Saturday, February 25, 2012

World Turns Its Back-Again: Tunis 2012-Bermuda 1943

Thousands of largely unarmed people rise up against a brutal regime. In reaction, military commanders are dispatched to ruthlessly crush the revolt. Men, women, and children are cut down in cold blood, houses and apartments destroyed, the streets littered with body parts and piles of the dead. Desperate appeals are made  to the world for help, for arms, for medicines, for rescue. 
The leaders of the world wring their hands and meet to deal with the horrific situation.  Regrettably, there are too many reasons not to act; too many complications, too many subtleties. Sophisticated diplomats and heads of state understand these things. The slaughter continues.
One such meeting just ended in Tunis on February 24th, called to deal with the uprising in Syria.  The other was held in Bermuda, April 1943, with delegations from the U.S. and Great Britain to discuss the terrible predicament of the millions of Jews trapped in Hitler’s Europe.
Two days into the Bermuda conference, the delegates received word of a transmission from an underground Polish radio operating out of Warsaw. Its desperate message:"The last 35,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto are condemned to death. Warsaw is once again deafened with the bursts of gunfire. People are being murdered. Women and children are defending themselves with their bare hands. Save us..." At that point the radio went dead.
Of course, the differences between the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto and the current bloody uprising in Syria are huge.  But the harrowing stories that have come down to us from the Warsaw Ghetto are eerily similar to the horrific accounts emanating from Homs and other Syrian towns over the past few months.
And, in both cases, the leaders of the world were challenged to react.
The Jews who rose up in Warsaw were the remnants of more than 250,000 Jews originally herded into the Ghetto. They finally refused to follow Nazi diktats when they came to realize that they were being deported not to labor camps but to the death camp at Treblinka.
Against German tanks, artillery, and poison gas, the Jews had only a few revolvers, rifles, and Molotov cocktails, some of them smuggled into the Ghetto by sympathetic members of the Polish Underground.  Via underground radio and smuggled written messages, they attempted to alert the world with desperate appeals for arms, for food, medicines, for support of any kind. 
Meanwhile, by coincidence, reluctant American and British delegations –who for months had been under mounting pressure from domestic Jewish organizations--were meeting in Bermuda to deal with the question of what, if anything, they would do to save Europe’s Jews from Hitler, including large numbers of Jews in areas not yet occupied by the Nazis.  
In Bermuda the British and American delegates talked on and on for twelve days. Jewish groups were not allowed to attend—nor were the media. At the end, the delegates issued a few hand-wringing statements, but did nothing. 
In fact, one of their fears was that Hitler might actually open the gates of occupied Europe and allow the Jews to flee. The last thing the Americans and British governments wanted to deal with was a flood of immigrant Jews. Britain was also particularly unwilling to allow Jews to go to Palestine, then under British rule, for fear of offending the Arabs.
The basic reason for British and American inaction was deep-seated anti-Semitism in both England and the United States, particularly pronounced in the British Government and the U.S. State Department—but also in the general population.  Not even Franklin Roosevelt was willing to make saving the Jews of Europe a major issue until 1944.
Back in Warsaw, after three weeks of desperate struggle, on May 16, 1943 the last resistance in the Ghetto was annihilated.  
In solidarity with his fellow Jews, an exile leader living in England, Samuel Zygelboim committed suicide. For months, he had pleaded with the Allies to retaliate against Hitler for the on-going slaughter of Polish Jews.
In a BBC broadcast on December 1942, he had warned, "if Polish Jewry's call for help goes unheeded, Hitler will have achieved one of his war aims-to destroy the Jews of Europe irrespective of the military outcome of the war." 
[Have to admit, that warning sounds like those decrying the failure of the U.N. to take a tougher stand against Assad for the bloodbath in Syria. ]
After the Warsaw Ghetto fell, Samuel Zygelboim left behind a suicide note charging the Germans with the murder of Polish Jews, but he also accused the Allied governments, including the Polish Government-in-Exile, of not having done enough to rescue the Jews from the murderous hands of the Germans. Then he wrote:
By my death I wish to make my final protest against the passivity with which the world has witnessed and permitted the annihilation of the Jewish people.”

