Tuesday, August 15, 2006

posted by Yonatan

Full Metal Jacket

Last week, while the war was still going on, I saw Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jackett" on DVD (after arguing with someone that "Apocalypse Now" is a better movie...). The Vietnam War is very different, of course, from the war which is hopefully now behind us, or for that matter, any war that Israel fought. At the very least because in all Israeli wars we fought against neighboring countries from which actively hostile action was taken against us. Nonetheless, one can not resist drawing some analogies, in that hope the history will teach us something.

The line in the sand: Even though JFK masterfully diffused the Cuban missiles crisis (I wish we had here leaders who could handle the Hizbollah kidnapping like that), apparently the strengthening of communism in Northern Vietnam convinced him that the US must "draw a line in the sand" against communism expansion. Otherwise, the US status and credibility as a superpower, and its position in the Cold War will be fatally damaged.

Well, we all know how that ended up. The US wasn't so successful in blocking communist expansion in Vietnam, and nonetheless, ultimately, it triumphed over the Soviet Union. Many people wrote about the current war that Israel must win it, as otherwise its position in the middle east will be irrecoverably damaged. That losing it will have dire consequences on the West's power versus radical Islam. Hopefully there's some encouraging lesson here.

The limits of power: Olmert was unofficially quoted as saying that we won this war 15-0 (he's thinking soccer, of course, not tennis). It is often said that in Vietnam the US won every battle, but lost the war. While both these statements are not completely accurate, the end results painfully prove the obvious - that even if you have McNamara's brilliance on your side, and the-best-army-in-the-world, and complete air superiority and so on (neo-con conspirators?), it's not enough.

To actually break your enemy, it is not enough that rational reasoning shows that your enemies will be in a world of pain if they don't surrender. Just as your soldiers are willing to die if they believe this serves the interests of their country (and even when they have doubts...), so do your enemies. Forcefully "winning" a conflict can only be done in extreme situations. Perhaps one of the problems with the perspective of Israeli generals is that they think the '67 war to be the rule, rather than the exception.

The importance of power: While you usually can not force your enemy to surrender on your terms, the application of force can improve your position when negotiating a compromise. In late '68 Lyndon Johnson ordered the cessation of all US attacks in Vietnam, but the peace talks which this action was supposed to facilitate broke down. Only after Hanoi's massive bombing (condemned world-wide), did negotiations resume, leading to the Paris Peace Accords.

This, I think, is an important lesson for people like me, who so strongly believe in peace, that they have a very hard time believing that the people on the other side might be different. If Hizbollah comes out victorious from this conflict, and Israel is intimidated from risking another clash, then it will have no motivation to disband and give southern Lebanon over to the Lebanese army.

The world won't listen: The real losers of the Vietnam War were, of course, the South Vietnamese. Once US soldiers were no longer there, the '73 Paris Peace Accords proved a poor shield. When, only two years later, north Vietnamese forces overtook the south, millions fled the country, becoming refugees. And the regime that followed wasn't exactly a gentle one.

So where were the american people who protested the war? Where were the European countries who condemned the Hanoi bombings? With the watergate scandal on one end, and the soviet backup on the other, taking the south was like taking candy from a baby (not my baby though, he's tough). I fear there is a lesson for us here as well. Israel must be powerful enough to defend itself. Peace agreements will be worth nothing if this won't be the case.

I've intended to write about some similarities between Lyndon Johnson and Amir Peretz, but it's getting to be a long post as it is. So to conclude, here's a piece from a great dialogue from "Full Metal Jacket", which, in my humble opinion, could be a motto for this blog (copied from imdb):

Pogue Colonel: Marine, what is that button on your body armor?
Private Joker: A peace symbol, sir.
Pogue Colonel: Where'd you get it?
Private Joker: I don't remember, sir.
Pogue Colonel: What is that you've got written on your helmet?
Private Joker: "Born to Kill", sir.
Pogue Colonel: You write "Born to Kill" on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
Private Joker: No, sir.
Pogue Colonel: You'd better get your head and your ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you.
Private Joker: Yes, sir.
Pogue Colonel: Now answer my question or you'll be standing tall before the man.
Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Pogue Colonel: The what?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

posted by Yonatan

Nothing now can ever come to any good

Twenty four soldiers killed over the weekend, and 13 badly injured, which probably means the death toll will be higher.

I don't personally know any of the dead who's names were released. It feels like I almost know them, like I could know them, but this chasm of "almost" is very wide. Listening to the names being read on the radio, while driving to work, I could not help but feel, alongside the great pain, some relief because of it. It is a terrible kind of relief.

