Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Palestine Question Remains Central

A recent essay in The Wall Street Journal would have us believe that the Palestine/Israel conflict has nothing to do with upheavals in the Arab world. Emanuele Ottolenghi takes the classic, if superficial, line that decades of repression and economic stagnation, rather than concern about the fate of the Palestinians, were the sparks for the mass movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain.

On one level this is true enough. It took more than dismay at the Palestinian quagmire to bring down the Twin Towers and motivate suicide bombers around the world. The internal conditions in most Arab countries were quite sufficient to generate the long smoldering hopelessness, frustration and violent rage that led to the recent mass demonstrations. All it took was the spark of a dramatic action like the self-immolation in Tunisia combined with instantaneous communication to give people the courage to overthrow political leaders that had lined their own pockets at the expense of the welfare of most of the people. In the process these dictators were able to play the Western leaders for fools by holding up the bogeyman of Al Qaeda. “Of course we are repressing our own people. You should thank us instead of sending over these interfering NGOs. If it were not for us Al Qaeda would sweep through the entire region. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to send the billions of dollars you promised,” ran the line that was accepted by so many gullible governments.

These conditions have been well documented over the years, and people who know the Middle East at all were surprised only by the speed at which the protests spread and the relative ease, except for bizarre mystery world of Libya, with which the ancien regimes crumbled.

But to jump from the reality of this conflict to the conclusion that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is irrelevant to the current situation defies all logic and common sense. This bit of geo-political acrobatics ignores the serious point that one of the major complaints of the Arab ‘street’ is that the isolated leaders were too close to Israel and didn’t do enough for the Palestinian people. The easy relationship between the Arab security organizations and their Israeli counterpart was justified as a way to keep the lid on the situation and prevent the fundamentalists from taking over.

What really worries the Israelis now is that whoever takes over in Egypt and elsewhere will start paying more real attention to the Palestinian problem. The Israelis and others forgot just how much the Palestinian issue resonates with the masses that were demonstrating in Tahrir Square. Those crowds did not have to be filled with jihadis or Al Qaeda members to be angry at the collusion of the regimes with the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The new government may not break the treaty with Israel, but we can expect it to be much more vocal and active in support of both Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.

It is also a reality that whatever their governments may have said, many in the Arab world view their relationships with the West through the prism of the Palestinian problem. I can not think of a single discussion I had over the years with ordinary people from Kuwait to Morocco that didn’t sooner or later come around to Palestine. In the most sumptuous home or humble shop the pained question, however politely framed, was always the same, “Why do you let the Israelis treat the Palestinians so badly?” The vast majority of the people were perfectly willing to grant the reality of Israel, but they could not understand the unbalanced treatment of the Palestinians. It made all the Western talk about democracy and human rights in the region seem merely like a cynical exercise of the age old ‘might makes right’ principle.

Israel now has to recalibrate its relations with the new governments. What’s it going to do? Will it maintain the Netanyahu government line that Israel’s security can only be maintained by more defense spending, tighter restrictions on the Palestinians, and more and more settlements on Palestinian land? Or will it recognize that no Arab government, especially the new ones that want to prove they listen to the people, will be able to give Israel the real security it wants as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved?

Ottolenghi maintains that the “…the conventional wisdom that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the mother of all problems in the region has now been exposed as nothing but a myth.” In some ways he is correct. The Palestinian conflict clearly is not the only problem facing the new governments, but, if the new governments want to gain credibility that the former regimes never had, until this burning issue is resolved nothing can really be resolved. For the time being the jihadis and other radical religious elements are very much in the background. One sure way to bring them raging out into the open is to maintain that the Palestinian problem is irrelevant.

Monday, 21 February 2011

How Much Of A Democracy Model?

Democracy protestors throughout the Arab world looking to use Turkey as a model for blending Islam and democracy should be careful what they wish for. Other than the by-now ritual thundering denunciations of Israel and calls for the Egyptian military to return the country to civilian rule Turkey’s support for the protests has been strangely muted.

The normally hyperactive Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is usually good for a comment even on a slow news days, has been missing in action. Protestors are taking to the streets in countries that Turkey is trying to get close to, but Turkish officials have nothing much to say about the bloody repressions in Iran, Bahrain, and Libya. Is Davutoglu merely stunned by the events or is he being side-lined because he became too visible? There were major stories in The New York Times  and Wall Street Journal recently about Davutoglu as the architect of Turkey’s new, proactive foreign policy. As one of the few English speaking Turkish cabinet officials he was frequently quoted in foreign media. Did his star shine too brightly in a country where there is only ONE architect and ONE helmsman, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan?

