"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Things small states should know

Watching the crisis in the Caucasus unfold, I realized that the Georgian leadership probably did not receive the brief manual that is normally given out to every independent state when it is granted its sovereignty license by the United Nations. Not many people are aware of this manual. I was told about it by a veteran Cypriot diplomat, who noted that the leadership in Cyprus received their copy only on August 14, 1974. That was the day Turkish "peacekeepers" embarked on the second stage of their military operation on the island, which left its mark on Cyprus to this day. So, like the Georgians, the Cypriots did not receive the booklet when it would have been most useful. In the hope that greater awareness of this publication will help other small states avoid the tragic fate of Georgia and Cyprus, here are some of its key points, in no particular order of importance.

Sovereignty is not made of kryptonite. In other words, you cannot hide behind it and expect it to stop bullets. Sovereignty is a concept that makes sense to great powers. Small states haven't a chance in hell of upholding their sovereignty unless they have an ace up their sleeve. This normally comes in the form of patronage from one of the great powers, and even that is not foolproof. Unfortunately for the Georgians, like naive upstarts, they bought the empty promises of the Bush administration.

Independence is overrated. No small state can be truly independent, and it is arguably a difficult achievement for even the greatest of powers. The desire for independence should not be allowed to blur reality. It can only be relative for small states, and must be balanced between their minimum ambitions and the aspirations of their most powerful neighbor. Georgia's desire to become a full-fledged member of NATO, with Putin's Russia hulking over it, clearly reflected an unbalanced sense of independence, and a misunderstanding of the motivations and policies of Western powers.

Do not be flattered by the praise of more powerful states: The measure of your success should be yours to determine. Georgia was lauded for its democracy, its pro- Western attitude, its support of liberty and freedom, and its contribution to the war in Iraq. Was any of this helpful when the Russians came barging in? The answer is a glaring "nope." So, Georgia failed the small-state test. By the way, being a democracy did not help Cyprus in 1974: The United States still backed the military dictatorship in Greece when it invaded the island, first through a coup against Cyprus' legitimate government, and did nothing to prevent the subsequent invasion, ethnic cleansing, division and occupation of the island by another U.S. client and NATO ally, Turkey. Nor has the fact that since the 1974 catastrophe, the Republic of Cyprus has proved to be a model democracy, a bastion of political stability and a successful economy - truly, one of a handful of shining stars in the post-colonial abyss of failures - helped the island to regain its full sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Do the math, cut your losses. This means you should avoid spending outrageous sums on defense and not overestimate the value of territorial integrity. Small states will never be able to truly defend themselves against the hulks dominating the international arena. They will also have a very tough time preserving territories that are obviously determined to break off from the whole. It may be unfair, and it may be illegal, but breakaway minorities cannot be controlled unless there is a clear decision to use force against them. As the cases of Kosovo and now South Ossetia have shown, even a willingness to keep those minorities at bay by force may ultimately yield only a Pyrrhic victory. Therefore - and this is true in Cyprus, too, which is currently in the midst of a much-lauded negotiating process for reunification - the possibility of breaking away from the separatists should be seriously considered. Let them go their own way. If the Cypriot case is anything to go by, the Greek Cypriots have done quite well since they were separated from their Turkish compatriots, though perhaps not quite as well as if they had parted for good, and not maintained an official insistence on reunification at nearly any cost. The Georgians and the Serbs would do well to just let separatist territories go - the eventual benefits will far outweigh the pain and the nationalist opposition at home.

A final word of warning: The international arena is in constant flux, and small states should follow the changes closely. For the most part, it will not be these states that will determine the new world order. Therefore, they should at least aspire to be on the mailing list when the new rule book on international relations comes out.

This article was first published in Haaretz on August 15, 2008.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia's Gamble

This article first appeared in Haaretz on August 11, 2008.

In one scenario presented in a 2001 video game, U.S. Special Forces are inserted into the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to help counter a Russian invasion. This might have been just a game, but it eerily presaged a Russian nationalist government flexing its muscles in the Caucasus in 2008. However, it is highly unlikely that in real life, American, or for that matter any Western troops will be brought in to help the Georgians in stemming the Russian onslaught.