On the other side of the chasm, trying to make sense of these deaths from a detached point of view, I ask myself: If this is a war, shouldn't it be expected that soldiers will be killed? Aren't they legitimate targets for the enemy? And in light of both Israel and Lebanon accepting the new security council resolution, do these deaths support Israeli interests in any way, or would the end result had been the same regardless of recent military actions? I fear I know the answers to these questions, and they only make these deaths more terrible.

Throughout this war, many Israeli commentators, talkbackers, bloggers and forumist wrote that Israel must win this war. I don't think that this is happening. Gideon Levi wrote today that some good might come out of it (Israel and the US will learn the limits of military power and be driven to make peace), but I suspect that he's dead wrong. I suspect that in Lebanon it has already reestablished Hizbollah's power, which was on the decline since Al-Hariri's assassination. In the OT, and in the Islamic countries in general, it will encourage radical Islam. In Israel, it will be taken as a lesson for how to deal with the OT - we withdrew from Lebanon, and in 6 years Hizbollah established itself as a power we can not get rid of. Hence - people will argue - the same thing will happen if we withdraw from the OT. This will destroy the one good thing we could have hoped for from PM Olmert.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

posted by Elad

The prisoner's dilemma

One of the most well-known examples in game theory is the "prisoner's dilemma". In this game there are two prisoners which committed a crime together, each having two options: to betray his friend or to stay silent. Both prisoners must make a choice without knowing what the other chose. If both prisoners stay silent, they both go to one year in prison. If one betrays and the other does not, the betrayer goes free and his friend serves 10 years. If they both stay silent, they both serve 5 years.

(for more info see this link or just search the web for "prisoner's dilemma)

On the face of it, for each player separately the best option is to betray (no matter what the other guy did, he is better of betraying). This is somewhat disturbing intuitively - if they would collaborate the "best" solution for both prisoners would be reached.

Indeed, if this scenario is repeated many iterations, and one wants to minimize his total number of years served, certainly it would be best to reach some sort of "agreement" between the players. Experiments (and by now also in theory) show that a very simple strategy called "tit-for-tat" works best. This has a very natural appeal: At first, "be nice", i.e stay silent. If the other guy betrays, then retaliate back in the next iteration (i.e. betray so to "teach him a lesson"), but after that return to being nice.

Sounds familiar ? Many of us take this approach in real life. Trying to be friendly, and if we encounter an "enemy" retaliate, and then try to "make peace" and be friendly again. Without elaborating too much, experiments in evolutionary game theory confirm this strategy to be optimal in some respect.

How does this relate to the middle east ? Well, many wonder why did Israel go to war over the Hez provocation, or why was its response "so harsh". Here is an explanation: life has taught us to retaliate. To "give the other cheek" and always be nice as Jesus preached does not work. It is not "evolutionary stable" in mathematical language.

Reminds me of a joke i read recently: why is the jew always afraid ? Because that's the only jew that remained... The Jews have tried to "give the other cheek" for two millenia, and it failed miserably. The lesson we learned at a pretty heavy price is that retaliation is necessary.

Israel was nice in the last six years. The Hezbollah tried to "itch", but Israel remained quiet. The last incident, in which two soldiers were abducted and eight killed, resulted in the war and destruction we're experiencing now. It was time for retaliation, and people felt it instinctively through generations of "strategy forming". That is why Israel reacted to the abduction of the soldiers. That is why there is a huge consensus in Israel for the war.

posted by Yonatan

The Army Took

This morning Ofer was called for reserved duty. He is stationed in the northern part of Israel, so it's safer than being in Lebanon, but hazardous enough to have us worried.

If he calls to share his sane perspectives, I'll do my best to transcribe them.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

posted by Yonatan

The good guys always win

Former Israeli PM Ehud Barak once said that had he been a Palestinian he'd have become a militant - what we often call a terrorist. This brave comment exemplifies how the political left in Israel (myself included) reasons about Palestinian actions, and in particular acts of terrorism and the two Intifadahs: by trying to put ourselves in their shoes.

To some extent, this reasoning is the great divide between the political left and right in Israel. We think of Palestinians (and non Jews in general) as people just like us, who think like us, and react to circumstances as we might have in their shoes. As human beings, we are no better than them, they are no worse than us.

Following this line of reasoning, from observing the Palestinian actions, we draw conclusions regarding their circumstances. If human beings just like us are desperate enough to go to such extremes as some Palestinians do, how dire must be the conditions in which they live, to drive them so?

This morning I heard on the news that a German newspaper reports that some of the photos from Kfar Qana were staged. That the body of a young girl was pulled out of the rubble for a new crew to photograph, and then buried again, until the next crew came. Of course, I have no idea if this story is true or not. But supposing it is true, is it more or less horrible than using civilians as human shields? Is it more or less horrible to bomb buses, restaurants, and shopping malls?

