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Netanyahu, Obama and the UN

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is very, very cross about last Friday’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the creation of illegal Jewish settlements all over the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

He called in the ambassadors of all the Western countries that voted for the resolution to tell them off: Britain, France, Spain, even New Zealand. He also had the US ambassador on the carpet, although Washington merely abstained in the Security Council vote. But, Netanyahu said, Donald Trump’s incoming administration has promised to fight “an all-out war” against the resolution.

The resolution is only words, of course, but they are words that have not found their way into any UN Security Council resolution since 1979, because the United States always used its veto to kill any resolution that contained them. Words that describe the settlements as having “no legal validity” and constituting a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.”

This is a restatement of a truth that was once almost universally accepted even in Israel. When Israel’s astonishing victory in the 1967 war put the entire remaining area that had been granted to the Palestinians by the UN partition agreement of 1948 under Israeli control, most Israelis initially saw it as an opportunity for peace.

Israel now had a powerful bargaining card. If the Arabs wanted their lost territories back, they would have to sign peace treaties with Israel – and probably agree to demilitarise those territories into the bargain.

To a generation of Israelis who had lived in permanent, existential fear of losing a war, that looked like a good bargain. But even then a minority of Israelis wanted to keep the conquered territories forever and repopulate them with Jewish settlers.

Some of these expansionists were motivated by religion, others by security concerns, but they all understood that the way to thwart any give-away of these territories was to fill them with Jewish settlers.

The settler movement began slowly: 15 years after the conquest there were still only 100,000 Jews living in the occupied territories, but the number had doubled to 200,000 by 1990, and doubled again to 400,000 by 2002. It is now at least 600,000, and may be as high as 750,000.

If the settler population continues to grow at the current rate, there could be as many as a million Jews in the occupied territories by 2030. At that point, the long-term prospect of a Jewish majority heaves above the horizon. And that is what the current confrontation between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is really about.

Netanyahu avoids any actual peace talks with the Palestinians because a peace deal (if it could be achieved) would mean the end of the settlement project. He can’t say that out loud, of course, but it is the openly expressed view of the settler leaders whose support has been essential to Netanyahu’s various coalition governments.

This is why Netanyahu has to lie all the time, and it drives Obama crazy. In a conversation caught on an open mike in 2011, France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy told Obama: “I can’t stand him (Netanyahu). He’s a liar.” And Obama replied, “You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

But Obama’s decision to abstain on the Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement policy in the Palestinian occupied territories was not just a childish last slap at Netanyahu. Obama has a fundamentally different view of what constitutes long-term security for Israel – one that he shares with most other outside observers, but a shrinking proportion of Israelis.

Long-term does mean long-term. It cannot be assumed that Arab states will always be relatively poor and incompetently led, and that Israel will always be the unchallengeable military superpower of the region. So, in the view of Obama and other outsiders, Israel’s long-term security still depends on making a fair and lasting peace with its Arab neighbours – including the Palestinians.

The settlements fatally undermine the prospects for such a deal. For a growing number of Israelis, that is irrelevant, because they have a fundamentally demonic view of the Arabs and do not believe that a lasting peace with them is possible. In which case, of course, Israel might as well grab all of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Jewish settlements are indeed illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and there is not a single government outside Israel that believes they are legitimate. But the recent Security Council resolution will have no effect on Israeli policy, nor will the state of Israel suffer grave consequences as a result.

President-elect Donald Trump will stop any further such resolutions with the US veto, although he is unlikely to be able to undo this one. And we will all have to wait a long time to know whether it is the perspective of Netanyahu and Trump, or that of Obama and almost all other world leaders, that ultimately defines Israel’s future.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 15. (“Some…750,000”; and “The Jewish…result”)

Terrorism in Europe: “Our Country is at War”

“Our country is at war,” said French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, after a priest was murdered near Rouen in front of his congregation by two attackers who claimed to be serving Islamic State. It’s the sort of thing leaders feel compelled to say at times like this, but it does send the wrong message.

French aircraft are already bombing IS forces in Syria, so you could call that a sort of war (though nobody on the French side is getting killed). But that was not what Hollande was talking about. He was saying that France is somehow at war AT HOME, and went on to say “Our democracy is the target, and it will be our shield. Let us stand together. We will win this war.”

Stirring stuff, and the French certainly need some encouragement, because they are still in shock after the recent slaughter of 84 people by an truck-driving Islamist terrrorist in Nice. But the words are wrong, because if the French are at war at home, then who are they at war with? The obvious answer, almost the only plausible answer, is French Muslims. Which is, of course, precisely the conclusion that Islamic State wants the French people to reach.

I’m not saying that the two deluded Muslim teenagers who carried out the attack – both born in France – were aware of the grand strategy behind IS’s terrorist campaign in Europe. The foot-soldiers in any campaign are unlikely to know or care much about such things.

But the men who set IS policy and control the Islamist websites that urge young European Muslims to commit these terrible acts know exactly what they want to achieve. In France, they want to stimulate anti-Muslim hatred, turn the majority against this under-privileged minority, and ensure the victory of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the neo-fascist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant National Front, in next year’s presidential election.

