Monday, March 15, 2010

When Allies Aren't

Everyone who follows international politics even a little now knows about the spat between Israel and the United States. Israel's Interior Minister released a plan for new residential buildings--settlements--in East Jerusalem, a place crucial to the future of a Palestinian state, and its projected capitol. The Israelis had promised to show restraint in launching such projects, without promising to stop settlements altogether, as the Palestinians insist.

The Interior Department announced the plan during Vice-President Biden's visit aimed at trying to re-start the peace process. Biden blew up. Tom Friedman of The New York Times thinks he should have left without a word said. Prime Minister Netanyahu claims he was "blind-sided." Pardon me if I sound disrespectful--I am, by the way--but sure, Bibi. In matters like this if he didn't know it simply demonstrates he doesn't have control of his coalition. Does that come as such a surprise in Israel?

The next step came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently read Bibi the riot act over the phone for 43 minutes the next day--the number seemed to matter to the State Department. One would love to have heard that call. If, as reports suggest, it focussed on Israel's embarrassment of the United States, that seems unsatisfactory. One might argue that Clinton's support of Israel makes her a logical Secretary of State at a time of great tension in the Middle East. One could turn that around, as well, and consider it her Achilles heel.

Embarrassment is not the issue. Neither, as Biden suggested, is a lockstep relationship between us and our cantankerous ally, if one can call the Israelis allies at the moment. Not that such closeness does not indeed make for a stronger negotiating position. It does. One cannot achieve such a relationship, however, with a supposed partner who does not really want to negotiate.

I have no expertise in diplomacy, and it shows in these blog posts. Nonetheless, I always remember one of two moments for which former Secretary of State James Baker, III earned my admiration, despite my opinion of him otherwise. On one occasion some time after Operation Desert Storm he reported back to President George H. W. Bush that the refugee crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan had reached horrific proportions that required action on our part. On the other, he famously announced to a Senate committee hearing that he had lost faith in the seriousness of the Shamir government in Israel, suggesting that he had better things to do than tolerate Israeli orneriness. He had a solution, though; when they got serious, they could call him, reading out his telephone number at the State Department digit by insulting digit. Shamir, unsurprisingly, did not take kindly to this brilliant piece of diplomatic grandstanding, but eventually took Baker's point, as he had no choice but to do--as Baker's stunt dramatically reminded him.

Tom Friedman thinks Joe Biden tried too hard to maintain civility, showing up pointedly late at a state dinner in his honor, but still appearing, at the moment Friedman thinks Biden belonged on Air Force Two. While I admire Biden's gesture of combined pique and personal restraint, Friedman has a point. Part of the problem would seem that while we might get this or that promise from Netanyahu, the conservative elements in his government, including his Interior Minister--a very important portfolio to the religious parties such as Shas--could care less. That announcement came out last week precisely to make that point, and to embarrass or at least pressure Netanyahu as much as Biden.

Which makes one wonder what we can accomplish by hosting talks with Netanyahu in Washington. I realize that the Israelis find our attempt to dictate internal policy infuriating, especially on a matter as crucial as settlements. We still need to listen to the Palestinians and the Arab world, so jittery right now that some major players have begun to peel away from the negotiating process. We have hit a point where the center has shown signs of not holding. We cannot risk a complete collapse of the regional framework for negotiation. If the Israelis resent our telling them what to do, how the Palestinians feel about Israeli pronouncements. One cannot forget, either, the importance of the Israeli lobby, to one important element of which Clinton is about to speak. Everybody here feels pressure, which, unfortunately, Netanyahu understands all too well.

So, here goes my wildly over-the-top (un-)diplomatic suggestion. Bibi speaks to the same group Hillary does. Even I know we can't deny him entry to the country. We can, however, freeze him out of discussions at the State Department and White House. No scheduled meetings with Hillary or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen; no meetings of apology with the Vice-President; definitely no scheduled meetings with the President; not even any meetings with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Giving Rahm Emanuel a chance to pound some reality into him couldn't hurt, maybe in a good-cop-bad-cop tandem with President Obama's other Jewish senior advisor, David Axelrod. Do it in Rahm's tiny office; the claustrophobia will help make the point. Only then do the President and Vice-President call them into the Oval Office for a carefully-timed hour or so with Hillary and Joe and Bob and Mike and Susan. Unscheduled, of course, and completely off-camera. No questions for the press afterwards. Make sure he gets back to the Israeli Embassy forthwith, and that his plane heads back to Israel that evening.

