Sunday, April 25, 2010

American Assassinations

Michael J. Shapiro
University of Hawaii

      In a recent article in the New York Times, Tobin Harshaw, equated assassinating Americans, with killing the Constitution. He referred to the practice, begun under the last Bush administration and continuing into the present, of authorizing the CIA, “to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests.” Reading the piece, I was struck by how common place such extraordinary measures have become. Outrage is expressed time and time again and the practices continue relatively unchanged despite the transition of political parties and presidents. Is the current climate of covert violence the necessary outcome of the times? Did it have to come to this? 
In order to gain a politically perspicuous view of the way contemporary politics mobilizes the tensions between justice and its location within spaces we cannot control or effectively address (ultimately many are left with a sense of powerlessness to describe our opposition to state definitions and justifications of the police order), we need to defamiliarize the contemporary relationship between justice and the demand for order at all costs. As Foucault has noted, when referring to his “method,” to be able to grasp “the history of successive forms” and appreciate how peculiar the contemporary form is, he had “to stand detached from it, bracket its familiarity, in order to analyze the theoretical and practical context with which it has been associated” (hence his analysis of the way sexuality was problematized in ancient Greece). In a similar methodological gesture, the classical historian, Paul Veyne, notes that he is interested in analyzing Roman history because of the way it allows him to see the present: “Rome…takes us out of ourselves and forces us to make explicit the differences separating us from it.”
What kind of history could make our difference more apparent? If we recognize that the contemporary spatial strategy for responding to crimes is dominated by agencies whose ultimate horizon involves mechanisms of confinement, the system of law and justice in medieval Iceland is perhaps the best historical moment we can use to “take us out of ourselves.” As the writers of Icelandic Sagas teach us, medieval Iceland had a singular way of identifying political affiliation and allocating legal protection. A person’s affiliational identity was not that of the modern citizen subject. It was primarily communal rather than territorial inasmuch as it was tied to family and clan heredity. Nevertheless, one’s legal identity could migrate into a spatial mode because the movement from inside the law to outside of it (being outlawed) could be juridically determined at a yearly meeting of the clans at the Icelandic Althing. For example, if a person was charged with murder and thereby ordered to pay compensation to a victim’s family or clan, failure to come up with the payment would outlaw the perpetrator. Once outlawed, a person could be killed with impunity.
 Although pieces of literature and thus imaginative reenactments of Icelandic events in general and juridical history in particular, the Sagas yield a significant analytic. Their characters challenge the necessity and inevitability of the current predicament of confinement.  The characters of the Sagas varying relationships to juridical space – being either inside or outside of it – reflect a relatively unfamiliar model of the administration of justice. Unlike the mechanism of confinement, which has characterized centuries of the European and American justice systems, medieval Iceland administered justice by making the penalty a very precarious form of exclusion. For example, in Njal’s Saga, both a well intentioned character, the noble warrior Gunnar, who killed to protect himself, and an ill-intentioned character, the notorious Killer Hraap, who killed arbitrarily, end up outside the law and are killed by their enemies.  At a minimum, the part-time administration of justice at the medieval Icelandic Althing functioned to allocate bodies to a space where there was no law.

By looking at the juridico-political system of medieval Iceland in the present, we are able to reflect on the historical trajectory of relationships between bodies and legal spaces and defamiliarize the current relationship. The outlawing practice in medieval Iceland was not predicated on the kind of security issues that are preoccupying the contemporary state. Outlawing was designed to disconnect wealth and violence and to regulate inter-clan violence. The almost certain consequence of being placed outside the law was death at the hands of one’s enemies. Because there was no centralized system of revenge, retaliation for the alleged crime was strictly free lance; it was in the hands of the aggrieved parties and their allies. The result could be catastrophic because it was common for cycles of retaliation to develop and engulf the entire social order. Indeed, the justice system of the modern state was designed in part to avoid the escalating cycles of violence that have occurred in pre state political systems. By monopolizing retaliation, the state monopolizes and depersonalizes revenge.
Although the administration of confinement in prison systems and other more ad hoc or spontaneous places of confinement remains the ultimate horizon of contemporary justice systems for those “brought to justice”, the strategy of outlawing is invoked when a citizen (someone presumptively inside the law) is, by executive order, translated into an enemy status (for example the current U.S. practice of designating some Americans as “enemy combatants” or those providing “material support” for terrorist organizations).  Such translations are increasingly the case. Once the “war on terror” reached its current level of expansion, it began to resemble practices that Foucault ascribed to modern medicine; its locations included a nomenclature (a list of terrorist acts), ways of classifying bodies (e.g., psycho-biological discourses on the terrorist were engendered), and a proliferating set of surveilling and policing agencies. Some of those agencies lack killing power - for example the public health services that are now licensed to heed the dangers of biological terrorism – but some – for example the CIA -  are enjoined to engage in extra-judicial killing of those placed outside the law. And insofar as the decisions for such juridical exclusions are made in places sequestered away from public media (unlike those taken at the Icelandic Althing) it is difficult to demand accountability for each execution (or in many cases to even learn about it). 

