19 February 2013
Prisoner X and the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight
By Gwynne Dyer
Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burroughs are dead. So is Benjamin Zygier, an Australian Zionist who moved to Israel in the 1990s and became an Israeli citizen. He then adopted the curious custom of flying back to Australia at fairly frequent intervals to change his name (Australia lets its citizens change their names once every twelve months). And every time, Zygier would take out an Australian passport in his new name.
The reason, it turns out, was that he had been recruited by Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency, to supply it with Australian passports for use in its foreign operations. So far, nothing new. Israel has been compelled at various times to apologise to the British, Canadian and Australian governments, among others, for using the passports of Israelis with dual citizenship in its various clandestine operations abroad.
But then the Israeli government arrested Zygier, and held him in solitary confinement until he committed suicide in his cell in late 2010. It has taken until now for the story to get out because Zygier’s imprisonment without trial was treated as a state secret.
Even his jailers were not allowed to know the name of “Prisoner X” or the reason he was being held – and after his death the Israeli government went to extreme lengths to keep the whole affair secret, even threatening Israeli editors with fines or jail if they reported on it. What could he have known or done to merit such treatment?
Maybe he had stumbled across some apocalyptic secret that would change everything if it got out. Maybe Israel doesn’t really have hundreds of nuclear weapons, or even any. Maybe all the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are just Potemkin villages. But it seems improbable, doesn’t it?
The likely answer is that the Mossad hit team that murdered Palestinian leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January, 2010 used one or more of Zygier’s passports, and he started to get cold feet. Especially since around the same time the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation woke up and had a little chat with him about his multiple name changes.
So did Zygier just lose his nerve and confess the passport scam to the ASIO? That would annoy his Israeli employers, but not so much that they would turn him into “Prisoner X”. The Australian government would complain through diplomatic channels, the Israeli government would solemnly promise not to do it again, and Mossad would just carry on as if nothing had happened.
Israel regularly spies on the United States, its greatest ally, and then shamelessly lobbies Congress to get its convicted spies released, so it’s obviously not going to worry about offending the Australians. But what if the ASIO turned Zygier into a double agent, and pumped him for information on Israeli “black” operations?
If he had real information about those operations and started passing it to the Australians, that would explain the great anger of the Israeli authorities and the extreme secrecy that surrounded his case.
Whatever. The point is not Zygier’s personal tragedy, or even Israel’s misuse of the passports of its friends and allies in its black ops. It is rather that all this Boy’s Own cloak-and-dagger stuff is profoundly foolish. Or at least the dagger part is.
When Mossad occupies itself in gathering intelligence and doing strategic analysis, it does good work. For example, it has been successful so far in its attempts to talk Binyamin Netanyahu’s government out of launching an extremely ill-advised attack on Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. But Mossad’s assassination programme is a long-running disaster.
Sometimes it kills the wrong person, as when it murdered an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway whom it mistook for one of those responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But what enemy of Israel was deterred, what further attack on Israel was prevented, by Mossad’s success in hunting down and killing more than a dozen other people whom it suspected of being involved in that atrocity?
When five Mossad agents, travelling on Canadian passports, poisoned Khaled Meshaal, then head of Hamas’s political bureau, in Amman in 1997, it nearly wrecked Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, and in the end Israel had to come up with an antidote for the poison. Canada even withdrew its ambassador from Israel for a time.
And when it murdered Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai three years ago, just three days after the first-ever visit by an Israeli cabinet minister to the United Arab Emirates, it put a promising detente between the two countries into the deep freeze indefinitely.
The whole wig-and-fake-passport nonsense is worse than a distraction from Mossad’s real job. It is self-indulgent and counter-productive. And often, when innocent bystanders are killed in these operations, it is criminal. You know, like those US drone strikes that kill innocent bystanders every month.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Maybe…doesn’t it?); and (“If he…case”)
28 August 2009
Leftist Triumph in Samoa
By Gwynne Dyer
At last the tide has turned. After centuries of huge advances by the rightists, those who drive on the left finally have a victory to celebrate. On 7 September, Samoa will stop driving on the right and start driving on the left. Naturally, those who oppose the change are predicting disaster.
