Focal Points Blog

Will the Flotilla Attack Be Our “Kent State” Moment?

The offensive by the Congressional Democratic leadership against the Gaza humanitarian aid flotilla has now moved beyond just rhetorical support for the Israeli attack on the unarmed convoy. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, has called upon U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute U.S. citizens who were involved or on board the flotilla.

Israelis demonstrate in front of the Turkish embassy on June 3, 2010 in Tel Aviv, Israel.Because the Gaza Strip is currently ruled by Hamas, according the Sherman, any humanitarian aid to the people of that territory is “clearly an effort to give items of value to a terrorist organization,” which is prosecutable under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Despite the active support of the humanitarian aid effort by a number of pacifist organizations in the United States and Europe, Sherman insists that the organizers of the flotilla have “clear terrorist ties,” dismissing critical analysis of such charges as part of the ideological agenda of “the liberal media.”

Sherman also announced he would be working with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the more than 700 non-U.S. citizens who took part in the flotilla would be permanently barred from ever entering the United States. This would include European parliamentarians, Nobel laureates, as well as leading writers, artists, intellectuals, pacifists, and human rights activists, virtually none of whom are in the least bit sympathetic with Hamas or with terrorism.

Given the very real threat of terrorism from Al-Qaeda and other groups against the United States, it is very odd that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic Party leaders would choose — out of 255 Democrats in the House of Representatives — a paranoid right-winger like Sherman to chair the critically important terrorism subcommittee. Rather than focus on the real threats from Al-Qaeda and other dangerous organizations, it appears that Sherman is putting his energy into going after the motley group of Quaker pacifists, left-wing Jews, and other like-minded activists who boarded the ships attempted to bring medicines, school supplies, toys and other humanitarian aid to children of the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, it raises serious questions about whether the Democratic Party Congressional leadership is really concerned about international terrorism or, like the Bush administration, is attempting to use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to suppress nonviolent dissent against the policies of the U.S. government and its rightist allies.

Organizers and endorsers of the flotilla include such reputable American peace groups as Code Pink, Jewish Voice for Peace, Pax Christi, the American Friends Service Committee, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Resource Center for Nonviolence, War Resisters League, Women in Black and others. Supporters of this nonviolent effort to bring humanitarian aid to the people of the Gaza Strip also include such Israeli groups such as Yesh G’vul, Coalition of Women for Peace, New Profile, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, among others.

Despite this, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), insists that these groups are “pro-Hamas people.” Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) claims that the organizers of the flotilla have “links to Hamas and reportedly played a role in the attempted Millennium bombing in Los Angeles.” Rep. Ron Klein D-FL) insists that the real agenda of these peace and human rights organizations is “to bolster the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza.” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) argues that Israel’s attack on the unarmed flotilla laden with humanitarian supplies part of an effort to “defend herself against terrorism.”

When prominent Democrats — including the head of an influential House subcommittee concerned with national security — begin implying that leading America and Israeli peace groups are linked to terrorism, it is no longer simply an issue of over-heated rhetoric in support of an allied right-wing government, but a McCarthyistic attack on nonviolent dissent. Indeed, it could only be a matter of time before we see Medea Benjamin, Mitchell Plitnick, and other leading nonviolent activists who have supported the flotilla hauled before Sherman’s subcommittee regarding these alleged ties to terrorism.

In many respects, however, Israel’s attack on the unarmed flotilla last weekend could be a “Kent State moment.” At the time of the 1970 shootings, National Guardsmen and police had been killing African-Americans and Hispanics with some regularity for years. When white middle class students were gunned down on a college campus, however, it woke up a whole new segment of American society, goading them into active resistance. Similarly, while the Israeli military has been killing Arab civilians for years, now that they have attacked European and American peace activists — with the support of Congressional leaders — it has created a whole new dynamic, one I witnessed personally this past Friday evening, at the annual dinner of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California.

Roughly 150 people gathered in the fellowship hall of a local Congregational Church this past Friday evening, including prominent liberal members of the city council and county board of supervisors, area clergy (including a local rabbi), professors, small businesspeople and other community leaders. The main speaker was Nomika Zion, founder of kibbutz Migvan in Sderot, Israel, a community which had suffered from relentless bombardment for many months from Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Zion — a leader of the Sderot-based peace group Other Voice, which opposed Israel’s war on Gaza — argued that it was the ongoing siege of Gaza which was the biggest threat to the security and called for an end of the Israeli blockade RCNV staffperson and former Santa Cruz mayor Scott Kennedy then called on the city to come together to organize a boat to send relief supplies to Gaza Strip in an effort to end the siege, adding that he would write Rep. Sherman and Attorney General Holder and dare them to investigate and prosecute the hundreds of people in this coastal community who would support such an effort.

