Sunday, July 30, 2006

free speech, even for hezbollah

I have published a comment on my most recent post entitled "The Neo David and Goliath: 10 Reasons Why Hezbollah is Great," which containes a link to a more detailed explication of these reasons. I do so consistently with my policy of publishing any relevant comments that are neither obscene nor engaging in racial, religious, or similar insults. Obviously, I don't agree with much or any of the comment, but it does suggest the power of Hezbollah's appeal to some people and the difficult challenge faced in confronting it.

Disagreements with the comment should be directed to the commenter, although I would appreciate a link if possible.

Friday, July 28, 2006

israel and hezbollah: round three

One of the bad (or perhaps good) things about going on vacation is that one has to follow world events primarily through CNN, which tends to treat everything as a form of entertainment, and prefers to emphasize the "morality play" aspect of foreign policy rather than in-depth analysis. It was thus rather a shock, on my return, to see Israeli and (to some degree) American newspaper coverage of the same events. CNN left me feeling that the Israelis were both (i) right and (ii) winning. The Israeli press didn't change my mind about the former, but left me rather less sure on the second count.

Two principal criticisms are being made of the Israeli strategy, one moral and the other military or political in nature. The moral criticism, which primarily originates outside of Israel, relates to the use of air power and the consequently large number of civilian casualties and damage to Lebanese infrastructure. The criticism is likely to become more intense after today's attack on the town of Qada, which resulted in a record number of civilian casualities including many children. But Israel has been under a deliberate and intense assault on its civilians for more than two weeks now, using weapons intentionally located in populated areas; it is doubtful that many other countries would have responded differently.

The military criticism relates to the slowness of the Israeli response and its reliance (arguably overreliance) on air power rather than a ground invasion. This criticism, which comes mostly from within Israel, accelerated sharply following the battle at Bint Jabeil last week, which saw an elite unit take high casualties in a battle relatively close to the Israeli border. One Israeli commentator wondered if today's soldiers, whose prior experience is mostly in Gaza and on the West Bank, were physically and psychologically prepared for a war against a professionaly armed and trained enemy. Others have grown even more gloomy, predicting dire consequences if Hezbollah is not thoroughly defeated and others (Iran, Syria, the Palestinians) decide to follow its example.

As someone who has been following the Middle East for forty years, I find these critiques pognant but somewhat exaggerated. It is not unusual for democracies to have difficulty in the early stages of a war against a determined, militaristic enemy, particularly when fighting on the enemy's territory in a war that caught the country largely by surprise. Far worse things happened to Israel in the early stages of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and we now know that the defenses against Iraqi missiles in 1990--hightly touted at the time--were by and large ineffecutal in nature. The Israeli strategy reflects less weakness than conflicting policy goals, wanting to deter Hezbollah without being lured into a broader war: arguably a mistake, but an understandable one in the circumstances, and not necessarily a sign of long-term vulnerability.

Moreover the balance of fighting is heavily in Israel's advantage, a fact obscured by CNN-style reporting which gives the impression of equal damage on both sides. At the cost of a few dozen casualties, the Israelis have destroyed a substantial portion of Lebanon and effectively expelled the better part of the offending Lebanese population. The longer-range Iranian missiles, which are the only ones capable of causing serious damage (as well as the only ones that could possibly reach Israel from Iran itself), have proved wildly inaccurate and easily targeted by the Israeli Air Force once they are fired. Does anyone seriously believe that a neighboring country--Egypt, Jordan, Syria--would look at the Lebanese experience and say, "why don't we try that, too?"

Much will be made of the political side of the equation, viz., that Hezbollah, even in defeat, will emerge politically strengthened and provide the impetus for even more anti-Israeli, anti-American activity throughout the region. It is probably true that the organization, and its Iranian sponsors, will gain some prestige at the expense of traditional Arab regimes and (ironically enough) the Al Qaeda, Sunni radicals, who have killed far more people but without the high profile of the Hezbollah missiles. But their success is likely to frighten the Sunni Arabs at least as much as Israel or the U.S.: the lack of support among Arab states has been palpable.

