The Conversation – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 21 Jun 2021 04:36:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 As we continue to burn Gasoline, Coal, Rocky Mountain forests burning more now than any time in the past 2,000 years Sun, 20 Jun 2021 04:01:07 +0000 By Philip Higuera, Bryan Shuman and Kyra Wolf | –

The exceptional drought in the U.S. West has people across the region on edge after the record-setting fires of 2020. Last year, Colorado alone saw its three largest fires in recorded state history, one burning late in October and crossing the barren Continental Divide well above the tree line.

Those fires didn’t just feel extreme. Evidence now shows the 2020 fire season pushed these ecosystems to levels of burning unprecedented for at least 2,000 years.

That evidence, which we describe in a study published June 14, 2021, serves as a sobering example of how climate change is altering the ecosystems on which lives and economies depend. A previous study nearly a decade ago warned that by the mid-21st century, climate warming could increase burning past historical levels and transform some Rocky Mountain forests. Our results show such changes in fire activity are now underway.

Graphs show fire activity rising with temperature over time
Historically, fires burned a subalpine forest stand in the central Rockies every 230 years, on average. That has increased significantly in the 21st century.
Philip Higuera

Entering uncharted territory

As paleoecologists – scientists who study how and why ecosystems changed in the past – we’ve spent decades researching how wildfires, climate and forests change over time.

We used to be able to look to the past when rare events like large wildfires occurred and say “we’ve seen this before and our ecosystems have generally bounced back.” In the last few years, however, it’s become increasingly clear that many ecosystems are entering uncharted territory.

Witnessing the exceptionally large fires burning in high-elevation forests in 2020, unusually late in the season, we wondered if we were experiencing something truly unprecedented.

In Colorado and Wyoming, the largest fires of 2020 were burning in a region where our research teams have spent over 15 years developing records of fire history and ecosystem change from materials preserved in the bottom of lakes. This work has centered on understanding how climate change might one day affect wildfires. We looked to those records for an answer.

Evidence of past fires preserved in lake sediments

When a fire burns a forest, it sends tiny bits of charcoal into the air. If a lake is nearby, some of that charcoal will settle to the bottom, adding to the layers that build up each year. By plunging a long tube into the mud and extracting a core, we can examine the history of the surrounding landscape – revealed in the layers of everything that sank to the bottom over thousands of years.

Carbon dating of tree needles and twigs helps us determine the age of each layer in a core. Pollen preserved in the sediments can tell us what grew nearby. And dense charcoal layers tell us when fires burned.

Scientists on a raft examining a sediment core
Philip Higuera (right) and his team examine a sediment core from Chickaree Lake, in Rocky Mountain National Park, used to reconstruct fire and vegetation history over thousands of years.
Grace Carter

We used such records of past fires preserved in the sediments of 20 lakes in the central Rocky Mountains. In total, the dozens of researchers who helped analyze these cores counted over 100,000 tiny charcoal pieces, within the thousands of 0.5-centimeter layers of lake sediments examined. Identifying distinct increases in charcoal accumulation within the cores allows us to estimate when fires burned around a lake, and compare today’s patterns to those of the distant past.

The result: The extensive burning over the 21st century is unprecedented in this region in the past 2,000 years.

Burning nearly twice as often as in the past

We estimated that fires burned the forests around each lake once every 230 years, on average, over the past 2,000 years. Over just the 21st century, the rate of burning has nearly doubled, with a fire now expected to burn a given spot once every 117 years.

A female scientist holds a small container with tiny flecks of charcoal in it.
Kyra Wolf holds up a vial containing charcoal and other organic material from a half-centimeter slice of a lake sediment core.
University of Montana
Two long, thin cores of mud marked with a line every half-centimeter for analysis.
In the lab, the sediment cores are split open and examined in detail. The color variation reflects differences in the material the fell into the lake at different times over the centuries.
University of Montana

Even more surprising, fires in the 21st century are now burning 22% more often than the highest rate of burning reached in the previous 2,000 years.

That previous record was established around 1,100 years ago, during what’s known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly. The Northern Hemisphere at that time was 0.3 C (0.5 F) warmer then than the 20th century average. Subalpine forests in the central Rockies during the early Medieval Climate Anomaly burned on average once every 150 years. To put that period’s temperature into perspective, the Northern Hemisphere in 2020 was 1.28 C (2.3 F) above the 20th century average.

In an earlier study based on a subset of the same records, the Medieval Climate Anomaly stood out as a harbinger of what could happen as Rocky Mountain forests warmed. Research in the boreal forest of central Alaska has also documented unprecedented burning in recent decades.

Climate change is the culprit, with accomplices

Research clearly links recent increases in fire activity across the West to increasingly warm, dry summers and human-caused climate change. Our evidence shows that the rate of burning over the past 2,000 years also tracked smaller variations in the climate in the central Rockies.

Warmer, drier conditions make vegetation more flammable, loading the dice for the possibility of large fires. Human activities, a history of suppressing most fires and insect-killed trees all affect when, where and how fires burn. These influences vary across the West and each is layered on top of the warmer, drier conditions of the 21st century.

Adapting to a future unlike the past will be a significant challenge for land managers, policy makers and communities. Reducing the threats of increasing wildfires requires both combating climate change and learning to live in ways that help make our communities more resilient to our fire-prone future.

The Conversation

Philip Higuera, Professor of Fire Ecology and Paleoecology, The University of Montana; Bryan Shuman, Professor of Paleoclimatology and Paleoecology, University of Wyoming, and Kyra Wolf, Ph.D. Student in Systems Ecology, The University of Montana

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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As new Israeli Gov’t Bombs Gaza, Relations with Palestine are on a Knife Edge– and will Stay There Sat, 19 Jun 2021 04:03:14 +0000 By Tony Walker | –

( The Conversation) – The Israel-Palestine conflict has experienced its first violent spasm in the term of a new Israeli government. However, hostilities have since been contained, for the time being.

