28 February 2010

No marks for Myer’s

Last Thursday my wife rang Myer’s department store and purchased an item from the wedding list for a wedding that is to take place next weekend. She was told that for a fee of $15 she could have the present gift-wrapped, with a card, and delivered with all the other presents on the list. She readily consented, and gave the woman to whom she spoke a message to go on the card.

The following day the groom had a phone call to say that there was a parcel (our parcel) awaiting collection at the relevant store. There was a ribbon around it but it wasn’t wrapped, and there was no card.

Quite a trifecta: not wrapped, not delivered, no card. Caveat emptor, apparently. We’ll stick with DJ’s.

Ross Burns on reaction to forged passports

There is a worthwhile piece in today’s edition of The Age by former Australian diplomat (and former collegue) Ross Burns, on the Australian Government’s reaction to the news that three of the operatives involved in the assassination of Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in Dubai were carrying forged Australian passports (see here).

After quoting the comments of Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Burns comments:

This prompt response to the protection of Australian national interests is fully justified. But it is remarkable in that the present government, led by a prime minister happy to be described as a "Zionist", has held back from the slightest criticism of Israel, in spite of the many excesses of its response to the rocketing from Gaza in early 2009 and in the face of the obvious disinterest (sic.) in the Netanyahu government in ending settlement activity on occupied lands to advance a "two-state solution".

He asks the perfectly reasonable question whether Australia has encouraged in Israel an assumption that it is not just a supporter of Israel but an uncritical one:

The acting prime minister during the Gaza operation, Julia Gillard, quickly cranked out two mantras - "Hamas brought this on itself" and "Israel has a right to defend itself". She neglected to add that the "right to defend itself" also requires it to act within international norms.

While most Western countries have been cautious in their dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu and his openly anti-Arab Foreign Minister, Australia appeared more enthused than ever. Instead of buttressing US President Barack Obama's stand on settlement activity, for instance, Australia floated a series of vacuous but highly symbolic gestures towards Israel including parliamentary congratulations on the sixth decade of its existence (not normally a topic for parliamentary resolutions) and instituting a "leadership exchange" jamboree at deputy prime ministerial level that no other nation enjoys except the United States.

Most inexplicably of all, perhaps, Australia has been in the forefront of those countries that have chosen to blacken the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza war, headed by Richard Goldstone.

He concludes that what is required is

... a more hard-nosed emphasis on Australian interests, including those in the wider region, by a government and party that have been too smitten for their own (or Israel's) good.

One can but agree.

“Balancing” this item there is an incoherent, self-righteous rant from Sarah Honig, a columnist and senior editorial writer for The Jerusalem Post. Ms Honig works herself up into a fine old lather and manages to convince herself that the expressions of concern by four governments about the forging of their passports are hypocritical, and that it just goes to show that we live in such “an environment of intellectual anarchy” that “Israel's existential struggle stands no chance of being granted anything vaguely resembling a fair hearing”. Indeed,

The counterfeit passport kerfuffle underscores the fact that the international community appears to deny Israel any possible measure in aid of its self-preservation.

There are even people who are prepared to decry the invasions of Lebanon and Gaza as disproportionate!

Ms Honig laments that

... the international community's theatre of the absurd [is a] global burlesque [in which] everything can be turned upside down. The lie is granted equal standing with truth, and flagrant canards frequently gain the ascendancy and are paraded as fact. Values are devalued. Good and evil are interchangeable. Anything goes.

Let me offer a few canards that are often paraded as fact:

-  Israel faces an existential threat (it doesn’t, it is the dominant military power in the region and has been for decades).

- All Israel’s actions are defensive (they aren’t, most of them are highly aggressive and indeed disproportionate).

- The Israeli Defence Force is the most ethical armed force in the world (there is no basis for this claim, and there are far too many deaths of Palestinian civilians especially children that have never been satisfactorily investigated for it to be allowed to stand unchallenged).

-  All Israel wants is peace (what is the evidence that Israel wants peace?).

For a much more balanced view of the Dubai murder see the column A Tale of Two Assassinations by Larry Derfner here, in that same Jerusalem Post, 24 February 2010. Derfner explains why he was in favour of the 1997 attempt to murder Khaled Mashaal, but why he thinks it was a bad idea to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. He concludes with a summary of his argument:

In 1997, in the middle of the Oslo accord, with Hamas determined to kill its way to power, the assassination of its masterminds, such as Mashaal, was Israel's last option for security.