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Shock Doctrine and the Neoliberal Imaginary

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University


In a compelling book, entitled The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein charts how the neoliberal right follows the double-barreled strategy introduced years ago by its patron-saint, Milton Friedman.  Right wing think-tanks first prepare a set of market deregulations, anti labor actions, and tax cutting policies, waiting for an acceptable time to enact them. Then a rightist administration deploys any new shock that comes along to push them through. Friedman himself tested this strategy in Chile, after Allende, with probable American help, was killed in a coup and General Pinochet took over. It has since been deployed often. An economic crisis in Argentina? Use the IMF to impose neoliberal policies and deregulation. A recession in the United States in the late 1970's?  Give large tax breaks to the rich and decrease regulation when Reagan gains office. An economic meltdown in 2009 created by deregulation, bank adventurism and high frequency trading?  More bailouts, joined to militant resistance to reorganize the neoliberal policies that created the disaster.
Klein’s book, which appeared before the latest meltdown, is compelling. She does not argue that the “neos–-the neoliberals and neoconservatives in tandem--create every crisis. But they are ready to impose preconceived policies each time one arises, as the drumbeat on Fox News and CNBC financial 'reporting' reveals. As Friedman himself said, revealing neoliberalism to be a politico-economic doctrine from the start, 'only a crisis produces real change...That I believe is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive..until the politically impossible become politically inevitable.” (quoted in Klein, p. 140) The shock doctrine was enacted again after 9/11: the attack by Al Qaeda was used by Bush and Cheney to launch a reckless, destructive war against Iraq the neocons had wanted all along.
If I were to criticize Klein, it would be to suggest that she underplays how a significant minority of the populace is primed by existential temperament and/or economic position to embrace this double-barreled strategy. A large section of affluent and aspirational consumers, feeling entitled to cheap oil, two or more houses, SUV’s, and yearly bonuses, are primed to neglect the dangers of oil dependence, to accept destructive military policies, and to embrace market deregulation to inflate housing values and investment portfolios. A section of white blue-collar workers, offended by minority movements that ignored their grievances for too long, are attracted to the utopian promises of this constellation. Many on the right edge of evangelism, joined by some Catholics, act as if God himself is a protector of market adventurism. If they need support for such a strange idea, they can appeal to George Gilder’s 1981 book, Wealth and Poverty. That book helped to spur the unholy alliance between neoliberalism and evangelism I call the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine
Here is a question that deserves more attention on the democratic left:  Why are so many constituencies eager to reinstate the neoliberal myth so soon after each new disaster discloses its utopian character and destructive tendencies? There was the 1970's reinstatement only a few decades after the Great Depression and fascist responses to that crisis in several countries had seemingly taught (nearly) everyone how disastrous such a utopian vision can be. And it has now occurred again, this time only a few months after the last meltdown.
We can see why Wall Street and corporate elites are so eager to forget. But why such dangerous forgetfulness among large sections of the populace?  Is it bound to a problematic conception of individual freedom through the acquisition of private fortune that requires the myth of an untrammeled market to sustain it? Is it tied to the quest by a large section of white working and middle class males to redeem their dignity in a tough economy by castigating minorities who would otherwise make additional claims upon them? Does it flow from a generalized American demand for special entitlement in the world in which those claims increasingly face resistance? Does it reflect failure on the Left to devise an ideal appropriate to the times after the demise of socialist models of productivism? Perhaps it reflects all of these, as they work back and forth on each other to varying degrees for different constituencies. 
Sure, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and CNBC preach neoliberalism daily, playing up its aspirational side while obscuring its draconian disciplines. But that repetition, again, does not sufficiently explain the lure of the myth or the intensity of denials about its harsh disciplines and contributions to periodic crisis, unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure, debt, racial division, and climate change.
One thing seems certain. While the democratic left must expose the shock doctrine of Milton Friedman and his gang, we ourselves need more militant strategies to press “Independents” and “blue dog democrats” to rethink their priorities. And we also need to articulate an interim vision that speaks more sharply to the systemic risks and personal troubles of today. My sense is that one place to start is in the sphere of consumption, showing how the established infrastructure of consumption simultaneously renders it difficult for many to make ends meet, encourages unwise economic decisions, and endangers the planet. An infrastructure, for instance, may be organized either to demand the automobile or support mass transit, to demand oil and coal generated electricity or provide a grid that supports sustainable energy production, and to provide expensive hi-tech care out of the reach of many or support preventative health care. The latter in each case reduces the costs of consumption for low income consumers while supporting sustainability for future generations.
As you show people how apparently autonomous consumption decisions are channeled by the market and state sustained infrastructure in which they are set, it may be possible to pose changes to that infrastructure itself that speak to the issues of household cost and sustainability, Along the way it will be important to show how neoliberal policies, promising a reduction in the size of the state, actually produce powerful pressures to expand the state to maintain its own preconditions of existence without reducing pressures on household budgets. But that is a topic for another time. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

