Sunday, May 8, 2011

LRB on Tax Avoidance and how the 01% are destroying our economy

Didn’t they notice?
David Runciman
London Review of Books, 14 April 2011
See also accompanying article, "Out of Sight" by Richard Murphy

Books under Review

reasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World by Nicholas Shaxson
Bodley Head, 329 pp, £14.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 1 84792 110 9
Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson
Simon and Schuster, 368 pp, £11.50, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 4165 8870 2

How to sum up Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, that emblematic figure of our times, with his doctorate from the LSE (‘The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions’), his charitable foundations, his extensive property portfolio, his playboy lifestyle, his motley collection of friends (Peter Mandelson, Nat Rothschild, Prince Andrew), his ready access to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund, and his recently professed willingness to eliminate the enemies of his father’s regime one bullet at a time? He’s a hypocrite, of course, but that hardly does him justice (who isn’t?). He is also, on some accounts, a victim: his unfortunate mentor at the LSE, David Held, has described the predicament the ostensibly reform-minded Saif found himself in after his father’s people had revolted as ‘the stuff of Shakespeare’, but that surely is letting everyone concerned off far too lightly. He may just be a smooth-talking thug, and many online observers have noted that he seems to model himself on the smooth-talking thug and would-be businessman Stringer Bell from The Wire. But the word that best captures Saif Gaddafi comes from Nicholas Shaxson’s blistering account of the role that tax havens play in international finance. Shaxson doesn’t discuss the Gaddafis themselves, but he does paint a picture of the world in which the young Gaddafi, until very recently, felt right at home. This is the world of ‘offshore’. Shaxson doesn’t limit the term to its technical meaning, as a simple description of the particular jurisdictions that enable people to eliminate their tax bills. He applies it to people as well as places, and to a way of life along with a state of mind. Seen like this, it turns out to be a very useful word. Saif Gaddafi is just an offshore guy, living in an offshore world.

The essence of offshore is the need to keep up a solid appearance of respectability, while allowing money in and out with as little fuss as possible. Tax avoidance (unlike tax evasion) is not a clandestine activity, and tax havens don’t exist just to enable people to squirrel their money away from the authorities. The money needs to be accessible, and it needs to be liquid. For that reason, people prefer tax havens where they can conduct their business relatively openly, and the most successful offshore jurisdictions are the ones that ask no questions but also tell no lies. Shaxson’s memorable phrase for this is ‘theatre of probity’. The Swiss have always been the masters, with their formal manners and careful paperwork. But it turns out that the other champions of this way of doing business are the British. Shaxson’s book explains how and why London became the centre of what he calls a ‘spider’s web’ of offshore activities (and in the process such a comfortable home for the likes of Saif Gaddafi). It is because offshore is the offshoot of an empire in decline. It perfectly suited a country with the appearance of grandeur and traditionally high standards, but underneath it all a reek of desperation and the pressing need for more cash.

As Shaxson shows, many of the world’s most successful tax havens are former or current British imperial outposts. These include Hong Kong, the Channel Islands and remaining overseas territories like the Cayman Islands. What such places offer are limited or non-existent tax regimes, extremely lax regulation, weak local politics, but plenty of the trappings of respectability and democratic accountability. Depositors are happiest putting their money in locations that have the feel of a major jurisdiction like Britain without actually being subject to British rules and regulations (or British tax rates). The Caymans, or Jersey, make full use of their British connections to reassure people that their money is safe (the Cayman national anthem is still ‘God Save the Queen’), but when anyone complains to the authorities back in London that these places are being used by criminals and dictators to launder their assets, they are told that it is no longer Britain’s role to tell its dependencies how to run their own affairs. It was a function Hong Kong fulfilled before its handover to China in 1997: it could be presented to the outside world as somewhere with British values but without its unfortunate tendency to raise either taxes or regulatory standards in response to political pressure. Strikingly, it plays the same role for China today. After 1997 China preserved Hong Kong as a ‘special administrative zone’ autonomous of the mainland in all matters except foreign relations and defence. As Shaxson puts it, ‘The resemblance with the ambiguous Britain-Jersey link, or the Britain-Cayman arrangement, is no coincidence. Chinese elites want their own offshore centre, complete with political control and judicial separation.’ So offshore suits empires on the rise as well.

The other thing most of these places have in common is that they are islands. Islands make good tax havens, and not simply because they can cut themselves off from the demands of mainland politics. It is also because they are often tight-knit communities, in which everyone knows what’s going on but no one wants to speak out for fear of ostracism. These ‘goldfish bowls’, as Shaxson calls them, suit the offshore mindset, because they are seemingly transparent: you can see all the way through – it’s just that when you look there’s nothing there. Jersey is the template: a nice, genteel place, with a strong sense of civic responsibility and plenty of opportunities for public participation, including elections to all manner of public offices (senators, deputies, parish constables), but weak political parties, staggered ‘general’ elections, and never a meaningful change of government. ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave’ is the basic refrain of Jersey politics. Dissent is not obviously suppressed, as it might be under a dictatorship (which is why dictatorships make bad tax havens: you never know when the whole thing is going to blow up). Instead, dissent is simply allowed to wither away. The same thing happens on the Cayman Islands, with its tiny population (around 55,000), its elected legislature and its governor-general appointed from London, who takes all the difficult decisions but allows the locals to have their say. As one former governor-general put it, ‘I think we are in the world of semantics here. The more Caymanians we can put in positions of power, the better; they will act as lightning conductors for political dissent.’

This is the web, but where is the spider? At the heart of Shaxson’s story lies the City of London, itself a kind of island within the British state. Again, the rise of the City as the favourite place for foreigners to park their money, no matter who they were or where it came from, is related to imperial decline. After the Second World War, sterling still financed much of global trade, but the British economy was no longer able to sustain the value of the pound against the dollar. In the aftermath of Suez, which caused a run on the pound, the government attempted to impose curbs on the overseas lending of London’s merchant banks. The response of the banks, with the connivance of the Bank of England, was to shift their international lending into dollars. The result was the creation of the so-called ‘Eurodollar market’ – which was effectively an offshore haven. Because the trade was happening in dollars, the British saw no need to tax or regulate it; because it was happening in London, the Americans had no means to tax or regulate it. Among the first people to spot the advantages of this new system were the Soviets, who wanted a secure place outside the US to hold their dollars so that the Americans could not seize them if relations between the countries deteriorated. They were soon followed by the Americans themselves – that is, American banks and wealthy individuals – who saw the London market as somewhere to do business free from the grasping hand of the US authorities. The money started to pile in.