The fog of war and information is still thick, but the first impression is that the youthful, pro-Western Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, miscalculated badly when he ordered his forces into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. But analysts had expressed worry in the past that Saakashvili was impetuous and prone to overreact, as he did during a November 2007 crackdown against protesters. And there are signs that the Russians may have laid a trap in South Ossetia, gradually exacerbating the situation, leading the Georgians to make a play for a blitz operation aimed at restoring Tbilisi's sovereignty over the territory. It seems that the words of an expert on the region, Dr. Dimitris Triantaphyllou, were prophetic when he warned at a conference on regional security last summer that, "The Georgians have a mistaken notion that the Americans will come in to save them." Indeed, the West had been doing its best to avoid getting sucked into a conflict in the Caucasus in any real way, and in retrospect the decision to refuse Georgia NATO membership at the Bucharest summit in April was correct.

A showdown between the Medvedev/Putin regime and the Rose Revolution Georgians, who took over following the resignation of former Soviet leader Edward Shevardnadze in 2003, had been building up for some time. Some dire scenarios have the Russians wanting to push Saakashvili to the brink, replacing him with a more pliable government in Tbilisi and restoring Russian predominance - and near-complete control over the energy pipelines - in the Caucasus. The bid by the Saakashvili government for both NATO and future European Union membership is perceived by Russia as a direct threat to its "natural" sphere of influence and a challenge to the fundamentals of Vladimir Putin's strategy for restoring Moscow's status as a major power through command of energy supplies to Europe.

As the UN Security Council haggles and maneuvers toward agreement on a resolution that Moscow will surely insist is lacking in meaning, the immediate question is whether the conflict will escalate. There are fears that in spite of the Georgian call for a cease-fire, the clashes will turn into an all-out Russian ground offensive, perhaps sparked by "volunteer" forces flowing into South Ossetia from another Moscow-backed breakaway region, Abkhazia, and even from Chechnya. Clearly, rhetoric and emotions are running high, with hyperbolic language and terms that are so familiar from recent conflicts, like "ethnic conflict" and "genocide." But it is also clear that a long-lasting conflict would not favor either side.

The Georgians can certainly not carry on the fight against the Russian mass for much longer, and unless Moscow makes a move against Tbilisi, it is unlikely that the Western powers will offer more than words of support to Saakashvili. For its part, Russia has already achieved two main objectives: It has established the status quo ante in the breakaway territories even more firmly than before; and has shown its power on the ground, reaffirming its sphere of influence in the Caucasus and possibly other areas on its borders (Ukraine, for example). Will it now seek Saakashvili's head?

Besides its local and immediate implications, this recent flare-up in the Caucasus raises a much broader question about the nature of world order, the place of small countries, like Georgia, in the international system, and the question of sovereignty. For all their mistakes, the Georgians are right when they point out that the fighting in their country is about the fundamentals of international law, that their sovereignty has been violated by Russia and that without Moscow, Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists would be unable to challenge the central government in Tbilisi.

It is hard for any citizen of a small country not to feel sympathy for the Georgians who, unlike the Serbians, do not have the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and the massacre at Srebrenica to contend with as they seek international sympathy. It is no wonder that the Russian government spokesmen have gone so far as to raise the possibility that Saakashvili should be taken to The Hague as a war criminal, in a blatant effort to defuse the David vs. Goliath imagery.

But public sympathy will do little for Georgia, just as it does for Tibet and Darfur, and as it did in Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia. In the international chess game, small actors like Georgia have little choice but to play by the rules dictated by the behemoths on their borders - until the tables are turned and new opportunities for genuine independence are created.
Michalis Firillas
August 10, 2008

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Paradox that is Iran


This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 May, 2008

Nothing smacks more of a "clash of civilizations" than the classic Greek-Persian confrontation of antiquity. That's what they tell us, anyway. Because soon after the clash, it turned into something that was more akin to an amalgamation of civilizations, with the emergence of a new, multicultural environment that influenced, if not outright dominated, much of the Euro- Mediterranean world until the Church and Christianity became official organs of empire.

Fast forward to April 13, 2008: Iran's National Library held a ceremony inaugurating a Greek section and commemorating Nikos Kazantzakis - of "Zorba the Greek" fame - who died 50 years ago. The event, co-sponsored by the Greek Embassy in Tehran, was attended by a number of Iranian officials. Evangelos Venetis, a Greek scholar on Iran who presented a paper on Kazantzakis at the event, told me that, "Iranians consider his works a treasury of freedom literature, and that is why he is highly respected not only by the academic elite in Iran, but also among other strata of Iranian society, including politicians and bureaucrats."