Provocative demonstrations this week in Arab East Jerusalem involving Israeli proto-nationalists chanting “death to Arabs” were met with a barrage of Hamas incendiary balloons that caused fires in Israeli farmland.

Israeli launched retaliatory air strikes against alleged Hamas positions in Gaza. This was pretty much the extent of the violence in the latest outbreak, a familiar tit-for-tat pattern.

The truth is that neither the new Naftali Bennett-led Coalition in Jerusalem, nor the Hamas leadership in Gaza, battered by days of airstrikes, wants to risk an escalation at this stage.

Both sides have been sizing each other up in these very early stages of the post-Netanyahu era in which Bennett is striving to stabilise a government whose combustible components range across the Israeli political spectrum.

The Bennett coalition is highly unstable and will need time to coalesce, if indeed that proves possible. The ousted Benjamin Netanyahu will be doing all he can as opposition leader to bring down the coalition led by his former allies.

In a divided Israel, not unlike the biblical market of Seleucia, in which anything and everything was for sale, the notion of a loyal opposition is anathema.

This is the reality of Israeli politics on a knife edge in this new period.

From the Palestinian perspective, its divided leadership, between Hamas militants in Gaza and the feeble Fatah mainstream in Ramallah, will be watching and waiting to see where the cards fall.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians will have their eyes on Washington, where the Biden administration represents a significant change from its predecessor led by Donald Trump, whose blatant partisanship encouraged Israel’s bad behaviour.

Initial indications are Biden will not be replicating the Obama administration’s focus on kick-starting an ephemeral Middle East peace process.

The administration’s early preoccupation will be with crisis management. Washington has much broader concerns these days, prime among them are managing China’s rise and combatting a revanchist Russia.

Insofar as Biden is focused on the Middle East, his priority is to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal recklessly undone by his predecessor.

In all of this, Israel-Palestine and the endless machinations of its various players are a distraction.

The question, as always, is whether destructive forces on either side can be contained long enough for an easing of tensions and a relaxation of restrictions on Palestinians living under occupation.

In the present circumstance, there is no realistic chance of a resumption of a genuine Middle East peace push. For all intents and purposes, talk of a “two-state solution” resides in the glib assertions of politicians who know perfectly well it means little.

An essential question in all of this is whether Netanyahu’s departure from the Israeli leadership, if only temporarily, will provide breathing space for the various parties to step back from the brink.

There is little confidence between Israelis and the Palestinians, shredded by Netanyahu’s 15 years in office in two separate and destructive tranches. In the end, trust had evaporated, with faults on both sides.

Netanyahu’s words could not be trusted. His opposite number, Mahmoud Abbas’s utterances could not be taken seriously since he was barely in control of his own faction, let alone the broader Palestinian movement.

The Palestinian Authority’s failure to hold presidential elections since 2005 and for the Legislative Council since 2006, in the knowledge the Fatah mainstream would lose out to Islamist parties, has undermined Abbas’s legitimacy and that of his supporters.

Israel’s messy democratic process stands in contrast to the unwillingness of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to risk the judgment of its citizens. This is notwithstanding the difficulties of holding free and fair elections under occupation.

This brings us back to the Bennett-led Israeli government in the first week of its tenure. It hangs on to power by a thread in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. Securing a working parliamentary majority in Israel has become increasingly difficult over the years as political parties of left and right have fragmented.

Bennett, of the minority rightist Yamina party, is an unlikely mainstream Israeli leader, although Israel’s political centre has shifted to the right. He has made his name as an outspoken leader and supporter of the Israeli settlers’ movement. In some respects, such as his energetic support for annexation of Palestinian territory, he has been to the right of Netanyahu. He was once Netanyahu’s chief-of-staff.

As leader of a hydra-headed government of eight parties, which includes for the first time in Israeli history an Arab Islamist bloc, it will be a Holy Land miracle if Bennett survives for long.

However, he brings several assets to the table. For a start, he is not Netanyahu, who had become a reviled figure across Israel’s political spectrum, leaving aside his die-hard supporters.

Bennett is a successful entrepreneur in his own right. He is showing signs of being a political pragmatist, after establishing his political career as an uncompromising supporter of Israel’s expansion into territories occupied in war.

He is something of an unknown quantity in his new leadership role in partnership with the centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid bloc.

Whether all this is even workable will become apparent fairly soon.

In the meantime, Palestinians will not be investing much hope in Bennett’s ability to ease pressure on their daily lives, let alone bring about steps towards an enduring peace.

The latest Gaza spasm represented a punctuation mark in a new political environment. It is not an end point.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Vice-chancellor’s fellow, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Conservative hard-liner poised to be Iran’s next president – what that means for the West and the nuclear deal Fri, 18 Jun 2021 04:03:56 +0000 By Nader Habibi | – ( The Conversation ) | –

Iran’s conservative rulers’ effort to orchestrate the outcome of the June 18 presidential election triggered a voter boycott – but the result may still bode well for ongoing negotiations over the lapsed 2015 nuclear deal.

The leading candidate is Ebrahim Raisi, chief of Iran’s judiciary and close ally of the supreme leader. He is all but assured of a victory after the candidates who could have posed a serious challenge to him – including three reformists – were disqualified and prevented from participating in the election.

The unprecedented disqualifications have outraged large groups of liberal and moderate voters, and many have pledged to boycott the election. As a result, the turnout is expected to be well below 50%, and most likely a historic low.

But who is Ebrahim Raisi, and how would his presidency alter Iran’s domestic and foreign policies? As an economist and close observer of Iran, I believe we can start to answer these questions by exploring his past.

Loyal insider

Raisi is a loyal regime insider with a long career in Iran’s judicial branch, which goes back more than four decades.

