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Netanyahu and the Truth

“I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy told US President Barack Obama four years ago, in a conversation about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama replied: “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.” It was a private conversation, but we know about it because it was accidentally broadcast to journalists.

Politicians may deliberately mislead people, omit vital facts, spin the truth a dozen different ways to serve their purposes of the moment, but they usually avoid outright lies. It’s just too embarrassing to be caught in a lie. And other politicians generally accept that some of their colleagues shade the truth to fit their own agenda as one of the regrettable realities of their trade. They all swim in the same sea.

What drove Sarkozy and Obama to talk about Netanyahu like that was the sheer brazen effrontery of his lies – and he was at it again last week. In public, this time.

Speaking to the the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu declared that Hitler decided to exterminate the Jews on the advice of a Palestinian, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti (senior Islamic cleric) of Jerusalem. Husseini met Hitler in Berlin in November 1941, he said (although there is no record of the meeting), and that was why the Holocaust happened.

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”

So, you see, it was the Palestinians, driven by a vicious and unreasoning hatred of the Jews, who really thought up the Holocaust, and Adolf Hitler was merely a tool in their hands. Historians instantly denounced this travesty of the historical record, and the greatest outrage was expressed by Jews who felt that Netanyahu had given a great gift to the Holocaust deniers.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was so appalled that she effectively called Netanyahu a liar to his face. Standing beside him in Berlin, she said: “We don’t see any reason to change our view of history, particularly on this issue. We abide by our responsibility, in Germany, for the Holocaust.” Yet Netanyahu continued to insist that it was Husseini who first suggested genocide to Hitler.

Experienced journalists know that the most useful question to ask yourself when confronted with an implausible story is not: “Is this bastard lying to me?” It is: “WHY is this bastard lying to me?” So why did Netanyahu say that? In particular, why now?

Because he needs to show that his policy of creating and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the one-sixth of former Palestine that still has a Palestinian majority, is not responsible for the recent rash of violent attacks on Israeli Jews by young Palestinians.

It is getting quite serious, though it is not yet a “third intifada”. Ten Jews have been murdered in the streets by Palestinians in the past month. About fifty Palestinians have been killed, including most of the killers and would-be killers. The fear and suspicion have grown so intense that in two cases of mistaken identity Jews have killed or wounded other Jews.

There appears to be no central direction behind the attacks. Most observers believe that the phenomenon is mainly driven by the despair of young Palestinians who see their land slipping away and don’t believe that Netanyahu will ever let the Palestinians have their own state in the occupied territories.

That would put the blame for the outbreak squarely on Netanyahu’s policies, which he cannot accept. So he is trying to prove that Palestinians just naturally hate Jews: “My intention was…to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation – without a country and without the so-called ‘occupation,’ without land and without settlements – even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews.”

That is Netanyahu’s explanation for the current attacks: incitement by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom he blames for the rumours about Israel’s intention to expand Jewish access to the Haram al-Sharif, the area around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. It is Islam’s third most sacred site, but it is also sacred to Jews as Temple Mount, and these rumours certainly played a role in stimulating the attacks.

There is no evidence that Abbas was behind the rumours, however, and it’s unlikely that he would have encouraged them: what these attacks are actually showing is his own people’s loss of faith in his ability to get a Palestinian state. Nor is Saturday’s agreement in Amman between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Hussein to guarantee the current rules for access to the holy site likely to quell the violence.

The rumours were a trigger for the violence, but the gun is always loaded. The Palestinian revolts in 1929 and 1936, which were indeed incited by Grand Mufti Husseini, were already about the Jewish colonisation of Palestine. It was always about the land, and it still is today.

Netanyahu knows that very well. It is the real motive behind his own policies. He just can’t afford to admit it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“Politicians…sea”; and “Germany’s…Hitler”)

Migrants: The Shape of Things to Come

The sheer dithering cluelessness of the European Union’s leaders, faced with an unexpected surge in the number of migrants seeking refugee status in EU countries, challenges all our previous definitions of incompetence. A new standard has been set.

All of a sudden, in July, the main stream of refugees arriving in Europe switched from the trans-Mediterranean track out of Libya to the Aegean Sea, where the crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands just offshore is less than one-tenth as far. People are drowning on this Aegean route too, but far fewer of them.

They don’t want to stay in Greece, of course – and although Greece is part of the Schengen area, which abolishes border controls between most EU members, it has no common border with any other Schengen member. Migrants wishing to claim refugee status in some richer EU country must therefore trek on up through the Balkans, seeking to reach some other Schengen country like Hungary or Slovenia.

They don’t want to stay in those countries either, but once they are in any Schengen country other than Greece they can travel on freely to their real destinations, usually Germany, Sweden or France. Or at least they could until about two weeks ago. Then the panic started.

Heading up from Greece, the migrants first reached Macedonia (not a Schengen country). It tried to protect its border for a while, then realised they just wanted to cross Macedonia and let them all through. Serbia (also not a Schengen country) did the same – which delivered them to the southern border of Hungary.

