Of Embassies in Jerusalem

Jerusalem continues its long tradition of political energy, religious intensity, and misunderstanding. Having just returned from a couple of months in Jerusalem (a little work, a little play), my sense of the political history and tensions continues to evolve. For example, I’m increasingly convinced that the contrasting narratives between Israelis and Palestinians – that is, contrasting historical narratives for starters – is so fundamental to the issues that I believe both sides should share the study of history in as intense a manner as possible with the goal of coming to some convergence.

It’s easy enough to cite clear contrasting examples of how the reality of history lives in the language of the two sides. Even the simple distinction between Israeli “Independence Day” and the “Nakba” speaks to the incommensurability the two sides struggle with. We saw this today acted out in the dedication ceremony of the American Embassy in Jerusalem. One side is celebrating the life of the state, and dressed as if it were Derby day, and the other side is dying because of it.

Let’s try a little history and see where reasoning our way forward gets us. We will try to stay as close to the facts as possible: The United Nations partition plan in 1947 designated Jerusalem and its holy sites as Corpus Separatum. This means it was a separate international entity under the auspices of the United Nations and not under the control of either side. So there is clear recognition that Jerusalem was special and should be the subject of negotiations and agreements between the two sides. After the war of ‘48 East Jerusalem came under Jordanian control. There was no mention of West Jerusalem, but Ben-Gurion declared Jerusalem a fundamental part of Jewish history. The centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people is not a difficult argument to make, but this does not deny that other people lived there and were displaced by the war. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that 62% of Jerusalem a Jewish.

But Israel was attacked in 1967 and maintains that war and such attacks disqualify previous agreements such as the agreement to consider Jerusalem Corpus Separatum. This is typically true but modern international law seeks to maintain a strong moral force by refusing to recognize countries that acquire land through violence. This is a point of contention between those who argue that Israel has a right to East Jerusalem and conquered pre-1967 territory. After the 1967 war Israel began building large Jewish neighborhoods on land that had been designated as “occupied” and not legitimately acquired. This is an extension of the point above concerning how property is acquired legitimately during times of political conflict and war.

Israel then did two things that have been the source of problems and criticism. Their justification remains a matter of perspective depending on how you believe the land was acquired – legitimately or not. The first thing Israel did was invoke a complex system of citizenship and national identity. This has led to the unfortunate and unjustified apartheid claim, which causes more problems than it solves. The second thing Israel did was remove about 70,000 Palestinians from their homes which again continues to burn deeply into Palestinian consciousness. It has been the chief focal point around claims of “return” in the entire discourse of longing for a lost and cheated land.

The Palestinians argue that Israel has violated international law, and the Israelis claim that international law no longer applies. Thus, we have the historical loggerhead. Moving the embassy must satisfy historical differences and maintain the two-state solution. It should be clear that the Embassy in West Jerusalem does not preclude a future Palestinian Embassy in East Jerusalem. If and when the day comes that these two historic enemies come to terms it is possible for both of them to have capitals in Jerusalem.




Middle East Braces for a Tense May

Palestinian protesters burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza Israeli border east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018, the second of two border marches. April 13 marks a third week in a row the area has seen violence. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90

Palestinian protesters burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces on the Gaza Israeli border east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018, the second of two border marches. April 13 marks a third week in a row the area has seen violence. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90

The coming month of May looks set to contain an unusual number of potential escalation points that could converge to create a highly explosive month.

I have been floating the dangerous prediction that violence is going to erupt in the Middle East in some capacity. I think the analysis below makes the case.

The Israeli defense establishment is dealing with several pending potential flashpoints, including an Iranian threat to revenge a missile attack on an air base in Syria that was housing several senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers; a decision by the Trump administration on whether to cancel or amend the nuclear deal with Iran; weekly Hamas-led mass marches on the Gaza-Israel border on Fridays that continue to escalate; the celebration of Jerusalem Day; the expected move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and the Palestinian day of mourning over the establishment over Israel’s independence, known as Nakba [“Catastrophe”] Day.

Collectively, these incidents have the potential to escalate various fronts at the same time, such as Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the territories, in addition to Israel’s north, with a Russian, Iranian and even Turkish presence ensconced in Syria.“The month of May does indeed contain within it more than a few challenges that can change the face of the area in a manner that will obligate us to update some our current policies,” Brig. Gen. (Res) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau of at the Prime Minister’s office, told JNS.