Today, with Hamas holding its fire in Gaza, with a peace government in Ramallah, there are all sorts of things we can do to protect ourselves before calling for the Mossad.

We can lift the blockade of Gaza and thereby lift the desperation of the Gazan people. We can join the rest of the world in accepting the Palestinians' right to a sovereign state based on the pre-Six Day War borders, not the subservience-with-a-flag that Netanyahu's offering them. We can talk turkey with Abbas and Fayyad. We can grow the hell up.

As the Bible says, there's a time to kill and a time to heal. On that basis, we should have put our hit squads on inactive duty a good few years ago. Enough with the James Bond routine; it's old. Everyone around here is winking and chuckling. Meanwhile, time is passing us by.


Sally Neighbour on the Afghan warlords

Amongst the pick of the weekend reading is a feature article in the Inquirer section of The Weekend Australian by ABC Four Corners reporter and senior columnist Sally Neighbour (see article here). Her central thesis is that peace in Afghanistan is unlikely to be brought by the thugs and murderers being wooed by the Karzai Government. She begins her article:

The rogues' gallery of warlords and war criminals being courted by the Karzai government and its Western backers betrays just how desperate the dilemma of Afghanistan has become, and how treacherous the road to peace and stability that lies ahead.

President Hamid Karzai's much vaunted new strategy of reconciliation with the militants has found his government doing deals with the same cast of villains who helped tear Afghanistan to shreds during the past 30 years of war.

Most notorious of all is the veteran jihad commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an accused terrorist, war criminal and protector of Osama bin Laden who last month held out an olive branch to Karzai and the West, claiming he is not in league with the Taliban and wants only the departure of foreign forces.

She gives some background on Hekmatyar, who received a conservatively estimated $600 million in CIA funds channelled through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), but who after the Soviet withdrawal sabotaged efforts to establish a power-sharing mujaheddin government, declared war on his rivals, and even after being named Prime Minister reduced the southern half of Kabul to rubble with a loss of civilian life variously estimated at 25,000-50,000 (see The destruction of Kabul).

Neighbour gives background also on the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, discusses how the warlords fit into US strategy for Afghanistan, and concludes, in the light of an unnamed commentator’s claim that Hekmatyar is “the great hope of all parties”:

God help Afghanistan if Hekmatyar is its best hope for peace.

And so say all of us.

More climate change denial

The Weekend Australian Financial Review, 20-21 February 2010, carried a particularly obnoxious article (Data-massaging scientists having a terrible day) by conservative US columnist George Will. It was published under the tag-line “Climate Scepticism”. The nation’s leading financial newspaper ought to know better: the term “sceptic” ought to be reserved for people who give some indication of a preparedness to change their mind in the light of evidence.

Will certainly doesn’t attempt to conceal his glee at the discomfiture caused by some academic misbehaviour and some sloppy checking of sources:

[IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri] denounces persons sceptical about the shrill certitudes of those who say global warming poses an imminent threat to the planet ...

- ... Nothing prepared him for the horror of encountering disagreement. Global warming alarmists, long cosseted by echoing media, manifest an interesting incongruity – hysteria and name calling accompanying serene assertions about the “settled science” of climate change.

In fact, according to Will, the science is specious, and there is an absence of global warming (no statistically significant warming for 15 years, he is happy to tell us, misrepresenting Phil Jones, former director of the Climatic Research Unit in Britain).

So according to George Will, the science is not settled and there is no global warming. Will’s recent commentary on climate change has been comprehensively demolished by The Guardian’s George Monbiot (see George Will’s climate howlers, 18 February 2010 here), but let me throw a few additional thoughts on the table:

(1)  “Science” is never “settled”, and people who think that it is simply reveal their ignorance of scientific processes. We find out some important things, and are able to do some quite handy things on the basis of them, but there are always important debates and there is always more to be found out.

-  To take one striking example, Newton’s three laws of motion, combined with his theory of gravity, seemed for about three centuries to have settled the laws of mechanics, and explained the motions of the planets.  Taken together with some fine 17th century work on gases (Boyle’s Law and Pascal’s Principle) they provided the basis for the industrial revolution.

