Day: September 23, 2010

Bill Clinton and the Russian Israelis

Former President Clinton jumped into the Mideast Peace process earlier this week. According to Josh Rogin’s reporting at The Cable, Clinton met with a group of reporters and, when asked to comment about the current negotiations, began by saying:

“I wouldn’t say too much about this if Hillary weren’t Secretary of State and in charge of these negotiations, so I’m darned sure not going to say too much now.”

Ah, but that’s not like Mr. Clinton.

And it wasn’t.

According to Rogin, Clinton then proceeded “to go in depth on the issue for more than ten minutes.” In case you missed it, he suggested that the massive wave of Russian Jewish migration to Israel over the past two decades now makes a peace agreement much more difficult:

“An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem,” Clinton said. “It’s a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian.

According to Clinton, the Russian immigrant population in Israel is the group least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians. “They’ve just got there, it’s their country, they’ve made a commitment to the future there,” Clinton said. “They can’t imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it.”

While the comments haven’t registered in the American press, they did trigger a strong response from the Israeli right and the Russian emigre community. Netanyahu called the comments regrettable and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing (and mostly Russian emigre) party Yisrael Beitenu blasted Clinton for his”crude generalizations” about Russian emigres.

But, Clinton is right. The one million former Soviet Jews who migrated to Israel since the end of the Cold War have significantly altered the political landscape in Israel. Israel is different today than it was a decade ago. Majorities of these immigrants now consistently vote for right wing candidates and their views on the peace process tend to be significantly more hawkish than the rest of the public. And given the fragmented nature of the Israeli political system, a coherent bloc of this size wields significant political influence. Yisrael Beitenu is the third largest party in the Knesset — behind Kadima and Likud and ahead of Labor — and, as a member of the ruling coalition, is threatening to bring down Netanyahu’s government if he doesn’t lift the moratorium on settlements this weekend.

Natasha Mozgovaya — who emigrated from Russia as a child and is now the US correspondent for Haaretz — has this assessment:

…the Russian immigrants are the sector of the Israel population which has had almost no contact with the Palestinians, and sometimes even the Arabs who live in Israel.

…Terror and the West Bank separation fence have prevented any direct positive contact with the Palestinians. Some of the immigrants lacked the nuanced knowledge about the conflict prior to their coming to Israel, but they were quick to impose the “we need to fight to win” attitude, rather than “we need to talk to solve this.”

“We saw this in Chechnya,” some would say. “We saw this in Afghanistan in 70s. It’s the same mentality. They understand only force.”

While some Israelis remember with nostalgia buying hummus in Arab cities, the “Russians” remember mainly the suicide attacks….

These developments, along with other trends in Israeli society, will only increase the constraints on future Israeli governments on the peace process. All of which make Clinton’s comments more relevant at this moment and makes Aluf Benn’s editorial yesterday in Haaretz more compelling.

But don’t hold your breath.

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To explain the origin of exchange, you must explain the origin of trust

I’ve just started reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.  So far, it is an excellent, through-provoking read.  A key to Ridley’s argument is that the innovation of exchange–the trading between two parties of separate items or services that both parties value–that led to mankind’s dominance of the planet and the explosion of knowledge and technology.

Ridley explains how exchange–or barter–is qualitatively different from reciprocity (an activity that can be found in other species):

at some point, after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object. This is not the same as Adam scratching Oz’s back now and Oz scratching Adam’s back later, or Adam giving Oz some spare food now and Oz giving Adam some spare food tomorrow. The extraordinary promise of this event was that Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz. And the more they did it, the more valuable it became. For whatever reason, no other animal species ever stumbled upon this trick – at least between unrelated individuals.

As I read this it occurred to me that Ridley is likely right, but also that exchange is just as dangerous an activity as it is a transformative one.  Why?  Because to base one’s existence on exchange means making oneself vulnerable to and dependent on others for what one needs.  As Ridley notes, earlier humans were self-sufficient.  But moving from self-sufficiency to exchange means trusting others that they will provide what you need and will honor the exchange.

In the present, we take this somewhat for granted.  I assume that my local grocer will have the fruits, vegetables, etc, that I need to feed myself and my family.  I don’t worry about the possibility that they either won’t have my food or that they will refuse to provide it to me in exchange for the money that I have.  But imagine back about 100,000 years ago.  At some point, someone had to take a very big leap and become dependent on someone else for what they required for survival.

As a political scientist, my initial reaction is that trust both emerged from repeated interactions with barter partners and was then institutionalized through the emergence of government.  Too often government is derided as an impediment to economic growth, but we often forget that without it one is hard pressed to explain sustained progress.  A capitalist economic system cannot function without a robust legal system that includes rules for exchange and a system that monitors and enforces violators.  How else can a society become so utterly dependent on anonymous, non-local actors to provide that which is crucial for survival?  That isn’t to say that government can’t also play a negative role–often it has.  But ignoring the positive, necessary role that it plays is quite dangerous in my view.  It also requires us to ignore the lessons of history.

I am only up to Chapter 2, and it appears that Ridley will take up this question of how trust emerged in Chapter 3.  I’ll be curious to see how he deals with this question and what answer he proposes.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

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Cyber warfare and legal responsibility: drifting further apart?

Two cyber warfare trends are catching the eye, but both raise the same major question. First, cyber attacks have been democratised in recent years because of social media and easy to use denial of service attack (DDoS) tools. Popular armies have returned, made up not of a mass of bodies charging, a Clausewitzian centre of gravity on a field, but constituted by curious and enthusiastic citizens on the internet. As William Merrin argued at a keynote in 2009, security has been crowdsourced. US officials set up webcams along the Mexico border so that citizens can sit at leisure and watch for shadowy figures moving through the desert (and they do watch). Other national leaders have encouraged citizens to launch DDoS attacks against strategic targets. Sometimes, ordinary people just feel the urge to participate without any guidance, for instance the ‘Help Israel win’ group of students who targeted Hamas in the 2008-09 Gaza conflict. If thousands or even millions of people act collectively this way, where does legal responsibility lie for any harm caused? Is there legal responsibility for encouraging people to participate? Are people using digital media today out of patriotic gusto in ways that will later incriminate them?

Second, news media have reported a new super-cyber-weapon this week, the first digital nuke, apparently capable of destroying real-world objects. Previous malware just shut down systems or stole data. Once this new piece of malware touches a digital system (e.g. through a USB stick) the malware itself secretly takes control of the system, and can make it destroy whatever it is managing – a bank, a nuclear plant, whatever you can imagine. The designer can tell it what to target, but thereafter the software does its own thing. In terms of responsibility, whoever funds, designs and delivers such a weapon would seem the locus of responsibility. But not many nations have the expertise to detect such software. Successful attacks would just seem like industrial mishaps. Expect reports of mystery explosions near you (especially if you live in Iran).

Where does this leave international law? We’ve caught up with World War II and the regulation of mass armies and nukes. Who has the technical expertise, political will and diplomatic savvy to draw up laws for a world of crowdsourced armies and weaponized software?

(Cross posted from the New Political Communication Unit blog)
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