Archive for November, 2007

Palestinians: Don’t Put The Bubbly On Ice Just Yet!

magician.jpgI became a magician long before Harry Potter. Even JK Rowling wasn’t yet born when, for my eighth birthday, I was given a box bearing the legend l’Apprenti Sorcier. In  it was a black pointed hat adorned with silver stars, a magic wand, a red piece of cloth that could make an egg disappear, a set of loaded dice, a deck of marked cards, a small bottle of liquid that could turn water into wine and back again, four interlocking metal rings and a length of magic rope that you could cut in two and make whole again. It was, in short, a French-made magicians’ kit. It allowed me to astonish my friends and baffle my elders until they were heartily sick of me. Oh no, not the vanishing egg again!

Also in the box was a glass ball, filled with a clear liquid that would become milky and opaque if you gave it a little nudge. It would, according to the instructions, give the owner a glimpse of the future when nudged. I loved this ball more than all the other tricks put together, because it allowed me to use my own imagination. I could go up to someone, offer to tell his or her future and proceed to make the most outlandish forecasts without ever risking a clip round the ear. After all, was it my fault if the ball revealed that my elderly aunt Sarah would soon give birth to a Jack Russell terrier? In the end, though, I grew bored with magic and tired of my crystal ball. The future, I realized, was impossible to foretell, life was an endless succession of unpredictable events. Nobody, I felt, had any idea of what tomorrow would bring, let alone the day after or the following year.

Today, many years later, I still hold that view. Let the psychics, the clairvoyants and the palm readers do their stuff, it’s no more than a parlour game. Nobody, but nobody,  knows in advance what is going to happen and if they say they do they’re lying. Much easier is it to predict what is NOT going to happen. I know for a fact that I’m not going to wake up tomorrow able to play Mozart piano concertos. I know I’ll never be 25 again either. Yes, negative forecasting, that’s the ticket.

Another thing that’s not going to happen is this: there will be no firm deal on a free Palestinian state by the end of 2008. What were these people in Annapolis thinking of? The end of 2008 is only a year away. In the history of the Middle East conflict one year is the twinkling of an eye! How can the job of getting the immovable object and the irresistible force to bury the hatchet and live side by side in peace and harmony take only twelve months?  It can’t, of course. The fact that the end of 2008 coincides with the US Presidential election is a dead giveaway: George W. Bush, whose record so far consists of inflicting economic ruin on his own country and death and destruction on the world, would like to go out on a positive high. Hey, he and Condoleezza must have thought, let’s have a go at solving the Middle East. If it works we’ll be heroes and if it doesn’t (as it didn’t when Clinton, Barak and Arafat had a stab at it) there’ll be another Intifada for the Democrats to sort out. A win-win scenario for Dubya, which explains why he was grinning from ear to ear as Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas shook hands.

Well, the Israeli Prime Minister and the leader of the Palestinian Authority (a bit of a misnomer, that) can stand there pressing the flesh until the cows come home but that won’t alter the fact that neither man has anything substantial to give the other. Olmert knows that if he seriously starts pushing the idea of sharing Jerusalem with the Arabs he’ll be either out on his ear or dead. Abbas, for his part, may call himself the Palestinian president but who does he represent? Not the people of Gaza, for a start. They’re under the control of Hamas.  The fact is: both are weak leaders, much weaker than the ones they replaced. If the mess in Palestine is to be sorted out at all it will take two strong men; men who command the respect not only of their opponents, but of their own supporters as well. There are no signs that either man can claim such respect. Olmert is in trouble at home over corruption allegations and a disastrous adventure in Lebanon, at the slightest sign of him making a really important concession a fundamentalist knife may be plunged into his back; Abbas may have won an election in the West Bank, but many Palestinians -fearing that he may be about to flog the family silver- are baying for his blood. How could he keep any promise to curb terrorism?

So what is going to happen in the next twelve months? As I said, nobody knows. Probably a lot of jaw-jaw with Olmert being yanked back from the brink of agreement every time a sacrifice seems necessary. Future water rights, tricky. Settlements, hmmmmm…. Jerusalem, forget it. The Syrians want the Golan Heights back, up yours Assad! There are situations in which living with conflict and death is preferable to parting with what you’ve got. A lot of Israelis -too many for comfort- appear to feel that way. Ehud Olmert spoke of the need for ‘painful sacrifices’. So long as the sacrifices are perceived as more painful than the status quo he’ll be wasting his breath.  