Israel’s rightist government and their allies in the U.S. Congress have clearly miscalculated. By claiming that the hundreds of dedicated peace and human rights activists on board those ships — most of whom in no way support Hamas or any terrorist group — as supporters of terrorism, they are mobilizing what could become a major backlash. It is a particularly bad calculation for the Democratic Party, which is going to need the support of the peace and human rights community — a key constituency of the party’s base — going into the mid-term election this fall. There are already plans for additional ships to try to run the blockade, most of which will have active participation from nonviolent activists here in the United States. We’ll see if Rep. Sherman and other Congressional leaders can stop them.

Krauthammer: Gaza Flotilla a Threat to Israel’s Existence

Would the Washington Post feature a columnist writing a weekly column which was frequently anti-Semitic? No, of course not — the Post will not have such a columnist and rightfully so. But, the Washington Post has Charles Krauthammer spewing hatred, falsehoods, and much more anti-Arab and anti-Islam rhetoric frequently. He demonizes Arabs and Muslims by his falsehoods. In fact, he was one of the most effective voices in calling for the invasion of Iraq causing hundreds of thousands of death and over a million wounded.

I am a loyal reader of Mr. Krauthammer’s column in the Post. I like to know what the other side is saying — or maybe I like to torture myself! But, Krauthammer’s most recent column on Friday June 4, 2010 got my blood boiling. He was trying to defend the Israeli commando raid of the humanitarian flotilla. He ends his article with:

The world is tired of these Jews, 6 million – that number again – hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Zionists – Iranian in particular – openly prepare a more final solution.

He claims the humanitarian aid is an invitation to national suicide! Could he be more absurd? Israel has over 200 nuclear bombs, the strongest regional military power, supported by the only superpower, and the strongest economy. But if they allow a humanitarian aid ship through it is suicide. He claims that all Israel wanted was to search the cargo for weapons. Well, why then has Israel had a total blockade in force on Gaza’s 1.6 million Palestinian Arabs for the past four years?

During that time, couldn’t Israel have arranged for an international inspection of all humanitarian aid into Gaza? Or is it that Israel wants to prevent food and medicine from reaching the Palestinians as a collective punishment? Or is it that Israel, as one official said, wants to starve them but not kill them. The sewage system in Gaza was destroyed by Israel two years ago. The water purification system, too, was destroyed or rendered dysfunctional by the blockade. The children of Gaza are dying from diseases and malnutrition.

The Gazans live in the highest population density area in the world. They have been living under such conditions for the past sixty years since the creation of Israel, which now has one of the highest living standards in the world. So tell me: who is living in a Ghetto?

Mr. Krauthammer wants to demonize the Palestinians as an ungrateful people. But they only want freedom from mass starvation. How dare they want to attack Israel in order to attain the resemblance of livelihood? Moreover, how dare the world support a flotilla that seeks to prevent the starvation of 1.6 million people?

If the security of Israel is the issue, then why doesn’t Mr. Krauthammer support the two-state solution called for by the UN, United States and the Quartet? I would support a fully secure and safe Israel within its 1967 borders with an unarmed state of Palestine. Israel and Mr. Krauthammer would not be satisfied until all of the Arabs and Muslims become subservient to the wishes of Israel and the United States.

It would have been more appropriate if the ending paragraph of Mr. Krauthammer’s recent column stated:

The world is tired of these Palestinians, 6 million – that number again – hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Arabs and anti-Muslims – Israeli government and Mr. Krauthammer in particular – openly prepare a more final solution.

The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be

“I believe that there is absolutely nothing Israel can do that would end the unprecedented and unwarranted support the US gives it,” a reader wrote in response to my post, When You Circle the Wagons, Shoot Outward! He then cited numerous examples of Israel being “given a ‘by’ for everything it does.”

While I don’t disagree with his historical recounting, I definitely challenge his assumption that it means much of anything about the future.

In times of rapid change, historical trajectories are poor indicators of future events. Change is nonlinear. It leaps and spurts and stalls, rolls back and jumps laterally as well as vertically. (This is why the ‘experience’ we seem to value in leaders is so often a handicap – it equips them to deal with the past and instills a desire to solve old problems in old ways, because that’s what they know how to do.)

