High life | 4 August 2012

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Thucydides carefully structured his Peloponnesian war history as a cautionary tale about the moral decay that accompanies abuses of imperial power. ‘It is a general law of nature to rule whatever one can,’ say the Athenians blandly to the denizens of Melos before slaughtering them. (The tiny island of Melos, a Spartan colony, had refused to join an alliance with Athens in 416 BC, so the civilised Athenians punished innocent civilians by killing all the men and selling the women and children into slavery.)

Athens was a direct democracy, whereas Sparta was a militaristic oligarchy, yet it was Athens that abused her power once the great Pericles had died of the plague and was replaced by the demagogue and total hawk Cleon. The latter, and after him Alcibiades, were the first neo-cons, greedy, eager to send great men such as Nicias to their death in Sicily (along with the Athenian fleet), and disdainful of compromise as long as others did the dying. Cleon, in fact, had the opportunity to make peace in 424 BC, but brashly broke off peace talks despite the pleadings of his great rival, the pious and cautious Nicias. Read George W. Bush for Cleon (at least the Athenian had the decency to die in battle, unlike W.), Ron Paul for Nicias, Alcibiades as Cheney, and you can look into a crystal ball and see the next 50 years down the Middle East road.

Mighty Uncle Sam, the lone superpower, is going Athenian in its arrogance as it plods on in the Middle East, compounding its catastrophic and criminal actions in Iraq by eyeing Iran and Syria as its next targets. What I don’t understand is how normally clear thinkers like William Hague can play the role of the Chorus, repeating ad nauseam Netanyahu’s ravings about existential threats to the only super nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, Israel. Disgracefully, the western media are echoing the Likudists, with the great democratic voices of Saudi Arabia and Qatar drowning out the cautious warnings of a few to beware of answered prayers. Let’s face it: if it weren’t for the Israeli lobby in DC, the warmongering Likudists in Tel Aviv, Saudi and Qatar money, and the neo-con sofa samurais in the American media, any clear-thinking person would realise that drawing diplomatic co-operation from Russia, as well as from Iran, could stop the war in Syria overnight. But it’s not about to happen. The kleptocracies of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia are Sunni, and they want the Alawite Assad out. Al Jazeera, financed and owned by Qatar’s ruler, is banging the war drums louder and louder, skewering the news, with the western media following in step without missing a beat.

What is the western interest in the fall of a very unpleasant but stable regime in the Middle East? This question would stump the Delphic Oracle, and then some. In 1991, George H.W. Bush recruited the elder Assad into his Desert Storm coalition to liberate Kuwait. Damascus sent 4,000 troops. Assad was promised a land-for-peace deal on the Golan Heights. He got zero, natch. Now the son stands in the way of a Syrian–Iraqi Islamic state as choreographed by al-Qa’eda, yet it’s the west that’s siding with the terrorists. Go figure, as Pericles never said.

Which brings me to Likud, whose charges of anti-Semitism against any and all its critics make it possible — in the words of the late Alexander Cockburn — always to tell when Israel is in the wrong. Pro-Likud neo-cons played a large part in launching the destruction of Iraq. Israel’s right-wing wanted Iraq permanently enfeebled. They got their wish. The same forces are now driving the current American confrontation with Iran and the shameful abandonment of the Palestinians. In the meantime, Israel’s citizens remain deeply at odds over the future of their democracy. The disintegration of Netanyahu’s coalition after only ten weeks is proof that the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and a high birth rate in the ultra-Orthodox community mean that democracy itself is under threat. In the past two years more than 25 bills have been passed by parliament to limit freedom of speech and of the press. People like Avigdor Lieberman — a bouncer in a Belarus nightclub — now sitting in Abba Eban’s old office, and ultras in the Orthodox community, do not believe in such things as judicial independence, minority rights or, come to think of it, any rights for Palestinians.

For months now, every Friday, several hundred Israelis gather in a neighbourhood in Arab East Jerusalem to stand vigil as a protest against the eviction of Palestinian families from homes they have lived in for decades. Extremist settlers are pushing them out with eviction notices from the government. First evicted in 1948, these poor souls are being expelled by Israel for a second time. Some young Israelis are as outraged as the most extreme of Palestinians at the injustice of it all. In reality, the Jewish state has been taken hostage by the ultra-Orthodox parties and the settlers. Only recently Mitt Romney told the Israeli hawks that it’s OK to attack Iran, or words to that effect. Palestinian human rights were not mentioned. The P-word is verboten if one’s running for office in the Land of the Free.

Last week I spent the evenings recovering from my leg injury while watching Daniel Barenboim conducting his wonderful Israeli–Egyptian–Syrian orchestra in Beethoven’s nine symphonies. He founded it with Edward Said, the late Palestinian historian. I also saw Barenboim carrying the Olympic flag with other worthies into the stadium. And wondered why Israel couldn’t have more Barenboims and fewer Netanyahus. Enjoy your Olympics.