Hungary has been building a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along its southern frontier to keep asylum-seekers out, and it used considerable violence against the mostly Syrian refugees at first. But then Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, wearing her Lady Bountiful cloak, announced that Germany would accept as many as wanted to come.

So Hungary opened its border and the refugees surged through, on their way to Austria and thence to Germany. That lasted precisely two days. Then Merkel panicked at the numbers arriving in Germany and “temporarily” closed the border with Austria. So to stop refugees from piling up in Austria, Vienna closed the border with Hungary – and Hungary shut its border with Serbia for the same reason.

Nothing daunted, the refugees stuck on the Hungarian border turned left and headed for Croatia (not a Schengen member). Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic declared that the government was “entirely ready to receive or direct those people where they want to go, which is obviously Germany or Scandinavian countries.” He knew they really just wanted to cross Croatia to get into Slovenia or Hungary (which ARE Schengen members).

But 24 hours later the Croatian government, shocked by the numbers that were coming, shut its border too. Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said his country was “absolutely full” and told the migrants: “Don’t come here any more. Stay in refugee centres in Serbia and Macedonia and Greece. This is not the road to Europe.”

Meanwhile Hungary declared that it was extending its razor-wire fence to cover the border with Croatia as well, and Slovenia began to stop trains coming from Croatia to search for refugees. There will be a summit this week at which EU governments will try to come up with a coherent common policy, but don’t hold your breath while waiting for the good news.

The EU probably will sort it out eventually, because the numbers are not really all that huge. Around 500,000 migrants (most of whom will claim refugee status) have entered the European Union this year, which is only one percent of the EU’s population.

It is not beyond the wit of the EU’s leaders to work out legal ways to send false claimants home, to settle the refugees already in Europe, and to strengthen the EU’s external border controls. Some lasting damage may be done to the EU’s ideals in the process, but for most practical purposes life in Europe will return to normal – for a while.

However, this refugee crisis is only a rehearsal for the main event, which will probably arrive in ten to twenty years’ time. It will be driven by global warming, which will devastate agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa and produce a five- or tenfold increase in the number of refugees heading for Europe.

This is not what MIGHT happen IF the world’s governments don’t make the right deal at the climate summit in Paris in December. This is what almost certainly WILL happen even if they do make the right deal now. A considerable amount of warming is already locked into the system no matter what we do about the climate now – enough to produce that kind of refugee flow in the future.

There is not the slightest sign that EU policy-makers have taken this on board. If they are taken by surprise again, the European Union may collapse. So may several southern European states.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They…Hungary”)

Europe’s Refugee Crisis: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Refugees from the wars of the Middle East are pouring into the European Union at an unprecedented rate. So are economic migrants from Africa and non-EU countries in the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, etc.), and some of them claim to be refugees too. They are coming at the rate of about 3,000 a day, mostly through Turkey into Greece or across the Mediterranean to Italy, and the EU doesn’t know what to do about it.

It’s not really that big a refugee crisis: one million people at most this year, or one-fifth of one percent of the European Union’s 500 million people. Little Lebanon (population 4.5 million) has already taken in a million refugees, as has Jordan (pop. 6.5 million). But while a few of the EU’s 28 countries are behaving well, many more have descended into a gibbering panic about being “overrun”.

It really is a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the best of the Good is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel put it bluntly: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees…it will not be the Europe we imagined.” She has put her money where her mouth is: two weeks ago she predicted that Germany would accept asylum claims from 800,000 refugees this year.

She also said that Germany is suspending the “Dublin regulation”, an internal EU rule that says refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. This is manifestly unfair to Greece and Italy, so Berlin will now allow all Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany regardless of where they entered the EU. Moreover, it will regard Syrian citizenship as adequate evidence that people are genuine refugees.

France, Italy and the Netherlands have also been fairly generous about granting refugees asylum, and quiet, gallant Sweden is accepting more refugees per capita than anybody else in the EU. But the good news stops here. Most other EU countries are refusing to take a fair share of the refugees, or even any at all.

Let us define the Bad as those governments that really know they should be doing more, but are shirking their responsibility for domestic political reasons. The most prominent are the United Kingdom and Spain, which played a key role in sabotaging an EU meeting last June that was trying to agree on a formula for sharing the refugee burden fairly among EU members.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s problem is that overall immigration into Britain is high (330,000 last year), which has infuriated the right-wing media. In fact, more than half the newcomers were citizens of other EU countries (who have the right to cross borders in search of jobs), and only 25,000 were refugees – but such fine distinctions have little place in the public debate. And in Spain, there’s an election coming up.

Then there are the Ugly: the countries that simply don’t want to take in refugees because they are different from the local people. Like Slovakia, which said that it might take a few hundred refugees, but only Christians, or Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are both talking about deploying armed forces on their borders to keep refugees out.

