Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Geographic Complexity of the Middle East Confllict

This is by far the best explanation of what everyone is fighting about, and what will have to be untangled if there is ever a two state solution. I don't think people really have a proper grasp of this.

I'm beginning to doubt that. I've heard some interesting arguments in favor of a one state solution recently. Maybe I'll elaborate on another post.

New York Times

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wasted Opportunities: The Unique Experiment that is Palestine and How Israel is Botching It

As anyone over the age of, say, ten years of age what science is and the response will invariably involve one of two words: experimentation and discovery, if not both. Of course they are correct to say this and even more correct to reference both as attributes, but such answers miss the fundamental value of science as a pursuit. They are mere methods, and powerful though they may be, an understand of science that limits itself to this scope creates a profound deficiency in the application of its principles, which in turn creates a profound deficiency in the success we can attain.

At it's most fundamental, life is a science. It is a series of experiments and discoveries and whether you are good at it or not, every decision you have made in your life that was not arrived at by pure chance was arrived at by a science of sorts.

Take that pair of shoes that you purchased, for instance. You may have hypothesized that they would increase your confidence, or perhaps help you run faster or with more comfort. Maybe you have an inkling that they would be a small asset in a job interview, or even simply keep you warm. Having owned them for some time, you have tested these hypotheses and the discovery you make from the experience will inform your decision making process in the future.

This wisdom that is gleaned from the combined power of experimenting and synthesizing the results into discoveries is the true value of science, which is to say that it is a guide book. It is and will always be incomplete and our comprehension of it will be limited, but time and time again, we use this method to make most every decision in our life.

Of course the shoe example is a bit trite, but it was only brought up to demonstrate how broadly applicable the principle is. Things like where we choose to live, what restaurant we eat at, who we consider to be friends and even which flavor of religion we follow are all experiments that will be assessed for success or failure against our previously held assumptions. Sometimes we run these experiments on ourselves and sometimes we mine the data provided by the experiences of millions of others who have tried out similar hypotheses. The analogy is obvious when compared against more conventional experiments like those that are medical in nature or perhaps environmental. Sociological experiments are nothing more than formalized interpersonal interactions designed to yield more specific results. We hope that a particular drug will benefit us just as we want to see whether a particular behavior will affect the environment. We are curious to know whether the Internet is fundamentally affecting our learning, and in all of these cases, we will ideally act accordingly.

Yet we do not always act accordingly. Sometime we have a vested interest in an alternative course of action, and sometimes the experiment is of questionable reliability.

Bias will always be present and its reduction is a self-evident necessity that will likely never be met, however the value of a reliable experiment is obvious to nearly everyone, whether they know it or not. Take for instance something our society holds to be self evident and broadly agreeable: like the value of family. No one really considers this, but ultimately our basic assumption that families are good is based on a plethora of experiments carried out by most everyone we know or have heard of. We subconsciously categorize our friends, acquaintances, famous people and even fictional people into categories of "have good family connections" and "lacks good family connections." The calculus of whether or not families or good, but considering the examples we have there seems to be an emerging consensus.

Consensus is markedly less obvious in cases of controversial issues and that is almost universally a result of unreliable experimentation. Should we cut taxes? Realistically, the information is scant and most case studies occurred at points in history that are unique in their attributes and are not uncontroversially compared to the realities of the present day. Are we right to have the death penalty? What degree of gun control is best?

Whatever your personal opinion on these matters, the evidence is actually pretty ambiguous and can be interpreted in multiple ways. This is a reality that plagues any social scientist - it is nearly impossible to get a properly controlled experiment going and therefore their conclusions are generally considerably less reliable than those reached by say, physics or chemistry.

With the experimentation we conduct in our personal assessment of public policy, this is essentially the reason we have such annoyingly contentious political parties. Poor experimentation leads to multiple interpretations of the data and a significant bit of public opinion falls on one side of the matter and a nearly equal significant bit falls on the other.

It's rare on such large scales, but on occasion experiments can be conducted in the eyes of an electorate and public opinion can be shifted consistently based on this results. This phenomena is of particular interest because of it's relevance to a rather significant source of diplomatic difficulties these days: Palestine.

Despite the general consensus that it is a problem with no solution, I try to look at what potential there is. Both nations actually have a fairly similar culture, assuming that you remove some of the specifics associated with religious differences. As a matter of fact, something like 40% of Israelis came from Arab nations with a generation or two. Though I am unfamiliar with the Palestinian side of things, I know that young, educated Israelis are becoming a larger portion of the population and taken as a whole, they are far less likely to hold hard-line views on the matter. But what intrigues me the most is the fact that we have the makings of a remarkably controlled experiment.