Much depends on what happens next. Should a cease-fire be accompanied by anything less than a full-scale disarmament by Hezbollah--or at very least the surrender of the organization's missile arsenal--it is likely to be highly unstable and may not even take effect. In this respect the proposal for an entirely French peacekeeping force, which sounds more like a recolonization than a long-term peace plan, is not especially encouraging. But Israel and the U.S. still hold most of the cards in the negotations, and the plan is by no means finalized yet.

In the longer term, I suspect that the Iranian stragegy--trying to sow chaos and distract attention from the country's nuclear program--will have precisely the opposite effect. No one seriously doubts anymore that Iran both has a nuclear program and that it will either make use of its most advanced technology or share it with people who will. Moreover the Iranian deterrent has been seriously compromised, directly by the neutralizing of at least a portion of the Hezbollah missile force, and indirectly by the rather unimpressive technical peformance displayed by its longer-range weapons. The West thus faces an enemy that is revealed to be both extremely dangerous in the long-run and highly vulnerable in the short run, together with the near certainty that peace cannot be achieved without first dealing with the Iranian threat. People in such sitatuations don't usually wait.

prague spring, prague summer, budapest for a day

Well, back from Europe a few days early owing to family issues, gives me a chance to pick up sooner than anticipated. At least we got to see Prague . . . or the part that wasn't covered by wall-to-wall tourists, anyway. Having visited Europe mostly in the off-season--and in countries where I know at least some of the language--it's easy to forget what the midsummer rush in the larger tourist centers is like. After a point we stopped bothering even with the perfunctory dobry den and just asked for the large beers which is apparently what most people come for, anyway. Budapest, where we wound up spending all of one day, has a wholly unpronounceable language in any event, so that one's competitive disadvantage is correspondingly reduced; on the other hand any city where bathhouses are a central tourist attraction can't be all bad.

For a Jew, a visit to Eastern Europe is depressing but also eye-opening, as so much of contemporary Jewish culture is essentially East European in origin. This is true of superficial items like food, but also of national culture and attitudes. I always thought, for example, that the Zionist narrative--we were weak, they abused us, now we are strong and people will begin to realize how special we are--was unique to the Jews. But everyone in Eastern Europe has more or less the same story; even the bad guys--the Germans and Russians--are pretty much the same in most countries. This is especially true in Hungary, which was after all the birthplace of Theodore Herzl, and has made rather a specialty of (mostly losing) wars against Turks, Russians, and anyone else who happened to come along. (The Hungarians also deported a rather large number of Jews during the war, although only after the German occupation, which arguably makes them no worse than the Italians and better than the Vichy French.) Maybe the long line of Israelis at the Budapest airport, and in the old Jewish quarter of Prague, had someting to do with this.

My personal highlight was the Museum of Communism in Prague, which my wife picked out of a long guidebook and was one of the few places where one actually heard Czech being spoken in the central city. In addition to historical displays and clever reworkings of Soviet-era propaganda posters--our favorite was a Russian babushka doll refitted with sharp teeth and vicious eyes--the museum showed a movie retelling the sad history from the 1948 coup to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Like a bad dream, the whole thing played out before you: the economic privation, the Prague Spring, the 1968 invasion, Charter 77, the police setting upon peaceful demonstrators right up until the end, events that seemed ages ago now but which we of a certain age can remember as if they were yesterday. When the film ended, the audience (mostly Czech) filed out without saying a word. I looked up and noticed that I was crying. It was the only time in the city that we didn't feel at all like tourists.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

milan to mumbai takes a breather

Your correspondent leaves tomorrow for ten days in Prague and Budapest, on a trip (for once) with only personal implications. En route he will celebrate his 50th birthday, not necessarily an occasion for festivities, but certainly preferible to the alternatives. Here's hoping Mumbai can avoid further rain (and terrorism), Milan can avoid further scandals, and all of you have a happy and healty summer until my return.

israel and hezbollah: round two

The war between Israel and Hezbollah heads into its second week with no clear end in sight, although there are signs that the international community is beginning to lose patience. As predicted here earlier, the European countries have proposed a multinational force to patrol the Israel-Lebanon border, with the Italian Foreign Minister suggesting that this might be a model for a similar arrangement in the Gaza Strip. Israel has predictably opposed this suggestion, preferring the Lebanese Army to take over the security arrangements and (one suspects) stalling for time to permit its destruction of Hezbollah's arsenal to proceed apace. The Israelis position is however not without flexiblity, and one suspects that--given the paucity of the available alternatives--some form of international force may eventually be on its way.