He was only 19 when the Islamic revolution deposed the shah in 1979. As a young Islamic activist, he caught the attention of several top revolutionary clerics, including Ali Khamenei, who became Iran’s supreme leader a decade later.

Named the general-prosecutor of Kataj – a small city near Tehran – at age 20, Raisi quickly rose to more prominent positions. In 1989, when Khamenei replaced Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader, Raisi was promoted to chief prosecutor-general of Tehran.

This promotion reflected the high level of trust that Khamenei had in him. While serving in these positions, Raisi also attended seminary and religious studies under Khamenei and other influential religious leaders.

Executing dissidents and fighting corruption

During the first decade of his career, Raisi convicted a large number of dissidents and political opponents of the Islamic regime and sentenced many of them to death.

Regime critics and his political opponents have condemned his direct role in these executions, particularly the large number of political prisoners who were executed in 1988.

From 1994 to 2004, Raisi served as head of Iran’s general inspector office, which is responsible for preventing abuse of power and corruption in government institutions. It was in this position that he developed a reputation as a crusader against government corruption. Even as he was appointed as the first deputy chief justice in 2004 and finally promoted to chief justice in March 2019, he continued his fight against corruption by prosecuting many government officials.

His critics have argued, however, that his fight against corruption has been highly politicized and selective. They claimed that he targeted individuals who were affiliated with his political rivals such as President Hassan Rouhani.

Raisi first ran for presidency in 2017 but was defeated by Iran’s current President Hassan Rouhani, who after two terms is ineligible to run again.

In this year’s election, Raisi is the favorite candidate of the conservative right wing of the Islamic ruling elite and also enjoys the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has absolute power over all branches of government. Khamenei also directly appoints half of the 12-member Council of Guardians, which oversees all political elections and has the power to disqualify candidates without any public explanation. Khamenei publicly endorsed and defended the disqualifications.

Likely return to the nuclear deal

One of the institutional weaknesses of Iran’s political system since the 1979 Islamic revolution is the potential for tension and disagreement between the elected presidents and the supreme leader.

That is, unlike in the U.S. system of government, the Iranian president’s powers are extremely limited. For example, a reformist president may want to engage more with the West or stay out of a foreign conflict, but the supreme leader could overrule or simply ignore him.

As a protege and close ally of the supreme leader, Raisi is expected to support Khamenei’s policies on both domestic and foreign policy – which means more coordination between the various branches of government. With the Parliament also dominated by Khamenei supporters, it also means that the conservatives will control all three branches of the government once again after eight years.

This harmony means Raisi would be a lot more effective as president because whatever policies he pursues would most likely be supported by the supreme leader.

And perhaps ironically, his victory could pave the way for a more compromising attitude on the side of Iran in the negotiations that are currently underway in Vienna for restoration of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which was derailed by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.

The reason for this unconventional prediction is that both reformist and conservative factions in Iran are fully aware that a new nuclear agreement, which could end the severe economic sanctions imposed on the country, is highly popular. The team that signs the agreement will receive credit for ending the economic hardship the country is currently enduring. For example, inflation is over 50%, exports have plunged due to the sanctions and over 60% of the population is now in poverty, up from 48% just two years ago.

If Raisi becomes president, the conservatives and the supreme leader have greater incentives to reach an agreement with the United States for lifting the sanctions as they could no longer blame a reformist president for the economic hardships.

The success of this strategy, however, is far from guaranteed.

First, if Khamenei, Raisi and their hard-line supporters insist on maintaining Iran’s confrontational foreign policy, it seems unlikely to me that the economic sanctions against Iran will ease. Not all of them are tied directly to the nuclear deal, including sanctions against Raisi himself.

Second, the growing alienation and frustration of large segments of Iran’s population – especially after reformists were banned from running for president – may still lead to mass unrest and political instability.

Supreme Leader Raisi?

Raisi’s victory can have an even more significant impact on Iran’s politics in the long run because it might pave the way for him to become Iran’s next supreme leader.

Ayatollah Khamenei is in his 80s, and a succession to a new supreme leader is considered likely in the next four years. According to many regime insiders, Raisi is considered the most likely to replace Khamenei if he wins the presidential election.

If Raisi eventually becomes Iran’s supreme leader, he would have far more powers to shape all types of policies. Based on his background and values, he is likely to resist political and social reforms and try to gain legitimacy for the Islamic regime by focusing on economic development in a similar fashion to the authoritarian regimes in Asia, such as China, by focusing on economic growth while curtailing political and social freedoms.

Raisi as president – and eventually as the supreme leader – would unlikely abandon Iran’s anti-Western foreign policy, but he has the potential to lower the tensions to a more manageable level in order to improve Iran’s economy.

In my view, he seems to have recognized that the continuation of current economic hardships poses the largest threat to the Islamic regime in the long run.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]The Conversation

Nader Habibi, Henry J. Leir Professor of Practice in Economics of the Middle East, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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How Israel’s missing constitution deepens divisions between Jews and with Arabs Thu, 17 Jun 2021 04:02:06 +0000 By Brendan Szendro | –

Renewed fighting has erupted again between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, endangering a ceasefire instituted after an 11-day war in May.

The conflict in Gaza is an early test of Israel’s new coalition government. Recently, parties across the political spectrum united to remove Israel’s scandal-plagued prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, ending a two-year political crisis – though he may maneuver his way back into power.

While conducting dissertation research on the relationship between religion and state in Israel, I traced Israel’s chronic instability to what I believe is its core: Unlike most countries, Israel does not have a constitution.

Why constitutions matter

Constitutions constrain the power of governments by defining in precise terms who has what rights, what rights form the basis of legal decisions and how political power is dispersed among institutions.

Israel is governed by a changeable, ever-growing body of what are called “basic laws” – “Chukei Ha-Yesod” in Hebrew. The basic laws were passed individually over the past 73 years, beginning with one two-page law that described the makeup of Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, and citizens’ voting rights.