-  Then in the early twentieth century a young man named Albert Einstein began speculating about the relationship between space and time. Before you know it we find that at very high speeds the mass of an object increases and time slows down, curiosities which are elegantly explained by relativity theory. This discovery is fundamental to everyday systems involving satellites (mobile phones, GPS navigation) because relativistic effects are important at the speeds that are relevant here.

- So the world of Newtonian or classical physics wasn’t settled at all, but it was close enough for most purposes and for several centuries it was all we had. It enabled people to make a range of calculations and predictions, and to build large structures and complex machines that would neither collapse nor blow up.

-  We know that Einstein’s work, important as it is, is not the last word because early in the twentieth century quantum effects at the sub-atomic level were also discovered, and no-one has been able to explain satisfactorily how relativity and quantum physics co-exist. The search for the unified field theory continues.

-  As another example, within a few years of the discovery that the atom (hitherto considered an elementary particle) consisted of electrons, protons and neutrons (themselves then considered erroneously for a time to be the real fundamental particles), physicists conceived and then demonstrated the possibility of the nuclear chain reaction, with the release of enormous amounts of energy.  The bombs that brought the Pacific War to a close were constructed without any inkling of oddities like strange quarks or the bewildering array of mesons that populated my 1960s textbooks on particle physics, and to this day we are still looking for the Higgs boson (that is in part what the Large Hadron Collider under a mountain in Switzerland is about). If ever there was science that is “not settled”, this is it. But there are many aspects about which we have a great deal of certainty, and can make precise calculations and predictions: we have had nuclear power stations for over fifty years and they currently generate about 17% of the world’s electricity.

(2) To the extent that any science is ever settled, the core science of global warming is; it is very basic undergraduate physics, which has been confirmed experimentally for over 150 years. The arguments and uncertainties are about the secondary effects and the consequences.

-  A paper about the warming effect of the planet’s atmosphere was first published in 1824 by the great French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, with a follow-up paper in 1827. Fourier established the concept of a planetary energy balance, a balance between the planet’s heat gain and its heat loss, and proposed that the atmosphere shifts the balance towards higher temperatures by slowing the heat loss.

-  Beginning in the late 1850s, the 19th century Irish physicist John Tyndall FRS undertook reliable experimental work which established that the warming effect was due to the absorption and re-radiation of infra-red radiation by a number of gases, notably water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane.

-  A quantitative analysis was undertaken in the 1890s by the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, who was the first to predict that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other combustion processes would cause global warming.

-  The black body temperature of the earth – the temperature at which it would stabilise if all incoming radiation were absorbed and re-radiated - is 5.5 °C. Since the Earth's surface reflects about 28% of incoming sunlight, in the absence of the greenhouse effect the planet's mean temperature would be far lower - about -18 or -19 °C instead of the much higher current mean temperature, about 14 °C.

-  Given all this, I think that the onus is on the climate change deniers to explain to the rest of us why adding about 30% to the burden of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would not raise the temperature of the planet.

(3)  As noted above, what is not settled is the extent and time path of consequential effects.  This is because of the complex interactions between the first round effects of the lower parts of the atmosphere becoming warmer:

-  We know that the sea will absorb some of the extra carbon dioxide, but we know also that as the surface layer of the sea gets warmer its absorptive capacity is reduced.

-  We know also that as the sea absorbs carbon dioxide it becomes more acid, with deleterious effects on crustaceans and other life-forms with a shell or external skeleton. We do not know how this plays out through the rest of the marine food chain.

-  We need to know more about the coupling between the atmosphere and the oceans – how they interact to drive both weather systems and ocean currents.

-  We do not know enough about the chemistry of the processes by which carbon is sequestered in soil, or about the net effects of various land-use changes.

-  We know that on average the world’s glaciers are melting but we cannot predict whether or how fast any one of them will disappear because changing weather patterns can cause more precipitation to fall on some of them.

-  We know that most of the sea-level rise to date is due to thermal expansion of the water column. What we do not know as yet is how rapidly melting of the Greenland Ice Shelf and Antarctic ice will add to the problem. If it is rapid, we are in serious trouble.

