Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Kuntar and Israeli propaganda

The attack by Israel on Lebanon recently has brought up history of a 1979 attack by the PLF, the events,  motives and significance of which are contested, but widely used as a rallying cry for a militant state. There are some important comments to make on this.

The following is a comment I posted on a blog by a very good journalist Richard Silverstein who I slightly disagree with on what to make of the story. The comment is mildly revised. I think Silverstein's suspicions are not unwarranted but require a more careful reading of the facts than his source gives, and much of this in the end can only be speculation. Unfortunately also for Silverstein, he is a target on Twitter and in his own comment section of trolls who do everything to tempt him with neutered political philosophy to threaten to "wrap terrorist in pigskin and feed 2 dogs" (mike28tt ) and remind him that "Palestinians are acting like animals and should be put down as such!" (Steambuilder1). It's largely due to this harassment I followed him in the first place, assuming he was -- in his harassers eyes -- someone defying state hegemony, and thus likely telling necessary truths.
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The most pressing questions are not being answered. Does the government handle hostages situations effectively? How does the government try suspects, and is it an open and fair process? Finally, in what way does the intention to go to war corrupt the understanding and beliefs about threats the society faces? Haaretz writes that "In September 1979, a year and a half after the IDF’s Litani Operation [in south Lebanon], Weizman concluded a discussion on the objectives of the war, defining them as “breaking up the terrorist groups in southern Lebanon and the coastal areas.” (brackets in original) (1)

I think these are more important than who in fact was responsible. That said, I think it would be doing a disservice to the cause of the independence and anti-war movements to create a conspiracy theory. The last thing we should do is discredit ourselves by becoming myopic. I'm unconvinced by the testimony of the psychologist, although I don't think the story being told about Kuntar/Qintar is a neutural one. Part of his motivation is to sell a book, which he plugged in the interview. Should we listen to Bill O'Reilly or Samantha Power with as much reverence? Much of his evidence seems to come down to "He told me and I believe him." But everyone in jail is innocent, and truly believes it. In my opinion, to deny your own crime is a sign of humanity, that your conscience cannot handle accusing itself. A true psychopath would not care to deny it.
In its last large offensive on Gaza, Israel obliterated entire families. Israeli propaganda is well-served to have this crime projected onto a foreigner. If one were to sink as low as the IDF's knee-jerk defenders, one could even argue Kuntar was targeting the daughter as an unfortunate  human shield.

Similar motivated reasoning is almost certainly involved in the standard version of the events, and its mirror image. However, at the time, everything was being suppressed as a matter of principle, not just this case. (1) Referencing the time period "there was a plethora of books, speeches and articles made by those involved in the war, as well as analysts and critics, but “not a single one was based on sensitive, classified information.” According to Norman Finkelstein, Israel's image was hurt severely by these wars. The hoax "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters published was in 1984 "after Israel invaded Lebanon and suffered its first public relations debacle" (Beyond Chutzpah, p90).

Rather than an explicit coverup, it's likely that the 30 year suppression was simply a matter of policy to conceal as much as possible, regardless. In this way, one can still see why the standard version of events could hurt Israel's image and thus hurt any attempt to plan a new war. The standard version goes that Kuntar attacked a family, and after dispatching with a daughter's protector, went on to lustfully attack the defenseless child. Part of this is corroborated by Kuntar's alleged (though suspect) confession upon his arrest.  “Immediately following his capture, when his remand was extended, Kuntar confessed that he had bludgeoned Einat to death with the butt of his rifle. Later, however, when testifying in court, Kuntar denied the charges.” But a forensic account found brain matter from the child was on the butt of the rifle. (2) However, what motivated him to hurt the poor girl was not a premeditated genocidal attack but to separate the father from the daughter to claim the father as a captive, and this is quite routine in warfare. While still denying the murder “According to the terrorist, Danny Haran insisted on holding on to his daughter, and had he not done that, they would have only taken him to Lebanon.” (3) To me there is some truth hidden in this guilty conscience.

While not taking either his own or his captor's testimony at face value, this is the most plausible picture I think that can be painted. It may not be as sexy as uncovering an immense fraud (which takes serious scholarly work) but to assume that the facts will always fall into our lap in a neat package plants a false overconfidence, and distracts from the work needed to be done to change official policy. Again, it's mistaken to fall into the trap of speculating on events and lionizing a young man simply for being upset with society as much as we are. This version I put forth could be wrong. Who knows? What matters is what we can do about it and what we are prepared to do that it doesn't happen again.