Undoubtedly, Kazantzakis, because of the breadth of his work and his thirst for answers to existential questions, means different things to different readers. Hence, it's little surprise there are Iranians who find his works appealing. But there is a difference between individual Iranians deciding on the importance of a particular message in the work of Kazantzakis, and the Islamic Republic of Iran offering official recognition of a figure as controversial as he. Indeed, the choice of Kazantzakis over other Greek authors is ironic, but perhaps it is also reflective of the paradox that is Iran.

Kazantzakis is not just any author - not in Greece, and certainly not for a theocracy like Iran. He was passed over by the Nobel selection committee in 1956 because of the controversy his work had stirred, particularly among conservatives and church elements. He is probably one of a handful of writers to have managed to enter the proverbial "black books" of both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches - the latter went so far as to excommunicate him. He toyed with communism, but was sufficiently self-aware to see the real face of the Bolshevik revolution, and turned his back on it in the 1920s, though he never relinquished his empathy for the common man.

Just as he explored political philosophies, Kazantzakis delved into religions - challenging clergy and placing more faith in man than he did in any God. Indeed, he wrestled with God to the point where he did not hesitate to place God in man's shoes, faced with man's temptations, suffering and anxieties. Most of all, Kazantzakis was obsessed with freedom, and recognizing the myriad chains that bound humanity, be they in the form of basic daily needs, social mores or religious authority, he struggled to find solutions. More than anything else, then, Kazantzakis was a humanist - praised by the likes of Albert Camus, Thomas Mann and Albert Schweitzer.

It is easy to criticize the Iranian state for its oppressive policies. The Iranian people have never had much freedom, whether under shahs or mullahs. And so, the decision to commemorate Kazantzakis is not only curious, but perhaps even hopeful. Mahmud Fazeli, Iran's charge d'affaires in Athens, wrote an introduction for the event that was quoted extensively in Iran's English media. The diplomat, clearly aware of the paradox entailed in honoring Kazantzakis, valiantly tried to avoid having to explain how an author notorious for his criticism of the clergy could be officially accepted by a state that is ruled by clerics. Even though Venetis qualifies the anti-clericalism of Kazantzakis as not being absolute, he acknowledges that "the fact that this event took place under the most official Iranian academic patronage clearly shows that reality is much more complicated in Iran."

Fazeli opted to attribute to Kazantzakis the broadest possible cultural and philosophical traits. He wrote that "although many remember Kazantzakis for his banned book 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' his world is not confined to a book or a certain line of thought." He described him as believing that man is "on a permanent odyssey" in search of God. For those who "regard him as a Christian," Fazeli says they are missing the complexity of the author: "Simultaneously or consecutively, he has been a Christian, an irreligious person, an anarchist, a humanist and a stoic."

Is there a message here we may all be missing about Iran? As Fazeli tried to explain about Kazantzakis, whose works he said "sometimes contradict each other," Iran is a paradox, too. In a recent article on elections in Iran, U.S.-based sociologist Ahmad Sadri says that although Iran may not be a liberal democracy, it is "a representative democracy grafted onto a theocracy." Referring to the Islamic Republic as "a unique specimen," he predicts an emergence of a stronger democracy in Iran, and in one scenario, "the increasing ceremonialization of theocracy," which he considers likely if radical destabilization in the country is to be avoided.

Perhaps by then, the response Kazantzakis gave to his critics in the church may also be heeded by the powers that be in Iran: "You gave me a curse, holy fathers, I give you a blessing: May your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I."
Michalis Firillas
9 May, 2008


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Olmert’s in trouble with the law, again. So what?

If you ask any Israeli whether they think their Prime Minister is a crook, they will nod in agreement. In fact, some may even boast that ‘he is pretty good at it.’ Having weathered four police investigations into possible corruption, cronyism, bribery, and a series of other white collar offenses, and survived a long, albeit erratic probe into the Second Lebanon War, Ehud Olmert also developed a reputation for being a political Houdini. Indeed, after two years in power, since his 2006 election victory, it seemed that he had managed to beat the odds. And then, WHAM! Headlines Friday read that he had been urgently summoned by police for what appeared to be yet another probe into alleged bribery charges.