This Is Your Brain, This Is Your Brain On Politics.

Alan Finlayson
Swansea University



There can be no doubt that ongoing developments in sciences of the mind and brain are central to our contemporary condition and will have an immense impact upon future politics. But the particular form this may take remains an open political question - except in the United Kingdom. The nation that gave the world free-trade, cricket and Puritanism is now a pioneer in the application of ‘cutting-edge’ neuropsychology and neurophysiology to problems of government policy. We call it “behavioral change”
Tony Blair’s new Labour came to power in 1997 preoccupied with two things: reform of the public sector (which in the UK means schools, hospitals and universities as well as the labours of the civil service); and amelioration of the poor socio-economic conditions of the very worst-off or most ‘excluded’. In both cases it sought to create systems of incentive and disincentive that would lead people to act in ways the government desired. In public services this included forms of market competition and performance measurement as well as rewards for demonstrating entrepreneurial capacity. In welfare it included tax-credits and wage guarantees to ‘make work pay’. In short, new Labour swallowed much of what was invented by the theorists of so-called ‘public choice’. Two things happened to modify this.  
Firstly, improvements were not as large or fast as desired. Government therefore sought more refined ways to modify behaviors, or at least a more solid-seeming evidence base for doing so. Secondly, Labour also recognized – correctly - that from climate-change to poor educational attainment, government alone cannot solve the problems we face, and resolution also requires action on the part of citizens both as individuals and as parts of collectives.