 (1) http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.588972?date=1450603804830
 (2 https://web.archive.org/web/20151117112111/http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Palestinian/Pages/The%20Kuntar%20File%20Exposed%20-%20Yediot%20Aharonot%2014-Jul-2008.aspx
 (3) http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3569961,00.html

Friday, December 18, 2015

Governor Rauner: the rent-seeker you can have a beer with

Illinois' new governor, like much of his party, has recently been blaming Democrats for mishandling the state finances. Republican state representatives concur that "it's up to the Governor to bring spending back in line with revenues," that it's "Chicago Democratic leaders who have held up the budget process." Adding a personal flourish to the the message, representative David Leitch condemns "the ineptitude of the entrenched super-majority." Representative Ron Sandack states proudly that the Republican Party will "stand together" in the face of these troublemakers.
The corporate press is not so convinced that the blame lies solely with Democrats (which I guess should tell you something) but cannot bring themselves to squarely face the real underlying problems either. To blame Rauner and his allies would feel unbalanced, maybe bordering on psychotic. Crain's Chicago Business' Rich Miller complained that while "Rauner won't even talk about crafting a state budget until his nonbudget demands are met," on balance his opponents "refuse to see the damage they've done to this economy with their decidedly not pro-business laws" which protect the working people of the state. A profile bythe New York Times hailed as a devastating undressing of the oligarchy included the received wisdom that Illinois is broke due not only to elite negligence, but the will-to-power of teachers and firefighters. "Public employee unions, assured that the state’s Constitution made their retirement benefits untouchable, focused on lobbying for other spending. By last year, the state owed billions more in unpaid bills."

One error in this view is the assumption that the failure of the pension fund, and therefore much of the budget impasse, was a result in any way of worker lobbying. As I've discussed elsewhere, the focus on employee pensions is partially a distraction from the failure of the banks and their allies to make good on promises. The pensions shortfall began immediately after they were privatized by a Republican governor in 1982 with a promise of higher returns. When the privatized pension fund failed to live up to its promised amount, as predicted by Governor Thompson's own commission, the banks got a bailout, but the state government refused to fix the Goldman Sachs-created gap in the pension fund stocks.

A second error is the word "untouchable." The pension funds are anything but. They not only provide a reliable source of money to the market itself, but are a source of fees for the firms that "manage" them. Those firms are connected both to the mayor of Chicago and Rauner himself. In addition to facing the people with outright personal histories with these companies, employees and the people of Illinois are now up against what the conservative Illinois Review has noted are "Chicago's wealthiest families - the Crowns, the Pritzkers, etc." who have taken to lobbying to cut pensions because they "mean business."

The solution that Rahm Emanuel and the Republicans and the corporate media are holding out for is for the people of Illinois to plug this hole with cuts to essential services and wage penalties. 

What's truly unfair about this, besides the cuts themselves, and besides that the entire mess can be laid at their own feet and can possibly be solved with a moderate adjustment to the payment plan, is that the governor himself along with other economic winners use a tax shelter in Montana to avoid plugging the hole with their own money.

In 2014, the Chicago Tribune reported Rauner's "strong interest in open land conservation" that led him to win a spot on the Montana Land Reliance, a trust that his campaign was quick to note produces beer. Another sitting trustee is Hamilton E. “Tony” James, the CEO of Blackstone which "manages" the "untouchable" pensions. Conservation is not the only benefit of being a trustee, according to a publication by Montana State University. The other benefit is that "the donor of a conservation easement in perpetuity may also be eligible for certain tax benefits...The gift of a perpetual conservation easement to a qualified receiver can qualify as a charitable deduction for federal income tax, state income tax, inheritance and estate taxes. Term easements are not tax-deductible. To qualify for tax benefits, an easement must be for “conservation purposes” outlined in the Tax Treatment Extension Act of 1980 (Public Law 96-541)."

The majority of pollution in Illinois comes from the energy and transportation sectors. Despite protests, not only will Illinois coal mining surge to an "estimated 60 million tons being mined next year, up from 50 million this year," but Rauner has teamed up with a man the Illinois government website has labeled an "avid conservationist," Wayne Rosenthal. The Huffington Post's Illinois environmental writer has a different take. Rosenthal's environmentalism in practice includes "being an enthusiastic supporter of fracking" while receiving "at least $20,000 in campaign contributions from corporate interests he would be charged with regulating."

Governor Rauner and his friends are clearly dodging taxes which used to get you in trouble in Chicago. But I suppose we first have to slay the terrible beast of the legal protection of the people in Illinois before we sort out a problem like that.