All these countries lived under Soviet rule for two generations, which was almost like living in a cave. They have almost no experience of immigration, and it’s commonplace to hear people make racist or anti-Semitic remarks without the slightest sense of shame. In a way, they are still living in the 1950s. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

So how, in these circumstances, is the European Union to agree on a common policy for sharing the burden of caring for the refugees? “We must push through uniform European asylum policies,” Angela Merkel says, but the EU operates on a consensus basis, and there is little chance that that will be accepted. In practice, therefore, the burden will continue to be borne by the willing.

In an attempt to lessen the burden, the German chancellor has proposed a list of “safe” countries (like the Balkan ones, which account for 40 percent of asylum claims in Germany), where it may be presumed that most claimants are really economic migrants. Arrivals from “unsafe” countries like Syria, Libya and Afganistan, where real wars are underway, would be treated as genuine refugees. But even then, each case must be investigated individually.

“Germany is a strong country and the motto must be: ‘we’ve managed so much, we can manage this’,” Merkel said, and no doubt she can get through this year without changing course. But there is every reason to believe that there will be another million people risking everything to make it across the EU’s borders next year, and probably for many years thereafter. It may even get worse.

In the long run it is almost certain to get worse, even if the current wars in the Middle East all miraculously end. Coming up behind the current crisis is the inexorable advance of climate change, which will hit the Middle East and Africa very hard indeed. Nobody has the slightest idea how many refugees that will generate, but it is likely to be many times the current flow.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“She…refugees”; and “In an…individually”)

Waterloo: The Fall of a Superpower

Thursday is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and in the course of the day you are almost bound to hear or read somebody claiming that it “changed history.” It was a very big battle, after all, and it would be a century before Europe saw war on that scale again. But did the events of 18 June 1815 “change history”? Probably not.

The really decisive battle was fought a year and a half before that near Leipzig in Germany: the ‘Battle of the Nations’. Three times more men were involved in that battle than fought at Waterloo. There were many more battles before the Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies entered Paris and Napoleon finally abdicated as Emperor of the French in the spring of 1814, but he never won another battle.

Napoleon was given a mini-kingdom on the island of Elba, off the Italian coast, to keep himself busy. The victors began to put Europe back together after twenty years of almost unbroken war, around 3 million combat deaths, and a comparable number of civilian casualties. And after only ten months, Napoleon escaped from Elba and went back to France for another try.

But it was really already over. The British (the paymasters of the coalition), the Austrians, the Prussians and the Russians were all still mobilised, and their armies started closing in on France. In the ‘Hundred Days’, Napoleon managed to lure many men who had fought for him in past wars back into his new army, but it was pure nostalgia.

He moved fast, hoping to defeat the British army in what is now Belgium before the other allies arrived to reinforce it, and he almost succeeded. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, said that the battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” In the end, late in the afternoon, the Prussian (German) army showed up and turned the tide. But if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo, he would have been defeated a little later.

“God is on the side of the heaviest battalions,” said Voltaire, and Napoleon agreed, just substituting “the best artillery” to demonstrate that his military knowledge was fully up to date. But his political knowledge was woefully deficient: God is actually on the side of the biggest economies, especially if they know how to turn their wealth into military power.

Britain had already overtaken France as Europe’s biggest economy (and in those days, that meant the world’s biggest economy). The industrial revolution in Britain was already into its second generation, while France had barely entered the first. Even in sheer numbers of people, a low birth rate meant that France would fall behind Russia, then behind Germany, and eventually even behind Britain in population.

So even if Napoleon could go on winning battles, he couldn’t win the war. In the end he couldn’t even win the battles. He was running out of soldiers, and his enemies had spent a generation at war learning (very expensively) to fight battles just as well as he did. Waterloo only confirmed what everybody with eyes could see already: France was finished as Europe’s superpower.

Then Britain got a century at the top (and after 500 years of Anglo-French wars, it never had to fight France again). The United States is now about 75 years into its term as the reigning superpower – and you are probably assuming that I am now going to speculate who gets the crown next. Wrong on two counts.

First of all, it’s a thorny crown, and nobody in their right mind would want it. The relevant statistic (which hides in plain sight) is that the more powerful a country is, the more wars it fights and the more people it loses. More power doesn’t give you greater security; it just gets you into more trouble.

Secondly, about half the time there is no undisputed top dog. That was the situation for the century 1600-1700, when Spain was in visible decline but France was not yet ready to assume the mantle of sole superpower. It was equally true in 1945-1990, when nuclear weapons (the great equaliser) meant that the United States and the Soviet Union were co-equal superpowers even though the US economy was far bigger than the Soviet one.

And now, with the American superpower allegedly in decline, there is obsessive speculation about when China will step in and take over the role – or might it turn out to be India instead? As though it were still the early 19th century, when France was going down and Britain was taking over. It isn’t.

Military power doesn’t deliver the goods any more. The United States has lost almost every war and mini-war it has fought in the past fifty years (except Grenada and Panama), even though it accounts for around half of the planet’s spending on defence. In the present global strategic environment, decisive victories are about as rare as unicorns.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing. Victory is a much over-rated concept.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“But…nostalgia”; and “God…power”)