Opinion

John Lloyd

Searching for serenity in Israel and Palestine

John Lloyd
Feb 13, 2013 13:57 UTC

After Asher Susser, an Israeli scholar and one of his country’s foremost experts on Middle Eastern affairs, gave a talk in Oslo a few years ago, an audience member asked him a question: How soon, once a Palestinian state is created, will Israel and Palestine unite to form one country? “Twenty-four hours!” Susser said he replied. “Twenty-four hours after Norway and Sweden unite into one Scandinavian state!”

Susser, with whom I spoke recently in London, told the story to illustrate the fact that, as he said, “people value their ethnic and national identities much more than many wish to believe. Norway and Sweden are similar and friendly societies, but a merger would be unthinkable. Why assume it would be different with us?” (Norway, once united with Sweden under a Swedish king, achieved full independence in 1905.)

His central thesis, which he says will be revealed once more in all its dreary inevitability when President Barack Obama meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders next month, is that there is no hope of a successful negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Structurally, psychologically, culturally, politically, they cannot agree. So better not to try. 

This is not, he insists, a message of despair. Nor is it a reformulation of the view on the right – of politicians like Naftali Bennett of HaBayit HaYehudi (“Jewish Home”), who didn’t achieve an expected breakthrough in the elections late last month; nor Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and leader of Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”), who had to stand down from his office because of an impending trial for fraud and breach of trust. They don’t believe Israel should allow a Palestinian state to emerge. Susser believes such an emergence is imperative for Israel’s survival.

Israelis know that optimistic projects have come to naught and always will. There are two fundamental issues that bedevil everything: the right of return and the status of the Palestinians who remain in Israel and are Israeli citizens. Both stem from 1948, when Israel defeated a coalition of Arab armies and annexed large parts of Palestine that had been allotted, under a United Nations plan, to the Palestinians. The Israeli victory was followed by the expulsion of many of the Palestinians in the area, mainly to Jordan, but many others stayed. The right of return for the majority who left and who are mainly in Jordan would destroy Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Palestinians would become a majority, the Jewishness of the state would be gone – and, most Israelis believe, so would its democracy. “Who would protect the Jews then? Look at the fate of the Christians in the Middle East”, says Susser.

England’s inevitable gay union

John Lloyd
Feb 7, 2013 22:52 UTC

Earlier this week the British Parliament housed a restrained, sometimes mawkish and at times moving debate on gay marriage – and the bill passed the House of Commons, 400 to 175. The story was not that it passed, which had been expected. Instead, it was the split in the major governing party, the Conservatives, more of whose 303 MPs voted against the bill than for it. (Conservatives voted 136 in favor of the bill, with 127 voting no, five abstentions and 35 not registering a vote.) Prime Minister David Cameron, still intent on ensuring that his party is liberal as well as conservative, was emollient and understanding of those against the measure but presented his support in the context of a “strong belief in marriage. … It’s about equality but also about making our society stronger.”

His remarks signal that while there is division on the right over gay marriage – at least in Europe –and that while prejudice and bigotry still exist, the serious debate is between contending notions of conservatism. For liberals like Cameron and many in his party, gay marriage extends the benediction of an ancient rite upon modern couples, drawing them into the rituals of homebuilding and long-term affection that have so far been claimed as a heterosexual monopoly. For opponents, marriage must be just such a monopoly, since it is a union of one man and one woman for the purpose (if not always the practice) of procreation, of continuing society’s values in particular and the human race in general.

On values, Britain – in this case, England – is an anomaly: The Church of England is established, the Queen is its head, bishops sit in Parliament’s second chamber, the House of Lords, and the country’s canon law is part of the law of the land. Yet the country is largely irreligious as far as observance goes – the churches are mostly empty – priests and bishops are largely unattended and polls show a sizable majority in support of gay unions of any kind. Indeed, it is only if religion is put in a subaltern position to secular values like equality, fairness, inclusion and the right to pursue happiness that gay marriage could be approved.

The vulnerability of the European elite

John Lloyd
Feb 6, 2013 17:28 UTC

Storms in the Mediterranean, calmed in the latter half of last year, now whip up again. Greece’s woes hardly surface in the rest of the world now, but they’re deep and the people remain restive. Seamen struck last week over unpaid wages and extended the strike this past Sunday. The strike cuts off the many islands around the country, and limits exports and imports. For a country so defined by the sea and shipping, it takes on an iconic quality. A 24-hour general strike has been called for Feb. 20: Golden Dawn, the far-right party that targets immigrants and that stands third in the polls, held a thousands-strong rally in Athens on Saturday. No one can say whether the lid will stay on until matters improve – or, indeed, if matters will improve.

