Friday, 28 July 2006

It is time for a European foreign policy

A multinational force should only go into Lebanon after a ceasefire and aspart of a political negotiation between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah to disarm the latter

Israeli-US efforts to reshape the political landscape of the Middle East are meeting with little success. The Israeli Defence Forces' first encounter with Hizbullah since 2000 has revealed a strengthened enemy. The IDF has fought fiercely for two strongholds, one four kilometres into Lebanon and the other just 100 yards across the border. Since Hizbullah's Iranian-made rockets can travel up to 42 kilometres, it will be difficult for the IDF to disarm the Party of God militarily before its forces succumb to the fatigue that drove them out of Lebanon in 2000. 

Politically, too, Israel's campaign seems to be playing into Hizbullah's hands. Its victims have, in the main, been Lebanese civilians, and the ire this has raised across the Muslim world must be a recruitment boon for Hizbullah. Even Al Qa'ida grew envious of the insurgents' appeal in the third week of fighting, and rushed to declare Lebanon a new theatre.

Israel says it would welcome the participation of a multinational force in the policing of southern Lebanon, but there is little enthusiasm for it internationally.

Israel has ruled out the United Nations, whose Interim Force has proven unable to stop rocket attacks being launched from Lebanese soil. ("I want a serious mission, not one like UNIFIL, " Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said rather condescendingly. He is the man Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to send on a charm offensive around the world).

A multinational force must either be a peacekeeping force, in which case it will perform within the same constraints as the UN; or it must be a peacemaking one, in which case it has to do the difficult job of the IDF. The European Union's High Representative, Xavier Solana, wants Europe to be involved. How many European soldiers are willing to die making Israel safer?

A multinational force should only go into Lebanon after a ceasefire and as part of a political negotiation between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah to disarm the latter.

The freewheeling methods of the Bush administration when it comes to international law are also cause for concern. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, suggested that the multinational force might have UN Security Council approval but come under the command of Nato. In other words, Israel and the United States, the countries which hold the UN in the greatest contempt, would demote it to a rubber stamp. Would the UN agree to such a role?

While pushing this minefield of an agenda, the US has scuttled the first international effort at an immediate ceasefire in Rome. The US, Israel and Britain alone have taken the stance that a ceasefire is pointless if it only achieves a respite for civilians.

Another reported attempt at peace seems to have come to nothing. An alleged deal between Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Israel to return abducted corporal Gilad Shalit and stop rocket attacks in return for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza was reported in The Guardian on July 26. The newspaper said the deal had been reached three days earlier, but awaited ratification in Tel Aviv and Damascus.

Since the Peace Process between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in the 1990s, the military option seems to be all that is on offer. But force will not resolve a political problem unless it is overwhelming, devastating and, ultimately, more destructive to non-combatants than to armies. While it persists, force radicalises those who are unhappy, and makes unhappy those who were leading normal lives.

Rather than create a new political process, Israel is choosing unilateralism, staunchly backed by the Bush administration. That is isolating America and Israel. So tin-eared is the administration to the unhappiness Israeli actions cause, that it expedited a shipment of precision-guided bombs to Israel a few days into the conflict, according to a New York Times report on July 22, strengthening the perception of unconditional love between the two allies.

The political support Israel commands in the US today is beyond that enjoyed by any US ally. House Majority Leader John Boehner put it in a nutshell when he told the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee last March, "As the new House majority leader, I can assure you that under my leadership legislation that is in any way perceived as anti-Israel will not be considered in the House of Representatives. " That is support not even Britain enjoys.

The longer the conflict continues, the wider the door opens to a war by proxy in Lebanon. That, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, would bring to three the theatres of conflict between Islam and the West. It is an alarming prospect, not only because such a war would kill many times the Lebanese civilians that have died in the present bombardment; nor even because it broadens a conflict that does not represent most Muslims, Jews or Christians and brings it to Europe's door; but chiefly because, as Afghanistan and Iraq already demonstrate, the war on terror is breeding it. The Bush administration's policy choices in those countries are military stalemates, political tinderboxes and civilian disasters.

