Another Gaza War

Palestine Chronicle, November 28, 2012

Bombing Gaza

It is important to dismiss some fallacies surrounding the recent Gaza war before we examine the significance and fallout of Israel’s eight-day bombing campaign. One of those fallacies is that Hamas started the fighting by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, the other that Israel was targeting “terrorists.” A careful analysis of the sequence of events leading to Israeli bombardment proves the former to be untrue. The latter fails scrutiny in view of available reports and casualty figures released by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza City. The vast majority of the more than 150 killed and 1000 injured were civilians, though the Israelis claimed the opposite.

Assuming new powers

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was widely praised for playing a key role in negotiating the truce between Israel and Hamas. Riding the crest of popularity, Morsi immediately issued a presidential decree giving himself sweeping powers which would be impossible to challenge. He appointed a new prosecutor-general of his choice, granted the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council,  the upper consultative house of parliament, protection from dissolution by the judiciary. He also ordered the retrial of Mubarak-era officials who were accused of killing and injuring protestors during and after the Tahrir Square demonstrations last year.

The presidential decree has stunned the population and sparked a fierce debate in the country. Supporters have hailed it as “revolutionary.” Opponents have condemned it as a “coup.” From now on, all presidential declarations, laws and decrees will be immune to appeal “by any way or by any entity.” There now exists a climate of anger and frustration in Cairo and other cities. Judges, liberals and secularist politicians and activists outside the Muslim Brotherhood circle are furious and offices of Morsi’s party have been ransacked.

On the BBC’s Today program on November 23, Fawaz Gerges, a leading Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, compared President Morsi’s move with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “power grab” in the 1950s, paving the way for dictatorial rule under Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Professor Gerges warned of a “dangerous” situation in the country. For a while it had looked as though Egypt under Morsi would retake its role as the most powerful and effective Arab nation in the Middle East. However, his move to grant himself sweeping powers has upset the delicate political balance in the post-Mubarak era. For Egypt without internal stability cannot play its proper role in the region and beyond.

The roots of conflict in the territory called Palestine are as ancient as an interested party would profess. But claims that Hamas rockets began the latest Gaza war are false. The blockade, the humiliation of Palestinians who must pass through the Israeli crossings regularly, the Israeli army’s incursions and rockets from Gaza are part of everyday life.

What appears to be true is that for about two weeks there had been a lull, broken on November 8 when Israeli soldiers entered Gaza. In the ensuing fighting a 12-year-old Palestinian boy playing soccer was killed. In retaliation, Palestinian fighters blew up a tunnel along the Gaza-Israel frontier injuring one Israeli soldier, followed by the firing of an anti-tank missile which wounded four Israeli troops.

On the same day, an Israeli tank shell landed in a field killing two teenagers. Thereafter, an Israeli tank fired on a funeral. Two more Palestinians were killed and many more injured. On November 12, Palestinian factions offered a truce provided Israel ended its attacks. Two days later, the Israelis assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military chief, and at least eight others, including two Palestinian children. It was this sequence which triggered the war. Was it self-defense on Israel’s part, or provocation?

Itching for war

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been itching for war with Iran in recent years. He may have succeeded in launching a military campaign which could lead to a broader Middle East conflict but for President Obama’s reluctance to go down that route. This is why Netanyahu wanted a victory for his friend Mitt Romney, who appeared eager to take military action against Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Obama’s opposition, Romney’s failure to win the American presidency and serious doubts from influential voices within Israel’s own military and political establishment thwarted Netanyahu’s ambition to attack Iran for the time being. But Netanyahu was not happy with his present grip on power. He would like to strengthen it further and for that he called fresh elections. A war would show him to be Israel’s “strong man,” improve Likud’s election prospects and a win would give him a longer period in office. However, those who play the game of Russian roulette must be ready for unexpected consequences.

In the aftermath of another Gaza war, two realities confront each other. On one hand, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has taken the lives of more than 150 Palestinians, many of them innocent civilians, for a handful of Israeli lives. Netanyahu can continue to display hubris; his offensive in Gaza may improve his prospects in the coming elections, or may not; and President Obama has to go on expressing public support for Israel, though his private views may be different.

Escaping for cover

On the other hand, Hamas rockets of Iranian design have travelled longer distances than before; thoughstill crude and incapable of precisely targeting anything, they are enough to cause more alarm in Israel than before; Hezbollah has shown that its drones can fly over Israel now; and the movement’s leader Hasan Nasrullah openly taunts the Israelis and the Americans in his speeches. One side, all powerful, is struck by fear and paranoia. The other, armed with primitive rockets, professes its willingness to make whatever sacrifice there is to be made. No ceasefire can last.

