Friday, July 17, 2015

'The Trouble With Israel'


The following article, "The Trouble with Israel," is just out in the August Harper's. I try to make sense of things after the election and in anticipation of the Iran deal. (There is a pay-wall; but Harper's is well worth the 50 bucks a year.)

One day this April, two weeks after the Israeli elections gave Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister, the morning after the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran was worked out — the morning, as it happened, of the Passover seder — I dropped in at my local cheese shop, which is set back from the main street of Jerusalem’s German Colony. The neighborhood, once the heart of the city’s secular community of Hebrew University faculty and government workers, is now dense with yeshiva graduates wearing the signature knitted yarmulkes of the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, and the affluent “modern Orthodox” from Toronto, Paris, and Teaneck, New Jersey. The clerk behind the counter — we’ll call him Shachar — the clever, chubby grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, whose eyes told you he thought he was meant for something better, had hooked me on truffle cheese some years ago, and we often had pleasant conversations when I came in for regular fixes. We did not normally talk politics, except for the occasional sigh over news of corruption or violence. (His grandfather, he had told me, had been a cadre in the Irgun, the militant Zionist underground group.) This time, however, he was buoyant, expectant. “Are you pleased with the election?” he asked me, using the Arabic colloquialism mabsoot for “pleased,” as casually as if he were asking whether Passover came in spring. 

“Are you out of your mind?” I erupted. “I feel shame for this country.”

Shachar stared at me, more surprised than wounded. I was taking advantage of him: I was his customer, after all. I shifted my tack toward patriotism. “Shachar, how can we be pleased? We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.” This gave Shachar his opening.

“No,” he replied, “the problem is with Obama. Experts say relations with America have never been better except for him. He doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with here. People on the left” — he meant me, but graciously kept away from the second person — “think they know better but never learn. My other customers from America say he is the worst president ever. Soon we’ll have missiles at Ben Gurion Airport.”

I stiffened my back and told Shachar what I thought of his government, his experts, and his other American customers. But even before I ended my disquisition, I thought: I am missing the point. One lesson the Israeli left has refused to learn is that elections are not so much a clash of arguments as an occasion for trafficking in fear. Shachar’s instincts were closer to primordial, and it was such instincts that determined the vote in Jerusalem, and much else in Israel. Netanyahu played on this fear by warning about “Arabs voting in droves” during the election’s closing hours — but Shachar’s real impulse was to find safety in affinity: the sense that things very nearby were dangerous, or could suddenly be made so; that understanding both sides of an argument weakens resolve; that believing in negotiations makes you unfit to conduct them.

Read on at Harper's Magazine


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Does Greece Need The Euro? Ask Israel.

"The Greek financial nightmare is a reminder of why countries benefit from having their own currencies,” David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post last Tuesday, before the government of Alexis Tsipras grudgingly accepted terms for another bailout. This was “a reminder,” presumably, because there was no need to debate something so axiomatic. “In the old days,” Ignatius continued, “a flexible drachma could have been devalued to boost exports and economic growth.” Economists from Martin Feldstein to Paul Krugman have proposed this cause and effect as a solution to Greece’s crisis since it began, in 2009. Krugman made the point forcefully in his column on Friday, lashing out at European and American austerity hawks and pointing to Canada’s devalued dollar as the reason for its recovery from the 2008 meltdown. “Greece, unfortunately, no longer had its own currency when it was forced into drastic fiscal retrenchment,” Krugman wrote. “The result was an economic implosion that ended up making the debt problem even worse.”

There can be no doubt that, in the case of Greece, critics of radical austerity have the better side of the argument. All agree that the Greek economy has to grow at an accelerating rate if the country is to have a chance of meeting a good part of its debt obligations, however generously they are restructured. Krugman notes that the national debt, which was roughly one and a quarter times G.D.P. in 2009, is, after austerity, one and three quarters times that today. Almost a million people, in a country of just over ten million, worked for the government in 2009. You could insist, as advocates of austerity have, that this was unsustainable, but throwing a third of those employees out of work, cutting remaining public-sector salaries by a third, and drastically reducing pensions, as advocates of austerity did, inevitably suppressed local demand. They could not have expected private-sector entrepreneurs to invest in consumer businesses, either. Creditor banks in Germany will almost certainly have to take some losses to get the Greek government’s ledgers back into balance.

