Obama-Netanyahu spat just political game-playing

Published Apr. 11, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

In discussing the future of Middle East peace, it should be stipulated that whether it takes a year, a decade or a century, at some point a partition and “two state” solution of some kind is inevitable.

Unfortunately, the implementation of this is nowhere on the horizon, and in fact prospects have regressed in recent years as the optimistic memories of the Oslo Accord fade. That said, the ramifications of the Barack Obama-Benjamin Netanyahu spat for the future of Middle East peace seem neither as revealing nor as significant as the initial media outburst would suggest.

An important part of Netanyahu’s motivation in criticizing the Iranian nuclear deal was probably an attempt to stiffen the U.S. bargaining position, rather than simply scupper the negotiations, much as he might have wished to do that as well.

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Appeal to politics of fear worked for Netanyahu

Published Mar. 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

The Israeli election results are yet another reminder of what travails can be produced by a proportional representation voting system in complicating the democratic process.

Even with a minimum threshold of 3.25 per cent support to gain representation, Tuesday’s election produced 10 legislative parties in the new Knesset (Israel’s parliament), none of which receive more than 25 per cent of the vote. This means the task of forming a government requires cobbling together a deal among a wide range of prospective coalition partners, each with their own demands and agendas, which are frequently incompatible with other parties.

For example, a secular party like Yesh Atid has demands that are incompatible with the different Jewish religious parties (Ashkenazi and Sephardic). There is also a party that appeals to Russian immigrant voters, a party to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and one to the left of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union (formerly Labour), not to mention a newly aggregated bloc of Arab parties that would prefer to see the Jewish state disappear.

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Israel-U.S. ties strong despite leaders’ friction

Published Feb. 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Much has been made of the personal animosity between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the two men clearly have had differences and don’t play well together.

However, even if we assume the invitation to the Israeli leader by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on March 3 — bypassing the president and the U.S. State Department — was a bush league stunt used for partisan advantage, the long-term implications of it are minimal.

American support for Israel in its conflicts with the Arab world was not always as automatic as in recent times. That support grew over the years in the face of Palestinian alignment with the Soviet Union during the days of the Cold War, and then the emergence of Islamic hostility to America, the West, and even modernity, among its extreme elements.

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You should enjoy the decline in gas prices while you can

Published Feb. 5, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record. 

It goes without saying that the dramatic decline of energy prices, and the related drop in the Canadian dollar, affects different sections of the country in various ways.

What is challenging for the government in balancing the federal budget is terrible for Alberta’s oilpatch, but is good for consumers in Ontario and in much of eastern Canada, who will average close to $1,000 savings per family on transportation and heating costs. While the most obvious manifestation is the dramatic price drop of gasoline at the pumps, the implications are much broader.

Canadian government tax revenue is reduced markedly, leading to a postponement in the federal budget while Finance Minister Joe Oliver prays for a reversal in this trend.

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France can no longer ignore Islamic alienation

Published Jan. 14, 2015, in The Waterloo Region Record.

One should be appalled but hardly surprised by last week’s jihadist attacks in Paris.

This has been only the latest and most outrageous of a series of assaults occurring internationally in the cause of trying to incite conflict between the Islamic world and western modernity. That France was the site of these most recent provocations does have some particular implications, however.

It is the western nation with the largest Muslim population and proportion (about eight per cent) and until now has seemed to be the one most dedicated to ignoring potential problems from that source.

The days of sweeping Islamic alienation under the carpet are probably at an end, as free speech in the media has become the focus of the debate and national values are now at stake. Moreover, the spectre of Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Front looms to concentrate the minds of France’s mainstream politicians.

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Republicans ignore minorities at their peril

Published Nov. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As controversial as U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent executive order was concerning the status of undocumented, illegal immigrants in the United States, the issue might pose more strategic problems for his Republican opponents in Congress.

For all the threats and warnings from House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner about “not playing with matches” or “poisoning the well,” a review of his own actions suggests the Republicans have themselves contributed substantially to the toxic atmosphere by blocking any legislative proposals by Democrats over the past four years. Moreover, they have been shown to have no new policy suggestions of their own on the issue.

Unlike the Democrats, they are clearly divided in trying to simultaneously satisfy tea party extremists who fantasize about impeaching Obama — among many other radical agenda goals — and the mainstream establishment wing of the party, more based in reality, which just hopes to win elections.

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Senate majority may mean little to Republicans

Published on Oct. 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Given the current gridlock in the United States Congress, one might reasonably ask why it makes any difference who wins the Nov. 4 mid-term elections.

The American political system was created under the principle of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers,” which assumes a modicum of accommodation among the various branches of government for it to work efficiently. Alas, compromise has little resonance among contemporary political leaders in the U.S.

Only during the first two years of his presidency has Barack Obama been able to deal with a co-operative Congress. Reports suggest that immediately after his election in 2008, Republican congressional leaders vowed to frustrate his agenda at every turn

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Rob Ford’s spectre haunts Toronto mayor’s race

Published Oct. 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

A casual observer of the Toronto municipal election scene might be misled into thinking that the mayoral contest would itself determine the city’s future policy decisions.

Certainly, media coverage of the race has focused almost exclusively upon the position of mayor, largely ignoring the other 44 council members. This absence of coverage forgets the fact that the city has a “weak mayor” system, with limited power of independent policy action for that position beyond appointing an executive committee.

On matters ranging from the revision of Rob Ford’s budget proposal, the rejection of his transit plan, his policy on plastic bags and then ultimately the removal of most of his powers when scandal broke, the council was in no way under the mayor’s thumb.