The war, and the international response to it, provided the occasion for one of President Bush's famous "accidental" remarks, when he was overheard telling British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Hezbollah should "stop doing this shit and it's over." Although less than poetic, Bush's gaffe accurately stated the American position: there is no moral equivalence between Israel and Hezbollah and the defeat of the latter, rather than some kind of enforced compromise, should be the primary goal of American policy. It is perhaps the strongest pro-Israel position ever taken by an American president, markedly different from that taken by the Reagan and other Republican administrations in similar circumstances.

Given Bush's strong support for Israel, it is hard to fathom the widespread dislike/distrust for the President in the Jewish community. This is sometimes explained on the basis of Bush's conservatism on domestic issues, which is alleged to contradict Jewish "values" of liberalism, social action, etc. But Nixon and Reagan were about as conservative and had more support, if not always votes, in the Jewish community. I suspect the real reason has to do with Bush's strident Christianity, which has always made Jews uncomfortable although it is hard to see exactly what threat it poses at this point. (How abortion and gay rights became Jewish causes is equally hard to fathom, but that's another matter.) As Democrats become more and more identified with isolationism--witness the rude treatment of Joe Lieberman--and Bush with support of an embattled Israel, it will be interesting to see if this arrangement maintains itself in the future.

Monday, July 17, 2006

revenues climb despite tax cuts

The New York Times reported last week that tax revenues were proving surprisingly high, resulting in a deficit about $100 billion smaller than anticipated a few months ago. The biggest surprises were in corporate tax receipts and individual taxes on stock market profits and executive bonuses, which were substantially higher than predicted. No equivalent changes were recorded in other tax payments.

Higher tax receipts--especially from high-income people--are among the many things in life that can be interpreted in different ways. On the one hand increased revenues seem to support conservatives who argue that tax cuts will spur more economic activity and thereby pay for themselves. On the other hand the rich may be paying more taxes simply because they are getting richer. In tax policy parlance, one is faced with an efficiency gain at the cost of a potential loss in equity, or (perhaps) a short-term gain tax gain at the cost of a broader, more long-lasting social problem.

The current tax debate calls to mind Louis Eisenstein's book, "The Ideologies of Taxation," based upon a series of lectures the author gave in the early 1960s. According to Eisenstein, tax policy was characterized by a series of formulaic arguments on behalf of higher taxes (which were said to enhance equity) or lower taxes (which were said to improve economic incentives) that changed remarkably little over time. The beauty of these arguments, he suggested, was that they could be adopted to any circumstances: even a 1 percent tax could be said to inhibit some economic activity, while even a 70 percent tax allowed some inequality to remain in place. Eisenstein also famously suggested that people who had an economic interest in their ideology, whether as taxpayers or their representatives, might still believe in that ideology no less and perhaps more than those who believed themselves driven by purer motives. Plus ca change . .

Friday, July 14, 2006

israel and hezbollah: toward all-out war?

With the escalation of the crisis on Israel's northern border the Middle East continues to move closer to all-out war, albeit in incremental passes. At this hour, the most recent news is the destruction of the Nasrallah/Hezbollah headquarters in Beirut together with more rocket attacks, causing lesser but hardly insignificant casualties, in northern Israeli cities and towns. While the exact sequence of events is disputed--Israeli television has suggested that Hezbollah units may have fired in error on the city of Haifa, provoking the more massive Israeli attack on Beirut and its suburbs--the situation is clearly as dangerous as any in years.