Whatever military action Israel has in store for Hizbullah, it needs to remember that even the most righteous grounds for war are eventually spent.
The time is right for Europeans to make a renewed stand for a peace process, as they did in 1991. The last time there was a pressing need for a united European foreign policy on the Middle East, six countries erroneously backed the US-led war in Iraq. They have learned their lesson. Israel and Lebanon are on Europe's doorstep. It is time for the EU to try again.

Universities in Crisis

Costas Moutzouris and the newly elected heads of the universities of Athens and Thessaloniki will formally assume their places among the rectors' council in September. They represent the new blood that could tip the body into a compromise with the government over education reform

A SELF-DESCRIBED conservative, the Athens Polytechnic's incoming rector strikes a moderate chord in the current education reform debate. 

"The main question is whether the government will press the issue [of reform]. Many people think that local and national elections will push this back," Moutzouris says, adding that "everyone agrees with the need for reform" among the Polytechnic faculty. 

Student protests have already pushed back a legislative deadline from June to October, the month of local elections. National elections could follow next year, even though they are not due until spring of 2008. 
Costas Moutzouris and the newly elected heads of the universities of Athens and Thessaloniki will formally assume their places among the rectors' council in September. They represent the new blood that could tip the body into a compromise with the government. 

"At the end of the day, the ministry might be convinced that none of the [proposed reforms] should take place. On the other hand it might say all of them are needed, and then some," he says enigmatically. 
Moutzouris, a civil engineer, doesn't unreservedly back the reforms, but neither does he take the position that a dialogue needs to start from scratch - a euphemism for throwing the reforms out. 

"There are lots of good things" in the proposals, he says, citing one that would change the electoral process he has just been through. The reformed law would allow students to vote individually, breaking a stranglehold by student unions patronised by national parties. 

Those unions are led by students with political aspirations, whom Moutzouris distastefully refers to as foititopateres (a term adapted from labour and best translated as student-bosses). 

Moutzouris also sees as a "foregone conclusion" the alteration of article 16 of the constitution to allow non-state universities to offer degrees Greece recognises. 

But he sees much of the outcry over the government's proposed amendments to law 1268, which governs higher education, as being besides the point. 

The major problem is that "we don't enforce the [existing] law", he says. With startling candour he lists three examples of corner-cutting in teaching standards.

"When the law says that a class requires 13 weeks of course study for a student to sit the exam, we sometimes circumvent that requirement. Either the teacher is away, or the student has missed the lesson to attend a union meeting. Normally, we ought to say the course wasn't taught."

Another example concerns faculty promotions. "We make exemptions on the qualifications required by law because a certain esprit de corps prevails." That same corporate spirit, Moutzouris says, "leads to new job descriptions being slanted to favour a particular candidate."

Such abuses bring him closer to the side of reform. He lambasts a proposal for greater autonomy floated by George Babiniotis, former Athens University rector and chief opponent of the government's reforms.
"Having autonomy is good, but you have to make good use of it," he says. "We have to improve the image of universities."

A new assessment law the government passed last year is forcing universities to conduct internal audits for academic standards and to have these verified by external assessors. The first full round of quality assurance controls will be completed at the end of 2008.

Moutzouris says the Polytechnic has been conducting assessments based on student reports for years, but that the results of it are buried. "Some professors get a good grade, some don't. We know who [they] are. What we don't do is make use of these conclusions. Measures are not taken to improve those who aren't good. We could do it, but we don't."

The culprit is that old corporate spirit again. "It's a mistake," Moutzouris says laconically.

