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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Israel, Palestine and the US

U.S.-Israeli relations are in crisis, and it seems they could possibly be on the verge of a fundamental shift, insofar as the U.S. may abandon its defense of Israel in international forums, based on the Israeli government's failure to pursue a two-state solution in general, and Benjamin Netanyahu's explicit repudiation of it during the campaign in particular.  In an effort to make sense out fo the situation, I decided this morning to put together some facts and figures, and I must say I am rather surprised by what I have found.  Let me begin, though, with some basic historical background.

Since the founding of the state of Israel with President Truman's enthusiastic support in 1948, only once has an American President used his leverage to stop Israel from doing anything it wanted to do.  That was in 1957, after the Israelis, for the first time, had occupied the Sinai peninsula after starting a war with Egypt together with Britain and France.  The original leadership of Israel had never been satisfied with the borders it established in 1949, and this was their first chance to expand.  In order to force Israel out of the Sinai, President Eisenhower threatened to end the charitable contribution deduction for donations by American Jews to Israel.  In an age of 90% marginal income tax rates, this was no idle threat.  Tel Aviv yielded.  Nothing like that has ever happened again, and the American pro-Israel lobby, headed by AIPAC, has exploited our political system to make sure that it does not.  Thus in 1980 it was fairly clear that Jimmy Carter, if re-elected, would probably have used the threat of withholding American aid to force the Israelis out of the West Bank, but Ronald Reagan defeated him in a landslide, and the threat passed.  The decision in the 1990s by the Israelis to let the Palestinians establish a governing authority in the West Bank was an American one, not an Israeli one, as was the subsequent decision to withdraw from the Gaza strip.

Yitzhak Rabin seriously wanted peace withe Palestinians, and was assassinated by an Israeli as a result.  Ehud Barak in 2000 also made a serious peace offer, although we will never know if he could have gotten the whole Israeli government to accept it, because the Palestinians did not accept it at the time.  Not too long after, George W. Bush officially endorsed a Palestinian state, although he also announced that Israel could not be expected to return to the 1967 borders because of the "facts" that had been created "on the ground."  Since then, Presidents Bush and Obama have defended whatever the Israeli government has chosen to do, including repeated invasions of the Gaza strip and Lebanon, while arguing that that government had to work for a two-state solution.  Yet no Israeli government, since Barak, has made a real effort to reach an agreement along those lines.  Until now, two US Presidents have been content with lip service and continued to oppose attempts by the Palestinians to declare themselves a state, or to join various international organizations, including the UN itself.  The Palestinians, almost uniquely among the peoples of the world, remain a people without full legal status in any state.

Now let's look at a few population figures, courtesy of well-sourced Wikipedia articles.  We'll begin with the most controversial numbers, the number of Israelis who have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967.  The number of settlers in the West Bank was 17,400 in 1980, the year after the Israeli Government signed the Camp David accords with Egypt.  It was 112,000 in 1993, when Rabin and Arafat began their negotiations for a Palestinian state.  But by the end of that decade the number of settlers had approximately doubled, and it reached 234,500 by 2004.  It has now nearly doubled again--it is estimated at 400,000 as of last year  These figures do not include East Jerusalem, where the growth of the Jewish population has been equally dramatic.  It was only 76,000 in 1980, but reached 152,800 in 1993, 182,000 in 2004, and between 300,000 and 350,000 as of last year.  Jews now outnumber Arabs in East Jerusalem by a ratio of about 3 to 2.  Nothing, in short, has stopped successive Israeli governments and the settlement movement from increasing the Jewish population of the occupied territories in the 48 years since the Six Day War.  But the settler population has not increased faster, in absolute terms, than the population of Israel as a whole.  That population has grown from about 2.5 million in 1970 to 4.4 million in 1995 and over 6 million today.  To put it another way, out of the 3.5 million in new population that Israel has added since 1970, less than a million live in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

For the last 15 years the US government has effectively agreed to tolerate the expansion of settlements, for the most part, in exchange for some kind of fig-leaf peace process that offers a theoretical hope that it might come to an end.  Occasionally the Israeli government has been willing to offer some kind of temporary freeze or slowdown, but it never lasts for very long--and occasionally the US government expresses hostility when the Israelis make a particularly provocative announcement of a new settlement.  The Israelis who are now complaining that Obama will not accept Netanyahu's retraction of his rejection of Palestinian statehood are in effect asking that we go back to business as usual.  But the question is where the Israelis are actually trying to go.