No one really knows what is going on. Actually, that is not exactly true: police and Justice officials know, as does Olmert – but there is a gag order, which is part and parcel of a rather silly, anachronistic legal philosophy that seems to pervade the Israeli legal system. Israel being a small country, it is only a matter of time before its unruly media will crack and leak details of the case – without attribution, off course. (See, the piece on the Fourth Estate in Israel). The common practice of secret sources means that the Israeli public will be bombarded with leaks from the police, prosecution, various politicians and the Prime Minister and his cronies for at least a couple of weeks before the gag order is lifted, at which point we will all have made up our minds about the case, rather than be given a serious opportunity to form an opinion based on a more or less objective method. Good thing there is no 'jury of your peers' system in Israel. It would be hard to find anyone who has not formed an opinion on your case, not to mention anyone admitting to be your peer.

What we think we know is that a wealthy foreign Jewish businessman allegedly paid Olmert large sums before he was Prime Minister – possibly when he served as Vice Premier and Minister of Industry and Trade in the government of Ariel Sharon, and maybe even earlier, when he was Jerusalem Mayor. The rush for an interview stemmed from two main reasons: it turns out that the businessman had been interviewed by police while on a visit to Israel recently, and probably cooperated with the investigators; and the investigators feared that as soon as Olmert and others involved in the case learned of this, an effort to scuttle the probe would be under way, first and foremost by coordinating their versions of the story.

Now the police say they have solid evidence against Olmert. If nothing stuck to the man until now, they seem to be confident that they have something that will. Reactions are mixed: the Israeli public is fed up but traditionally fickle; politicians are cautious but getting ready to pounce; the press is sharpening its pen knives; and Olmert is hoping the next 72 hours pass quickly. He was hoping to bask in the glory of the next week’s 60th Independence Day celebrations, with a line of foreign dignitaries arriving to pay tribute to Israel’s success story. Instead, everyone is on edge.

Pundits have already began writing about a ‘critical mass’ (as if Olmert was some nuclear experiment) of pressure that the Prime Minister will not be able to bear this time. One scenario has the details of the story leaking and the politicians and the press pounding on Olmert for the fifth time in less than two years. Everyone seems to be betting that no one in Israel can be that lucky - to survive five police investigations. They say that Labor Chairman and coalition partner, Ehud Barak will falter and threaten to quit the coalition unless Olmert steps down. That can be risky because infighting in Olmert’s Kadima party may result in a coalition implosion and new elections sooner than next year. No one in the coalition wants elections they know they cannot win. Barak already faces stern opposition in his own party. Only last week it was leaked out that there was more than shouting and shoving at a closed party meeting. Benjamin Netanyahu is lurking in the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity only he can possibly miss. And the Israeli public: with the price of rice rising, they just want to be left alone. Indeed, during the past year or so, the Israeli public appears to be a little tired of all the excitement – they have gotten used to the drone of low intensity warfare in the Gaza Strip, stable prices, low unemployment, even a government that is led by a crook, but whom they recognize to be their own. They don't want any surprises.

So what now? If this investigation gets serious – and the police and prosecution have something to hold onto, it would not be at all surprising if we saw progress in one of the following arenas:

a. a deal with Hamas for the release of the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. It is almost a done deal anyway: both sides know the price: about 1,300 to 1, give or take a few hundred. Hamas will get its prisoners released and Olmert will be a hero with Shalit coming home. Added to that, some sort of cease-fire will be signed and a new deal on how the crossings into the Gaza Strip would be run, will be ironed out.

b. direct talks with the Syrians, possibly with the tacit blessing of G.W. Bush, who is a big fan of Olmert and is on his way to the Holy Land next week. Bush is on his way out anyway, so Olmert, stuck between a rock (police probe) and a hard place (the waning Bush era) may decide the latter is worth annoying if it means popularity at home.

c. some sort of major military operation. This is not likely at this stage unless Hamas (or a smaller Gaza based militia) or Hezbollah do something particularly silly, and give Olmert and Barak an opportunity to take up an option they both saved for a particularly rainy day – in Israeli politics.

If they had bookies in Israel at every street corner, as they do in ‘civilized’ places like Britain or Cyprus, it is a fair chance that we would know the odds on Olmert’s political future by tomorrow. Those guys are not known for making many mistakes. But Olmert has proven to be a difficult politician to write off, and it seems like we have been down this path already – remember Sharon, the investigations against him, and the Gaza evacuation? Maybe one of Olmert's closest advisers, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, will be able to cook up another coup on the Arab-Israeli front. Anything to keep Bibi Netanyahu and Udi Barak at bay.
Michalis Firillas
4 May, 2008

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Understanding the Holocaust

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel.