Today, Israel is governed by a 124-page collection of 13 laws. Although the basic laws outline a vision of democratic rights, they remain, to paraphrase the late legal scholar Ruth Gavison, “unanchored.”

This allows Israel to maintain an ambiguous stance on key issues central to a nation’s identity.

First, Israel has never officially defined the relationship between religion and state. Is Israel founded on the Jewish religion? Or is it a secular state that is home to Jews, with non-Jewish minorities? That question remains unanswered.

Nor has the country fully determined whether Arab Israelis and other non-Jewish citizens – who make up about a quarter of its 9 million people – enjoy the same rights as their Jewish counterparts.

Israel also waffles on the relative power of the legislature and judiciary.

The Israeli Supreme Court has used this constitutional ambiguity to retroactively subject new legislation to judicial review. Meanwhile, legislators in the Knesset have tried to weaken the court’s authority over their lawmaking. Incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, for example, has previously attempted to pass legislation allowing the Knesset to override judicial decisions.

Even Israel’s official borders aren’t defined. Israel maintains it has sovereignty over the West Bank territory, but officially the West Bank is not part of Israel. So Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have rights under Israeli law, because they are not Israeli citizens.

Palestinians there live under Israeli military rule, subject to military law that is unconstrained by any constitutional bounds, alongside Israeli settlers who are subject to Israeli law.

This ambiguity led Yuli Tamir, an Israeli politician and academic, to quip, “Is Israel even an actual country?”

A young democracy

Israel is not the only parliamentary democracy without a formal constitution. The United Kingdom doesn’t have one either.

But the United Kingdom has a large body of laws accumulated over centuries of political conflict. This well-established common-law tradition, which served as one of the sources for the United States’ own Constitution, is the legal basis of governance in the U.K.

Israel, founded in 1948, does not have such a history to fall back on. And many of its problems are common to relatively young democracies. Weak, fractured party systems and competition between ethnic and religious groups are hallmarks of the democratization process. The early U.S., for example, grappled with many such problems, too.

But rule of law generally prevails in the U.S., and democracy progresses, because both the courts and legislators defer to a central document: the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution outlines the powers of each branch of government, as well as procedures for amendment. The U.S. Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments – guarantees specific rights of citizens.

Let’s go logrolling

The Netanyahu government attempted to settle some long-running disagreements about Israel’s identity during his most recent term in office – though not necessarily with an eye toward strengthening liberal democracy.

In 2018, the Knesset passed a basic law naming Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” This effort to settle a central identity question pleased almost nobody. Left-wing and Arab Israelis objected to the tacit downgrading of Arabs to second-class status, while religious Jewish groups found the law too secular.

Divisive political gambles like this became commonplace in the late stages of Netanyahu’s rule. As coalition politics became increasingly fragile, Netanyahu spiraled into what political scientists call “logrolling”: using policy trade-offs among parties in exchange for political support.

This was especially the case in regard to religion, as Netanyahu bartered policies appeasing the Orthodox Jewish groups that kept him in power. In 2018, for example, Netanyahu’s coalition passed new legislation enforcing previously symbolic laws such as restrictions on businesses operating on the sabbath. It was a punishing move for cities like Tel Aviv with large secular populations.

Similarly, Netanyahu’s policy of encouraging Jewish settlers to move to the West Bank and other occupied Palestinian territories and build cities was more political strategy than religious fervor. His aggressive support for Jewish nationalism increasingly alienated Israel’s Arab population, who have few legal avenues to challenge their treatment.

Minorities are mistreated and even subjugated in countries that have constitutions, too. But constitutions give them legal pathways to challenge that discrimination.

The Netanyahu era showed that strategic politicians can exploit Israel’s constitutional vacuum to maintain power well beyond their popular mandate. These destabilizing issues will continue to fester as a new government takes the reins in Israel.The Conversation

Brendan Szendro, PhD Candidate, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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It wasn’t just politics that led to Netanyahu’s ouster – it was fear of his demagoguery Wed, 16 Jun 2021 04:02:59 +0000 By Dov Waxman |

( The Conversation) – There is something Shakespearean about Benjamin Netanyahu’s downfall.

As in a scene from “Julius Caesar,” who was assassinated by Roman senators, Netanyahu was deposed by his former underlings, the leaders of the three right-wing parties that have joined the new government – Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar, all of whom once worked for Netanyahu.

If two of these men had remained loyal to Netanyahu, as they had been for years, then he would still be in power today.

Instead, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has finally been dethroned. “King Bibi,” as his devoted supporters hail him, ruled Israel for a total of 15 years, including a short stint in the 1990s. He returned to power in 2009, and for the past 12 years he dominated Israeli politics and came to personify Israel in the eyes of the world.

But while personal grudges and political rivalries largely due to Netanyahu’s preening personality have no doubt played a key role in his ouster, they do not fully account for the unyielding opposition he has engendered.

It is not simply a result of individual grievances and political ambitions that Netanyahu can no longer appease or politically buy off his rivals. Nor is it just because they no longer believe any of his promises. As a scholar of Israeli politics, I think that it is also, even primarily, because Netanyahu has come to be seen as a danger to Israeli democracy itself, just as former President Donald Trump was in the United States.

Becoming a demagogue

In recent years, particularly since he was indicted on corruption charges in several cases involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Netanyahu has become increasingly autocratic.

During a period when democracies around the world have been challenged by “authoritarian populists” such as Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Netanyahu has eagerly joined this global club of illiberal strongmen and publicly embraced these controversial leaders.

Domestically, he adopted many of their tactics, trying to undermine the independence of the judiciary, neuter regulators, control or muzzle the media and use the power of patronage to reward loyalists and punish critics.