(4) One other matter that is conclusively settled is a key attribute of the mathematics of non-linear systems. They are so sensitive to minute changes of initial conditions (and hence to even minor inaccuracies or gaps in data) that mathematical models cannot be expected to provide accurate forecasts of long range outcomes. They can give us a great deal of information about trends, about the interaction of the processes that are taking place within the system, and which ones predominate, but they cannot give us accurate forecasts. They are research tools, not crystal balls. Nevertheless, when we look at meta-data compiled from a synthesis of the outputs of a number of respectable models we can be even more confident of what we see unfolding. What we see is that the planet is warming, and the consequences will be serious. No amount of academic misbehaviour in individual research teams or sloppy citation of sources can alter that fact.

And by the way, don’t fall for the old canard about “they can’t even tell us what the weather will be like in a week’s time, how can they tell us what it will be like in 2050?” First, weather is not the same as climate. Second, weather is, like climate, a non-linear (chaotic in a mathematical sense) system, and poses the same mathematical problems in making forecasts over the much shorter time-scales we have in mind when we talk about weather. In many ways long term trends are easier to discern that the exact evolution of short-term fluctuations.

George Will’s claim that Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit had agreed that there had been no statistically significant global warming since 1995, which has rapidly become an urban myth amongst the global denialist industry, cannot be allowed to stand. Let us have a look at what Jones actually said, in an interview on the BBC on Saturday 13 February 2010 (check it here):

Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?

Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.

Do you agree that from January 2002 to the present there has been statistically significant global cooling?

No. This period is even shorter than 1995-2009. The trend this time is negative (-0.12C per decade), but this trend is not statistically significant.

How confident are you that warming has taken place and that humans are mainly responsible?

I'm 100% confident that the climate has warmed. As to the second question, I would go along with IPCC Chapter 9 - there's evidence that most of the warming since the 1950s is due to human activity.

Anyone with the remotest clue about statistics would understand that what Professor Jones is saying in the answers to the first two questions is that short time intervals are a poor guide to long term trends.

Perhaps the most exasperating feature of the whole denialist campaign is the way in which people who hold themselves out as public intellectuals can be so smug about matters about which they clearly know nothing. They betray the fundamental requirements of intellectual endeavour – willingness to listen and learn, willingness to weigh evidence, and preparedness to change one’s mind in the light of the weight of evidence.

That notwithstanding, Will has the cheek to conclude his article by commenting upon the appointment of Todd Stern as America’s Special Envoy for Climate Change:

It is tempting to say, only half in jest, that Stern's portfolio violates the First Amendment, which forbids government from undertaking the establishment of religion. A religion is what the faith in catastrophic man-made global warming has become. It is now a tissue of assertions impervious to evidence, assertions which everything, including a historic blizzard, supposedly confirms and nothing, not even the absence of warming, can falsify.

Look in the mirror, George, and you will see religion staring you in the face, complete with its tissue of assertions impervious to evidence. And by the way, that historic blizzard was a function of a warmer than usual start to the year, accompanied by higher humidity. Precipitation is a function of the amount of moisture in the air, George, not of temperature. Some of the world’s really cold cities (Beijing and Seoul spring to mind) do not get much snow at all.

26 February 2010

Israel and the forged passports

There are some interesting values on display in the Western reaction to the forged passports used in the Dubai murder of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 2006, reduced the southern suburbs of Beirut to rubble with great loss of life, and carried out widespread attacks on civilian infrastructure, we had nothing to say, except that Israel has a right to defend itself (everything Israel does is defensive).

When Israel invaded Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, with a loss of up to 1,400 Palestinian lives, many more wounded and tens of thousands rendered homeless, we had nothing to say, except that Israel has a right to defend itself.

 When the Goldstone Report analysed the behaviour of Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza War found evidence that the Israel Defence Force had committed a number of war crimes, and suggested that these be investigated, we didn’t think so, we didn’t think that any of these documented events warranted closer scrutiny.

When it appeared that Mossad had carried out an extra-judicial killing in Dubai, we had nothing to say. Then, it suddenly appeared that some of the supposed Mossad agents were travelling on forged Australian passports, and the Australian Government had to feign outrage at this turn of events. The Israeli Ambassador is called in, the press is backgrounded that he has been told that this is not the action of a friend and that the Australian Government expects the Government of Israel to give full cooperation to the Australian Federal Police in its investigation of the matter.

It is all theatre. There will be no Israeli cooperation with the AFP, and there will be no consequences for Israel’s relationship with Australia. Australia has given reflexive and unswerving support to the Israeli state since 1948. Australia has asked for nothing in return, and nothing is what it has received. That situation is not about to change, and the Israelis know it.

