Sunday, June 13, 2010

Israeli Gaza Flotilla Probe Announced

It looks good to me (not that it will matter). The probe is being headed by a retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice, and includes members with both international law and military backgrounds. Two international "observers" (with unclear powers) will participate in the proceedings -- a Nobel Peace laureate from Ireland, and a military lawyer from Canada. The panel will have full authority to look into, among other things, the legality of the blockade writ large, the legality of the particular raid on the flotilla, particular questions about the rules of engagement applied to the flotilla operation and whether they'd been breached, the Goldstone commission and Israel's ability to investigate itself, and the behavior of the Turkish passengers on the flotilla and the IHH organization.

The panel "will be able to summon any person or organization to testify, or to give it information in some other fashion, on any issue it deems relevant," except that it can only access military files "directly relevant" to the operation, including those from a separate, internal IDF probe being conducted contemporaneously. It can, however, request additional inquiries if it finds the IDF probe insufficient. Finally, all statements given to the commission will not be admissible in any legal proceedings, to encourage candor.

Sounds like a pretty robust investigatory panel to me. But I still maintain it will mostly be irrelevant, because what people want out of their "investigation" is either an indictment or an exoneration (depending on their alignment). Well, that might not be totally fair -- I'd be surprised to see any significant protest from the pro-Israel folks if the country's own panel decided to excoriate the operation (this is purely a matter of relative credibility -- the same conclusions, reached in identical language, by an international body would be met with outrage). But if the panel mostly exonerates the Israeli behavior (and I suspect it will -- the legal and factual issues are simply too unclear to warrant broad-based condemnation), the anti-Israel crowd will pitch a fit no matter how independent the panel objectively was. And while it will claim that it's real objection is that an Israeli panel can't "investigate itself", I'm honestly doubtful they'd react much differently if an international panel reached the same conclusions in identical language (we'd just shift to complaints about the all-powerful Jewish Zionist Israel Lobby tainting the commission).

But that's all counterfactual. The point is, there is a panel now, it looks pretty robust and independent, and it will issue a report at some point. And my conjecture is that this report will have virtually no bearing on anything.

UPDATE: Ha'aretz's editorial doesn't seem to think this panel is that impressive at all. But I'm a little confused -- the editorial says the panel has no powers at all, but the article seems to make clear that it has significant subpoena power.


PG said...

Seems like there could be a mix of exoneration and condemnation: e.g. exoneration of Israel's having a blockade in the first place (which is necessary to maintain its safety from smuggled arms), but condemnation of the economic aspects of the blockade (i.e. barring items that have absolutely no realistic military value); exoneration of the raid on the flotilla in a general sense (as necessary to maintain the blockade) while questioning the methods and degree of force used.

joe said...

It sounds robust as it is described, but I wonder if that's not a positive development we can attribute to major expressions of outrage (in which case any inclination to whitewash would seem counterproductive).

Of course, if it doesn't end up mattering (and I wouldn't bet against you) then that positive development is illusory.

joe said...

And I guess that's Middle East politics in a nutshell: It's a major set of issues that demands our attention but nothing seems to make a difference so does anyone bother?

Anonymous said...

you say the blockade is necessary to maintain its safety from smuggled arms, which is what the Israelis are not allowing through, and that they should allow items with no military value, which the Israelis are allowing through! The issue is not with that principle that you have described, but rather what 'realistic military value' means - the main such issue in the flotilla incident was building materials. So you're missing the problem - not 'should we allow items of no realistic military value' but 'what counts as items of no realistic military value'.

PG said...

OK, what's the realistic military value of building materials? Have Gazans run out of just plain rocks from the ground to throw at IDF?

joe said...

See, building materials can be used to build bunkers. (Like food can be used to provide nourishment to militants.) That's the official line on it, and as long as the policy is in place we can look forward to being lectured on how every country on earth would do what it can to stop rockets from raining down on its citizens.

Strange those talking heads never mention what any country in the world would do if it was occupied for decades, or if a foreign power kept its whole economy in ruins (over something that, by the numbers, kills three people a year).

So yes, everyone is capable of horrific acts. Does that make everything we do good acts? Do we throw open the prison doors for all the inmates who had a hard childhood? No, we say "no excuses."

I'm sick of giving more benefit of the doubt to state actors than we give to individual human beings, who learn from the age of four that two wrongs don't make a right.

David Schraub said...

"Two wrongs don't make a right" is, in fact, four year old logic. The existence of a prior wrong does, in fact, often convert something that would in fact be wrong into something right. For example, locking someone in a small room for years at a time is wrong -- unless it is preceded by a predecessor wrong (a crime) and other conditions (like a trial) are met. Physically assaulting someone is wrong, unless it is in response to a prior wrong like being attacked oneself, at which the "wrong" because the "right" of self-defense. Plucking "wrong" and "right" out of context and trying to examine them in isolation is simply a way to do sophomoric analysis. Moral analysis is deep and multi-textured. "Two wrongs don't make a right" is flat and uncomplicated.