I expressed skepticism about the Olmert Government's management of the Gaza crisis in a post last week, and see no reason to retract that criticism now. However there is no doubt that Hezbollah's actions--especially the attacks on Haifa, a large city and Israel's industrial and refining center--have changed the situation irreversibly. It is almost impossible to imagine Israel accepting a return to the status quo ante, and it will likely demand the withdrawal of Hezbollah forces and an end to the rocket threat, along with the return of all Israeli prisoners, as the conditions for a cease-fire.

Three factors have distinguished this from previous Middle East showdowns, none of them particularly favorable for the Hezbollah side. The first is the Bush Administration's pointed refusal to pressure Israel to abandon its operation, although it has made some noises about not destroying the internal political settlement in Lebanon itself. Without American pressure, European complaints about the "disproportional" nature of the Israeli reaction are likely to fall on deaf ears.

The second is the mixed feelings that many Arabs have about Hezbollah and its part in the effort to impose a Shia/Iranian stamp on the region under cover of the anti-Israel struggle. Arab Governments have been notably lukewarm in their criticism of the Israeli offensive; some private correspondents have reportedly cheered them on.

The third difference--less sanguine for the Israelis--is the shift in the balance of forces caused by the presence of the kassem and (now) katyusha rockets and the Iranian Government's apparently unlimited ability to supply the latter items. This is not necessarily a good thing for Iran either, since it will likely bring closer an Israeli and/or American attack on their country, which Iran's rather obvious contempt for international organizations has been making more and more probable, anyway. But for the first time in recent memory, substantial portions of Israel are vulnerable to direct, instant attack, and the notion of a one-sided, imposed solution to the Palestinian problem seems increasingly unconvincing.

One bit of comic relief has been Sheikh Nasrallah's apparently genuine outrage that the Israelis have responded forcefully and spurned his offer of a prisoner exchange. It seems that groups like Hezbollah have been at this business so long that they genuinely see nothing wrong with killing a few people, taking a few hostages, and expecting to resolve the whole thing with a handshake agreement. Italian television reported this morning that Nasrallah "may have miscalculated" in gauging the Israeli response. We'll find out just how much.

Monday, July 10, 2006

italy wins the world cup

Azzurri campioni del mondo, Italy is the world champion, as by now soccer fans and just about everyone else knows. For those who have watched the team through years of frustration--defined in Italian circles as anything less than the championship--it was a sweet moment indeed. Beating Germany and France in successive contests made it all the sweeter.

Coming in an otherwise uninspiring game, the Italian victory was due primarily to two factors. The first was Gialuigi Buffon, who solidified his hold as best goalkeeper in the world by letting exactly zero non-penalty goals in during the entire World Cup. Had Buffon been even a very good, as opposed to incredible, goaltender the Italians would never have made it past the semi-finals.

The second was the depth of the Italian squad, which allowed it to substitute with no seeming effect on the team's quality. France was clearly not the same team without Zidane, Henry, etc.; Italy arguably became better.

The latter brings up the question of Zidane and the head-butt of Marco Materazzi which led to Zidane's expulsion and at least temporary disgrace as he completedhis distinguished career. There are various theories as to what exactly Materazzi said (in French? Italian? Arabic?) to set Zidane off, but perhaps also a less mysterious explanation. Zidane has played his heart out for a decade representing a country whose leaders have announced, essentially, that he and his group are not wanted and not appreciated. The teammates he most liked and respected were already out of the game, and his career had 10 minutes left. Could it be that the frustrations of a decade simply blew over in that one moment, in a game he already felt that he was powerless to decide one way or another? We may never know.