The supercilious tone of northern European bankers regarding southern European profligacy makes austerity proponents’ arguments hard to take, too. To make German unification possible, East Germany effectively received a one-time infusion of three hundred and twenty-billion Deutsche marks, in the early nineties, the equivalent of almost two hundred billion dollars at the time, which included a deal that allowed East Germans to trade their own pathetic marks for West German Deutsche marks at par. It is true, as many European Union leaders have suggested, that there is the issue of precedent with Greece: the more the European Central Bank proves willing to transfer wealth to poor southern economies, the shakier the euro will become. Then again, if the euro were the currency of the richer northern European economies alone, or, for that matter, if a united Germany’s engineering-rich, high-export economy were still on the Deutsche mark, a Volkswagen Golf produced in Wolfsburg would be too expensive to sell competitively in either the U.S. or Asia, no matter how many robots were put on the line. The connection between the value of currencies and the capacity to export cuts both ways.

None of this means, however, that the euro and the free-trade eurozone are inherently bad for weaker economies like Greece’s. On the contrary, the counter-proposal of cheapening exports through devaluation presumes an economy that makes things the rest of the world wants. That’s Canada’s, but not Greece’s: the sun can only do so much. Aside from tourism, the Greek economy mainly rests on exporting refined petroleum and processed agricultural products while importing crude petroleum and everything from cars to computers. You can’t devalue the drachma to the point that gasoline production, or olive oil and cheese production, would generate sufficient earnings for Greek workers to pay for cars and computers. (That’s why so many Greek workers borrowed euros on easy credit to buy them.)

Read on at The New Yorker

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Did Obama 'Abandon Israel'?

Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, made news last week—as well he might, since he’s publishing a book. Yesterday marked the release of a memoir of his years representing Benjamin Netanyahu, which he summed up in last Monday’s Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel.” The article included this pungent line: “While neither leader monopolized mistakes, only one leader made them deliberately.” The leader in question, of course, is President Barack Obama. From the moment the President took office, Netanyahu’s envoy saw him as promoting “an agenda of championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran.”

Oren doesn’t bother explaining what’s wrong with an American President pursuing an agenda of this kind. He insists, implausibly, that it “would have put him at odds with any Israeli leader.” He also doesn’t explain how a mistake can be made “deliberately,” which seems oxymoronic, something like a “planned accident.” But Oren’s formulation is no less quotable for being imprecise. It is obviously meant to achieve the same response as Mitt Romney’s statement that the President had “thrown allies like Israel under a bus.” For America’s “friends of Israel,” especially organized American Jews, putting “deliberately” and “abandoned” on the same page is enough. The juxtaposition bypasses the brain, going straight to the solar plexus.

Read on at The New Yorker

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Netanyahu Moves Against The Media

Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his government last November to remove two obstacles. The first, much reported beyond Israel, was opposition by centrists within his government, including Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, to the “Jewish nation” bill, which would have constrained the Supreme Court’s ability to protect Arab citizens’ rights. The second—less noticed but perhaps more consequential—was a bill advanced in the Knesset to prohibit any major newspaper from being distributed for free. The obvious target of the legislation was Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, a free tabloid that’s become Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper. Adelson was reported to have lost as much as three million dollars a month on it—simply, it seems, to boost Netanyahu and his Likud Party. The day it became clear that the newspaper bill, supported by Lapid and Livni, would get a Knesset majority, Netanyahu fired his dissident ministers and called for new elections. Netanyahu won reĆ«lection, and the legislation’s sponsors lost their leverage.

But the Prime Minister’s maneuvering for control of the news media did not end with the sinking of the bill. While forming his new government, he extracted written pledges from potential coalition partners not to vote against any legislative initiative or regulatory decision by the minister of communications, coyly implying that he might add the post to his responsibilities as Prime Minister—which he did. This role, and these pledges, position Netanyahu to regulate cellular service and Internet providers, license private broadcast channels, and influence the management of public television and radio. His defense of Israel Hayom’s supremacy in print is trifling compared with his growing power to control greater Israel’s airwaves. “Netanyahu is like a pianist who’s gathered all the keys for a keyboard,” Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist who founded The Seventh Eye, an Israeli press-criticism magazine, told me. “Do we expect him not to play?”

