Archive | February, 2016

How Neoliberalism Really Works: A Small Anecdote

27 Feb

 

Along with several million, I suffer from the eye disease known as glaucoma. It can be managed, rather than cured, by taking eye drops several times a day. Based on the advice of my doctor, I rely on Azopt and Lumigen, two drugs produced by leading pharmaceutical companies.

 

A week ago, prior to an international trip, I stopped at a local pharmacy to renew my prescription of Azopt (produced by a Texas company Alcon that manufactures 86 drugs) because I feared that my supply would be exhausted during the trip. A day later the pharmacist called me back to say that my insurance would only cover the refill in mid-March when according to their records I should have finished the supply I had, and would be entitled to

more. She added that the for 15 ml. of Azopt without insurance I would have to pay $445, which is double what it would cost after the insurance kicked in. I thanked her for letting me know this bad news, saying that I would wait until next month.

 

Of course, I was upset as I really depend on the medicine. My eye doctor reminds me on each visit that if I am not diligent about the daily dosage of drops, I risk blindness, but to pay such an amount seemed exorbitant, and besides, I was heading for countries where such drugs could be obtained more cheaply without even requiring a prescription. The U.S. puts no limits on drug prices, and unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies charge whatever they believe the market will bear.

 

But I was in for a surprise. In the small Italian village of Bellagio I stopped at the first pharmacy I could find, asking nervously whether they had Azopt in stock. Sure enough a 10 ml. bottle was produced, and I asked for a second one.

The combined price for 20 ml. was 21 Euros, or about 35 times cheaper than what I was told I had to pay in California! It was not even a generic version, but came in the same bottle.

 

I do not have a precise explanation of this extraordinary price differential. It seems to reflect the machinations of the free market as operative in the United States, combined with the inelastic nature of demand, possibly due to absence of alternatives in the American market.

 

For me this experience was disturbing but never disastrous. I could travel to where the drugs were more cheaply available, or if necessary, pay the ransom prices being exacted on the American market. What distressed me was all those in need of such medication who were not engaged in international travel and lacked the funds to cover payment were being put in an intolerable position.

 

I am not sure what the explanation is for such gigantic price gaps, but it seems like a metaphor for all that is wrong with a world economy that lacks mechanisms of societal conscience to protect the vulnerable.

 

There are, of course, two kinds of related problems. The first is the gap between drug prices on the American market and prices elsewhere, and the second is the seemingly outrageously high drug prices on the American market where Azopt, even if covered by insurance, would still be $223 for

a 15 ml bottle, sufficient for a couple of months.

 

What should be done? Make Bernie Sanders electable? Seek a social revolution? Does this require a global remedy, replacing neoliberalism with ‘social democracy’?

 

Surely something should be done!

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An Open Letter to Ban Ki-moon

12 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The post that follows is a modified version of an opinion piece published by Middle East Eye on 6 February 2016. Its focus on the metaphor of ‘shooting the messenger’ has usually been reserved for critics of Israel, and it is only when high officials depart from their scripted roles as faithful servants of the established order that their behavior results in demeaning rebukes. Israel and its most ardent defenders have been repeatedly guilty of shooting the messenger, thereby diverting attention from the damaging message by defaming the agent who delivered the message. It is a tactic that works, partly because the media finds character assassination more marketable than substantive commentary of a controversial nature. In my case, being frequently a messenger due to my UN role for six years, the nastier side of the attack tactics was to describe me (and others) as ‘a self-hating Jew’ or ‘anti-Semite.’ I tried to stay on message, largely ignoring the attacks, especially within the UN itself, but media coverage was preoccupied with an assessment of the personal vendetta that was difficult to ignore altogether without seemingly to acquiesce in the allegations. I should add that my tormenters extended beyond Mr. Ban Ki-moon and included others on the UN Watch mailing list including Susan Rice, then U.S. Ambassador at the UN, and high officials from other white settler countries, including Canada and Australia. Even the supposedly liberal Samantha Power, although previously a friendly acquaintance, joined the party, calling me biased and ill-suited for the position in statements to the press. She based her attack on the harshness of my criticisms leveled at Israel in my reports that highlighted the mismatch between their policies and practices as the Occupying Power in Palestine with the standards, duties, and principles set forth in the Geneva Conventions.]

