A few hours left to the end of 2008. Politically, it’s been quite a year for this bitter-sweet rock (with apologies to our national poet). The opposition Labour party lost an election but won a leader that may well precipitate a reinvention of the whole of Maltese politics. The Nationalist ruling party (narrowly) won an election but may have, thereby, lost a future. For the PN’s leaders, Richard Cachia Caruana, Lawrence Gonzi, Austin Gatt and others, it may well have been an electoral victory too far.
But as some of us continue to forget that the real world is slightly bigger than our 316 square kilometres, events in our region should shake us awake. Five days after the beginning of Israeli strikes in Gaza, close to 400 Palestinians are reported to have died and at least 1700 are wounded. Gaza’s hospitals are overwhelmed. Meanwhile French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchnerhas proposed a 48-hour ceasefire plan to allow aid into Gaza. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert rejected the proposal, saying that conditions were not right for a ceasefire.
Rockets fired into Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza during the same period have killed 4 Israelis. Palestinian rockets landed in and around the southern Israeli town of Beersheba, about 40 km from Gaza, the deepest they have penetrated inside Israel so far. Observers have noted that this will only increase Israeli popular support for continued military aggression against Gaza.
As the US continues to inisist that the onus is on Hamas to act first to end the violence, the Arab League is meeting in Cairo to discuss the crisis. Arab League general secretary, Amr Moussa, said the League was shocked by the “unimaginable and unacceptable” air strikes. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, referred to Israeli air strikes as a “crime against humanity”. Turkey, it must be remembered, is a member state of NATO.
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious decree to Muslims, ordering them to defend Palestinians. Protests have been reported in Palestine’s South Bank and in several Arab countries, notably in Libya, Lebanon, Dubai, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Qatar. There were protests in Turkey too.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas, a rival to his Fatah movement, for giving Israel an excuse to attack by failing to extend the truce that ended last week. Israeli airstrikes are not, however, expected to strenghten his position; rank-and-file Fatah supporters are, in fact, angry at Israel’s aggressivenes and the bloodshed of fellow Palestinians. Meanwhile, unexpectedly diverging from the US position, British foreign secretary David Miliband said the UK supported “an urgent ceasefire and immediate halt to all violence”.
The Israeli army has called up 2500 reservists and is massing forces along the frontier with Gaza either in preparation for a possible ground offensive or to increase pressure on Hamas, or both. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but has continued to control access in and out of it, as well as complete mastery over the territory’s airspace.
A happy new year to all of you out there.
December 31, 2008, 19.00 hrs
Yesterday’s massive Israeli airstrikes on Gaza – leaving behind so far 250 dead and at least three times as many wounded including harmless civilians – is a shocking reminder that we live in a dangerously unstable region. A region that, in a global geographic perspective, is small but, in political terms, is globally determinant. Having joined the European Union in 2004 has not transported us one centimetre further from the scene of the south eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and their hinterland. The geographic dimension of our geopolitical location has not been neutralised by its new political dimension.
On the contrary, it may well have been enhanced. In the eyes of the Arab people of the Magreb and the Mashrek we are now a frontier post of the EU, and in those eyes we bear our share of responsibility for what is decided (or left undecided) not only in Brussels but also in every European capital of any international standing. What is said about Gaza in the capital cities of the two main Mediterranean EU ‘powers’, Madrid and Rome…what is said in the three main EU ‘powers’, Berlin, Paris and London…what is said in the Union’s name in Brussels…will be inevitably reflected in our Arab neighbours perceptions of our Country.
We have, therefore, a vested interested in participating in the formation of an EU foreign policy within, of course, the limits of our objective political weight. Note my choice of words. I did not say “the formation of EU foreign policy” but “of an EU foreign policy”. Nothing more than the past few hours has confirmed that there is no such thing as EU foreign policy. Things are said in Brussels but things are also said in the capitals of major EU member states that diverge from what the Commission says. Ultimately this damages the standing of the EU in the eyes of its neighbours, in this case of its Mediterranean neighbours. It damages us.
Britain and the United States’ failure to call for an end to Israeli airstrikes on Gaza contrasted sharply with Javier Solana’s statement last night: “I call for an immediate cessation of military actions on both sides. The EU has repeatedly condemned rocket attacks against Israel. The current Israeli strikes are inflicting an unacceptable toil on Palestinian civilians and will only worsen the humanitarian crisis.” The EU foreign policy commissioner’s statement resembled that of the UN’s general secretary Ban Ki-moon’s call for “an immediate halt to all violence”. President Sarkozy, currently presiding the EU, was even more explicit in condemning Israel’s “the disproportionate use of force”.