My observation is that most peoples who are occupied by another government just sit around miserably and are told to accept their fate, except when they are particularly useful as pawns in a great power's geopolitical machinations. See, e.g., Tibetans in China, Kurds in Turkey, Western Sahara/Morocco, Native Americans in the US, and Chechans in Russia. Sometimes they're able to eventually achieve independence, by various means (e.g., Timor-Leste). Sometimes, they're pretty much instructed that they are an integral part of some other country and should learn to live with it (Kurds in Turkey, Native Americans in the US). Sometimes independence is effectively predicated on external geopolitical events (Baltic states). And sometimes independence is effectively predicated on the final resolution of border disputes and security guarantees so that peace holds permanently. It's not really something that has lent itself to universal principles.

PG said...

I'm OK with limiting "realistic military value" to "realistic OFFENSIVE military value." If the only use for an item is purely defensive (e.g. bunkers), then I'm not inclined to assume that it should be on the list of blocked goods. My understanding had been that building materials were blocked because there's legally supposed to be a freeze on any new building in these areas, whether by Israelis or Palestinians.

joe said...

PG, in that case Israel would have to ban the import of concrete to itself. Who knows, some illegal settlement might use it. But the bunkers explanation is just an excuse for collective punishment too.

David, I think there are certainly examples of some of the groups you mentioned (as well as numerous others) deciding not to grin and bear it when it comes to being occupied. Just because their resistance may have succeeded or been crushed in the end doesn't mean it never happened.

The existence of a prior wrong does, in fact, often convert something that would in fact be wrong into something right.

Of course, but that means the second act was not a "wrong" at all so there never were two wrongs to begin with. So the principle still stands, unless we attach a codicil of "No act that would ever be considered wrong can ever be anything but wrong in any context." As for what's sophomoric, what do you call treating that principle as if whoever says it (usually as an injunction against acts of revenge) must mean there can't be self defense or even criminal law?

But that's a semantic disagreement, let's do some of that deep and multi-textured moral analysis. I hold that no one gets a pass for bad acts just because they may find themselves in an unfortunate situation. Now, what is a bad act? I define it as something with a net negative result. No particular action can really be said to be good or bad until we look at this result.

So the question becomes how do we evaluate the results? That's the tricky part, and the nitty-gritty of comparing intangibles like increased self-reported happiness vs. increased lifespan is super-tricky. Also, we need to allow for truly unforeseeable intervening causes. But, as a general rule, the more attenuated an action and the desired benefit are, the less likely the benefit will realize so the less of a positive attaches to the act. In the present case, stopping rockets is much closer on the causal link to stopping attacks than is stopping concrete. And concrete is much more likely to be used to build something positive than are rockets. So we can see in general that seizing concrete is waaaaayyy harder to justify than seizing rockets. (It still might be possible to justify under some circumstances, but like PG I'd say these ain't it.)

David Schraub said...

I do tend to think that when folks chant slogans learned in Kindergarten, it usually is a sign of relatively unsophisticated analysis. It's just a heuristic of mine.

I also never said anyone has to grin and bear it, only that responses to occupations (domestically and globally) are quite variant. In fact, I don't have any particular ethical problem with a state of war existing between Israel and Palestine (I think ample grounds for jus ad bellum exist for both sides), so long as both sides respect the laws of war. The problem, of course, is that a war which strictly follows the laws of war (not saying either side has done that) is a war that Palestine loses, and they know it, so they seem to want a war in which only one side is allowed to fight. There is immense suffering that goes along with losing a war (even one fought in perfect regard to legality), but there is nothing in the law of war that demands that neither side lose. Consonant with my general preference for "smart/stupid" over "right/wrong", I think that Palestinians should elect not to adopt a military struggle not because they don't have a "right" to (whatever that means), but because in a military conflict they'll get spanked, to the immense suffering of the Palestinian people. One can have a right to fight a war, but one doesn't have a right not to lose it.

In any event, I agree that simply being the victim of "bad acts" doesn't give one a "pass" to engage in bad things (I also agree that wearing green and purple stripes doesn't give a pass to engage in bad acts, while we're stipulating our rejection of arguments nobody has ever made). I don't agree that the presence of bad acts is necessarily irrelevant to forward-looking assessments of whether another act is, in fact, bad (which you yourself concede insofar as you admit that these acts can convert what would otherwise be a bad act into an okay act).