Whatever the outcome of the World Cup, one had to be pleased for the Germans, who seem to have finally gotten it right in balancing patriotism with open-mindedness and a sense of fun. In particular it was satisfying to see the black, red, and gold flag, once ridiculed as the symbol of a weak and reduced Germany, treated as an object of pride. Whether Germany has changed its essence or merely its presentation--whether there is even such a thing as a national essence--is a question for historians to decide. Given the alternatives, it was a happy moment indeed.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

men, women, and the logic of victimhood

The media, or at least the New York Times, have lately been full of articles proclaiming the downfall of the male gender and the superior performance of women in various fields of endeavor. Just today the Times published an article by Tamar Lewin, "At Colleges, Women are Leaving Men in the Dust," suggesting that women had overtaken men in both numerical presence and academic performance at American universities. David Brooks, a neoconservative columnist, adopted a somewhat more skeptical approach, but generally agreeing that men were in trouble and placing a portion (although not all) the blame on well-intentioned but outdated feminist policies. A dissenting voice was aired by Judith Warner, a visiting columnist, who suggested that the difference in male and female performances was mostly limited to minority groups, and that the entire issue was being inflated in importance so as to obscure more important race and class issues. Similar arguments have popped up in other, less rarefied publications.

As the father of two boys, aged 11 and 15, I have always been skeptical about the role of gender in determining academic and social perfomance. My children both have a Y chromosome, but are otherwise as different as could possibly be, and they each share several characteristics with female relatives (including but not limited to their mother) that are as or more important than their gender identities. To the extent that any biological factor is determinative, I would tend to favor birth order rather than sex, although that too is highly circumstantial in nature.

That said, perceptions are important, and there is surely a perception of crisis among men and boys in our society, notwithstanding their dominance of most social and political institutions. Half or more of the boys I know have been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit disorder) or a more serious ailment. Many take one or more medications to control real or imagined psycological disorders. In my own teaching, I find the female students typically more focused and universally more mature, although the grades tend to come out more or less even. Our faculty, while historically practicing a rather thinly veiled form of affirmative action for women, has begun to see them catch up with or overtake men in scholarly performance; without question they are more assertive on institutional issues.

Is the crisis real or imagined, and what if anything should be done about it? Gender is plainly too complicated to be summed up in a few sentences. But a few basic principles may be in order.

First, it seems clear that affirmative action for men, as increasingly practiced by American universities, is not the answer. As in other cases, preferences tend to perpetuate rather than confront the real issues, and are unfair to younger women who have done little or nothing to create the problem. A new victimhood is the last thing the country needs.

While generic preferences are unjustified, it does seem fair to take boys' special needs and interests into account, just as one would do for other groups. In preparation for tenth grade social studies, my son was recently assigned to read a book about the history of sugar, which will be waiting for him when he returns from camp in August. I don't know what the most common interests among 10th grade boys are, but I'm pretty sure that sugar isn't among them, and it's hard to believe he is going to approach this subject with a great deal of enthusiasm. Assigning work that is engaging to both genders, and organizing classes in a way that takes male strengths and interests into account, is probably not too much to ask.

Finally, I think that society needs to have a more honest conversation about gender and the strengths (and weaknesses) that both sexes bring to the collective table. You don't have to be Harvey Mansfield ("Manliness") to see that traditional male virtues--strength, initiative, a willingness to take risks and live with the consequences--are in short supply in many sectors of our society, beginning but not ending with the educational establishment. The issue here is not so much men against women as the conversion from a risk-taking, frontier society to a more settled, urban way of life, a conversion in which not feminism but technology and suburbanization are the primary culprits. In the struggle between Texas and Switzerland, most educational institutions lean toward the latter, and need to do a better job of encouraging the creativity and independence that are our country's greatest virtue. Women, as well as men, who share these characteristics should be encouraged.

One interesting sidelight to the gender issue is the question of birth rates. While American men may lag others in macho imagery, they are doing a relatively good job at the principal (and biologically the only) male role: making women pregnant and thereby reproducing the species. For all the talk of wimpy, put upon men, the U.S. birth rate remains higher than than in virtually any industrial country; when added to immigration we are expanding more rapidly than some Third World Countries. Could it be that all the talk of female dominance is simply a clever male ruse to increase their fertility? Stranger things have happened.

indian stock market falls on privatization rumors

The Bombay Stock Exchange (Sensex) index fell 250 points Friday on rumors related to the slowdown in disinvestment (privatization) policy, as reported here yesterday. The rumors apparently included suggestions, denied by the Government, that the Prime Minister and/or Finance Minister might resign over the issue. Separately, a U.S. trade official accused India, China, and Brazil of "hiding" behind poorer nations in order to retain unjustified protectionist policies. The official added that trade issues will be high on the agenda when the G-8 industrial nations meet in St. Petersburg later this summer. Perhaps if the G-8 included China and India, whose economies are each several times larger than that of their Russian hosts, they could address the issue more directly.