Moutzouris is a spry 57. He speaks in pithy phrases and his diction is youthfully rounded at the edges to suit rapid delivery. He is most excited when demonstrating the harbour works laboratory that abuts his office - a hangar-sized concrete shell housing twin pools. Each contains a recreated coastal strip at one percent scale. Massive wavemaking machines simulate the effects of the sea on soil formations, enabling final year civil engineering students to adjust the design of proposed ports or beach bulwarks to minimise erosion. The facility, purported to have cost 2.9 million euros a decade ago, performs studies for commercial clients and generates revenue.

It is an example of what inadequately funded universities in Greece cannot do, Moutzouris says, referring to the "indiscriminate" number founded in recent years "with regional development, not education, in mind".
Such universities add to what Moutzouris sees as the over-arching problem in higher education: oversupply. "The big problem is that degrees no longer lead to jobs. Right now the Greek market receives 1,900 new civil engineers a year. Nine hundred are from Greek universities, and 1,000 mainly from the UK. That's what is chiefly on protesting students' minds: 'What are we going to do after we graduate?' That leads to the demotion of university degrees. They will become like high school diplomas."


If you had to dismiss faculty for not meeting standards, would you be talking about 10 percent or 30 percent? 

In the Polytechnic we're talking about 10 percent. And even that's questionable because of tenure. In regional universities it might be 30 or 40 percent.

How big a part of the problem are perpetual students?

They should be left to the discretion of each university. The perpetuals I know have social or health or economic problems. The ones who stay as perpetuals are working in the public sector, they want to improve their position there so they think they'll get a Panteion degree as well.

Do you agree with the government proposal for a national booklist, which would replace the current system of a single set textbook per course, but not go as far as allowing unfettered choice of books from which professors could set required reading?

I think the book list is good. If a student has six or seven classes every semester and you let him read whatever he wants, he'll get lost at some point. The student needs a bit of paternalism.

Friday, 21 July 2006

Israel's Invisible Enemy

Hizbullah does not belong to the countries that support it, or to that which it claims to support, and least of all to the country in which it is a parasite, hiding among the civilian population. This is an organism that knows it cannot survive for half an hour without the tissue of women and children,who are killed in the effort to extricate it

Israel's counter-insurgency in Lebanon is dividing western governments between pro-UN and UN-indifferent camps. The rift goes to the heart of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Tony Blair told George Bush on July 17 that a multinational force had to be assembled as quickly as possible. The impromptu conversation on the sidelines of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg was recorded without their knowledge, apparently inadvertently. Blair's foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, pushed the UN agenda in a BBC interview the following day. Most major European Union members agree. In the British view, the longer it takes to install the force, the greater the danger of regionalisation of the conflict. Kofi Annan has called for a significantly strengthened UN garrison, which currently numbers about 2,000. 

Bush, on the other had, and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have followed the maximalistic Israeli line. They insist on a unilateral cessation of hostilities by Hizbullah and Hamas as a precondition to a ceasefire.

That makes very little sense in terms of saving lives. Over 340 have been lost on both sides of the border as we go to press, and the UN reckons half a million Lebanese are refugees in their own land. Thousands more are upset by evacuation. The whole point of a ceasefire is that it is unconditional on both sides - a precursor to discussion of terms. Clearly, though, Israel has a military agenda to carry out. Public security minister Avi Dichter said on July 18 that Israel would consider a prisoner swap with Lebanon only after its military operation was complete, leaving no indication as to when that might be. Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told his men that Israel will operate "until security is returned to the state of Israel" - an open-ended commitment. 

Washington is giving Israel time to carry out this agenda. Media reports have suggested that Rice's diplomatic efforts will not get underway until the second week of hostilities, and not bear fruit until the fifth week. By that time, hundreds of Lebanese men, women and children alive as these words are being written will have been killed, and potentially dozens more Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Israel is right to feel threatened. If we believe it was right for the US to invade Afghanistan in order to clear out Al Qa'ida and their troublesome host, the Taliban, then we must also agree that it is right for Hizbullah to be cleared out of Lebanon. The new, longer range of Hizbullah's missiles that can hit Ashkelon and Tel Aviv show that Hizbullah is not a waning threat, and lend credibility to the Israeli operation.