“So we just wake up one morning and pull out of our driveways onto the other side of the road, do we?” says Tole’afoa Solomona Toa’iloa, who heads People Against Switchin g Sides (PASS). “Cars are going to crash, people are going to die, not to mention the huge expense to our small country.”
But Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi is not impressed: “All this talk about accidents is just stupid. The 7th and the 8th are holidays to help people get used to it, and after that they’ll be driving more carefully than ever because it will be so different.” All the nearby islands except American Samoa drive left, he points out, and it’s cheaper to import cars from Australia, New Zealand and Japan (which drive on the left) than from the United States.
It’s much ado about nothing; I switch back and forth several dozen times a year. My work takes me to both sides of the road, and my family connections divide right down the middle: Canada right, Britain left, France right, South Africa left, and Argentina both (left until 1946, right since then). If the steering wheel is on the left side of the car, you drive on the right side of the road, and vice versa. A monkey could do it.
Nevertheless, this is a big deal: the first time any country has switched sides since Burma swung right in 1970 (which made very little sense, since most of the countries around it drive on the left, but General Ne Win’s soothsayer told him to do it). And NOBODY has switched from right to left in living memory.
The rightists won because the United States won, and the year of victory was 1946. That was when the US embassy in Beijing threw a party to celebrate the Nationalist Chinese government’s decision that China would drive on the right. (Previously most of northern China had driven right, while southern China drove left.) In the same year the project for a Pan-American Highway persuaded the last left-driving hold-outs among the Latin American countries to switch.
Only one-third of the world’s 6.7 billion people live in countries that still drive left. That is not likely to change much now, for once you start building high-speed, controlled-access highways, all the concrete you have poured locks you into your existing choice.
How did we end up split like this? There is plenty of historical evidence for both sides. Deeply rutted tracks on one side of an old road from a quarry used in Roman times in England, and shallower ruts on the other side, support the hypothesis that the Romans drove on the left, for example – but the evidence from other Roman roads in Turkey argues exactly the opposite.
The real answer, probably, is that there was so little long-distance road traffic that you didn’t need uniformity. Some bits of the empire drove left and other parts right; who cared?
Indeed, the same situation still pertained in 19th century Europe. Both Spain and Italy, for example, had a patchwork quilt of local rules. However, most places that had been conquered by Napoleon drove right, while those that had escaped French occupation mostly drove left (Britain, Russia, Portugal, the Austro-Hungarian empire).
It’s all over in Europe now. The Bolsheviks took Russia to the right after the First World War (on the roads, at least). Mussolini made all the Italians drive right, and the Spaniards and Portuguese changed over in the 1920s. Hitler forced the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia) to drive right in the late 1930s, and Sweden and Icel and finally switched in the late 1960s.
And then there’s Canada. Part of it (Quebec west to the Rockies) used to belong to the French empire, while the rest (the Maritimes in the east and British Columbia in the west) was British more or less from the start. So the central provinces drove on the right, while the extremities drove on the left.
The latter switched to the right in 1922-23 – but my own native country, Newfoundland, only joined Canada in 1949, so it didn’t switch from left to right until 1947. There is a story about how they eased the transition there, however, that may be of assistance to those anxious Samoans.
Newfoundlanders, in the Child’s Garden of Canadian Stereotypes, fill the same role as the Laz in Turkey, Karelians in Finland, or Tasmanians in Australia. In just the same way, there are hundreds of “Newfie” jokes about how stunned we are. We laugh and go along with the joke, and then later, at night, we sneak in and strangle their offspring.
The story is that the Newfoundland government was worried about how its people would handle the switch from left to right, until one minister solved the problem. “Let them get used to it a bit at a time,” he said. “The people whose names start with A to D can switch on Monday, E to K will switch on Tuesday.. ”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 9. (“It’s much…do it”; “Only…choice”; and “The real…cared”)
7 April 2008
The Underpants of the Olympic Flame
By Gwynne Dyer
If I were the Chinese bureaucrat responsible for guarding the sacred Olympic Flame, the place I’d worry about most is Australia. It was there, just before the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, that a student pretending to be an Olympic athlete ran up to the mayor of Sydney and presented him with an “Olympic torch” consisting of burning underpants in a can nailed on top of a chair leg. He was gone before they realised it was not the real thing.