Friday, July 07, 2006

italy and france meet for world cup

For anyone who has been on Mars, the Italian soccer team defeated Germany, 2-0, on Tuesday and will play France, which beat Portugal, in the final in Berlin on Sunday. The azzurri broke a scoreless tie by scoring two goals in the last three minutes of the second overtime period of a previously scoreless game, an event statistically equivalent to, well, scoring two goals in the last three minutes of the second overtime period in a previously scoreless game. That lightning literally stuck the East Coast during the first overtime period, interrupting TV broadcasts at the low point for Italian hopes, added to the feeling of divine intervention in a sacred cause.

It is hard to capture the satisfaction that Italians feel from defeating Germany, on the latter's home territory, in such a dramatic fashion. Germany is the dominant country in Europe and tends to regard Italy as somewhere between Florida and Mexico, with the difference that the United States didn't carry out a bloody occupation of Florida in the early 1940s (we'll leave Mexico out of the equation for this purpose). To beat Germany in Dortmund, in the heart of the industrial Ruhr, in the closing minutes is something like a Cuban baseball team beating the Americans in Yankee Stadium on the basis of a ten run ninth inning, in a game that was previously a no-hitter for the Yankee pitching staff. (The Dodgers actually did this to the Yankees in 1947, although I think the game was in Brooklyn.) To be fair, the Germans took it in good spirits, although most of them will probably root for France in the final.

The World Cup has inevitably resulted in a lot of clever putdowns of international soccer, especially since the American team was eliminated two weeks ago. The principal complaints appear to be (i) that soccer is boring because there aren't enough goals, and (ii) that it is potentially interesting but ruined by silly rules. I consider these arguments in turn.

The first argument is made primarily out of ignorance. To say that a sport is boring because there aren't many goals is like saying that sex is boring because the participants only achieve one (or two, or three) climaxes. The key is how you get there: and here, in its beauty and unpredictability, a good soccer game has no parallels. Go to a bar or restaurant and watch observe the people watching a soccer game. You will never, see a serious fan leave their seat during the action, because at any moment there might occur an event--a goal, a penalty, a beautiful save--on which the entire contest turns. Soccer players are also the world's best conditioned athletes, running the length of two football fields with no time outs and virtually no substitutions in a 90 (or longer) minutes game. By contrast baseball and football players are inactive about 80 percent of the time.

The rules argument is somewhat more persuasive. Traditions are important, and quirks like the continuous action (no time outs) and limited substitutions rules are arguably vital to preserving the integrity of the game. But certain rules could be changed without damaging the essence of the sport. In particular, the bizarre system of yellow cards (warnings) and red cards (a game suspension with no replacements) leaves too much discretion for referees and makes games turn too easily on dubious calls. It is time to experiment which some kind of intermediate sanction, perhaps involving a temporary man advantage on the hockey model, as an alternative to these two extremes. The use of penalty kicks to resolve ties, after 30 minutes of overtime, is likewise somewhat arbitrary, although hockey has actually copied this system.

My obvious partisanship prevents me from making a reasoned prediction for Sunday's game. I have a great respect for the French team, which represents the very best of that country's flair and style and thoroughly reputes the opponents of immigration (see my previous posts). But Saint Paul never wrote to the Parisians, and the World Cup doesn't belong there, either.