 

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Dear Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations:

 

Having read of the vicious attacks on you for venturing some moderate, incontestable criticisms of Israel’s behavior, I understand well the discomfort you clearly feel. Not since the Richard Goldstone chaired the group that released the report detailing apparent Israeli war crimes during its massive attack on Gaza at the end of 2008 have Israel’s big political guns responded with such unwarranted fury, magnified as usual by ultra-Zionist media commentary. Netanyahu has the audacity to claim that your acknowledgement that it is not unnatural for the Palestinians oppressed for half century to resist and resort to extremism is tantamount to the encouragement of terrorism, what he described as giving a “tailwind to terrorism.”

 

The fact your intention was quite the opposite hardly matters. Or your repeated denunciation of terrorism will be disregarded by these irresponsible critics whose sole objective is take attention away from the issues raised. Israel and its keenest supporters have found that there is no better way to do this than by defaming their critics, branding them as soft on terrorism or even as anti-Semites. And it makes no difference, whatsoever, that you have leaned over backwards during years as Secretary General, almost falling to the ground, to deflect even the most justifiable criticisms of Israel during your time as leader of the UN.

 

It is hardly surprising that you should respond to these attacks directed at you by way of a New York Times opinion piece that chides Israeli officials and Zionist zealots for ‘shooting the messenger’ and instead of heeding the message.[Ban Ki-moon, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Israel.” NY Times, Feb. 1, 2016] What both intrigues and appalls me is that while I was Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine during the period 2008-2014 you chose to attack me personally in public on several occasions, joining with U.S. and Israel diplomats calling for my dismissal and doing the utmost to undermine my credibility while I was working in this unpaid UN position under difficult conditions. At the time I was doing my best to bear witness to some of the same truths about Israel’s unlawful and immoral behavior that recently got you in similar hot water. My UN mandate was to report upon the reality of Israeli violations of international law while sustaining their apartheid regime of oppressive control over the Palestinian people. The Palestinians need and deserve such a voice as provided by the UN to make governments of the world more aware of their responsibility to take steps that will bring this unprecedented ordeal endured by the Palestinian people to an end. In carrying out these duties it is my hope that future UN Special Rapporteurs receive the support that they need from future Secretary Generals.

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In my case, hurt and offended by being so unfairly attacked by you, the highest UN official, I was encouraged by some highly placed officials in the UN Office of the High Commissioner in Geneva to seek some kind of explanation from you or your office, and hopefully even an apology. You never criticized my reports on Palestine or objected to my criticisms of Israel’s policies and practices, but rather focused your venomous remarks on some comments attributed to my views as expressed on my personal blog that were concerned with the 9/11 attacks and the Boston marathon bombings.

 

It was obvious to me from the content of your attack that you relied on a letter written by Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch, Israel’s faithful watchdog NGO in Geneva, that gave my rather carefully qualified blog comments deliberately inflammatory twists, but like you seemed wary of engaging in any debate about the substance of my criticisms of Israel’s polices and practices in my reports. I called your office, and was referred to your affable aide de camp. He seemed immediately apologetic even before I was even able to register my complaint and explain to him my actual position on these controversial issues. After listening to what I had to say, he obliquely accepted my concerns by admitting that ‘we didn’t do due diligence,’ by which he evidently meant that the SG and his advisors relied on Neuer’s letter rather than reading what I actually wrote on the blog, which was nuanced and moderate in tone and content. This UN official volunteered a further explanation to the effect that “we were under great pressure at the time from the U.S. Congress, and this was an opportunity to show that we were not anti-Israeli.” He ended the conversation with a promise to talk with you, and get back to me. I am sad to say, this never happened.