Netanyahu’s most brazen decision as minister of communications has been the firing of the ministry’s director-general, Avi Berger, who had been preparing to reform the broadband market. The formerly government-owned telecommunications company Bezeq provides about two-thirds of home Internet access and almost all home Internet connections. Berger’s planned reform would have forced Bezeq to license its wired infrastructure to new entrants, bringing down the cost of Web access, much the way forcing Israel’s cell-phone cartel to share cellular infrastructure radically lowered the cost of mobile access. Berger also wanted all new companies to gain the right to bundle “last-mile” wiring with Internet service; Israeli customers now pay Bezeq to connect their modem to the fibre network, and also pay an Internet Service Provider, mostly likely Bezeq International, for access to the Web. Connectivity costs are about double what they are in the United States. Bezeq shareholders are not complaining. Netanyahu announced that he intends to replace Berger with Shlomo Filber, a close ally and a former chairman of the settlers’ council in the occupied territories. Broadband markets and neo-Zionist ideology may seem unrelated, but they are not. Berger’s firing was a signal that regulatory power can be used to engender broadcasting more or less friendly to Likud’s policies, not by directly intimidating journalists but by shaping ambient pressures on owners and managers of the media companies.

Not surprisingly, Netanyahu’s move against Berger prompted an immediate spike in Bezeq’s share price; Netanyahu clearly meant to put Bezeq’s owners in his debt, or at least emphasize the value of being in his orbit. Not coincidentally, the Bezeq-owned Internet company Walla! has been rumored for months to be planning a twenty-four-hour cable news channel, bundled into Bezeq’s satellite-television provider Yes, and streamed and promoted over Bezeq infrastructure. “Berger’s sudden dismissal was immediately beneficial for Bezeq, of which Walla! is a subsidiary,” Erel Margalit, a Labor Knesset member and the founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, which has launched various media companies, complained. For Bezeq, Walla!, and its prospective cable news channel, “the conflict of interest is self-evident.”

Read on at The New Yorker

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Muddled, Contradictory, And Doomed?

Late Wednesday night, with less than an hour left until his mandate as Prime Minister of Israel expired, Benjamin Netanyahu managed to build a coalition government of sixty-one members of the Knesset, the absolute minimum needed for him to remain in office. Thirty come from the increasingly strident Likud Party, eight from Naftali Bennett’s ultra-nationalist Jewish Home, thirteen from the ultra-Orthodox parties, and, crucially, ten from Moshe Kahlon’s centrist-populist Kulanu. One negative vote or abstention from a rogue member of this majority—a settler upset about delays to settlement construction, an Orthodox leader upset by a cut to support for Yeshiva students—and the government might well fall.

Netanyahu had called the March 17th election, only two years after the last one, because he wanted a more solidly right-wing majority, made up exclusively of parties representing neo-Zionists, military hawks, and rabbinic courts. He did not want to have to bargain with centrist ministers like Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, whom he had coƶpted to his previous coalition, and who finally resisted, among other things, his “Jewish nationhood” bill, which would have undermined the Supreme Court’s ability to protect minority rights.

Netanyahu did not get his wish, which never was a realistic one, given manifest changes in the Israeli political landscape, especially the rise of centrist parties, the latest of which was Kahlon’s. The real story of this election was the growing influence of young voters, especially young Mizrahi and Russian voters, who are reflexively hawkish but less burdened by old ideologies and resentments than their parents—more interested in “eichut haim,” or quality of life—and who swelled the center. Although Netanyahu was widely (and rashly) assumed to have had a decisive victory in March, the parties that would have given him the government he wanted won only fifty-seven seats, down four from 2013. As predicted by many, the centrist Kahlon, who had recently left the Likud, held the balance of power.

 Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Deal--And Haggadah's Repressed Anger

The Passover Haggadah, the short book of hymns, chronicles, and liturgical practices whose reading constitutes the traditional Seder, is thought to have been compiled as early as the second century—around the time the Talmud was compiled, just when rabbinic Judaism as we know it was emerging, a rival to Jewish followers of Jesus in coming to terms with the catastrophe of exile. The Haggadah is thus a book immanently at odds with itself: committed to the principle of emancipation—“from slavery to freedom”—and to symbolic rituals that celebrate deliverance, yet also replete with what Arthur Koestler once called “claustrophilia”—a commitment to self-segregating ancestral commandments and barely repressed rabbinic defensiveness and rage.

At the opening of the Seder, the leader holds up a piece of matza, unleavened bread, and speaks in ancient Aramaic, “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.” It is easy enough to imagine that for exiled, haunted Jews still living under Roman rule, the “land of Israel” was still a formative place, kept in the collective memory—and initiating yearly Seders helped to memorialize it. But, by the time the Haggadah was itself formative—certainly by the early Middle Ages, when anti-Jewish massacres had become common in Christian lands—the “land of Israel” seemed less a geographical fact than a place of messianic hope.

So the Haggadah also reflects the sense of grief, helplessness—and craving for retaliation—that many rabbis cultivated over the centuries. The divine, not any political figure (Moses, strangely, is hardly mentioned), liberated His chosen “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” Early rabbis are quoted revelling, with a unself-conscious pathos, in plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, magnifying oppressors’ suffering like a wounded boy fantasizing about what his father should do to a bully. Rabbi Eliezer hypothesizes that the ten plagues were actually forty, because each plague was delivered with attitude: “ ‘Fury’ is one; ‘indignation’ makes two; ‘trouble’ makes three; ‘discharge of messengers of evil’ makes four.” These forty, plus the notional two hundred plagues inflicted at the Red Sea, make two hundred and forty. Rabbi Akiva then trumps Rabbi Eliezer, reckoning along similar lines that the plagues actually numbered two hundred and fifty. In every generation, the Haggadah exhorts us to sing, unnamed forces “rise against us to annihilate us.”

If there was always this tension in the traditional Haggadah—between valorizing what must be done to liberate all people in need and valorizing what must be done to liberate Jews as a particular people—this hardly mattered in the diaspora, where the Haggadah was composed and for which it was intended. The tension was alleviated, if not resolved, by an implicit knowledge that Jews were the outsiders—so that doing what prevented their persecution, or advanced their civic interests, also advanced social tolerance and the formation of civil society more generally. This is not the way the Haggadah reads today, however: the tension is more palpable and vexing for Israelis—and, increasingly, for American Jews. When you have the military or police power to act against others, or the political power to oppose others, you don’t have the arguable luxury of assuming Jewish interests to be coincident with those of every oppressed person. (As if to prove this point as grotesquely as possible, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—of all weeks, just before Passover—began the forced expulsion of many hundreds of the forty thousand of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who had crossed the Sinai to find asylum in Israel.)

Today, the land of Israel is not something poetic and hypothetical, nor is the survival imperative inherently free of bigotry or the hunger for revenge harmless. The last point seems particularly urgent this day of the Seder, the day after the announcement of the great power agreement with Iran; Israelis and American Jews will find it impossible to read the Haggadah tonight without thinking about the deal’s implications. It is worth observing that, already, Netanyahu is denouncing the deal as “threaten[ing] the survival of the state of Israel.” And his view is widely echoed in Israel, including by otherwise balanced observers like Ari Shavit, who argued yesterday in Haaretz that the Lausanne talks were something like Munich all over again; that economic sanctions on Iran should rather have been intensified until “Iran’s nuclear capability was entirely sterilized.”

Hyperbole of this kind is safely conformist in today’s Israel—also among Jews supporting AIPAC in America. Its champions view themselves as stiffening spines against foes who, the Haggadah didn’t need to remind us, are real. Yet it is hard to hear the talk without thinking tonight of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, cowering and in mourning, defaulting to a frame of mind in which the only response to Jew-hatred is multiplied plagues. If this is Munich, then the alternative, as President Obama justly observed, is “another Mideast war.” But would war, or even the threat of war, really force Iran’s most authoritarian leaders to back down—or would it entrench them? Would increased sanctions really weaken Iranian hardliners as much as the integration of the country’s isolated, restless entrepreneurs and professionals into the global system? Rabbi Akiva, the Haggadah doesn’t bother reminding us, also inspired, early in the second century, the catastrophic Bar Kochba wars.