The Bank of England was happy: London was once again a lynchpin of international finance. The American authorities, unsurprisingly, were not so happy: they feared a balance of payments crisis. But when in 1963 President Kennedy tried to stem currency outflows by taxing the interest on foreign securities, in an effort to reduce the incentive to export dollars to more lucrative overseas markets, it had the opposite effect, and produced what Shaxson calls ‘a stampede for the unregulated London offshore market, free of tax and regulations’. US policy-makers were now in a dilemma. They could try to face down the threat of offshore, either with higher domestic interest rates, or with tighter controls on currency outflows and a tougher regulatory regime requiring US banks to share information about their overseas activities. Or they could copy London by creating an offshore world of their own closer to home: in other words, if you can’t beat them, join them. The second was the path of least resistance – among other things it was a useful way of reinforcing the dollar’s position as the global reserve currency – and over time it was the one they took. Slowly in the later 1960s and 1970s, and then much more rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, America deregulated its financial controls and allowed money to move in and out with fewer if any questions asked, in the hope that more of it would stick to the sides.

Once this process began, it also unleashed a new wave of competition between individual American states to offer the most hospitable, least intrusive regulatory environment for outside companies to work in. Leading the way was little Delaware, which had always tried to compensate for its lack of size by being open for any business. Since the 1980s more and more corporations have moved to Delaware to take advantage of the state’s extreme laissez-faire attitude to the rights of shareholders and employees against company managements. If you took your business to Delaware (and this was often just a question of establishing a shell office and filling in some forms), it would be much harder for anyone to prove anything against you, because the Delaware courts did not think that much of what you did was any of their concern. Again, other states faced a choice: they could try to isolate Delaware by tightening up their own standards or they could try to compete for a share of the spoils. Enough of them decided to compete to start a race to the bottom. Offshore had moved onshore.

When officials from Delaware toured the globe in the late 1980s advertising their services (and hoping, among other things, to provide a haven for all the hot money that was expected to flow out of Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover to China), they did so under the slogan ‘Delaware can protect you from politics.’ Shaxson defines a tax haven as ‘a place that seeks to attract business by offering politically stable facilities to help people or entities get around the rules, laws and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere’. But this is the crux: where is the politics? Why aren’t these moves more politically unstable, or at least politically contentious? In the case of Delaware, as with other goldfish bowl communities, size probably tells (for a long time Delaware politics was shaped by the influence of the Du Pont family, whose vast chemical operations dominated the local economy). What, though, about Washington, where the shift to an offshore mindset at the national level might be expected to run up against some serious political opposition? What happened to the representatives of all those people who don’t have lots of money to move around, who can’t relocate even if they wanted to, and who have an interest in a fair, open and broadly progressive tax system? Didn’t they notice what was going on?

This is the question that Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson tackle in Winner-Take-All Politics. They don’t spend much time talking about offshore, but the story they tell has striking parallels with the one laid out by Shaxson. One of the ways you can identify an offshore environment, according to Shaxson, is that local politics gets captured by financial services. In that sense, Washington has gone offshore: its politics has been captured by the interests of a narrow group of very wealthy individuals, many of whom work in finance. For Hacker and Pierson this, more than anything else, explains why the rich have got so much richer over the last 30 years or so. And by the rich they don’t mean simply the generally wealthy; they mean the super-rich. The real beneficiaries of the explosion in income for top earners since the 1970s has been not the top 1 per cent but the top 0.1 per cent of the general population. Since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves. Who are these people? As Hacker and Pierson note, they are ‘not, for the most part, superstars and celebrities in the arts, entertainment and sports. Nor are they rentiers, living off their accumulated wealth, as was true in the early part of the last century. A substantial majority are company executives and managers, and a growing share of these are financial company executives and managers.’

Hacker and Pierson believe that politics is responsible for this. It happened because law-makers and public officials allowed it to happen, not because international markets, or globalisation, or differentials in education or life-chances made it inevitable. It was a choice, driven by the pressure of lobbyists and other organisations to create an environment much more hospitable to the needs of the very rich. It was even so a particular kind of politics and a particular kind of choice. It wasn’t a conspiracy, because it happened in the open. But nor was it an explicit political movement, characterised by rallies, speeches and electoral triumphs. It relied in large part on what Hacker and Pierson call a process of drift: ‘systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy’. More often than not the politicians were persuaded to do nothing, to let up on enforcement, to look the other way, as money moved around the globe and up to the very top of the financial chain. This chimes with what Shaxson says about the way the offshore system was allowed to develop over the last four decades. Here too there was no real conspiracy, because there was no real need. Instead, it happened because ‘nobody was paying attention.’

One of Hacker and Pierson’s complaints about the way we usually regard politics is that we miss what’s really going on by focusing on the show of elections and the competition between parties. This is the theatre of electoral politics, to set alongside the theatre of probity. Too often, they say, we reduce politics to the level of sport: ‘This is no doubt why politics as electoral spectacle is so appealing to the media: it’s exciting and it’s simple. Aficionados can memorise the stats of their favourite players or become experts on the great games of the past. Everyone, however, can enjoy the gripping spectacle of two highly motivated teams slugging it out.’

I have to plead guilty here. I have often wondered whether I am interested in politics because I am interested in sport, and sometimes I have felt vaguely guilty about this, suspecting it means I don’t actually understand what’s happening. Elections are seductive, and these days the build-up is so protracted that they can drown out the real business of politics: the way organised groups use pressure – money, lobbying, threats – to squeeze whichever politicians happen to be in power, in order to influence the shaping of policy. Elections also suggest false historical turning points. It is easy to assume that if the rich have been winning in recent decades, the process must have started with the election of the pro-big business, anti-big government Ronald Reagan in 1980 (and concomitantly, Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979). But Hacker and Pierson argue that the real turning point came in 1978, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. This was the year the lobbyists and other organised groups who were pushing hard to relax the burden of tax and regulation on wealthy individuals and corporate interests discovered that no one was pushing back all that hard. Despite Democratic control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, 1978 saw the defeat of attempts to introduce progressive tax reform and to improve the legal position of trade unions. Instead, legislation was passed that reduced the tax burden on corporations and increased the burden on their employees (through a hike in the payroll tax, a regressive measure). All this happened because the politicians followed the path of least resistance – as elected politicians invariably do – and the better organised and better-funded resistance came from the representatives of big business, not organised labour.

What took place in the 1980s was therefore an extension of the Carter years, not a reversal of them. The process of deregulation and redistribution up the chain accelerated under Reagan, who was broadly sympathetic to these goals. Yet it happened not because he was sympathetic to them, but because his sympathies were allowed free rein in a political environment where the opposition was muted and the expected coalition of interests opposed to the changes never materialised. After all, as Hacker and Pierson point out, Richard Nixon, who might have been expected to share some of Reagan’s sympathies, had gone the other way in his actual policies a decade earlier, shoring up the legislative framework of the welfare state and maintaining a broadly progressive tax system. (Something similar happened in Britain under Edward Heath.) He acted like this because he felt he had little choice: the organised pressure ready to resist change appeared much too strong. It was only during the Carter years – and to some extent the Callaghan years in Britain – that this pressure turned out to be weaker than anyone thought. The politicians of the Reagan/ Thatcher revolution did what they did not because they were committed ideologues, determined to stick to their principles. They did it because they found they could get away with it.