So lately, I find myself wondering a little less about what kind of dire circumstances drive people to wage their war on the back of innocent civilians, and a little more the kind of people who are inclined to do so.

What crosses their mind? Surely if they think that firing their missiles from within villages gives them an advantage, then they must believe that Israel is reluctant to bomb these villages. How can they, in their mind, reconcile this? How can they, in their mind, be the "good guys"?

Monday, August 07, 2006

posted by Ofer

On Terrorism

The word "terrorism" has been thrown back and forth quite a lot lately. Hizballah are terrorists, Hamas are terrorists, the IDF is the terrorist army, Bush is an international terrorist. In most cases, this word is misused.

The American Heritage dictionary defines:
Terrorism - The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.

I checked a few other dictionaries and encyclopedias and they all have pretty much the same definition. When I use the word "terrorism", I certainly don't have this definition in mind. When I think of terrorism, I picture exploding busses, a suicide bomber entering a restaurant or a shopping mall, a car bomb parked near a lively market. The formal definition certainly encompasses more than that. In my opinion, the dictionary definition is inaccurate.

First of all, what does "unlawful" use of force even mean ? If it means illegal, then by what law ? If it means immoral, then according to whose morals ? The one using force almost always feels that his actions are legal, justified and moral. Resorting to the failsafe concept of "ignore that which you do not understand", lets just decide to omit this word from the definition.

Moving on, we get to the part about "using force ... with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments". Most international use of force fits this definition perfectly. Modern use of military force, more than anything else, is intended to intimidate your enemy government into surrendering. In addition, by this definition, any country which holds strategic weapons of mass destruction is a terrorist country: you hold on to these weapons precisely to intimidate everyone else, and deter them from messing with you.

And finally, "... often for ideological or political reasons". Why else would anyone use force ? For the fun of it ?

The bottom line is that the dictionary definition of the word "terrorism" is vague and ambiguous, to say the least. In recent years, the term "you're a terrorist" has basically come to mean "I think you are very evil".

Israel has been calling its enemies "terrorists" for decades. The Arabs have only started using the word more recently. Therefore, I think its only fair to apply the basic rules of kindergarten and say to our rivals "its our word, we used it first, get your own word".

I honestly don't understand the lack of creativity on the other side. Is "terrorism" the only hurtful word they know ? What about "nefarious", "atrocious", "monstrous", "dreadful", "wicked", "knavish", "villainous" ? They can even say that we're ugly and that we have bad breath, but why use the single word that we have used for so many years to describe them ?

Maybe its like a symmetric pet-name that we have for each other, like: "honey", "darling", "sweetheart", "terrorist". Maybe they're just trying to say: "If we learn to share a word, maybe there's a chance of learning how to share the Middle East". Nah, they're just not very creative.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

posted by Ofer

The Army Called

Someone from the army called and told me that I am on standby, and that I should keep my mobile phone open and with me at all times. Like most Israeli men, I am a reservist in the IDF. Even if I'm called again, I know that I won't be going into Lebanon, and I'm thankful for that.

I play both roles in this cartoon.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

posted by Ofer

The Third Compromise

On May 26, 1967, tensions between Israel and the Arab world were at their peak. Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, announced that "If Israel embarks on an aggression against Syria or Egypt, the battle will be a general one... and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel." Four days later he proclaimed: "The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel ... , while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world." Nasser and other Arab leaders truly believed they could eliminate Israel. A week later, the 1967 "Six Day War" began.

The First Compromise

The 1967 war was an utter and total military victory for Israel. The 1973 "Yom Kippur War" was a much less spectacular victory, but a victory nevertheless. The Arab nations began to realize that Israel could not be eliminated with military force. 4 years later, Egyptian president Sadat recognized the state of Israel by speaking in front of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. The next year, a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed. In 1994, Jordan reaffirmed this realization by signing its own peace treaty with Israel. Since 1967, Israel has been recognized, in one way or another, by many Arab leaders.

Recognition of Israel was the first compromise made by the Arabs towards a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Second Compromise

The military victory in 1967 put Israel in a state of Euphoria. Israel felt it was invincible. The 1973 war, the Lebanon War in 1982, the painful occupation of South Lebanon, and the Palestinian Intifada in 1987 all contributed to an Israeli change-of-heart. Israel realized that its military superiority was not enough to sustain quiet in the region, and that a significant compromise must be made on its part. Israeli moderates began to support a return to pre-1967 boarders, division of Jerusalem, and a recognition in a Palestinian state. The Madrid conference in 1991 and the Oslo conference in 1993 marked the beginning of a new era of compromise in Israel.