The Turkish prime minister is not a man who is easily embarrassed. But even he might find his position on Libya slightly compromised because in November, 2010 he received from the Great Leader himself the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. This now seems rather like receiving the International Hannibal Lecter Child Protection Award. 

What’s even more confusing is that while the Arab world seems to be waking up after decades of political hibernation Turkey is showing disturbing signs of the very authoritarian trends now discredited in Arab countries.

Journalists, military officers and others are jailed on vague charges of plotting coups against the government. The ‘discovery’ of these plots and subsequent indictments began about four years ago just after the Supreme Court found the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) guilty of violating certain segments of the constitution. There was only a ‘slap-on-the-wrist’ penalty, but many in Turkey say it is no coincidence that the sweep of the alleged plotters began just after the Supreme Court decision. The AKP is desperate to discredit and weaken the political influence of the military that it views as the biggest opponent of its plans to remake Turkey.

The charges may be true, or they may not be true. Despite the passage of four years no one knows. The indictments are detailed, but the evidence has not been challenged in a court. Some call  the evidence flimsy and manufactured. Not one trial has been completed and not one defendant has been found guilty or innocent. Meanwhile prosecutors have been busy uncovering additional ‘plots’ and more people have been thrown in jail. Those jailed include about 50 journalists who, according to the prosecutors, have been locked up not for their strong anti-government opinions but for their alleged involvement in coup plots.

Cynics say this is just AKP pre-election posturing as the defender of democracy against certain ‘dark forces’ – read the military and its allies. If it can indirectly paint the opposition political parties as part of those ‘dark forces’ so much the better. Erdogan is desperate to get enough votes, about 55% of the total,  in the June election so that AKP has at least 367 members of parliament. This would give the party the ability to change the constitution single handedly and move to a political system with a strong president who, naturally, would be Tayyip Erdogan. This would put AKP and Erdogan in an unassailable position to change Turkey however they wanted. Winning the required votes in the June election will not be easy, and if AKP has to slander its opponents or potential opponents as ‘enemies of democracy’ so be it.

AKP’s ambivalence toward human rights at home can also be seen in its treatment of the Moslem group called Alawites, or Alevi in Turkish. This group has some doctrinal similarity to Shiites, but has been a moderate, tolerant movement in Turkey and its members have tended to vote for the social democratic CHP party, now the country’s main opposition. The majority Sunni Moslems have traditionally opposed the more liberal Alevi, and in some cases consider them heretics. According to analysts  Murat Ucer and Atilla Yesilada  the overwhelmingly Sunni AKP is putting pressure on the Alevi by such acts as withholding public services to Alevi villages or restricting the opening of new Alevi places of worship. Ucer and Yesilada say there is anecdotal evidence that these steps are punishment of the Alevi for supporting the wrong political party.

And then there are the Kurds. No one knows quite what is going to happen there. Will the Kurdish terrorist group PKK try to incite Turkish Kurds to large scale Egyptian type demonstrations? How will the government react to any mass acts of civil disobedience? The weekly report by Ucer and Yesilada sums up the problem facing the government.

“At the end, PM Erdogan can’t have it both ways. If he wants Turkey to become a major player in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and a model to be emulated politically and economically by Moslem countries, he needs to address the grievances of the Kurds and the Alevites, as well as cutting the dissidents some slack.” The next few months should give a real clue to Turkey’s potential as a role model in the region.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Beauty Of An Island Winter

Cold rain was sheeting down, waves were breaking over the pier and darkness had long since fallen as we pulled up to the ancient ferry that was to take us to Andros, the Aegean island my wife calls home. I looked dubiously at the good ship Penelope as it bounced, creaking and groaning, on the waves even while at anchor. The load master saw my nervous look, laughed and bellowed above the howling wind the Greek equivalent of ‘No problem.’ Thus re-assured we parked the car on the heaving car deck and staggered up to the passenger salon for the two-and-a-half hour ride. A reasonable person might just ask why this trip was necessary.

