The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

Musings about politics, religion, law, art and marriage - what else is there?

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Saturday, February 08, 2003
Gbagbo's decision

President Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d'Ivoire asked his country to give the peace accord a chance:

He told supporters who have staged days of often-violent demonstrations against the French-brokered agreement to "try this medicine."

"If we get better, then we keep it. If not, we try something else," Gbagbo said on national television.

Gbagbo's address to the country had been delayed for more than a week, and speculation was rife as to whether he would denounce the accord or support it at the risk of angering his own party. He has spent the last several days consulting with Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who may have played a role in convincing him to back the peace deal.

Thus far, the government-held part of the country has remained relatively calm; there have been scattered demonstrations against the accord, but nothing to match the 100,000-strong marches that took place last week. The fragility of the situation, however, was underscored by an entirely different anti-government demonstration in which 1500 opposition supporters protested the death of popular entertainer Ash Karamoko Kamara. Kamara was found dead last week after being kidnaped from his home by security forces.

Talks to resume

Prime Minister Sharon has announced that high-level negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will resume, and offered a proposal for resumption of Israeli- Palestinian security cooperation and gradual withdrawal from the areas reoccupied by Israel last year. The Palestinians are studying the proposals.

Like many of Sharon's improvisations in the West Bank and Gaza, these proposals may have as much to do with domestic politics as with the matsav; Sharon aide Dov Weisglass openly acknowledged that signs of progress with the Palestinians might facilitate Avoda's entry into a unity government. Avoda has reaffirmed its unwillingness to sit in a Sharon government unless it agrees to abandon at least some of the settlements and expedite the completion of the security fence; the settlements remain a sticking point between the parties, but neither is ready to rule out eventual cooperation.

Prison memories

Sketches by Nelson Mandela of themes from his imprisonment on Robben Island will be exhibited this week on the island where he was a prisoner for 27 years. Mandela received training from a professional artist and returned to Robben Island last year to draw the sketches, some of which have been on show at London's Belgravia Gallery.

Is that a pig flying?

David Govrin, a member of the Israeli United Nations mission, was elected by the General Assembly as a vice-president of a "working group that will help organize a disarmament conference next year." According to Ha'aretz, Govrin - who was nominated by the "Western European and Others" regional group, of which Israel is now part - is the first Israeli elected to a post by the General Assembly since 1961. In fact, Israeli judge Meir Gabay (scroll down to page 33) was elected in the early 1990s as vice-president of the administrative court that handles United Nations labor and employment issues, and has since been appointed to a second term. Govrin, however, is the first Israeli in more than three decades to take part in a UN group with an international political mission rather than a purely administrative one.

Friday, February 07, 2003
Good news from Palestine, part 1

Earlier, I linked to Good News from Israel, a blog containing stories about the everyday Israeli achievements that are often overlooked amid the background noise of the Israeli-Arab conflict. I think it's important to highlight these stories, and to show the positive side of Israel that never seems to make the news. However, the blog also contains a page entitled "Palestine News," which, as al- Muhajabah pointed out, isn't nearly as positive.

I looked for a similar site about Palestinian achievements, but I wasn't able to find one. Thus, in keeping with the point of view of this blog - that both Israelis and Palestinians are productive, creative people with much to offer the world - I'm starting a weekly column called "Good News from Palestine." I'd like my readers - yes, all three of you - to send me positive stories about Palestinians. Every week, I will link to the stories sent to me. The following rules apply:

* The stories can be about Palestinians anywhere in the world - in Israel, Palestine or the diaspora.

* They must involve the achievements of Palestinians in science, medicine, music, the arts, business, sports, humanitarian or charitable causes, or other positive activities.

* They cannot be directly related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although they can involve Palestinians and Jews doing things together).

* They should be recent stories - ideally less than a week old, but I'll accept anything from the past two months.

As a first item of good news, Palestinian-American artist Emily Jacir is one of four women whose work is on exhibit at Shatat: Arab Diaspora Women Artists at the Colorado University Art Galleries until March 23, 2003. More to come.

For positive thinkers

I've added Good News from Israel to my blogroll. If you want to read about the positive, everyday things that happen in Israel and have nothing to do with the Israeli-Arab conflict, he's got plenty of links.

A dual tribute

Imshin's blog has an excellent celebration of Israel's open society and tolerance for contrariness. I'm a contrary person myself, and Israelis' famous frankness is one of the reasons I have such a strong affinity with Israel, but Imshin explains much better than I could why this is a good thing.

I'm not going to quote anything from her substantive discussion - go over there now and read it. Her introduction, though, also struck a very strong chord:

I remember walking past the closed door of my parents bedroom, late one night, when I was a teenager, and hearing them talking. As a neurotic teenager, my instinctive reaction was panic. “Oh, no. They’re talking. It must be about me. What have I done?” Years later, remembering this as an adult, still neurotic but less so, I thought, “They were talking. That’s nice.”

It’s nice to be privileged enough to be married to your good friend.

It certainly is. And Naomi, if you're reading this, you're my best friend in the world, and it is an extraordinary privilege to be married to you.

Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim's day in court

The third trial of Egyptian intellectual Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim got under way in Egypt's highest court, the Court of Cassation. Ibrahim, a respected sociologist and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, has twice been convicted of defaming the state for his exposures of government corruption and electoral manipulation. Each of his previous trials was held in a special state security court and resulted in a seven-year prison sentence, but in the most recent appeal, the Court of Cassation cited procedural errors and contradictory testimony, and ruled that it would retry Ibrahim itself.

It is unusual for the Court of Cassation to function as a trial court, and the proceeding, which was held February 4, was less a trial than a re-examination of the evidence supplied at previous hearings. The atmosphere, however, was very different:

For almost seven hours, the court listened to the defence's arguments. After a brief comment from the prosecution, presiding Judge Fathi Khalifa, who heads the court, then adjourned the retrial until 18 March. Unlike previous trials, defence lawyers were allowed to finish their arguments in one session. "It was obvious that the judges had done their homework well," said Ibrahim. "I was genuinely impressed by the judges' knowledge of the details of the case, which gave me additional confidence and restored my trust [in the judicial system]."

The Court of Cassation, which has the stature to avoid many of the subtle manipulations that the Egyptian government exercises in the lower courts, has a long-standing reputation for independence. In the wake of the recent indictment of the Egyptian judicial system by a retired appellate judge, an acquittal of Ibrahim on March 18 would be a step toward reaffirming its integrity.

From Fiji to Rwanda

Jai Ram Reddy has been appointed a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. For Reddy, a respected judge of the Fiji Court of Appeal and a leader of the Indian community in Fiji, the appointment represents the capstone of a long and successful career, but is made poignant by the fact that he is a prophet without honor in his own country.

For decades, Reddy, a New Zealand-educated barrister, has been a leader of the Indo-Fijians' movement for equal rights and full citizenship. Unlike many other Indo-Fijian leaders, however, he has emphasized the need for national reconciliation and mutual respect rather than taking a confrontational attitude. Such an approach seems archaic in the wake of the 19 May 2000 coup by ethnic Fijian nationalists and the increasingly polarized politics that followed the Fiji Court of Appeal's restoration of constitutional rule, but it may remain the only course that will lead Fiji to a stable and democratic future.