An Australian government will show that it is serious the first time it takes a public position that is at odds with the Israeli position. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Afghanistan: New York Times is wrong about this one

I am a great admirer of The New York Times; it is a great exemplar of quality journalism in both its news reporting and its opinion pieces. I must, however, take issue with an editorial on the Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan in its 25 February 2010 edition.

The editorial laments the Dutch intention to withdraw the 2,000 troops it has fighting in Oruzgan Province and concludes:

Europe’s leaders need to tell themselves — and their voters — the truth. The war in Afghanistan is not just about America’s security. It, too, is about denying sanctuaries to Al Qaeda, which has also carried out deadly terrorist attacks in Europe.

Is there anyone who seriously argues that “victory” in Afghanistan (whatever that means) would deny Al Qaeda the capacity to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe? Give me a break. Al Qaeda has shown itself to be an extraordinarily adaptive organism; it responds rapidly to changing circumstances. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan (eight years ago now) Al Qaeda made use of training camps in Afghanistan because it suited it to do so. Following the US invasion in 2001 Afghanistan became less convenient to Al Qaeda so it evolved to a different set of arrangements. There is nothing we can do in Afghanistan that makes Europe, Australia or the United States the slightest bit more secure – on the contrary, we simply provide a pretext for domestic malcontents to plan hostile acts.

25 February 2010

Clearways: about as bad as it gets

The front page of today’s edition of The Age carries a picture of an irate motorist – a St Kilda Road cafe proprietor – remonstrating with a VicRoads officer who is in the process of having his car and 22 others towed to a yard at Abbotsford. To recover their cars each must pay Nationwide Towing $322, and VicRoads $117.

The background to this is that the State Government has been trying to introduce extended clearway times across inner Melbourne since 2008. In some areas now the affected streets are clearways from 6.30 - 10 a.m. (previously 7.00 - 9.00 a.m.) and from 3.00 - 7.00 pm (previously 4.30-6.30 p.m.) – more than 50 per cent of the day, and a very substantial slice of normal shopping hours.

The extended clearway times have met strong resistance from local councils, who are justifiably sensitive both to the interests of the small businesses in the shopping strips that are affected, and their voters who would like to have access to their local shops. Most of the 13 councils affected by the changes initially resisted the extended hours; now all but Yarra and Stonnington have given up.

VicRoads started changing clearway signs on Saturday, and the resisting councils promptly covered them up. VicRoads rolled out 300 more signs late on Tuesday night, and began enforcing the new hours on Wednesday. We have a conflict between two levels of government, and the State Government decides that the way to resolve this is to punish individual motorists. That is about as bad as public administration gets.

There are some larger issues at stake here:

-  The fact that we need clearways at all is a sign of policy failure. It is a sign that the city’s public transport system is so dysfunctional that most people have no alternative to use of their own car as a means of getting to and from work with reasonable convenience – even though the State Government punishes us all by levying a burdensome tax on all parking spaces in the CBD and surrounding areas.  “Reasonable convenience” is strictly a relative term – journey times are outrageous but at least in one’s own car one does not have the feeling of participating in an extended rugby scrum.

- The dysfunctionality is the result of governments of every persuasion failing over many decades to invest in the public transport system. We get the politics of gesture – “We’ll introduce a smart ticketing system” – but the smartest ticketing system in the world cannot compensate for sheer lack of capacity.  People straphanging from Springvale to the city for 45 minutes every morning were not demanding smarter tickets, they were demanding more trains.

-  What we have ended up with is a ticketing system that does not work, and could hardly be described as smart if it did (see Reflections on the myki debacle). It has achieved one notable benchmark – it is the most expensive “smart” ticketing project in the world.

-  Given that we have massive traffic congestion, it is not self-evident to me that the interests of the people who actually live in the inner city areas should be sacrificed to the interests of those who choose to live further out – why should it be the sole function of High Street Prahran/Armidale for most of the day to provide a pavement for people passing through? What about the amenity of the local ratepayers?

Yarra and Stonnington Councils say they will now launch a court action against the Roads Minister, alleging that he failed to consult them as required by law before introducing the clearways plan. For his part the Roads Minister is demanding that the councils agree to the extended clearway times. If he needs their agreement, what is he doing enforcing his view of the law against individual motorists? This matter should be resolved by due process, not by heavy-handed unilateral action.