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Notes From An Observer: Obama’s Victory

CounterPunch, November 16, 2012

Bitter Adversaries

The longest, most expensive elections in one of the most polarized democracies in the Western world are over. Now we see contrasting reactions and unforeseen fallout––in the form of elation, bitter disappointment, investigation and resignation. The downfall of the CIA director David Petraeus and investigation into Gen. John Allen’s emails concern both their personal conduct, as well as the uncomfortable fit between President Barack Obama and the conservative military hierarchy.

Nonetheless the current turmoil at the top should not distract us from deeper analysis of American politics. The overwhelming nature of President Obama’s win over his Republican rival Mitt Romney in the Electoral College was achieved by a series of narrow but even victories in hotly contested states. A win by a small margin in a state can deliver all of the Electoral College votes, so the outcome is distorted rather like in Britain’s parliamentary elections, where a candidate can win by just one vote. It hides a greater truth––that the United States is a society split almost in two halves as its demographic transformation continues.

The Republican Party’s hysteria on a range of issues––from Muslims, Hispanics and other non-white communities to slogans of “small government” which threaten the vulnerable, low-income groups, women in particular––has damaged the social fabric of the United States and the party’s own prospects. The trend is most conspicuous in the presidential and senatorial races, where constituencies are huge. However, it is not so accurately reflected in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have maintained their majority. The omens for President Obama are hardly better in the second term, for there will be fierce battles over the budget. The Republican majority will likely do all it can to thwart the president’s fiscal proposals, clouding his legacy.

Split America

The depth of polarization in American society is reflected in the overall vote. More than 90 percent of blacks and 70 percent of Hispanics and Asians supported Barack Obama. And 88 percent of those who voted for Mitt Romney were white. Yet the difference in the popular vote between the two was smaller than 3 percent. How can these numbers explain Obama’s solid victory over Romney and the Democratic majority in the Senate, but the Republican hold in the House?

Is it because the ethnic (white–black), ideological (Republican–Democratic) and economic (rich–poor) divides are reflected in the smaller House districts more accurately? Is it because House districts are more definitely white or mixed, rich or poor, rightwing or moderate? In other words, has segregation––ethnic, economic, ideological––in the United States widened? Or have other factors been responsible for a very different outcome in the House? An expert with intimate knowledge of the landscape may shed more light on this.

Many of America’s domestic afflictions remain as they were under President Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush––possibly with two notable exceptions. One is Obama’s rescue of the auto industry; the other his healthcare plan, which was compromised during the legislative passage. Its utility will be proven in time. Mitt Romney fatally damaged his presidential hopes by playing the politics of exclusion. Barack Obama helped his reelection by taking steps to rescue the U.S. auto industry and delivering a healthcare plan despite disruptions and dilutions by his adversaries. The former contributed to his victory in the industrial states like Ohio; the latter in states like Florida with large numbers of Hispanic voters and pensioners worried about healthcare.

Now that the victory has been achieved, what are the prospects for President Obama’s second term? I have alluded to the prospect of stalemate between the White House and Congress. The conservatives in the House showed dogged opposition to block Obama’s healthcare plan, resist tax proposals and thwart his presidency in the first term. Obama’s reelection has made the political right more bitter even as its support base shrinks. The real question is whether he will continue to be the compromiser-in-chief, reluctant to stand his ground and fight for the substance of his program. Or his goal remains that the headlines show his presidency in good light, so he can leave a legacy of his choice, not necessarily much needed solutions to problems at home and abroad.

Global Hegemony

In foreign policy, Barack Obama did not take long following his inauguration in January 2009 to get back in tune with the past agenda, albeit with some adjustments, seeking U.S. hegemony over the globalized system. Initial promises of solving the Israel-Palestine dispute, rapprochement with Iran and the wider Muslim world and elimination of nuclear weapons were either diluted or abandoned or not heard again. Aspirations of a better U.S. human rights record were managed by silence, disingenuous definitions of combatant and civilian, and covert operations.

Withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was accompanied by the surge in Afghanistan––and those drones in the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. President Obama’s announcement of a reduction in America’s military presence in the Middle East actually meant a switch to increased reliance on special forces, drones and other mechanized tools of war, often deployed off-shore. A game of deception in the wider Middle East enables him to turn greater attention to encircling China. Will Obama’s second term be very different from the first? Or will he continue to walk away from positions he appeared to take in the fist six months of his presidency in 2009? That is the million dollar question.

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