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Fragmentation: The Tribalisation of Politics

‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Long live ‘homo tribuarius’!

That’s not really something to celebrate, but it’s certainly true that in most democratic countries economic self-interest is no longer the most important factor in voters’ choices. Tribalism of various sorts is taking its place, and that is not an improvement.

Take three quite different countries that are all stalled in the middle of political transitions that would have been done and dusted in no time twenty years ago: Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Spain has just had its fourth election in four years, and the stalemate is worse than ever. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went back to the polls in the hope of increasing his
centre-left PSOE party’s seats in parliament enough to make the arithmetic work. He had no chance of winning an overall majority, of course, but maybe with a few more seats and a more willing coalition partner….

Not a chance. He went back to parliament with a few less seats, and so did his skittish intended coalition partner, Unidos Podemos. They have now swallowed their pride and agreed on a coalition, but they still need 21 seats from elsewhere for a majority, and it’s hard to see where that will come from.

This is not how things used to be. A couple of decades ago the PSOE and its centre-right rival, the People’s Party, used to sweep up 80% of the vote, leaving just scraps for the ‘minor’ parties. In last April’s election, the two historic ‘major’ parties only got 48% of the votes between them.

Or consider Israel, where two elections this year failed to any set of political parties – out of a total of nine – with enough common ground to build a coalition government that works. The two ‘major’ parties together got only 51% of the votes.

Binyamin Netayahu’s Likud party tried and failed to form a coalition government. Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party is still trying, and there is talk of a power-sharing ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties, but otherwise Israel is probably heading for a third election within months.

Even if there is a deal between Likud and the Blue and White Party, the resulting government would be prone to fall apart at the first bump in the road. As that perspicacious political observer Donald Trump said on Monday, “They keep having elections and nobody gets elected.”

And then there’s the United Kingdom, stuck in the Brexit swamp for over three years and still looking for the exit. The two big traditional parties, Labour and the Conservatives, managed to win 80% of the vote in the last election, but subsequent defections from both the big parties made a decision on what kind of Brexit it should be (if any) impossible. Why is this happening?

In Britain, the Labour-Conservative disagreement used to be basically economic. Labour sought to redistribute the wealth, the Conservatives tried to defend the existing order, and most people made their choices according to their position in the economic pyramid.

That was never entirely true, of course. Some intellectuals in posh houses voted for Labour, and the Conservatives always managed to attract some working-class votes by stressing racial, sectarian and ‘values’ issues. But most people did vote for their economic interests.

Not now. The Conservatives are the pro-Brexit party, but 42% of their traditional voters supported ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Similarly, one-third of traditional Labour voters backed ‘Leave’. Never mind the economy; the referendum was driven by English nationalism. Or tribalism, if you prefer.

You can find similarly indecisive outcomes all over the place. The two traditional ‘major’ parties in Germany got only 54% of the vote in the last election. In 2017, the Netherlands went 208 days without a government. In 2018 Sweden went four months ‘ungoverned’ before a coalition was finally formed.

You can’t blame these outcomes on ‘the internet’, although that certainly makes it easier to spread disinformation. You can’t just blame it on ‘proportional representation’ voting systems, either: the UK has a simple winner-takes-all (or ‘first-past-the-post’) system. You probably can blame it on a rising level of anger everywhere, but then you have to explain the anger.

The one common denominator that might explain it is the growing disparity of wealth – the gulf between the rich and the rest – in practically every democratic country.

Since the 1970s, income growth for households on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder has slowed sharply in almost every country, while incomes at the top have continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top is now at a level last seen 90 years ago during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – just before the Great Depression.

We could fix this by politics, if we can get past the tribalisation. Or we could ‘fix’ it by wars, the way we did last time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“Even…elected”; and “That was…interests”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Israel Election 2019 (Part Two)

Binyamin Netanyahu’s work is almost done. If he wins Tuesday’s election and forms yet another government (he is now the longest-serving Israeli prime minister), he will put a stake through the heart of the ‘two-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was born in the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Hamas should send him a gold watch for long service.

Netanyahu and Hamas have always been what our Marxist friends used to call ‘objective allies’. That is to say, they hated each other, but they shared one overriding objective: to thwart the creation of a semi-independent Palestinian state based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that had been envisaged in the Oslo deal.
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It was the Israeli left that made that deal, in the person of Yitzak Rabin, a war hero who thought he saw a chance for a permanent peace settlement. His Arab partner was Yassir Arafat, the terrorist-turned-statesman who led the secular Fatah organisation, the largest Palestinian group. Arafat too was ready for a compromise peace by 1993.