 

This incident occurred while you were campaigning successfully for a second term as SG, and apparently wanted to reassure Washington that you would not rock the boat if reelected. I venture to say that if you had back then voiced such strong criticisms of Israel’s settlement policy or indicated a similar empathetic understanding of Palestinian resistance, you would never have received Washington’s blessings for a second term as Secretary General. I understand that your reticence back then was prudential, even a sensible, although dispiriting, concession to the realities of UN leadership. What I have trouble to this day understanding is your willingness, in old Soviet style, to defame by name a lowly UN holding a position as appointed volunteer, so as to beef up your credentials as a team player when it came to Israel. You even relied through a spokesperson at a news briefing on my status as someone outside the UN civil service to explain why you lacked the authority to dismiss me. Without contacting me in advance for an explanation or afterwards for an apology seems to me to exhibit an extreme version of bureaucratic immorality.

 

In light of this experience, I felt at the time that you were joining with others in shooting a messenger, and invoked the metaphor, who was seeking to convey some inconvenient truths about Israel’s behavior. These truths are rather similar to your own recent comments about the denial of Palestinian rights, especially with respect to the right of self-determination. The folk wisdom of ‘what goes around comes around’ seems to fit your plight. You who expediently took shots at the messenger are now taking umbrage when the tactic is directed at you. This response is reasonable in this instance but awkwardly inconsistent with your own past behavior. You say, “..when heartfelt concerns about shortsighted or morally damaging policies emanate from so many sources, including Israel’s closest friends, it cannot be sustainable to keep lashing out at every well-intentioned critic.” True, of course, but why only now? And only you?

 

Actually, although your critical stress on settlements and resistance is welcome and significant, your overall stance still falls far short of adopting a helpful way forward. You continue to insist misleadingly that compromises are called for by both sides in pursuing the goal of reaching a sustainable peace based on the establishment of Palestinian state. I find puzzling the assertion in your article that “..I am so concerned that we are reaching a point of no return for the two-state solution.” In your statement of 26 January to the Security Council you urge Palestinian unity as necessary so that the Palestinians “can instead focus their energies on establishing a stable state as part of a negotiated two-state solution.” Have you forgotten that every step taken by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to establish unity has been opposed by anger, reinforced by punitive pushback on Israel’s part, a response endorsed by the United States? And wasn’t that ‘point of no return’ reached some time ago, and certainly after what the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, proclaimed as ‘the last chance’ negotiations broke down in the Spring of 2014 after a year of trading allegations and achieving not a single positive result? And how, Mr. Ban, is a two-state solution to be achieved over the opposition and resolve of more than 600,000 Israeli settlers, with more expansion underway and even more promised?

 

You acknowledge being “disturbed by statements from senior members of the Israeli’s government that the aim [of a Palestinian state] should be abandoned altogether.” What you fail to say is that these ‘senior members’ include Israel’s elected prime minister, its president, its current ambassador to the UN. In light of this unified opposition to a two-state approach by Israel’s highest governmental leaders, how can you encourage reliance on this discredited diplomatic path that has resulted in an ongoing process of severe territorial encroachment on occupied Palestine and subjection to a regime of intensified suffering for the Palestinian people? Clinging to the two-state mantra is not neutral. Delay benefits Israel, harms Palestine. There is every reason to believe that this pattern will continue as long as Israel is not seriously challenged diplomatically and by Palestinian resistance, as well as by the sorts of growing pressures mounted by the international solidarity movement and the BDS campaign.