Fiji has long been divided between indigenous Fijians and Indian immigrants who were imported as girmitya (contract laborers) or small merchants during the British colonial period. Between independence in 1970 and the 1987 general election, Fiji was ruled by the Alliance party, which was dominated by traditional chiefs from the minor islands east of Viti Levu. In 1987, however, Dr. Timoci Bavadra's Fiji Labour Party swept to power and installed a mostly-Indian cabinet. Reddy, who was then a leader of the National Federation Party, was named Attorney General.

The installation of the Bavadra government, however, was met with a military coup by then-Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka returned to barracks shortly after the coup, but after multi-party talks moderated by the British governor-general failed to reach a resolution satisfactory to nationalist Fijians, he again seized control of the state. Rabuka declared Fiji a republic and ruled for five years at the head of a military government before holding elections under a new constitution that ensured that ethnic Fijians would hold the balance of power. In the first general election in 1992, Reddy was elected to the House of Representatives and became a leader of the constitutional opposition.

By 1995, however, Rabuka had experienced a change of heart about Fijian supremacy, and he reversed course and joined forces with Reddy. He empaneled a commission to revise the constitution, which led to the Constitution Amendment Act of 1997. This constitution distributed parliamentary seats more proportionally among ethnic groups, ensured that the balance of power would be held by multiracial "open seats," mandated broad-based multiparty governments and removed the disabilities that the previous constitution had imposed on Indo-Fijians. Throughout this process, Reddy was Rabuka's willing partner, and spoke to both the Indian and Fijian communities about the need for reconciliation and understanding.

In the 1999 general elections, though - the first to be held under the 1997 constitution - both Reddy and Rabuka were defeated at the polls, and the increasingly radicalized Indo-Fijian community supported firebrand Labour leader Mahendra Chaudhry. Amid tensions over expiring agricultural leases and opposing radical rhetoric from indigenous Fijian nationalists, Chaudhry's government lasted precisely one year before falling to the coup. When constitutional rule was restored in March 2001, the resulting general election revealed an even more polarized electorate. Labour - which had received considerable Fijian support in 1999 - was shut out in the Fijian seats and the Fijian-majority open seats. The Indian seats, in contrast, went entirely to Labour. The National Federation Party, and the moderate biracial New Labour Unity Party, won one and two seats respectively, being rejected by the Indian and Fijian communities in favor of more radical parties. Reddy, who had been appointed an appellate judge following the 1999 election, sat out the 2001 vote, his message of reconciliation largely unheard.

There have been a few hopeful signs in Fiji since the 2001 election. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has disappointed many of his more nationalist supporters and has, at times, pursued reconciliation with the Indo-Fijian community. In the municipal elections of October 2002, the National Federation Party also regained some of its strength and allied with moderate Fijians to keep control of the capital city. In the national parliament, however, Qarase's Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (Fiji United Party) still rules in alliance with the strongly nationalist Conservative Alliance-Matanitu Vanua, and the NFP's partial comeback was not enough to prevent Labour from making gains among Indo-Fijians in key cities. As Jai Ram Reddy takes up his post with the Rwanda tribunal, he is respected by all but, unfortunately, listened to by few.

An international forum

In the past week, I've had visits from the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the UK, a total of 20 countries. I'd like to extend all my visitors, whether American or foreign, a warm welcome.

UPDATE: I got a visit the other day from South Africa; all continents except South America and Antarctica are now represented.

Honor killings

Zack Ajmal has an excellent discussion of honor killings in Pakistan and the efforts currently being made to combat them [1, 2].

Thursday, February 06, 2003
Axis of Evil alert

Salam is back in business, and I've found a good Tehrani blog in English, Notes of an Iranian Girl. Now all I need is one from North Korea...

Tsvangirai trial, day 4

The defense in the Morgan Tsvangirai treason trial got the chance to cross-examine star prosecution witness Ari Ben-Menashe today, and "grilled him until he sweated." The cross-examination by veteran South African civil rights lawyer George Bizos focused on Ben-Menashe's criminal record:

Bizos accused Ben-Menashe of being a "fraudster" and of spinning "untruths". He said his reputation for dishonesty and fraudulent behaviour had actually put his credibility on trial. The Zambian US$6 million maize scam in which Ben-Menashe was implicated was cited.

"There is a similarity between the fraud we say was committed against the MDC and its office bearers, and other frauds committed by the witness (Ben-Menashe) and his companies, by interfering in high-profile political matters, getting money, and then turning the tables against the people to whom the fraudulent representation were made," said Bizos.

Ben-Menashe, who took time to "advertise his admiration for Mugabe's leadership and policies," engaged in a "shouting match" with Bizos at one particularly tense point during the interrogation.

A Financial Gazette report has also clarified Ben-Menashe's earlier allegations that the CIA was involved in a plot to assassinate Mugabe. In fact, Ben-Menashe's testimony was that "a man named Edward Simms from a group dubbed 'Team America' took part in a videotaped meeting" with Tsvangirai. Ben-Menashe "said he believed the term 'Team America' was a code name" for the CIA, but there is no proof actually linking Simms to any American government agency.

Courting danger

The Cairo Times reports that retired Egyptian appellate judge Yehia Al Refai has published a devastating memorandum about government manipulation of the Egyptian judicial system. The Egyptian courts are historically independent, and post-Nasser governments have been reluctant to interfere directly with the judiciary, but the state has found more subtle means of persuasion and intimidation. These include the ability to appoint court attorneys and the establishment of a supervisory board "to look into complaints against judges and make recommendations."

The state's greatest leverage, however, is financial, due to traditionally low judicial salaries:

A former High State Security Court judge who largely agrees with Al Refai’’s arguments, told the Cairo Times that the issue of the judges’’ income lies in the heart of the struggle for the nation’’s judicial independence.

The salaries of the judges have always been low," he said on condition of anonymity. "When police officers complained to [Nasser’s Minister of Interior] Sharaawi Gomaa about their salaries, he told them: ‘You get more money than the judges themselves!’"

The judiciary’s self-sufficiency could not have been helped when salary increases almost stopped in the mid-1990s. A "social security fund" became the means of providing the needed additional income for the judiciary. The fund currently accounts for around 50 percent of the judges’ incomes, the former judge added.

This social security fund is controlled by the Minister of Justice, who also has the power to dole out bonuses, incentives and overtime pay. Al Refai charged that "the ministry favors some judges over the others" in distributing these discretionary funds. Pro-government judges are also favored for government jobs; there is no prohibition against judges holding other employment, and some serve as governors in addition to judges.

Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of Judiciary and Legal Profession, praised recent Egyptian judicial reforms such as the implementation of a family court system and the appointment of the first woman judge, but argued that the judiciary must be made separate from the Ministry of Justice in order to insure judicial independence.