Gordon Brown may have been unwilling to distinguish himself radically from Bush’s unilateral condemnation of what Sarkozy termed Hamas’ “irresponsible provocations” of Israeli wrath – and in so doing he objectively weakened the EU’s voice on the matter – but perhaps it is precisely the UK’s preoccupation with its special relationship with the US that will lead him to a more progressive position. Only two weeks ago, Brown said he hoped that president-elect Barak Obama would make 2009 the “year of peace” in the Middle East. If Obama were to take advantage of the coming elections in Israel to argue forcefully, with both sides, for a progressive solution to the cycle of violence, he will almost certainly find the EU – and the UK – substantially behind him.
I use the adjective ‘progressive’ not in an ideological sense but in an extremely pragamatic one: progressive is that which makes workable solutions possible. Perhaps there is not a great deal we Maltese can do to influence great and momentous decisions, but a bipartisan, progressive, policy on the most burning issue in our region is possible and is necessary. Let’s do it, let’s let it be known to our regional neighbours, let’s canvass for a progressive joint EU-US initiative and let’s offer Malta – discreetly, as befits our real weight and the complexity of the situation on the ground and of its international context – as a venue for a peace conference. Far fetched? A case of appearing to be boxing above our weight? Perhaps, but it will – if, I repeat, wisely carried out – enhance our regional credibility. Not only with the present occupiers of palaces but also, and above all, with those who occupy the streets.
Intellectually, watersbroken, is the heir of Labour-in-labour[http://labourinlabour.wordpress.com], the unauthorised blog that accompanied the Labour Party’s travailed quest for a new leader after its latest electoral defeat in March of this (2008) year. watersbroken inherits Labour-in-labour’s irreverence towards ossified official party structures (and, let’s face it, structures tends to become rigid and to ossify as soon as they become official).
watersbroken also inherits its predecessor’s conviction that, slowly but surely, the day draws near when the majority of even moderately intelligent and moderately creative persons in this country will think twice before identifying themselves unreservedly with the ruling Nationalist Party.
Amongst the first beginning to take distance (a modest arms-length to begin with) from the Nationalist Party are those who can no longer stand its institutionalised hypocrisy, those that are repelled by the widening chasm between its holier-than-thou rhetoric (you’d think some of its irjus kbar walk on water and levitate ecstatically) and the sordidness of the business and power deals that this rhetoric helps to hide. Let’s call this category of emergent dissenters, the ‘ethical objectors’.
Then there is the category of ‘aesthetic objectors’. These are the ones whose standards of style and good taste are high enough for them to be increasingly put off by the ruling party’s free-falling aesthetic standards – whereby ‘ruling party’ is to be understood as not only the official PN structures but its social networks across civil society, its clikek. The loudest and the most visible elements of the ruling party are simply too loud, too strident, too shrill in both a visual and acoustic sense.
The vulgar element has hijacked the ruling party. Let’s be clear: when we refer to the PN’s ‘vulgar element’, we are not thinking primarily of the tough guys, the picciotti, the tough guys that swarm around some ministers, members of parliament and candidates. We are thinking mainly of those whose vulgarity is derived from the arrogance of power, power not derived from merit but from family and other connections. We are thinking of those who make distinctions between the Nationalists who matter (and who get what they want, always, at any cost) and the Nationalists that do not matter.
To many bona fide Nationalists, this state of affairs is not only unfair but also ugly. It is aesthetically revolting. Amongst those who have had enough of this state of affairs are conscientious individuals of all ages. There are senior citizens directly descended from the gruppo dirigente Mizziano of the old party of notables as it emerged from the Second World War, gentlemen and ladies of the old school, reserved and thoughtful, cosmopolitan and culturally ‘continental’, and mindful of the severe lessons that history meted out to their lineage. It also includes elderly, well-educated and open-minded former Stricklandjani pushed by circumstances into an unpalatable alliance with their former antagonists.
And what about the thousands of frugal white collar public and private sector employees and their children who for some reason or other – whether that reason was ‘reasonable’ or otherwise is, for the purposes of this argument, irrelevant – felt they could not vote for Mintoff, Mifsud Bonnici or Sant? These are people who work hard to put their children through private schools they can hardly afford, to pay for their private lessons and put enough money in their kids’ pockets so that these can dress and drink whatever their richer (and better connected) peers dictate is the cool thing.