I did not always understand the enormity of the crime. It has been a gradual understanding, over the three decades of connection with the Jewish people, paralleling my development from childhood to adulthood. The things a child sees are different from what an adult chooses to notice – they are less political.

I had heard of the Holocaust for the first time when I was seven. At that time I heard adults talking of a very curious, terrifying phenomenon: soap made of humans. I was too scared to ask for details, but I heard the word Jews, and Hitler was mentioned too, both alien words to me.

But I still had not made the connection between Jews and the Holocaust. I had heard the word used to describe terrible results of battle, of scorched corpses of national heroes. For a young Greek child the word was one of horror, of absolute catastrophe and brilliant, destructive fires. Then in early 1978 I read in a magazine of an attack on a bus in which many Jews were killed in a huge blaze. It was described in the article as a ‘holocaust.’ I was beginning to put together a picture of Jews as victims of fire.

Our first home in Israel was in the northern town of Nahariya. On the road to town stood a large building, a museum, where I was told ‘human soap’ was housed. For years, every time I passed by that building, I tried not to think about it. And when they talked about the Holocaust in school, I tried not to make the connection to that building. Instead I tried to focus on the name of the kibbutz where the museum was kept – and we were encouraged to think of its meaning: Lohamei HaGetaot (Ghetto Fighters). Somehow it made the horrors I imagined – because I still did not really know – seem acceptable. I rationalized it had been a battle, a war, full of glory and the death of heroes.

Over the years the narrative of heroism, victimhood, suffering and liberation, were not readily distinguishable to me. The order and proximity in which three days of commemoration fall, create a sense of historical order: Holocaust memorial is followed a week later by the memorial for the fallen soldiers of Israel, and immediately after by Independence Day celebrations. It is hard to miss the progression: we were persecuted for being Jews; we shed much blood to gain our independence; now we have a Jewish state. At a much later date, I also came to see an ominous warning in the progression: our lesson is that we will never again allow another Holocaust on our people – be warned.

The real change for me, when I began to put it all together - the horror, the enormity, the narratives, the inhumanity and the perseverance - happened when I went to the neighborhood store one day. The owner, a nice little old man who looked a bit like Yoda - Mr. Katz was his name - normally had long sleeved shirts on. One summer day even he succumbed to the heat wave. A barely discernible smudge on his arm, somewhere in the wrinkled old skin, stood out as he reached out to give me change. Mesmerized I stared and realized it was a number.

To me, the number came to symbolize the uniqueness of the Holocaust. It was no longer just genocide; it was something else, something for which I am still short of words. In retrospect I think that the number on the arm of Mr. Katz shocked me because it made him definitively unheroic. It stripped him of his identity, of his individualism as a human being. It encapsulated everything that organized extermination was about. The sort of killing that targets people without pathos, without feeling and afterthought: a mechanical, calculated massacre, with the kind of distance between victim and perpetrator that makes it seem almost banal.

Over the years I have had much criticism for the State of Israel. But, as time passed and I came to understand the Holocaust better, the more I realized that there are many out there who still do not fathom its horror, its uniqueness and its significance. This only strengthened my conviction in the need for a Jewish State. Indeed, I was not always a Zionist. But vitriol, hatred and ignorance of the sort uttered regularly by the likes of Iran’s President, Hezbollah’s leader and Hamas, have made me one. Their raw anti-Semitism, and its echoes around the world have led me to draw a red line: I can no longer imagine continued Jewish existence without the State of Israel.

I will continue criticizing Israel where I think it deserves it. And I will continue challenging the victorious, linear narratives of Jewish fanatics. The Holocaust does not make Jews or Israel infallible. Nor did the Holocaust alone make Israel – that is post-colonial gibberish of hateful extremists. But so long as there are those out there dreaming of another Holocaust, I know whose side I am on.
Michalis Firillas
30 April, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Courage and History

This article originally appeared in Haaretz on 25 October, 2007. I post it now on the date commemorating the Armenian Genocide.

Nations are measured by their history. But we often forget that they are also measured by the way they confront their history. This can be a difficult task, requiring courage, vision and commitment to a different future. It demands more honesty and less pride. It makes a distinction between dignity and shame - and knows how to enhance the former and address the latter. And it requires the involvement of both the political leadership, on the one hand, and the individual citizen, on the other.