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Back From Not Having Been Away: The Taliban

senlis.jpgI used to think that the only countries where you could get a decent pizza were Italy (by some distance, of course), the United States and (at some distance, of course) the Netherlands. How long I laboured under this misconception I can’t remember, but I do remember the day when my eyes were opened to the truth. I was on holiday in France, heading south where golden sands and blue waters beckoned, when I passed through the little town of Senlis, in the region of Picardie where, as the song has it, “roses are blooming”.  In the grip of lunchtime peckishness I stopped at one of Senlis’ four pizzerias, a charming place called Au Petit Creux, where I had one of the best gorgonzola pizzas ever. I had picked this place because its name did nothing to suggest the isle of Capri, the music of Antonio Vivaldi or a mustachioed padrone named Beppe. Au Petit Creux had a ring to it of carefully prepared, immaculately seasoned food at reasonable prices; something I was not led to expect from the others who were called Le Patio (ugh!), Chez Pino (ugh, ugh!) and Pizzeria Maestro, which I found particularly off-putting. Mind you, their pizzas may have been delicious, I mean no disrespect. It’s just that I’m allergic to gondolas, straw-clad Chianti bottles and plastic leaning towers of Pisa, much as I love Italy itself. 

Senlis’ main claim to fame -apart from its historic role as a staging post for travellers between Paris and the north of France- is its fine 12th century Gothic cathedral, a riotous concoction of every conceivable feature of the style. Smaller than its Parisian namesake, the Senlis Notre Dame is actually more pleasing to the eye. My eye anyway. Why such a pretty medieval town should have given its name to a 21st century club of worthies with global ambitions I cannot begin to guess, but we’re stuck with it. I give you:  The Senlis Council, grandly described by various sources as “an international policy think tank with offices in Kabul, London, Paris, Brussels, Ottawa and Rio”. I love think tanks, don’t you? People just like you and me who have ideas about what should and shouldn’t go on in the world. You and I may discuss these over a pint of Speckled Hen in our local pub, whereas think tankers do so over foie gras, a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage, saddle of venison, a slug of Islay malt and a good cigar in a mansion or chateau near Kabul, London, Paris, Brussels, Ottawa or Rio.

The Senlis Council made news this week, when it issued a report about the situation in Afghanistan. Its conclusion: things aren’t going well at all. Not to put too fine a point on it: the Taliban are back. They’re back, moreover, with what looks disturbingly like a vengeance. The question, according to the Senlis boys and girls, is not if the bearded zealots will regain control in Afghanistan, the question is: when and how. This is, of course, bad news, especially for women who’ve just passed their driving test and husbands whose wives surprised them on their birthday with the latest battery-operated Gillette Mach 3. Or is it 4?

Now, I’ve always been of the opinion that -although the Taliban are by and large a pretty objectionable bunch- it is not the place of other countries to come to Afghanistan and sort them out. Not only is it ethically indefensible to assault people on their own soil, it is also doomed to fail. Fighting the Taliban is like setting fire to your mattress; you put out the flames with a bucket of water (read: huge quantities of ordnance), but just when you think you can lie down and go back to sleep it begins to smoulder again. I know this because (as Richard Dawkins is my witness) I once actually did accidentally set fire to my bed. I could not put it out again. Anyway, since Uncle Sam called in some IOU’s western countries under the NATO flag have been slugging it out with the Tali’s, whose now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t type of warfare has so far thwarted each and every western objective, be it socking it to Islam, destroying the poppy fields, spreading women’s rights to every nook and cranny of the country or simply nabbing Osama Bin Laden. Occasionally, thanks largely to our superior firepower, we manage to mow down a dozen or so Taliban but, like mushrooms on a damp day, others spring up to take their place. A regular harvest of collateral civilian death ensures that the hearts and minds we are so keen to win remain resolutely turned against us. Except of course in Kabul. Kabul, though, isn’t Afghanistan by any stretch of the imagination. It may once have been a pearl among eastern cities but you wouldn’t think that now. It’s a low-rise, sprawling collection of shoddy buildings, with a few beautiful mosques to keep the spirits up and -more importantly- it’s where the Americans and their Afghan government can feel safe —–for the moment.

