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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1631 posts for Gwynne Dyer

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)

The Australian Sickness

I happened to be in Canberra last Friday, speaking to a room full of journalists at the National Press Club, when the news came in, halfway through lunch, that Australia had a new prime minister. The moderator pointed out that the year is already two-thirds gone and it is “only three prime ministers till Christmas” – and the China Daily’s headline read “Australia changes its prime minister again, again, again, again, again.”

The new prime minister, Scott Morrison, is the third leader of the governing Liberal (i.e. conservative) Party since 2015. In the five years before that, there were three prime ministers from the Labor Party. Only twice were those prime ministers chosen by the voters; in the other four cases, the changes were driven by intra-party coups – “spills”, in the Australian political vernacular.

Mockery is appropriate, and it was not in short supply when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was overthrown by his own party last week. “In the future everyone will be Australian prime minister for fifteen minutes,” tweeted ‘Not Andy Warhol’. Another online commentator pointed out that “Game of Thrones is not an instructional manual.”

But it is, in Australia. Back-stabbing is old hat; the new fashion in both major Australian political parties is “front-stabbing”. Yet there are no great issues at stake, no national crisis that must be overcome. Australia is still the ‘lucky country’: 25 million people with a healthy economy (they didn’t even have a recession after 2008), no enemies, and a whole continent to play with.

What drove the latest spill was a challenge to the sitting prime minister by Peter Dutton, an MP (member of parliament) from his own party. Dutton is on the Liberal Party’s right wing and didn’t like Turnbull’s relatively enlightened climate change policies – but even when Turnbull dropped his new emission control proposals the revolt continued.

And in the end, although Turnbull went down, Dutton did not take his place. Scott Morrison, a man much more in Turnbull’s mould, did. To outsiders it seemed utterly pointless, a not very large tempest in a teapot, but it transfixed the Australian media and paralysed the government for several weeks.

So what is causing this weird behaviour in an otherwise fairly sensible country? Is it just a passing lunacy like the ‘dancing mania’ of the late Middle Ages in Europe (which was never adequately explained) or the hula-hoop craze in America in the late 1950s? And, more importantly, is it a communicable disease?

Australian politics wasn’t always like this: between 1983 and 2007 Australia had just three prime ministers. Elections (in which everyone must vote or pay a $20 fine) happen every three years or less, which is clearly too often, but the political system was the same back when Australian politics was far more stable.

The fact that Australian politicians are never more than three years away from the next election certainly encourages a short-term perspective, but it doesn’t explain why they are always changing horses. Maybe you have to add to the mix constant opinion polling and a 24-hour media cycle that demands some new political news every day.

The opinion polls are read as a judgement on the party leader’s ability to win the next election. When Malcolm Turnbull ousted former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015, he said “We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.” And out Abbott went.

So when Turnbull lost in 30 consecutive opinion polls (they come out about every two weeks), he too became vulnerable – and the Australian news media, always looking for the next big story, began stirring the brew. The Liberal Party’s MPs panicked (again), and since the most obvious way they could try to change the predicted outcome was to change their leader, that’s what they did.

But other countries have opinion polls and hyperactive media too, and their parliaments don’t act like that. They may benefit from the fact that their elections are less frequent (every five years for parliamentary elections in Canada, Britain and France), but they don’t act like that even in the last year before an election.

The conclusion is unavoidable: this is an essentially random and purely local case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’, like ‘dancing mania’ and hula hoops. Julia Gillard organised a revolt against the Labour Party leader and sitting prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, he returned the favour and overthrew her just before the next election, and the game was on.

Rudd lost the 2013 election and the last three prime ministers have been Liberal, not Labour, so the infection can clearly cross party boundaries. Since there is an election due next year, which the polls predict that Labour will win, there will probably soon be yet another Australian prime minister. But there is no sign, as yet, that the madness can cross the oceans.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 13. (“What…weeks”; and “Indeed…anyway”)

BBNJ

Nobody loves the United Nations. It’s a bureaucracy, and its job is to make rules. But where else could you negotiate a treaty on ‘The Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction’ (BBNJ for short)? That is to say, bringing the rule of law to the high seas before all the fish are gone.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get ocean governance that puts conservation and sustainable use first,” Liz Karan told National Geographic last year. She’s the senior manager for the high seas program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the many campaigning organisations that finally pushed this to the top of the UN’s agenda.

The ‘high seas’ used to mean all of the oceans beyond a cannon shot from land, but they have shrunk. All the ocean within 200 nautical miles (370 km.) of land is now in some country’s ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’, and protecting fish stocks within the EEZs is the task of more than a hundred sovereign states with ocean coastlines. Some do it well; most don’t.

But out beyond the 200-nautical-mile EEZs is still the ‘high seas’, where nobody regulates the fishing. That’s half of the planet’s entire surface, containing 90 percent of the world’s biomass, but back in the 1980s, when UN members were negotiating the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), hardly anybody was fishing that far out.

Well, they are out there now, going where they want and taking as much as they want. Trawlers of up to 14,000 tons (about the displacement of a pre-First World War battleship) quarter the high seas, setting huge gill nets with a large ‘by-catch’ of whales and turtles, dragging long-lines of up to 100 km in length that bristle with hooks, and using bottom-trawling methods that damage the seabed.

Fish populations are generally denser in the EEZs, because nutrients are richer close to the coasts, and even now the high seas account for only about one-tenth of the global fish catch. But it is a critical tenth, because the high seas act as a kind of nursery, especially for the larger species of fish, most of which spend at least part of their life-cycles there.

Allowing large-scale commercial fishing to take over on the high seas is like sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Happily, a majority of the world’s countries agree that it should be controlled.

Only ten countries, all of them rich (Spain, Japan, Korea, etc.) account to 70 percent of fishing on the high seas, and even they aren’t really making money out of it. If it weren’t for large government subsidies, there would be hardly any fishing vessels operating that far out: the fuel costs along would be prohibitive. So there is probably a deal to be done here.

The initiative for a treaty to regulate high-seas fishing came from New Zealand and Mexico, but more than 70 countries have co-sponsored it, and the first of four sessions that will negotiate the new treaty opens at the UN in New York on 4 September.

The high-seas treaty will probably be attached to the existing UNCLOS treaty, and they are hoping to have it ready for signature by mid-2020. That sounds a bit optimistic (‘everything takes longer and costs more’), but there is actually a good chance that the job will get done, and that it will have positive effects.

The treaty’s main achievement, if it succeeds, will be to create and supervise ‘marine protected areas’ (MPAs) on the high seas in which no fishing whatever is permitted. They need to be very large – advocates talk in terms of MPAs adding up to at least one-third of the entire high seas area – in order to allow entire ocean ecosystems to recover, from corals and sponges up to tuna, sharks and turtles.

Policing these MPAs once they are created would be a lot simpler than enforcing the rules closer to shore, because the high seas fishing fleets are big ships operating in relatively uncrowded waters. Satellites would quickly spot one fishing in the wrong area, and the fines would build up quickly.

Meanwhile, smaller vessels fishing in the EEZs might find that they were catching more fish. Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, estimates that closing all the high seas to commercial fishing would turn them into a “fish bank” that produced more and more fish, many of which then migrated to the EEZs and boosted the catch there by 18 percent.

It’s late in the day, and the oceans are already badly damaged. A new treaty cannot stop warming and acidification from making them an increasingly difficult environment for life. It probably won’t even address the plastic plague. But it will provide a large safe haven where fish populations can recover, at least for a while.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Allowing…here”)