Musical farms

Zimbabwe prosecutors have dropped criminal charges against 41 white farmers who have refused to vacate their property:

The farmers were initially charged with contravening the Land Acquisition Act, under which their properties were earmarked for the resettlement of peasant and aspiring black commercial farmers in the government’s agrarian reforms.

White farmers were given 90 days in which to cease production and vacate their properties, and several of those failing to do so were arrested and brought before the courts.

The withdrawal of charges comes in the wake of continued negotiations between the Mugabe government and the Commercial Farmers' Union. According to CFU president Colin Cloete, "the Ministry of Agriculture is said to have promised white farmers that those wishing to continue farming would be allocated land."

In the meantime, Zambia is hoping to lure displaced commercial farmers by giving away up to 190,000 hectares of unoccupied land. Commercial farmers will be eligible for grants of 1000 hectares, with larger plots available to those with the financial resources to develop them. Zambian agriculture ministry officials "said the government had targeted some of Zimbabwe’s white farmers, whose land was seized for blacks by President Robert Mugabe." There are currently more than 130 expatriate Zimbabwean farmers in Zambia, who will also be eligible for free land.

UPDATE: Cloete has denied reaching an agreement and indicated that the Zimbabwe government's assurances of compensation and land tenure are insufficient, but negotiations are continuing.

End of a party

Yisrael Ba'aliya has merged with Likud to form a 40-seat Knesset faction. Natan Sharansky, who founded the party and brought Russian immigrants into the Israeli political spotlight, has been promised the post of diaspora minister in the next government.

The dissolution of Yisrael Ba'aliya came after it fell to two seats in the recent Knesset election from six in the previous one and seven in 1996. Some observers have characterized this as a sign that the party's work is done, and that Jews from the former Soviet Union are now part of the Israeli mainstream. The move faced opposition from many Yisrael Ba'aliya municipal officials, however, who felt that the party still has a role to play at the local level (and, doubtless, that their chances of re-election will decrease if the slates for the next local elections are chosen by Likud party committees).

In the meantime, further cracks are showing in Avoda's refusal to join a unity government, as Amram Mitzna said he would hold unity talks if Likud agreed to his party platform. To say the least, it isn't likely that Likud will do that, but Avoda has now moved from categorical opposition to opposition based on specific issues. This leaves the door open for a future compromise - possibly brokered by Shinui - in which the government guidelines include some of Avoda's key demands.

Over there

20 American troops are on the ground in Côte d'Ivoire:

A U.S. Embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the men were a "military advisory team ... in Abidjan to monitor the situation with us." The official refused further comment.

In the meantime, President Gbagbo is in Ghana to consult with the president of that country, John Kufuor, on whether the peace deal can be saved. Kufuor will also meet with rebel leaders this weekend. Both sides have accused each other of cease-fire violations within the past 24 hours.

Haloscan strikes again

The missing comments are back, but everything from yesterday is now gone...

Wednesday, February 05, 2003
The national minority solution

Israel's Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty describes it as a "Jewish and democratic state." Ever since the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 14 May 1948, Israel has defined itself as both a Jewish state and a democratic country in which minorities can "participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship." In practice, however, these two objectives have frequently been in tension, and non-Jewish Israelis have been subject to considerable social and administrative discrimination.

There has been considerable debate, in Israel and elsewhere, about whether the tension between Israel's Jewish and democratic goals is inherent or whether they can be reconciled. As I've stated on many prior occasions, I regard the two as logically compatible, and I believe that the rights of Arab Israelis can be fully realized within the framework of a Jewish state. I have suggested a solution sometimes advocated by Arab and Jewish intellectuals and political parties - recognition of Arab Israelis as a "national minority" with on the European model. This is one of my few areas of agreement with Azmi Bishara, who makes a compelling case for national minority status as part of Arab Israelis' reconciliation with their Israeli identity.

This leads, naturally, to the question of exactly what a national minority is. The term "national minority" in international law is less than ten years old, and is used primarily in Europe; definitions vary, but the consensus is that it applies to distinct ethnic or cultural groups who are entitled to collective rights by virtue of their long-standing ties to a country. There is also some confusion between the legal definitions of "national minority" and "indigenous population," the latter of which refers to ethnic groups that resided in settler states prior to settlement. The rights of indigenous populations in international law are somewhat broader than those accorded to national minorities, but are less widely recognized.

The concerns of indigenous populations and national minorities substantially overlap, and the dividing line between the two can be blurred. The transition from indigenous population to national minority is sometimes only a matter of time; Corsicans or French-Canadians, for instance, may have been conquered peoples two centuries ago, but have by now forged distinct identities in the nation-states of which they are part. An ethnic group can be both a national minority and an indigenous population, or a hybrid combining characteristics of both, and Israeli Arabs - who are descended from late Ottoman and Mandatory-period immigrants as well as centuries-old local families, and who have half a century of partial assimilation behind them - are at least partway along the transition. Neither model in its pure form can resolve their status, but a workable solution may be possible that combines elements of both.

International Law Foundations Prior to 1991

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 enshrined the principles of equality, democratic governance and non-discrimination as principles of international law, the first specific recognition of the rights of indigenous minorities did not occur until nine years later. In 1957, the International Labour Organization (ILO) promulgated the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention (No. 107). This convention, conceived primarily as a result of the ILO's work among indigenous Andean populations, was ratified by 27 countries and is still in force in 18, primarily post-colonial nations in the Americas, Africa and the Islamic world.

The 1957 convention applied primarily to "members of tribal or semi-tribal populations in independent countries which are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation." In keeping with the somewhat paternalistic attitudes of the time, the convention was framed in terms of the obligations of nation-states rather than the rights of the indigenous populations, and was distinctly assimilationist in its goals.

Nations having indigenous groups were called upon to "creat[e] possibilities of national integration to the exclusion of measures tending towards the artificial assimilation of these populations," and to provide equal access to education and employment with a view toward eventual integration. The convention recognized the obligation of governments to protect the institutions, property and persons of indigenous peoples and to allow use of native languages, but stated that "[p]rovision shall be made for a progressive transition from the mother tongue or the vernacular language to the national language or to one of the official languages of the country." In like fashion, the treaty recognized "[t]he right of ownership, collective or individual, of the members of the populations concerned over the lands which these populations traditionally occupy," but allowed indigenous people to be removed from their land "in accordance with national laws and regulations for reasons relating to national security."

By the 1980s, the convention was increasingly regarded as obsolete, particularly in light of other developments in international law. In the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1976, for instance, rights such as cultural expression were first framed in the context of national self-determination. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force the same year, spelled out the rights of minorities with even more specificity:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

Accordingly, in June 1989, the ILO redrafted its recommendations on the status of indigenous peoples to take into account the greater emphasis on minority self-determination. In the meantime, as the European Union developed from a primarily economic into a political entity, a distinctly European human rights framework, including provisions for the treatment of ethnic minorities, began to take shape. These parallel developments resulted in the two documents to which indigenous minorities look today in determining their legal status.

