The peace process is still dead

To thunderous applause before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister delivered what amounted to a stunning rebuke of Barack Obama's vision of Middle East peace, just days after the U.S. president outlined his basic parameters for a two-state solution.

There was little, if anything, new in Netanyahu's speech: He reiterated his longstanding positions on borders (he won't go back to the 1967 lines), Jerusalem (he wants it to remain undivided), refugees (none can return to Israel), and security (a demilitarized Palestinian state, with Israeli troops "along the Jordan River"). He again demanded that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" -- a determination Abbas says is for Israelis themselves to make.

Although he said Israel would be "very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state," Netanyahu was uncompromising about just whose land he was talking about. As he put it, "In Judea and Samaria" -- religious names for the West Bank -- "the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo."

Netanyahu also demanded that Abbas immediately "tear up" his recent unity agreement with Hamas, a movement he said was "the Palestinian version of al Qaeda."

However vague, these are not terms that any Palestinian leader concerned for his political survival can accept, and indeed, Abbas's side was quick to reject them in no uncertain terms. (One Palestinian official said Netanyahu's speech was "a declaration of war on Palestine.") Hamas, for its part, seems as intransigent as ever. There will be no negotiations for the foreseeable future.

Given their lack of faith in the "peace process" -- and Abbas's unwillingness to take any risks -- it now seems certain that the Palestinians will plow ahead with their statehood drive at the United Nations, a move that both Obama and Netanyahu vigorously oppose. Given how recent U.N. votes have gone, the United States will stand alone as the rest of the world denounces the Israeli occupation and embraces a Palestinian state. It may not change any facts on the ground, but it will further illustrate just how isolated America and Israel are becoming. And this may even be an optimistic scenario -- a third intifada may well break out, possibly leading to another round of destabilizing violence. Any shred of hard-won credibility the United States has regained in the Arab world as a result of the "Arab Spring" will be gone.

So is there any hope?

Even before Netanyahu's speech, Yossi Alpher, a devoted veteran of the peace process, had exhausted his well of ideas:

This writer has only one hope left. After this week, the speechmaking will be over for a while. All those Israelis, Americans and Europeans of good will who for months have evinced confidence that it is still possible to squeeze a viable peace process out of Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas, should now come to their senses. It's time to prepare not for a bilateral process but for a UN process. It's not too late to leverage the Arab UN initiative into a win-win dynamic for both Israelis and Palestinians that will transform a seemingly hopeless morass into a far more manageable two-state conflict. 

Chances of that happening, given the display we just saw in Congress? About as close to zero as you can imagine.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Is dictatorship caused by germs?

New Scientist reports (registration required) on new research linking disease prevalence to regime type:

The starting point for Thornhill and Fincher's thinking is a basic human survival instinct: the desire to avoid illness. In a region where disease is rife, they argue, fear of contagion may cause people to avoid outsiders, who may be carrying a strain of infection to which they have no immunity. Such a mindset would tend to make a community as a whole xenophobic, and might also discourage interaction between the various groups within a society - the social classes, for instance - to prevent unnecessary contact that might spread disease. What is more, Thornhill and Fincher argue, it could encourage people to conform to social norms and to respect authority, since adventurous behaviour may flout rules of conduct set in place to prevent contamination.

Taken together, these attitudes would discourage the rich and influential from sharing their wealth and power with those around them, and inhibit the rest of the population from going against the status quo and questioning the authority of those above them. This is clearly not a situation conducive to democracy. When the threat of disease eases, however, these influences no longer hold sway, allowing forces that favour a more democratic social order to come to the fore. [...]

They rated people in 98 different nations and regions, from Estonia to Ecuador, on the collectivist-individualist scale, using data from questionnaires and studies of linguistic cues that can betray a social outlook. Sure enough, they saw a correlation: the greater the threat of disease in a region, the more collectivist people's attitudes were (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 275, p 1279). The correlation remained even when they controlled for potential confounding factors, such as wealth and urbanisation.

The article points out some flaws in the theory(the United States and Syria have nearly identical rates of disease prevalence for instance) but it seems to make some intuitive sense.  This scatter-graph is generally convincing, though from this model one might expect Turkmenistan and Bahrain to be far more free than Brazil and India. 

I'm also curious about which way the causation goes and how this squares with Amartya Sen's ideas about authoritarian countries being less prepared to respond quickly to humanitarian crises like, say, disease outbreaks. China's slow response and secrecy following the SARS outbreak is one example.