So where did the resistance go? This is the real puzzle, and Hacker and Pierson take it seriously because they take democracy seriously, despite its unhealthy fixation on elections. Democracies are meant to favour the interests of the many over those of the few. As Hacker and Pierson put it, ‘Democracy may not be good at a lot of things. But one thing it is supposed to be good at is responding to problems that affect broad majorities.’ Did the majority not actually mind that they were losing out for the sake of the super-rich elite? In the American case, one common view is that the voters allowed it to happen because they minded more about other things: religion, culture, abortion, guns etc. The assumption is that many ordinary Americans have signed a kind of Faustian pact with the Republican Party, in which the rich get the money and the poor get support for the cultural values they care about. Hacker and Pierson reject this view, and not just because they don’t think the process they describe depends on there being a Republican in the White House: they see strong evidence that the American public do still want a fairer tax system and do still see it as the job of politicians to protect their interests against the interests of high finance. The problem is that the public simply don’t know what the politicians are up to. They are not properly informed about how the rules have been steadily changed to their disadvantage. ‘Americans are no less egalitarian when it comes to their vision of an ideal world,’ Hacker and Pierson write. ‘But they are much less accurate when it comes to their vision of the real world.’

Why is no one paying attention? Perhaps it’s the fault of the internet, which is making it increasingly hard for anyone to focus on anything for long. Yet it is striking that Hacker and Pierson’s argument is really a return to a much longer-standing critique of democracy, one that flourished during the 1920s and 1930s but was supplanted in the postwar period by expectations of rational behaviour on the part of voters. This traditional critique does not see the weakness of democracy as a matter of the voters wanting the wrong things, or not really knowing what they want. They know what they want but they don’t know how to get it. It’s because they don’t understand the world they live in that democracy isn’t working. People aren’t stupid, but when it comes to politics they are ignorant, lazy and easily satisfied with pat answers to difficult questions. Hacker and Pierson recognise that it has become bad manners to point this out even in serious political discourse. But it remains the truth. ‘Most citizens pay very little attention to politics, and it shows. To call their knowledge of even the most elementary facts about the political system shaky would be generous.’ The traditional solution to this problem was to supplement the ignorance of the voters with guidance from experts, who would reform the system in the voters’ best interests. The difficulty is that the more the experts take charge, the less incentive there is for the voters to inform themselves about what’s going on. This is what Hacker and Pierson call the catch-22 of democratic politics: in order to combat what’s taking place under the voters’ radar it’s necessary to continue the fight under the voters’ radar. The best hope is that eventually the public might wake up to what is going on and join in. But that will take time. As Hacker and Pierson admit, ‘Political reformers will need to mobilise for the long haul.’

Yet time may be one of the things that the reformers do not have on their side. As Shaxson points out in his account of the rise of the tax havens, one of the reasons for the drift towards deregulation is that politics has been too slow to resist it. This, again, is one of the traditional critiques of democracy: while decent-minded democrats are organising themselves to make the world a better place, the world has moved on. In a fast-moving financial environment, it is usually easier to assemble a coalition of interests in favour of relaxing the rules than one in favour of tightening them. Similarly, it’s easier not to enforce the rules you have than to enforce them: non-enforcement is the work of a moment – all you have to do is turn a blind eye – whereas enforcement is a slow and laborious process. Shaxson, like everyone else, is torn. On the one hand, he thinks the key to resisting the rise of offshore is a more transparent system, based on what he calls ‘automatic information exchange on a multilateral basis’. This is the equivalent of putting the experts in charge. On the other hand, he wants national governments to be more active, dynamic, responsive to the interests of their citizens. But a speeded-up national politics may go against the international co-ordination needed for a fully transparent system. If you reawaken democratic politics at the national level, it will by definition be harder to co-ordinate it at the international level. This is the catch-22 of globalisation.

Shaxson illustrates the problem at the end of his book, where he lists his proposals for changing the culture of offshore. One example he gives of how it can be done comes from the United States, where in 2001 Congress finally passed stronger anti-money laundering legislation and clamped down on the spread of offshore shell banks, which hide behind nominees and trustees so no one knows who their real owners are. But the date is important: these measures were included in the Patriot Act, and the reason they were passed was that national politics had been woken up by 9/11. Yet no one could argue that the ultimate consequences either of that act or the vitality of American politics in the aftermath of 9/11 was a better integrated, more transparent world. Another of Shaxson’s demands is that governments do more to keep money onshore. One of the drivers of the offshore world is what he calls the ‘tides of looted or tainted oil money [that] sluice into the offshore system, distorting the global economy in the process’. One radical solution is to get a country’s mineral windfalls out of the hands of a few super-wealthy individuals and into the hands of ordinary citizens, by redistributing the money directly to every inhabitant. This may sound unrealistic but such schemes have been implemented in a few places, including Alaska. However, Shaxson doesn’t see fit to tell us the name of the politician who spread the wealth there: it was Sarah Palin. So yes, dynamic, quick-thinking democratic politicians can make a difference, but no, it doesn’t follow that greater understanding between nations will be the result. These two brilliant books are right to suggest that politics is the answer. Still, politics is also, as always, part of the problem.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Christopher Hitchens: Obama's Latest Craven Deal with Israel

Israel's Shabbos Goy

Why America will come to regret the craven deal Obama is offering Netanyahu.