She is already practically guaranteed a place as one of the two contenders in the second, run-off phase of the French election. If the terrorist attacks radicalise many Christian and post-Christian French people and lead to widespread anti-Muslim violence, Le Pen might even win it and become France’s next president.

Islamic State’s strategy in Germany is just the same, although the country is less fertile ground for Islamist extremism: relatively few of Germany’s Muslims are Arabs, and IS is an overwhelmingly Arab organisation. The far-right parties in Germany are also much weaker than the National Front in France. But IS has just claimed credit for two terrorist attacks in Germany in a single week.

Two IS attacks in Germany, NOT four. The axe-wielding Afghan youth on a train near Wuerzburg who wounded five people on 18 July, and the failed Syrian asylum seeker who blew himself up outside a music festival and injured fifteen other people in Ansbach on Sunday, both proclaimed their loyalty to Islamic State.

But the 18-year-old German youth of Iranian extraction who murdered nine people in Munich last Friday, all but one in their teens, was a psychologically troubled youth obsessed with school shootings and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. The Syrian asylum-seeker who murdered a Polish woman in Reuthlingen on Sunday with a machete knew the victim, and the police said it was probably a “crime of passion”.

However, both of those men were also Muslims, so in the mind of many Germans there has just been a wave of murderous Islamist terrorism. The two IS-linked attacks actually didn’t even kill anybody, but there is now a political panic that has strong anti-Muslim undertones. The IS strategy is working in Germany too.

Why does Islamic State want an anti-Muslim backlash in European countries? Because it will radicalise many more European Muslims, and also maybe bring to power populist leaders who really do want to “wage war on Islam”.

Islamic State’s ideology claims that the whole Muslim world is under attack by the evil West, and that only IS can defend it successfully. Only if its real target audience in the Arab world believes that lie can IS hope to gain popular support, and perhaps ultimately political power, in the Arab countries, so it NEEDS the West to behave badly.

That’s why Francois Hollande was wrong to say that France is at war at home. Words matter, and he’s playing into the terrorists’ hands.

It’s also why the United States can expect to see a rash of Islamist attacks next October. They wouldn’t even have to be very big to drive millions of American voters into the arms of Donald Trump, and nothing could please Islamic State more than Trump as president.
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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Brussels Bombs

Belgium may be a boring country, but it still seems extreme for a Belgian politician to say that the country is now living through its darkest days since the end of the Second World War. Can any country really be so lucky that the worst thing that has happened to it in the past seventy years is a couple of bombs that killed 34 people?

That may sound a bit uncharitable, but respect for the innocent people killed by terrorists does not require us to take leave of our senses. What is happening now is the media feeding frenzy that has become almost a statutory requirement after every terrorist attack in the West.

And people do let themselves get wound up by the media-generated panic. Last night at dinner a young man, staying with us overnight in London before taking a morning flight to the United States, openly debated with himself about whether he should cancel his (non-refundable) ticket or not. It was a ticket from London to Chicago that went nowhere near mainland Europe at all.

The airlines are just as prone to panic, cancelling flights into Belgium as if the country had suddenly become a seriously dangerous place. This story will dominate the Belgian media for weeks, and the rest of the Western media for the remainder of this week. Even non-Western media will play it for a day or two. Almost nothing new or useful will be said, and then the frenzy will die down – until next time.

This is a very stupid way of behaving, but you will notice that I am a part of it. No matter what I say about the bombs in Brussels, the fact that I am writing at length about them in a column that appears all over the world contributes to the delusion that they are not only a nasty event but also an important one.

It is the sheer volume of coverage that determines an event’s perceived importance, not what is actually said about it. But if we in the media are compelled to write about an event like the Belgian bombs anyway, what can we truthfully say about it that will not feed the panic?

The first thing, after every terrorist attack, is to stress that the media coverage of the attack is its primary purpose – indeed, almost its only purpose. It’s obvious and it’s trite, but if you don’t actually say it people forget it. Like the health warning on cigarette packets, it should be part of every story on terrorism.

Secondly, we have to put the alleged “threat” of such terrorist attacks into perspective. People rarely do this for themselves, because once events are beyond the range of their daily experience most people cannot distinguish between what is truly dangerous and what is only dramatic and frightening.

It really does help to remind people that terrorism is a statistically insignificant risk – that they are in much greater danger of dying from a fall in the bath than of dying in a terrorist attack – even if that approach conflicts with the journalists’ natural urge to emphasise the importance of whatever they are writing about.

And finally, a little dispassionate analysis quickly deflates the notion that terrorism is “an existential threat” (as British prime minister David Cameron once said). For example, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have been largely confined to French-speaking countries.

Muslim immigrants in France and Belgium mostly come from Arab countries, and especially from North Africa, where French is the second language. Radical Islamism is much weaker in the rest of the Muslim world, so Germany (whose Muslims are mostly Turkish) and Britain (where they are mostly of South Asian origin) generate fewer Islamist extremists than the francophone countries, and face fewer terrorist attacks.