Hizbullah's modus vivendi can no longer be tolerated. It cannot expect to burrow into Lebanon, and by means of funding from Iran and Syria operate on behalf of the Palestinians. It is an alien organisation in every sense. It does not belong to the countries that support it, or to that which it claims to support, and least of all to the country in which it is a parasite, hiding among the civilian population. This is an organism that knows it cannot survive for half an hour without the tissue of women and children, who are killed in the effort to extricate it.

Hizbullah's desire to stir the Middle Eastern pot is cynical. One theory is that Iran ordered a distraction as its nuclear programme approached UN Security Council referral. An even likelier trigger was Hamas. The recalcitrant Palestinian party was preparing to recognise Israel's right to exist, as Arafat's Fatah had done after it came to power. Wielding power, after years of dreaming of it, would then have sobered both major Palestinian factions. Hizbullah would be isolated ideologically, since its entire raison d'etre is allegedly to help the Palestinians. We can only imagine that Hizbullah prevailed upon the yet-unsobered wing of Hamas to participate in this concert.

Herein lies the problem for Israel - how to tolerate the chasm between the democratically elected Palestinian Authority and Lebanese government, both at pains to construct a relationship with Israel, and the violent cultures they harbour but seem unable to control.

Israelis have lost their faith in the international community's ability to help bridge that gap between democrats and miscreants. In some cases they even see the UN as helpful to the enemy. That disillusionment has made them unilateralist and proud of it. Facing threats to their existence, they are thick-skinned to international opinion and decidedly immune to the sermons of the international press.

Yet this is clearly no way to do business. Killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians as pre-emptive protection for Israeli lives follows the logic that individuals don't count, and that human life is subservient to the higher cause of making a point. Despite the rhetoric about finally destroying Hizbullah in this operation, it is difficult to see what the third Israeli invasion of Lebanon can achieve that the others didn't, which is merely to serve notice that Israel can give as good as it gets.

Since 9/11 there is an increasingly worrying similarity in the security attitudes of Washington and Tel Aviv. Bush reflects Israeli maximalism in his message to Iran - stop enriching uranium, and then we can talk about whether you ought to stop enriching uranium. (In diplomacy, of course, maximialistic positions can be tactically conceded for reasonable ones; but in war, time lost is life lost).

There is also a worrying trend in the new, mutually encouraged unilateralism. In an interview to Ha'aretz in November 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at the time deputy premier to Ariel Sharon, said he doubted the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Israel should instead separate itself demographically from them he said. Ariel Sharon's infamous fence and unilateral withdrawal from Gaza were steps in this direction. But whatever their merits in scaling down the provocation of the settler movement, such steps cannot replace negotiation. Israel seems to think that it can have peace on its own terms.

An equally worrying parallel is the mistaken belief that a war on terrorism can be won. Israel's vow to crush Hizbullah is mirrored by Bush's quixotic "war on terror". There cannot be a victory in the sense in which most people understand the term. There can be victorious battles, but a mutually retaliatory war is a political perpetual motion machine.
Israel has suffered for too long as a nation. Just under two years from now it will celebrate its 60th anniversary. It has, in that time, won the recognition of Egypt and Jordan as well as mainstream Palestinians thanks to its determination to survive. But military assertiveness is no substitute for a political settlement, and can even strengthen its enemies - Syria and Iran. Israel rightly sees its superiority in arms as necessary for survival in the short term, but this is not a long-term solution to its problems. It is unthinkable, for Israel and its neighbourhood, for the next two generations to manage affairs in the same way as the last two. There needs to be a commitment from Olmert and Hamas for a new peace process. The US, Europe and the Arab world must press for this. Only in the presence of a peace process are Hizbullah, Qassam and the Al Aqsa Brigades shown up for their recalcitrance and unreason. In its absence, there can only be a shrinking Israel at war with enemies it cannot see.