By Christopher Hitchens

November 17, 2010 "
Slate" - - Those of us who keep an eye on the parties of God are avid students of the weekly Sabbath sermons ofRabbi Ovadia Yosef. In these and other venues, usually broadcast, this elderly Sephardic ayatollah provides an action-packed diet that seldom disappoints. A few months ago, he favored his devout audience with a classic rant in which he called down curses on the Palestinian Arabs and their leaders, wishing that a plague would come and sweep them all away. Last month, he announced that the sole reason for the existence of gentiles was to perform menial services for Jews: After that, he opined, their usefulness was at an end. A huge hubbub led to hiswithdrawal of the first of these diatribes. (I would be interested to know if this was on partly theological grounds. After all, the local Palestinians may still have some labor to perform before the divine plan is through with them.) The second sermon, so far as I know, still stands without apology. Why on earth should anybody care about the ravings of this scrofulous medieval figure, who peppers his talk of non-Jews in Palestine with comparisons to snakes, monkeys, and other lesser creations, rather as Hamas and Hezbollah refer to the Jews? Well, one reason is that he is the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, an important member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition. Indeed, two key portfolios, of the Interior and of Construction and Housing, are held by Shas members named Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias.
Yishai recently delighted the Diaspora by saying that only those Jews who converted via the Orthodox route could carry "the Jewish gene." Atias has expressed alarm about the tendency of Israeli Arab citizens to try to live where they please—or "spread," as he phrases it—and has advocated a policy of segregation in housing within Israel proper. He also advocates the segregation by neighborhood of secular from Orthodox Jews, adding that he does not wish his own children to mix with their nonreligious peers. It is Yishai's ministry that is famous for making announcements about new "housing" developments outside Israel itself and in legally disputed territory. Very often, Netanyahu himself has claimed to be taken by surprise at these announcements, which usually involve tense areas of Jerusalem. Thus the huge embarrassment inflicted on Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year, when fresh settlement construction was proclaimed in the middle of his high-level visit. And thus the undisguised irritation of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, when yet another round of such housing was scheduled while Obama was in Asia and Netanyahu was in the United States. Apparently, the latest high-level round of the peace process has included the modest and tentative suggestion to Israel that such disclosures be timed with greater tact and coordination in the future.
It's not only the doings of his Interior and Housing ministries of which Netanyahu has to remain resolutely uninformed. His foreign minister is not a part of Israel's most important external negotiation. This is perhaps just as well, since the holder of the post, Avigdor Lieberman, regards the whole "process" as a waste of time. He said as much at the United Nations last September. It was patiently explained at that time that Netanyahu had not been favored with advance notice of the contents of the speech.
Lieberman has another distinction that I believe is unique. He does not live in the country whose foreign ministry he heads. He chooses, rather, to make his home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, a tenaciously held outcrop with a population of fewer than 1,000 people. The party which he heads—Yisrael Beytenu—is a nationalist rather than religious faction, but in a competition with Rabbi Yosef for vicious anti-Arab rhetoric, it's not immediately clear which one would emerge the winner.
Now we read that, in return for just 90 days of Israeli lenience on new settlement-building (this brief pause or "freeze" not to include the crucial precincts of East Jerusalem), Netanyahu is being enticed with "a package of security incentives and fighter jets worth $3 billion" and a promise that the United States government would veto any Palestinian counterproposal at the United Nations. Netanyahu, while graciously considering this offer, was initially reported as being unsure whether he "could win approval for the United States deal from his Cabinet." In other words, we must wait on the pleasure of Rabbi Yosef and Ministers Atias, Yishai, and Lieberman, who have the unusual ability to threaten Netanyahu from his right wing.
This is a national humiliation. Regardless of whether that bunch of clowns and thugs and racists "approve" of the Obama/Clinton grovel offer, there should be a unanimous demand that it be withdrawn.
The mathematics of the situation must be evident even to the meanest intelligence. In order for any talk of a two-state outcome to be even slightly realistic, there needs to be territory on which the second state can be built, or on which the other nation living in Palestine can govern itself. The aim of the extreme Israeli theocratic and chauvinist parties is plain and undisguised: Annex enough land to make this solution impossible, and either expel or repress the unwanted people. The policy of Netanyahu is likewise easy to read: Run out the clock by demanding concessions for something he has already agreed to in principle, appease the ultras he has appointed to his own government, and wait for a chance to blame Palestinian reaction for the inevitable failure.
The only mystery is this: Why does the United States acquiesce so wretchedly in its own disgrace at the hands of a virtual client state? A soft version of Rabbi Yosef's contemptuous view of the gentiles is the old concept of the shabbos goy: the non-Jew who is paid a trifling fee to turn out the lights or turn on the stove, or whatever else is needful to get around the more annoying regulations of the Sabbath. How the old buzzard must cackle when he sees the gentiles actually volunteering a bribe to do the lowly work! And lowly it is, involving the tearing-up of international law and U.N. resolutions and election promises, and the further dispossession and eviction of a people to whom we gave our word. This craven impotence will be noticed elsewhere, and by some very undesirable persons, and we will most certainly be made to regret it. For now, though, the shame.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Roger S. Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Monday, August 16, 2010

CP: Esam Al-Amin: Who Killed Hariri?

August 16, 2010
Israel's Hidden Hands in Lebanon
Who Killed Hariri?


On Valentine’s Day in 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri left in his motorcade along the seaside highway, cruising towards his mansion. As the motorcade slowed down in front of the St. George Hotel in downtown Beirut, a huge explosion of a parked Mitsubishi pick-up truck detonated at 12:56 PM, killing him along with 22 others including his entourage, bodyguards and some passers-by.

Ever since that day the polarization in Lebanon has deepened between the pro-Western forces led by Hariri’s son Saad, his Sunni-led coalition with Druze and pro-American Christian allies, and the pro-Syrian block of the Shiite parties led by Hezbollah and their Christian allies of the Free Patriotic Front. Soon after, the pro-Western parties accused Syria of being behind the crime and immediately embarked on massive demonstrations and pursued the intervention of international powers in order to dislodge Syria from Lebanon after a twenty-nine year military presence.

Less than one month into George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S. president took advantage of the incident by applying immense pressure on the Syrian regime, which eventually culminated in a U.N. Security Council resolution on April 7, 2005 appointing an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. From day one the tribunal, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, accused Syria of being behind the assassination. The enormous political and public pressures resulted in Syria’s withdrawal by the end of April.

The politicization of the UN investigation was in full swing when the tribunal issued several reports accusing the Syrian regime, based on non-credible witnesses. It took four years for the tribunal to admit that much of “the evidence” used against Syria was fabricated by false witnesses, some of them even tied to Israeli intelligence (Abdelbasit Bani Odeh) or the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies (Ahmad Mari‘e and Zuhair Siddiq).

By the end of 2009, the whole case against Syria collapsed and the four senior security officers held for over four years were consequently released. In the mean time, the false witnesses were relocated outside Lebanon and given protection and new identities in different European countries.

Meanwhile, a new tribunal was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in March 2009. The new team was led by Italian judge Antonio Cassesse and Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare. On May 23, 2009, the German publication Der Spiegel published a report detailing the new direction of the second investigative team.

Basing their conclusions on leaks from the international tribunal, the German article, as well as many other subsequent Israeli media accounts, reported that members of Hezbollah were behind the assassination. In the spring of 2010, Prime Minister Saad Hariri told Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah that an indictment against members of his group was expected before the end of the year.

This development prompted Nasrallah to charge the reconstituted international tribunal of being a political instrument in the hands of the United States and Israel. This self-serving statement would have been easily dismissed except that the first tribunal was indeed used against Syria for political ends.

Moreover, the efforts since 2005 to disarm Hezbollah, including the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, have not only failed, but the militant group has become even stronger and better armed. Hence, the attempt to neutralize it through international pressure has accelerated within the last year.

