Saturday, November 21, 2009


Today, I’d like to focus on two municipalities. One seems to be improving; the other deteriorating. While we desperately need both to thrive, if either one succeeds it will be cause for profound joy. So I suppose it could be said that this post should evoke the proverbial “glass half empty/half full” emotions. Let me know when it’s over how you’ve reacted – as a “half full” or “half empty” kind of person.

Let’s start on a positive note, and cross the ocean to the West Bank town of Ramallah. If you’ve read David Ignatius’ Thursday column in the Washington Post, you read about developments in this town that should cause you to believe that maybe, just maybe, the impossible can happen. Here’s how the column began: “Look at this city [meaning Ramallah], you can imagine what a Palestinian state could someday be like if folks got serious: The streets are clean, there’s construction in every direction and Palestinian soldiers line the roads. A visitor sees new apartment buildings, banks, brokerage firms, luxury car dealerships and even health clubs. These are “facts on the ground,” as the Israelis like to say. And they are the result of a determined Palestinian effort, with U.S. and Israeli support, to begin creating the institutions of a viable Palestinian state. Even Israeli hard-liners, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, agree that the improvement in Palestinian security forces is real.”

This success story isn’t the result of some overarching peace deal. Nor is it the result of suicide bombings and threats. It’s not even the result of a non-violent resistance movement. According to Ignatius, the recent improvements in Ramallah’s living conditions have been made under the leadership of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and with the assistance of the Great Satan and the Little Satan (as the U.S. and Israel are known to some of their Middle Eastern enemies). Fayyad has constructed a plan for a two-year transition to Palestinian statehood that focuses on creating the infrastructure needed to establish both prosperity and security. At this point, Ignatius claims, Fayyad has reorganized the public services in the West Bank so successfully that the economy is growing at an official rate of seven percent, and perhaps even more.

Ironically, when I talk to Palestinians and their American partisans these days, I am bombarded by stories about how awfully Israel is behaving in the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. I hear about how the settlements demean the Palestinians and strangle its economy, and how the Israeli soldiers who guard these areas treat Palestinians as if they’re sub-human. The tales evoke stories of the way the Nazis must have treated my own people back in the 30s and early 40s.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that these tales are all true – that Israel has for years been perpetrating horrible injustices against the Palestinian people. It would remain the case that the only way to end the nightmare is to work like hell to ensure that Fayyad’s infrastructural plans succeed as quickly and as dramatically as possible. The more rapidly the West Bank starts to look like Switzerland, or at least like Scottsdale, in terms of its economy, criminal justice system, and executive branch institutions, the more unsustainable it will be for Israel to oppress its neighbors. By contrast, as long as the Palestinians define themselves primarily in opposition to the “Apartheid” state of Israel and ignore the primacy of infrastructural development, the easier it will be for the Israeli right-wingers to continue to set the agenda and place their Palestinian neighbors on a tiny, dehumanized leash.

Lest we think that all will now be smooth sailing now that the Palestinian Authority is run by a man who gets the importance of economic efficiency and honest government, Ignatius included a clear warning sign. He quoted Martin Indyk, a macha with the Brookings Institute, for the proposition that “Fayyad is the only game in town, but his plan isn’t sustainable without a political process.” The problem, of course, is that at the moment, we have a thoroughly dysfunctional political process, in part because the inmates are running the asylum in Israel. This is where we in the United States must come in. Now is the time to support the Palestinian Authority with generous contributions, and to start to put some pressure on Netanyahu -- he who refuses to freeze the settlements and yet has the chutzpah to call himself a man of peace. Instead of emphasizing the beginning of peace talks (before these talks have a possibility of success), we need to pressure Netanyahu into increasing his support of Fayyad’s nation-building efforts.

Frankly, if we didn’t have this insane fixation with winning every war, no matter if their sensible shelf-life has long since ended, we could actually consider shifting our nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to the West Bank instead. How about it, Barack? It would be a gutsy move, but then again, you did say that you would offer “change.” Some of us actually thought you meant BOLD changes, and not mere tinkering.

So anyway, that’s the good news – don’t let my little jeremiad at the end fool you. When it comes to Ramallah, we can actually see some rays of hope. Perhaps that’s not yet true about that other part of Palestine, but I’m praying that progress in the West Bank will ultimately lead to progress in Gaza. And that is why the second city I’d like to discuss isn’t Gaza City but rather a place that’s beginning to look more and more like it. I’m referring to that God-forsaken part of America known as Detroit.

For quite some time, I’ve been hearing about how you can buy a home in Detroit for a few thousand dollars. This week, I heard that for a few hundred thousand – or $583,000, to be exact -- you could buy the Silver Dome. That’s the price that a Canadian developer paid to purchase the former home of the Detroit Lions. It’s a little more than one dollar per square foot. Or should I say, it’s the same number of dollars per square foot as the number of playoff games that the Lions won in that building in 26 years.

Truth be told, laughing at the Lions is fun. But what’s happening to Detroit is no laughing matter. In the Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn area, the unemployment rate now tops 18 percent. When you add to that number the workers who are earning minimum wage or something close to it, it’s hard not to appreciate the depths of despair that are engulfing the region. Recently, I read that social workers who are trying to assist the resident of Detroit are seeing more and more acts of aggression, and are actually scared for their own lives. Those of us who are too young to remember the Great Depression are simply not used to the kinds of conditions that the people of Detroit are experiencing. And the crazy thing is that while all this is happening, the stock markets are going great guns.

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a Country!”

I realize that when you’re in a period of recovery, the unemployment rate is a so-called lagging indicator. But there’s something about the extent of this particular “recovery” that’s sticking in my craw. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is happening at a time when the President is supposed to be a progressive Democrat, 60 Senators are Democrats, and the House is overwhelmingly Democratic. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the folks who have led the President’s economic team seem to be in bed with the Wall Street types who crashed the economy to begin with. Of course, the stockbrokers had plenty of help, including the myopic auto execs in Detroit. And yet I still wonder, with all the money we have thrown at the bankers and brokers, why can’t we be doing more for Detroit, or Dearborn, or for that matter, the many states other than Michigan that have now hit double-digit unemployment rates?

And I keep getting back to one word – infrastructure. It’s the secret to Ramallah’s current success. And it’s what is destroying my own country, only in this case I’m not talking about infrastructure in terms of economics, but rather politics.

As I see it, we now have two political parties. One is determined to make the President fail at almost any cost. They spent like drunken sailors when they were in power, but now when a Democrat is in the White House, they’re cheaper than a miser in a poorhouse. As for the other political party, the one that’s supposedly in power, trying to get them to support any significant initiative is like herding cats. I guess little has changed since the days of Will Rogers when he said “I’m not a member of an organized party; I’m a Democrat.”

Obviously, the prognosis for Detroit and the other high-unemployment areas in this country is more favorable than the prognosis for the West Bank. But it’s nice to see that the latter is being captained by someone who knows how to steer. What’s tragic is that now that we finally have our first African-American President, our nation is allowing a city like Detroit to go into free fall. Something must be done about this, and I mean now. When a modest suburban house in Bethesda is worth more than a 143,000 square foot stadium near Detroit, it makes you wonder if this really is “one nation, under God.” And when you consider that, and add to it that the Wall Street folks are now fattening up on a brand new round of bonuses, you begin to see why the social workers in Michigan are starting to fear for their lives.

So there you have it -- good news, bad news. Uplifting? Or depressing? I'll let you decide that one for yourself. But we can at least agree on this -- there's plenty of work to be done in both of those cities. Yet if either one can be looking up, there's hope for both.

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