But as soon as the heavy anchor chain started to clank into the hold and the ferry slowly edged out into the stormy sea everyone’s spirits seemed to lift from the prevalent gloom of mainland Greece. The islands, as always, were offering refuge from the confusion, strikes, and general chaos of the mainland. Even during the dark days of World War II when Greece was under German and Italian occupation people on the islands avoided the worst of the warfare and famine that killed thousands.

After awhile we passed the lights of Karistos on Evia and entered the bumpy Cavo D’oro strait between Evia and Andros where we could see the running lights of ships slogging their way northeastward toward Turkey and the narrow, twisting Dardanelles Straits. A little while later the ferry docked in the port of Gavrio on Andros and we bumped down the ramp onto solid ground once again. The familiar Andros wind was strong as ever, but the rain had eased and a few stars were visible over Mount Petalo. Once on the road to the town of Chora on the eastern side of the island we rolled down the windows and immediately the rich scents of wild thyme, sage and rosemary filled the car.

Most people limit their trips to ancestral islands to the summer months when you can actually sit on the deck of the ferry and enjoy the scenery without freezing to death and getting pelted with a hard, cold rain. But we had ‘chores’ to do – the old house needs constant attention and the garden of fruit trees, grape vines and an overgrown mimosa tree was in serious need of pruning. During the summer when it’s hot and lazy you’re too busy doing absolutely nothing even to dream of getting any real work done. Besides, so I’ve been told, it’s the wrong time of year to prune anything.

But, as we discovered, there are real advantages to visiting the islands during the winter. You get to see the hills covered with what looks like soft green felt, the streams are full and rushing down the steep hills, and the wild flowers are just waiting to burst out at the first stretch of warm weather. You can even see a dusting of snow on top of Mount Oxi on Evia.

Among other benefits you gain immense credibility and move up the acceptance ladder from mere ‘summer people’ to ‘real islanders’. Shopkeepers have time to smile at my broken Greek and suggest that perhaps what I really wanted was a half a kilo of mince meat and not the five kilos of pork intestines that I had mistakenly ordered. A contractor makes time to come out on a cold Saturday night to fix our electricity. The owner of the computer store, who was up half the previous night hosting a 'Back To The 80s' party at his cafe,  makes time on a Sunday morning to fix my internet connection.  Passersby nod with satisfaction when they see lights in a house that is usually dark from September to June. You can just hear them saying, “This is how it used to be. This is how it should be.”

The outdoor tavernas may be closed, but it’s Friday night during the winter - and that’s bouzouki night in one of the restaurants. The man that runs one of the town’s jewelry shops doubles as a bouzouki player. He is accompanied by the owner of the restaurant who plays a mean 12-string guitar and happens to have a pretty good voice. After a few glasses of ouzo the customers add their voices to the renditions of traditional Greek folk songs. During the winter the cinema moves indoors and people are encouraged to make a bit of social occasion out of it by bringing wine and traditional Greek mezzes. Even if you miss the subtle points of an Italian film with Greek subtitles you can sit back and enjoy the wine and food.

The next day was perfect for pruning, bright and clear. Looking at the size of the task I felt like resorting to my favorite pruning tools of napalm and a chain saw when a friend showed up who actually knew what he was doing. He was horrified at my suggestion of wholesale slaughter of innocent plant life, and produced a small pair of pruning shears to tackle the jungle. Bit by agonizing bit some order emerged from tangled mass, and by the end of the day we had a two-meter tall brush pile, slimmed down grape vines, and a denuded, shrunken mimosa that he promises will spring forth in scented glory by Easter.

A few days later, loaded down with our own lemons and mandarins, we reluctantly returned to Athens convinced that island life has as much, if not more, to offer during the winter months than during the sun-soaked days of summer.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


Growth At A High Price

Last month we commented on a Turkish Central Bank study that demonstrated clearly just how much Turkish industrial production depends upon imports and the worrying implications of this for the Current Account Deficit. Data released a few days ago only confirm this trend.

Industrial production in the 4th quarter increased by an enormous 12%, hinting at GDP growth of more than 8% for the full year 2010. The downside of these glossy numbers is that this growth came at the expense of a rapidly deteriorating Current Account Deficit. The CAD reached $7.5 billion for December alone and amounted to more than $48 billion for the full year, 243% worse than 2009’s CAD of $14 billion. The deficit as a percentage of GDP is getting up into the red zone at an estimated 6.5% for 2010.

While exports increased 10% to $121 billion, imports jumped 32% to $177 billion. The surge in industrial production was also felt in the energy bill that increased to $34 billion from $26 billion the previous year.