On August 9, Nasrallah, gave a masterful multimedia performance pointing a finger towards Israel and accusing it of involvement in the assassination. He admitted that he did not have direct evidence but over the span of two hours he presented a case of circumstantial evidence that showed means, motive, and opportunity for Israel.

He displayed video testimony of several agents of Israel in Lebanon, demonstrating that at least since September, 1993, the Israeli Mossad had been tracking Hariri. The agent Ahmad Nasrallah (no relation), confessed that he had been planting with his security detail false stories that Hariri was a target of assassination by Hezbollah. Although the agent had been detained since 1996, he escaped from a Lebanese prison several years later and fled to Israel.

Furthermore, most of the 100 Israeli agents caught by the Lebanese internal security apparatus in the past few years have confessed to a fifteen-year spying operation by Israel, spanning from the surveillance of major Lebanese figures, including the Lebanese president, the head of the army, and heads of pro-Western political parties to surveilling and assassinating major figures in the Lebanese resistance camp.

But perhaps the major revelation in Nasrallah’s press conference was the ability of his group to intercept all reconnaissance images sent from the Israeli drones over Lebanese skies back to Israel. This technical feat achieved by Hezbollah since 1997 allowed them to analyze Israel’s major targets in Lebanon. For example he showed that in September, 1997, because of such interceptions, his troops were able to ambush an Israeli commando unit after entering Beirut by sea, and even videotaped the helicopter evacuation of fifteen dead and wounded soldiers following the botched raid.

In his speech, Nasrallah matched the intercepted images with several assassinations carried out in Lebanon in the past decade evidenced by confessions of the captured Israeli agents in Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. He then showed extensive images taken by the Israeli drones for over a five-year period of Rafik Hariri’s land routes across Lebanon- to and from his offices and residences in Beirut, his summer home in the mountains, and the coastal route to his brother’s residence in Sidon.

In all these routes there were no Hezbollah targets, offices or bases, leaving no doubt that Hariri was the target of the drones that were taking images from all angles, especially those close to the coastal areas, while pausing and zooming at the points of intersections.

The Hezbollah leader pointed out that just this past year the Lebanese authorities arrested several Israeli agents who confessed to penetrating the mobile communications network across Lebanon. In essence, the Israeli Mossad has had the capacity to intercept and plant any communications in Lebanon. He also exposed the most dangerous Israeli agent in Lebanon in the past two decades as being retired Army Brig. Ghassan Jirjis Al-Jidd.

He not only assisted missions logistically by picking up and driving Israeli assassination teams throughout Lebanon since 2004, but he was also an operational agent, carrying out several missions on behalf of the Israelis including carrying and planting bombs, as confessed by other captured agents. Al-Jidd was also placed at the scene of the crime on February 13, 2005 one day before Harriri was killed. But after he was exposed by Hezbollah in 2009, Al-Jidd was able to flee to France, then to Israel hours before he was to be apprehended by the Lebanese authorities.

Nasrallah finally disclosed that an Israeli reconnaissance plane and an Israeli AWACS were flying over Beirut on the day of the assassination for four hours from 10:30 am until 2:30 pm encompassing the 1 pm time of the assassination. He questioned whether it was a coincidence that an operational plane would be flying so close to the location at the time when the crime was committed.

The Israeli government immediately dismissed these accusations as baseless although many Israeli experts admitted that Hezbollah had been able to intercept Israeli drone images for many years, but they argued that the transmission of pictures have since been encrypted, making it very difficult to intercept.

Israel has a long and bloody history of successful assassinations in Lebanon since the 1970’s, including the killing of the former leader of Hezbollah in 1992, and the assassination of dozens of Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories, Europe and other Arab states including many leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PLO.

Many of these assassinations were carried out secretly but some were exposed when agents were caught red handed as in the 1997 attempt to kill Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshal in Amman, or after leaving behind many clues as in the assassination of another Hamas leader in Dubai in January of this year. Often times Israel would conduct such assassinations in public and in cold blood without any fear of international condemnation or scrutiny, especially when carried out in the occupied territories.

Since its forced withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Israel has had two primary objectives in Lebanon: forcing a withdrawal of Syria and hence reducing its influence, and secondly, disarming Hezbollah and other resistance groups. The first goal was achieved shortly after the Hariri assassination but the second has been difficult to accomplish despite employing a vicious military attack in 2006 as well as mobilizing all levers of local, regional and international political powers.

But pinning the assassination of Hariri on Hezbollah could be the trigger to a bloody sectarian civil war by exploiting the Sunni-Shi’a divide. At minimum Israel and its allies hope that under indictment Hezbollah and its friends would be on the defensive, thus forcing the disarmament of its militia or at least curbing their influence.

If anything, Nasrallah’s presentation succeeded in forcing the international tribunal to consider Israel as a possible suspect. Two days after the press conference a spokesperson for Bellemare asked the Lebanese government to submit all the evidence in the hands of Hezbollah. For his part Nasrallah promised that if a serious investigation were initiated he would present much more evidence and secrets that would take the investigation to a completely different route, in the direction of Tel Aviv.

Whether Israel had a hand in the Hariri assassination remains to be seen. But what is clear is that Israel has found its match in the grand chess game in Lebanon.

Esam Al-Amin can be reached at

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Uri Avnery attacked by rightest thugs: 10,000 march vs Israeli brutality


“The Government Is Drowning Us All”

Uri Avnery attacked by rightist thugs



A disaster was averted yesterday (June 5)  at Tel-Aviv’s Museum Square, when rightists threw a smoke grenade into the middle of the protest rally, obviously hoping for a panic to break out and cause the protesters to trample on each other. But the demonstrators remained calm, nobody started to run and just a small space in the middle of the crowd remained empty. The speaker did not stop talking even when the cloud of smoke reached the stage. The audience included many children.


Half an hour later, a dozen rightist thugs attacked Gush Shalom’s 86 year old Uri Avnery, when he was on his way from the rally in the company of his wife, Rachel, Adam Keller and his wife Beate Siversmidt. Avnery had just entered a taxi, when a dozen rightist thugs attacked him and tried to drag him out of the car. At the critical moment, the police arrived and made it possible for the car to leave. Gush spokesman Adam Keller said: “These cowards did not dare to attack us when we were many, but they were heroes when they caught Avnery alone.”


The incident took place when the more than 10 thousand demonstrators were dispersing, after marching through the streets of Tel Aviv in protest against the attack on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla.


Not only was this one of the largest peace demonstrations for a long time, but also the first time that all parts of the Israeli peace camp - from Gush Shalom and Hadash to Peace Now and Meretz – did unite for common action


The main slogan was “The Government Is Drowning All of Us” and “We must Row towards Peace!” - alluding to the attack on the flotilla. The protesters called in unison “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies!”