His intention was to mock this pathetic neo-pagan ceremony that was originally invented by the Nazis to spice up the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The 1936 Olympics was Nazi Germany’s coming-out party, so Hitler’s people arranged for 3,442 racially pure Aryan runners to do a relay race with an “Olympic torch” along the 3,442-km. route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus to the stadium in Berlin.
There had never been a torch connected with the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, and the revived Games got along without an international relay race just fine for forty years before the Berlin Olympics of 1936 — but if there was one thing the Nazis did well, it was propaganda. Leni Reifenstahl even made a documentary film about how the torch came from Athens to Berlin (and within five years Hitler’s armies had occupied all the countries along the route).
This year’s Olympic Games were supposed to be Communist China’s coming-out-party, and the route is even more ambitious: twenty-one countries on all six inhabited continents. But that includes Australia, and I really wouldn’t send the torch there if I wanted to preserve China’s dignity. As England is the spiritual homeland of irony, so is Australia the world capital of mockery, and by the time the torch gets there (if it ever does) the Australians are going to feel challenged. It was burning underpants in 1956; what might it be in 2008?
The bar will have been set quite high by the time the torch reaches Canberra. After the propaganda triumphs for the “Free Tibet” movement in London, Paris and San Francisco the rain of humiliations for the Chinese regime may ease off for a while (although I wouldn’t guarantee the torch an easy ride in Buenos Aires, either). But after Dar es Salaam, Muscat and Islamabad, where they don’t care much about Tibet, comes New Delhi, where some people care a great deal.
There will be a lot of Tibetans in New Delhi, so the run there, if it happens, may resemble a low-intensity war. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta may be quiet, but then comes Canberra, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has already said that the blue-track-suited Chinese thugs who have jogged alongside the torch-bearers in other countries to fend off protesters will not be allowed to operate.
The “thug” description is courtesy of Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, who was overheard on the phone saying that the organisers should “get rid of those guys. They tried to push me out of the way three times. They are horrible….I think they were thugs.”
It has become a nightmare for the poor, doomed Chinese bureaucrats who set this thing up: constant humiliations if they carry on with the planned route (which also goes through Tibet itself!) and utter humiliation if they cancel it.
For the moment, they are brazening it out. “The Olympic flame belongs to the people around the world,” said Wang Hui, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, “so the behaviour of a few separatists would not gain sympathy from people and will cause strong criticism and is doomed to fail.” So far, though, I haven’t been hearing much criticism.
Never mind the silly torch, and the equally bizarre three-layer cake that is the actual Olympics Games of today. (An international athletics competition on the bottom, an orgy of nationalist self-congratulation in the middle, and a sickly-sweet pantomime of international love and brotherhood on the top.) What’s actually colliding here are two irreconcilable views of the world.
For almost all Chinese, the turmoil in Tibet is a threat to national unity. Only in the past century have Tibet and the Turkish-speaking, Muslim province of Sinkiang come to be seen as a necessary part of that national unity, but they are now. Chinese propaganda insists that the local people support that consensus, but it makes no difference if they don’t. They have to stay, because national unity is at stake.
For almost everybody else, China and Tibet is obviously a colonial relationship, and it’s perfectly natural for the Tibetans to seek independence. They won’t get it this time round, and they may never get it, but why would you be surprised that they try? Indeed, why wouldn’t you support them?
Foreign governments will never support Tibet’s independence, because they depend on China’s trade and they value “stability” in China above all else. Foreign individuals are under no such constraints, and the interminable, multi-national Tour of the Torch is giving them a lot of opportunities to show their feelings. It isn’t “anti-Chinese,” just pro-Tibetan, but there will be much anger and many hurt feelings by the time this is done.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“There had…route”; and “The thug…thugs”)
NOTE: This article is going out before the torch reaches San Francisco. If something extraordinary happens there, an update will be forthcoming.
