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Archive for September, 2018

No More Palestinian Refugees

Who said this? “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.” Nietzsche? Goebbels? You-know-who?

No, it was Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel and newly minted philosopher of power. He and his ally Donald Trump are on the brink of erasing the Palestinian refugees from history, or at least they think they are, and he was allowing himself a little moment of self-congratulation.

He said it last Saturday at the renaming ceremony for the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, where Israel makes its (unacknowledged) nuclear weapons. It was no coincidence at all that just the previous day President Trump had announced that he was ending all US financial support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

UNRWA is the agency that has looked after the health, education, and sometimes even the feeding of the Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homes during what Israelis call their ‘Independence War’ in 1948-49. It is funded by the voluntary contributions of UN members, and until this year the United States has been picking up about a third of the bill.

It has done a good job in difficult circumstances, with half of its clients living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, and the other half in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Palestinians are the best-educated population in the Arab world, and since 1948 their population has grown from 700,000 to 5 million.

This is not as fast as Israel’s Jewish population, which has grown from 550,000 in 1948 to about 6.5 million in the same period, but if all these Arab refugees were to go home it would return the country to the half-Jewish half-Arab balance that prevailed in early 1948. For this reason, the Israeli government has always been adamant that the Palestinians cannot return, no matter what international law says.

Israeli officials even insist that the Palestinians are not real refugees unless they were actually living in what is now Israel before 1948. Their children and grand-children should not inherit their status, and are therefore not entitled to claim either the ‘right of return’ or compensation for giving up their rights.

You can see why Israeli governments might favour this view, since by now only Palestinians over the age of 70 would qualify as refugees. There’s only about 20,000 of them left, and they’ll all be gone soon. However, Zionists might want to think twice before elevating this way of thinking about refugees into a general principle.

The Jewish claim to Palestine is based on the idea that the ancestors of today’s Jews were made refugees by the Romans about two thousand years ago. If the rights of Palestinian refugees can be legitimately extinguished after the first generation, the Jewish claim becomes equally invalid. But this is just lawyers’ talk, of course.

What really matters is power, as Netanyahu helpfully pointed out, and he and Trump believe they hold all the cards. Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘eternal capital’ last year, cutting the Palestinians out, and Netanyahu is convinced (probably correctly) that the rest of the world will come along eventually.

Now they are going to starve the Palestinians out. In the same week that Trump ended US funding for UNRWA, he also cut off the $200 million annually that the United States gives to the Palestinian Authority, the almost-puppet government that administers the occupied Palestinian territories under Israeli supervision. When they are all hungry enough, he assumes, they will accept Israel’s terms.

Maybe so, but there is a flaw in the grand plan. US funding covered only a third of the UNRWA’s budget and even less of the PA’s. Other countries will continue to cover the rest, and are promising to raise their contributions to replace at least part of the American contribution. The Palestinians will definitely be hungry, but probably not hungry enough to surrender unconditionally.

If there was ever a time when such a radical strategy could succeed, it is now. Syria is off the board, as is Iraq, and most of the other Arab states near Israel are so caught up in their obsession about the alleged threat from Iran that Palestine has dropped to the bottom of their priorities.

But even now the Palestinians cannot simply be magicked away by some tricky redefinition of their rights, and even now there is a limit beyond which no Arab regime can go in terms of abandoning the Palestinians to Israel’s and America’s tender mercies. Nobody in the Arab world loves the Palestinians, but nobody wants to be the first to sell them out.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“You…course”)

Bye-Bye Lula

On Sunday, Brazil’s top electoral court ruled that ‘Lula’, former president Luiz Inácio da Silva, cannot run in the presidential election this October.

He served two terms as president (2003-2011), he dutifully waited out the following two terms, and his Workers’ Party (PT) has nominated him for the presidency again. Opinion polls give him 39 percent support, more than twice as much as any other candidate. However, Lula is in jail in the southern city of Curitiba, serving a twelve-year sentence for corruption, and he is not getting out any time soon.

The bad news is that he is probably guilty – perhaps not of the specific offence he has already been convicted for, but of four other charges of money laundering, influence peddling and obstruction of justice that are still pending.

Lula’s current conviction rests on little more than the word of an executive of a giant construction company who claims he gave Lula a penthouse apartment in a seaside resort town in return for a lucrative contract with the state-owned oil company Petrobras. The executive was facing corruption charges himself, and made the accusation as part of a plea bargain.

There are no documents linking Lula or his late wife to the house, nor is there any evidence that they ever spent any time there. This case went to trial first only because it suggested that Lula had sold out for personal advantage. He probably didn’t.

But there is plenty of evidence that Lula engaged in other kinds of dodgy fund-raising, not to benefit himself, but to buy the cooperation of other parties in Brazil’s Congress, where there was a plethora of small parties and his PT never had a majority. This was illegal, but it was perfectly normal political practice when he became president in 2003.

So Lula appointed PT members to senior executive roles in Petrobras and other state-owned companies. They demanded kickbacks from companies that sought contracts with Petrobras and the others, and handed the money over to the PT – which handed much of it on to smaller parties in Congress in return for their votes.

That’s how Lula pushed through radical measures like the ‘bolsa familial’, a regular payment to poor Brazilians (provided that their children had an 85 percent attendance record at school and had received all their vaccinations) that lifted 35 million people out of poverty. Brazil’s economy boomed, and when he left office in 2011 with an 83% approval rating, Brazilians were both richer and more equal than ever before.

His chosen successor Dilma Rousseff won the election, but then world commodity prices collapsed, the Brazilian economy tanked, and unemployment soared. She squeaked back into office in the 2015 election, but was impeached in 2016 for misrepresenting the scale of the deficit. It was a trivial offence, but she was so unpopular by then that nobody much missed her.

Her vice-president, Michel Temer, a deeply corrupt politician from another political party, has served out the rest of her term, but he will surely be arrested too if he loses the protection of holding a high political office. In fact, half the current members of Congress would be arrested if they lost their seats. The reason for that is a political cleansing operation called Lava Jato (Car Wash).

The past eight years have been miserable for Brazilians both economically and politically, but Operation Car Wash has offered real hope for the future. It’s a huge police and judicial operation, run out of the city of Curitiba, (called the ‘London of Brazil’ because it is seen as incorruptible), which targets both corrupt politicians and the businessmen who buy them up.

The irony, for Lula, is that Car Wash owes its success to two key reforms of Dilma Rousseff’s government. One was to make evidence obtained through plea bargaining acceptable in the courts. The other was to appoint a truly independent attorney-general and independent judges and prosecutors – who duly sent Lula to jail even though they may share his politics.

“She always underestimated Car Wash,” said Delcidio do Amaral, the PT’s former leader in the Federal Senate, now under house arrest and plea-bargaining hard, “because she thought it would reach everyone but her. She thought it would make her stronger.” Instead, it has destroyed Lula.

So what happens now? The PT has ten days to substitute Fernando Haddad, Lula’s choice and a former mayor of Sao Paulo, as the Workers’ Party candidate for the presidency in the election on 7 October, but it’s unlikely that he can win all the votes that would have gone to Lula.

Which may leave the road open for a dark-horse candidate like Jair Bolsonaro, a born-again would-be Trump who disparages women, blacks and gays. The road to Hell (or at least somewhere quite unpleasant) is often paved with good intentions.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. “There…didn’t”; and “Her vice-…Wash)