 

More widely, and important to understand, shooting the messenger is part of a broader Israel strategy to minimize attention given to substantive criticisms of their behavior. You are merely the latest victim, and one of the most highly placed. The intensity of defamation seems to be roughly proportional to the perceived impact of your criticism. In this sense, Mr. Secretary General, you have scored highly, especially due to your reminder to the Security Council that the UN will “continue to uphold the right of Palestinians to self-determination.” This is not the language Israel’s leaders hoped to hear coming from your lips, and hardly consistent with earlier your record of steadfast support for Israel that included condemning even the Second Freedom Flotilla that sought to deliver humanitarian assistance to Gaza. To be meaningful beyond a ritual affirmation, self-determination must be understood, given present realities, as something more and other than another delusionary embrace of a diplomatically negotiated two-state solution. At the very least, you might have urged the Security Council to consider the applicability of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) norm to relieving the anguish of Gazan captivity, a timely move considering that Netanyahu has been warning of yet another massive attack, promising that it will be even more lethal than the earlier one-sided massacres.

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You also tell the Security Council that “incitement has no place, and that questioning Israel’s right to exist cannot be tolerated.” Fair enough, but challenging Israel’s postures, policies, and practices should be placed high on the UN agenda of unfinished business if what you propose on behalf of the Palestinian people is ever to have the slightest chance of being achieved. We need all to realize what else should not be tolerated: while the Palestinian flag flies outside UN Headquarters, the Palestinian people have lived for almost 70 years under the daily brutalities of occupation, refugee camps, Gazan captivity, and involuntary exile. Can you bring yourself to call this ordeal ‘intolerable’? Then at least you could leave your UN post with a feeling that when your career was no longer in jeopardy you spoke truth to power.

 

Sincerely,

 

Richard Falk

UN Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council for Occupied Palestine (2008-2014)

Professor of International Law

Waiting for Rainbows

8 Feb

[Prefatory Note; Below is the cover of my recently published book of poems that can be obtained from Amazon. I have received some inquiries, and although I have been writing poems for the past 60 years I have never gathered the courage to publish them in one place before. I consider their themes and interrelations to be a kind of inner memoir that is, perhaps more selective and arbitrary than conventional prose memoirs, but likely more truthful and transparent.]

 

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Israel’s Security Establishment Makes Public Plea for a Two State Solution

7 Feb

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Rarely, if ever, has a newspaper ad mobilized such influential backing for a position of prominent Israelis at odds with the elected leadership of the Israeli state. A full page add appeared in the New York Times on February 4, 2016. It was sponsored by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Considering the main readership of the NYT it is clear that the message was aimed at the American public, and likely, particularly at Jewish Americans and the advisors of the next American president who is to take office a year from now. Its message was proclaimed in large bold type: “Israel’s Security Chiefs Agree: Separation into two States is in Israel’s vital security interest.”

 

This assertion was followed by short supportive quotations beneath a rogues gallery of Israel’s security establishment: three rows of pictures, the top one of Six former Israeli IDF Chiefs of Staff, in the middle five former Shin Bet heads (internal security agency), and on the bottom five former heads of the Mossad (international intelligence agency). To be sure this is an imposing array of top Israeli officials together indirectly expressing their collective dismay with respect to the Likud government led by Netanyahu turning its back on the two-state solution. As such, it is an impressive expression of Israeli elite and informed opinion, but whether it reflects a consensus with political leverage either here in the United States or in Israel seems doubtful. At minimum it conveys the strong impression that an influential part of the Israeli establishment has lost confidence in the Netanyahu leadership to protect Israel’s vital interests, and this is itself significant.

 

The ad consists of two main features: photos of these military and intelligence officials, many familiar and some notorious names to those following Israeli politics and one-line quotations from each one expressing the need and urgency of implementing some version of the two-state solution for the sake of Israel’s security. Not surprisingly, all 16 are men who have been during the careers instrumental in the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people.