Labour drew the conclusion that if it couldn’t solve policy problems by directly acting upon them then it could do so indirectly by acting on individuals and getting them to solve the policy problem for it. Individual mental behavior thus became a primary object of policy and ‘behavioral change’. Indicative policies include: dosing prisoners diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorders; cash-grants for low-income pregnant women intended to enhance in-utero diet and thus the physical and mental quality of babies; schooling kids in emotional and financial literacy; incorporating behavioral management principles into urban design. 
These developments are symptomatic of the collapse of two prior paradigms for government thinking. The first is of course the social democratic idea that the protection of public and collective spaces from the deformations of corporate self-interest ensures opportunities for democratic self-rule that transform individual capacities. The other is the idea of public and rational choice theory that the protection of private spaces from the deformations of collective interest ensures opportunities for corporate rule that transform profit margins. Having already rejected democratic socialism Labour’s inorganic intellectuals then recognized that the simple utilitarianism of rational choice theory (which despite decades of effort still can’t work out why anybody bothers to vote) is inadequate to the task of predicting or managing large parts of human activity. In addition to thinking in terms of rewards and punishments they sought to take account of interpersonal and communal influences upon behaviors, and were excited to discover that social action is sometimes shaped by “social norms”
And so into British public policy there came neuroscience, to sit alongside economic and psychological behaviorism and the tedious just-so stories of - inexplicably fashionable - evolutionary psychology. The conclusion has been that, as one former adviser to Tony Blair puts it, ‘by highlighting our psychological frailties and the way these contribute to market epidemics’ behavioral economics and neuropsychology contribute to ‘a powerful case for regulation, paternalism and measures to promote feelings of security’ as well as to appreciation of the fact that strong social institutions can help to contain what might otherwise be our impatient and short-termist pleasure-seeking. “It is sensible”, he argues, for politicians to work with the constraints of our mental predispositions…by revealing how social arrangements have been molded by human nature, it encourages us to respect the tacit wisdom of established norms and be sensitive to the damage that can be done in the name of modernization”. 
And, that, of course is a classical form of Conservatism. People, we now learn, are frail and weak. They are prone to error and also – the most important of contemporary sins – irrationality. They must therefore live in societies where better people, who care about them, can oversee the strong institutions that keep them on the straight and narrow. And, indeed, the British Conservative Party is just as interested in behavior change as new Labour has been. Here is Conservative Party leader David Cameron speaking at the end of 2009: “There are lessons we can learn from the latest academic research which shows how government, by going with the grain of human nature, can better influence behaviour. The behavioural psychologist Robert Cialdini argues that one of the most important influences on how we behave are 'social norms' - that is, how other people behave. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued that with the right prompting, or 'nudge', government can effect a whole culture change...’. Yes, British Conservatism now takes its lead from an Obama lawyer. 
There are lots of things wrong about this. There is space here to mention only three. The first is this: policy claims about neuropsychology and behavior almost always make it seem as if the latter studies the brains only of those whose behavior is an object of social policy and rarely the brains of, say, the people who make such policy. But if neuropsychology, neuroscience (and evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics) tell us that our minds are not very good at making decisions then this must surely apply as much to the Downing Street Policy Unit as it does to any else. And given that these people have the power and position to affect national policies that include matters as significant as how we educate our children and which countries we invade, should we not be concerned with their brains above all? Perhaps (to employ insights the evolutionary psychologists are very proud of) people go into policy-making, think-tanks and government because they imagine that the heady scent of power coming off them might help them to attract more partners with whom they might mate? And if there is one thing that policy makers are good at in a country such as the UK – with a venerable tradition of centralized government – it is exercising the irrationality of groupthink (q.v. ‘invading Iraq with neither a reason or a plan’). In short, if new findings about brain and behaviour are true then they should not change how government works but how we think government in the first place. 
Secondly, this approach to policy is significantly silent about something: if we want to understand how and why people today behave as they do maybe we should look at not only the ‘internal’ influences but the ‘external’ ones. Those might include, say, advertising companies encouraging unsustainable debt, film and television studios inflating fears of crime or junk-food chains wrecking our biochemistry with appallingly bad products. Indeed, much of what is presented as new findings about how to frame decisions and ‘nudge’ behaviors has been most developed in the field of marketing. There is little point, if one is worried about energy costs in expending effort to get people to recycle a bit more, use some different light bulbs and generate bit of their own electricity - much better to change the ways in which energy corporations produce and deliver their electricity. In short in a society such as ours where people – whatever we pretend – have radically different levels of power over the world, the behavior the matters most is not that of the routine individual but of the powerful; the people who run and own corporations and banks and so on and whose madness and anti-social tendencies have of late been all too apparent. But about this the advocates of behaviour change policy are mostly silent. 
Thirdly, the incorporation of neurological thinking into British government is not the outcome of a careful reflection on the state of research and it is very selective. That is unfortunate because there is so much to be learned from neuroscience. My concern is that the way it is being incorporated into policy may encourage us to reject the science and to depart yet further from materialist theories and methods. It is unlikely that many will come fully to embrace the Churchlands’ declaration that human brains and bodies are “epistemic engines” exploiting the “flow of environmental energy, and the information it already contains, to produce more information, and to guide movement”. But they might see the significance of the finding that our dynamic neural networks are parts not only of our internal nervous system but also of much larger networks comprised not just of other persons and their bodies and brains, but also a natural environment (including rain, gravity and e-coli) and cultural environment (including forms of communication, types of food and kinds of routinised or institutionalized activity). 
Politics has not just become neurological now that we have studied brains and that governments can take neurology into account when designing polices. Humans have always acted on themselves and on their brain-states (thorough diet, fasting, intoxication etc.) and States have acted on their subjects (through festivals, military training, education etc.). Understanding that and specifying how it happens today is a vital contemporary challenge. 