To greatly simplify the science, the behaviors of complex adaptive systems are ‘emergent’. They arise from the messy, nonlinear interactions among the ‘initial conditions’ of the moment, the rules governing the system, and the relationships among the agents that make up the system.

The initial conditions continually ‘refresh’. (A technical way of saying change is constant and the bumper sticker was right – shit happens.) As these initial conditions shift, the outcomes manifested by the system shift, too, because it’s continually ‘co-evolving’ with its environment.

The most important initial condition here is the degree of support for Israel on the part of American Jews, because of their disproportionate influence (relative to population) on American politics.

The default setting in US politics has been strongly pro Israel for 60 years. That meme was still operational during the 2008 presidential election, when each candidate went out of his way to boast about his support for the Jewish state.

However . . .

The goal of politicians is to get elected. (And reelected.) They always have a finger to the wind. (Want to know what POTUS is going to say in the State of the Union? Just see what’s running 66% or better approval in polls and focus groups, and he’ll be behind it or taking credit for it.)

So long as America’s Jewish voters were solidly behind Israel, so were elected officials. But that’s shifting. As Peter Beinart expressed it so succinctly in The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment for the New York Review of Books, ‘For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.’

There have been several key milestones along this road. The Walt and Mearsheimer piece in the London Review of Books was one. Jimmy Carter’s bestseller, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was another. The 2008 / 2009 Israeli attack on Gaza pushed many American Jews over the edge, and gave rise to grassroots efforts such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Another Jewish Voice, and more sophisticated, inside the Beltway movements, such as J Street.

No less an American hero that CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus has argued that America’s relationship with Israel is important – but not as important as the lives of American soldiers, which Israeli intransigence threatens by providing rallying points for Al Qaeda and others.

Even in Israel, pragmatists (few though they may be) get this. ‘Israel is gradually turning from an asset to the United States to a burden,’ Mossad Chief Meir Dagan recently told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

This is a pattern, people.

It’s true that Israel and its supporters in America have been remarkably successful in controlling the narrative. They have spun the media, turned out the voters and bought the politicians.

But that’s a legacy model. It’s 20th century stuff. We live in an open source, post-print world. There’s too much bandwidth out there for any group to enforce message discipline or control the narrative today. Citizens with cell phones, iPads, Flip cams and Twitter, Flickr and YouTube accounts are now more important to framing narratives than the New York Times. Traditional media is, as a Pentagon official said of US Special Envoy George Mitchell, ‘too old, too slow … and too late.’

The ‘Freedom Flotilla’ organizers knew and took advantage of this. The Israelis completely misunderstood it, were suckered in, and are now paying the price. Not only did they look to all the world like criminals and thugs, they also managed to look incompetent in the process.

As the Economist put it, ‘Once admired as a plucky David facing down an array of Arab Goliaths, Israel is now seen as the clumsy bully on the block.’

Nobody likes clumsy bullies. Or votes for those who do.

For additional background, see Was Gaza Israel’s Waterloo?

Outraged by Drone Strikes? Some Drone Operators Are Too

Investigative reporter and historian Gareth Porter at IPS News writes in an article titled CIA Drone Operators Oppose Strikes as Helping al Qaeda:

Some CIA officers involved in the agency’s drone strikes programme in Pakistan and elsewhere are privately expressing their opposition to the programme within the agency, because it is helping al Qaeda and its allies recruit, according to a retired military officer in contact with them.

The interview he landed is an eye-opener.

“Some of the CIA operators are concerned that, because of its blowback effect, it is doing more harm than good,” said Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to U.S. Special Forces and director of the Centre for Terrorism Law at St Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, in an interview with IPS.

Not only that, but neither are “‘The people at the top . . . believers,’ said Addicott, referring to the CIA. ‘They know that the objective is not going to be achieved.'”

Especially discouraging . . .

Addicott said the drone programme has been driven by President Barack Obama, rather than by the CIA. “Obama’s trying to show people that we’re winning,” he added. …

Within the administration, it appears that the logic behind the programme is that it has to be seen to be doing something about al Qaeda. … “Very frankly,” Panetta declared May 18, 2009, “it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership.”

CIA officers: Come to Florida, where you, too, can become a victim of PTSD while dealing out indiscriminate death from the comfort of your own console.