The Modern Conception of National Minorities

The ILO's revised Convention (No. 169) Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries entered into force in 1991, and has been ratified by 13 countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Fiji, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Norway, Netherlands, Paraguay and Peru. The "tribal or semi-tribal" qualification of the 1957 convention was removed from the definition of "indigenous," which was broadened to include:

Peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present State boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

A more radical change, however, resulted from the treaty's conception of indigenous populations as entities having positive collective rights to self-determination rather than backward peoples to be "civilized" through assimilation to the majority culture. The convention continued to emphasize the need for improvement in indigenous peoples' standard of living and elimination of social and economic disparities, but now required that governments "consult the peoples concerned" when implementing these goals. Indigenous peoples were accorded "the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development" and to participate in all "plans and programmes for national development which may affect them directly," as well as an implied right to their own representative institutions.

The 1991 convention also placed much more emphasis on indigenous land rights, requiring governments to "guarantee effective protection of [indigenous groups'] right of ownership and possession," including natural resources in the definition of indigenous lands and specifically protecting nomadic peoples' right to lands used for subsistence. Language rights and education provisions were also strengthened and placed under greater indigenous control. Finally, in recognition of the fact that many indigenous peoples existed on both sides of artificially-drawn colonial borders, the treaty provided that "[g]overnments shall take appropriate measures, including... international agreements, to facilitate contacts and co-operation between indigenous and tribal peoples across borders, including activities in the economic, social, cultural, spiritual and environmental fields."

At the same time, a framework for minority rights was developing in Europe, where the distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous populations - with the exception of recent labor immigration - had far less meaning. The result was Council of Europe Treaty 157, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, promulgated on 2 January 1995 and currently ratified by 35 countries. The great majority of European countries have ratified the treaty, although France - which objects to the convention's provisions about minority language rights - is a notable exception. Italy and the Benelux countries have also not ratified the convention, but Belgium and the Netherlands both make provision for minority institutions under domestic law.

The convention contains some glaring omissions, most critically its failure to define the term "national minority." A number of signatory countries have made declarations to the treaty providing their view of what national minorities are; some limit the definition to specific groups, while others opt for a more general definition involving distinct identity and long-standing ties to the country. One representative definition is provided by the domestic law of Estonia:

This Law considers as national minorities citizens of Estonia who:

- reside on the territory of Estonia;
- maintain longstanding, firm and lasting ties with Estonia;
- are distinct from Estonians on the basis of their ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic characteristics;
- are motivated by a concern to preserve together their cultural traditions, their religion or their language which constitute the basis of their common identity

Among the groups most commonly designated as national minorities are the Roma, who have that status throughout central and eastern Europe. The status of Jews with respect to the convention is far less certain, with some countries regarding them as an ethnic group and others as a religion only. Of the countries that specified their national minorities in declarations to the treaty, Sweden is the only one to list Jews. Romania regards Jews as a national minority under domestic law, and Finland also considers Jews a national minority along with Sami, Roma, "Old Russians" (people of Russian ethnicity whose families resided in Finland before independence) and Tatars.

Unlike the ILO convention, the Council of Europe treaty makes clear that national minority status is an individual as well as a collective right, and that members of national minorities have the right "freely to choose to be treated or not to be treated as such." This provision accounts for such anomalies as the fact that Finnish Swedophones are only a "de facto" national minority:

The Advisory Committee has been informed by representatives of the Swedish Assembly of Finland that they consider the Swedish-speaking Finns not to constitute a national minority for the purposes of the Framework Convention. At the same time, a number of persons belonging to this minority have informed the Advisory Committee - including in the course of the above-mentioned visit to Helsinki on 23 - 24 August 1999 - that they do wish to rely on the protection provided by the Framework Convention. The Government in its Report considers that the Swedish-speaking Finns are de facto covered by the Framework Convention.

Those who choose to be treated as national minorities are afforded a broad spectrum of rights under the convention. Persons belonging to national minorities are entitled not only to equality before the law but, "where necessary," to "adequate measures in order to promote, in all areas of social, political and cultural life, full and effective equality" with the majority. Governments ratifying the treaty must undertake to "promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture," and to promote education, research and expression of minorities' culture, language and history.

Members of minorities have the right to use their native languages in public and in private and to "receive information and ideas" through minority-language media and cultural institutions. National minorities are likewise entitled to "set up and manage" educational institutions in which students are taught in their native language. As with indigenous peoples, national minorities are entitled to "establish and maintain free and peaceful contacts across frontiers with persons... with whom they share an ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity," and governments must "take measures to encourage transfrontier cooperation."

There are, nevertheless, important differences between the treatment of indigenous populations and national minorities under international law. The convention relating to national minorities is much less territorially focused, as it includes dispersed groups as well as territorially concentrated populations. There are no provisions dealing with land rights, although signatories are required to "refrain from measures which alter the proportions of the population in areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities." In addition, the Council of Europe convention creates neither an express nor an implied right to political institutions. In several European countries, however, domestic law has synthesized the indigenous population and national minority models to provide greater self-determination.

Minority Case Studies: Catalans, Swedophones and Saami

One of the most successful examples of minority self-government has occurred in Spain, where the decentralization and democratization processes of the post-Franco era led to the establishment of the Generalitat of Catalunya. The elected government of the Generalitat has sole jurisdiction over land use, infrastructure, planning, civil law, culture, social services, sports and many other matters. Catalonia is practically a country within a country, with its own flag and anthem and with Catalan as a co-official language along with Castilian Spanish. Catalonia is the most complete fusion of the national minority and indigenous models, and probably represents the maximum practical extent of minority self-determination. The Catalans are, however, far more territorially concentrated and politically powerful than Israeli Arabs; their experience is relevant mainly as an example from which particular aspects may be taken rather than as a realistic political goal.

Another successful experiment, and a more analogous one, has occurred among the Swedophones of Finland. Swedophones, who form about 6 percent of the Finnish population, are not as territorially concentrated as Catalans, with large communities in southwestern Finland (particularly the city of Turku/Åbo) and Helsinki. Swedophones in Finland proper are afforded the European national minority package, with Swedish as a co-official language and state-funded educational and cultural institutions. In the Province of Åland, however, where Swedophones are an overwhelming majority, they have greater autonomy, approaching that of the Catalans.

Swedish is the official language of Åland, which has its own parliament with broad powers conferred by the Act on the Autonomy of Åland. Chapter 3 of the Act gives the Åland government power to tax as well as authority over land use and planning, local policing and education; the assembly also has authority to establish administrative courts and create offenses punishable by fines. Residents of Åland may, in lieu of mandatory service in the Finnish military, perform alternative service as lighthouse workers or harbor pilots. Prior to 1994, the Åland assembly could even determine qualifications for domicile and land ownership, although that provision has since been revoked in conformance with European Union directives.

The position of Swedophones in Åland is, in fact, so secure that the Council of Europe has seriously considered whether Finns who reside there should be granted national minority status:

... the Finnish-speaking population living in the province of Åland can be considered a "minority-in-a-minority". Taking into account the level of autonomy enjoyed and/or the nature of the powers exercised by the Province of Åland, the Advisory Committee is of the opinion that the Finnish-speaking population there could also be given the possibility to rely on the protection provided by the Framework Convention as far as the issues concerned are within the competence of the Province of Åland.