As a result, the defense establishment will need to analyze the potential developments and their scope, and on that basis, prepare options that will remain at Israel’s disposal, he added.

“In some of the cases, these are small changes that influence the short term, and in others, the potential is more significant,” said Nuriel.

He described the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem as an event with short-term influence that may spark violence, but which will likely be temporary, “or at least will not fuel [other] violent incidents.”

Upcoming elections in Lebanon, he said, “actually create new opportunities.” And the pending decision by U.S. President Donald Trump over Iran “could change the rules of the game in the region,” he added.

‘A clear anti-Israel strategy’

Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior scholar the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, said “the next weeks will represent one of the most explosive regional situations that involve Israel. The most serious one is the attempt by Iran to take advantage of the victory of the Assad regime in its fight against the rebels, a victory to which Iran and its proxies—Hezbollah and the various Shia militias—have had a major role.”

The Russian air campaign was the decisive factor that allowed an Iranian-led victory on the ground in Syria. Now, the Iranian axis and Russia depend on one another—meaning that Russia cannot accept an all-out Israeli war on Iranian forces and proxies, cautioned Karmon.

“The political solution [in Syria] that the Russians dream of also depends, in great measure, on Iranian good will,” he explained. “Tehran, therefore, seems to have decided to continue its strategy” of planting itself in Syria, which itself is part of “a clear anti-Israeli strategy, threatening it from the Syrian and Lebanese borders.”

Karmon warned that Iran’s conflict with Israel is “inevitable” as long as Jerusalem remains convinced that it cannot tolerate the formation of such a severe and direct threat on its northern border, and as long as it continues to “act accordingly, mainly through its air force.”

He noted that “Israel has behaved according to the very clear red lines made public by its military and political leaders, and seems determined to continue.”

Tehran, meanwhile, must also factor in the arrival of a more anti-Iranian White House team. All of these factors are part of the buildup to Trump’s “fateful decision” on May 12 regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as “the unpredictable results of his negotiation with the North Korean dictator, which could directly impact Iran,” assessed Karmon.

An apparent decision by Russia to provide the Assad regime with its advanced S-300 air-defense system is contributing to the instability, he argued. The transfer of this military hardware risks a confrontation with Israel, he said, although “based on a historical perspective, Israel has always found technological and operational solutions to advanced Russian weapons systems.

The Palestinian arena is heating up

Meanwhile, Karmon said, several factors are conspiring to make the Palestinian arena more explosive, including Hamas’s weakness in the face of the Palestinian Authority and its growing regional isolation.

“This situation could get out of control at some point on the border with Gaza, but not in a manner that could threaten Israel strategically, except in the public diplomacy arena,” he said.

However, an escalation of the situation in Gaza could trigger an Iranian move designed to extricate the Iranians from the Israeli challenge in Syria. The Israeli-Iranian tensions remain “the most serious trigger for a direct confrontation in the short term,” stated Karmon.

Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that he does expect May to be an “intensive month” with some potential for violence, but added that the chances of it leading to a major armed conflict remained low.

In this region, he said, “explosiveness is not new. I certainly see a potential for the eruption of pinpoint clashes and intensive verbal wars, but not a regional war.”

The reason for this, explained Rabi, is that “no side will emerge with gains from a regional clash or a full-scale war between Iran and Israel. Assad could lose his seat of power; the Russians would not be able to realize their achievements in Syria; Iran is unable to allow itself to get caught up in an adventure that will further destabilize the regime at home; and Israel, too, has no interest in such a war.

“As a result,” continued the academic, “we will see more of the same—meaning what we have had in recent months will continue into the month of May. Perhaps at a higher intensity, but not beyond that.”

From Jewish News Service

April 26, 2018

Iraq and U.S. Interests

[I thought the below was a clear statement of U.S. policy interests and Iraq. It is from the Washington Policy  Institute.

by James F. Jeffrey and Michael Knights

PolicyWatch 2957
April 17, 2018

By providing a clear and consistent roadmap for American interests in Iraq and future international support, Washington can help Baghdad steer the country in the right direction after next month’s elections.