The incorporation of neuroscience into the thinking of British politicians and policy makers is part of a wider collapse in the confidence and conviction of politicians of all kinds and who, as a result, turn to whatever sounds clever and looks ‘cutting-edge’. With no faith in the difficult processes of democratic government, and unwilling or unable to challenge the pathologies caused by those who control significant means of production, our politicians have instead turned to micro-techniques for trying to manage individuals. The outcome – of course – is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. 
All politics is concerned with behavior change. People have written books, sung songs, and made speeches, they have marched in celebration, in protest or to war all because they wanted to change the habits, thoughts and feelings of others. British politicians may have rejected literature for behavioural neuropsychology. But the rest of us need not be so refined in our choice of political techniques. There is behaviour out there that needs to be modified and there are powerful people who are finding it difficult to learn the lessons of their bad behaviours. It is up to us to help them by any means necessary.  

Friday, April 2, 2010

Miserere Mei: The Singers and the Song

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett
Grinnell College
Amid the sickening invective and defensiveness that is spiraling around the Catholic Church, I have been listening to a piece of liturgical music:  Gregorio Allegri’s (1582-1652) beautiful setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei.  During the Good Friday liturgy, it is usually sung in a darkened church, with the congregation on its knees facing an altar that has been “stripped” of all beautiful vestments.  This liturgical context always makes the spirit downcast; everything is so bare and empty; if one is fasting too, the whole thing makes you feel very frail, as though your religion might be easily carted away. 


Allegri’s music itself is an unspectacular setting to one of the penitential psalms appointed for Holy Week.  But its performance in the Sistine Chapel each Good Friday in the 17th century made it famous throughout Europe.  There is no extant copy of Allegri’s score—indeed there is a beloved story that the Vatican would not allow any score to circulate until Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the piece and transcribed it from memory.  So we do not know exactly how it was performed, with what embellishments, though we do know it was the embellishments improvised by the choir that made it famous.  When it is sung today, the congregation anticipates a cadenza sung by a gifted soprano that trills up to a high C, and then pours one liquid note after another descending like a tear.  A high C is a very high note for a human voice; if castrated male singers originally improvised this descant, it would have given a preternatural impression we can scarcely imagine.



But though we have no score, we do have a list of the male singers of the Vatican choir who would have sung Allegri’s Miserere.  (I am indebted to Prof. Philip Cave for this reference.)  Beside each name, some anonymous official wrote brief annotations about the singers--Jacobus:  “acceptable [voice] but desires women; he is to be warned”; Mathias:  “gambler and wastrel and disorderly”; Bartholomeus:  “the worst kind of heretic”; Joannes: “poor, but deaf and acceptable”; Simon: “ill, infamous and poor”; Fredricus:  “rich, acceptable; keeps a mistress”; Franciscus:  “has fled because of debts”; Antonius:  “apostate; has no voice”.  There are more such notes, though many of the individuals attracted the official’s indifferent appraisal “bonus”.  We do not know whether the annotations accurately reflect the character or situation of the singers; indeed, the annotator seems to be as interested in the economic burden the indigent ones would impose on the Vatican pension plan as he is in their various heresies and indiscretions.



In any event, though, these summary appraisals expose the vulnerability of human spirits, their isolation and responsiveness, their incoherence and frailty.  They expose as well the cold light in which one person can sum up the confusions of another in a single pitiless gaze.



The music that ravished Europe’s penitent soul was sung by a bunch of reprobates. Such “dissonance” will surprise no one who has been actually involved—and I say this with love--in religious communities.  There is always complex life going on beneath the liturgical flow, obsessions and resentments and infidelities that haunt our moments of unselfconscious praise.  Such life cannot be captured or quarantined as hypocrisy or degeneracy or perversion.  Faith lives in closest proximity to the unbidden things that move and constrain us.



Last night, on the Canadian news program The National, Prof. David Seljak said it best:  In response to the widening sex scandal, attend to the victims now, console and care for the children and the adult survivors, constrain the perpetrators; the reputation of the Church can be rehabilitated following, and as a result of, demonstrated responses worthy of the faith.

There is a prayer that every Catholic knows, fitting for a penitential season:  O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.