Netanyahu has also frequently employed populist rhetoric, railing against the supposedly leftist elite, the “deep state” and the “fake news” media, all of whom he has alleged are conspiring against him.

He has portrayed himself as the victim of sinister, shadowy and powerful groups who are the enemies of the “people.” In classic populist fashion, Netanyahu has claimed that only he represents the “people,” specifically, Israeli Jews, since Arab citizens of Israel are cast as dangerous Others. He demonizes his political opponents as threats to the nation, even traitors.

By deftly manipulating the fears and prejudices of the Israeli public, Netanyahu became, essentially, a demagogue.

Personal becomes political

The purpose of Netanyahu’s assault on the pillars of Israeli democracy was simple: for him to remain in power and stay out of jail.

To achieve this, he was willing to delegitimize not only his political opponents, but also state institutions like the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office and the police.

In a desperate attempt to evade his corruption trial for bribery and fraud and a possible lengthy prison sentence, Netanyahu sought to gain immunity from prosecution as a sitting prime minister while denying he was doing so.

His stubborn refusal to resign, even after his criminal trial began – the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister was in the dock – appeared to be driven by his desire to use his position as prime minister to gain legal immunity or at least intimidate the lawyers and judges he might face, and convince the public that he was being persecuted.

It wasn’t only his political survival and personal freedom, however, that motivated Netanyahu. He seems to sincerely believe that Israel will be endangered without his leadership. His long tenure in power apparently convinced him that only he can steer the ship of state, especially given the treacherous waters it must navigate.

“Try to damage as little as possible of the magnificent economy we are handing over to you, so that we can fix it as fast as possible when we return,” he said as power was handed over to the coalition.

Like other longtime leaders, Netanyahu came to equate his own personal and political interests with those of Israel. What was good for him was good for Israel; what harmed him, harmed Israel. Netanyahu also convinced his supporters of this equation, just as many of his critics became convinced that the opposite was true.

Thus, Netanyahu managed to divide Israelis into two antagonistic camps: pro-Netanyahu versus anti-Netanyahu. This division replaced the traditional left-right ideological divide that had dominated Israeli politics for decades – and which is why the new government spans the ideological spectrum.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]

Surviving without Netanyahu

It is premature to write Netanyahu’s political obituary – he remains the leader of Likud, by far the largest party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He has vowed to bring down the newly installed “change government” and swiftly return to power.

He could well accomplish this task given his Machiavellian political skills and the inherent fragility of Israel’s new governing coalition, which is composed of no fewer than eight different parties ranging across the political spectrum. Since it depends on a razor-thin parliamentary majority of 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, the government will be extremely vulnerable to Netanyahu’s relentless efforts to topple it.

But however short-lived Israel’s fledgling government turns out to be, its mere formation is not only something of a political miracle – bringing together religious and secular ultranationalist right-wingers, liberal centrists, secular leftists and Arab Islamists – but also a stunning repudiation of Netanyahu.

Ultimately, the rule of law and democratic process in Israel have survived Netanyahu’s attacks. A peaceful transition of power has occurred, despite angry protests and violent threats against some of the members of the incoming government.

The mere fact that Israel has a new prime minister will now demonstrate to many Israelis that the country can survive without Netanyahu’s leadership. Even if the new government accomplishes very little, this alone will be an important achievement.

By rejecting Netanyahu’s demagoguery, Prime Minister Bennett can also begin to heal some of the divisiveness that Netanyahu stoked and exploited, even if his government continues many of Netanyahu’s policies, as seems likely. This, if nothing else, will be the “change” it promises.The Conversation

Dov Waxman, Director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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The Young Turks: “Benjamin Netanyahu Ousted As Israeli Prime Minister”

Israel’s Netanyahu may be ousted but his hard-line foreign policies remain Tue, 15 Jun 2021 04:02:06 +0000 By David Mednicoff |

(The Conversation) – After two years of repeated and inconclusive Israeli elections, the advent of a new coalition government has ended the long era of Benjamin Netanyahu’s prime ministership. Yet he leaves a legacy of hawkish policies that will likely remain intact.

As a scholar of Middle Eastern politics, I think that Netanyahu will largely be remembered internationally for three things. These are stymieing the emergence of a Palestinian state, enhancing Israeli military strength and opposing Iranian power in the Middle East.

Distancing Palestinians

Netanyahu, known as “Bibi” to most Israelis, was prime minister from 1996 to 1999. He returned to power a decade later. He began his first term as prime minister in 1996 with two main qualities – extensive U.S. experience and a record as a security hawk.

The first quality meant he understood American politics and interest groups well, an advantage for keeping and enhancing strong U.S. government support for Israel.

The second set him up for success in a country in which the army is a key – and revered – national institution.

Netanyahu pledged to avoid compromising with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza areas under Israeli military control since 1967, and he allowed rapid expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He rarely wavered from these two policies.

His party was voted out in 1999 but returned to power amid the Palestinian uprisings that began in 2000. After nearly a decade in and out of Likud government cabinets, he became prime minister again in 2009.

Among his most tangible legacies is the physical barrier now separating West Bank Palestinians from Israelis, which gives Israeli authorities great control over how West Bank Palestinians enter Israel.

The barrier has kept Israeli Jews from much contact with Palestinians other than during military service.

This physical separation and a strong Israeli military presence have decreased Palestinian attacks within Israel and increased misery in Palestinian-controlled areas.

His approach limited pressure on Jewish Israelis to make a final deal that would trade occupied land for broader peace. It also deprived Palestinians of basic liberties and opportunities, particularly in Gaza.

Reinforcing security

Long-term massive U.S. foreign aid and military assistance and Netanyahu’s support have ensured that Israel’s army is far more powerful and well-equipped than the armed forces of any other nearby country.

Netanyahu used this formidable military to strike hard when he deems necessary in Gaza, the area between Israel and Egypt that Israel unilaterally returned to Palestinian control in 2004. Hamas, a Palestinian group that advocates military action against Israel, is in charge of Gaza.