Consequently, the question is whether, given the existence of various past and present acts which all in their own ways shape the moral terrain, particular forward-looking acts are, themselves, bad. This is a far more sophisticated question than whether "two wrongs make a right". I also think it is a fantastically silly question, because I'm doubtful it's a) rationally resolvable or b) effectively knowable even if it was resolvable. Hence my pragmatist smart/stupid framework: are the acts in question more or less likely to lead us to the sort of world we want to see? Instead of casting about for moral villains and heroes, this approach tries to sweep away epistemologically impossible questions and simply try and take stock of what we have and how it might get us where we want to go -- a task that is infinitely easier once the stakes are no longer "and if you step wrong, you're an evildoer."

joe said...

Hence my pragmatist smart/stupid framework: are the acts in question more or less likely to lead us to the sort of world we want to see?

See, I thought that was exactly what I said. I just attach a moral judgment to my evaluation because I think good and bad precisely map consequences -- I don't know what "bad" is if it isn't human suffering. But I don't need to say "bad" when it's a synonym for counterproductive; I just don't see why I shouldn't use the shorthand.

But when we (not you personally, royal we as a society) pretend that "you would'a done the same" is a defense, it's silly because a) it's usually selective (see above), b) it disregards the worthwhile results-based value judgments, and c) it's not about present reality -- woulda coulda shoulda.

Now, I have no particular disagreement with choosing as a strategic or stylistic matter to frame actions as "smart/stupid" without reference to good or bad. But I'm not sure you'd get a much improved reaction calling someone an "idiot" as opposed to an "evildoer." (Of course, you don't have to call someone stupid to say they're doing a dumb thing, but by the same token you don't have to call someone evil to say they're doing a bad thing.)

FWIW, I too think the Palestinians should adopt strictly peaceful means. I also think that plenty of people in their position would not do so, but I don't hold that to be a conflicting concept. And maybe certain leftists and Middle Eastern populations wouldn't say so, but the overwhelming narrative in our society freely says that their tactics are wrong. And that's fine with me. What I take issue with is the tendency to only criticize the actions of one side to the extent that we (again, royal) deny that there is any other problem. I think overall, the number of people I hear finding fault (whether in moral or strategic terms) with only the Palestinians greatly outstrips the number of people finding fault with only the Israelis. A great many people would say both bear a degree of responsibility, but I think looking at the comparative number of absolutists tells us how things are skewed. I even know some blatant anti-Semites (in the "plainly states belief that Jews control the banks and the media" sense) that say only the Palestinians are to blame. (I'm admittedly Americentric so I'm mainly talking about US opinion here.)

But okay, that was kind of a tangent to concrete.

David Schraub said...

I don't think "good" and "bad" necessarily precisely track consequences (for example -- going directly to "you woulda done the same" -- we are appropriately leery of imposing moral obligations that we feel the average person cannot meet. The consequentialist may say it is better if I fall on top of the hand grenade to save my platoon, and would give me posthumous laudations if I did. But did I do something bad if I didn't? Few believe this.). Even if I believed that consequences and morality were precisely synonymous, I'm not sure how I'd be able to prove it to the satisfaction of those who are more heavily influenced by deontology. And even if I could prove it, I'm skeptical of my ability to be sufficiently confident in my consequentialist evaluations to warrant making firm moral judgments against folks who break from my assessments.

I also think there is a qualitative difference in how people respond if you call their decisions "foolish" versus "evil", and I will stand by my belief in that.

And I really don't see the use of making generic bloviations justified on the grounds that they are important responses to the views held by "most people", as opposed to tailoring one's statements to the actual views of your particular interlocutors or audience with a primary goal of persuading them (rather than demonstrating to some god's eye observer that they're wrong). Making recitations on the grounds that it might reveal a blindspot held by a generic, numerically predominant sector of American society (particularly when there is little reason to believe that said recitations actually will shift views for the better) is simply trying to dress of masturbatory self-indulgence in the cloth of public service.

joe said...

Or as some like to call it, blogging ;)

joe said...

I liked your grenade point, though. That's a brain-twister that has me thinking aloud (figuratively). It may be that there is some limited exception to strict consequentialism for self-preservation, so we stress that the act of not jumping on a grenade is far less attenuated from a harm than that of halting concrete shipments. And of course the other difference is that one isn't really an act at all, so it can't be said to be "bad" in the sense of worsening the status quo. It may be "less good," but anyone who lauds the grenade-jumper's heroism implicit buys into that formulation.

PG said...

PG, in that case Israel would have to ban the import of concrete to itself. Who knows, some illegal settlement might use it. But the bunkers explanation is just an excuse for collective punishment too.

No, if all new building in Palestine is illegal, then all movement of concrete into the area -- whether brought by Jews or non-Jews -- should be barred. So long as that bar is enforced against everyone who wishes to bring concrete, any concrete imported to Israel cannot go into an illegal settlement. With the possible exception of Jerusalem, I don't know of anywhere in Israel where concrete legally may not freely flow and harden into new construction.