Which brings us to the following question: What can we learn from the German response to the Holocaust that might help Turkey alter its attitude toward the Armenian genocide? A loaded question? Obviously. An unfair one? Maybe. But is it a useful one? Definitely, and not only for the Turks. If there is one lesson we must have picked up on during the 20th century, it is that we are all "built" for genocide. There is no culture, polity, community that is immune from this. There are of course many ways of carrying out genocide. You can starve your victims, parch them, march them into the desert, shoot them, rape them, gas them, burn them, bomb them, hack them to pieces. You do not need to be an industrial powerhouse to do it quickly, efficiently. And by most standards, there is at least one genocide taking place right now, in East Africa.

Mentioning Turkey in the same sentence as the Holocaust is anathema to all Turks - and they are right because it is a horrific stigma to bear. "Placing the Turks in the same category as Nazis is intolerable to us," one Turkish official was quoted as saying in The Economist on October 4. But that is missing the point. This is not about comparative genocide - an exercise that invariably devolves into some form of bean counting. But when a state refuses to acknowledge history, it affects the psyche of the nation, perpetuating stasis, first on a moral level and then in every other aspect of life.

When World War II came to an end in Europe, in May 1945, the crimes of Germany were exposed before the world. The horror was such that for a while there were American officials who sought to reduce Germany to an agrarian society so that it could never again perpetrate such criminal aggression.

Things turned out differently, in great part because of Cold War exigencies. But at least in West Germany, a concerted effort was made by its political leadership - and first and foremost by Konrad Adenauer, the country's first chancellor - to restore Germany to the community of nations, foremost through the acknowledgment of the past. Not only did Germany accept responsibility, but it actively sought to preserve that diabolical chapter in its history - in the memory of the state and of every single German citizen.

It can be argued that the Germans were forced into accepting responsibility. They were occupied, crushed, starving, shocked and shamed. All true. But they did take responsibility, with the understanding that they could not escape history and that if they could muster the courage, they could use that experience to build a better future.

Such a tack requires leadership. And the epitome of Adenauer's leadership came with the reconciliation between West Germany and Israel, which began formally in 1952, with the signing of the reparations agreement. This also required a great deal of courage and leadership on the part of David Ben-Gurion, who pushed that accord through in the face of great opposition at home. It did not mean forgiveness by any means. But it was the start of reconciliation, and that is what genuine leaders owe to the future generations of their people.

Turkey's circumstances are different from those of Germany, and so is its historical development. But finding excuses is always easier than doing what is right. Yes, Turkey has simultaneously struggled with at least three massive challenges since its establishment in 1923, the roots of which dated back to the great reforms started in 1839: building a nation-state; modernization; and democratization. By the time Germany perpetrated the Holocaust, it had gone through all these stages, with greater or lesser success. Indeed, apologists are always quick to point out that "this is not a good time" for Turkey to address the Armenian issue. The bottom line is that it is never a good time: There is always some crisis brewing, some hyper-sensitive general, politician or group, too many other things going on. That is the nature of the mix that makes Turkey what it is.

However, all too often the Turkish people are underestimated. This is more frequently done by its own leaders than by foreigners. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declares that "there was no Armenian genocide," that is precisely what he is doing: underestimating his people, and their ability to look forward and acknowledge mistakes. For the leader of a party whose popularity stems from the desire of many Turks to remove the shackles of a traditionally paternalistic state - this is no way to usher in change. History is not solely the domain of historians, as Erdogan and others would have us believe. Every Turk has a role in the making of Turkish history, and a stake in the making of Turkey's future. Recognizing past wrongs and calling them by name is difficult, and may even seem insurmountable, but the Turks must find the courage to try to do so.
Michalis Firillas
25 October 2007

Monday, April 21, 2008

Frustration in the Middle East (part one): Israel

To say that the Middle East is a frustrating place would be an understatement. But last week, we may have witnessed a new low in the pathetic way the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict are being managed, which signaled that perhaps neither side really wants the conflict to end. Either everyone seems to think that time is on their side or they are too busy worrying about staying in power to do anything to change the situation.