All this would not be a concern if the sources of financing this deficit were improving. But they are not. The deficit is being financed by short term portfolio inflows that can reverse course in the click of a computer key leaving the Turkish treasury with a giant hole to fill.

It is all well and good for Turkey to show Chinese-like growth numbers, but unlike the Chinese these numbers come at a very high price. While the Chinese show ever increasing traded surpluses, the Turks pay for their growth with ever increasing trade deficits. In many ways the country is in a growth trap – the faster it grows the deeper the deficit hole becomes.

With elections coming in less than six months there is no chance that the ruling AKP  will act to rein in growth. It has to show these glittering numbers and worry about paying for them later. And this means shoveling even more money into the economy to keep the engine running.

Investors so far have so far reacted warily to the growth of the Current Account Deficit, but have not shown signs of panic – yet. The Turkish Lira has depreciated 12% in the last two months, and the stock market is down 5% so far this year. Interestingly, the Greek stock market is up (it didn’t have much further to decline) 26% this year. The weakness in the Turkish market has thrown a wrench into plans for the National Bank of Greece to raise some much needed money by selling 20% of its Turkish subsidiary Finansbank. Turkish banking stocks are fading, and it is hard to do a deal when the market is going away from you.


The intra-Turkish rhetoric about Cyprus is heating up and ripping away the pretence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent country. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s angry words in reaction to a Turkish Cypriot demonstration against a Turkey-imposed austerity plan were quickly followed by similar words from the Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek.  In addition the Turkish ambassador to Northern Cyprus was quickly replaced by a bureaucrat from the State Planning Office who designed the austerity program. He told the Turkish Cypriots that Turkey, who props up Northern Cyprus to the tune of $500 million every year, is their IMF and that they should essentially sit down and shut up. Apparently Erdogan thought the ambassador was not being firm enough with the Cypriots, and yanked him home to be replaced by the hard-line bureaucrat who acts more like a colonial governor than a diplomat.

Why is Turkey suddenly taking such a hard line on its yavru (baby) state? Is the Turkish prime minister angry at the failure of his attempt to turn Northern Cyprus into a stronghold of the Turkish ruling party (AKP) by importing thousands of Anatolian Turks and building mosques all over the island? Turkish Cypriots like their version of democracy and their secular way of life, and don’t really like heavy-handed AKP control. The carrot didn’t work, so is Erdogan now trying the stick?

Another  theory is that the Turkish prime minister is trying to prepare the Turkish part of the island for a change in status, one way or another, by the end of this year. Currently the break-away state is recognized only by Turkey. The economy of Turkish Cyprus was never strong to start with, and it is not helped by the trade embargo on the self-proclaimed state. In addition, many Turks are forced to find work in the southern, internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus because there is very little opportunity in the North.

These recent actions could be part of plan to get the Turkish Cypriots ready for the day when they can no longer count on the economic life-line from Turkey and will have to stand on their own in a newly integrated island if the talks succeed. Or, if the talks fail, Turkey will be in a stronger position to push for a change in the isolation of Northern Cyprus. It may never be internationally recognized but the trade embargo could be removed. Some in the European Union are already pushing for an end to the embargo despite the strong objections of the Republic Cyprus. Failure of new talks might just give them the courage to proceed. Northern Cyprus could also be opened to direct international flights from countries other than Turkey. Moves like this might allow the de-facto division of the island to continue in the grey area between international recognition and full integration with the Greek part of Cyprus. Not a real solution, not perfect by any means, but it may just be the best that can be obtained right now.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Cyprus Back On The Agenda -- Again

After gently snoozing at the bottom of the international agenda since the failed UN-sponsored effort at re-unification in 2004 why has the small Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, bitterly divided between the majority Greeks and minority Turks, suddenly started to get more attention? Within the last six months the Republic of Cyprus has received visits from Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. French President Nicholas Sarkozy is due to visit soon. This is a lot of attention for an island associated mainly with tourism, low tax rates, and offshore bank accounts.

One answer probably lies deep beneath the eastern Mediterranean Sea in potentially very large gas fields. Cyprus is a member of the European Union and other EU members would be delighted if natural gas was found in EU territorial waters and they could reduce their reliance on Russia.