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Also not surprisingly, the ad makes clear that this break with the Netanyahu approach has nothing whatsoever to with seeking deferred justice for the Palestinians or some kind of empathy for their long ordeal. Support for a Palestinian state is exclusively connected with the supposed need to defuse the so-called ‘demographic bomb.’ Or in the language of the ad, “The only way Israel can remain a Jewish, democratic state is if the Palestinians have a demilitarized Palestinian state.” This rationale is the prelude to positing a conclusion in bold type and enlarged format: “It’s Time: Two States for Two People[s].” And to remove any doubt there is a sidebar summarizing the demographics: 2015 52% Jewish, 2020 49% Jewish, 2030 44% Jewish.

 

I find this anti-Likud rejection of the current drift toward an Israeli one-state outcome noteworthy for two different reasons: first of all, it proposes a solution that will not work; not only is there no mention of the need to give up the settlements or to address the rights of Palestinian refugees, but the conception of ‘a demilitarized Palestinian state’ is such an affirmation of the inequality of the two peoples that it is a virtual guaranty that even if the Ramallah leadership turned out to swallow such an arrangement, the Palestinian people would not. The only path to a sustainable peace needs to be based to the extent possible on the equality of the two peoples, and if a Palestinian state is ever acceptably established it must be endowed with the same sovereign rights as Israel.

 

Secondly, it is worth noticing that Netanyahu is far from alone in rejecting the two-state diplomacy. The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, elected in 2013 by the Knesset, is an unapologetic proponent of the one-state approach, endorsing the biblical and ethnic claim to the whole of the West Bank, the maximal territorial version of Greater Israel. Similarly, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, is a settler firebrand and government official who has long spearheaded opposition to any politically viable accommodation with the Palestinians that acknowledges their right of self-determination.

 

Against such a background, it seems obvious that any revival of the two-state diplomacy along the lines proposed in the ad, let’s say at the initiative of the next American president, would soon reach a dead end. There is no doubt that resorting to such an ad in the leading American newspaper is convincing evidence of a deep split in Israeli leadership circles, but its proposed alternative approach fails to move prospects for a just peace forward. It suggests a split between those Israelis worried about ruling over a Palestinian majority population and those Israelis guided by territorial and colonizing ambition. Neither orientation is located on a path leading to sustainable peace.

 

Only a solution and vision based on the equality of Jews and Palestinians deserves respect and engenders hope. Let’s not be further misled, this weighty statement by Israel’s security establishment should not be confused with a revival of the Israeli peace movement or some expression of civil society disaffection directed at the Netanyahu leadership. It is, at most, lending transparency to a long ongoing conversation within Israel’s governing elite, nothing more, nothing less.

 

Furthermore, the idea of safeguarding Israel’s democratic character seems to presuppose that Israel remains a democracy. Yes, as with other apartheid structures, it is ‘democratic’ but for Jews only. For Palestinians, whether living as a minority in Israel, under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, subject to captivity and collective punishment in Gaza, and in refugee camps scattered within the occupied territories and neighboring countries, the label ‘democracy’ has long been a cruel joke. To qualify as an authentic democracy rights based on non-discrimination must be upheld for all those living under the authority of the governing process.

 

The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace makes no secret of its Zionist leanings and Israeli outlook, although it seems genuinely to believe that Likud governance of the country is endangering Israel’s identity as well as its security. Its webpage proclaims a commitment to peace, honors the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, and calls favorable attention to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. At the same time it refrains from criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people or any of the numerous daily denials of Palestinian rights, avoids mentioning Israel’s apartheid governance structures, and refrains from expressions of empathy for the multiple forms of suffering imposed upon the Palestinian people.

 

 

 

 

 

On Progressive Democrats: Sanders v. Clinton

4 Feb

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In past years, I tried to distance myself from ‘liberals’ by describing myself as ‘progressive.’ It was admittedly a middle ground between being a liberal, which I associated with being a comforter of the established order while opting for humane policies at the margins, and being a ‘radical’ or ‘leftist,’ which struck me as terms of self-exile outside domains of relevant discourse. My basic objection to liberals and their agenda was that they swallowed ‘the system’ whole while excusing themselves by claiming the mantle of realism and moral concern. In my view, American structures of militarism and capitalism needed to be transformed in socialist directions if humanity was to have a positive future, and this is what the liberals I knew didn’t want to hear about, believing that such structural criticisms would hand the government over to Republicans by alienating the mainstream and thus be a prescription for the self-destruction of the Democratic Party, and political darkness.

