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THIS WEEK I enjoyed an hour of happiness.
I was on my way home, after collecting William Polk’s new book about Iran. I admire the wisdom of this former State Department official.
I was walking on the seaside promenade, when I was seized by a desire to go down to the seashore. I sat down on a chair on the sand, sipped a coffee and smoked an Arab water-pipe, the only smoke I allow myself from time to time. A ray of the mild winter sun painted a golden path on the water, and a lone surfer rode on the white foam of the waves.
The shore was almost deserted. A stranger waved at me from afar. Some passing youngsters from abroad asked to try my pipe. From time to time my gaze wandered to far-away Jaffa jutting out into the sea, a beautiful sight.
* * *
FOR A moment I was in a world that was all good, far from the depressing items that were prominent in the morning paper. And then I remembered that I had felt the same way many-many years ago.
It was 68 years ago, in exactly the same spot. It was also a pleasant winter day, facing a stormy sea. I was on sick leave, after a severe attack of typhoid fever. I was sitting on a deck chair, warming myself under the gentle winter sun. I felt my strength coming back to me after the debilitating disease, I forgot the far-away World War. I was 18 years old and the world was perfect.
I remember the book I was reading: Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West”, a forbidding tome that painted an entirely new picture of world history. Instead of the then accepted landscape in which a straight line of progress led from ancient times to the Middle Ages, and from there to the modern era, Spengler painted a landscape of mountain chains, in which one civilization follows another, each one being born, growing up, getting old and dying, much like a human being.
I was sitting and reading, actually feeling my horizons widen. Every so often I laid down the volume, in order to absorb the new insights. Then, too, I looked towards Jaffa, at that time still an Arab town.
Spengler asserted that every civilization lives for about a thousand years, creating in the end a world Empire, and that thereafter a new civilization takes its place. In his view, Western civilization was about to create a German world empire (Spengler was German, of course) after which the next civilization would be Russian. He was right and he was wrong: A world empire was about to be born, but it was American, and the next civilization will probably be Chinese.
* * *
MEANWHILE AMERICA is ruling the world, and that leads us, naturally, to Barack Obama.
I listened to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. My first impression was that it was almost impertinent: to come to a peace ceremony and there to justify war. But when I read it for the second and then a third time, I found some undeniable truths. I, too, believe that there are limits to non-violence. No non-violence would have stopped Hitler. The trouble is that this insight serves very often as a pretext for aggression. Everyone who starts a stupid war – a war that is just not going to solve the problem that caused it – or a war for an ignoble aim, pretends that there is no alternative.
Obama tries to stick the “no alternative” label onto the Afghan war – a cruel, superfluous and stupid war if ever there was one, very much like our own last three military adventures.
Obama’s observations deserve reflection. They invite, and indeed demand, debate. But it was odd to hear them on the occasion of the award of a peace prize. It would have more proper to voice them at West Point, where he spoke a week earlier.
(A German humorist mentioned that Alfred Nobel, who instituted the prize, had invented dynamite. “That’s the right order of things’” he said, “first you blow everything up and then you make peace.”)
* * *
I WOULD have expected Obama to use his speech to present a real world-wide vision, instead of sad reflections on human nature and the inevitability of war. As the President of the United States, on such a festive occasion, with all of humanity listening, he should have underlined the necessity for the new world order that must come into being in the course of the 21st century.
The swine flu provides an example of how a fatal phenomenon can spread all over the globe within days. Icebergs that melt at the North Pole cause Indian Ocean islands to be submerged. The crash of the housing market in Chicago causes hundreds of thousands of children in Africa to die of hunger. The lines I am writing at this moment will reach Honolulu and Japan within minutes.
The planet has become one entity – from the political, economic, military, environmental, communication and medical points of view. A leader who is also a philosopher should outline ways to create a binding world order, an order that will consign wars as a means of solving problems to the past, abolish tyrannical regimes in every country and pave the road to a world without hunger and epidemics. Not tomorrow, for sure, not in our generation, but as an aim to strive for, directing our endeavors..