All this activity has re-focused international attention on the fundamental problem of Cyprus: how to get the Turks and Greeks on the island to co-exist peacefully. The island has been sharply divided since 1974 when the Turkish army invaded to protect its fellow Turks from what it called ethnic cleansing by bands of marauding Greek Cypriot nationalists. As far as the Greeks are concerned it was an invasion pure and simple. The Turkish army succeeded in occupying only the northern third of the island, and thousands of Greeks fled their homes to the safety of the southern side that was internationally recognized as the Republic of Cyprus. The Turks established a micro-state called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that so far is recognized only by Turkey.

Despite sporadic efforts since 2004 at finding common ground between the Greek and Turkish sides of the island very little has been accomplished. Why would either side want to continue seemingly pointless talks?

The reasons for Turkish support for a Cypriot solution are fairly straightforward. Cyprus is an expensive distraction from the main event of reshaping Turkey itself according to the ruling party’s (AKP) policies. The Turkish part of Cyprus relies on annual hand-outs of $400 - $500 million from Turkey to stay afloat. In addition Turkey has stationed 30,000 troops on the island.

Cyprus also remains a diplomatic albatross around Turkey’s neck at a time when the country is working desperately to raise its international profile. Despite major efforts over the years Turkey has been unable to convince any other country, including its new friends Iran, Sudan and Syria, to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Given its recent anti-Israel rhetoric Turkey may be able to convince Hamas in Gaza to recognize the breakaway state. But even that is unlikely.

Cyprus continues to be a major roadblock to Turkey’s already faltering bid to join the European Union. Many EU countries disguise their antipathy to Turkish entry by hiding behind the Cyprus issue. They piously point out that it would be impossible to accept into the EU a country whose military occupies a large part of another EU member. At the very least, resolution of the Cyprus issue would inject a little honesty into the debate about Turkey’s EU entry. In short, Turkey needs to move on from this stalemate.

Turkey has always portrayed itself as the protector, the benefactor of the yavru (baby) state of Turkish Cyprus. Nationalist politicians loudly and frequently declaim about Turkey’s ‘duty, honor and pride’ in supporting its ‘oppressed’ brethren on Cyprus. Alas, this passion is not always reciprocated by the Turkish Cypriots. Recently there was an anti-Turkish demonstration in Northern Cyprus. Turkey wants to impose an austerity program on Turkish Cyprus and has proposed wide ranging pay cuts. The demonstration was against these cuts, but there were also a few banners hoisted telling Turkey to stop interfering in Cypriot affairs.

This ignited the permanently short fuse of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who blasted the Turkish Cypriots for daring to criticize the very people who feed them. Needless to say this did not go down well with the Turkish Cypriots. The exchange between Erdogan and the Turkish Cypriots underscores another problem. Cyprus is a fairly sophisticated place, and for years Turkey has been shipping unsophisticated Anatolian villagers to Cyprus in an effort to even the numbers with the Greeks. This mini-culture clash upsets the Turkish Cypriots as much as it does the Greek Cypriots. One wonders what would happen if the Turkish Cypriots decided to do a deal with the Greek Cypriots regardless of what the ‘mother country’ Turkey wants.

Despite holding the upper hand with a strong economy and EU membership, the Greek Cypriots could also benefit from a solution. Cyprus assumes the presidency of the European Union in 2012, and some fear this could turn into a farce if the island is still divided. There are some in the EU who think it was a mistake to accept Cyprus before re-unification, and they could make embarrassing noises during the Cypriot presidency. Second, major oil companies may be reluctant to spend a great deal of money exploring the sea offshore Cyprus unless the political conflict is resolved. Even though Turkey’s legal position seems to be very weak, it could make life difficult for the exploration companies. And more important, Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias is rumored to want a solution, unlike his predecessor the late President Tassos Papadopoulos who did everything he could to make sure the Greek Cypriots rejected the Annan Plan in 2004. There are reports that he is willing to work to change Greek Cypriot public opinion about the benefits of a deal.

Nothing will happen until the Cypriot parliamentary elections this spring and the Turkish national elections expected in June.  If Christofias’ allies do well in the parliamentary elections and Erdogan emerges even stronger in the Turkish elections the chances for a solution improve. The issues are well known and could include removal of the Turkish army, free movement throughout the island, restitution for people whose homes were lost, protection for the Turkish minority, and a plan to re-integrate the Turks into the island’s economy. The Turkish Cypriots get EU membership and better economic prospects. The Greek Cypriots get access to the whole island and an end to the Turkish military threat. They might also get their homes back, or at least financial restitution. Turkey gets a major headache removed. Greece, once a major player in this conflict, is absorbed by its own economic problems and plays a much reduced role in the current Cyprus talks.

