Libya heads toward civil war (again), and we’re getting it wrong (again)

The West was so proud when it helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It was a key part of Arab Spring. Now it’s winter in Libya, literally and figuratively. This article in Foreign Policy predicts a bloody showdown between Islamist-led militias that have taken control of the capital, Tripoli, and forces loyal to the elected parliament, who are holed up in Tobruk at the eastern edge of the country, next to Egypt.

Libya--Tripoli and Misrata in the west, Tobruk in the east

Libya–Tripoli and Misrata in the west, Tobruk in the east

And then what? Then the victorious forces, whichever side they represent, will break up into their tribal factions and fight each other. On and on.

If we needed any more proof, here’s another sign that Arab Spring was not a matter of overthrowing this or that dictator, and then democracy would magically bloom. Arab Spring set off a years-long process of turmoil and conflict that may one day produce stable governments — or not. Democracy isn’t in the equation for the most part.

Now the question I’d like to answer in my lecture tour across North America next month — why don’t we hear about this? Why do we hear obsessively, instead, about Israel and the Palestinians?

Mark on the radio: Why Obama’s Israel-Palestinian peace effort failed

“Abbas pocket-vetoed” the US proposal for a framework for peace between Israel and the Palestinians–and it’s at least the second time he’s done that instead of making peace. Listen to me explain this on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh, talking to host P.J. Maloney. It’s about five minutes long.

Mark on the radio

Mark on the radio

Livni: Abbas sabotaged Obama’s Israel-Palestinian peace talks

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did it again — sabotaging Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. This time it was President Obama’s effort earlier this year. Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, details how Abbas pocket-vetoed the proposed US framework for peace.

The last paragraph of this report gives the context–Abbas turned down Israel’s offer of a viable state in 2008. That’s the peace offer I discovered in early 2009, but AP banned me from writing about it. Abbas pocket-vetoed that, too, not formally rejecting it — just refusing to sign the map of the state he was offered and leaving the room, never to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert again. The fact that he did not stand on top of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and publicly reject it — though his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, did that very thing on Al-Jazeera TV — gave AP the excuse to say it wasn’t a real proposal, it wasn’t rejected…all total bullshit, of course. That peace offer was not reported with any detail for years because of the AP ban. I believe if it had been, it might have guided the perception of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts away from demanding that only Israel make “concessions,” and toward the concept that there are two sides to the conflict.

Now Abbas is getting away with it again. Livni talked to the New York Times, which, as usual, couched its article in terms of “both sides are to blame,” and starting with several paragraphs of well-known and boring election campaigning about how Livni is more moderate than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — but if they read all the way down, even New York Times subscribers will see the real story, brought up to the top, where it belongs, in the first story I linked for you above.

There are many lessons here: Palestinian attitudes, Israeli attitudes, media attitudes. I will bring all these elements together next month when I do a lecture tour across North America.

lecture flyer-page0001 (1)

1,000 US troops heading for Iraq…again

The troops are from the 82nd Airborne, a unit that is not known for “advising.” In this article from Stars and Stripes, a publication aimed at US soldiers, veterans and defense personnel, you’ll see that their mission is to “train, advise and assist” the Iraqi army in its war against ISIS.

I’m sure that the US government really believes that its troops won’t be involved in combat. But at some point, unless the local forces prove more effective than they have up to now despite their superior numbers and firepower, they’re going to take losses, and then a US President–this one or the next one–will have to decide whether to pull the “advisers” out or send them into combat. This comes just after the US proudly ended its military engagement in Iraq, a misguided war that critically damaged US standing in the Mideast in the short, medium and possibly long term.

If you’re old enough to remember, this is going to sound a lot like Vietnam, which started with “advisers” and escalated to 500,000 US troops. That war ended with 55,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians dead, and the outcome was totally predictable–a win by the local side with the strongest ideology and foreign backing–North

War in Vietnam

War in Vietnam

Vietnam. That’s a better analogy than the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, though there, too, there was an effort to “train” local forces to fight militants, failing for the most part in both places.