Italian cabinet approves deficit reduction measure

The Italian Cabinet has approved a deficit reduction measure emphasizing spending cuts rather than tax increases, designed to stablize the economy and bring the deficit below 3 percent of GNP as required by international agreements. The Government is further committed to reducing the "tax wedge," i.e., the cumulative effect of taxes and contributions on hiring decisions, although it was somewhat vague as to how this would be achieved. A taxi strike, in response to the Government's efforts to liberalize transportation and other sectors, was provisionally settled early this week.

vatican agrees to release selected archives

The Vatican announced last week that it would release additional archives from the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, who held office from 1922 to 1939. According to the Associated Press, the material to be released may, or may not, include information regarding an encyclical, "Humani Generis Unitatas," which condemned racism and antisemitism but which Pius XI died before issuing. The Vatican has continued to resist releasing many important documents from the pontificate of his successor, Pius XII, notably those relating to the Pope's efforts (or lack thereof) on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust era. Continuing efforts to canonize Pius XII--whether on his own or as part of a deal to make both him and his more liberal successor, John XXIII, saints--suggest that the latter documents will not be released any time soon.

india slows down on privatization

The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has postponed further decisions on the sale of state-run companies following a political crisis in Tamil Nadu. The DMK, which is currently the governing party in that province, threaten to quit the national coalition government if a decision to sell a 10 percent interest in a mining and power firm was carried out. The decision demonstrates the uncertain status of privatization efforts in India, at least in the short term, as well as the considerable vulnerability of the ruling coalition.

Monday, July 03, 2006

israel and the gaza strip: goals and means

It is hard to have any sympathy for Hamas, and like almost everyone else I am praying that the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit--kidnapped while two of his comrades, Hanan Barak and Pavel Slutzker, were killed in a terrorist attack last week--makes it home safely. Nonetheless it is hard to avoid the impression that this crisis has been badly mismanaged, with long-term implicatons for the surival of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Government. Almost every rule of crisis planning seems to me to have been violated at one point or another. To wit:

1. Always be clear what your goals are. It is surely a humanitarian sentiment to want to see Shalit returned to his family, but recovering a prisoner in wartime can never be a purely humanitarian operation. Moreover Israel plainly has goals--reestablishing deterrence, preventing Kassam rocket fire, restoring some semblance of peace or at least an armed truce--that go beyond recovering one person. Presenting the operation as humanitarian in nature seems to me naive or misguided, and has opened Israel to criticisms of larger humanitarian crises which will inevitably be brought about by the conflict.

2. Think carefully about the consequences of your actions. Israel has stated so many times that it will not bargain for the release of Shalit that even a minimal concession will now appear like a terrorist victory. The arrest of Hamas cabinet ministers has similarly taken on its own peculiar momentum, since pursuant to an advisory opinion they are being charged with criminal offenses (presumably serious ones) rather than held as bargaining chips against Shalit's release. Can they now be released, even if Shalit is, or will there be arguments to hold them anyway?

3. Gradual escalations don't work with fanatics. The early US bombing strategy in Vietnam, code named Rolling Thunder, was a steady escalation designed to convince North Vietnam of the futility of resistance. We all know what happened there. A quietly conveyed message, that Hamas leaders will begin disappearing at some point if Shalit is not returned, might have accomplished more than all of the widely publicized but largely symbolic troop movements (although in fairness, such a message may already have been sent).

It pains me to say so, but I wonder if some sort of international occupation of Gaza, if not all of the Palestinian territories, is not going to come about sooner or later. Israel hates the idea because it thinks, perhaps correctly, that an international force will protect the Palestinians without doing anything to stop terrorist attacks. But that depends on the type of force and its overall composition. In any event the current situation--an endless round of symbolic violence with no real progress toward an agreement, and a gradual escalation to more powerful weapons on both sides--does not seem viable in the long run. Sherlock Holmes used to say that, if all the possible solutions to a problem are improbable, the least improbable one is most often true. Could this be the case in Gaza?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Italy: deficit package introduced; constitutional referendum fails