The demonstrators assembled at Rabin Square and marched to Museum Square, where the protest rally was held. Originally, this was planned as a demonstration against the occupation on its 43th anniversary, and for peace based on “Two States for Two Peoples” and “Jerusalem – Capital of the Two States”, but recent events turned it mainly into a protest against the attack on the flotilla.


One of the new sights was the great number of national flags, which were flown alongside the red flags of Hadash, the green flags of Meretz and the two-flag emblems of Gush Shalom. Many peace activists have decided that the national flag should no longer be left to the rightists.


“The violence of the rightists is a direct result of the brainwashing, which has been going on throughout the last week,” Avnery commented. “A huge propaganda machine has incited the public in order to cover up the terrible mistakes made by our political and military leadership, mistakes which are becoming worse from day to day.”



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rahm Emanuel: I'm more hawkish than most Israelis

From Xymphora's Blog

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Xymphora quotes US billionaire and pro Israeli Haim Saban quoting Rahm Emanuel describing his Zionism.

Saban: I had the chance to talk to Hillary about a lot of things including this and I also talked to Rahm Emanuel and Rahm Emanuel for instance told me ‘I am more hawkish than 50 percent of the people in Israel.’"

Jeffrey Blankfort: Winograd's Competitive Despite her progressive Middle East Stance

May 10, 2010
Harman vs. Winograd

The Last Democratic Primary Worth Watching

Counterpunch Website


What may be the last Democratic primary race worth paying attention to is taking place in the 36th Congressional District along the Southern California coastline where incumbent Jane Harman is facing a serious challenge from Los Angeles school teacher, Marcy Winograd, with the candidates’ widely separated positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict dominating a critical section of the political landscape.

Harman is the second richest member of the House of Representatives with estimated assets between $112 and $377 million dollars. Whether it was her money or her Israeli connections that kept the Southern California Democrat from being indicted as a foreign agent five years ago or a combination of both is something the public is never likely to know.

What is clear is that the Bush administration’s Attorney General Alberto Gonzales neither investigated nor indicted the eight-term congresswoman after she was recorded on a National Security Agency wiretap in 2005 speaking to someone identified as an Israeli agent in which she reportedly agreed to intervene with the Justice Dept. on behalf of two top AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who were then under indictment for passing classified information to Israel in an FBI-initiated “sting.”

Whether or not that phone call will come back to haunt her and be a factor in Harman’s heated race against Winograd, a strong critic of Israel and outspoken advocate for the Palestinians, won’t be known until June 8th, the date of the California primaries, but Harman is clearly running scared.

According to an expose of the wiretapping incident in Congressional Quarterly, in April, 2009, she signed off the conversation with the Israeli agent saying, "This conversation doesn't exist." The government investigators who had been wiretapping the Israeli were so concerned about Harman’s comments, wrote CQ, that they sought a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant —reserved for sensitive intelligence cases — to tune in on her conversations, as well. In a touch of irony, Gonzales, however, supposedly halted the investigation because it was believed that he would need Harman’s continuing support, as a Democrat, for the Bush administration’s warrantless wire-tapping program that was about to be exposed by the New York Times.

In exchange for Harman’s interceding on behalf of Rosen and Weissman, said CQ, the Israeli agent pledged to use his influence with Haim Saban, the Israeli-American billionaire and donor of millions to the Democratic Party (and to AIPAC) to persuade House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint Harman chair of the House Select Intelligence Committee. Pelosi reportedly was made aware of the wire tap and Harman did not get the appointment. Not surprisingly, all the parties named denied that any such deal was offered.

Immediately after the story broke, Harman left a voicemail message that any allegation of improper conduct on her part would be "irresponsible, laughable and scurrilous." She also quickly retained top GOP lawyer, Ted Olson, who may be remembered as representing Paula Jones in her sexual harassment case against President Clinton and appearing for George W Bush before the Supreme Court as it was deciding the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. It was a curious choice for a Democrat, even a Blue Dog varietal, but it apparently represented no problems for the party leadership. But then again, neither did her earlier bragging that she was “the Best Republican in the Democratic Party” in her unsuccessful run for the California governorship in 1998.

Harman continued to deny that she had contacted the White House or any other agency about the investigation, and last spring sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that he "release all transcripts and other investigative material involving me in an unredacted form,” adding that it was her “ intention to make this material available to the public."

Less than three weeks after the CQ exposure Harman spoke on a panel at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington where she “explore[d] the myriad foreign policy challenges facing the United States, Israel and the world.”

If she received the NSA transcript it has never been acknowledged. Certainly its contents have not been made public and Holder, like Gonzales, not only chose not to pursue a case against Harman but, shortly after his appointment by Obama, he dropped the indictment against the two Israeli officials, much to the disgust of the Justice Dept. officials who had been pursuing the case.

In April 2009, the congressman who got the job as House Select Intelligence Chair, Silvestre Reyes, from Texas, told his staff to begin investigating the incident but a year later there has been nothing reported and calls to the committee office have not been returned. The last word on the subject was apparently an article in the Washington Post last October which noted that Harman was among 30 House members and several aides being investigated by the House Ethics Committee on issues that included defense lobbying and corporate influence peddling. As of the first week in May, no report had been issued on that investigation by the Ethics Committee.

Harman was not left out entirely, being appointed by Pelosi to chair the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment. With whom and what intelligence information she has been sharing, however, is a question that begs to be asked.

This is of note at the moment because Winograd, Harman’s challenger in California’s 36th Congressional District won 38% of the primary vote in 2006 and may be primed to pull a major upset come June 8, one that would sound the alarm in the Israeli Knesset as much as it would on the Washington beltway..

Like Harman, Winograd, is Jewish but apart from sharing religion and gender, that’s where the similarities end. Harman is not only a hawk when it comes to Israel, she is also an enthusiastic backer of the military budget, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, and the Wall Street and banking bailouts .

In 2007 she introduced, HR 1955, “The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act” whose stated purpose was to deal with "homegrown terrorism and violent radicalization." Fortunately, the draconian act was too much for even the pliant US Congress and the bill went nowhere.

Last May, Harman weighed in on Iran, suggesting that that nation, whose history goes back thousands of years, be broken up into a confessional state, following the formula for the region once advanced by a senior Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry official, Oded Yinon. "The Persian population in Iran is not a majority,” said Harman, “it is a plurality. There are many different, diverse, and disagreeing populations inside Iran and an obvious strategy, which I believe is a good strategy, is to separate those populations.”