One would like to imagine that, the outcome of the Bermuda Conference would have been dramatically different if the Internet had been around at the time. If instead of a lonely plea from an underground radio station, or the dry accounts of a few diplomatic cables, there had been You Tube and Twitter and Facebook, broadcasting to the world the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust.  
Imagine for instance, if anyone with the Internet had been able to follow minute-by –bloody minute the massacre of the civilians in the Warsaw Ghetto: the slaughter of men, women and children, the makeshift hospitals, their floors running red with blood. Imagine if the world had seen all that 69 years ago: the scenes we’ve been witnessing every day from Homs.
Of course, the world would have reacted. How could they have not?
Just look at our diplomats discussing Syria in Tunis this past Friday.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Iran and Israel: Obama's blindspot Intact

In the brief interview he gave ABC before the Superbowl, President Obama declared “I’ve been very clear that we’re going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race, in a volatile region.”
Sounds like a very laudable goal, right. Except for the fact that, as I recently blogged, the nuclear arms race in the Middle East is already under way. It began almost fifty years ago when Israel developed the bomb.
According to a 2007 study by the Federation of American Scientists, “Estimates for Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile range from 70 to 400 warheads. The actual number is probably closer to the lower estimate. Additional weapons could probably be built from inventories of fissile materials.”
In other words, as I wrote, “One of the most uncommented on ironies today is that Israel is threatening military action to prevent Iran from continuing the same clandestine route to nuclear weapons that Israel took; just as Israeli planes destroyed nuclear reactors in Syria and Iraq to prevent those countries from following Israel’s lead”
Indeed, Israel, probably has more nukes today than either India or Pakistan. Speculation is that they could be fired from long-range artillery, dropped as bombs, or delivered as warheads from Israeli submarines or via Israel’s Jehrico 1 and 2 Missiles.   There has also been conjecture about nuclear land mines, suitcase bombs, and missiles fired from Israelis submarines.
A parallel irony, as I pointed out, is the fact that, for the past fifty years, every American President has refused to publicly recognize the fact of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
On Superbowl Sunday President Obama kept the tradition intact.
Of course, so did ABC News and reporter Matt Lauer who let Obama’s statement go unchallenged. But, hey, that’s what the mainstream media has done for years.
Whatever your views on this crisis, how are we supposed to discuss it--never mind resolve it--with such a political blind spot.
Check it out the missing issue yourself as you follow the breathless coverage of the current crisis. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Iran Crisis: Only Half the Story

             Yesterday upon the stair
            I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away
                              William Hughes Mearns, 1899
One of the most uncommented on ironies today is that Israel is threatening military action to prevent Iran from continuing the same clandestine route to nuclear weapons that Israel took; just as Israeli planes destroyed nuclear reactors in Syria and Iraq to prevent those countries from following Israel’s lead.  

A parallel irony: President Obama champions an economic embargo to force Iran to back off its nuclear program. Yet, for more than half a century one American president after another declined to sound any alarums over Israel’s secret drive for nukes. Indeed, U.S. leaders refused to even officially acknowledge the foreboding intelligence about Israel’s intentions that American analysts were providing. That flimflam continues to this day.

[Perhaps the most incisive chronicle of this official deception is “The Samson Option,” written in 1991 by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Most of the following is drawn from that book.]

The charade began in the early 1950’s during the Eisenhower administration. Worried about Israel’s survival in the face of massive Arab opposition, and unable to get assurances from Eisenhower that the new Zionist state would be protected by America’s nuclear umbrella, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion set out clandestinely to provide Israel with its own nuclear weapons.

The secret facility would be constructed at Dimona in the Negev desert. The mammoth project would be off the books, paid for by wealthy Jews from around the world. France would also play a key but secret role, engineering a sophisticated reprocessing plant deep under the reactor at Dimona.