I have often wondered whether the extremists in the settler movement and politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett dream of the actual ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, removing essentially all the Arabs and turning it into completely Jewish territory.  The historian Benny Morris, about whom I have blogged in the past, speculated that the West Bank population might have to be removed if an Islamist government took power in Egypt or Jordan some years ago, and other Israelis have spoken of the "transfer" of the population.  Yet what I did not realize until I looked into this today ios that such a project seems quite hopeless.  Although the Israelis have expanded their settlements and taken more and more land in the West Bank, the Palestinian population in both the West Bank and Gaza has grown much more quickly than the Jewish population of Israel.  The following table tells the story,. looking at the whole last century.

 Arab jewish population in Israel Palestine 1914 to 2005

Current figures show the trend has continued, although the Jewish population remains barely higher than the total Arab population within Israel proper and the occupied territories.  The Arabs have used the eternal weapon of poorer, oppressed minorities: their birth rate.  The number of Palestinians without citizenship rights continues to increase.  They may be getting squeezed into smaller areas on the West Bank--as they have been in Gaza--but they are not getting pushed out. Even in East Jerusalem, where Jewish population growth has been most dramatic and Jews are now in the majority, the Arab population still seems to have increased.

It seems to me that the Palestinians' failure to achieve statehood, combined with their shrinking territory and extraordinary population growth, certainly explains their increasing radicalization.  But more importantly, it is clear that the Palestinian problem is not going away. Netanyahu and the current Israeli government seem to think that the increasing radicalization and chaos in the Arab world, combined with the US's continuing obsession with the "war on terror" that is leading us into more and more Muslim nations around the world, will allow them to continue building settlements and denying the Palestinians any political status.  Many right-wing Israelis are now talking about the "one-state solution," which in the nature of things cannot be anything but an apartheid state, in which Jews with rights control the destiny of Arabs who do not have them.

It is in this context, it seems to me, that an American decision to endorse Palestinian admission into the UN might make sense.  It would recognize the reality that between 5 and 10 million Palestinians in their own homeland cannot be denied political rights forever.  But this would lead to an all-out battle between AIPAC on the one hand and the Administration on the other. The attack could include a Congressional move to de-fund the UN if the Palestinians are admitted, and would surely include attempts to get Hillary Clinton to repudiate Obama's move (which she may do anyway, given her own history), and all-out support for the Republican candidate in 2016.  AIPAC's leadership is however far more conservative than American Jews as a whole, and there is no way to know how many voters they might sway.

I am an idealist of a peculiar kind: I think that strategy and foreign policy must be based upon reality.  I do not, frankly, think that current Israeli strategy is, because given demographic trends I do not see how it could possibly lead to a good outcome.  And I do not like to see my own government in Washington in thrall to the mistakes of another government. With Israel moving increasingly to the right, it is time for the United States government to show some real independence.  I think John Kerry and Barack Obama would like to do so, and I hope that they will.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Senator Cotton's Thesis

Arkansas’s freshman Senator Thomas Cotton is a comer.  Not yet 40 years old, he is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, a veteran of the Iraq War, and a Tea Party favorite.  He vaulted into the news recently as the author of the letter to the Iranian government signed by 47 Senators, warning that any agreement they might reach with President Obama might not last.  Having read that he majored in Government at Harvard and became a protégé of conservative Professor Harvey Mansfield, and that his senior thesis dealt with the Federalist papers, I checked to see if the thesis (like my own) was in the Harvard University Archives.  It was, and yesterday I went and read it.  Entitled “Irrationality and Politics: The Federalist and Deliberative Democracy,” it was an informative experience, laden with irony. Less than twenty years after writing it, Cotton has become just the kind of politician the thesis warns against.