All this sounds obvious, but if the potential negotiations are to have any chance at all they will have to avoid being drowned out the wails of anguish from the mega-nationalists in Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus about ‘selling out’. One can only hope the fact that the Turkish Cypriots may actually benefit from being ‘sold out’ will not be obscured in the loud debate.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Will Arab Democracy Isolate Israel?

Israeli scholar Yossi Klein Halevi is concerned that the recent push for democracy in the Middle East might leave Israel isolated. In an International Herald Tribune piece entitled Israel, Alone Again he repeats the usual Israeli narrative that a collapse of the autocratic Mubarak regime could present Israel with existential threats to its very existence.

Perhaps it is time for Halevi and others to consider that Israel’s feared isolation may well be largely self-induced. Maybe it’s time to recognize that Israel is actually part of the Middle East, and it might be useful to get serious about making real peace with its neighbours.

This will not be an easy mental re-alignment. The so-called New Historians in Israel have been reviled as ‘self-haters’ or ‘de-legitimizers’ of the State of Israel for daring to suggest that the real history of the country does not quite match up to the nursery school version of the plucky little Zionist resisting overwhelming Arab enemies. There is another version. And you don’t have to deny the existence of Israel to accept this revised version.

Relying on Israeli archives scholars like Avi Shlaim contend that Israeli leaders from the very earliest days of the Zionist movement were never very interested in making peace with their Arab neighbours. The present ambivalent, at best, stance of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward real peace is merely an extension of this earlier policy. Needless to say, Shlaim’s book Iron Wall is not exactly required reading in Israeli schools.

A series of essays published in an interesting example of revisionist history called The War For Palestine: Rewriting The History of 1948 provides another version of the most sensitive issue of all, the expulsion of the Arabs from their homes during the conflict. The dominant Israeli narrative, and one they have successfully sold to the Americans, is that the Palestinians left of their own volition or because they were told to leave by Arab leaders. The archives and diaries of the founders of the State of Israel show that this is not necessarily so. These documents show that the Jewish forces did everything they could to expel the Palestinians and create an exclusively Jewish area.

This reluctance to deal with their neighbours on equal terms has pushed Israeli leaders into supporting autocrats who make treaties without doing the hard ground-work of winning popular support. Israeli leaders now fear that that popular resentment of Israel’s arrogant and condescending treatment of the Arab people is about to blow up into full scale confrontation with new leadership in Egypt. Netanyahu and his minions overseas are doing everything they can to frighten the Americans and Europeans about the possibility of the Moslem Brotherhood having any role in the new government.

Real friendship instead of the cold peace that now exists could actually increase Israel’s long-term security. Israel is rightly concerned about potential Iranian nuclear weapons. This concern, fear, is shared by most of the Arab countries as well. Were Israel willing to establish a real peace, versus one imposed by a stronger military power, it might find a lot of allies in its anti-Iranian policy. But such a real peace means first and foremost settling the Palestinian issue. And this is something Israel seems reluctant to do on any terms half-way acceptable to the Palestinians.

Israel wants us to believe that the fate of Palestine and the related issue of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not major issues in its dealings with the Arab states. In reality, those two inter-related issues are THE major stumbling blocks to any sort of normal relations with the Arabs. The occasional treaty might get signed, and Israeli tourists might go to Egypt, but there will be nothing approaching close cooperation until the open wound of Palestine is healed.

Instead of trying to scare the Americans away from a non-Mubarak solution for Egypt, one that might just include a role for the Moslem Brotherhood, the Israeli leadership could more usefully reconsider its Palestinian policy as the key to better relations with its neighbours. Part of this smoke screen of fear is a bald attempt to frighten the U.S. Congress to contribute even more money to Israeli defence needs. Although just why the United States should continue to give more than $3 billion a year to a country that can use its own strong economy and cash from its major natural fields to meet its defence expenditures is not quite clear.

In one of today's editorials the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, no friend of Netanyahu’s, put the issue of real peace with the Arabs succinctly: “Israel’s foreign policy must adapt itself to a reality in which the citizens of Arab states, and not just tyrants and their cronies, influence the trajectory of their countries’ development . . . Instead of clinging to the old, collapsing order, Netanyahu must seek peace agreements with both the Palestinians and with Syria in order to make Israel a more welcome and desirable neighbour.”