The Israeli leader who oversaw the clandestine program was Shimon Peres. These days, as President of Israel, Peres talks darkly of Iran’s nuclear deception. For decades however, he repeatedly lied to American officials about Israel’s nuclear intentions, claiming that Israel was working on a small reactor for peaceful purposes.
It was impossible however to hide the massive new construction from America’s high-flying U2 spy plane. In late 1958 or early 1959, CIA photo intelligence experts, spotted what looked almost certainly to be a nuclear reactor being built at Dimona. They rushed the raw images to the White House, expecting urgent demands from the Oval Office for more information. This was, after all, a development that could initiate a disastrous nuclear arms race in the Middle East. 
But there was absolutely no follow-up from the White House. As one of the analysts later told Seymour Hersh “Nobody came back to me, ever, on Israel.” Though the analysts continued regular reporting on Dimona, there were no requests for high-level briefings. “ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘this isn’t going to be disseminated is it?’ It was that attitude.” 
“By the end of 1959,” writes Hersh, “the two analysts had no doubts that Israel was going for the bomb. They also had no doubts that President Eisenhower and his advisers were determined to look the other way.”
The reason was evident: Eisenhower publicly was a strong advocate of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If he was formally to “know” of Israel’s nuclear program, he would be obliged to react--against Israel. Which, in the U.S. could mean serious political consequences.
It was only in December 1960, that the Eisenhower administration, nearing its end, leaked word about Dimona and France’s involvement to the New York Times. The administration hoped that, without having to make any official accusations itself, it could oblige the Israeli government to sign the NPT.
But Ben Gurion flatly denied the Times report. He assured American officials –as well as the Israeli Knesset--that the Dimona reactor was completely benign. French officials guaranteed that any plutonium produced at Dimona would be returned to France for safekeeping (another lie).
The Eisenhower administration, however, had no stomach to take on Israel and its American lobby. Despite the reports of CIA analysts, Ben Gurion’s denials went unchallenged.  That hypocrisy would remain official America’s policy--even as U.S. presidents decried the attempts of countries like India, North Korea, Pakistan, Libya and Iraq to themselves develop the bomb.
Even John Kennedy, who also felt strongly about nuclear proliferation, was forced for domestic political reasons to back off his demand for full-scale nspections of Dimona by the U.N.’s IAEA. Instead he agreed to a charade: inspections would be carried out only by Americans, who would be required to announce their visits well ahead of time, with the full agreement of Israel. No spot checks were allowed. The inspectors also were never shown some of the key intelligence that CIA analysts had gathered on Dimona.   
In April 1963, when Kennedy asked Shimon Peres point blank about Israel’s nuclear intentions, Peres replied with the prevarication that remains to this day: “I can tell you forthrightly that we will not introduce atomic weapons in to the region. We certainly won’t be the first to do so. We have no interest in that. On the contrary, our interest is in de-escalating the armament tension, even in total disarmament.”
Five years later, however, in 1968, Dimona began producing four or five warheads a year. But when Lyndon Johnson received a CIA report of that fact, he ordered CIA director Richard Helms to bury the estimate. No one else was to be informed, not even Secretary of State Dean Rusk nor Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Later, though Israel was still refusing to sign the non-proliferation treaty, Johnson agreed to supply that country with high-performance F-4 Fighters capable of carrying a nuclear weapon on a one-way mission to Moscow.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger came to power in 1969, with an even more sympathetic attitude towards Israel. Its nuclear ambitions, they felt, were fully justified. They had only contempt for the NPT. As Kissinger’s deputy Morton Halperin later told Hersh, “Henry believed that it was good to spread nuclear weapons around the world… He felt it inevitable that most major powers would get nukes and better for the United States to be on the inside helping them, than on the outside futilely fighting the process.”
In fact, Israel’s real nuclear intentions were hair-raising: They would target their nukes not on Egypt or Syria, but the Soviet Union. And they would make sure that Moscow understood that. The calculation was that Egypt and Syria, would never dare launch a war against Israel without the support of the Soviets, at the time their principal ally and arms provider. But if the men in the Kremlin realized they might face nuclear immolation themselves, they would never permit their Arab clients to drive Israel into the sea.  