France’s and Belgium’s Muslim citizens are also less integrated into the wider community. French housing policy has dumped most of the immigrants in high-rise, low-income developments at the edge of the cities, often beyond the end of the metro lines. Unemployed, poorly educated and culturally isolated, their young men are more easily recruited into extremist groups.

The point of this sort of analysis is to cut the problem down to size. There is no terrorist army in Belgium, just a bunch of young men making it up as they go along. For example, the Brussells attacks happened four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the gang who carried out the attacks on the Bataclan arena and the Stade de France in Paris last November.

Back in Brussels after failing to use his suicide vest in the Paris attack, Abdeslam was a psychological wreck, and his Islamist colleagues undoubtedly expected that once in police custody he would sing like a canary. So they decided to launch another attack and go to glory before the police kicked in their doors.

Prime Minister Charles Michel issued the usual ritual incantation about Belgians being “determined to defend our freedom,” but Belgium’s freedom is not at risk. Terrorists are not an existential threat. They are a lethal nuisance, but no more than a nuisance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“And people…time”)

The End of the Venezuelan “Revolution”

The Venezuelan opposition’s victory in Sunday’s election exceeded even their own hopes: they won more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. It may be the beginning of the end for the “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late hero-leader Hugo Chavez seventeen years ago – but it will also plunge the country into a prolonged period of conflict and crisis.

Credit where credit is due: the election was conducted in an exemplary fashion although the government knew it was going to lose. And even when the scale of the opposition’s victory became clear, President Nicolas Maduro took the high road: “I call on all of our people to recognise these results peacefully, and to re-evaluate many political aspects of the revolution.”

However Maduro, who took over when Chavez died in March 2013, does not intend to preside over the funeral of Venezuelan socialism. When he said “our people”, he meant the Chavistas who still support the “revolution”, and the fact that they were now obviously a minority of the Venezuelan people went unmentioned. As did the fact that it was not actually a revolution at all: Chavez came to power legally and peacefully in the 1998 election.

The real question is whether Maduro and those around him will consent to leave power the same way. His vague rhetoric – “We have lost a battle today but now is when the fight for socialism begins” – is designed to leave that in some doubt. And it may be a real fight, perhaps including violence in the streets, because many Chavistas will feel duty-bound not to let this historic experiment fail.

Excuse the deliberate lapse into antique Marxist-speak, but that’s how they talk, and it illustrates how misleading the revolutionary rhetoric is. Because the Chavista era in Venezuelan history was not an historic experiment at all – not, at least, unless you think that building a welfare state with oil revenues is a revolutionary idea (in which case Saudi Arabia also has a revolutionary ideology).

True, the Chavistas are rather bigger on the notion of equality than the Saudi royal family, but what they were actually doing was not controversial in principle. They sought and won power through democratic means. Like left-wing politicians in early 20th-century European states, they then set about improving the income, health, housing and educational level of the bottom half of society, as they had promised they would.

The work of social uplift went a lot faster in Venezuela because of the oil money. (It has the world’s biggest oil reserves, and only 30 million people.) Chavez accomplished in a decade what took countries like Britain, France and Germany two generations. But by the end of that time the European countries had diversified industrial economies that could pay for a welfare state. All Chavez left his successors was oil.

So long as the oil income held up, Chavismo was invincible. Mismanagement and corruption grew, as they often do when money is plentiful. Arrogance grew too, as it usually does in governments long in power, and protests were increasingly met with physical or legal violence. Still Chavez and his successor Maduro won elections – until the oil price collapsed.

In the past eighteen months the world price for oil has fallen from $140 a barrel to only $40. Venezuela was already facing serious unemployment and very high inflation. Government-imposed price controls were already creating predictable shortages of staple goods like milk, rice, coffee, sugar, corn flour and cooking oil. But when the government’s income collapsed, all those problems went ballistic.

OF COURSE Maduro lost the election. In these circumstances, Chavez himself couldn’t have won it. Even Simon Bolivar couldn’t have won it. So now the challenge that both the Chavistas and the opposition face is how to manage an orderly transition that respects democracy, avoids violence, and preferably also preserves some of the social and educational gains of the past seventeen years.

The sheer scale of the opposition victory makes this tricky, since it has a “super-majority”: more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. In theory, that lets it do radical things like rewrite the constitution. In practice, however, the temptation to do that may not be very great. The opposition’s super-majority is vulnerable as it depends on a single seat (it holds 112 out of 167 seats).

The first order of business of the new National Assembly will be to pass an amnesty law freeing some seventy leading lights of the coalition’s various parties who were jailed on highly questionable grounds – but once freed they will try to reassert their leadership of those parties, which will probably undermine the fragile unity of the coalition.

Nothing the new opposition-dominated legislature does in the short term can change the dire economic situation. Maduro will still control the executive branch, with a presidential mandate that extends into 2019 – unless the opposition forces a recall referendum on his presidency, which it can legally do by next April. The “experiment” is over, but the crisis isn’t.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“The work…oil”; and “The sheer…seats”)