Thursday, April 1, 2010

Israel-Palestine: No More "Honest Brokers"

Daniel J. Levine 
Colgate University

Daniel B. Monk
Colgate University

The US has been playing (or rather, pretending to play) the wrong role in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.  No “honest broker” is needed to bridge differences between the parties.  Former US President Clinton’s bridging proposals of 2000, or something very close to them, remain the best viable template for a two-state solution, and their parameters are well known to all sides.  If such a solution remains in the offing– a point worth arguing in its own right, but not our concern here – it begins with them.  Since the path to their implementation is not marked with clarificatory 'negotiations’ but with political will, it is hard to imagine how the proposed Clinton-Mitchell 'proximity talks' can help either side get closer to them.
Where US intervention is needed is within Israel. Despite appearances to the contrary, the Israeli state is in full-blown retreat: its intransigence on Palestinian and Syrian talks is due not to its strength, but to its weakness. For decades – until the 1970s – Israel was essentially a one-party state: Labor dominated the ‘commanding heights’ of manufacturing, the labor and trade unions, the media, and the influential military and kibbutz sectors.  Control of the government passed to Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977; yet Labor’s ongoing dominance in economic, military, and social circles, and a series of Labor-Likud unity governments in the 1980s, preserved a clear horizon of political and ideological consensus.   

Since the early 1990s, however, the situation has changed.   Key assets and industries were sold, the mass media was liberalized and marketized, and a series of electoral reforms gave the traditional ‘national’ parties a distinct disadvantage vis-√†-vis smaller ‘fractional’ movements.  All dynamics now pulled parliamentary politics toward radicalization: a slimmer public sector could no longer be mined for political patronage by the traditional power-brokers, while single-issue parties proved increasingly adept in wrangling coalition negotiations to deliver political ‘goods’ to their voters.  Into this mix came events that rendered the security consensus of the previous two decades obsolete: the first Intifada and the end of the Cold War.

The collapse of the Oslo-Madrid process has only accelerated these long-term dynamics: the movements that have composed Israel’s traditionally state-centered ‘left’ and ‘right’ seem in a permanent state of implosion.  Since 2000, the former has found itself without a coherent narrative, careening from setback to setback. Ehud Barak’s abortive “rebranding” (a la Tony Blair) of the Labor movement in 1999 stressed physical separation from the Palestinians over any serious discussion of national reconciliation, leaving the party ripe to be outflanked by Ariel Sharon’s centrist Kadima party after the collapse of the final status talks.  A revitalized social-democratic agenda seemed in the offing with the election of Amir Peretz to Labor leadership in the mid 2000s, but hopes were dashed by his ill-advised support of the 2006 Lebanon “summer war.”  Labor and its traditional parliamentary allies seem a spent political force.   

Likud has fared better at the polls; but that pearl has been bought at great price.  Its traditional base – the adherents of Jabotinsky’s “Revisionist” Zionism – find themselves outflanked by a new generation of radical, single-issue movements, united only by their rejection of Labor: Russian ultra-nationalists, Sha's, and a new generation of radicals and settlers who abandon realpolitik and geopolitical calculi in favor of received truths, whether divine in their origins or wholly intramundane. Likud’s survival depends on Netanyahu’s ability to keep this fractious group – only just – together.  Its precarious nature actually grants him considerable freedom of action, but in a negative sense: the radicalism of his coalition partners provides him cover for not doing anything substantive on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian fronts.

This, then, is the key point about Israeli politics that often fails to ‘translate’: the traditional, state-centered ‘left’ and the ‘right’ no longer exist as positive political forces: they are imaginary points of reference for an electorate that is either increasingly radical or increasingly disaffected.  Israeli electoral politics is divided between those who acknowledge and fear a reality in which the state has come to symbolize only a means to an (essentially contested) end, and those who are not only partly responsible for this condition, but also willing to hold everyone else hostage to threats that they may finish the job if ‘pushed too far’ – viz., any number of variations on a “Third Kingdom of Israel,” and the neutralization of opponents within the Israeli body politic who might stand in the way of the ethnic cleansing necessary to achieve a hegemonic eschatology.  For some years, one of the more macabre jokes among members of the Israeli left has gone thus: Q: “Why does every Leftist in Israel have a friend among the radicals?”  A: “So that they can wangle a better job in the concentration camps.” In light of this reality, Israeli political commonsense for those living within the Green Line is obvious: “Until circumstances force us to make any ‘fateful compromises,’ it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.” 