Both men, of course, faced bitter opposition at home. Arafat’s strongest critics were the Islamist fanatics of the Hamas Party. Rabin’s were the Israeli ultra-nationalist right, who included the Orthodox religious parties and most of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.

The Oslo deal started to collapse when an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Rabin in 1995. It was assumed at first that his foreign minister Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat, would win the ensuing election on a sympathy vote. Then Hamas staged three huge suicide bombings killing 58 Israelis in the three months before the 1996 Israeli election campaign.

Hamas’s goal was to radicalise Israelis and push them into the camp of the anti-Oslo nationalists, led by one Binyamin Netanyahu. It worked, Netanyahu formed a government – and there were no further bombings of comparable scale for five years afterwards.

Netanyahu was not in cahoots with Hamas, but as a former professional soldier he would certainly have understood their strategy. And as prime minister he did what they hoped: he successfully stalled on delivering any of the Israeli promises in the Oslo accords until he lost power in 1999.

It was ten years before Netanyahu came back into power in 2009, but the pattern was set. Only once, briefly, was there an Israeli government that tried to revive the ‘two-state’ solution, and since Netanyahu has been back it has been completely off the table.

In fact, there’s no risk any more even if he isn’t in power: the ‘two-state’ option is well and truly dead. Hamas would probably still prefer Netanyahu to any plausible alternative Israeli prime minister, but from their point of view, his work is done.

So what is this election in Israel about? Not very much, really.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its usual coalition partners, the extreme right and religious parties, won a majority in last April’s election, but he was unable to put a coalition together afterwards. One key party in his last coalition demanded that the large numbers of young Orthodox men studying for years at a time in religious seminaries must lose their automatic exemptions from military service.

Netanyahu couldn’t agree to that without losing the support of the religious parties, so he called another election instead. It may work: the last opinion poll legally permissible before the election predicted that the right-wing bloc would win a solid majority of 66 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

It is possible that Kahol Lavan, a centrist party led by former armed forces commander Benny Ganz, will win more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud Party and thereby gain the right to try to form a government. But it will probably not succeed, because the larger coalition of parties Ganz leads, the Blue and White Alliance (after the colours of the Israeli flag), will come up short: the polls say only 54 seats in the Knesset.

So Netanyahu will probably be prime minister again, even though he is facing fraud, bribery and corruption charges and may face pre-trial hearings within weeks. Netanyahu denies all charges and would not be legally required to step down unless he is convicted and all his appeals are rejected. That process could take years.

But still, how does he go on winning? He has all this legal baggage, his domestic performance is no better than fair – most Israelis feel their budgets are pretty stretched – and anyway you’d think they would be getting bored with the same old face after 13 years.

He does it, every time, by throwing a scare into them, and by simultaneously promising to expand Israel’s territory. This time, he presents himself as the only man who can keep the US on side against the allegedly mortal Iranian threat, warns that Israel’s Arab minority will ‘steal’ the election (by turning out to vote), and says he will annex the Jordan valley and the northern Dead Sea coast (one-third of the West Bank) as soon as he is elected.

He is Mr Security, ‘King Bibi’, and he knows all the tricks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“Netanyahu…deal”; and “It is…Knesset”)

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States and its friends could certainly destroy all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities by ‘conventional’ bombing, including most of the underground facilities. (The Iranians, having lived with threats like this for a long time, have done a good deal of digging.)

The attackers could also destroy all the utilities like water, sewage and electrical power that make urban life possible, forcing millions of Iranian city-dwellers into refugee camps in rural areas. The Iranians might be able to shoot a few of the attacking planes and missiles down, but not many.

But none of this would force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf (which transport most of the oil burned in India, China and Japan). Iran’s sea-skimming missiles can be fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, and have the range to reach the other side at any point.

So in the end, if you’re serious, it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said. But the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88. And Iran is as large as France.

Would the Iranians volunteer in such numbers? Of course they would. Many Iranians don’t like the current regime, but they are patriots. They are as unlikely to welcome a US invasion as American liberals would be to welcome a foreign invasion promising to liberate them from Donald Trump.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

So don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. It really is the stupidest idea.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 14. (“It’s not…lose”; and “Would…Trump?”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.