My point: unchristian as it sounds, humiliate him. Rub his nose ingloriously in the consequences of Israeli intransigence. Make it as crystal clear as we can that if Israel wants to go it on its own, they have every right, we wish them well, but don't tell us we didn't warn them when the next Intifada erupts. Hamas has quieted their guns and missiles for now. How long they continue to do so lies in the hands of the Israelis as much as those of Hamas and their patron, Iran. If they really don't care how hard we've worked to save them from sinking their own ship and bringing the rest of the Middle East with them, screw 'em. Sounds like a good line for Joe Biden. Rahm will already have put it more obscenely, maybe even in Hebrew. I'd like to hear that.

Biden thinks we can have no distance between us and Israel to negotiate effectively. Right now, we may have no credibility without distance between us and Israel. Selfish, and more in our interest than the Israelis, even the Palestinians? Perhaps. President Obama does, however, have other items on his agenda. Let Netanyahu worry a little about just how far this new guy might be willing to let Israel slip in his priorities. Maybe drop a hint about Special Envoy Sen. George Mitchell needing a vacation in Maine, a long one. Netanyahu will not think of such a withdrawal by us on his own. We have to nudge him. Okay, hit him over the head.

Bibi Netanyahu is a very proud man. Such treatment will get his goat past anything we can imagine. He'll pillory us for abandoning them. He'll accuse us of playing into the hands of Shas and the other extremists he got into bed with in order to form a government. His choice.

He'll also realize that Israel can't go it on their own. That he'll have to find a way to force the extremists and settlers to see that their way leads to hell, and takes the Palestinians with them. He doesn't need to go home in a chipper mood. In fact, he needs to go home pissed as hell, but aware that Shas brought him to this pass and that they, and the settler movement in general, are the obstacle between him and a place in history. Only he has the conservative credentials to break this impasse, as only Nixon could open us to China. We, in this sense, are stuck with him. He can't achieve a historic position for himself in Israel while winking at the obstructionist shenanigans of the right wing of his government and his electorate. And he can't do it while harboring any illusions about how hard the Obama administration will come down on his back (think lower, think what Rahm would say) if he continues to prevaricate.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Vancouver Winter Olympics: Afterthoughts

During the Salt Lake City Games of 2002, I sat over lunch with a colleague, an economist. He had some derision to get off his chest one day about the coverage of the games. Why, he asked, should we have to put up with those silly, sentimental profiles of athletes, "up close and personal," referring to the moniker ABC gave this sort of story back in the days of Jim McKay. He wanted to see the sports, period; forget about the contrived melodrama.

One can agree with my cantankerous colleague on one point. The networks need to avoid contrivance in such stories. NBC has, in several ways, improved the genre of athlete profile, and did a better job in Vancouver than in Utah eight years ago, where they probably got themselves more entangled in the pairs figure-skating controversy than they would now consider seemly.

This year, for example, they handled Evgeny Plushenko's temper-tantrum over Evan Lysacek's victory in men's figure-skating more adroitly. One had a clear choice to make between the pro-Plushenko arguments of former Olympians Sasha Cohen and Elvis Stojko--Plushenko did a quadruple jump, the quad represents the future of men's figure-skating, Lysacek, who has performed a quad but stayed away from it because of a stress-fracture in his landing foot, did not insert one into his program as he considered doing, therefore, Plushenko wins--and the pro-Lysacek arguments of Scott Hamilton and Dick Button, admittedly with Lysacek in the room.

Did they mount a campaign for Lysacek? Clearly the Costas interview with Lysacek, Scott Hamilton and Dick Button enthroned him by inclusion in the company of two of our greatest Olympic figure-skating champions. If one listened carefully, however, and considered the inclusion of Stojko's and Cohen's opinions in a separate interview aired on one of Mary Carillo's late night segments, the answer seems no.

They mounted, instead, a hearty defense for the new scoring system, which Plushenko disdained to exploit, whereas Lysacek exploited it to the hilt, while giving both camps their due. The tempest came down to who skated more intelligently and, as Hamilton put it somewhat archly but in his gentle way, who had skated and trained harder and longer, Plushenko having returned to competitive skating only six months ago after a three-and-a-half year absence, compared with Lysacek's legendarily obsessive training regimen. The in-rink commentary team, which also included Hamilton, made another point. In the scoring, Lysacek and Plushenko tied on artistic merit; Lysacek won on technical merit. Translation: he skated better, as the new scoring system defines it, including a reward for more and difficult jumps deeper into the program, a scoring opportunity Plushenko foreswore.