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Mounting a coalition of the embarrassed

Published Sept. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

In a world that has become increasingly safe for tyrannical aggression to go unchallenged, as evidenced by the Russians in Ukraine, the Crimea and Georgia, and the Chinese in the islands of the South China Sea, the recent expansive activities of the militant group the Islamic State might all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

Most nations, including our own, have appeared to prefer to utter some pious denunciation, then keep our heads down and turn the page. If the United States wants to get involved, so be it, but we have been quick to judge if things go awry, as frequently happens. All this, so long as we are disengaged.

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Islamic regimes uncomfortable with extremist jihadist groups

Published Aug. 23, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Whatever outcome results from the on-again off-again conflict in Gaza, Hamas is obliged to declare victory as it did in 2009 and 2012, if only to save face from the debacle they have put their population through.

Whether that “victory” is purely symbolic, as in “Hamas is still standing,” or has some substantive gain, remains to be seen. The rush by some academics to challenge battlefield accounts and definitively declare the conflict as an Israeli defeat depends upon definitions. The perception of any encounter can be revised so that any victory or defeat can be redefined upward or downward to mean anything.

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Tie end to economic restrictions in Gaza to a demilitarized Hamas

Published July 29, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Despite their obvious limitations and vulnerabilities, the one power the Palestinians have over the Israelis is the ability to embarrass them.

The wildly disproportionate civilian casualty rates have become the new media metric for evaluating military conflicts, except that here the public relations winner is the side with the greater losses. Just as we have seen with media election campaign coverage being overtaken by public opinion polls, the ability to put a number on the action seems to transcend any other analytical approach to covering the confrontation, such as underlying motivations, tactics and strategies.

The lopsided fatality figures coming out of the Israeli-Hamas confrontation in Gaza should be no surprise to anyone who can recall the data from previous conflicts in 2009 and 2012. The inescapable supposition is that Hamas undertook their rocketing campaign in full anticipation of enormous civilian casualties on their own side.

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Tories, Liberals unlikely to gain a majority in 2015 vote

Published July 24, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There has been substantial commentary about the implications of late June’s federal byelections on the next general election scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015.

One of the story lines raised by the media was which opposition party is most likely to challenge Stephen Harper’s Conservatives for the most parliamentary seats, and hence the ability to form a government. However, a fairly consistent pattern in public opinion polls has emerged over the past year putting the Liberals in first place since Justin Trudeau ascended to the party leadership.

Despite the New Democrats’ role as official Opposition, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s dominant role in question period, it appears as if more Canadians see the Liberals returning to their historic role as the natural alternative to the Conservative party.

The particular set of constituencies contested in the recent byelections is in no way representative of the nation at large. Three of the four are safe party sinecures. While Alberta might be changing somewhat from the solid Conservative fortress it has been, that is most likely occurring in urban areas, not rural seats such as Macleod or boom towns such as Fort McMurray.

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Rationality in short supply in Israeli-Hamas conflict

Published July 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There perhaps has been no more fitting a metaphor over the years for the Palestinian resistance movement in general, and Hamas in particular, than the shahid, the suicide bomber.

While the tactics of suicide belts and bombing buses have been stymied by Israeli intelligence, and particularly the barrier separating West Bank Arabs from Israelis, the Hamas strategy has deviated little. Motivated by people who think the path to eternal paradise is dying in the pursuit of killing Israelis, they continue to follow the increasingly futile approach of placing Palestinians at risk in order to accomplish jihadist goals. Unable to achieve their goals by killing Israelis, they are now threatening to kill themselves.

Westerners who have difficulty fathoming this thinking are rightly appalled by the absurdly disproportionate casualties in Gaza and Israel from the seemingly endless barrage of rockets and missiles launched by the two sides. However, this is a part of the world where xenophobia and an obsession with lost honour prevail, and where compromise is derided.

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Iraq could be headed toward a three-way partition

Published June 26, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Probably the only positive implication of the rapid expansion of Sunni Jihadist territorial gains in western Iraq is that it provides an opportunity for everyone to be correct in casting responsibility for the mess on somebody else.

In truth, everyone is to blame, from the English and French governments that drafted the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916; to the tyrannical Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein; to the George W. Bush administration that overthrew him; to the Barack Obama administration that removed U.S. troops; to the current government of Nouri al-Maliki that has cut out non-Shia involvement; to the Iranians, Saudis and Qataris who have poured in resources to support their co-religionists at the expense of others; to the Europeans who happily ignored the problem and blamed others.

Just as there is nobody free of blame, there is no correct policy to pursue. Whatever strategy is followed is fraught with peril, will likely be unsuccessful, and will undoubtedly further antagonize various of the combatants.

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Ontario election highlights challenges now facing pollsters

Published June 19, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Given the praise ringing out about the supposedly wonderful campaign run by the Liberals that resulted in last week’s Ontario election results, it might surprise some to note that the improvement in the popular vote for the victorious Liberals was no greater than for the also-ran New Democrats.

Both gained a bare one per cent compared to their 2011 performance. On the other hand, Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives declined by four per cent. These seemingly modest changes in support levels account for the seat shifts that cost the Conservatives nine members, and transformed the legislature into a majority for Kathleen Wynne.

It is natural for winning parties to make various self-serving claims in interpreting their triumph about how it was a mandate for this or that. However, there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding that this election was more Hudak’s loss than a victory for Wynne.

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