On May 12, Iraqis go to the polls to choose their next parliament, after which officials will negotiate to appoint a prime minister and form a government. The country has been through an odyssey since its last general election in April 2014. The Islamic State (IS) overran a swath of territory that held more than three million people, twenty-two cities, and numerous oil fields, all of which have been liberated with the aid of militias and international military forces. Oil prices plummeted by half, and only strict austerity measures, foreign aid, and a partial price recovery saved the country from bankruptcy. The northern Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) approached financial independence and held a referendum on splitting away from Iraq, prompting Baghdad to seize Kirkuk’s oil fields last October. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey signaled a new willingness to work with Iraq’s Shia-led government as a means of offsetting Iranian influence. 

In short, the electorate has suffered huge shocks, and they are now being joined by young voters who cannot even remember the Saddam era. These voters may have stronger ideas about Iraq’s future than the candidates themselves.

Although campaigning officially began just this past weekend, the election’s contours are already crystallizing. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has achieved more than any reasonable observer might have expected given the horrendous situation he inherited in 2014, and he can point to the fragile economic and military recoveries as reason enough to give him another term. Wary about asking too much of the electorate, he has seemingly submerged his crucial but painful economic reform plans for the time being. Yet he is still hinting at new possibilities for Iraq.

In particular, Abadi has called for making the country a neutral space in the region’s evolving clash between pro- and anti-Iranian camps. With encouragement from international actors, he has signaled that he wants to represent all Iraqis, not just Shia Arabs—indeed, his electoral list is the only one competing in every province, including the KRG. If Baghdad can achieve this vision of an independent and stable nation at peace with its own peoples, it would align precisely with U.S. interests.


In 2005, the United States helped Iraqis formulate and ratify a new constitution so that their country could stand on its own feet. In 2009, President Obama laid the groundwork for withdrawing American troops by outlining a vision of “an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.” He then pledged to “forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region.”

This vision is still achievable, but it is being tested by the aggressive growth of Iranian influence across the Middle East. Tehran’s progress in Iraq has been slowed by the durable fabric of the state and the plurality of citizens who reject Iranian control, but dangerous signs abound. Since 2014, Iranian-controlled militias have nestedwithin the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), gaining access to a $1.6 billion annual budget and making themselves a formal part of Iraq’s armed forces. Tehran’s track record in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen suggests it will try to gain as much influence as it can in Iraq, even if that means riding roughshod over democratic norms, minority rights, and the rule of law.

In contrast to Iran’s expansionary aims, the U.S. goal in Iraq is defensive: to prevent Iranian hegemony and give Baghdad enough breathing room to recover its strength. Iraqi leaders—even senior Shia politicians—have told the authors that they value ongoing U.S. involvement because it gives them leverage to counterbalance Tehran’s influence. They are keenly aware that this balance of power would be skewed disastrously if Washington stepped aside.

Iraqis have many reasons of their own to resist Iranian influence: after five decades of conflict, they do not want to be drawn into Tehran’s wars like Lebanon has been; Iranian links could constrain their relations with Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, denying them vital investment and trade partnerships; Iran is their natural competitor in the fields of oil, gas, electricity, and petrochemical exports; the dominance of Iranian imports is causing resentment among Iraqi farmers, manufacturers, and traders; and last but not least, the Islamic Republic is a religious competitor with the great Shia seminaries and pilgrimage sites of Najaf and Karbala, where Tehran may seek more influence when Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani passes away. Therefore, Iraqi (and American) strategic interests would be best served if the country is analogous to Finland in the Cold War, maintaining some degree of autonomy from Tehran as well as Washington.


No foreign country has any business trying to pick a winner in Iraq’s elections, and any direct intervention in the subsequent coalition-building process is liable to backfire. Instead, the best approach for the United States and its allies is to clearly frame the value proposition on offer if Iraqi politicians move toward inclusive government, smart security policies, economic reform, and regional neutrality. These are the very issues that Iraqis themselves have overwhelmingly supported in reputable polls. The offer framed by Washington—and, ideally, other coalition partners—should be a package deal of security and non-security support, contingent on a friendly Iraqi government that is willing to address these issues.

One important element of that offer is a U.S. military training presence over the next few years, both for security purposes against a potential IS resurgence and as a political symbol. Even in the nationalistic afterglow of “defeating” IS, much of the Iraqi body politic recognizes how valuable U.S.-led international security cooperation has been. The removal of American troops in 2011 coincided with the regrowth of IS, while U.S.-led forces have been involved in almost all of Iraq’s victories since 2014. No single action could better confirm Baghdad’s relationship with Washington and its openness to Arab neighbors and Turkey than allowing coalition forces to remain.