Not to say that all of these things are good, but the situation is as such: There are two distinct isolated population centers, the West Bank and Gaza that are saliently different only in their leadership and geography. Furthermore, Israel has a great deal of control over many other conditions that affect each of the populations. To name a few examples, Israel has nearly complete control over things such as the permeability of borders, settlement policy within those borders, humanitarian aid, outside employment, external political relevance of the ruling parties, banking restrictions, and many more.

This amount of control could permit a degree of scientific precision that is completely unprecedented in the messy reality of international relations, and this experiment is being conducted whether Israel is cognizant of that fact or not. Palestinians of both flavors are paying very close attention to what works best in their plight for a better life and they have two very good example to learn from. Perhaps it would be best that they make use of this unique position of influence to fine tune conditions in a way that promotes a departure from extremism.

But that's just me.

Unfortunately, Israel has generally taken a policy that marginalizes their only ally on the matter. Of course Mahmoud Abbas is not the perfect partner for peace, but he is certainly better than the numerous alternatives that are vying for the support of the Palestinian people. If Israel is serious about solving this problem in any way, it is best that they recognize these compatible leaders whenever they come about and work very hard to strengthen their position in the eyes of their electorate. If there is ever going to be a two state solution, Israel will need a Palestinian partner on the matter and it is foolish to think that such a partner will come ready made with unanimous Palestinian support and an agenda that is wholly compatible with the desires of Israelis. They will have to take what they can get and they will have to compromise.

Instead, they reward the Palestinian Authority's reasonable track record of cooperation for the past six years (particularly when compared with that of Hamas) with a general neglect that is obvious to the Palestinian people. They have arbitrarily held on to their rampant settlement policy, leaving the Palestinians to watch their land shrink by the day. They reward their self policing and anti terror activities with walls and checkpoints that only some 20000 have a permit to pass and they raise hell when they peacefully seek merely"nonmember observer state," a paltry upgrade from just "observer," in the United Nations.

Not only does this seem childish and bullying, but it is such a waste. Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank have no reason to assume that cooperation will gain them anything more significant than continued subordination and disrespect. For many, the results of this little experiment are beginning to come in.

Take this article as an example.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

On Homoerotic Dancing and Street Preachers

Walking through the central courtyard of your average University is a spectacle of ideas and values. Very concerned individuals of very different stripes see the place for the opportunity that it is: it is a place to reach America's future influentials. The environmentally concerned, the politically minded, the club joiners, the processed food eschewers, the "brand new product" preachers and of course every religious denomination under the sun - they're all there and they're all vying for your time.

The latter of which always seems to draw the crowds, which are directly proportional in size to the brimstone content of the message. Whether to lampoon, decry or argue their point, college students absolutely can not pass up the opportunity to engage a street preacher, mostly for sport.

On a typical day, such festivities are easy to ignore for the predictable spectacles that they are, but today's grabbed my attention because it seemed to have taken an interesting flavor that warranted my investigation.

I'll let the picture speak for itself:

As is always the case watching is the crowd is far more interesting than the speaker - particularly in this case. The speaker? His script is was laid out a few thousand years ago. The crowd? They have a little bit more leeway with how they choose to present their side. I won't say that I didn't laugh at the antics and I do agree that ridicule has its place, but I think we can be more creative than this.

This guy, for instance, has some serious grade A class:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mowing the Lawn; Some Thoughts About the Conflict in Gaza

There are a few arguments that I discount out of hand when I get into a discussion about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and I'd like to get them out of the way before we start.

First off, I do not care who started the most recent escalation in violence. This is a continuous problem and there is enough dirt on both sides that one could make a very reasonable argument in either direction. I'm taking the adult stance here and spending a lot less time here thinking about who'se at fault rather than who can act to improve on the situation.

I also have no historical memory of territorial realities beyond about 1967. This is not to say that I agree with all of the fairly Zionist ideologies that influenced the geographical result in 1948, it is just to say that the cultural, economic and political realities today more closely mirror the lines drawn in 1967 rather than 1948 and if there is going to be any two state solution emerging from the mess, 1967 represents the path of least resistance - as best as I can tell. This amnesia extends back far beyond recent history as well. There is a long and complex history to the place and it has very little bearing on what we should do now. My goal Is simply to improve the lot of as many human beings as possible in the region, not historical reenactment.