The second compromise is the Israeli compromise: the realization that the Palestinian problem will not go away by itself simply because we are stronger, and the willingness to pay a price for peace.

The Third Compromise

There is no third compromise yet, and I think its the Arabs' turn again. A significant change must occur in Arab public-opinion if there is to be permanent peace in the region.

First, the Arabs must unequivocally denounce terror as a means of achieving their goals. As long as busses keep exploding in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, and as long as the masses in Gaza keep cheering-on these explosions, we will never have peace. The bland and familiar "I condemn every form of violence", which we hear today from Arab leaders, is not enough.

Second, the Palestinians must revisit their naive and romantic perception of the so-called "Right of Return". Palestinian refugees who carry keys to their pre-1948 houses in their pockets need to wake up and face reality. The keyholes that used to fit these keys are long gone. All but a handful of Palestinian refugees must accept the reality that their "right of return" to homes inside Israel can never be granted. The demographic effects such a return would have on my country would endanger its very existence, and we will never agree to that. The refugees will be compensated with dignity and with respect, either with alternative homes in the West Bank and Gaza, or with cash. Lebanon, and other Arab countries who currently house Palestinian refugees, also need a reality check. 400,000 Palestinians currently living in Lebanon will not magically disappear one day. Many of those who were born in Lebanon and who have made a life for themselves in Lebanon will likely stay in Lebanon. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are currently denied any chance of naturalization. I'm not saying that Lebanon should accept half a million foreigners, but it should certainly adopt a naturalization policy more like those of other modern countries, such as France or Germany.

Beyond this, I have only questions:

Will the third compromise ever come ? Will it be enough or is a forth step necessary ? What can Israel do to encourage the Arabs to adopt these key points ? More specifically, is Israel's current aggression postponing this progress, or is it speeding things up ? What does the future have in store for the Middle East ?

posted by Ofer

Nasrallah, Prepare to Meet Your Maker

Lets face it, Israel doesn't know how to fight a guerrilla resistance which hides behind civilians. We don't train for it. We aren't equipped for it. We're simply very ineffective at it. We're clumsy and we make far too many mistakes. The IDF trains for real war (i.e. tank vs. tank, plane vs. plane) and for urban warefare against Hamas-style terrorists. Fighting Hizballah guerrillas requires completely different tactics which Israeli soldiers don't know.

But there is something that we are very good at. Its the clean, precision warfare that inspires hollywood filmmakers.

April 16, 1988: Khalil Al-Wazir (a.k.a Abu Jihad), second in command of the PLO, is shot at close range in his home in Tunis at 2am, along with his bodyguards. His wife and children, present during the operation, were not harmed. The shooters quietly disappear into the darkness of the night.

February 16, 1992: Israeli helicopters attack a motorcade on an open road in southern Lebanon, killing Abbas Musawi, secretary-general of Hizballah. The helicopters waited patiently for the motorcade to move out of a populated area before firing upon it. His wife and child are also killed in the attack.

October 26, 1995: Fathi Shkaki, secretary-general of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is shot at close range in Malta by two men on a motorcycle. The two calmly drive away and are never seen again.

January 5, 1996: Yehia Ayash (a.k.a. "The Engineer"), head bomb-maker for the Hamas, receives a call on his mobile phone. As he answers, the phone explodes into his head, killing him on the spot.

Israel knows how to hunt down the heads of terror. The four examples given above were all very paranoid men, very discrete and well protected by multiple bodyguards. They are dead today simply because Israel is very very good at this.

Since I'm sure that some wise-ass will comment about the failed attempt at killing Khaled Mashal in Jordan, I'll reply to this preemptively. The Mashal operation was significantly more pretentious than anything before it: they wanted him to appear to die of natural causes. The important point being that, despite his bodyguards and his discrete schedule, the Mossad agents managed to step up to the guy, pierce a microscopic hole in his eardrum and spray a deadly biological agent into his middle-ear. While all of this was going on, all Mashal's bodyguards saw was a man brushing up against Mashal, like a pick-pocket. Apparently, this was enough for them to act and that's what foiled the plot. The mossad agents could have easliy shot Mashal and his guards at close range, if that's what Israel wanted to do. Under Jordanian and US pressure, Israel turned over the antidote a few days later.

Dear Nasrallah. You are indeed victorious now. The morale of your followers couldn't be higher. You are a gifted speaker and a charismatic leader. You are the living heartbeat of your organization. Everything that is Hizballah revolves around you, and precisely this will be your downfall. Because when Israel gets you, and we will, your death will bring down your entire militant organization. Prepare to meet your maker.