The Italian Government has proposed a package of deficit-reduction matters that does not include any change in tax rates, for now. Instead the deficit will be reduced (or so the Government says) by a package of spending reductions and anti-tax evasion measures, including such familiar items to Americans as limitations on cash transactions, tougher restrictions on business use of cars, and taxation of stock options based on the difference between the market and option price. There will also be stronger tax penalties; tougher restrictions on tax shelters (paradisi fiscali); and stricter procedures for the distributions of partite iva, the valued added tax identification numbers that also serve the purpose of distinguishing business from nonbusiness taxpayers. In a rather clever bit of marketing, the Government is simultaneously proposing liberalization of various hidebound regulations, such as a rule prohibiting sale of aspirin in supermarkets and a rule (this is not a joke) limiting the number of bakeries in particular municipalities. One such proposal, a suggestion to open taxi licenses to new competition, has already led to taxi strikes at major airports and other important locations. The Italian tax system has traditionally had difficulty policing the boundary between business and personal expenditures because of the large number of family-owned businesses in the country, who often keep inexact records. And, perhaps, cheat.

In an unrelated, or at least different, development the country's voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have made major changes in the Italian Constitution, including the granting of more power to regions and an increase in the Prime Minister's powers at the expense of the Cabinet and the legislature. While some of the reforms were sensible, many of the proposals were identified with the ousted Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who has become somewhat toxic even on the Italian right as of late. Threats by the Northern League and its allies to take the issue to the streets fizzled when the referendum failed to carry even in several major northern centers.

How do you say Bob Jones in Hindi?

The Bombay High Court has decided that teaching yoga or meditation are charitable activities for purposes of the income tax. In the case of CIT v. Rajneesh Foundation, the court said that meditation is an important source for mental and spiritual well-being in India and, increasingly, around the world. Promoting such activities thus qualified for an exemption provided that the fees collected were reinvested in the entity's charitable activities. Indian law generally defines charitable to include relief of the poor, education, medical relief, or the advancement of the general public utility. Previous courts have held that the exemption for charitable or religious purposes should be understood within the context of the Sanskrit term "dharma," a word that is often translated as "religion" in English but has a rather broader use.

world cup: the europeans meet . . . the europeans

The World Cup heads into its final week, with what most people thought the two best teams (Argentina and Brazil) both out and four continental powers (Germany-Italy and France-Portugal) left to contest the semi-final round. I'm picking an Italy-Portugal final, which means that you can probably book your ticket for France-Germany, as my choices are entirely emotional and I've been wrong in every previous round. It is noteworthy that Italy has yet to give up a goal (other than one by their own player) in the tournament, and that the Portuguese coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, seems incapable of losing a World Cup match, although he may have an advantage in that he always coaches Portuguese-speaking teams. France and Germany will llikely be favored, anyway.

Much of the commentary has as always focused on referees and coaches' decisions, Argentina's choice to take its playmaker, Juan Riquelme, out and fail to bring young star Lionel Messi in against Germany topping most people's list. (Had Argentina won, these would both have been seen as brilliant.) Italy has been particularly fortunate in that its "one game on, one game off" strategy has nonetheless allowed it to proceed to the semi-finals. Yet it seems to me there is a broader point here, one brought home especially by France's triumphs over Spain and Brazil which are to this point the biggest surprises.

France's advantages derives in large part from the fact that--with the exception of the Brazilians and perhaps the U.S.--it is the only genuinely multi-racial team in the tournament, having black (Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera), white (Frank Ribery) and North African (Zinadine Zidane) stars with widely diversified talents and abilities. The French victories have been particularly sweet, in that both the Spanish coach, Luis Aragones, and some French politicians have suggested the team had too many "foreign" stars for their respective tastes. Such fears do not seem much to have bothered the players on the team, or for that matter the hordes of French fans who waved the tricolor and cheered wildly in the best version of the Marseillaise since Humphrey Bogart stopped in Casablanca. The French may not win the tournament, but they certainly make the anti-immigrant rage in several western countries look a bit silly, not the least because they accomplished their victories on sheer merit with nary the slightest advantage over their opponents.

For Italians, the World Cup has begun to conjure images of 1982, when the azzurri won their last and only postwar championship. Then too, there was a scandal, albeit involving the team's star player (Paolo Rossi) rather than the whole soccer establishment; then too, there had been some uneven play in the early rounds; and the final game was won against . . . Germany, although on neutral Spanish territory rather than Germany itself. Will history repeat itself? Chiedermi il 10 luglio (ask me July 10).