations based on cold figures and data, I don't see how today's vote could ever even have been mooted, much less enacted. If the Scots decide to go their own way they'll have to surmount countless obstacles, from the identity of their currency to their unclear membership in the EU along with 30,000 matters. If never the less they decide to do so it will be for for what are ultimately emotional reasons.

This is important. Much of the political discussion about how the world works assumes that people are ultimately rational or at least easy to understand: give them a good life and they'll behave nicely. The entire world of contemporary diplomacy is predicated on this: talking is better than killing, and there's almost always something to be talked about. Hence one engages with Iran, for example, and seeks leverage of soft power, and insists that implacable enemies must talk to each other until they've addressed the only real - i.e. rational - issues, and then agree on them and have peace. (Until the mid-20th century diplomacy wasn't like this, as the term gun-boat diplomacy tells. But that was then).

The interesting thing about the Scottish story, then, is that even in one of the oldest of democracies, in one of the wealthier countries in the world, a place with centuries of tradition of enlightened civilization, rationality will take you only so far. There comes a moment when other motivations for human action proves stronger. If that's so in the United Kingdom, it's even truer elsewhere.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A comment on new settlement activity

I'm writing this post very very gingerly. Being a civil servant I'm strictly forbidden to publicly pontificate on political issues. I've decided that defending issues of Israeli consensus at time of war is alright, hence the recent few posts, but Israel's settlement policy isn't that in any way, so I need to stay far from it as long as I remain a public servant. (On which matter, by the way, I posted an announcement earlier today, over here).

And yet.

The issue of settlements is characterized by large dollops of inaccurate information. I'm toying with the idea of doing what an archivist can do, namely publish the full documented record of the story. Significant parts of such a story would differ enough from "accepted wisdom" as to be an important public service. So: someday, perhaps.

Today I'd like to point out a few facts about settlements which seem not to be widely known, starting with an item in today's paper relating to a decision made yesterday, to appropriate some 1,000 acres of land near Guh Etzion. Whether this is good or bad, wise or foolish, is not for me to say. The head of Peace Now, however, doesn't like it, and one of the things he has to say about it is
The decision to appropriate 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) and make them state land is unprecedented and changes the reality in the region of the Etzion Bloc,” Oppenheimer said, adding that there has not been such a large land seizure since the 1980s.

If he's correct about the fact, and I think he may be, what's going on? Many of the arguments pro and con the settlements are about how they're taking over ever more land on the West Bank. How are they doing so if land isn't being appropriated?

To which I'd like to add another few facts. To the best of my knowledge, no new settlements have been created since 2003, which is 13 years ago. If someone knows otherwise I'd be interested in what they know.

No settlements exist in Area A, which was transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the 1990s, and there has been no settlement activity there ever since.

So far as I know, there are no settlements and has been no settlement activity in Area B, either, since it was transferred to civilian control of the PA in the 1990s. Area A and B together make up something like 40% of the West Bank.

So if I'm right and there are no new settlements at all, and very little appropriation of land (says Oppenheimer), what is going on? The answer, so far as I can tell, is that most of the construction which is happening is taking place inside existing settlements, and most but not all of that is in settlements in areas Israel expects to hold onto in any peace agreement, perhaps in exchange for other areas and perhaps not.

That's as much as I feel comfortable in saying right now.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Israeli Bullshit

Here's a true story about Israeli bullshit and why it's blogworthy. I've been hearing rumors of it for months, and not long ago its essential facts even appeared in a local newspaper (Hebrew, no online linkable version), at which point I enquired with a fellow I know who is closely enough involved to be able to confirm the news item and embellish on it.

Like all stories you've got to decide where, actually, is the beginning. One place to start might be in the Talmudic assertion that Israel, unlike Egypt, depends on the immediate good will of God since it has no reliable river, and all its water comes from the heavens, a fact which has been true since the Six Days of Creation - until a few years ago, 10 or 15 of them, when the Israelis decided they didn't like being dependant on the whims of the weather for their water. (This was a policy decision, and so far as I know it had nothing to do with theology). The policy-makers of the day may also have been dimly aware of the 1930s research of Walter Laudermilk, a British scientist who wrote about our environment, was deeply impressed by the early efforts of Zionist pioneers to drain marshes and create modern agriculture, but was also of the opinion the maximal population of Mandatory Palestine couldn't rise above 10 million, a number we passed a while ago. One way or the other, the decision was made to reach water independence through two strategic programs. One, to build as many desalination plants as needed, and the second, to purify as much of the potable water and to pot it again.

Both programs have already succeeded, and they're both still progressing. We're well on the way to the point where all of the urban-use water comes from desalination plants and not natural sources; and while I don't have the exact number, much of the sewage water goes through purification plants and is then re-used, tho often not as drinking water but for industry or types of agriculture where this is safe (cotton being an obvious example. You don't eat cotton, you wear it, so the quality of the water used to irrigate it is less important than with watermelons. In both fields - desalination and re-use of water - Israel is the world leader.

The past winter was unusually dry, and yet this summer there's no shortage of water. I cannot begin to tell you how momentous this is, but am reasonably certain that a century from now this summer will be remembered for that, not for the events in Gaza.

As usually happens with technological progress, once you arrive at a new place you see new needs and challenges. No-one understood why an iPad needed improvement until they'd used the iPad 1.

It turns out that water used in cattle farming can't be purified. The bullshit is too potent. So long as no-one was systematically purifying all their water, this may not have been known and certainly wasn't interesting. Once the water is all directed to purification, however, it did become important; once some government agency took it into their mind to regulate the quality of water before its purification, that little fact became a matter of economic life-and-death for the cattle industry.

Enter the Sidon family brothers, one with a PhD in chemistry, one with a background in the feverish world of the hi-tech Startup Nation, and one an engineer, who spotted the opportunity to make gold out of bullshit. Together they invented a contraption which separates reasonably clean water from the rest of the bullshit, so that farmers can meet the requirements of that regulator, and apparently also sell the hard-core part of the bullshit for other purposes.  They have just implemented the first industrial-size model of their contraption, and now expecct to sell it to cattle farmers all over Israel.

It has also crossed their mind that there are cattle farmers in other countries, too. Who said Israeli technological innovation can't be bullshit.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Israel has nothing to fear from a fair investigation

At some point our government will have to determine its positions towards various avenues of investigation into the events of the Gaza war. Fortunately I'm not in the government, and won't have to be part of that discussion. I have no doubt that the people who will be, will take into account all the relevant considerations.

I'm here today simply to re-iterate that on the level of simple evidence, Israel seems to have collected mounds of it. Assuming, as I do and explained here, that we prepared adequately, and then collected the evidence we've obviously collected, we have nothing to fear from a professional investigation of impartial investigators.

The IDF yesterday put online an example of this: it's a map of Gaza,created by the UN, depicting all the spots where damage was caused. To which the IDF responded with films of how the damage was caused. As I"ve explained in the past, this ability, while demonstrated in only 4-5 cases in this short film, is apparently pervasive. The IDF seems to have documentation of just about everything it did, from go-pro cameras on soldiers' helmets, through data from Iron Dome radar, to drone-based films of everything going on below.

To the extent any non-Israeli professionals investigate these events with open minds, the wealth of evidence the IDF has amassed seem to assure the investigators won't find any major problem with Israeli conduct. Since even Israel doesn't rule out that mistakes were made here or there, we seem to be fine.