Be sure to read the rest of Gareth Porter’s exclusive at IPS News:

U.S. Support for Israel Mirrors 80s Support for El Salvador Junta

It’s like the 1980s all over again.

During that decade, the Reagan administration – with the support of Congress – sent billions of dollars worth of unconditional military and other support to the right wing-junta in El Salvador, just as the Obama administration is today with the right-wing government in Israel.

When Salvadoran forces massacred 700 civilians in El Mozote, Congressional leaders defended the killings, saying that the U.S-backed operation was “fighting terrorists.” Similarly, when Israel massacred over 700 civilians in the Gaza Strip early last year, Congressional leaders defended the killings for the same reason.

When Amnesty International and other groups investigated the El Mozote killings and found that it was indeed a massacre targeted at civilians by the Salvadoran army, members of Congress denounced these reputable human rights organizations as “biased.” There was a similar reaction when Amnesty and other groups documented similar Israeli war crimes, with Congressional leaders accusing them of “bias.”

Even when the Salvadoran junta murdered international humanitarian aid workers, that right-wing government’s supporters in Washington insisted that the victims were actually allied with terrorists and that they somehow provoked their own deaths. We’re now hearing the same rationalization regarding the attack on the humanitarian aid flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean.

The difference is that, back in the 1980s, members of Congress and the administration who were responsible for such policies were targeted with frequent protests, including sit-ins at Congressional offices and other kinds of nonviolent direct action. Unlike supporters of the El Salvador’s former right-wing government, however, today’s Congressional supporters of Israel’s right-wing government seem to be getting a free ride.

Senators Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, Russ Feingold, Barbara Mikulski, and Carl Levin – who led the attack against Justice Goldstone and others who documented Israeli war crimes – are still supported by many so-called “progressives” who apparently believe that, despite these senators’ attacks on basic human rights, they should still get their vote, campaign contributions, and other support. For example, here in California, Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans and singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt, who were active in opposition to U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s, are major contributors to Boxer’s re-election campaign. The willingness to challenge such right-wing Congressional militarists has substantially diminished.

The problem is less a matter of the power of AIPAC and the “pro-Israel lobby” as it is the failure of those on the left to demand a change in Obama administration policy. Progressives must recognize that the lives of Arab civilians are as important as the lives of Central American civilians; that it is just as inexcusable for the United States to support a government that kill passengers and crew on a humanitarian flotilla in international waters as it is to kill nuns, agronomists and other civilians working in the Salvadoran countryside; and that, when it comes to international humanitarian law, the differences between the policies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are not as great as we would like to think.

Reader Challenge: Do Alternate Cheonan Narratives Ring True?

Asia Times Online periodically provides a forum for Kim Jong-il mouthpiece Kim Myong Chol. In an early May article titled Pyongyang sees US role in Cheonan sinking, he suggests that the incident may have been the result of friendly fire on the part of the United States.

Is it possible that North Korea carried out the daring act of torpedoing a South Korean corvette participating in a US-South Korean war exercise? The answer is a categorical no. The circumstantial evidence is quite revealing, showing who is the more likely culprit.

Among the evidence he cites:

The disaster took place precisely in the waters where what the Pentagon has called “one of the world’s largest simulated exercises” was underway. This war exercise, known as “Key Resolve/Foal Eagle” did not end on March 18 as was reported but actually ran from March 18 to April 30.

North Korean submarines are not stealthy enough to penetrate heavily guarded South Korean waters at night and remain undetected by the highly touted anti-submarine warfare units of the American and South Korean forces. A North Korean submarine submarine would be unable to outmaneuver an awesome array of high-tech Aegis warships, identify the corvette Cheonan and then slice it in two with a torpedo before escaping unscathed, leaving no trace of its identity.

Or as Lex, who frequently writes for Scholars & Rogues, put it:

If that’s how good the DPRK is, I’m not so sure we want to be rattling sabers.

Sticking the knife in and twisting, Chol declared that “the US repeated the kind of friendly fire incident for which it is notorious in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, another alternative narrative, in the form of an open letter to Hillary Clinton, finds neither the United States nor South Korea culpable. Its author, S.C. Shin, a civil investigator recommended by Korean National Assembly to investigate the sinking of Cheonan, seeks only to stay their hand from retaliating. He writes: “I could not find even a slight sign of ‘Explosion’ but could find so many evidences of grounding in/out of the vessel.”

