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Your humble narrator is...
...a research analyst at a think tank in the Washington DC area. Born in Israel, raised in Kentucky, movie fanatic and sports nut.
My first-hand account of the Palestinian divestment conference at the U. of Michigan

:: Friday, April 16, 2004 ::

The epic is complete
Naturally, I was at the first showing I could get to today for the opening of Kill Bill Vol. 2. It has a different sort of pace and feel to it in many places than Vol. 1, and it's fantastic, just like its precursor.

The music is very focused in Vol. 2, consisting mostly of spaghetti Western themes and Latino pop ballads. Several of the pieces are from old scores by Ennio Morricone, the all-time master of spaghetti Western music, as well as one of the most versatile and talented movie music composers ever (did you know that this one guy did the hard-driving synth score for "The Untouchables," the serene chants and religious themes for "The Mission," and the operatic guitar wails of "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly"?) One of his old themes was also in Vol. 1, a particularly good one, which I didn't realize until just recently because it isn't on the CD soundtrack for Vol. 1. It all works extremely well in Vol. 2, just like all the music did in Vol. 1, very heroic and involving.

There isn't much character development in Vol. 1, which is more driven by plot and action, but there's a decent amount of it in Vol. 2. Uma Thurman's main character, "The Bride," definitely becomes a more well-rounded and understandable character in Vol. 2 (you even find out her real name, never revealed in Vol. 1, with an entertaining little scene to payoff the running gag of her name not being heard for so long). The final sequence involves a remarkable series of developments, largely just through dialogue, that introduce all sorts of fascinating angles regarding her and the mysterious title character, whose face was never even on-screen in Vol. 1. (A less successful attempt at some character development happens with Michael Madsen's character, Budd, who still works tremendously well as one of The Bride's nemeses, and even better in a great sequence with fellow assassin Elle Driver, played by Daryl Hannah).

The one character who is really fleshed out in Vol. 1, so that you feel you understand where they come from and what they're all about, is undoubtedly O-Ren Ishii, played by Lucy Liu. I've never been a fan of anime, but the animated sequence in Vol. 1 that details how she was thrust into the criminal underworld as a child is tremendously effective. Similarly, the developments regarding Bill, and The Bride, in the final scenes of Vol. 2 provide a really complete sense of where these characters are coming from, and what feelings have been bubbling beneath the surface for them throughout the story (there's even quite a bit more to get out of this stuff in Vol. 2 than there is with O-Ren in Vol. 1). I watched Vol. 1 again last night on DVD (third time in total that I've seen it, twice in the theaters when it was out), and after I've seen Vol. 2 again (probably tomorrow!) to get everything to sink in, I'll bet that an eventual re-viewing of Vol. 1 will be even more rewarding, with all the developments of Vol. 2 available to inform the events of Vol. 1. Not that the plot of Vol. 1 doesn't make sense on its own, it certainly does, as a (deceptively) simple action/revenge thriller. Taken as a whole, this is a pretty damned amazing cinematic experience.

Oh, and if you see it, stay through all of the final credits. They're quite long, but well worth it, with some nice little character details thrown in, plus a Vol. 1 outtake at the absolute end which is worth a chuckle or two.
10:29 PM
:: Thursday, April 15, 2004 ::
A major shift--or more of the same?
Very little of substance is new in the just announced Bush/Sharon arrangement. Anyone who thinks this represents a major change in US policy towards what an eventual Middle East peace agreement would look like is simply wrong. A shift in tone, a shift in emphasis on how much the US will coordinate with Israel? Probably, yes, and that concerns a lot of people. But let's look at the substantive issues first.

Some of the protests from various international quarters are summarized in this article. A comparison of some official EU statements with Bush's letter to Sharon:
"The European Union will not recognize any change to the pre-1967 borders other than those arrived at by agreement between the parties," Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen said in a statement on behalf of the EU presidency.
From Bush's letter:
In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
My emphasis added. So where's the contradiction? There really isn't one. Bush isn't saying that Israel can annex whatever it wants without consulting anyone and keep that land forever--he's specifically saying that any permanent border adjustments have to come through "mutually agreed changes."

How about refugees?
Cowen also said an international peace road map, in which the EU is a partner with the United States, stressed that any settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "must include an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue."
From the Bush letter:
It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.
Here's what Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher had to say about the 2002 "Saudi plan" regarding refugees, in an article from Nov. 2002:
[The Saudi plan calls for:] "Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem TO BE AGREED UPON in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194": For the first time, the Arab world commits itself to an AGREED solution to the refugee problem, thus addressing Israel's concern that the demographic character of the Jewish state not be threatened. To be sure, the initiative calls for achieving a just solution of the problem in accordance with UNGA Resolution 194, but it points out that the implementation of that resolution has to be agreed. The key point here is that Arabs understand well that the implementation has to be both fair and realistic, and certainly agreed upon. In other words, there is no possibility of a solution that will lead to the changing of the character of the Jewish state. Fortunately, there have been many suggested solutions, at Taba and elsewhere between Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors that point to the possibility of reaching a pragmatic settlement to this problem.
Whether the Arab states actually believe that or not, everyone (US, EU, Arab League) is on record as supporting "fair," "realistic," and "agreed" solutions for the refugee problem. Obviously different parties have different ideas of how this might come about, but how much room is there between Bush saying that the refugees won't be settled in Israel, and Muasher saying that any solution will not "[change] the character of the Jewish state?" Substantively, not much, if any.