The design of a senior thesis is critical to its success, and Cotton and his tutor came up with a straightforward formula.  (The tutor was not Harvey Mansfield, who may therefore have been one of the graders of the thesis.) The thesis simply compares two texts with different views of how American politics should work.  The first, which was then very recent, was Democracy and Disagreement, by Dennis Thompson and Amy Gutmann; the second was the Federalist Papers.  Gutmann and Thompson advocated “deliberative democracy,” involving the continuous, intense involvement of the whole citizenry in the making of laws.  The second was the Federalist Papers.  Here Cotton made an interesting decision that saved himself a lot of work.  Decades ago, modern textual analysis which of the three authors of the Federalist—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—had written each of the individual essays, but Cotton decided simply to refer to the author as “Publius” throughout, as they did at the time, with the excuse that that is how the authors wanted the papers to be read.  That saved him the trouble of distinguishing the views of Hamilton, Madison and Jay on the issues he was interested in, but his tutor evidently went along and his readers (of which the tutor is never one) apparently did not mind.  

Essentially Cotton argued, clearly and repetitively, that Publius, following Aristotle, did not trust the mass of the people or direct democracy, and argued for the new Constitution precisely because it kept the people at an appropriate distance from the government.  Now it is quite possible that a reader of The Federalist with a different agenda might be able to paint a very different picture, but Cotton had no trouble supporting his arguments with quotations. Publius, he points out, wrote that “the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of justice without constraint.”  Factions, including majority factions, were united by passion, not reason, which could threaten the rights of other citizens and “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Such passions could be religious, as well as political.  He also argued, in one of his more debatable and less supported points, that Publius, in contrast to Gutmann and Thompson, had no faith that education could ease this problem.  Publius’s solution, he argued, was to extend the sphere of politics as widely as possible, making it harder for local factions to dominate, or for a popular faction to pass unwise legislation.  A second solution was to encourage commerce, which would tend to unite the people together against factions.

According to Cotton, Publius mistrusted the House of Representatives because it was elected every two years, making the members too responsive to popular passions, but trusted the Senate, becaus3e of its six year term, to be more carefully deliberative and foster more stability in government, which was essential to progress.  Instability, various essays argued, would encourage foreign interference in America, poison “the blessings of liberty itself;” gives advantages to “the moneyed few over the industrious and uninformed mass of the people,” and allows the few to take advantage of changes in government.  It also discouraged entrepreneurship and it weakens the people’s attachment to their government.  The Senate’s six year terms would encourage ambitious Senators to show patience, wisdom, and concern for the common good, rather than yield to momentary passions. Lastly, Cotton argued that Publius wanted to promote “an unthinking reverence” for the Constitution to shield it from popular passions and protect it against changes.  

Cotton’s thesis was pure intellectual analysis. It contains no specific historical references of any kind and makes no attempt to cite actual events to validate the points of Publius or refute those of Gutmann and Thompson.  This was another instance of carefully limiting his design, and the design and execution paid off.  The thesis must have been awarded a grade either of magna cum laude (with high honors) or summa cum laude (with highest honors), since only such theses are retained in the archives.  Because the work was based almost entirely on two medium-sized texts, it could not have been particularly demanding to prepare.  Cotton was evidently a young man in a hurry—he took advantage of the opportunity to graduate in three years—and he found a relatively painless way to write a successful thesis.  These qualities have evidently served him well ever since, and he is now being mentioned as a future presidential candidate.