In this larger context, Labor – the natural ally of the present US leadership – is caught in a Gordian knot: if it leaves the government, it abandons everyday policymaking – issues of citizenship, women’s and minority rights, education – to religious and nationalist radicals. Yet if it stays, Labor alienates its base on key foreign policy issues: peace and reconciliation with the Arab world, sustaining good relations with the US, Europe and the larger international community.  Labor's latest poll numbers are a dramatic testament to this losing proposition: to halt the Israeli state’s immediate slide into Peronism, they must sacrifice their medium-term survival. Since parliamentary elections would likely wipe them off the map, their constant decline in the polls binds their fate ever more tightly to Netanyahu's intransigence. 

For its part, the traditional right finds itself in an obverse paradox: it can form governments by entering into coalitions with the radicals, but only if any hope of governing effectively is checked ‘at the door.’  Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s (Sha's) announcement on settlement construction in East Jerusalem during US Vice-President Biden’s recent visit – and Netanyahu’s otherwise inexplicable inability to control the timing of such announcements – makes sense only in the context of this paradox. The remnants of the ‘traditional’ left and right are thus bound in a death-embrace: Netanyahu needs Labor and Barak so as to not be overcome by radicals from outside Likud and within it; Labor needs Likud because without a place in government it has nothing left to offer. 

Sustained US pressure can materially affect this complex state of affairs, but it needs to be aimed at those disaffected ‘statist’ voters who have chosen to surrender government to the radicals to avoid domestic confrontation. The dichotomy that characterizes American discussions on Israel – between the notions that Israel’s strategic interests and those of America diverge, or else that it is inappropriate for one ally to pressure another– misses this point entirely.  The tacit strategic ‘choice’ of the disappearing Israeli center has been to purchase short-term domestic harmony at the cost of accepting an untenable, unending grinding-down of Palestinians’ rights and hopes.  To confront the radicals on these points is to risk civil-cum-holy war: a return to the confrontations of the mid-1990s. Since the ‘statists’ pay no immediate price for having abandoned the Palestinians to the tender mercies of their political rivals, that ‘bargain’ (if one can call it that) is not without its benefits.  Political pressures that expose and alter that tacit strategic ‘calculus’ must be brought to bear.  Only if ‘statist’ Israelis are faced with the dimensions of this capitulation, and with paying a price for it, can it be squarely confronted – let alone revisited.  

“Friends” of Israel from without would thus do well to reconsider their knee-jerk objections to criticism of the present Israeli government.  They might ask what would happen if a ‘statist’ discourse were to collapse completely.  Only a vibrant, engaged and relevant Israeli state, focused on political interests and willing to balance those interests against those of allies and rivals, can preserve a genuine alliance between Israel and the US: one, that is, with its own center of gravity outside of the deep pockets and lobbying acumen of AIPAC and the Christian right.  At present, these “friends” feel more like “enablers”: in helping subsidize a losing truce between Israel’s statists and its radicals, they both prolong the occupation, and defer a meaningful domestic conversation within Israel.  The domestic face-off needed can be helped along, before it descends into full-blown crisis: thus minimizing its hardships, and containing the damage.  

This, however, is not the work of so-called “honest brokers,” nor will even-handedness do the trick.  To understand the extent of the shift that is necessary in US foreign policy in the region one need only contrast the contemporary history of diplomacy among “friends” with a precedent in US-Israeli relations: in which, as it were, friends refused to let friends drive drunk.   After the IDF conquered the Sinai Peninsula in Fall 1956, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stood on the rostrum of the Knesset and announced: “the armistice agreement with Egypt is dead and buried and cannot be restored to life.”  “In consequence,” he continued, “the armistice lines between Israel and Egypt have no more validity.”  For good measure, Ben-Gurion also declared that Israel would not consent to the stationing of “foreign forces” – a UN mission – in the territory it had captured.  Within months, all traces of Israel’s presence in the Sinai would be gone, UN peacekeepers having replaced them. The Eisenhower administration refused to treat seriously the directives of an Israel that had, for the first time but not for the last, come to believe that it could dictate terms to others instead of coming to terms with itself.  

The present Israeli government’s drumbeat of rejectionism conceals a muffled cry for intervention from a body politic that has lost its way.  They might yet find their way back: but they could use a little help from their friends.