 

In my lifetime there never was a progressive presidential candidate in my sense, although George McGovern came close, as did Gene McCarthy, and their political failures, were often cited as proof that the practical wisdom of the liberal position should be heeded. Whenever I acknowledged having voted for the third party candidate, Ralph Nader, in the 2000 elections, the best that I could hope for from my liberal friends was scorn, followed by the allegation of irresponsibility, pointing out that the Florida outcome would likely have gone Al Gore’s way if Nader’s name had not been on the ballot, and attracted the vote of some 90,000 wayward citizens. And so the misery of the George W. Bush years would have been avoided, and in its place the lesser misery of Gore would have been experienced.

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With these considerations in mind, I am startled by the amusing controversy between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as to whether Clinton is entitled to claim the mantle of ‘progressive.’ What seems odd and unexpected is that both candidates competing for support among Democrats, avoid any reference to being a ‘liberal’ and both proudly claim to be a ‘progressive.’ Actually, when challenged, Clinton does behave like a liberal, claiming realism is on her side, and dismissing Sanders transformative proposals (on health care, college tuition, wages, tax reform) as not achievable. In contrast, she bases her appeal on a commitment to finish what Obama started and a record of getting things done. In other words, she shares the abstract language of Sanders, but when it comes down to it, her promised contributions will be limited to the margins, identifying her in ways characteristic of her long political career—as a liberal. In fairness I suppose both candidates and their minders have made linguistic calculations. In Sanders’ case it is to run away as far as possible from being called ‘a socialist’ and for Clinton it seems to be wanting to avoid the deadend boredom of being classified as ‘a liberal.’

 

If I had to associate the word liberal with a particular set of views, I would probably select Nicholas Kristof, a regular opinion page columnist for the New York Times, as exemplifying the liberal worldview. And sure enough, in a true liberal mode Kristof jumped to Clinton’s defense with a condescending pat on Barry Sander’s back along the way. Under the headline “2 Questions For Bernie Sanders” [NYT, February 4, 2016] Kristof puts forward the usual liberal ‘higher wisdom’: first, Sanders’ sweeping proposals would never get enacted in the real world of Washington politics, and secondly, nominating a self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ would alienate American voters to such an extent as virtually to assure the election of a dangerous Republican reactionary such as Ted Cruz. There is no doubt that the current makeup of Congress would block the policymaking ambitions of any Democrat who lands in the White House, whether Clinton or Sanders, but if this is the case then the election is almost as irrelevant as many young people have believed in the past, at least until Obama and now Sanders came along. This cynicism is itself dangerously simplistic as a Democrat as president at least can be counted on to do less harm.

 

No sensible person would doubt that these practical considerations are serious concerns, but they must be balanced against the deep structural deformation long associated with neoliberal capitalism and geopolitical militarism. For too long these deeper maladies of American politics have been swept under the rug in deference to the imperatives of practical politics, and Kristof never dares even entertains an assessment of why it might finally make sense to give up on the liberal option.

 

In my view, Bernie Sanders is a true progressive because he has the courage to confront structurally Wall Street America, although he can claim only the weak form of progressivism as he has yet to confront Pentagon America. Sanders contends that his movement is a call for ‘revolution’ but if that is the claim then to be fully credible it must also call into question the American Global Domination Project, involving the network of foreign bases, naval supremacy throughout the world’s oceans, nuclear modernization program, and the ambitious militarizing plans for the management of space. In the meantime, while impatient for the revolution needed in America, I greatly prefer a true progressive to a disguised liberal, and so did 84% of the young voters who backed Sanders over Clinton in Iowa.