20 February 2010

Gallo-Roman remains at Chaponost

In preparation for a holiday in France in January last year I searched online for one nights’s accommodation in Lyon, preferably within walking distance of Place Bellecour, the heart of the city. For some reason a lot of the accommodation was fully booked and what little was available was either not particularly conveniently located or fiercely expensive or both.

I then turned to the trusty Logis de France website (English language version here) to see what might be available in nearby villages.  I came across something that looked acceptable in a village called Chaponost. Google Maps told me that the time from the Logis to Place Bellecour was about 25 minutes, so I booked it.

I subsequently discovered that Chaponost is the site of one of the largest Gallo-Roman remains in France – a massive aqueduct that transported water from the Gier River to Lugdunum, the site of the modern city of Lyon at the junction of the Rhône and the Saone.

This turned out to be an excellent option. The Logis was clean and comfortable, we could park in the establishment’s yard at no cost, and the journey time to Place Bellecour was exactly as Google Maps had predicted. So after spending the day motoring down from Lyons, we checked in, rang the Restaurant Raphaël Béringer (see Restaurant Raphaël Béringer, Lyon), to be told that they were full but if we would come early they would fit us in, had a shower, motored off to the Presqu’île area of central Lyon, drove around the block a few times in the rain until we found a parking space, had a delightful meal, and returned to Chaponost.

The next morning we awoke in sparkling sunshine, a few hundred metres from the aqueducs romains du Gier, and spent a pleasant hour inspecting the ruins before motoring off to spend the rest of the day in Lyon.









Avigdor Lieberman on the Dubai assassination

From the moment news broke of the assassination of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the public position of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been “there is no proof that [the Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad carried out the killings”.  

These words are carefully chosen. They are not a denial – they are an assertion that there is no proof.

Elsewhere Mr Lieberman has said, consistent with longstanding Israeli practice (and the practice of most countries in relation to the overseas activities of their undercover agents):

Israel never responds, never confirms, never denies.

Mr Lieberman would have been well advised to follow his own dictum, because in fact he has responded, with his statement that there is no proof. Any words other than the stock-standard formula constitute a comment, a response - a confirmation or a denial.  From the outset I took Mr Lieberman’s statement that there is no proof that Mossad carried out the killings as a confirmation, with a more than a hint of triumphalism – “we got him but Mossad is so immensely clever that you will never be able to prove it”.

It was an incautious statement to begin with, and with photos of the supposed Mossad agents splashed all over the world’s newspapers, three governments (the United Kingdom, Ireland and France) having called in the respective Israeli ambassadors to demand explanations of apparent identity theft and forged passports, and the Dubai police chief seeking the service of an Interpol warrant against Mossad chief Meir Dagan, it is becoming a difficult line to sustain.

There might not yet be “proof” of Mossad involvement, but there is a growing mountain of evidence.

17 February 2010

Hillary’s at it again

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the Middle East. According to the report from Doha by Bloomberg’s Indira Lakshmanan, published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 February 2010, she is visiting Qatar and Saudi Arabia to build support for pressuring Iran and for urging the Palestinians to return to peace talks with Israel.

In regard to the first of these objectives, she was urged by the Qatari Prime Minister to engage in direct dialogue with Iran, in response to which:

Mrs Clinton replied that Mr Obama made numerous overtures last year to engage Iran, with scant results.

“Engagement has to be a two-way street”, she said. “It cannot be done alone in a room talking to yourself.”

What Mrs Clinton neglected to mention was the long history of US meddling in the internal affairs of Iran, and in particular the Bush Administration’s policy of encouraging ethnic separatist groups – covert action carried out by proxy, in the case of the Baluch, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate or, I.S.I., and in the case of the Kurds by the C.I.A. in cooperation with Israel’s Mossad (see Meddling in Iran). It is by no means clear that the Obama Administration has abandoned these policies. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserted not in a speech delivered in the Kurdish city of Bijar on 12 May 2009. If the policy of encouraging ethnic separatism has been abandoned, the US should come right out and say so, if it is serious about engaging with the Iranian leadership.

There are three possible explanations for Mrs Clinton’s failure to mention this important matter, none of which does her much credit: she is wilfully misleading her various audiences; she doesn’t know what is going on; or she doesn’t see the connection.