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Where Are The Optimists?

I have been in Athens for the past week and have worked very hard to find an optimist. It is like looking for water on the moon – only with less chance of success. Even those who consider themselves optimists for the long term worry about their ability to survive the short-medium term.

Events in Egypt may have temporarily pushed Greece off the front pages, but, as one disgruntled Athenian put it, “At least the Egyptians have some hope.” As the country struggles to solve its staggering debt problems with long overdue reforms the ordinary people face a gauntlet of challenges every day: transportation strikes, surge in illegal immigrants, demonstrations, sit-ins, riot police in front of the parliament, strikes by pharmacies, and on and on.

Grafitti on a wall of the Polytechnic University sums up the frustration of Greece today: "For Nothing, Against Everything." Even the dimmest of the demonsrators or politicians realizes there can be no return to the old ways. But no one has a clear view of what lies ahead. Therein lies the confusion.

On top of this people have to deal with individual bureaucratic idiocy. For example, it’s not enough that the Athens Law School has been in chaos for several days as a sit-in by illegal immigrants and their supporters has just about shut down the school. A professor schedules a major exam in the middle of this mess on a day when the public transport system is on strike. He refuses to change the date of the exam, and consequently about 90% of the students can not even get to the school for the exam. No wonder people are losing their cool.

A friend brought a civil suit against a bank about six years ago. He has not yet even appeared in court. The first year the court adjourned before the case was heard. He was postponed, not for a day, not for a week or a month, but for an entire year. The next year there was a court officers’ strike on the day of the case. Again, another year. The following year, there was a bomb scare. No case. The next year the lawyers were on strike. Finally his case got on the docket, but never got heard because the first case of the day took up the entire morning before the court adjourned at noon. He was recently told that the case may, may, be heard in 2013.

My wife’s effort to have the name Edgerly appear on her Greek passport required about three years of constant guerrilla attacks after which the authorities threw in the towel and did it her way. The Greek passport, understandably, requires all names to be written in the Greek alphabet. Fair enough. But then in addition they translate the Greek version back into the Latin alphabet for the rest of the world to understand. Rather than simply rely on the already available English version of our name they invent an entirely new one, ENTZERLI. Great. Very helpful.

After it was forced to borrow €110 billion to stay afloat Greece has essentially ceded control of its economic affairs to the so-called Troika – the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. This has battered the Greek psyche.

“We used to think of ourselves way ahead of countries like Turkey. After all, we were members of the European Union and our economy had improved enough – so we were told – to join the Euro. Now Turkey is surging and some of our people are even looking for work over there,” moaned one small businessman.

The Troika soon discovered that Greece, unlike other financially troubled countries like Ireland and Portugal, needed a complete overhaul of its entire economic system. The distortions that continue to cripple Greece have been in place for decades, and removing them all at once is like having two root canals simultaneously, without anaesthesia.

Inflated pensions, pretend jobs that unfortunately have real pay and benefits, bloated and inefficient state sector, absurd regulations that protect most professions from any hint of competition and strangle innovation and initiative at birth, corruption big and small, and a political system that ensured a job-for-life for your brother-in-law’s idiot cousin if you voted for the right person. Misguided attempts to increase the price of public transport rather than collect existing fares have led to strikes and refusal to pay road tolls. These strikes are aimed at getting the government to back down just like every other Greek government has done. Few people really believe the government has the courage to follow through on opening the closed professions. So far they may be right. One example is that the 30% guaranteed profit margin for the pharmacies remains untouched.

But the Troika running the Greek economy is not easily intimidated. They’re not facing an election. The government is reduced to rubber-stamping the Troika’s demands and then ducking the flack that comes from the public. The government tries lamely to explain that all these changes for the best, and that eventually everything will be just fine.

It is hard to overstate the anger that ordinary people feel toward the political class. Former prime minister Costas Simitis was attacked in the street and only saved by his security detail as he cowered in the lobby of a near-by apartment building. Former ministers are lustily booed if they dare appear in restaurants. The public ignores the fact that it was equally complicit in the tragedy of the Greek economy.