The special status of Åland, however, does not appear to have interfered with the mission of the Finnish state as a whole.

The Sami have also sought to improve their legal status within the national minority framework, but their efforts have been complicated by the fact that they are a small, dispersed minority spread across national borders. In recent years, however, Norway, Finland and Sweden have each established representative Sami institutions, and the three national governments have allowed increasing cross-border cooperation. In addition to the Saami Council, which has existed since 1956 as a coordinating body of Sami organizations in the Scandinavian countries and Russia, the three Sami parliaments held their first joint session in 2000.

The autonomy of the Sami does not match that of Catalonia or Åland. The Sami parliaments are able to control local development to some extent through the funds they receive for educational and cultural institutions, but they are subordinate to the national government and have no real legislative authority. Recently, however, Norway and Finland have recognized reciprocal obligations of the state to consult with the Sami assemblies on any matter affecting the Sami population or traditional lands. In addition, the Sami parliaments carry considerable moral authority through their ability to speak for their constituents in the national capitals. This has resulted in the Sami making some headway with respect to traditionally contentious forestry, fishing and pastureland issues, and has provided them with a recognized channel for making the community's views known.

National Minorities in Israel?

Israel has, potentially, both Jewish and non-Jewish national minorities. Israeli Jews are far from monolithic, and there are several ethnically and culturally distinct Jewish populations. In at least some respects, the Shas and Yisrael Ba'aliya represented an attempt to obtain national minority status for Mizrahim and Russian immigrants respectively. The possibility of Jewish national minorities in Israel is a fascinating one, but the problems of the non-Jewish minorities are more immediate. As discussed above, non-Jewish Israelis combine the characteristics of national minorities and indigenous populations, and a long-term solution to their grievances will have to combine elements of both models.

The three primary non-Jewish minorities - Druze, Bedouins and Palestinian Arabs - already have many of the rights granted to national minorities and indigenous peoples under international law. Arabic is an official language of the State of Israel, and government documents are published in Arabic as well as Hebrew. Israel has Arabic-language media, and Arabic-language schools under the control of Arab institutions. Non-Jewish Israelis are exempt from national service (with the exception of Druze and Bedouins, who chose to serve voluntarily), and have both state-funded and independent cultural institutions. Non-Jewish religious institutions are under the control of religious authorities chosen by the relevant community. In terms of linguistic, religious and cultural rights, Israel actually compares quite favorably to many European countries in its treatment of non-Jewish minorities.

Where Israel falls short is the areas of political and social protection. Arab Israelis have the vote and are represented in the national legislature, but, with the exception of local governments and religious authorities, they do not have governmental bodies of their own. At the national level, non-Jewish Israelis are represented exclusively by non-governmental organizations. This is no more than what they would be entitled to as members of national minorities, but as indigenous populations, they have at least an implicit entitlement to political bodies, and the history of their relationship with the majority makes such institutions essential.

Also, although Israel has undertaken limited affirmative action and committed itself to reducing the economic disparities between Jews and non-Jews, continued discriminatory budget allocations run afoul of the mandate to provide "full and effective equality." Israeli policies also, at times, contravene Articles 15 and 16 of the Council of Europe convention, which require that minority populations be consulted on public matters concerning them and that the state refrain from altering the demographic balance in areas inhabited by minorities. In the past decade, Arab involvement in Israeli public life has increased, with non-Jews sitting on the boards of public authorities and serving as directors-general of ministries, but many decisions - including, critically, those involving land - are still taken with relatively little regard for the desires of the Arab population.

Control over land is, in fact, an absolutely essential issue in resolving the grievances of non-Jewish Israelis. It is here that their expressed goals depart the most from the national minority model and approach the territorial, indigenous-population model. Although the problem of unrecognized Bedouin villages is particularly acute, de facto housing segregation, eminent domain and attempted demographic engineering in the Galilee are also persistent issues.

The importance of the land use issue necessitates that any long-term political arrangement for non-Jewish Israelis be at least partially territorial in nature. For the Druze and Bedouin, who are relatively concentrated, this might not be too difficult. The areas inhabited by the Palestinian Arab population, however, are not contiguous, and many Arabs also live in mixed urban areas. For Arab Israelis, communal autonomy and territorial autonomy are two different things.

One possibility might mirror the Swedophone Finnish model by creating regional governments in areas with Arab majorities as well as nationwide Arab political institutions that represent the entire community. In the Umm al Fahm triangle, an Arab cantonal government might have powers similar to the Åland or Catalan assemblies - including, critically, control over land use, planning and infrastructure development. In the Galilee, the near-balance between Jews and Arabs will complicate matters, but could conceivably be resolved by establishing a joint regional authority in which the Arab members would have a veto over any measure that would result in the confiscation of Arab-owned land. The preponderance of Arab members in the regional authority would also give the Arab population substantial control of planning in at least part of Israel.

Outside the Arab-majority areas, Arab Israelis' status could be resolved more along the standard national minority. State-supported cultural and religious institutions would be continued much as they are now, but with a guarantee of funding in proportion to the Arabs' share of the national population. In addition, the national minority package would include a nationwide Arab assembly - much like the Sami parliaments - to distribute cultural and educational funding, act as the voice of the community and consult with the government on national matters.

Other aspects of the Åland and Sami models might also be of interest to Israel. One that might be particularly relevant is the alternative national service available to Åland residents. In Israel, national service is considered a basic obligation of citizenship, and much of the inequality between the Jewish and Arab populations is actually due to the fact that most Arabs don't receive veterans' benefits. Alternative national service within the Arab community - in the local police, for instance, or as a school or hospital worker - would provide Arab Israelis with access to service benefits without the risk of being forced to fight against Palestinians. It would also be an important symbol of Arab commitment to the state, which would go a long way toward ameliorating Jewish Israelis' mistrust of the Arab population.

The Sami experience is also relevant as an example of cross-border cooperation. Each of Israel's non-Jewish minorities is part of a transnational ethnic group. Druze communities exist in Syria and Lebanon, Bedouins are dispersed throughout the region, and Palestinians throughout the world. Regional cooperation is currently difficult due to the state of war existing with Lebanon and Syria and the de facto war in the Palestinian territories, but in the context of a peace settlement, regional authorities could be established to foster cultural and economic cooperation among all three groups.

These procedures, if implemented, would substantially redress the grievances of non-Jewish Israelis and assure them the equality to which they are entitled under Israeli law and ideals. More importantly, however, none of them would endanger Israel's existence as a Jewish state. The nation as a whole would still be a Jewish sanctuary and homeland, and it would continue in its mission of promoting Hebrew language, Jewish culture and the religion of Judaism. A great increase in mutual trust and respect among both the Jewish and Arab populations is necessary to fully reconcile Israel's Jewish and democratic identities, but the "Jewish and democratic state" envisioned by the Basic Law is not a contradiction in terms.