Now, of course, much of the controversy is about symbolism and language, not substance. Is Bush really revolutionizing US policy along those lines? Did Bill Clinton's final guidelines for a peace agreement differ all that much from what Bush is saying? Sort of...well, not really. Clinton talked about his plan in an early Jan. 2001 speech, with the relevant parts excerpted here. On borders and settlements, he said:
[T]here can be no genuine resolution to the conflict without a sovereign, viable, Palestinian state that accommodates Israeli's security requirements and the demographic realities.

That suggests Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza, the vast majority of the West Bank, the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks, with the goal of maximizing the number of settlers in Israel while minimizing the land annex for Palestine to be viable must be a geographically contiguous state. Now, the land annexed into Israel into settlement blocks should include as few Palestinians as possible, consistent with the logic of two separate homelands. And to make the agreement durable, I think there will have to be some territorial swaps and other arrangements.
How quickly some people forget that Clinton was even more explicit about the "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers" than Bush is in his new letter.

Then, on refugees:
A solution [will have to be found] that allows [the refugees] to return to a Palestinian state that will provide all Palestinians with a place they can safely and proudly call home. All Palestinian refugees who wish to live in this homeland should have the right to do so. All others who want to find new homes, whether in their current locations or in third countries, should be able to do so, consistent with those countries' sovereign decisions. And that includes Israel.

All refugees should receive compensation from the international community for their losses, and assistance in building new lives. Now, you all know what the rub is. That was a lot of artful language for saying that you cannot expect Israel to acknowledge an unlimited right of return to present day Israel, and at the same time, to give up Gaza and the West Bank and have the settlement blocks as compact as possible, because of where a lot of these refugees came from. We cannot expect Israel to make a decision that would threaten the very foundations of the state of Israel, and would undermine the whole logic of peace. And it shouldn't be done.

But I have made it very clear that the refugees will be a high priority, and that the United States will take a lead in raising the money necessary to relocate them in the most appropriate manner. If the government of Israel or a subsequent government of Israel ever -- will be in charge of their immigration policy, just as we and the Canadians and the Europeans and others who would offer Palestinians a home would be, they would be obviously free to do that, and I think they've indicated that they would do that, to some extent. But there cannot be an unlimited language in an agreement that would undermine the very foundations of the Israeli state or the whole reason for creating the Palestinian state.
More finesse here than in Bush's letter, I guess, but the tone isn't even all that different.

Martin Indyk says that the difference is just a matter of context:
In a telephone interview from Jerusalem, Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said that questions about the West Bank settlements and the Palestinian refugees were in effect conceded by President Clinton when the administration was attempting to broker a peace agreement in 2000.

"But then, it was in the context of an ongoing negotiation and also had reference to territorial compensation" for the Palestinians, said Indyk, now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Bush has established his own parameters now, and it is not in the context of negotiations."
I heard Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian make a similar point on the radio this afternoon. Talking about the British specifically, but surely the broader European view as well, he said that it just doesn't look great to everyone to have the US and Israeli leaders negotiating between themselves, with nobody else involved. Of course, that does come back to the point about not having anyone to talk to on the Palestinian side...

So, in summary, there's nothing here that even remotely approaches any significant changes of US policy towards what a final-status two-state solution would look like. A change in emphasis, a closer coordination with this particular Israeli government, yes. In terms of symbolic issues, I basically agree with Josh Marshall's take, that it might not do the US a whole lot of good to just arrange things like this with Israel behind closed doors. I disagree with Josh's specific conclusion about refugees:
[Right of return] is a point of negotiation between the two parties. And while I think it's clear that Israel will never allow a right of return for the descendents of anyone who lived within Israel's current border before 1948, having the US rule it out altogether simply makes us the enforcer of the policies not just of Israel but of this particular Israeli government.
I guess diplomacy isn't supposed to "prejudice negotiations" or rule things out ahead of time, but since nobody around the world has had any trouble whatsoever in condemning Israeli settlements over the years, I don't see why it isn't fair to put the obvious reality of the refugee situation into fairly exact diplomatic terms on paper. Lots of people who support and/or make excuses for the settlements have decried any sort of "pre-judging" of final status negotiations whenever anyone brought the settlements up over the years, and they were/are wrong to lean on that excuse, in my opinion. So why should the Palestinians be allowed to do it regarding refugees?
4:54 PM
:: Wednesday, April 14, 2004 ::
I think this was my point
From the post right before this one. Here's Bush at his press conference last night:
Q: Mr. President, why are you and the Vice President insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 Commission? And, Mr. President, who will you be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?

THE PRESIDENT: We will find that out soon. That's what Mr. Brahimi is doing; he's figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over...[dodged the 9/11 commission question]
So, Mr. President, since you're willing to leave this up to a UN envoy right now, 2 1/2 months before we transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis, why didn't you want the UN in there working on this very issue from the beginning, 12 months ago? Nobody asked that, of course.

More on this from Harold Meyerson's column in the Washington Post.
10:34 AM

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