For all its difficulties Greece has undeniable assets, mainly in its well educated and bright young people. Many of these people have achieved global renown in their fields of interest. The real challenge for the government is to remove the roadblocks for this generation and let them realize their potential in Greece instead of in some other country.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Israel to the U.S. -- Stop Pushing Mubarak

In all the clamour about demonstrations and possible change of regime in Egypt one of the loudest voices urging the continuation of the Mubarak government is Israel. Other newspapers throughout the region have already adopted the “Hosni who?” attitude while the Israelis are lambasting the United States for greasing the skids under Mubarak’s exit. Their attitude seems to be ‘Better the devil you know than the unknown.’

The comments that Israeli Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara made to former Arkansas governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee were typical. Counting on Huckabee’s complete ignorance of the Middle East, Kara pushed every terrorist threat button he could think of to warn about events in Egypt. Many Israelis detest President Obama in the first place, and Kara wasted no time criticizing Obama for ‘turning his back on’ long-time US ally Mubarak. The fact that Obama may be opening up to a much wider Egyptian constituency was conveniently overlooked.

Kara’s comments were surpassed by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv. In an article headlined “A Bullet In The Back From Uncle Sam” Pohoryles accused Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of following a ‘naïve’ policy in the Egypt. All of this seems very odd coming from a country that proclaims loudly that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Is it naïve to think such a country might actually welcome other democracies in the region rather than support autocrats? Or perhaps it doesn’t want to lose the distinction of being the sole democracy?

The Israeli hysteria is based on the possibility that a radical Islamic regime would replace Mubarak who, at the very least, kept the peace with Israel for 30 years. The Israelis must be aware that this very cold peace was unloved by the Egyptian people, and they remember all too well that former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated for making that peace. In short, they don’t care who suppresses the Egyptian people as long as someone does, and keeps Egypt from becoming a major problem for Israel. It’s one thing to beat up on the Palestinians, but it’s a problem of another magnitude to deal with a large, potentially hostile army sitting on your border.

The fact that Obama has moved to put the United States on the right side of the seismic shifts occurring in the Middle East is lost on the Israelis who are determined to frighten Americans by turning every Egyptian protestor into an Islamic terrorist bogeyman. But in reality it is far from clear what or who will follow the Mubarak regime.

It is very interesting, as noted by Turkish columnist Ahmed Hakan, that the protestors have not been waving placards covered with sayings of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Moslem Brotherhood who was assassinated in 1949, or Sayyid Qutb, whose writings inspired many of the radicals who founded Al Qaeda and who was executed by Nasser in 1966. It appears that the speed and scope of the demonstrations have taken the Islamists by surprise, and they have not yet figured out how to play the popular discontent.

It would foolish to underestimate the strength of the well-entrenched Egyptian establishment who, together with the army, may, just may, be able to manage the transition to a more representative government that will not be dominated by the Islamists. Egypt is not the Shah’s Iran, and is unlikely to crack as easily.

One humorous result of the Egyptian unrest is to put Saudi Arabia and Israel on the same side for once. The Saudi royal family has been sending ‘Hang-In-There-Hosni’ messages lest the contagion of democracy spread to Saudi Arabia. The Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir has yet to be heard from, but Syrian leader Bashir Assad is trying to pre-empt a Cairo moment in Syria by calling for reforms.

While the Turkish leaders are justifiably proud of the democracy they inherited, they have never shown much enthusiasm for the spread of that democracy to the rest of the Middle East. When the ruling Justice and Development Party is not singing the praises of Sudan and Syria it is busy snuggling up to rich, autocratic regimes in hopes that they will spend some of their petro-wealth in Turkey. The loudest support in Turkey for the Egyptian protestors so far has come from the Islamic groups demonstrating in front of Istanbul’s Fatih Cami in a very conservative section of the city.

Much of the Turkish press is revelling in schadenfreude as it watches its main rival for affection in the Middle East struggle to maintain an even keel. “Too bad, Hosni, sorry to see you in so much trouble.” Tony Soprano could not have said it better. Others are adopting a more balanced tone noting that Turkey could well become a model for those in the region trying to balance the seemingly irreconcilable demands of Islam and secular democracy.

The Israeli  fears are mirrored exactly in Richard Cohen's column in today's Washington Post. He seems to believe that the only choice in Egypt is between the autocratic Mubarak regime and chaos. This type of cataclysmic thinking is not helpful or accurate. Change is coming to Egypt whether Cohen and the United States like it or not. At this point it really is out of the hands of any foreign country to control. The only question is how successfully the United States and others ride this wave.