Tsvangirai trial, day 3

Star prosecution witness Ari Ben-Menashe has implicated the CIA in opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's alleged attempt to assassinate President Robert Mugabe. In today's court session, the prosecution played part of a videotape - which the defense claims has been doctored - "in which Mr Ben-Menashe, gesturing towards Tsvangirai, said: 'Work has been done on your behalf to get stuff through Congress, work has been done to get these guys (the CIA) on your side to do the elimination on your behalf.'" Ben-Menashe also testified that he and Tsvangirai discussed methods by which the opposition leader could constitutionally succeed to the presidency after the assassination.

This trial is turning into great political theater. In the space of two days, Mugabe has used Ben-Menashe - who knows how to put on a show in the courtroom - to hit out at two of his most strident international critics, Britain and the United States. The defense, for its part, has constructed a thrilling cloak-and-dagger narrative of collusion between Ben-Menashe and Mugabe, and is expected to grill Ben-Menashe mercilessly during tomorrow's cross-examination.

The CIA, naturally, had no comment.

Comment problems

Haloscan was down for several hours this morning; it's accessible now, but it seems to have scrubbed the last three days' comments. There's a "server work in progress" notice on its homepage; hopefully, the system will be fully restored soon.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003
Don't I wish

Someone found this blog the other day with a Google search for "rich heeb." I come up first and second.

Verifiable voting

Ampersand has a remarkably intelligent suggestion for ensuring the accuracy of electronic voting machines: design them to produce receipts that can be verified by the voter.

The Islamic blogosphere

Via Electrolite: alt.muslim provides links to Muslim blogs.

Harare hijinks

The first day of Morgan Tsvangirai's treason trial in Harare featured testimony from the prosecution's star witness:

Ari Ben Menashe, who said he was a former Israeli intelligence agent who had once worked undercover in Zimbabwe with the approval of Mugabe's government, said he decided to set up a sting operation to record evidence against Tsvangirai.

Ben Menashe testified that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change told him it wanted to pay $10 million to the Zimbabwe Air Force commander, Air Marshal Perence Shiri, to lead a coup.

According to Ben-Menashe, Tsvangirai stated that he wanted Mugabe killed during two meetings in Montreal, where he had come to consult with Ben-Menashe's public relations firm. Tsvangirai is also alleged to have said that "sources in the British government would provide the money to finance the coup" - an embellishment that may have more to do with the simmering tensions between Britain and Mugabe's government than with anything Tsvangirai actually did. The prosecutor intends to bolster its case with videotapes that allegedly show Tsvangirai conspiring with Ben-Menashe, but the defense claims that the tapes have been edited - a claim that is borne out by the time stamps that appear in the version of the tapes shown on Zimbabwe television.

Opening statements in the Tsvangirai case reveal two sharply contrasting narratives of what happened in Montreal. The prosecutors claim that Tsvangirai chose Ben-Menashe to help set up a coup due to his connections within the Zimbabwe military, and that Ben-Menashe turned him in for ideological reasons. Ben-Menashe, not surprisingly, corroborated this theory by testifying that he turned "against the Zimbabwe opposition because he felt it had been 'hijacked' by Britain, the former colonial power, and whites opposed to Mugabe's nationalization of white-owned farms." The defense, for its part, argues that Tsvangirai consulted Ben-Menashe's firm purely for public relations purposes and that the charges are a frame-up orchestrated by Mugabe.

There is, however, a third possibility - that the allegations against Tsvangirai are a frame-up, but that Ben-Menashe rather than Mugabe is the moving force. It is entirely possible that Tsvangirai approached Ben-Menashe innocently, but that Ben-Menashe decided that there was more to be gained from ingratiating himself with the present government than with a doubtful successor, and made the videotape on his own. This version hasn't been advocated by either side - Tsvangirai's political interests lie in making Mugabe the mastermind - but in many ways it seems the most consistent with events. It is doubtful that Mugabe knew in advance that Tsvangirai would seek public relations assistance from Ben-Menashe's firm, and the appearance of the charges some four months after the alleged meeting also suggests an after-the-fact arrangement. When he testified that he "decided to set up a sting operation," Ben-Menashe may very well have been telling the truth, although it is highly doubtful that he told the truth about much else.

UPDATE: The government-owned Zimbabwe Herald describes a comic moment in Ben-Menashe's testimony:

It was also during the same meeting that Tsvangirai, who had earlier on claimed to know Mr Ben-Menashe through reading about him and also reading his works, asked him about the decorations of both the State House and the Zimbabwe House.

"It appeared he was wondering about his future residence," added Mr Ben-Menashe attracting laughter from the gallery of the otherwise serious court but that did not go down well with the defence lawyers.

In other testimony, Ben-Menashe accused the opposition leaders of "calling Ian Smith the greatest man after Winston Churchill," a rather improbable but politically charged allegation. The Herald story also reveals the interesting fact that the treason trial is being held before a judge and two lay assessors, one of whom is a major in the Zimbabwe military.

Farewell, Yugoslavia

The Yugoslav parliament has voted to dissolve the country and re-create it as a loose federation between the republics of Serbia and Montenegro. The new arrangement "envisages almost complete sovereignty for the two republics, which will be linked only by a small joint administration running defense and foreign affairs." Each republic also has the right to hold a referendum on full independence within three years.

The reason?

Aziz Poonawalla has a theory about the cause of the shuttle breakup.

Monday, February 03, 2003
The system is broken

Nairobi lawyer Kibe Mungai takes a fascinating look at the problems of criminal justice in Kenya.

A ray of hope

HIV infection statistics for 2002 indicate that Africa's hardest-hit nation, Botswana, may finally be turning the corner. According to data reported in the Gaborone weekly Mmegi, HIV infection rates among pregnant women have declined for the third straight year, although they still remain at a horrific 35.4 percent. Just as critically, however, youth infection rates have stabilized after years of increase, and Botswana's cities are shedding their role as breeding grounds for disease: urban areas, where increasingly more people are drifting to, positive behaviour patterns and changed attitudes towards sex are bearing fruits. This includes higher awareness levels about HIV/AIDS, high condom use and changed sexual behaviour by the youth. Sexually transmitted infections (which should logically include HIV infection) are also showing a marked decline.

HIV has been a national tragedy for Botswana, a stable democracy which is among Africa's richest nations and was once held up as an example of African potential. Among other effects, life expectancy in Botswana has fallen by at least nine years since 1970, a drop that is all the more dramatic in light of the economic and infrastructure development that has taken place during the past three decades. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has estimated that life expectancy in Botswana would have risen to first-world levels by now if not for AIDS, thus suggesting that HIV may have taken 30 years off the average Botswanese's lifespan. The costs in reduced productivity, strain on the public health system and orphaned children have also been incalculable.

Some analysts have regarded the HIV problem in southern African countries such as Botswana as virtually intractable due to prevailing sexual mores and the low status of women. The latest statistics, however, show that the education and public health programs - including condom distribution - that have reduced HIV infection rates in Uganda to 5 percent can also work in southern Africa. There may be hope that, in the next generation, Botswana can regain its place as Africa's promised land.