The ongoing military presence should not be framed as an American obligation or right, but rather as a mutually beneficial arrangement guided by the same simple principles that have shaped Operation Inherent Resolve, namely:

  • Ensuring that combat operations are conducted “by, with, and through” the Iraqi security forces.
  • Avoiding unauthorized U.S. bases or unilateral operations.
  • Forging a coalition with as broad a range of international partners as possible.
  • Keeping the mission’s size and activities adaptable according to Iraq’s requirements.
  • Accepting that existing Iraqi legal authorities are sufficient to continue a troop presence.

In addition, Washington should privately link security cooperation to broader implementation of the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, which transcends military relations and forms the basis for bilateral economic, political, and energy cooperation. U.S. officials need to remind Baghdad of the benefits that come with being a friend of America, including: help with obtaining IMF and World Bank assistance; mobilization of the international donor community, as seen this February when Kuwait hosted the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq; diplomatic support for engagement with countries like Saudi Arabia; technical and program-management support for critical infrastructure and economic projects, not least the Mosul Dam rehabilitation; and the host of ad hoc advantages that materialize when leaders have access to the “good offices” of the United States.

Finally, Washington should work with Turkey on a joint approach to the KRG, mainly as insurance if efforts to preserve Iraq’s relative neutrality fail. Such cooperation on Kurdish defense, energy, and diplomatic affairs would signal that the United States has choices if Iran ever gains the upper hand in Baghdad. To keep this option open, Washington needs to continue acting as a fair broker between the central government and Erbil on revenue sharing, disputed areas, and security cooperation. On the latter issue, an ongoing U.S. and coalition military presence in Iraq and the KRG may reassure the Kurds that Washington has a strong stake in preventing future conflict between them and Baghdad.

Israel and the US Gun Debate

I feel pretty strongly about gun control. And I take a purely statistical position meaning that the more guns that are available the more they will be accessible and therefore used. Consequently, the primary solution to the problem of gun violence is to have fewer guns available and this can only be accomplished through control and a legal system that makes it difficult to acquire a weapon. One counter response to this argument is to ask, “what about Israel? Guns seem to be a natural part of everyday life in Israel but they don’t have the problems we have.” School shootings, which are so prevalent in the United States, are almost unheard of in Israel.

The comparison to Israel is a good one and I get asked about it often. Guns are simply naturalized in Israel: Citizen-soldiers are ever present carrying their M-16. Guards with side arms are performing security functions at movie theaters, train stations, malls, and government buildings. The killing of 22 school children in 1974 at an elementary school in Ma’alot is not comparable because it was done within the context of a political conflict and the result of a series of mistakes and panic reactions. These are quite different from the “lone wolf psycho killer” who fires randomly.

So, you might say that the differences are cultural and you would be mostly correct except other issues are pertinent. Gun deaths in Israel in 2009 were 1.8 per 100,000 people. In the US it is six times that figure. So it’s easy enough to see how gun rights advocates could encourage others to look at Israel and point out how there is very little or no correlation between the presence of guns and the likelihood of their use. If it is a cultural difference that separates the US and Israel what are those differences and what can we learn from them?

The first is the distinction between a right and privilege. Gun rights advocates in the United States maintain that it is constitutionally and even religiously guaranteed that you have a right to protect yourself and bear arms. The Second Amendment has been enshrined as protecting and guaranteeing the right to have individual firearms. Israel does not recognize such a right so even though military weapons are common citizen ownership of weapons is controlled and relatively uncommon. Many people do not understand that Israel controls weapon ownership strictly and makes it more difficult to acquire a firearm. The Israeli culture is, in fact, more consistent with those who oppose gun rights in the United States and want additional regulation.

In order for a citizen to own a gun in Israel they must be 27 years old if they did not serve in the military. They need to pass a check that involves health, clean criminal record, and regular training. Gun owners are limited to how many bullets they can acquire, and they need to provide proof that they actually need a weapon. The “fun” of firing and target practice is not a sufficient explanation. According to Yakov Amit, head of the Firearms Licensing Department, as reported in the Jerusalem Post Magazine (March 23, 2018) 80% of those who apply for gun licenses are turned down.

In the United States weapons are a commodity associated with macho performance stances and personal identity. Guns in the United States have lost their sole pragmatic function and are no longer a “tool” for self-defense but a “toy” to play with.