When it comes to her donors Harman is clearly cherished by the Military Industrial Complex but she is not averse to playing the field. While the top two suitors are Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, the entire list of her contributors reads like a Who’s Who of corporate America. At the same time, a review of the 765 companies listed in the vast investment portfolio held by Harman and her businessman husband, Sidney, founder of audio/infotainment equipment manufacturer, Harman International Industries, may explain her devotion to the Bush and Obama bailouts, with a marked preference shown for investment houses, banks, pharmaceutical industries, arms manufacturers, and real estate interests across the globe. At the head of the Harman list is UBS in which the couple have invested between $12 and $47 million. Not surprisingly, Goldman Sachs is there with between $1 and $2 million with somewhat smaller, six figure amounts invested in JP Morgan Chase, City National Bank and Wells Fargo.

As a sign that Harman and the AIPAC crowd have been taking Winograd’s challenge seriously, her campaign put out a call for help to the poster boy of Southern California liberals, Henry Waxman (D-30). Waxman has a history of moonlighting as an Israel Lobby enforcer and he took after Winograd with a vengeance, assuming that Jewish voters in the 36th District are more concerned with the welfare of Israel than what happens in their district, not to mention the United States:

“Recently, “wrote Waxman in an undated letter to Harman’s Jewish constituents in November, “I came across an astounding speech by Marcy Winograd, who is running against our friend Jane Harman in her primary re-election to Congress. Ms. Winograd’s views on Israel I find repugnant in the extreme. And that is why I wanted to write you.

“What has prompted my urgent concern is a speech Ms. Winograd gave, entitled, “Call For One State,”… last year. The complete text is attached, but in it she says:

‘I think it is too late for a two-state solution. Israel has made it all but impossible for two states to exist. Not only do I think a two-state solution is unrealistic, but also fundamentally wrong…’

‘As a citizen of the United States, I do not want my tax dollars to support institutionalized racism. As a Jew, I do not want my name associated with occupation or extermination. Let us declare a one-state solution.’

To me,” Waxman fulminated, “the notion that a Member of Congress could hold these views is alarming. Ms. Winograd is far, far outside the bipartisan mainstream of views that has long insisted that US policy be based upon rock-solid support for our only democratic ally in the Middle East.

“In Marcy Winograd’s foreign policy, Israel would cease to exist. In Marcy Winograd’s vision, Jews would be at the mercy of those who do not respect democracy or human rights. These are not trivial issues; they cannot be ignored or overlooked. Jane’s victory will represent a clear repudiation of these views.

“I ask you to join me in showing maximum support for Jane…

In a response to Waxman, Winograd, co-founder of LA Jews for Peace, wrote, in part:

“ Like you, I am intimately aware of our Jewish history. On my mother’s side, my great-grandparents escaped the Russian Pogroms to make a better life for themselves in Europe. On my father’s side, my great-grandparents were killed in the Jewish Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Because of our collective experience with persecution, it behooves us to stand in opposition to persecution anywhere and everywhere, rather than sanctify reductionist state policies that cast all Jews as victims who can only thrive in a segregated society.

Furthermore, we must stand in explicit opposition to the Israeli persecution of the Palestinians; the brutal blockade of Gaza, an act of war by international standards, denying children clean water, food, and medicine…

“In your letter, you include what you term an “alarming’ quote of mine – ‘As a Jew, I do not want my name associated with occupation or extermination.’ Frankly, I am mystified as to why you would find my words objectionable. Surely, you are not saying the converse is true – that you want Jewish people associated with occupation and extermination. Such a legacy would dishonor our people.”

It is unlikely, however, that either Harman or Winograd’s stand on Israel will be the determining factor in the election.

“Unlike the substantial Jewish population in Waxman’s affluent 30th Congressional District whom he relies on for financial support, the Jewish population in Harman’s 36th Congressional District is significantly smaller, “wrote the LA Progressive’s Linda Malazzo who has been covering the race to represent what is historically a strongly Democratic district that runs from Marina del Rey to Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and on to San Pedro.

“Issues concerning Israel don’t regularly affect the day to day lives of the majority of its residents who care mostly about jobs, healthcare and housing,” notes Malazzo. “18.3% of the under 65 population of the 36th CD have no health insurance. Over 7,500 home foreclosures took place in 2009 and another 25,000 foreclosures are anticipated over the next four years.”

“Some Harman supporters fear that Winograd’s progressive stands on social issues and her opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may appeal to many Jewish voters,” wrote Tom Tugend, in the LA Jewish Journal, “especially those not familiar with the challenger’s views on Israel.”

The competition for trade union support has been intense. While Harman bagged the backing of ILWU Local 13th on April 15, two days earlier Winograd scored a major coup when the ILWU Southern California District Council, representing 14 locals, including Local 13, broke precedence and ranks with Democratic Party officials and gave Winograd its unqualified endorsement.

ILWU District Council President, Rich Dines, praised Winograd’s commitment to organized labor. “Marcy Winograd’s commitment to protecting and enhancing workers’ rights, funding federal job creation, and tackling unfair trade agreements is why we support her candidacy for Congress. As leaders in the labor movement, we proudly and enthusiastically endorse Marcy and look forward to working with her to keep more Americans on the job, in their homes, and inspired to organize.”

Among Winograd’s name endorsements are Daniel Ellsberg, Ed Asner, Gore Vidal, Jim Hightower, Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, Jodie Evans, co-founder of Code Pink, former California Assembly Member Jackie Goldberg, and Norman Solomon, of Progressive Democrats of America.

At a hectic California state Democratic Convention, the chair, former congressman John Burton, rammed the endorsement process through as quickly as he could with Harman winning 599 votes to 417 for Winograd which was an extraordinary showing for a primary challenger.

In May of last year, Harman told POLITICO that she doesn’t mind a primary challenge. “It’s a democracy,” said Harman, “and anyone is entitled to run. I’m in a strong position politically in my district and working on key issues that affect my constituents and the country, including homeland security, climate change and health care reform.”

By this March, Harman did not appear so dedicated to democracy. When incumbent and challenger were invited by the LA Jewish Journal’s Rob Eshman to debate, “Winograd, the challenger, quickly accepted,” wrote Eshman. “It’s taken a while to get a response from Harman, but yesterday her chief of staff e-mailed me a firm but polite no.

‘Hi Rob—thank you for your message and your invitation. However, Congresswoman Harman declines the kind offer and believes her views on Israel are very clear. John H.’

“Too bad, we even had a venue: Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Temple Mishkon Tephilo had offered his 800-seat sanctuary gratis.

“I understand why Harman, who beat Winograd in the last race has little to gain from exposing herself to her opponent. But my reason for holding the debate had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the state of The State of Israel and the American Left. Both Harman and Winograd are Democrats. Harman represents a broad consensus view for a two state solution to the Israeli Palestinian issue, and strong American political and financial support for Israel. Winograd made clear in a speech that she supports a one-state solution and a deep reconsideration of America’s stand vis a vis Israel. This divide is a crucial one among Democrats on the Left, Far Left and Center, and the more open and intelligent debate on it, the better. That’s my point of view. Clearly, it’s not Harman’s.