1 February 2008
Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s an old joke: everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. The same, unfortunately, is true for the climate.
They ARE talking about it. They were at it again in Honolulu last week, discussing mandatory, internationally binding commitments on greenhouse gas emissions (although Russia and India refused to allow any mention of that subject in the final statement). At the Bali meeting in December, China even hinted that it might consider something like binding emission caps in the long run. But there is no sense of urgency.
Not, at least, the sense of urgency that would be required to take actions that would invalidate the prediction, in the latest issue of the journal “Science”, that climate change may cost southern Africa more than 30 percent of its main crop, maize (corn, mealies), by 2030. No part of the developing world can lose one-third of its main food crop without descending into desperate poverty and violence.
Even some parts of the developed world would be in deep trouble at that point. One part of the developed world, Australia, is already in trouble, with its farmers facing what may be a permanent decline in the country’s ability to grow food, although Australia’s overall wealth is great enough to cushion the blow. But elsewhere, the mentality of “It can’t happen here” persists.
Over the past couple of years, due to a major shift in public opinion, we have arrived at something close to a global consensus that climate change is a major problem. Even George W. Bush now says that he is concerned about it. But there is no consensus on the best measures to deal with the problem, even among the experts, and the general public still does not grasp the urgency of the situation.
The two Democratic candidates for the presidency in the United States promise 80 percent cuts in emissions by 2050, and John McCain for the Republicans promises 50 percent cuts by the same date, and nobody points out that such a leisurely approach, applied in every country, condemns the world to a global temperature regime at least three or four degrees Celsius (5.5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today.
Nobody points out that those are average global temperatures which take into account the relatively cool air over the oceans, and that temperatures over land would be a good deal higher than that. Few people are aware that these higher temperatures will prevent pollination in many major food crops in parts of the world that are already so hot that they are near the threshold, and that this, combined with shifting rainfall patterns, will cause catastrophic losses in food production.
And hardly anybody says that it is going to get really bad as early as 2030 unless we get global emissions down by 80 percent by 2020, because “everybody knows” that that is politically impossible, and nobody wants to look like a fool. So we must just hope that physics and chemistry will wait until we are ready to respond.
But here is a bulletin from the front. Over the past few weeks, in several countries, I have interviewed a couple of dozen senior scientists, government officials and think-tank specialists whose job is to think about climate change on a daily basis. And NOT ONE of them believes the forecasts on global warming issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just last year. They think things are moving much faster than that.
The IPCC’s predictions in the 2007 report were frightening enough. Across the six scenarios it considered, it predicted “best estimate” rises in average global temperature of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2 and 7.2 degrees F) by the end of the 21st century, with a maximum change of 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees F) in the “high scenario”. But the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers that the IPCC examined in order to reach those conclusions dated from no later than early 2006, and most relied on data from several years before that.
It could not be otherwise, but it means that the IPCC report took no notice of recent indications that the warming has accelerated dramatically. While it was being written, for example, we were still talking about the possibility of the Arctic Ocean being ice-free in late summer by 2042. Now it’s 2013.
Nor did the IPCC report attempt to incorporate any of the “feedback” phenomena that are suspected of being responsible for speeding up the heating, like the release of methane from thawing permafrost. Worst of all, there is now a fear that the “carbon sinks” are failing, and in particular that the oceans, which normally absorb half of the carbon dioxide that is produced each year, are losing their ability to do so.
Maybe the experts are all wrong. Here in the present, out ahead of the mounds of data that pile up in the rear-view mirror and the studies that will eventually get published in the scientific journals, there are only hunches to go on. But while the high-level climate talks pursue their stately progress towards some ill-defined destination, down in the trenches there is an undercurrent of suppressed panic in the conversations. The tipping points seem to be racing towards us a lot faster than people thought.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (Over…situation”; and “And hardly…respond”)
Re “maize (corn, mealies)” in paragraph 3: the crop has different names in different parts of the English-speaking world. Choose the one familiar to you. Translators may disregard these details.