Israel does not fit the image of the right wing gun advocate. The US should learn something from them anyway. Of course, gun violence will never be completely eliminated and some differences between cultures are impossible to close up. Still, Israel has much stricter regulations that all seem to be directed toward managing the possibilities for violence and are more rationally directed toward sensible control. Israel does not have a problem with guns in comparison to the United States because Israel does not fetishize a historical principle (the Second Amendment) in such a manner as to protect an abstraction rather than the actuality of a community.

The Biggest Political-Religious Issue in Israel Today

Well, it might not be the biggest issue because there are so many in Israel but it is certainly a leading contender and currently capturing regular headlines. And that is the matter of yeshiva students or Torah scholars serving in the military. Israel, of course, has a high need for security and the burden of maintaining that security should be a community value. But the study of Torah is also central to Judaism and thought by many to be part of the process of bringing about the coming of the Messiah. Religious leaders argue that these Torah scholars should be exempt from military service.

During the beginning of the state David Ben-Gurion came to an agreement with religious leaders that a specified number of yeshiva students would be exempt from military service, but since then that number has been growing. These exemptions arouse tremendous resentment especially in secular society. The strongest and most emotionally compelling charge is that secular and non-Orthodox young men and women go off and fight and die protecting the lives and rights of yeshiva students who don’t serve.

There are strong and defensible positions on both sides: cases can be made on the basis of authoritative texts for both compelling military service and being exempt from it. A good review of the issues appears here.

The Best Case for Military Service and the Ultra-Orthodox

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox students avoiding the military – sometimes on the basis of pretty thin claims for Torah scholarship – is simply unfair and can be justified on religious grounds. There are four main arguments for why yeshiva students should serve in the military.

  1. There is a commandment to study Torah called Bilul Torah and the argument is military service will detract from such study. But there are other commandments and performing one does not take automatic precedence over the other. Protecting the land of Israel is also a commandment and military service would be supportive of such a commandment. There remains the question of how much Torah study constitutes a sufficient amount. It is probably possible to both serve in the military, just like working at any job, and still study Torah even though this is not the definition of “full-time” Torah study.
  2. A second argument is that Torah students are special in that they are separate from the empirical world and are set aside to serve God. For yeshiva students their full-time occupation is the service of God and the study of Torah. Once again, a commitment to studying Torah does not remove all secular obligations. Concluding that yeshiva students live separately in a special relationship with God confers saintliness on them, which is quite contrary to Torah scholar identity.
  3. Another claim is that yeshiva students are in constant training to protect the spiritual world and not protection of the physical world. But Torah scholars are still obligated to take part in protection of the community. This means service in the military because they do not have the right to demand that others protect them.
  4. A final argument is much more practical in that the Orthodox community points to the incompatibilities between their life and the military. Problems with keeping kosher, separation of men and women, religious obligations, and interpersonal relations all pose almost insurmountable difficulties. But the military already has experience in meeting the individual needs of certain groups. Although there will be certain challenges the more orthodox Torah students enter the military the more the military will adjust and adapt to their needs.

The answer to this problem is not clear-cut. As of now it looks like the conscription bill will pass and more religious students will enter the military. The secular-religious divide is one of the widest in Israel and it is clearly exacerbated by military exemptions for Torah students. I think it’s important that these religious students do not stand on the sidelines while Israel struggles with issues of defense and security. It is already the case that their alienation from political society produces difficult conflicts. Military service is the most potent route to the type of integration necessary to close up this divide.

Are There War Clouds Over Israel?

I smell war in Israel. I’ve had the feeling for some time that Hezbollah will flex its muscles and even try to provoke Israel and Iran, although they will not succeed. I arrived in Israel a few days ago and after reading more of the local news I had my suspicions confirmed.

The Jewish News Service reports that the Israeli Defense Forces are drawing up plans for an offensive attack on Hezbollah. But equally as interesting, the IDF is also working on defensive strategies. The population is being as prepared as possible realizing it’s always impossible to prepare perfectly. This is especially true because Hezbollah is not the same organization it was in 2006 during the second Lebanon war. At that time Hezbollah fired about 6, 000 rockets into Israel and none of them struck anything of significance and could not even travel the distance of the country.

Those days are over! Hezbollah can now fire with greater accuracy and reach any space in Israel. This means that sensitive and important targets along with more people will be struck. The death toll will be higher and the damage to the infrastructure greater. This will escalate the consequences. As more Israelis are hurt and more damage is done to the country Israel will, as is expected, retaliate even stronger thus exacerbating the whole problem.

Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy group and they have gained experience by fighting with the Syrians. They are better prepared for different military situations including training in infiltration. Israel has ratcheted up its preparation by training volunteers, first responders, and those responsible for providing information. New technology including smart phones, alerts, and computers are all being integrated into Israel’s defensive positions. Local authorities such as police and administrators will have more authority and be responsible for directing community responses.


If Hezbollah is not enough trouble, the relationship between Iran and Israel has deteriorated and already seen some share of violence. The relationships among Iran, Syria, the Kurds, the Turks, Hezbollah, ISIS, the United States, and Israel are a complex matrix of influence and aggression. The Syrians and Israel have already exchanged fire which is a highly provocative and dangerous circumstance. And the one thing all of these groups have in common (except for the Kurds and the United States) is a contentious relationship with Israel. Russia cannot be ignored because they support the Syrians but dislike Islamic motivated religious groups like Hezbollah. So what is going to happen? Here’s what I think is going to happen:

  1. All out war between Israel and Iran is unlikely. It’s too dangerous. This is one advantage of a form of mutual assured destruction; it causes both sides to become more conservative and cautionary.
  2. Also, Iran has difficult internal strife with intensified protests and more challenges to the Iranian leadership. The Iranian population seriously objects to money spent on outside political adventurism and the failure of the leadership to turn their attention to internal problems of employment and quality of life
  3. Iran sees itself as a leader among the Shia and spends billions of dollars, which it can little afford, supporting Hezbollah, Lebanese Shiite militia, and Shiite regimes in Iraq and Syria. A war with Israel would just be too costly especially under the pressure of sanctions.
  4. A war between Iran and Israel would very quickly include the United States. The United States of course would support Israel thereby increasing pressures on Iran.
  5. Russia maintains relationships with both Iran and Israel and stands to lose important economic relationships. Russia has increasingly friendly relationship with Israel and would not easily take the side of Iran–a religious extremist country. No one wants to see Iran consolidate power.

The complexity of these political arrangements is actually an advantage because there are so many different types of relationships and path dependencies that some route can always be blocked. Let’s hope it’s the most violent route that cannot find its way to its endpoint.

The Status of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan: Watch out for New Escalatory Dynamics

In the wake of Trump’s declaration about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, any framework for peace has been destabilized and any sense of direction has been lost or at least seriously attenuated. And as of now, it doesn’t look like the peace process can meet the minimum standards of both sides. A peace process will proceed in one of two directions: given the volatility of the situation any “mistake” or unrealistic proposal can cause serious deterioration. On the one hand, the US and the PA can develop modest objectives that are stabilizing for the near term along with continuing to develop international coalitions. This is a stability path and is best for establishing the conditions of serious negotiations. It is a steady but slow path that can promote stability but also end up frustratingly grinding away at the same old issues.

The second path is more dangerous and can surely lead to tensions and differences. It is the path of escalating differentiations; that is, differences are exaggerated and produce progressive differentiation of the two groups. If political and cultural experiences are defined as sufficiently different or even incommensurate then the two sides can exaggerate those differences and drift increasingly into intractability.

If the announcement about moving the embassy is going to be used as a zero-sum game – in other words, each side sees itself as either gaining or losing only – then these adversarial groups will foreground the impediments to peace such as settlements, terrorism, religion, and begin the process of exaggerating differences. There was, as predicted, violence following the announcement but it was not particularly intense or drawn out violence. This is not to say that if the United States actually started to break ground on a building site then violence would be more imminent, but it was a good sign that the reaction was reasonably subdued.

Escalating differences is particularly destructive because the two sides grow farther apart and retreat into their own psychology of identity and historical narratives. The more the two groups are differentiated the more distorted the communication between them. Their group narratives and perceptions of the conflict are catapulted toward polarization on the basis of assumptions rooted in differentiation, separation, and between-group differences.

Given these two competing paths, what can be done? How can the process be influenced such that the two sides do not exaggerate differences but also engage in interactions that are supportive and lead the process in the desired direction.

First, there must be diplomatic efforts that blunt the pressures toward exaggerated differences. This requires dialogue and structured interactions designed to find mutuality. Ideally, the quartet (US, United Nations, European Union, and Russia) should be reconstituted and provide a constructive environment for the parties to reengage. Adding the two Arab countries that Israel has a peace agreement with (Egypt and Jordan) would be helpful.