“Too bad,” concluded Eshman.

A complete list of endorsers on Marcy Winograd and her stand on the issues can be found on

Information on Jane Harman’s assets and the names of her contributors can be found on

Where Harman stands on some issues can be found on her website:

Curiously, there is no mention there of her support for Israel.

Jeffrey Blankfort can be contacted at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

John Spritzler: Why Do they Single Out Israel?

Why Do They Single Out Israel?

by John Spritzler

"How come you single out Israel for its faults, but never criticize other governments for doing things just as bad?" This is what apologists for the Israeli government say to those, like myself, who criticize it. Their not-so-subtle implication is that critics of the Israeli government are really just motivated by antisemitism and therefore their views should not be given credence.

Since I do indeed focus more on Israel's faults than the faults of other countries, it is only fitting and proper that I should explain why. Here is why.

To start with, I admit that the Israeli government is certainly not the only government that does terrible things to innocent people, using lies to justify the unjustifiable. Nor do I claim that Israel's government is worse than others in this respect. Virtually all governments oppress their own people so that inordinate power and privileges are enjoyed by a ruling elite. The Chinese government is no exception. Neither is the Iranian government. Additionally the Russian government oppresses the Chechen people; the Saudi government is particularly oppressive of Saudi women; and the U.S. government kills innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq, not to mention millions whom it killed earlier in Vietnam and elsewhere. Lots of governments commit terrible crimes. Who can quantify the wrongness of these crimes and say "this one is the worst" and "this one is not as bad"?

Before I explain why I focus on it so much, let us at least agree about what the Israeli government is doing, whether or not it is the worst crime being committed by any government in the world today. The Israeli government is carrying out brutal and violent ethnic cleansing against Palestinians, which is a terrible thing. Millions of Palestinians are refugees--living in refugee camps in places like the Gaza Strip section of Palestine, and in other countries such as Lebanon. They lost all of the property they once owned and are refugees from their own country of Palestine--the place where they were born, or would have been born had not the Zionist military forces (that became the Israeli military in 1948) violently driven their parents, or grandparents in some cases now, out of their villages throughout the 78% of Palestine that is now called "Israel" in 1947 and 1948 and again later in1967. Israel continues this ethnic cleansing today by denying the refugees their right of return and by making life as unpleasant as possible for Palestinians (for example massacring civilians in Gaza last December/January) in an effort to make them depart from all of Palestine "voluntarily." Israel does not let these refugees return to their country for only one reason--they are not Jewish.

But why focus on Israel? Why focus on this crime above all others?

I do it for three reasons.

#1. As an American I have a duty to focus on my own government's mis-deeds more than on other government's mis-deeds ("the log in my own eye, as opposed to the mote in my neighbor's eye," as a wise man once put it), and my focus on Israel is actually a focus on the wrongness of my own government's over-the-top and virtually unconditional support for the Israeli government's ethnic cleansing. It is my government, not I, who has singled out Israel from all other countries to receive military, diplomatic (all those UN vetos!) and economic (no-strings-attached loans!) aid far surpassing that given to any other nation.

#2. Also as an American, I want to expose the Big Lie that the American ruling class uses to control ordinary Americans. The Big Lie is a) that there are lots of evil people who commit terrorist violence against us and against Israelis simply out of an irrational hatred of freedom and an antisemitic hatred of Jews and of anybody who defends Jews from such hateful violence, b) that our government is waging a War on Terror to defend good people against these evil people, and c) that we must obey our leaders during this war and surrender basic freedoms we once held dear in order to win it.

Exposing this Big Lie requires focusing on Israel because one of the main reasons Americans believe the Big Lie is that they see so many news reports about Palestinians violently attacking Israel and they do not understand the true reason why Palestinians do this. Our corporate-controlled mass media never explain that Israel, as a Jewish state that uses ethnic cleansing to ensure it has at least an 80% Jewish population, oppresses Palestinians because they are not Jewish. Nor does the media explain that Israel defines itself as a state of the Jewish people and not a state of all its citizens, that it enacts laws that discriminate against non-Jews, and that Palestinian anger at this is not hateful antisemitism but simply anger at being ethnically cleansed from their own country. By portraying the justified anger of Palestinians (and of all the Arabs and Muslims who share it) as unjustified irrational antisemitic and "anti-freedom" hatred, our rulers try to persuade us that the War on Terror is a real war against a real enemy when in fact it is an Orwellian war of social control. To expose this lie one must "focus on Israel" to explain the truth about Palestinian (and Arab and Muslim) anger at the U.S. and Israeli governments.

#3. Even were I not an American, however, and even if the Israeli government's ethnic cleansing were not being used by the American ruling class to force Palestinians into a conflict with the Israeli government that enables our mass media to portray them as a "bogeyman" hateful terrorist enemy, there would remain one more reason to focus on Israel, which is this.

The Israeli government's crime of ethnic cleansing is, in one important respect, worse than the crimes that other governments commit. When other governments oppress people they of course lie about their reasons, but they almost never equate opposition to such oppression with bigotry and in the rare cases when they do so this assertion is not taken seriously by most people in the world. When Americans opposed our government's invasion and bombing of Vietnam, nobody ever accused them of being bigots for it. When people oppose the Saudi government's oppression of women, nobody ever accuses them of being bigots for it. When people oppose the Chinese government's oppression of workers and peasants, nobody ever accuses them of being bigots for it.

But when people oppose the Israeli government's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the entire spectrum of political and corporate and academic leaders in the United States equate that righteous stand against oppression with antisemitism! People are labeled antisemites and thereby have their reputations smeared just for defending the 13th article of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." (It doesn't say "except Palestinians.") The Israeli government is the only one that commits its particular crime in the name of righteousness, in the name of fighting racism and bigotry. It carries out ethnic cleansing of non-Jews in the name of fighting antisemitism. And it uses organizations with righteous names like "Anti-Defamation League" to accuse anybody who opposes this crime of being an antisemite.
Think about it. When many crimes are being committed, but only one of those crimes is done under the cover of "fighting bigotry" and only one of the criminals dares to equate opposition to their crime with bigotry, then is it not reasonable to focus on that crime, even if it is in other respects not the worst one? The victims of the other crimes will get support from the many good people of the world who oppose injustice and oppression. But the victims of a crime carried out by a criminal who persuades the world of the lie that the crime is actually a battle against antisemitism will not receive the support they deserve. Good people of the world, to their great credit, detest antisemitism and will support the side they believe is fighting against it. This is precisely why it is so important that those who do understand what is actually happening, who do understand that the crime is a crime and not a righteous defense against antisemitism, focus on exposing the lie. This means focusing on the crimes of the Israeli government.