It all began with a visit to the region by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which stirred up so much angst in Israel’s leadership that one would think that the Nobel Peace Laureate was what the security services in Israel euphemistically refer to as a ‘ticking bomb’ – an imminent terrorist attack. Not only was Carter shunned by anyone in Israel's political leadership that counts – first and foremost Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – but he was also ridiculed, insulted and treated in a way that should embarrass every Israeli. Carter’s latest crime against Israel: he wants to talk to Hamas.

It is no secret that many Israelis and friends of Israel abroad consider Carter to be, at best, antagonistic to Israel; some would even go as far as to call him anti-Semitic. Most think he is a do-gooder Israel does not need; a straight shooter who shoots mostly at Israel; a fanatic for peace and dialogue that is willing even to talk to Satan himself, if he thought it would bring peace. His book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, sealed Carter’s fate in the minds of many Israelis and supporters abroad. Anytime you put the words ‘Palestine’ and ‘Apartheid’ within several miles of each other, Israel’s air defenses go on high alert looking for Carter, slicing through the ether in his cape of peace.

Whether Carter is a crackpot or not, he deserves the respect a former U.S. President who has done a great deal to bring peace to the Middle East, warrants. This means that Olmert, whose behavior toward Carter was unbecoming a Prime Minister, should have received him, nodded politely, and if he wished, forget what he had been told as soon as his octogenarian visitor stepped out. Carter is the perfect interlocutor with organizations like Hamas, and regimes like that of Iran. He is a former U.S. President, which means he has both no official role, but nonetheless his former status and Secret Service detail means he is no lightweight. In other words, he serves everyone’s purpose, without strings attached. Which makes the arguments of some of Olmert’s aides, who argued that meeting with Carter would ‘legitimize’ the idea of talks with Hamas, ludicrous.

Every single day Israeli generals, former generals, generals who want to be politicians, and politicians who want to be generals, get on the air and remind us that the only solution to the situation in the Gaza Strip is a ‘deep,’ ‘thorough,’ ‘crushing’ blow against Hamas. This would, of course, require a massive ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, which every one knows is something the Israeli leadership will agree to do only if domestic pressure becomes impossible to bear (i.e. the kind of pressure that threatens the prime minister’s hold on his post). The irony of this is that those same advocates of the kind of ‘offensive’ that persons like Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz called for on Israel Radio this morning, know that not only will the cost in Israeli lives be terrible, but that it will return Israel to the same Gaza Strip it left in 2005 – in other words, to reoccupying at least 1.5 million Palestinian civilians and assuming direct responsibility for their welfare.

It is an unfortunate fact that the current Israeli government, and probably subsequent governments, will not be able to offer a solution to the Gaza Strip conundrum. This is so for two reasons: Hamas is perceived by Israel to be both a regional and a domestic problem; and Israel is unwilling to achieve real progress with the Palestinian Authority, for domestic reasons, but also because it recognizes that without Hamas there can be no real two state solution.

If it is impossible to move forward and offer a practical solution to the Gaza Strip, either because Israel and the current U.S. administration are unwilling to talk with Hamas (in great part with the blessing of PA’s Mahmoud Abbas), or because Israel is unwilling to reoccupy the territory, then it is high time to listen to those who have called for a long-term cease-fire with Hamas. This would entail a prisoner exchange and a series of other agreements that would regulate and supervise the use of the crossing points on the borders of the Gaza Strip with Egypt and with Israel. Possibly it would also require the deployment of an international force, although Israel is reluctant. In any case, the cease fire would serve to buy time for genuine progress in Israel-PA and PA-Hamas talks. Hopefully this will also allow sufficient time to bolster PA security, economic and political organs that would allow a properly working state mechanism to take root.

In the mean time, it is worthwhile to comprehend that people like Jimmy Carter are not the problem. Track II talks have been around for a while and they have been important in some breakthroughs in the conflict in the Middle East (Oslo comes to mind), but have also contributed to open dialogue and encouraged the development of civil society in the region. Whether or not Carter’s drive and conviction annoys many friends of Israel, he is no anti-Semite, and he is also no fool. He knows precisely who the dictators he so often meets with are (something commentators have recently slammed him on) and he is no pacifist. As for the bit about apartheid, here is a recent statement made by Ehud Olmert, in an interview to Haaretz the day after the Annapolis summit (Nov. 2007): "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished." Maybe apartheid is an overly loaded term – but if Olmert can see what is on the horizon, many others for whom Israel is dear can too.
Michalis Firillas
21 April, 2008