Second, practical everyday issues must be addressed. The first is security. The training of Palestinian security forces by the United States to manage their own population and security issues has been successful. Such programs should be reinforced and continued. Next, is the issue of Gaza which is becoming increasingly explosive. There should be an increase in humanitarian aid and other Arab countries should be brought into the process, including funding, so as to bypass Hamas. And finally the Palestinian Authority must make efforts to eliminate corruption and promote a clean and transparent government that reverses the perceptions of corruption. Such perceptions delegitimize the peace process.


The Irish and the Jews

Israel, even with all its difficulties and enemies, is making progress with respect to its relationship with some other countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, just allowed flights to Israel to go through its air space. These new routes for India Airlines cuts over two hours off the trip, makes the trip cheaper, and saves fuel. This is really pretty amazing given the contentious relationship and the long history of animosity between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

But surely enough Israel is losing ground and growing farther part from other cultures and in a few cases cultures you would expect to be more resonant with the Jewish state. Ireland is a good example.

The Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) reported a couple weeks ago about the curiously poor and deteriorating relationship between Ireland and Israel. In the article, which you can read here, the author defends the position that Ireland is one of Israels most ferocious critics.

Why would this be? What is it about Ireland that would set it so against Jewish culture and politics? At first blush you might accept the premise that the Jews and the Irish have common history, a history of oppression and suffering at the hands of a dominant and racist culture. Both the Irish and the Jews have sought redemption and strained for generations for acceptance. Both cultures have experienced war and violence in an effort to maintain their own culture and develop political independence. This is the essence of Zionism and compares to the Irish struggle for their own state as well as independence.

Still, it is Ireland whose voice is the loudest and most critical of Israel. Recent legislation from the Irish Senate prohibits the import of products from “illegal” settlements with very little if any definition or decisions about which settlements are illegal. This is one more example of singling out Israel and holding them to standards others do not have to meet. Of all the repressive governments in the world, of all the illiberal and authoritarian political systems brutalizing their own people, it is Israel that gets selected out for punishment.

This kind of legislation is a gift to BDS and those of that ilk and is in stark contrast to ethical and productive commerce. On another level this is simplistic politics designed to show solidarity with the Palestinians through what will amount to be ineffectual policies.

So, in the end, the Irish and the Jews should sympathize with one another on the basis of common historical experiences. But it turns out that the Irish see Israel in the same role as the United Kingdom before Irish independence in 1921. Like others in the EU Ireland increasingly sees Israel as an occupier just like the United Kingdom “settled” in Ireland. Before 1948 Jews were a struggling minority seeking the integrity that accompanied national recognition. But now the Palestinians have assumed that role.

Once again, Israel has a story to tell and they just cannot seem to tell it well enough.






The Real “State of the Union”

Donald Trump is leading this country into a dark place.  Let us remember what Sinclair Lewis said in the 1930s: when fascism comes to America that it will be wrapped in the flag, sing the national anthem, carry a cross and be called, “Americanism”. But I won’t even use the loaded word “fascism.” We can just go down the list of typical qualities associated with the nativism and corruption of justice associated w1ith such political philosophies. Many points in Trump’s “State of the Union” signal a dangerous conservative trend and potential constitutional crisis.


  1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism.Trump makes use of patriotic mottos and symbols. Trump’s phrase “make America great again” is the most typical example and seeks to capitalize on the sense of decline in America, a decline that is mostly indefensible..
  2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights.Trump fears enemies and has simplistic categories of either “loyalty” or “disloyalty” and everybody must be fit into one category or the other. And if you are in the disloyal category then your human rights get compromised.
  3. Identification of Enemies as a Unifying Cause. Trump’s base of supporters are unified over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat which is typically either someone from a different ethnic or ideological group, or some enemy actual or perceived.
  4. Supremacy of the Military. Soldiers and military service are glamorized. This glamorization is different than paying respect and recognizing sacrifices made by veterans. Trump prefers military people and is in the process of directing massive increases in funding to the military, money that will not be available for health care subsidies.
  5. Sexism. Need we say much more about this. His crudity with respect to women knows no boundaries.
  6. Controlled News. His labeling of the news as “fake news” is an attempt to muzzle the press and control the information environment. His effort to delegitimize the most basic sources of information  necessary to a democracy is unprecedented.
  7. Obsession with National Security.Trump uses fear and the threat of criminal immigrants  to scare people into stricter immigration laws.
  8. Religion and Government are Intertwined. Surprisingly, and even though Trump is far from an upright religious person, he has the support of Christian groups partially because of his willingness to blur the line between government and religion.
  9. Corporate Power is Protected.The industrial and business aristocracy in Trump’s world often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite. Note his tax bill which is more beneficial to the wealthy than the average citizen.
  10. Labor Power is Suppressed. to corporate greed. He opposes labor unions because they are the only real threat to corporate greed.
  11. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption. Trump’s appointment of groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability is blatant. He perhaps will not appropriate national treasures but has begun the process of appropriating the legal system (e.g. tax laws) in order to benefit himself.
  12. Fraudulent Elections. Again, we need to say little more. Talking with the Russians about dirt on Hillary Clinton is about as debased as you can get with respect to election fraud.