On the question of pressuring the Palestinians to return to peace (sic.) talks with Israel, why is it that the US pressure is always on the Palestinians rather than on the people who have stolen their land?

16 February 2010

Isaac Stern and the town hall piano

In The ABC and music to country Australia I applauded the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to bring world class music to the small towns of country Australia.

Sometimes the visits of these renowned musicians had lasting impacts on the cultural life of the town. An outstanding example of this was the 1954 visit of American violinist Isaac Stern; the story which follows was told to me at the time by my mother, who was on the local ABC committee which provided local facilitation of the visits on a voluntary basis.

Stern came to Armidale with his accompanist Alexander Zakin, to whom he was very close. They had worked together for years, and according to the sleeve notes on one of the vynil recordings I purchased back in the 1960s, when Stern was thinking in the early 1940s of accepting a seat in a symphony orchestra, because of a lack of solo engagements, it was Zakin who persuaded him to persist with his ambition of establishing himself as a soloist.

Be that as it may, when the two of them were taken to have a look at the town hall on the day of the performance, Stern instantly noticed that the town hall piano was an upright. He politely but firmly informed his hosts that Mr Zakin would not be playing that piano. He was told that that was all there was. Stern reiterated that Mr Zakin would not be playing that piano; they would need to find him a grand piano of appropriate quality. Someone recalled that the Teacher’s College had a grand piano, a telephone call was made, small towns being what they are the Teacher’s College readily agreed to lend the piano – but made it quite clear that this was never to happen again.

The piano was moved, the tuner came and prepared it, and the concert went ahead as planned. At the conclusion, after the encores and all the applause, Isaac Stern addressed the audience. He told the tale of the urgent quest to find a suitable piano for the occasion, said that the Teacher’s College had kindly agreed to lend its piano for the occasion, but could not go on doing that. He said that he was sure that all the music lovers in a town like Armidale would agree that the town hall needed to have its own grand piano. Accordingly, he had made a contribution to start a fund, people were waiting at the back of the hall to take any contributions people cared to make, and he hoped they would give generously. And they did.

And that is the story of how Armidale Town Hall came to have its own grand piano.

15 February 2010

The ABC and music to country Australia

One of the things for which those of us who grew up in country Australia in the 1950s and 1960s can be eternally grateful to the ABC is the quality of the classical music it brought to quite small regional centres, such as my home town of Armidale.

This was a sufficiently remarkable phenomenon that it was the subject of an article in the 28 July 1958 issue of Time magazine, not exactly famous in those days for its assiduous reporting of matters to do with the wide brown land (see Music: Beethoven in the Bush).

In the case of Armidale (population 8,700 in 1954, growing to about 12,000 by the mid 1960s) we were treated annually to a full-scale performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra which the newly formed ABC had itself brought into being in 1932 as the National Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra and which was reformed straight after the war to become the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, giving its first performance in January 1946. And what an orchestra it was; from 1947 until 1956 it had Sir Eugene Goossens as its chief conductor, a man who set himself the objective of making the SSO one of the six top symphony orchestras in the world within two years of his arrival in Australia.

The ABC’s recital program also brought outstanding soloists to country New South Wales. Names that spring to mind include:

-  Violinists Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Ruggiero Ricci and Christian Ferras

-  Pianists Alfred Brendel and John Ogdon, and some lesser lights like Fou Ts’ong, Philippe Entremont and Tamás Vásáry

-  Cellist Edmund Kurtz, who played for us the recently composed (1964) suite for solo cello by Benjamin Britten

- Chinese bass Yi-kwei Sze

- French baritone Gerard Souzay

Playing these country circuits must have had its moments for these world class performers, and Armidale was a tedious place to get to in the 1950s; one could sign up for a 14-hour train trip from Sydney, or fly in to the highest (and hence rather fog-prone) airport in Australia in a DC-3. In those pre-motel days the visitors to Armidale stayed at Tattersall’s Hotel in the centre of the main shopping block in Beardy Street, just a short walk up the lane to the Town Hall. Tatt’s was the most salubrious hotel in town, the sort of place to which people from surrounding properties might repair for lunch on Friday between purchasing their supplies and taking in the Friday afternoon matinee at Hoyt’s Capitol Theatre – a welcoming and comfortable enough place, but still no more than a nice country pub.