Reflecting the sentiments of a growing number of right-wing Jewish Israelis, Netanyahu has had a generally consistent response to ongoing concerns about Hamas, and Palestinians more generally. Israel, he argued, awaits Palestinian concessions that Israel is a Jewish state, with Jerusalem as its capital, and with no right for Palestinians to return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel.

Many Palestinians find these conditions unfair in general, particularly as a precondition to negotiations.

Coupled with his government’s vast expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, many veteran observers doubt that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff remains possible. At the same time, major violence in May 2021, which embroiled Palestinians and Israelis in Gaza, Israel proper and the West Bank, has served as a reminder that the conflict still matters.

Netanyahu also sought relentlessly to curb Iran’s efforts to enhance its power through funding pro-Tehran militant groups in the Middle East.

Tehran’s leaders are unremittingly hostile towards Israel. Yet Netanyahu has played up this hostility to domestic and international audiences, even urging the U.S. to attack Iran.

The prime minister’s anti-Iranian campaign apparently paid off when the U.S. government withdrew from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran that the Obama administration negotiated. Netanyahu claims that he persuaded President Donald Trump to back out.

Reshaping Israeli alliances

Undermining Palestinian statehood, bolstering the military and countering aggressively the Iranian threat have had three important ramifications.

First, Israeli and American Jews have diverged increasingly on the ethics and importance of Palestinian autonomy.

Second, the prime minister’s long time in office and his willingness to fan flames of bigotry have endeared him to other rulers who embrace authoritarian or divisive tactics, such as Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Trump.

Third, Netanyahu’s political longevity and positions have attracted the cautious recent support of key Arab leaders who seem more concerned about their stability and Iran’s politics than a Palestinian state.

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Thus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have growing levels of cooperation with Israel. This trend expanded under Trump, leading to the 2020 Abraham Accords, which Netanyahu incorrectly thought would further sideline the Palestinian problem.

Netanyahu reshaped Israel and the broader Middle East in profound ways. It’s clear that the country’s military capacity and cooperation with the region’s wealthy Arab states have expanded. But I have seen for several years the darker side of the former prime minister’s emphasis on military solutions in the erosion of global support for Israeli politics and deteriorating conditions for Palestinians.

This is an updated version of an article originally published March 4, 2019.The Conversation

David Mednicoff, Chair, Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Public Policy, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Israel swears in new government, ending Netanyahu’s 12-year rule”

Uncovering anti-Blackness in the Arab world Sun, 13 Jun 2021 04:02:43 +0000 By Amir Al-Azraki | –

Black Arabs are underrepresented and largely invisible in “white” Arab-dominated countries, and excluded from political, academic, artistic and religious institutions. “Black” and “Arab” are not mutually exclusive: some Black people are Arab and some Arab people are Black.

As an Arab intellectual in the West (I’m an Arabic language and literature professor at the University of Waterloo), speaking out on anti-Blackness in the Arab world has placed me in a critical position.

Until recently, anti-Blackness has been a taboo topic within Arab society. In 2004, this began to change when Bahraini cultural critic Nader Kadhim published Representations of the Other: The Image of Black People in the Medieval Arab Imaginary. I am currently translating the book into English to raise awareness in the West about anti-Blackness in the Arab world.

Anti-Blackness in the Arab world exists within a global context. The Black Lives Matter movement spread worldwide after the death of George Floyd, and Black Arabs connected with the movement as an opportunity to shed light on the oppression they face daily.

Roots of Arab racism

Kadhim coined the term al-istifraq, or Africanism, to refer to perceiving, imagining and representing Black Arabs as a subject of study in Arabic writings. His book underlines the core elements that characterize the discourse of representing Black Arabs in Arab culture.

The underpinnings of Africanism in classical and Medieval Arab narratives — including travel literature, books on geography, astronomy, astrology, history, theology, biographies, marine science, philosophy and ancient medicine — pejoratively represent Black people as inferior. Even today, a derogatory depiction is present in many aspects of modern Arab culture.

Kadhim theorizes that the negative image of Black people in Arab cultures emerged from three streams: (1) the controversial anthropological conception that culture — including religion, language, laws and values — defines what it means to be human; (2) the Biblical narrative of Noah’s cursing his son Ham’s descendants — understood to be darker-skinned — with servitude; and (3) the Greek philosopher Ptolemy’s theory of the seven climes, which posits that a person’s geographical location determined their race, as the proximity to the sun “prepared” humans in ways ranging from raw and undercooked to burnt and overcooked.

Vilification of Arabs

In 2014, I presented a paper titled, “Waiting for Obama: The Forgotten Black in Iraq,” at York University’s conference on Home/Land: Transnationalism, Identity and Arab Canadians. I demonstrated how Afro-Iraqis conception of homeland has been destabilized by the racist and discriminatory discourse perpetuated by other Iraqis towards them.

During the question period following my presentation, an established Arab novelist who was in attendance denied that anti-Black racism existed in the Arab world. After the event was over, the novelist asked me: “Why are you vilifying our culture?”

In May, I facilitated a public lecture called “Deconstructing Africanism: The Image of Black People in the Arab Imaginary,” by Kadhim on the topic of his book. One of the main concerns expressed by the Arab audience was that the lecture portrayed Arab culture as racist. After the event, an audience member and acquaintance called me and asked: “Why are you showing our shit?”

I reflected on whether it was my intention to show my own culture’s shit. Not really, although other Arabs might have perceived it as such.

Nader Kadhim’s lecture on Blackness and the roots of anti-Blackness in Arab culture.

Airing dirty laundry

I am originally from Basra, Iraq, where the majority are “white” Arabs like myself. A few years after moving to Canada, I began learning about racism in the West, and experienced a change in my racial identity from a white Arab to a person of colour. This new and personal racial reconfiguration led me to reflect on racism against the Black community in Basra.