Greece’s recent history makes its troubles largely discounted internationally. But along the world’s most famed stretch of water, from which both European and Middle Eastern civilizations drew their inspiration, is Spain, a much larger economy, a weightier state, one whose Spexit could not be contemplated, which is why its failing banks received special care and attention from the European Central Bank to stay in business.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, had been neatly packaged by the news media as “dull but honest” – one who would apply himself with patience and a clean conscience to the hard grind of leading Spain out of its post-bubble miseries. That narrative was brought to an end last week with the publication in the daily El Pais of details of the parallel accounts that one of Rajoy’s former colleagues, the onetime treasurer of the center-right People Party (PP), Luis Barcenas, had kept. These purport to show that Barcenas had paid out generous and secret amounts, from a Swiss-based slush fund, to senior party officials, including Rajoy. Barcenas, treasurer from 1990 to 2008, had already resigned because he appears implicated in a separate scandal involving kickbacks to PP officials in return for public contracts.

The moment for Irish unity is nearly over

John Lloyd
Jan 29, 2013 19:50 UTC

The latest “troubles” in Northern Ireland began 45 years ago, and though much reduced, sometimes to invisibility, they are not over yet and will not be for some time. Protests over the Republican-dominated Belfast Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack just on certain days happened again over the weekend, if smaller and less violent than in the past few weeks.

This is what can happen after more than a century of demand for Irish independence: violence, on both sides, takes time to lose its attraction, and its adherents. Yet the bid for Irish unity, which from the late sixties to the late nineties was written almost daily in blood, has failed. Now, as we’re witnessing what may be its long withdrawal from politics, republicanism may not have another chance.

Sinn Fein, for nearly all of its life a front organisation of the IRA, has made an accommodation with unionism. Its two leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness – respectively once heads of IRA brigades in the seventies and eighties – have not just implicitly accepted the partition of the island, but have called for the nationalist community to work with the police (whom they previously sought to slaughter). They have also denounced those republicans who carry on terrorism under the name of the Real IRA as ‘traitors to Ireland.’ In a much quoted observation, the historian Paul Bew quipped that “the IRA is too intelligent to admit that they have lost and the Unionists too stupid to realise they have won.” This is what the 1998 Belfast Agreement brought.

Britain: The annoying European

John Lloyd
Jan 24, 2013 19:08 UTC

Truly, Britain is not just a bad European, but a very annoying one. David Cameron half-admitted as much in his speech in Davos Wednesday, when he quipped, “frustrated as [our European partners] no doubt are by Britain’s attitude.”

The U.K. joined the European Union late, spending more than a decade after the end of the World War II arrogantly believing that Europe was too small for it. When it did join under a Conservative government, the next Labour government under Harold Wilson demanded a renegotiation and a referendum on membership – which produced a fairly convincing yes.

Another Conservative government was elected in 1979, under Margaret Thatcher. It brought endless conflict with Brussels. Thatcher lost her leadership, partly because of a battle within the Conservative Party over Europe. Her successor, John Major, took the UK into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – then abruptly left it in 1992. Labour came back in 1997 with a European Union enthusiast, Tony Blair, as leader – but wouldn’t adopt the euro. These days, the Tories are back and are deeply skeptical. This week their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, took a leaf out of Wilson’s book, demanding a renegotiation and then a referendum on membership.

Journalism of the future should be less concerned with the present

John Lloyd
Jan 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

A constant and frequent complaint about journalism is that it concentrates almost exclusively on what is happening now, and not the future. Why didn’t journalists see the financial crash coming? Why didn’t they know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Why didn’t they warn about Enron’s house of cards? Why didn’t they do more, in advance, on the climate changes that helped cause Hurricane Sandy in the United States last October? Journalists sometimes join in on this to beat themselves up – especially on the Iraqi WMD issue – because they feel foolish about giving credence to claims that turned out to be wrong, or about not asking the right questions.

Besides, the trend in a lot of the media is toward more scandal, more controversy and more opining. There are publications and broadcasts and news agencies (such as this one) that are wedded to objective reporting, investigation and rational analysis, but they are in the minority, and a lot of them are finding it hard to make a living these days.

The Web allows news organizations to make much more multimedia and source material available to audiences that have swollen in size (though many visit websites only briefly). But most new media accentuate the trend of covering the here and now, since they allow reporting and publication in, or much closer to, real time.

Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe

John Lloyd
Jan 15, 2013 15:07 UTC

In today’s Europe, no political leader is charismatic. Not one.

Francois Hollande ascended to the French presidency by deliberately proposing himself as “Mr. Normal” after the excitements of Nicolas Sarkozy. Mario Monti was persuaded to take the post-Berlusconi premiership because he was one of the cleverest and most responsible men in Italy. He proves it, by giving press conferences that last for hours, to the exhaustion of the Italian press corps, laying out fact upon fact. Mariano Rajoy of Spain prefers to be as near to invisible as a prime minister can be: a portrait of him last month in the left-leaning El Pais described him as “keeping as low a profile as possible.” Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, is popular and a feisty debater: but he’s generally described as a “pragmatic centrist,” and is out-charmed and out-looked by his foreign minister, the British-educated Radoslaw Sikorski.