Chin provides a detailed analysis, complete with images, of the shallow and rocky area where he believes the Cheonan went aground, to which the initial Mayday calls also attested. He further provides pictures of damage to the hull and propeller blade which show (drawn from his bullet points): “No penetration, No burn damage, No heat, No splinters, Cable covers are not damaged, Oil tank and dump area not damaged at all.”

If the boat was hit by a torpedo, he asks:

How are the bodies of victim who were found near the cutting area so clean while a big explosion [supposedly] broke out that is enough to tear down the vessel in two?

  • How could the bottom of the hull no& penetrations by splinter at all?
  • Why couldn’t we find even dead fish in that area . . . ?
  • Why nobody got otolaryngologic disease at all? Even no nose-bleeding.

The crew of the Cheonan, Chin maintains, actually managed to free the ship, but another incident followed when it then collided with another ship (because it had lost the ability to steer?).

Chin also cites the initial reports, which, of course, may have just been attempts to head an international incident off at the pass.

Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence, . . . told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April . . . that there was no evidence linking North Korea to the Cheonan’s sinking. South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo, while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected . . . (in) the waters where the accident took place.”

Obviously, if there’s any merit to these alternative narratives (not conspiracy theories, at least in this instance) them, they deserve a hearing to prevent an international incident. Do Focal Points readers find them credible and compelling? Also, let’s try to dissect the motives on the part of South Korea and the United States for representing a grounding and/or accident as an act of aggression.

Who Killed Hatoyama’s Career?

Yukio Hatoyama’s political career is dead, and Washington’s fingerprints are all over the murder weapon.

Hatoyama Announces To Quit Japan's Prime MinisterThe Japanese prime minister announced yesterday that he’s resigning and taking his number 2, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Ichiro Ozawa, with him.

The press has made a big thing about Japan’s political instability, that Hatoyama is the fourth prime minister to step down in four years. But this was a resignation that could have been avoided.

The Obama administration never warmed to Hatoyama. Washington didn’t like his critique of American-led globalization. His calls for a more equal partnership with the United States fell on deaf ears.

But it was the Okinawa base issue that sealed the deal. The Japanese prime minister had the temerity to call for a renegotiation of the 2006 deal that would close the Futenma Marine Corps base in Okinawa, shift thousands of Marines to Guam, and build a new base elsewhere in Okinawa for the remainder. The Obama administration went into overdrive in its efforts to persuade Hatoyama and his upstart DPJ to change their minds.

It wasn’t just a matter of convincing the prime minister or his party. The DPJ’s ruling coalition partners were against the relocation plan. And the vast majority of Okinawans rejected the 2006 plan. Tens of thousands of protestors gathered in a mass demonstration in April. Another 17,000 formed a human chain around Futenma in May.

So, Hatoyama was in a quandary. He couldn’t afford to piss off Washington. And he couldn’t afford to alienate his own constituencies. So, he committed political suicide by accepting the fiat from Washington and then resigning.

“Hatoyama’s popularity collapsed, in large measure, because he could not make up his mind,” writes Blaine Harden in The Washington Post.

That’s not exactly true. The prime minister was flawed in many ways. He was inexperienced. There were some shady financial dealings in his political circles.

But he couldn’t make up his mind because he was in an impossible position, a position that the United States forced him into. In my opinion, Washington used the Okinawa base as a weapon against a politician that it didn’t fundamentally trust.

Japanese voters wanted a big change when they supported the Democratic Party of Japan last August. They didn’t realize that the U.S. government was not interested in big change in Japan, not if it challenged U.S. interests in the region.

Japanese voters can still make new leaders. But the United States reserves the right to break them.

Italy: Tomatoes and the Color Purple vs. Silvio

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, increasingly under attack by trade unions angered at his austerity proposals and a feckless economic program that has produced virtually no growth, now finds himself besieged on the Internet. There is a certain irony that this rightwing media mogul should find himself beset by the electronic media.

Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi looks down during a news conference at Palazzo Chigi in RomeThrough his massive holding company, Fininvest, Berlusconi owns Mediaset, one of the largest communications companies in Europe. It controls Italy’s three most watched channels, as well as Telecinco in Spain. Because he controls the government, Berlusconi also dominates the public station, RAI. What Italians see on their televisions is what Silvio wants them to see, and that means sports, soaps, and news shows that look like a joint undertaking by Fox News and Victoria’s Secret.