It so happens that I think that the skepticism about popular passions expressed by the authors of The Federalist was well founded, although their contemporaries discovered within 40 more years that the Constitution could easily survive the expansion of the franchise to include all white males.  The irony, of course, is that Cotton himself now holds office as a member of one of the most passionate, regional and religious factions ever to emerge within American politics, the Tea Party.  He and his Republican colleagues are passionately opposed to the whole trend of government over the last century. For the last four years, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives has played exactly the role Cotton seemed to fear in 1998: driven by the Tea Party faction (which included Cotton in 2013-14), it has repeatedly passed radical legislation that both responds to and arouses the passion of its followers.  The Tea Party has a narrow regional base, and they control the Senate, where Cotton sits, only because the disparity in the populations of the various states has become so enormous.  They are hostile to critical aspects of modern science and their trust in the literal word of the scriptures would be quite astonishing to Hamilton, Jefferson, and Jay.  They have shown no appetite for reasoned deliberation.  Cotton certainly understood certain key aspects of the Federalist in the late 1990s when he wrote his thesis, but I do wish that he and his Republican colleagues might take the time to reread them now.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Hillary the savior?

 A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story on the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton.  Citing mostly unnamed party leaders and donors, it reported that they not only assumed that Clinton would be the nominee in 2016--as she almost surely will be--but that they see her as the party's only hope, not only to hold on to the White House but to regain control of Congress.  I read that part of the story in some amazement, and I can only interpret it as evidence not only of my party's desperation, but of its inability to understand what has been happening to the nation and where we are going.  I do not think there is anything that I or any other Democrat can do about this, but that doesn't incline me to ignore it and simply hope for the best.  I have been trying to face reality here for more than ten years now and it's too late to stop.

An aura of inevitability surrounds Clinton's nomination and, among many (but by no means all) older women, her election.  They see her as destined to become the first female President, an honor to which they feel some woman clearly to be entitled.  Other news reports, indeed, suggest that her budding campaign plans to play this angle for all that it is worth.  That is not surprising, because Clinton, unlike Barack Obama will not be able to offer any convincing, sweeping new policy proposals in 2016.  She has already indicated that while she believes that inequality is an increasing problem in the United States, she does not believe Americans want to solve it by taking more money away from the rich.  Given her well-developed ties to Wall Street and her husband's reliance on Goldman Sachs employees during his administration, this is anything but surprising.   The health care issue has been taken off the table by the ACA.  Hardly anyone would believe that she could get sweeping domestic legislation through a Republican Congress.  On foreign policy, my strong suspicion is that she will want to come across as a bit more hawkish, and certainly more pro-Israel, than Barack Obama.  She will offer, in other words, another moderate Republican approach to major issues of foreign and domestic policy, while standing for the rights of women, minorities, and gays. The first critical question is whether the appeals to minorities, which were crucial to Barack Obama's victory last time out, will be successful for her.  The second question is whether the youth vote, which largely views questions of gender equality as old news, will turn out for her in anything like the numbers that they did for Obama.  And the third question, of course, is whether the Republicans can nominate a candidate with sufficiently broad appeal to win back a few states such as Colorado, Florida, and Ohio.

On the other hand, the idea that Hillary could sweep the Democrats back into control of Congress strikes me as utterly delusional.  Gerrymandering protects the Republicans for at least the next election and perhaps for the whole decade.  (Although one can't be sure--the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in 1874, in the middle of U.S. Grant's second term, so anything is possible!)  Obama's presence in the White House has simply wiped out the Democratic Party not only in the old Confederacy, but in the border states, except Maryland and Delaware, as well.   I do not think they will be more favorable to Hillary. Indeed, I have felt for a long time that the history of the last six years would have been essentially the same had she been nominated and elected in 2008.  She would have aroused the same hatred among the same people, albeit for slightly different reasons.

The "email scandal" is another example of how low our politics have sunk. There is nothing in it, clearly, but it is already tying up endless amounts of news time and space and Congressional investigations are certain.  There will be more episodes like it and, presumably, more "controversies" about Bill Clinton's romantic life.  None of this, of course, will help Hillary's chances.

The Democratic Party is in deep trouble because it is so old. Hillary, an exact contemporary of mine, is significantly younger than Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, or Joe Biden.  The leading Democratic Boomer in Washington is Chuck Schumer, who splits his allegiance between Wall Street and AIPAC.  Hillary in 2016 will arouse the enthusiasm of those who remember when women were just emerging as independent beings. I don't know that that will be enough to elect her.