I don’t want to get all extreme here, but you know the definition of a person who keeps making the same mistake over and over again while expecting different results. It’s time to learn the lessons instead of repeating the failures. ISIS is a threat to the Mideast, and Mideast nations must either repel it or surrender. Additional outside intervention, especially from the US, works in the favor if the “resistance.”

An illustration is the Kurdish military, which has fought ISIS effectively, driving it out of some parts of its territory. Part of the mission of the US “advisers” is to help the Kurds. That needs to be done very quietly, to avoid “tainting them with the stench of the oppressive American imperialists.”

To the extent that ISIS is a threat to the US or Europe, it’s terrorism, not conquest–so it needs to be controlled though military intelligence and old-fashioned intelligence–just as al-Qaida has been controlled for the past decade-plus.

The more direct threat is to Israel, and there are reports that Israel is beefing up its forces a bit along its northern borders. A cold assessment of the forces involved shows that ISIS is no match for Israel militarily, so Israel, too, will have to fight it with intelligence. Israel has decades of experience in dealing with Muslim radicals that way. Watch and learn.

“I didn’t leave journalism–it left me”

That’s the headline on this long and sympathetic story about the new media critic, me. It details why I have shed the role of reporter-editor-broadcaster and have assumed the role of calling out the Western media –and by implication, Western society — about their failure to even try to understand what is going on in this region.

I have begun a campaign to expose the shortcomings of my former profession. Actually, that campaign started with the publishing of my book, which concentrates on how the West misunderstands what has happened in this region, consistently and constantly. For a while I tried to wear both hats–journalist and critic–but now I find that my head isn’t big enough for that.

My youngest reader

My youngest reader

Here on my website you’ll still find me writing articles analyzing current events and trends. My articles might appear in publications from time to time. But I no longer define myself as a journalist. The reasons are all in Lori Lowenthal Marcus’s article here

I knew for sure it was over when I realized that for the first time since 1968, there’s going to be a general election (Israel’s in March), and I won’t be covering it. That realization brought a broad smile to my face.

US war against ISIS — nobody knows what’s really happening, or why

The US is doing everything wrong in its war against ISIS. First of all, it’s not a war for the US to fight. Second, if it needs to be fought at all, it needs to be fought with intelligence (both definitions), not airstrikes and “advisers.”

This report by my friend Nancy Youssef of McClatchy in Washington tells us that the US is not telling anyone what’s really going on it its war against ISIS. Not journalists, not even Congress. It’s an air war, plus, of course, “advisers” in Iraq, and the Pentagon is not eager for us to know what they’re all accomplishing.

Nancy doesn’t write this…this is me: It’s clear that this is another misguided effort by the US to influence Mideast developments by using the wrong tools. There is, however, a hint of that in this paragraph from her report:

1385750_10151886336930845_1141611763_n

My friend Nancy

Pentagon officials privately concede that they could release more, and more timely, information. But the problem, they say, ultimately is a lack of a strategy. President Barack Obama said in a White House address Sept. 10 that the goal was to “defeat and destroy” the Islamic State, but the military approach so far is more of a containment policy. Releasing more details about the strikes would expose that divide, critics said privately.

Little wonder. American military involvement in this part of the world has been disastrous, both for the US and for the region. ISIS poses a terrorist threat to the West, no more — despite the prominence given to horrific publicity stunts like beheadings and overblown media (especially social media) attention to little demonstrations and occasional banners and signs. Therefore, the West needs to handle ISIS by infiltrating it and stopping its attacks before we even know about them — as it’s been doing for a decade and a half with al-Qaida.

There is no 100 percent guarantee here — there might well be a successful terror attack or two, because that’s the world we live in — but the total effect of American airstrikes and military action will be a substantial expansion of ISIS popularity and strength through increased hatred of the US and the West, and that means more terror attacks, not fewer. By now you’d think the West had learned this lesson.