David Cameron manifests an occasional flash of raffish charm. But these are austere times, and the champagne lifestyle in which he indulged at Oxford’s Bullingdon Club for the Well-Heeled Drinking Man is never on show.

The capstone of this band of modest men is a woman, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, one for whom the grand rhetorical gesture, the striking phrase, the public display of temperament, seem alien – a legacy, perhaps, of her upbringing as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter in the dourly Communist state of East Germany, where the lower the profile, the better. As the de facto leader of Europe, Merkel relies on her country’s power and her own, so far excellent, political instincts and maneuvers.

Is there a Merkel alternative?

John Lloyd
Jan 8, 2013 21:06 UTC

Germany is the economic hegemon of Europe ‑ not a position it has sought, but a greatness thrust upon it by its own industrial efficiency and cautious financial policies. The weakness of (especially) the southern European states also helped, as did those states’ years’ long binge fueled by cheap credit that Germany, among other states, provided. Now, as with all binges, there is regret, huge headaches and New Year’s resolutions never to be much better in the future.

Angela Merkel, the careful, modest first-woman chancellor is the most obvious symbol of the new hegemon. In Europe, newspapers and some politicians of the left and right stoop so low as to lard their journalism and allusions to her with increasingly overt reference to “Panzers” and “Third Reich.” In her own country, presently, the reverse: She rides high in the polls, far above any other figure, so much so that it seems as if there is no alternative – a phrase once used by that other first-woman leader, Margaret Thatcher.

Merkel’s stature has grown in a way that is rare for leaders other than U.S. presidents. She’s powerful because of what she does beyond her country’s borders. She has ridden the waves and storms of the past two years and has struck a middle course – pressing radical change on the debtor countries, largely in Europe’s south, but supporting them (crucially, the ailing Greece) when required. She has reminded the electorate at home that Europe must be saved if Germany is to prosper but has appeared hard enough in her demands for restructuring of the economies of debtor states to deserve the soubriquet of the Iron Chancellor. Her Christian Democratic Union party is also far ahead of the Social Democratic Party, at some 41 percent.

A church married to the wrong side of history

John Lloyd
Jan 4, 2013 20:01 UTC

After the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001, the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell took some time to tell his fellow Americans that homosexuals (along with abortionists, feminists and pagans) were at least in part to blame. “I point my finger in their face,” he said, “and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Later, in a “did I say that?” moment, he apologized.

It was a low moment, but not an unusual one. Falwell is in the hate-filled corner of the religious spectrum. But even those religious leaders at the mild and inclusive end must, more in sorrow than in anger, generally tell gay men and women that as much as they respect them, they can’t officiate at their marriages. That’s a bridge over too-troubled waters.

This past Christmas time has been an active one for those in the Catholic Church concerned that legislation in both France and the UK to permit gay marriage will hollow out their faith. In a pre-Christmas address to fellow Vatican officials, Benedict XVI called for all faiths to come together against a practice that would cancel out the “authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint for human existence.”

India tries to move beyond its rape culture

John Lloyd
Dec 28, 2012 19:59 UTC

In 1992 a young woman, Bhanwari Devi, was allegedly gang-raped near her village of Bhateri, some 40 miles from Jaipur, capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. The incident has to be couched in “allegedly” and “reportedly” because – though the fact of the matter has been widely accepted, with compensation being paid to Devi by the state government – the five men accused were acquitted, and an appeal against the acquittal is still – 20 years after – pending.

On Dec. 16 of this year, another young woman, a 23-year-old medical student who has not been named, was gang-raped for an hour on a bus in New Delhi by six men. Using metal rods, the men beat her and her male companion, who tried to stop them, then threw them off the moving bus. The woman suffered grave internal and brain injuries, and has been moved to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, where one of the world’s most advanced centers for organ transplants is located. She remains near death. Even if she survives, her life is likely to be severely restricted. (UPDATE: She died in India on Saturday.)

There is no “alleged” about the recent New Delhi rape: Four of the men were arrested, and three have confessed, one reportedly asking to be hanged. No years of waiting for justice this time: A trial is set for next month. And no painful, little-attended struggle to have the law strengthened: Outrage over the crime has sent thousands of women and men to the streets, where they have demanded change. They and the discussion that has attended the protests have subjected Indian society to the most cauterizing of examinations, in which everything – government, political parties, the police and traditional attitudes toward women – is held up through the prism of violated women.

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