Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 27, 2019

Jared Kushner and the Palestinian Pretense


By David K. Shipler

                Jared Kushner’s economic proposal for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is comprehensive, bold, and visionary, full of noble goals in commerce, trade, agriculture, manufacturing, road-building, local electricity production, water supply, education, vocational training, health care, women in the workforce, and the arts. Titled “Peace to Prosperity,” it imagines the West Bank as a trading center akin to Singapore or Dubai. Its calls for judicial independence, dependable contract law, anti-corruption measures, and administrative transparency that would be hailed by any “good-government” advocates. It envisions some $50 billion in international grants, loans, investments, and global expertise.  
                This would be nothing to sneer at if it related to reality. But to take it seriously, you have to play Let’s Pretend. So let’s pretend that the West Bank and Gaza constitute a normal country, independent but poor, with no Israeli overlords, and free to accept whatever outside assistance it chooses. Let’s pretend that the Palestinian rulers control their own borders so that people and goods can move easily, as Kushner recommends. Let’s pretend that West Bank land is all under Palestinian authority, rather than being fragmented into leopard-spot jurisdictions favoring expanding Israeli settlements and security concerns. And let’s pretend that the radical group Hamas no longer controls Gaza with a policy of relating to Israel by rockets alone.
                 In that fictional environment, Kushner’s plan is utopian in the best sense of the word. The document is silent on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so depending on how charitable a reader wants to be, Kushner’s effort is either ignorant or presumptuous, either blind to the political resolution that would be required before his proposals can be implemented, or based on an assumption that a resolution will have occurred.
It should be obvious that this pretty economic dream cannot be realized without the political dream of Palestinian independence. The point could have been made dramatically by the Palestinian leadership, which missed an opportunity by boycotting the conference in Bahrain where the plan was presented. Also absent was Israel, which would have to make significant concessions.
It’s unclear exactly what Kushner and the Trump administration wanted or expected out of this proposal. President Trump displays a belief that money is the pivot point of human behavior, as in his promise to Kim Jong-un of North Korea that his country “would be very rich” if it relinquished nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and investment.
So, did the Trump family think that dangling prosperity in front of the Palestinians might bribe them into a conciliatory political posture? If that’s the case, Kushner and his colleagues have no grasp of the dynamics of Palestinian nationalism. While economic hardships weigh on many Palestinians, especially in the deep poverty of Gaza, the long-running conflict with Israel has been a territorial dispute fueled by the clash of historical narratives, national aspirations, and religious extremism on both sides.
When Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by moving the US embassy there, he foreclosed an American role in mediating impartially between Israel and the Palestinians, who also covet Jerusalem as their capital. When his ambassador, David Friedman, supported the prospect of Israel’s partial annexation of the West Bank—and given his support of Jewish settlements there—he slammed the door on Palestinian regard for the sincerity of any US proposal.
Indeed, ProPublica reported a year and a half ago that the Kushner Companies Charitable Foundation had contributed to the West Bank settlement of Beit El, from which militant Israelis harass and attack Palestinians. Significantly, Kushner’s economic plan makes no mention of the settlements, which have intruded on Palestinian grazing land and uprooted vineyards and olive groves. It laments the small amount of agriculture on the West Bank and calls for Palestinians’ “access to more land.” Is this a coded statement of opposition to Jewish settlements, or is it just plain hypocrisy?
Similarly, the plan’s repeated recommendations for the relatively free movement of people and goods across borders with Jordan, Egypt, and Israel could be read as a challenge to the intricate, onerous checkpoints and barriers that Israel employs around the West Bank and Gaza. Kushner envisions vibrant Palestinian production and exports with outside assistance to “develop beneficial free trade agreements.” He praises the talents of the Palestinian diaspora and urges technical help from Palestinians living abroad—who would probably not be allowed in under current Israeli policy. The plan also revives the old, abortive idea of a land route open to Palestinians, through Israel, between Gaza and the West Bank. Is he pressing Israel for fundamental change, or is he anticipating such a relaxation of tensions that fears of terrorism would no longer be an issue?
Ever since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 war, Palestinians have found themselves largely stymied by Israeli authorities in developing their own substantial economic base. In the early 1980s, some international non-profit organizations were barred by the Israeli military government in the territories from giving seed money to embryonic manufacturing enterprises. Farming declined as land was confiscated and exports into Israel were restricted to curtail competition with Israeli producers. That threw more and more Palestinians into Israel proper for wage labor, where the pay is much higher than in the territories. But after Palestinian terrorist attacks prompted Israel to close and restrict border crossings, the commute became virtually impossible from Gaza and difficult from the West Bank.
The West Bank economy has improved somewhat, but whether Israel will permit or encourage the scale of independent Palestinian entrepreneurship and international trade proposed by Kushner is an open question.
And whether a Palestinian leadership would welcome the Kushner approach is also a question, given that it envisions a model of minimal government regulation and maximal capital enterprise, plus tax reform, that follows conservative Republican ideology. He urges strong property rights and a central registration of land ownership (many Palestinians have no deeds, which has made their land vulnerable to takeover by Israeli settlers). He suggests that a Palestinian government should privatize certain services.
The plan advocates massive funding in areas where his father-in-law’s administration has already cut off American aid. Is this another bit of hypocrisy, or a statement of dissent? And what of these statements, which might be applied as a counterpoint to Trump’s own behavior in office:
“Good governance requires rigorous systems that empower people to hold institutions accountable.”
“Robust civil society institutions and a free press are important parts of any well-functioning democracy. Preserving and expanding these important institutions within the West Bank and Gaza will require new laws and practices that protect their independence and improve their capacity.”
Hear! Hear!