Why is the West in Afghanistan and when will we leave? Not because we expect to succeed in getting all the war lords to fall into each others’ arms and bury their Lee Enfields or making flowers grow in their deserts. Flowers that aren’t poppies, I mean. We’re there not because we have a hope in hell of finding Bin Laden but because we need a place to drop our bombs, see a few Taliban bodies fly up in the air and tell ourselves we’re fighting and winning the war against terrorism. It is an unwinnable war; terrorism will stop only if we are prepared to help remove the grievances that cause it. So when will we leave? Preferably tomorrow, but more likely not for many years yet. As a fellow Dutch columnist recently put it: the reasons for leaving Afghanistan are here now; the reasons for staying will still be there in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. Take your pick. The Taliban don’t care either way; not only is Allah on their side, time is as well. A fact lost on the Dutch parliament, which has just OK’d an extension of what, with Christian zeal, they call ‘the mission’ in Afghanistan. See what I mean?     

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Butt Out, Juan Carlos!

meThere was a time -and not that long ago either- when a king losing his temper meant invariably that heads were going to roll. So when Juan Carlos of Spain started foaming at the mouth and told Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to belt up I expected His Majesty to follow that with an ominous ‘or else’ and the sound of swords being unsheathed. None of this happened and an unrepentant Chavez came away with his neck and opinions intact.

The scene took place at the 17th Ibero-American summit in Santiago de Chile, a conference piquantly devoted to the theme of  ‘social justice’. Personally I wish Juan Carlos had had the self-control to fume in silence and later, away from the cameras, perhaps refuse to shake Chavez’ hand. As it was, the King (unelected, as kings always are) did not have a leg to stand on in his confrontation with the (three times elected) President of Venezuela. I might like Juan Carlos better than Chavez on a personal level (Hugo does tend to exasperate and fatigue even those who agree with him), but the irrepressible best friend of Fidel Castro had right on his side. It may or may not have been true that Spanish big business had covertly supported a failed coup against Chavez in April 2002 but it was certainly true that the former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar was and is such an unreconstituted far rightwinger that you don’t have to find yourself too left-of-centre to suspect a hint of fascism under that well-coiffed mop of hair. Had Aznar been old enough when Franco ruled the Spanish roost, José Maria -a devoted member of the Falangist student union- might well have become a favourite of the cruel Caudillo. As it was, Franco died in 1975, forcing the 22-year old to look elsewhere for a political home but he was lucky that the Spanish extreme right had largely survived its great leader. So, depending on your vantage point it is quite possible to see Aznar as a great nationalist and patriot or as a nasty fascist piece of work. It’s clear where Hugo Chavez stands on that one.

I’m not very close to Juan Carlos (although he has a reputation for getting on well with the hoi polloi) or else I would have warned him off going to the summit at all. A jamboree of heads of state from Central and South America -all countries with recent or current experience of totalitarian government and with populations steeped in poverty- is no place for a king representing the very European power that lorded it over them for three centuries. How credible can it be to have the privileged figurehead of a wealthy nation hold forth on social justice in a hall filled with men and women, Hugo Chavez among them, whose roots go back all the way to the Incas, Mayas, Yaqui and any of the other indian civilizations of Latin America that were conquered and bled dry by the Conquistadores of the 16th and 17th centuries? No, the Spanish king would have done better to have stayed at home and watch Getafe C.F. beat Barcelona by 2 goals to nil.  To see a nice guy put his foot in his mouth is an unedifying spectacle.    juan carlos

As for Chavez, he has a big mouth but his heart’s in the right place. That’s as you would expect from a man who is a thorn in the side of George W. Bush. In terms of running a government of the people, for the people and by the people he is miles ahead of the oil man from Texas. America’s poor would do well to get in touch with their Venezuelan counterparts. They’d learn of the many programmes Chavez has introduced to relieve poverty, to provide land for the landless and education for all. Since the deep troubles that followed the april 2002 coup attempt (the nadir of the crisis occurring during early 2003) Chavez’ government has achieved an economic upturn that would make Bush blush: the country’s GDP is at the highest level since he took office in 1989; oil production is up again after the crippling 2002-03 oil strikes, inflation is down, unemployment is down, the list goes on. It’s certainly true that Chavez’ heavy-handed policies sometimes cause panic and anger in media and business circles, especially those who have difficulty seeing Venezuela as anything other than America’s backyard. But, as Tony Blair can confirm: you’re either a socialist or you’re not. The Venezuelans, if nothing else, can look to Hugo Chavez in the secure knowledge that he is their man, with only their interests at heart. How many people can say that of the government that rules them? I’m Dutch and I’m not even sure I can. So remember that, Juan Carlos, the next time you’re impelled to fly off the handle.