The state of Gaza “journalism”

Veteran foreign correspondent turned critic (Sound like me? Not this time) Richard Behar writes here about the latest acquisition of The Associated Press. He’s the New York Times reporter in Gaza. Behar writes that the reporter is known for posting and adulating a photo of Yasser Arafat on his Facebook page, among other failings — evidence, he believes, that the AP is laughing at its critics, including me.

Behar also criticizes the NYT for conflating this reporter’s allegiances with the fact that another reporter for the paper, an Israeli, has a son serving in the Israeli military.

First of all, it’s time to stop all this “gotcha” nonsense. Reporters need to be judged by their work, not by what else they do, and certainly not what their kids do. I served in the Israeli military reserves until age 51, and sometimes both my kids and I were on active duty together. Back then no one cared, as

My OPC award

My OPC award

long as I was doing my work professionally. I guess I was, because I received a prestigious award for it in 1994.

From my experience, there’s something more sinister going on here. When looking for a Palestinian reporter to cover Gaza, there’s not a lot of choice. To stay alive and in business, they all have to walk a narrow line between doing their jobs and staying out of a Palestinian prison — or worse. Not only are reporters threatened — so are their wives and kids.The NYT reporter replaces Ibrahim Barzak, who recently uprooted himself to Malaysia. Ibrahim was a second-generation AP stringer in Gaza. By age 30 he had a heart condition more appropriate to us over-60s. He was under constant threat and pressure from whoever was running Gaza to get his reporting in line with the demands of the rulers. Frequently he asked us to take his bylines off stories and change the dateline to Jerusalem.

Ibrahim is a wonderful, warm person who was dedicated to reporting and journalism, taking after his late father, Hikmet. He was twisted into a nervous wreck by the conflicting demands of his profession and the place where he lived. When I wrote this article about intimidation in the Palestinian areas, I did not name Ibrahim, because he had not yet gone public with his decision to leave Gaza, his home, carefully explaining that he did not want his children to grow up hating Israel.

News from, this region is skewed by many factors. The main ones are the Western mindset that equates right with weakness, favoring the underdogs whatever they do; and the distortions that arise from the fact that journalists in Israel have free access to practically everything and no one tries to intimidate them, while that is decidedly not the case anywhere else in the region.

So the problems that Richard Behar points out here are the symptoms, not the disease.

Pope: Christians being driven from Mideast, and only AFP reports it. Why?

Christians are being driven from the Middle East, says no less than the Pope. Sounds like news to me, but the only agency writing about it is AFP, Agence France Presse. Read it here, picked up by Al-Arabiya and many other news outlets.pope

My question is–did only AFP, a relatively small agency, report this story? I have some indication that this was a “pool,” meaning only the AFP reporter might have been at the event in Erbil, a city in Iraq where thousands of Christians have taken refuge. That means the AFP reporter’s notes and story must be made available to everyone else on the tour. It’s a common method of keeping press contingents to a manageable size. But once everyone else gets the material, all are allowed to use it with their own bylines and the dateline of the event. That’s how it works.

So didn’t it work this time? Are AP and Reuters and major newspapers who cover the Pope still working on their stories? Did something go wrong with the distribution of the pool material? Or does someone out there think that the Pope charging that Christians are being driven out the Middle East isn’t a proper news story?  I mean, really…as one who suffered from a major news agency, the one I worked for, spiking my absolutely legitimate news stories, I automatically assume the worst. I hope I’m wrong.

The story of Christians being persecuted in the Mideast is one of the most under-reported stories around here. It’s not hard to undersrtand why. Christians are so intimidated by the Muslim majority and its violent extremists that they are deathly afraid, literally, to talk about it. That makes it had to report. Not impossible, but hard. Other stories are so much easier, though, and they get just as much play. You all know what I mean.

But let’s just end this just by pointing out that there is only one place in the Mideast where the Christian population is increasing. That would be Israel.

Who needs a Jewish State law?

“Where are you going, Abba?” asked my six-year-old son as I headed out on Dec. 25 with my big bag of recording equipment. I was a radio correspondent back then, more than 30 years ago.

“I’m going to Bethlehem,” I replied.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it’s Christmas,” I told him.