Obama must surely be thinking about this. But he represents a country that obstructs so many important aspects of a binding world order. It is natural for a world empire to object to a world order that would limit its powers and transfer them to world institutions. That’s why the US opposes the world court and impedes the world-wide effort for saving the planet and the elimination of all nuclear arms. That’s why it objects to real world governance to replace the UN, which has almost become an instrument of US policy. That’s why he praises NATO, a military arm of the US, and obstructs the arising of a really effective international force.
The Norwegian decision to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize bordered on the ridiculous. In his Oslo speech, Obama made no effort to provide, post factum, a plausible justification for this decision. After all, it is not a prize designed for philosophers but for activists, not for words but for deeds.
* * *
WHEN HE was elected as president, we were ready for some disappointment. We knew that no politician could really be as perfect as Obama the candidate looked and sounded. But the disappointment is much greater and much more painful than anticipated.
It covers practically all possible areas. He has not yet left Iraq, but plunged with both feet deeper into the Afghan quagmire – a war that threatens to be longer and more stupid than even the Vietnam War. Anyone who looks for some sense in this war will search in vain. It cannot be won, indeed it is not clear what would constitute victory in this context. It is being fought against the wrong enemy – the Afghan people, instead of the al-Qaeda organization. Rather like burning a house down to rid it of mice.
He promised to close Guantanamo and the other torture camps –yet they are still in business.
He promised salvation to the masses of the unemployed in his country, but poured money into the pockets of the Fat Cats who are as predatory and gluttonous as ever.
His contribution to the solution of the climate crisis is mainly verbal, as is his commitment to the destruction of weapons of mass destruction.
True, the rhetoric has changed. The sanctimonious arrogance of the Bush days has been replaced by a more reconciliatory style and the appearance of a search for fair agreement. This should be duly appreciated. But not unduly.
* * *
AS AN Israeli, I am naturally interested in his attitude to our conflict. When he was elected, he aroused great, even exaggerated hopes. As the Haaretz columnist Aluf Ben put it this week: “He was considered a cross between the prophet Isaiah, Mother Theresa and URI AVNERY.” I am flattered to find myself in such exalted company, but I must agree: the disappointment matched the hopes.
In all the long Oslo speech, Obama devoted 16 whole words to us: “We see it in Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden.”
Well, first of all, it is not a conflict between Arabs and Jews. It is between Palestinians and Israelis. That is an important difference: when one wants to solve a problem, one must first have a clear picture of it.
More importantly: This is the remark of a bystander. A viewer sitting in his armchair and looking at the TV screen. A theater critic reviewing a performance. Should the President of the United States look at the conflict like this?
If the conflict is indeed hardening, the US, and Obama personally, must carry much of the blame. His folding up on the settlement issue and his total surrender to the pro-Israel lobby in the US has encouraged our government to believe that it can do anything it likes.
At the beginning, Binyamin Netanyahu was worried about the new president. But the fear has dissipated, and now our government is treating Obama and his people with scorn bordering on contempt. The agreements made with the last administration are being broken quite openly. President George W. Bush recognized the “settlement blocs” in return for an undertaking to freeze all the others permanently and to dismantle the outposts set up since March 2001. Not only has not a single outpost been dismantled, but this week the government accorded the status of “preferred area” to dozens of settlements outside the “blocs”, including the worst Kahanist nests. From one of these, the thugs went out this week and set fire to a mosque.
The “freeze” is a joke. In this theater of the absurd, the settlers take part in a performance of violent opposition that is both invited and paid for by the government. The police does not employ against them pepper gas, tear gas, rubber bullets and truncheons – as they do every week against Israeli demonstrators who protest against the occupation. Nor do they conduct nightly incursions in the settlements to arrest activists – as they do now in Bilin and other Palestinian villages.
In Jerusalem, of course, the settlement activity is in full swing. Palestinian families are thrown out of their homes to the jubilant cries of the settlers, and the few Israeli protesters against the injustice are sent to hospitals and prisons. The settler groups engaged in these activities receive donations from the US that are tax-deductible – thus Obama is indirectly paying for the very acts he condemns.
* * *
FOR A happy hour on the seashore, under the gentle winter sun, I succeeded in pushing the depressing situation away. Before reaching home, a walk of 10 minutes, it came back and landed on me with its full weight. This is not a time for easy chairs. There is still a struggle ahead of us, and to win it we need to mobilize all our strength.
And Obama? Oybama.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.