Black Iraqis in Basra advocate for political representation and inclusion.

Some Iraqis are not even aware of Black Iraqis who have been living there for centuries. The sense of home and belonging of Afro-Iraqis has been destabilized by the racism disseminated against them.

To respond to this racism, I embarked on exploring the roots of anti-Blackness in my culture, and found that it has been around since before Islam. I started writing, translating and documenting Black Arab heritage, but I keep encountering resistance. Some Arabs refuse to acknowledge racism in their own communities.

There are personal implications of raising awareness of anti-Blackness in the Arab world — I am at risk of being considered a comprador, someone acting on behalf of western institutions. This could lead to me being completely ostracized from diasporic Arab intellectual circles and violently targeted in my home country. I feel the tension between celebrating the richness and beauty of my culture (I established an annual Arab cultural festival) and calling out its shit.

There is a critical thin line between contributing to a movement for racial justice and contributing to the already demonized image of Arabs. Showing our “shit” could fuel this. However, as a Canadian-Iraqi intellectual, I have privilege and thus responsibility to leverage it for racial injustice.The Conversation

Amir Al-Azraki, Assistant Professor, Arabic language and literature, Renison University College, University of Waterloo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Featured photo: Black people constitute a significant percentage of the global Arab population. (Brett Jordan/Unsplash), CC BY-SA

Historic change: Arab political parties are now legitimate partners in Israel’s politics and government Sat, 12 Jun 2021 04:03:51 +0000 By Morad Elsana | –

The next government is not going to be a typical one for the citizens of the state of Israel, and especially for members of the Palestinian Arab minority, who are 20% of Israel’s population. This is the first time the Zionist political parties forming the government are including an Arab party.

It is ironic that the prime minister of this government would be Naftali Bennett. Bennett is the leader of the radical right-wing political party Yamina, whose ideologies and interests contradict the Arab party’s interests, and which has opposed Arab participation in the coalition or government. His national-religious political movement, which represents many Jewish settlers, signed the coalition agreement with Ra’am, the Islamic Arab party.

In the 73-year history of Israel, it was an unwritten rule that any government coalition would be formed only by the Jewish Zionist parties. There was only one exception, when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the support of an Arab party in the wake of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s. The agreement, however, did not formalize that party’s entry into the ruling coalition.

The chain of events Rabin triggered was considered an unforgivable sin by the Israeli right, which depicted Rabin as a traitor – as they do now with Bennett – and which ultimately led to Rabin’s assassination.

Changing Israeli politics

What drove the first Arab party into a ruling coalition now was not the desire for a peace agreement. It was the poor state of Israeli politics after four election rounds in two years without a clear winner, combined with the strong desire of the opposition, called the “Change Bloc,” to oust longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arabs did not forget Netanyahu’s hostile remarks during the previous elections. That’s when he urged the settlers to cast their votes against the Arabs who “are voting in droves.”

After failing in the latest election to both discourage the Arab vote and ensure a majority of his own, it was Netanyahu who first understood the potential need to cooperate with the Arab parties. After all other efforts to form a ruling coalition failed, he tried to lure Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas to his side even before Bennett did, but to no avail.

For his part, Abbas proposed to change the way Arab parties deal with the Jewish parties and politics in Israel.

“I say here clearly and frankly: When the very establishment of this government is based on our support … we will be able to influence it and accomplish great things for our Arab society,” Abbas said.

For decades, Palestinian Arab political parties would not join Israeli governments that continued to support the occupation of their Palestinian brothers, oppressed them and denied their basic rights. And they were kept out of leadership coalitions by the Jewish parties’ fear of cooperating with them.

Abbas’ call for pragmatism means that he will support political coalitions committed to meeting the immediate and urgent demands of the Arab minority in Israel. Chief among those demands is addressing the issues of violence, house demolitions, planning in new Arab villages and towns, education and equality.

Significant promises made

Abbas’ approach was rejected by the rest of the Palestinian political parties, and thus split up the Joint List, which was a political alliance of four of the Arab political parties in Israel: Balad, Hadash, Ta’al and Ra’am, that they had formed for the previous elections.

The February 2021 election results meant Ra’am entered Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, with four members. Those four can prove decisive in this politically fractured situation.

For now, it appears that Abbas achieved what he wanted. Despite the serious disagreement among the Arabs over his approach, he is convinced that his party’s governing responsibilities will change the face of Israeli politics in all matters related to the Arab minority and will show positive results for the rights and status of Arab citizens in Israel.

“We have reached a critical mass of agreements in various fields that serves the interest of Arab society and that provide solutions for the burning issues in Arab society – planning, the housing crisis, and of course, fighting violence and organized crime,” Abbas said.

To help the Arab sector, among the promises he got from his new partners in the incoming government are the adoption of a five-year economic development plan for the Arab community with a budget of 30 billion shekels, or $US9.3 billion, as well as plans to combat crime and violence in the Arab community, to improve infrastructure, to advance Arab local authorities, and to reconsider the Kaminitz Law, which has led to increased demolitions of, and evictions from, Palestinian property.

The agreement also includes recognition of several Bedouin villages in the Negev, the southern district of Israel where a majority of the country’s Bedouins live.

Historic achievement

Many in the Arab community, and especially among the Bedouins, see Abbas emerging from this election as a victorious leader. He has recorded for himself and the Islamic movement several historical achievements on many important levels.

On the material level, he has secured programs, budgets and decisions that support needs of the Arab minority.

But the most important achievement is the fundamental change signaled by the acceptance of Arab parties into Israeli politics and the recognition of Arab political parties as legitimate partners in the politics and power-sharing in Israel.

This is a paramount goal the Arab parties have failed to achieve since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. After two years with four elections, it’s not certain that this government will last either, but, regardless of what happens, this is a historic change.