The old exchange comes to mind because of the public debate over the Jewish State law. The debate says more about the immaturity of Israeli society than either side realizes.

The national camp, including the prime minister, sees Israel under attack by those seeking to delegitimize it, and insists it needs the law to bolster Israel’s legal system against challenges from within and without.

Opponents charge that the Jewish State law will turn Israel into an apartheid state of first and second-class citizens, alienate the minorities and bring the wrath of the world down upon our heads.

Both might be right, but one thing is for sure. Both are also wrong.

Just as with Egypt’s several constitutions, as I learned by sitting down at my Cairo dining table and plowing through the lengthy documents before writing about them, the Jewish State law has something for everyone.

It has this description of Israel:

The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People in which the Jewish People realizes its right to self-determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage.

The right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.

And it has this description of the status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens:

The State of Israel is democratic, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law.

It goes back and forth, trying to define what’s already been defined in practice. Egypt keeps trying to do that, too.

Friday prayers on my Cairo street

Friday prayers on my Cairo street

Egypt’s latest constitution has 247 articles, some of them pro-Islam, some of them pro-secular, many of them just fluff. It goes on and on, trying to nail down things that can’t be nailed down in a constitution.

There is no doubt that nations need constitutions. They run into trouble when they try to define their societies, as opposed to defining their governments. The same applies to measures like the Jewish State law.

Israel has been around now for six and a half decades. It is the home of the Jewish people. Jews, loosely defined, have the right to automatic citizenship. No other group does. Jewish holidays are observed as holidays from the workplace, as schools, offices and some businesses close.

The non-Jewish parts of Israel observe their own holidays the same way, according to their calendars, not the Jewish one. While almost everyone speaks the dominant language, Hebrew, the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish freely speak Arabic (or Russian) among themselves. Everyone can vote, though there is still inequality between the majority and minority. That’s how it is.

So do we really need a law describing what’s already a well-entrenched reality?

More important, what does it mean if we feel we need such a law?

When is the last time the President of the United States stood before his Cabinet and warned that some people were trying to delegitimize his country because it took over the lands of Native Americans, France, Spain and Mexico, concluding that the US needs a campaign, a law, an information drive to prove that the US is the home of the American people, who (gasp) weren’t born there?

When did the Queen of England ever worry about whether everyone recognizes the right of England to exist? That wasn’t even an issue this year when Scotland nearly scuttled the United Kingdom.

What does it say about Israel that it is constantly, obsessively, paranoically hung up on whether other nations recognize it, whether other people define it the way we do? Why do we care?

Of course Israel is not as big, strong or old as either the US or England. The US and England, unlike Israel, are not the targets for destruction by a UN member (Iran) as Israel is. They do not have a hostile people living next door under occupation, publicly proclaiming their hatred and passing out candies when civilians are killed in a terror attack.

Well, actually, that’s not even true. Until the UK pulled out of Northern Ireland, it had just such a problem with the IRA. And plenty of people cheer when a terror attack hits the US.

So why don’t these realities drive the US and England into paroxysms of fear, fury and fortress mentality like Israel’s?

The realities are not that different. Just as the IRA did not threaten England’s existence, so the Palestinians do not threaten Israel’s. And in fact, Iran, ISIS and al-Qaida and all the rest do not really threaten the existence of the US any more than they threaten Israel’s, and they don’t. That’s another article.

The point is this: A Jewish State law will not change anything on the ground. Israel is what it wants to be. The society has determined that. The struggles continue between religious and secular Jews, and between an obtuse state and its underprivileged minorities. These will be worked out by the people and their representatives—or not. A Jewish State law will make no difference.

Nor should it.

Even more than 30 years ago, as I headed out the door to Bethlehem on Dec. 25, it was already clear to my little boy (now a leading Israeli educator) that he’s living in a Jewish state, where it’s natural to be a Jew and live as a Jew—as opposed to his father who, as a child, felt distinctly like an outsider in America, especially around Christmas.

When I told him I was going to cover Christmas celebrations, he stated the whole case in two words:

“What’s Christmas?”