They must have had many an anecdote to dine out on later. To give just one, a year or so before we were married my wife and I went to a Ruggiero Ricci recital in Tamworth, my wife’s home town. It happens that Tamworth Town Hall is right next door to the fire station. Ricci was playing Béla Bartók’s wonderful Romanian Dances, and was just about to strike the first note of the beautiful, mysterious section which is played with muted violin when the fire alarm went off. A flicker of a smile spread across this good humoured man’s face, he remained stock still with bowing arm raised until the alarm ceased (mercifully fairly promptly) and then proceeded as though nothing had happened.  I love Bartók’s Romanian Dances, but when I hear them I can’t help thinking back to that evening in Tamworth Town hall, circa 1964.

I don’t know what these concerts meant to the people who played for us, but we counted the days until the next performance. Thank you ABC.

14 February 2010

Israeli hubris

In Game, set and match to Mr Netanyahu (24 September 2009) I observed that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must have been laughing all the way home at the outcome of the meetings on Middle East Peace sponsored by President Obama - all of the Americans’ tough talk from last May about how the President “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” (see West Bank Settlements: full marks to Mrs Clinton) had collapsed to the usual posture in the face of Israeli intransigence – hand-wringing and bleating from the sidelines.

The Israelis would be well advised not to celebrate this particular victory too loudly, but having achieved it, and seen off just about everyone who might have the temerity to suggest that there is something in the Goldstone Report that might warrant investigation (or perhaps even a little self-reflection) on the part of Israel, the  Israeli right is showing distinct signs of hubris, an insouciant belief that it doesn’t matter whom Israel chooses to insult or offend.

Two examples of this are given in the course of a major piece in The Weekend Australian, 13-14 February 2010, on the redrawing of the map of the Middle East, by The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons (see Inquirer, page 6, Arabs seize the initiative as US blinks.

The first consists of intemperate and unwise personal attacks on President Obama and his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is the son of an Irgun member, has strong personal ties to Israel, and is an influential politician in his own right.  Nothwithstanding that pedigree, two settler leaders have written to Emanuel saying:

You are like the Hellenists who acted against the Israeli nation. You advise President Obama against Israel, and incite and instigate against us. You are a traitor against the entire Jewish people.

Emanuel has come under attack also from prominent hawk and former Israeli diplomat to the US Yoram Ettinger, who attributed the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat to “the intense involvement of ... Emanuel in Obama’s policy making and in the Massachusetts election”.

As for the President himself, Ettinger has warned him that Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill are being mobilised against him:

President Obama is intent on clipping the wings of the Jewish state morally, strategically and territorially. However, this is not a top priority for him. He would not confront Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill and in the public if they are mobilised against his prescription. Does Obama have the power to overcome such a pro-Israel alliance and impose a solution on Israel?

For the Israeli right to get these sorts of sentiments off its collective chest might be all good clean fun, but they would be wise to recall that it is the United States that underwrites Israel’s security, at very considerable foreign policy cost to itself in the rest of the Middle East and much of the rest of the world, and accordingly Israel has a very strong strategic interest in the continuation of American goodwill. Wise also to reflect that politicians of every stamp have big egos and long memories.

Be careful whom you antagonise would be my advice: if these elements do mobilise their friends against President Obama, and he is re-elected anyway, it will be a strategic setback for Israel.

The other example of Israeli hubris concerns the recent humiliation of the Turkish Ambassador to Israel, Mr Oguz Celikkol. To understand the full significance of this it is necessary to bear in mind that, from its earliest days, the state of Israel followed a “peripheral strategy” of cultivating close relationships with the non-Arab neighbours of its Arab antagonists, notably the Shah’s Iran and Turkey. Israel does not need Turkey any more apparently. As The Australian tells it:

On the order of [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called in the ambassador to protest about a recent episode of a Turkish television series depicting Mossad agents as child-snatchers.

In an ambush, Ayalon called the ambassador to his office, then called in the photographers. He refused to shake the ambassador’s hand and in Hebrew told the photographers: “Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair and we are in the higher ones, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling”.

The upshot of this deft piece of diplomacy was that Prime Minister Netanyahu had to intervene and force Ayalon to apologise, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak was left to try to patch up relations with Turkey.

This is the way Israel treats its friends.