[The Conversation’s most important politics headlines, in our Politics Weekly newsletter.]The Conversation

Morad Elsana, Adjunct Professorial Lecturer Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies (CRGC)., American University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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France 24 English: “Arab Israeli party joins coalition aiming to oust Netanyahu”

Why Iranians won’t vote: new survey reveals massive political disenchantment Fri, 11 Jun 2021 04:02:41 +0000 By Pooyan Tamimi Arab and Ammar Maleki | –

The Islamic Republic of Iran has never organised free and fair elections since its establishment in 1979. By definition, the combination of modern totalitarianism and Iran’s Islamic theocracy, with a supreme leader, cannot allow for more than a voting spectacle, rather than elections in the normal sense of the word.

Yet, a majority of Iranians have used the platform of an election to make their presence felt. They did this in 1997 with the rise of the so-called Reformists, in the disputed 2009 elections that were followed by mass protests, and in 2017 when the current president, Hassan Rouhani, was re-elected with a turnout of more than 70%. However, the population’s mode of expression has now shifted. Many Iranians say they will refuse to participate in the upcoming elections, hacking at the regime’s sole remaining pillar of legitimacy.

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Rouhani is standing down after serving two terms and presidential elections are taking place on June 18. The frontrunner is Ebrahim Raisi, an ultra-conservative and head of the judiciary who is responsible for ordering the execution of several thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Iran’s Guardian Council, a body of 12 members appointed by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the head of the judiciary, Raisi himself, must approve the candidates. Among those rejected were former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN), conducted an online survey between May 27 and June 3 on the upcoming vote. The results show that the Islamic Republic is facing its lowest turnout ever, with only 25% of respondents saying they would vote.

Graph showing who Iranian votes plan to vote for, with abstention at 7.47%.
Nearly three quarters of Iranians surveyed said they would not vote.
GAMAAN, Author provided

Polling in authoritarian countries

Our estimated turnout is lower than the official numbers published by the state-run Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA), which predicts a turnout lower than 40%. The discrepancies are likely to be caused by the differences between traditional telephone and on-site sampling on the one hand, and the less charted territories of online sampling, on the other.

From research in other authoritarian countries such as Russia and China, we know that respondents are much less willing to answer truthfully when they are reached using conventional, offline, survey methods. Inflated polling numbers can then be used to validate potentially fraudulent results to give autocrats an air of respectability.

That’s why GAMAAN conducts surveys using an anonymous digital platform, which makes people feel safe enough to share their true opinions about politically sensitive matters.

Iran’s internet penetration rate is comparable with Germany. According to the most recent statistics, there are 77 million mobile internet subscribers and roughly 74% of Iranians over 18 use at least one social media platform. So it’s possible to reach a substantial percentage of Iranians online and ask about their views.

We have conducted several such surveys on religion, capital punishment, and media popularity, gaining insights into Iranian internet users’ behaviour that help target an appropriate range of digital channels spread across the country.

After cleaning the data for our most recent survey, we were left with a sample of 68,000 Iranians living in Iran. The sample was weighted and balanced to the target population of literate Iranians aged above 19, using five demographic variables, voting behaviour in the 2017 presidential elections, and new survey data on political preferences.

Crucial for the weighting is the participation of pro-regime respondents, whose absence would skew the results. In this survey, we attracted 9,000 respondents who voted for the conservative candidate, Raisi, in the 2017 elections.

The meaning of not voting

What can explain the turnout drop, from over 70% in 2017 to an expectation of less than 30% today? The vast majority of our respondents, 71%, said the main reason they were abstaining was because of “the unfree and ineffective nature of elections in the Islamic Republic.” Only 7% reported the Guardian Council’s recent “disqualification of my preferred candidate” as their reason.

Graph showing 70% of Iranians say they won't vote because of the unfree nature of the elections.
A lack of free and fair elections is keeping voters away from the polls.
GAMAAN, Author provided

In another survey we conducted in April 2019, 79% of respondents said they would vote no to the Islamic Republic in a free referendum. This was before the bloody crackdowns in November that year which led to the death of an estimated 1,500 people, and before the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps admitted shooting down a Ukrainian passenger airline in 2020.

Our latest results show that the majority’s desire to get rid of the theocratic system hasn’t changed. Around half of the population supports regime change as a precondition for meaningful change, and a quarter supports a softer transition away from the current system. Only 8% explicitly supported the Islamic Republic by identifying as Reformist, and only 13% saw themselves as Principlists, who support the Islamic Revolution and the supreme leader.

Graph showing more than half of Iranians surveyed want regime change as a precondition for change.
A majority of Iranians think change can only come with regime change.
GAMAAN, Author provided

We are not the only group with such findings. A recent state-run survey revealed that Reformists and Principlists together have about 20% of supporters. The respectable World Values Survey conducted an on-site survey in Iran in the summer of 2020 and found that the Principlists’ base was no larger than 16%.

Worried about the expected low turnout, the supreme leader hurried to describe the act of voting as a religious duty. But if Iranians’ political disenchantment has turned into religious disappointment, with millions abandoning or changing their faith, the leader has turned the elections into a test of the nation’s religiosity. It is this entanglement of religion and politics that is at the heart of Iranians’ discontent, and which the regime’s mismanagement and corruption and the economic sanctions have only exacerbated.

Like other authoritarian regimes, the Islamic Republic needs a high enough turnout so that its foreign minister can sell an image of a legitimate government abroad. By boycotting what are nothing but staged elections, ordinary Iranians are refusing to participate in this political theatre. It’s time the international community recognised their will to effect a real change in Iran.The Conversation

Pooyan Tamimi Arab, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Utrecht University and Ammar Maleki, Assistant Professor, Public Law and Governance, Tilburg University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Al Jazeera English: “Can a presidential election reshape Iran? | The Stream”