Indeed, that calculation may have worked in 1973. According to Hersh, after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack overwhelming Israel’s defenses, an alarmed Gold Meir gave the order to prepare the nukes for imminent use. Alerted to Israel’s action, the Soviets immediately cautioned the Egyptian’s to back off. At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger —informed by the Israelis themselves of the nuclear deployment ---agreed to a massive emergency airlift to replace Israel’s depleted arms and ammunition.  
But even after those near- catclysmic events, Kissinger kept the lid on the entire matter. And when Egyptian President Sadat claimed that Israel had developed nuclear weapons, Shimon Peres again categorically denied the charges. He accused Sadat of “gathering information of his own making”
And so it went with the administration of Jimmy Carter.  On September 21, 1979, when an American spy satellite picked up a brilliant double flash over the South Indian Ocean, some American analysts concluded that it was the product of a nuclear explosion-a test conducted jointly by Israel and South Africa’s apartheid regime.  
Once again, the discovery presented the White House with a terrible dilemma,  President Carter was also brandishing the banner of non proliferation. If he were obliged to formally recognize Israel’s nuclear status, and didn’t seek tough sanctions against the Jewish state, he would be roundly criticized as a hypocrite. But, as always, punishing Israel could also mean serious domestic political trouble.    
Once again, the administration shielded the Oval Office from the truth. Wrote Hersh, “it was important that an American president not know what there was to know.”
But then, in 1986 the London Sunday Times published an extraordinary account of Dimona. It was based on extensive interviews and pictures furnished by Mordecai Vanunu, a thirty-one year old Moroccan Jew who had been working inside Dimona. He claimed that Israel’s nuclear stockpile totaled more than two hundred warheads.
[Even before the report was published, Israeli’s leaders discovered Vanunu’s apostasy. He was enticed by a female Mossad agent to fly to Rome for a few days; then was drugged, kidnapped and returned to Israel to stand trial. He was ultimately sentence to eighteen years in a maximum security prison, spending eleven of those years in solitary confinement. Even today, in Israel he is still being harassed, forbidden from speaking with any foreigners, reporters, or attempting to leave the country.]
American intelligence experts were floored by the Times account and the evident sophistication of Israel’s clandestine program. Officially, however Washington still went along with the fiction that Israel was not a nuclear state.
Yet again in 1991, Israel made use of its stockpile, deploying missile launchers armed with nuclear weapons facing Iraq: a terrible warning of retaliation to Saddam Hussein if he were to fill the Scud missiles he was firing at Israel with chemical weapons. He never did.
‘Which makes our case!’ defenders of Israel’s nuclear program will exclaim. Faced with the implacable Arab hostility, Israel was obliged to get the bomb. And thank God they did.   
The problem is that other embattled regimes, make the same argument. Since the days of the Shah, for instance, Iran’s leaders, feeling threatened first by the Soviet Union, then after 1979, by the United States, have pushed for nuclear weapons. And not without reason. To this day, the American president—not to mention rabid Republican primary candidates—openly discuss the option of attacking Iran.  
But wait, we are assured, Israel is different—an ally, not governed by crazies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who have sworn to wipe Israel from the map.
Not to defend the tyrants running Iran, but many experts convincingly dispute that Ahmadinejad actually threatened nuclear annihilation of Israel.  In addition, the Zionist state has had its own share of crazies who have long advocated using force to create a “Greater Israel.” Ariel Sharon, for instance, who precipitated a bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in a futile attempt to wipe out the PLO. He also openly talked about overthrowing King Hussein to turn Jordan by force into a Palestinian State.
Officially, however, Washington and Israel continue the ridiculous pretence that Israel has no nuclear weapons. To this day, Israel reporters can only write about their country’s nuclear capacity if they cite foreign publications as the source. And in the U.S., Washington’s official silence seems curiously contagious: how often, in the current flurry of media reports about the threat from Iran is there any mention of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal? 
The bottom line is this—whatever your view about Iran or Israel’s right to nuclear weapons--how can statesmen or reporters or anyone seriously discuss the current crisis over Iran when a key part of the dispute is officially hidden from view? How can the U.S. and Israel deal with proposals for a nuclear free Middle East when they still refuse officially to acknowledge that the region is not nuclear free—and hasn’t been for the past fifty years?