Shortly after a quarter of a million people turned out in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo last October to challenge Berlusconi’s control of the media and the Prime Minister’s efforts to make himself immune from the law, the “Purple Movement” sprang up on the Internet. According to one of the group’s founders, Emanuele Toscano, purple is the “symbolic color of battle for the affirmation of democracy, for the respect of our Constitutional Charter as the foundation of civilized living, for the defense of a free and plural information system.”

Using Internet tools like Face book, the “Purples” set up a nationwide network of Internet users, who turned out leaflets, organized transportation, and on Dec. 5 put several hundred thousand people into Rome’s San Giovanni Square for a “No Berlusconi Day.” The Rome police estimated the crowd 90,000, but even Berlusconi cabinet member, Robert Calderolli, put the number at 350,000.

Dec. 5 was Italy’s first Internet-promoted demonstration, similar in many ways to the massive 1999 demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Seattle.

“The net is a natural incubator of dissent,” argues Toscano, although the “Purples” also used old-fashioned methods as well, like handing out leaflets downloaded off the web, and flooding local newspapers with letters. The latter strategy was essential because only about one-third of Italy’s 60 million people are connected to the Internet, and only seven million of those use it with any regularity.

Other on-line groups, like “More People Love Tomatoes than Silvio Berlusconi,” have sprung up, and the torrent of Internet opposition, coupled with growing union resistance, is starting to seriously dent the Prime Minister’s popularity. His poll numbers have plummeted from 49 percent approval in January, to 35 percent in May.

Political figures all over the continent are taking a beating because of the current recession, but nothing like Silvio. Even Europe’s basket case, Greece, gives its Prime Minister, George Papandreou, a 43 percent approval rating—a drop of 10 percent—and crisis-wracked Spain and Portugal have seen their prime ministers’ poll numbers fall only 3.5 percent and 4.5 percent respectively.

Some of Berlusconi’s wounds are self-inflicted, including his squabbles with rightwing allies in the Parliament, his sexual escapades, his fight with the Catholic Church, and his rather bizarre falling out with Rupert Murdoch. His admiring use of a quote by fascist leader Benito Mussolini during a Paris news conference on May 27 is not liable to help.

Italian unions are gearing up for a one-day general strike to protest Berlusconi’s austerity package, and Guglielmo Epifani, head of the General Confederation of Italian Unions (CGIL), has called for a June 12 protest in Rome. “The cuts are all concentrated on workers, the same old recipe that leaves out the high wage earners,” Epifani told the Financial Times. The austerity package calls for a three-year wage freeze.

Besieged on the streets, hounded by the Purples and the Tomatoes on the Internet, the Capo di tutti capi of Italian politics looks headed for a fall.

Israel: When You Circle the Wagons, Shoot Outward!

Were it not for the ongoing humanitarian tragedies, it would be amusing to watch Israel self-destruct. For a regime that once seemed the embodiment of competence and self assurance, it now appears to be suffering some sort of terminal grand mal, thrashing around and blindly smashing the crockery and furniture.

An Israeli holds a national flag on the beach near the Ashdod port in southern IsraelIsrael seems clearly bent on demonstrating what its opponents have long claimed — that it is a dangerous and illegitimate regime operating beyond the confines of international law and moral principle. The attack on the Gaza flotilla — with lethal force, in international waters — is the latest demonstration of its apparently infinite counterintuitive capacity. The offered defense of these indefensible actions — “They made me do it!” — would embarrass even a petulant five-year-old.

Complexity science heads don’t do prediction. In a non-linear system, where slight changes in initial conditions, agent interactions and perturbations across systems boundaries combine to generate unpredictable outcomes, the future is always uncertain. But we can learn over time to see patterns and probabilistic vectors, and therefore better anticipate surprises.

So, taking all that into account, let me suggest that Israel as we know it, will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. Its own internal inconsistencies — multiplied by demographics, and the continuing evolution of sociopolitical and humanitarian norms — will administer the coup de grâce.

Here’s why.

Social systems — which include communities, companies, marching bands and nation states — succeed or fail because of their relative coherence, which is what underpins their adaptive capacities. Adaptiveness is key, because as anthropologist L.S.B. Leakey put it so beautifully, “The lesson of evolution is, change . . . or perish!”