At tonight’s Seder, I would suggest that the cautionary words of Thucydides, who predated the Haggadah by six hundred years, be added to Rabbi Eliezer’s and Rabbi Akiva’s imaginings of plagues. “A moderate attitude,” he lamented in his “History of The Peloponnesian War,” “was deemed a mere shield for lack of virility, and a reasoned understanding with regard to all sides of an issue meant that one was indolent and of no use for anything.” He added, dismissively, “One who displayed violent anger was considered eternally faithful.” The Haggadah supposes that, in every generation, we should imagine that we ourselves stood at Sinai and assumed the burdens of law. We should imagine that we stood also at Amphipolis, and assumed the awkwardness of moderation.

Read in The New Yorker

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Netanyahu's Compromised Victory

This morning, the Times proclaimed a “crushing victory” for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over Zionist Union challengers Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, in yesterday’s election. But crushing victories don’t usually look like this one. In the last national election, in 2013, the five parties that make up Netanyahu’s hard-right “national camp” won sixty-one of the hundred and twenty seats in the Knesset. Yesterday, it won fifty-seven. It’s true that Netanyahu’s Likud surged to thirty seats, nine more than projected by last Friday’s final poll—the Zionist Union, by contrast, was expected to get twenty-four, and finished with exactly that—but Netanyahu’s gain was not really at Herzog and Livni’s expense.

What happened, as the Times of Israel’s editor, David Horovitz, points out, was that Netanyahu “desperately cannibalized” the most strident right-wing parties in his camp, especially Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu repudiated the two-state principle, promised Bennett a prominent place in his government, and appealed to Bennett’s supporters to vote this time for his own Likud party. He insisted, plausibly, that the national camp as a whole could be forced out of power if the Zionist Union, not the Likud, won a plurality of seats and was granted the mandate, by President Reuven Rivlin, to try to form a majority government. He warned that "Arabs were voting in droves." Rightist voters, it turns out, obliged Netanyahu in droves. Bennett was polling at thirteen seats last Friday and finished with eight. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had ten or more in previous elections, ended with six.

Two new centrist parties, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, finished, as predicted by the polls, with ten and eleven seats, respectively. These results confirm the steady drift of younger Likud voters toward centrists like Kahlon (who served as a government minister under Netanyahu); as I wrote on Monday, Netanyahu cannot reach a majority without him. Yesterday, it seemed possible that, if Herzog and Livni had a plurality of seats, Kahlon would side with them. His senior partners, General Yoav Galant and the former Ambassador Michael Oren, are not sympathetic to Bennett’s settlers, embraced the two-state formula in their platform, and focussed mainly on economic inequality. But Netanyahu’s strong plurality almost certainly precludes Kahlon’s feeling emboldened to make a majority for the Zionist Union. That majority would have included the Arab Joint List, which would not have been an easy partnership for Kahlon, given his history with Likud.

The vote has fallen in favor of Netanyahu, but the country remains divided, even with centrist parties aiming to create a consensus around economic equality, social liberalism, and diplomatic skepticism. In greater Tel Aviv, Herzog’s center-left (without Kahlon) garnered about sixty-three per cent of the vote. In greater Jerusalem, Likud’s national camp (again, without Kahlon), got about eighty per cent. Today, at the Western Wall, Netanyahu told the press, “I deeply value the decision by Israeli civilians to choose me and my colleagues, against all the odds and against major forces,” suggesting the solidarity he wants and the enemies he needs. He does not yet have Rivlin’s mandate, but he pledged to form a government “within two to three weeks.” We shall see if Kahlon and his partners—who promised voters economic reforms and transparency, but, in a coalition with Likud, would first have to agree to sweeten pots for settlements and yeshivas—will oblige Netanyahu’s timetable. Kahlon may not have the conviction to make a majority for Herzog, but he might summon the rage to deny one to Netanyahu. Anyway, he has the power to force surprises on the coming coalition negotiations—and he just might.