Looking in the wrong place

An Arab Israeli group plans to travel to Auschwitz in May "to learn about Jewish suffering":

A group of public figures from the Arab sector will hold a press conference in Jerusalem this morning to announce a trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp in May with the purpose of learning the roots of the Jewish pain and fear. "We want to learn about this suffering and its influence on the Jewish nation, causing it to live in constant fear of the other," declares a leaflet published by the group.

The participants in the trip "will include author Mohammed Ali Taher, attorney Ahmed Masalha from the village of Daburiya, and businessmen Ali Kadmani and Ahmed Afifi." They will be accompanied by a group of Israeli Jews and a joint Jewish-Muslim delegation from France.

The Auschwitz trip was proposed by Father Emil Shufani, a Catholic priest from Nazareth who is the headmaster of the St. John of Nazareth high school. For the past 15 years, Shufani and his students have "conducted an ongoing dialogue with students and teachers from the Leyada High School in Jerusalem." It was as a result of this dialogue - and, in particular, how the tone of the dialogue changed after the October 2000 riots - that Father Shufani decided he had to learn more about the Holocaust's place in Jewish history.

I have a definite case of mixed emotions about this trip, which are related to, but distinct from, my mixed emotions about the Holocaust in general. I certainly applaud any effort by Jews and Arabs to know one another better, and, no matter what one's view of the Holocaust, it occupies a central place in modern Jewish historiography. It has also become a recurring literary, artistic and religious symbol which is as much about survival as it is about persecution or death. Shufani's wish "to learn from the Jews how [the Holocaust] influences their lives in the present," as opposed to merely "studying it from a historical perspective," is a very perceptive one.

The assumptions underlying the tour, however, strike me as erroneous and even somewhat patronizing - as if Jews suffer from a collective Holocaust-induced paranoia and xenophobia. "Fear of the other" is a human, rather than a Jewish, phenomenon, and - at least in my experience and knowledge - Jews suffer from it to about the same degree as everyone else. Suggesting that Jews act as they do because of an ingrained persecution complex and "fear of the other" is a very old and invidious form of stereotyping, and one that existed long before the Holocaust.

Also, those who look to the Holocaust for the causes of the current Israeli-Arab conflict, are looking in the wrong place. It's both simplistic and inaccurate to assume that the growing radicalization of the Israeli Jewish population is nothing more than a projection of past fears onto an exaggerated view of the current situation. Such an assumption ignores the very real conditions that exist now and that have contributed to the fears of all sides. For Israelis, the radicalizing factor is Palestinian terrorism; for Palestinians, it is the occupation and the settlements. Israeli Jews see the October 2000 riots, listen to the statements of Arab community leaders like Bishara, and wonder whether Israeli Arabs are loyal to the state; Israeli Arabs listen to the "transfer" rhetoric of the far right, feel continuing budgetary and social discrimination, and wonder whether the state is loyal to them. All these things are complex, long-term problems that require a great deal of work and mutual trust-building to resolve; they can't be dismissed as simple aftereffects of the Holocaust to be resolved through some sort of communal group therapy.

To all appearances, Father Shufani is a civilized, compassionate person who is sincere in his desire to learn more about the Holocaust's effect on Jewish psychology. I hope that one of the things he learns, though, is that all parties in the Middle East conflict have more concrete things to fear.

Zimbabwe on trial

The treason trial of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change, opened today before the Harare High Court. The trial began amid chaos outside the courtroom as police prevented reporters and opposition legislators from entering, a move that reflected a growing crackdown on dissent in the wake of the Mugabe government's petition to close Zimbabwe's leading independent newspaper. Later in the day, the trial judge ruled that spectators should be admitted, but the police claim not to have received the word "until hours afterward."

Tsvangirai and two other opposition leaders are charged with asking Ari Ben-Menashe, the owner of a Canadian consulting firm, to "help eliminate Mugabe." They deny the charges as a "frame-up," and claim that they hired Ben-Menashe for public relations purposes only. The trial is being closely observed and is widely - and justly - viewed as an attempt to eliminate Mugabe's only credible opposition. They face the death penalty if convicted

The defendants are represented by George Bizos, a veteran attorney who is no stranger to political cases in southern Africa; almost four decades ago, he was one of Nelson Mandela's attorneys at the Rivonia treason trial. Bizos' opposite number in court will be Deputy Attorney General Bharat Patel, but his real opponent in the Tsvangirai case will be Mugabe himself - another old liberation-movement veteran, but one who has not lived up to his promise.

Worth reading

Randy McDonald links to some interesting articles about the nascent tensions between Cambodia and Thailand [1, 2]. Ikram Saeed also has something good to say about the Cambodia-Thailand imbroglio, as well as a comparison of Canada's position vis-a-vis an American invasion of Iraq to its debate about whether to join the Boer War and an analysis of whether the United States and Canada should fight. And Dragan Antulov comments on how a pending bill to allow same-sex unions has made strange political bedfellows in Croatia. [1, 2]

Sunday, February 02, 2003
More riots

The situation in Côte d'Ivoire took another turn for the worse as opposition supporters rioted to protest the death of popular comedian and television personality Ash Karamoko Kamara. Kamara was associated with the opposition Rally of the Republicans movement, which is the party of disenfranchised Muslim leader Alassane Ouattara and which has been linked to the rebel armies in northern Côte d'Ivoire. According to his family, Kamara was taken from his home by security forces yesterday, and his bullet-riddled body was discovered this morning on an Abidjan street.

The opposition riots follow several days of ethnic rioting by government supporters and paramilitary youth militias, in which Muslims and French expatriates have been the targets of violence. The Ivorian police and military, who have been criticized for failing to suppress the pro-government riots, were very much in evidence today in opposition neighborhoods where they fired tear gas to disperse protesters. In the meantime, President Laurent Gbagbo's promised address to the country about the controversial Paris peace accord is likely to be delayed until next week, thus prolonging the uncertainty and increasing the likelihood that the violence on the streets will take on a life of its own.

The aftermath

Space Flight Now has continued coverage of the Columbia disaster, Trent Telenko and Instapundit cover the coverage, and Aziz Poonawalla links to several articles speculating about the future of American space program.

The coalition boogie

The National Union, Mafdal and Yisrael Ba'aliya have issued an ultimatum refusing to join a Sharon government unless he rules out a Palestinian state. I doubt that this comes as much of a surprise to anyone - but, on the other hand, the reason why the far right found it necessary to present a joint ultimatum is interesting:

The right has received information that Sharon is considering the possibility of taking several unilateral steps: exiling Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, evacuating settlements in the northern West Bank and south Mount Hebron to establish a contiguous Palestinian area, and recognizing a Palestinian state.