System coherence is determined in large part by:

  • The strength of shared “identity.” (Who are we? Why are we here? What are our values?)
  • The relative facility or friction of interactions. (How easy or hard is it to take concerted action?)
  • The strength and clarity of networks and information flows. (Does the intelligence necessary to make informed decisions get to those who need it in a timely fashion?)
  • The strength of relationships within and across system boundaries. (Because structures and actions are relationships made visible.)

These are all “nested” within a complex stew of interconnected and often fluid boundaries, continually evolving “initial conditions” and the (often contradictory) rules of the overlapping systems.

In a nutshell, Israel lacks coherence. The narrative that has held it together for the past 60 years — and blinded the outside world to the uglier realities — is eroding rapidly. The political divisions within the country make concerted action almost impossible. The social networks lack “requisite variety,” so objective realities are ignored. And relationships are dissolving as even traditional supporters back away from a regime increasingly seen as rabid and isolated.

Bottom line, Israel has become “condensed” and non-adaptive. And if a system can’t adapt — if it can’t “co-evolve” with its environment — it dissolves.

Time frames are always uncertain. Sometimes they are longer than one would imagine, because the system has more resilience than expected. More often, however, they tend to be shorter, because of another characteristic of complex systems, which is “iteration.” What that means is that small changes can have significant effects after they have passed through the emergence-feedback loop a few times. This is sometimes called the “snowball” effect. (A snowball gathers more snow on each roll and quickly goes from a ball the size you throw, to one that throws you.)

Israel cannot survive as a pariah/apartheid state. Like any modern state, it is entirely reliant on trans-boundary relationships and flows, from diplomatic recognition to raw materials and export markets. Its vaunted high-tech industry is worthless without willing foreign buyers. Because those markets can be served by a number of competitors, client loyalty is vital to success. As Israel slips further beyond the pale of civilized behavior, that loyalty will prove both highly transient and nearly impossible to recover once it’s gone.

So what will emerge in Israel’s place? After all the pushing and pulling, a bi-national, and perhaps even a bioregional state seems most viable. (See “The Only Path to a Middle East Picnic?“) After all, Palestine (like all the nations surrounding it) is a made-up entity. A vestigial remnant of European colonial days with arbitrary, and often irrational, boundaries. Redrawing those lines with goals of equity, diversity and social justice would have profound benefits for residents of the region and beyond.

One way or another, Israel appears to be on the way out. The big question is whether it will be with a bang or a whimper.

Readers’ Challenge: Why Ahmadis Now?

Yesterday was almost equally violent for both India, where suspected sabotage of train by Maoists left at least 74 dead in West Bengal, and Pakistan. In Lahore, an equivalent number were killed in the attacks on the two Ahmadi mosques. According to the New York Times: “Geo TV, a leading news channel in Pakistan, reported that members of the Punjab branch of the Pakistani Taliban were claiming responsibility for the attacks.”

The Los Angeles Times reports:

An Ahmadi elder from the Model Town mosque said the mosque had been getting threatening phone calls for some time, and had reported the threats to Lahore police. “We asked the government and police several times to enhance our security, but we didn’t get anything,” … After the [first] attack, Ahmadi worshippers . . . were angered by what they said was a delayed response from police once the attack began. Though a police station is near the mosque, the Ahmadi elder said police arrived about 50 minutes after worshippers called for help.

Elsewhere, another survivor said: “We are peaceful, law-abiding citizens and we get no protection.”

Persecution of the tiny Ahmadi sect has in fact been legislated. As reports:

In 1974, the National Assembly of Pakistan approved the Second Amendment to the Constitution literally excommunicating Ahmadi Muslims and banishing them from the fold of Islam. … In 1984, General Zia-ul Haq, promulgated [an ordinance] branding Ahmadis as criminals liable to fine and imprisonment if they practiced their belief in Islam.

In 1993 the Supreme Court of Pakistan heard a case by a number of Ahmadis who asserted that they were being deprived of their religious rights and freedoms. … The majority opinion of the court stated that many Islamic phrases were, in effect, copyrighted trademarks of the Islamic faith. Thus the use of these phrases by Ahmadis was a form of copyright infringement [violating] the Trademark Act of 1940.

Hmm, Islam as a brand. But what do Focal Points readers think inspired the Taliban to divert manpower and resources to attacking the Ahmadi, who arguably outdo the Taliban as cultural outlanders (since the latter enjoy some support in the Army and ISI), now. Why not keep their sites set on attacking the Pakistani government, which has caused it such grief in the frontier provinces?