June 16, 2019

Phantoms of War


By David K. Shipler

                On the night of August 4, 1964, as two US destroyers were reporting attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf, Navy Commander James Stockdale took off from the USS Ticonderoga to fly support. He spent more than 90 minutes below 2,000 feet searching for North Vietnamese vessels. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he wrote in a book twenty years later, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
                Yet the imagined incident, coming two days after an actual attack, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to denounce Hanoi’s “repeated acts of violence” and order a bombing run against a North Vietnamese oil depot. The sortie of 18 planes was led, ironically, by Stockdale, who knew conclusively what had not happened but followed orders to help “launch a war under false pretenses,” as he said in his book. (He was shot down on a later mission, spent seven years as a POW, and in 1992 ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket.)
                The cautionary tale of the Tonkin Gulf has been revived in recent days by the Trump administration’s assertions of absolute certainty that Iran was responsible for attacks on two oil tankers. The evidence is sketchy—primarily a video showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing, not planting, a limpet mine—and sundry sightings of Iranian vessels in the area, as they always are. There might be intercepted communications, called SIGINT (signal intelligence) in the trade, but they haven’t been released.

June 13, 2019

Trump Tells the Truth


By David K. Shipler

                In a rare moment of candor and accuracy, President Trump today used the word “incredible” to describe his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Upon her announcement that she will be leaving the post, Trump tweeted, “She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job!”
                The entire White House press corps suddenly found itself in unfamiliar agreement with a tweet from on high.
                Reactions to the unprecedented spasm of presidential honesty came swiftly from an array of eighth-grade English teachers. “While the adjective ‘incredible’ has been corrupted in slang to substitute for such superlatives as “amazing’ and ‘extraordinary,’” said Mrs. Matthews of Chatham (NJ) Junior High School, “all of my students know very well that it means, ‘not believable.’ Its root is credo, Latin for ‘I believe,’ and is made negative by the prefix ‘in.’” For emphasis, she slapped her 15-inch ruler on her desk, her routine method of keeping her students awake and attentive.
                Trump surely knows the proper definition of “incredible,” several other teachers observed, because he went for a couple of years to Fordham, a Jesuit college where precise thinking and respect for language are de rigueur, and then to an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania.
                Jane Doe, who covers the White House for the East Overshoe Gazette summed up the feeling among her colleagues: “We just hope his next press secretary is less incredible.”

In case you’re wondering, this is satire—although the Trump tweet is real.

June 3, 2019

The Circular Spectrum

By David K. Shipler

“It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”
--Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, on the Trump Administration’s politicization of climate science.

                The spectrum of political and social views is usually pictured as a straight line running from left to right. But the range of positions on some matters might better be rendered as a circle, with the line bent around until the two extreme ends are joined in common excess.
                Take the rejection of science, for example. On the right are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research documenting the human contributions to global warming. On the left are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research into the human immune system’s activation by means of vaccines. They are not identical in their suspicion of elites in the scientific community, but they are close enough to be put together at the bottom of that circle.
                And anti-Semitism. Typically seen on the extreme right among neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, ugly manifestations have also surfaced on the left. In the US, some college students have mixed anti-Semitic stereotypes into their criticisms of Israel, as has Democratic Congresswoman Ihlan Omar. Britain’s Labour Party is under investigation for anti-Semitism by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. Seven members of Parliament quit Labour in February in protest over its leadership’s failure to deal sufficiently with anti-Semitism as well as Brexit.
                Left-right similarities can be seen on some college campuses that have been stages for intolerant assaults in both directions. Shortly after 9/11, conservative students and alumni monitored and reported liberal professors for views expressed in and out of class, and tried to get some fired. More recently, liberal and minority students have shouted down conservative and racist speakers, or have pressed administrators to disinvite them. These attempts to silence expression are less prevalent than they appear from the news coverage they receive, but they have special gravity at institutions supposedly devoted to free intellectual inquiry. In places of higher learning, especially, a viewpoint considered offensive is best confronted with solid research, sound argument, and precise rebuttal.

June 1, 2019

Bad Spellers for Immigration Shutdown


By David K. Shipler

                After years of dithering about the immigration issue, the national Bad Spellers (BS) movement has finally endorsed President Trump’s border wall and other tough restrictions. But the organization also warned that his proposal to base immigration on merit would pose great dangers to American culture.
                “The risks are obvious when you look at the pictures and the names of the eight co-winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said a BS statement. “Rishik Gandhasri, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, Rohan Raja—and, by the way, the only one who seems like a white Anglo, Erin Howard. All these kids with families originally from India or somewhere else in South Asia who can spell all those ridiculous words that nobody ever uses—are they even English words?”
                BS went on to point out what every red-blooded American knows, that the right to misspell is enshrined in the Constitution (First Amendment) and exemplified by our president, who was made an honorary member of BS even before his inauguration. “Donald Trump is a true repesentative [sic] of the Peopel [sic],” said the announcement at the time. “He knows how to capitalize randomely [sic] and use apostrofes [sic] at will. He’s all about substence [sic], not spelling.”
                The fear, BS explained, is that hordes of hostile “aliens” will invade the country and undermine its devotion to the pluralism of spelling and grammar, which are core principles practiced daily in tweets, emails, conversations, and even classrooms. The evolution of the English language will be frozen at a pompous stage. It is obvious from the spelling bee results, BS argued, that immigrants’ high regard for education and their ambition to get ahead threaten American values. “Here is the question: What freedom do we have if not the freedom to spell as we wish?”
                In an effort to appeal to Trump, BS drove its point home with this: “The insistance [sic] on propper [sic] spelling is just another form of political correctness.”

Full disclosure: This is satire!