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Maddie McCann: Miracles Don’t Happen

meIt’s about six months now since little Maddie McCann disappeared without trace from her parents’ holiday apartment in Praia da Luz. Six months is a long time and unless you have an extra faith and confidence gene in your biological make-up the logical conclusion would be that she is now dead. It’s extremely unlikely that -as some have reported- Maddie has actually been seen in Morocco, Belgium, Spain or anywhere else. I rule out Morocco because no childless Moroccan woman would, in desperation, snatch a northern European, blonde toddler who chats only in English and would, in a Berber village, stand out a mile.

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For the same reason I don’t believe that a paedophile would have taken her to North Africa. It’s not the sort of place where deviant sexual tastes are allowed to flourish, is it? As for sightings in Spain, Belgium or Malta, I remember when Elvis for years after his death kept turning up in shopping malls, supermarket checkouts and petrol station forecourts. People tend to see what they want to see. So, unless she’s been stolen to order on behalf of a white, English speaking childless couple in, say, Washington DC (and, with hair dyed dark, made unrecognisable) we might as well start operating on the premise that Madeleine is no longer in the land of the living. The fact that, so far, no body has been found should not sustain false hope; a dead girl is much easier to hide than a live one.

Which brings me to the McCanns. While, on one level, I find it utterly impossible to believe that either parent had anything directly to do with Maddy’s disappearance, on another I’m dumbfounded by the fact that two apparently intelligent people have, through their subsequent behaviour, managed to arouse the suspicions not only of the Portuguese police but also of a hitherto understanding, commiserating public. British opinion polls show that domestic support for the McCanns, once almost universal, is now down to as little as 50 percent. In other words: for every person who is sympathetic towards them there’s another who feels they know more than they let on. The McCanns’ choice of an active media campaign and an almost manic courting of publicity is beginning to look to many peope as a ‘flight forward’: something like “so long as we blind everyone with TV appearances, appeals, fundraisers, adverts, photographs of the poor child and images of Kate clutching a cloth rabbit we may stave off public scrutiny of our own role in the affair.” Whether the parents actually played a role in the disappearance of Maddie I’ve no idea, but the fact that their behaviour doesn’t follow the expected pattern of panic, grief and eventual resignation to the inevitable (i.e. Maddie’s not coming back) is a cause for worry.           

Another reason for worry is, of course, the fact that the Maddie disappearance has been blown up into a global cause celèbre, whereas each day hundreds of children around the world vanish without attracting much attention at all. The amount of money raised to fund the McCann’s search for their child and their defence against any future charges is unprecedented. I’m not concerned about the large amounts donated by captains of industry and other celebrities; £100,000 -as in the case of Richard Branson- buys you a favourable mention on the front pages and seems well worth it. Lots of other publicity-hungry celebs jumped on the same bandwagon with great alacrity. But I feel for the ordinary people who, out of the kindness of their hearts, made smaller gifts of money they could ill afford. To see that frittered away on £300-an-hour lawyers, flights up and down Europe for all the family, newspaper and TV adverts and billboards, following up on spurious sightings and the occasional mortgage payment on a £300,000 house is sad indeed.   Of course, if Maddie McCann turns up alive tomorrow I’ll have to eat my words. But I don’t expect to have to, merely because the girl’s immediate family profess to know she’s not dead. A few days ago, after six (6) months of fruitless campaigning and fundraising, the McCanns on their website still spoke to us from cloud-cuckooland: “We know in our hearts that Madeleine is still out there, alive, confused and aching to be returned to her family where she belongs.”  

In other words: keep the money rolling in, folks, we’ll decide when enough is enough.

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