Even at the risk of exaggeration, which I prefer to avoid, Trump “bumps up against” fascist qualities rooted in right-wing nativism. His criticism of law enforcement agencies is unprecedented and a potential danger of considerable importance. All the signs were in his State of the Union speech and should be a serious warning about the real “State of the Union.”

Ten Points for Democracy Activists

Below is from Lakoff’s 10 points for democracy advocates. I thought it bore repeating mainly because it’s oriented toward information, news, and framing of issues rather than the standard generalities about  working for democracy. The issues below also speak to educational processes necessary for the maintenance of important democratic principles.

1 – To understand the basic issues, read “A Minority President”: https://georgelakoff.com/2016/11/22/a-minority-president-why-the-polls-failed-and-what-the-majority-can-do

2 – Know the difference between framing and propaganda: Frames are mental structures used in thought; every thought uses frames. Every word in every language is defined relative to a mental structure — a frame. Frames, in themselves, are unavoidable and neutral. Honest framing is the use of frames you believe and that are used to express truths. Propaganda expresses lies that propagandists know are lies for the sake of political or social advantage.

3 – Hold Republicans accountable. Trump is dominating the media, partly to establish his authority, but mainly to divert attention and provide cover to Republican leaders. Keep focused on Republican actions. Minimize publicizing Trump — his image, his name, his tweets.

4 – Focus attention on substance, not sideshows. Trump’s attacks on freedom, democracy, and the innocent matter more than his tweets. Positively and strongly reframe his pre-emptive framing (see tweet diagram).

5 – Focus on democracy and freedom. In a government by, for, and of the people, there is, or should be, no distinction between the public and the government. The consequences are:

  • Empathy: government should care about, and for, the public;
  • Transparency: government should inform the public truthfully;
  • Freedom and Opportunity: the private depends on public resources, both for private enterprise and private life. For example, if you’re not educated, you’re not free. If you have no health care, you’re not free. If you’re impoverished, you lack opportunity.

Republicans are destroying all of these by:

  • Removing “regulations,” which are public protections;
  • Imposing gag rules and budget cuts on government agencies removes transparency;
  • Privatizing education, protection, communication, infrastructure, nature; etc. are attacks on freedom)

6 – Be careful not to spread fake news. Check it out, on the “big four” non-partisan political fact-checkers—PolitifactFactcheck.org, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, and Snopes.com. Subscribe to real news!

7 – Understand the brain’s politics: All ideas are physical, embodied in neural circuitry. The more the circuitry is activated, the stronger the circuitry gets and the more deeply the ideas are held. Worldviews are complex neural circuits fixed in the brain. People can only understand what fits the neural circuitry in their brains. Real facts can be filtered out by worldviews. “Alternative facts” are lies — falsehoods that follow from ideologies that are fixed, that define one’s identity and so are taken as ‘higher truths.”

8 – Remember: We’re the POWERFUL American Majority. No more helpless/hopeless talk. Anger, fear and cynicism benefit Trump’s GOP. Remember: Don’t think of an elephant! Don’t use Republican language, or repeat their positions, even to negate them. Frame using ideas you believe and real facts that are contextualized and morally framed. Avoid isolated facts and numbers. The best resistance is positive persistence.

9- Be positive: frame all issues from a progressive moral viewpoint. Take the viewpoint of the public good, not corporate profiteering. Take the viewpoint of the impoverished and weak, not the rich and powerful. Take the viewpoint of preservation, not the destruction of nature.

10 – Join the Citizens’ Communication Network: until it is officially functioning, you can unofficially join by following me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/George-Lakoff-Official-165643503477608/) and Twitter (@GeorgeLakoff) for regular thoughts and updates.

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