To be clear, I do not care what God said. If you insist on being a biblical literalist on this matter, then I do not take you seriously simply because the bible actually promises Abraham land all the way to the Euphrates, which is an insane proposition by any rational standard. So too is it insane to suggest that Israel can settle the West Bank because of a divine mandate; anyone who advocates this needs to be ridiculed and ignored.

Finally, I do not care if it is your right to use force. That does not mean that it is a good idea.

On occasion we come up with a term or an expression to describe some geopolitical reality, it makes it's way around the news, maybe even history books, and somehow seemingly without anyone actually taking the time to think tangibly about the implications, the phrase has been inducted into our collective consciousness - now it's normal, like peanut butter and jelly.
I've always thought of nuclear deterrence or Mutually Assured Destruction in this way. How do such sane people come to view the potential destruction of civilization as a legitimate strategy? What about democratizing a country as an external force? To loosely quote the late George Carlin, going to war for peace is like fucking for virginity.

The better comedians are pretty good at pointing out this sort of nonsense and maybe even bringing some rationality to the table. I'm afraid I'm not nearly as deft - but in a similar spirit, I would like to bring some attention to a phrase I have been hearing people throw around:

"Mowing the Lawn"

This is an expression and attitude that is informing political decisions in the upper ranks of Israel's leadership and only a firm belief that the enemy lacks any human decency could possibly convince such smart people that it is a rational strategy. Mowing the lawn obviously refers to a periodic maintenance that must be carried out in the occupied territories to keep the peace, and any truce is condemned to be uneasy if Israel acts under these assumptions.

To be clear, both sides are at fault. I am frequently criticized for blindly siding with the Palestinian plight, ignoring the atrocities committed by them as well as the legitimate needs of the Israelis, and to a large extent I think that is true. I do tend to spend more time dwelling on how the Israelis can change their approach and what atrocities they are committing. But I only do so for two reasons.

The first of which is simply that I grew up in Israel, and therefore I have a better idea than most of the national psychology that goes a long way towards fueling this quagmire. My understanding of Palestinian society is admittedly one dimensional, as would be my proposed solutions. Hamas (or any other Palestinian leadership) must denounce violence, and it must recognize Israel's right to exist. That is evident, and I'm unequivocal about that. I just see a lot more ways to achieve that by modifying Israeli behavior rather than Palestinian. There is a good chance that I have a limited scope and I'll leave it up to the Palestinians to pick up that slack.

The second reason is related and is simply to say that Israel has a greater array of choices. Israel's policy towards Gaza is a stranglehold on its economy and as the occupier, Israel quite literally has the ability to fine tune the economic environment in the strip. And it has been wielding that power with a great lack of responsibility. If Israel has any intention to shed the title of occupier, it must create an environment that will allow Gaza to grow into a society it can trust with autonomy. This will not happen with 60% unemployment, a freeze of assets and commerce, and periodic incursions that kill up to 0.1% of the population.

Moreover, the heavy handed approach that Israel has been taking towards Gaza only strengthens Hamas while decimating the rest of the population, and the Israel's righteous rage renders them blind to this fact. The most obvious benefit is that the blockade creates a convenient choke point for essentially all economic activity in or out of the strip, which is exploited by Hamas in the form of a tunnel surcharge. But most important is that oppression from an outside force is the lifeblood of any freedom fighter.

But Israel does not trust Gaza with prosperity under the pretext that it will be abused and used to raise an army against them. Though I agree that this may very well happen for a time, I should note that it is happening now as well. And the deterioration of the Palestinian plight has only further destabilized the precarious environment surrounding the conflict.

This time around, Hamas' missiles reach further. This time around, the West Bank is beginning to realize that their peaceful approach has only given them more settlements and marginalized leaders. This time around, nascent democracies across the Arab world are shaping their policies towards Israel.

It does not have that same visceral sense of security that strong military action imparts, but allowing Gaza to have hope and giving Palestinians responsibility on the world stage will moderate them. Nearly every contemporary criticism of Hamas could also be said of Fatah just a bit over a decade ago. Though Mahmoud Abbas is not perfect, he is a far cry from his organization's political heritage as terrorists in the mountains of Lebanon.

We need to replicate that with Hamas. All of those people are not going to disappear, no matter how often you cut the grass. This ceasefire will not last forever. Neither side thinks it will.