If anything, though, NBC did themselves most proud with a series of stories--mind that word--of a more personal nature, done particularly in one case with admirable tact, as some in the media have observed. The production staff had a terrible decision to make before the games even got underway when a luger from the Republic of Georgia died in a practice run on the single most controversial facility of the games, the sledding hill. Apparently they ran the tape of his accident once, and then, with a carefully worded statement from Bob Costas, elected not to show it any longer. One can see it on Youtube; gruesome only begins to describe the sight of a man flying in midair at 90+ mph into a steel upright, his sled skittering along on the ice behind him.

Another tragedy came a week later. A French-Canadian figure skater, Joannie Rochette, lost her mother to an out-of-the-blue heart attack. Two days later she had to skate her short-program. As has been noted elsewhere, rather than try to get within the Rochette circle, Costas interviewed NBC's expert long-track speed-skating commentator, Dan Jansen, who lost his sister on the day of a race in which he was favored to win gold. He didn't. As he described it to Costas, the morning Jane died he conferred with his family about whether he should skate. They all agreed that Jane would have felt terrible about becoming the reason Dan didn't compete. Not so simple, though. Suddenly, after days of great practices, he didn't have his legs. He fell in a turn early in his first heat, then did the same thing in another race, and had a disastrous Olympics. Six years later he recuperated all that with a brilliant games.

Jansen sent Rochette an email, not sure whether she knew his name--she did, as it turns out--urging her to skate, to put all her heart into it, and to know that her mother would want that of her and for her. NBC let her alone from then on, until after her perfect skate in the long program that secured her the bronze medal. For this observer, Costas' studio interview with Rochette constituted one of NBC's best moments, and one of his. A very good interviewer, he asked her questions that gave her scope to describe her emotions, her mother's role in her life, her worries about her father. She talked about how, in fact, she'd heard Dan Jansen speak about coping with loss, and another speaker on the same subject, both times sure it would never happen to her. By that point, she'd had time to collect herself, time to be articulate, graceful, humble--herself. That interview completed the story elegantly and respectfully.

So many stories. Hannah Kearney in moguls, a delightful personality unknown to all but moguls maniacs, among which do not count me, though I loved the competition. Alex Bilodeaux, another moguls skier, with his own story--Frederic, his older brother who has a severe case of cerebral palsy--Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ato Ohno, Bode Miller, the men's hockey team, Steve Holcomb, who came back from blindness to drive the gold-medal sled in four-man bobsled, the men's Nordic Combined team. A glut of great performances and gutty individuals.

Appealing as some of the major figures were, Shaun White particularly, some of them did not handle themselves as well, but arguably the network shared some blame. NBC got a little too close a couple of times when they should have given the athletes and their coaches more space. Julia Mancuso handled her rivalry with Lindsey Vonn badly, but she had the right not to be filmed crying at the start-house after a course official stopped her in the middle of a run because Vonn had fallen in front of her and hadn't gotten off the course yet on a day of bad weather and compressed schedules. Let her cry in private, and let Shaun White's coach pump him up with bed-and-bath language without a sound boom within reach. They already do amazing things on a very public stage, give them a little room to let disappointment out, and give the coaches the chance to say something more inspiring than "Win one for the Gipper." Ron Wilson had the privacy of the men's hockey team's locker room, just as Tim Johnson had the women's team's locker room to sprinkle whatever salt he needed. A halfpipe coach deserves at least the illusion of same.

Hannah Kearney flopped at Torino; she flew to gold at Vancouver. Costas, in a studio interview, let this very bright, articulate, bubbly personality have her stage. Disappointment to training to success, and the obstinacy of the training to achieve success. They did a better job than I remember a network doing before of emphasizing the athletes' training, though this may be unfair to earlier production teams. We saw Apolo Ohno running up loose-dirt banks, Shaun White doing tricks into huge containers of foam blocks, learned of Evan Lysacek's unheard-of insistence on skating his long program every day in practice. Stories of persistence, stories of grace, and, unfortunately, a couple of stories of childish petulance.

Stories connect us. Well-told, they give us insight into what these athletes have done and how, and against what odds. The network hedged their bets and had a few in the can they might have saved--one got a little tired of the over-exposure of Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, and Apolo Ohno--but they showed their best lights when they had to improvise and rise to an occasion. Though it took them a little time to get the luge story right, they handled the figure-skating tragedy-cum-triumph with aplomb. The Olympics, after all, aim to bring not only the athletes together, but that part of the world--I doubt they have tv's in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan, but who knows--that can watch them, as well. Great performances on snow and ice connect us, certainly, but emotions do, as well. Do not count me among the Olympics "up close and personal" curmudgeons. I will be ready when they converge on Sochi in four years to ski, skate, sled, jump, curl, face off, and shoot. Meantime, there's London in 2012.