This possibility was discussed before the election by a political science professor at Bar-Ilan as a way for Sharon to cut the legs out from under Avoda - but if the far right is in a panic about it, then Sharon might actually see it as a serious option. Thus far, the hard right has been unsuccessful in persuading Shas and UTJ to join them in the ultimatum, and only a few Likud MKs (including Druze member Ayoob Kara) have agreed to support them. Sharon might have enough wiggle room to put this plan through against the wishes of the far right, and it would be very hard for Avoda to avoid joining the government if he proposed it, even though it includes the exile of Arafat. If Avoda were to reject a withdrawal from the settlements for Arafat's sake, it would lose all credibility with the Israeli electorate. (There might, of course, be other reasons to oppose such a plan, depending on how many settlements will remain and how contiguous and viable the Palestinian state would be, but Avoda would only be in a position to affect such things if it joined the government.)

In the meantime, Shinui has presented its own conditions for joining the government, including "a tax cut for the middle class and a ban on foreign workers entering the country unless they work in agriculture and food services." The tax-cut demand is unlikely to sit well with the religious parties, whose subsidies would be in danger, and unnamed Likud sources fear that they might force Sharon into a right-wing coalition. It could be that Sharon is playing a shell game, and that he intends to form a right-wing or religious government first and then attempt to switch his right-wing partners for Avoda by offering a withdrawal from the settlements. If so, then he's taking a risky gamble, but one that might actually show some promise.

UPDATE: After a meeting with Sharon, Amram Mitzna has reiterated Avoda's refusal to join a unity government, but said that "his party would provide the government with a "safety net" when it came to issues national interests." The more interesting statements, though, were made behind the scenes by "senior party officials," who "nevertheless said that should Sharon offer Mitzna a secular unity government... Labor will not be able to refuse." Another senior Avoda MK, Ophir Pines-Paz, was willing to be quoted by name as saying there would be something to talk about if Sharon proposed a secular coalition and agreed to Avoda's demand for evacuation of isolated settlements.

In the meantime, Shinui expressed its willingness to "swallow the medicine" of sitting in a coalition with UTJ, but only if the government agreed to end haredi draft exemptions and legalize civil marriage. Not surprisingly, UTJ has ruled out sitting with Shinui if there were "any changes in the status quo," but any and all of this is subject to change without notice.

Poetry in motion

Today's Newsday (actually, tomorrow's Newsday - we get the Sunday features early) included an editorial notebook by David McMurray, a professor of intercultural studies at the International University of Kagoshima:

By the time I finish a second pot of tea every morning, I'll have read 100 or more haiku poems. They arrive from around the world by postcard, fax and e-mail. By the end of the week, I select nine for a column called Asahi Haikuist Network that appears each Wednesday in the International Herald Tribune/The Asahi Shinbun. Asahi is a Japanese phrase meaning "the morning sun."

I chose oolong this morning. The tea master who sold the mixture of black and green leaves to me in Taipei said they could be infused up to nine times. "The fourth and fifth tasting of the partially fermented leaves would be the best," he said. I apply that philosophy to the way I edit submissions.

For those not familiar with it, haiku is a Japanese poetic form traditionally consisting of 17 syllables centered around a natural or seasonal theme. English translations are commonly rendered in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, but this is purely an English-language convention; Japanese haiku are usually written on a single line, and breaks in theme or emphasis can appear anywhere in the poem. Despite their limitations of length and form, haiku can be remarkably expressive.

I was first introduced to haiku in elementary school. Haiku are popular in American primary schools, at least in part because the rigid traditional structure makes it possible to grade them on form rather than substance. I remember the "teaching" haiku that was read to my class to give us the form:

An unfinished thought
capturing one small moment
telling of nature

All this made evaluating poetry easy for a relatively unimaginative elementary teacher; any student who submitted a 5-7-5 poem with a natural theme passed, and everyone else failed. One of the reasons for the volume of god-awful haiku in the United States, perhaps, is that most Americans get their first exposure to it as an exercise in following directions rather than poetry.

Outside the public schools, however, haiku is well along the way to becoming a serious English poetic form, as evidenced by McMurray's English-language haiku column and his forthcoming book about the poetics of haiku in English. In the process, English-language poets have adapted the form to suit English structure and grammar:

Japanese haiku have been traditionally composed in 5-7-5 syllables. When poets started writing English haiku in the 1950's, they adopted this 5-7-5 form, thinking it created a similar condition for English-language haiku. This style is what is generally considered "traditional" English haiku.

Over the years, however, most haiku poets in North America have become aware that 17 English syllables convey a great deal more information than 17 Japanese syllables, and have come to write haiku in fewer syllables, most often in three segments that follow a short-long-short pattern without a rigid structure.


Today, many bilingual poets and translators in the mainstream North American haiku scene agree that something in the vicinity of 11 English syllables is a suitable approximation of 17 Japanese syllables, in order to convey about the same amount of information as well as the brevity and the fragmented quality found in Japanese haiku. As to the form, some American poets advocate writing in 3-5-3 syllables or 2-3-2 accented beats.

McMurray also prefers the 3-5-3 form, and cautions that structure shouldn't become a straitjacket:

I pare words to a minimum and encourage a three- line, 3-5-3 syllable form rather than the popular 5-7-5 form in English, reviled by serious poets as spam haiku. A few are composed on one or two lines in fewer than 17 syllables. More than just an image, a reference to nature and a thought, the poem needs a subtle surprise, "ahness" or intriguing juxtaposition that brings the three elements together. It is not just a pretty picture in words.

I'm not much of a poet, but I've made my own humble contribution to the form. The subject of English-language haiku came up last year in my favorite Usenet newsgroup, soc.history.what-if. This is ordinarily a place to discuss the might-have-beens of history, but it has its digressions, and the haiku thread proved both popular and entertaining. In the course of the discussion, I wondered whether English-language haiku should be different in theme as well as structure:

It occurs to me, though, that just as the syllable count for English haiku has to be adjusted to fit the greater information-carrying capacity of the language, the theme should also be changed to fit the cultures of English-speaking peoples. Consider, for instance, Americans. Seasons and nature are all well and good for a patient, contemplative people like the Japanese, but Americans are somewhat less contemplative and much less patient. An American haiku should concern something that moves faster than the seasons; in fact, motion itself seems like a fitting theme:

Wheels of time
push the past aside
no regrets

Of course there are no regrets. Another quintessentially American theme is belief in progress and the destiny of one's country. We always move forward, never back. Although:

What promise
each morning brings, but
what danger!

sounds a more cautionary note, while remaining within the general theme of constant motion.

Other countries, of course, will require different themes. A properly Israeli theme, for instance, might be return:

All things come
to where they began;
dust to dust

The Australian theme might be separation or distance:

Just one day
lost, but far too much
to regain

I'm not sure about a British theme. There's always tradition and majesty, but these don't seem as versatile as the above four. Continuity, maybe.

I was reminded of all this today, as I watched the endless footage of the Columbia going down. Of all the thoughts that ran through my mind after the tragedy, the most curiously constant was that it was an appropriate theme for haiku: a single moment, a snapshot in time in which everything changed for the astronauts and their families. And, the passengers being who they were, the occasion calls for something American, Israeli and possibly a little Japanese.

Fallen bird
fire from the stars
rest in peace