Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Daily Sources 12/30

1. Ethan Bronner and Taghreed el-Khodary at the New York Times reports that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that the Gazan airstrikes were "the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet." He went on to say "The government is giving the military its full backing and the room for maneuver to achieve the goal set out by the government."
"Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio, 'There is no room for a cease-fire. The government is determined to remove the threat of fire on the south. Therefore, the Israeli Army must not stop the operation before breaking the will of Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel.'"
Gazan residents reported seeing Israeli ships gathering offshore Gaza. Griff Witte and Sudarsan Raghavan at the Washington Post report that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared "an all-out war against Hamas" on Monday. (I have no idea what practical effect that has in terms of international law--or whether a Defense Minister can declare war or whether the Israeli Cabinet and Parliament are required to pass a motion declaring war or whether, even such a declaration would mean a de facto recognition.)

The rhetorical reaction of the Islamic world has been pretty uniform. The Gulf Daily News reports that a prominent Saudi cleric, Sheikh Awad Al Qarni, published a fatwa ruling all Israeli interests--and "anything else related to Israel--legitimate targets. (h/t Will McCants at Jihadica) Sayed Salahuddin at Reuters reports that the Taliban has called upon the Muslim community to rise up in response to the Gaza conflict. Zeina Karam at the AP reports that tens of thousands of Hezbullah supporters stood in the rain in Beirut to protest the situation in Gaza, some 3,000 rallied in Cairo, and about 1,000 al-Sadr backers protested in Baghdad. The same piece reports--buried near the bottom--that the al-Maliki government issued a statement condemning the attacks and calling on all Muslim nations to end relations with Israel and all secret negotiations with it. Juan Cole has translated Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's fatwa issued on Sunday. It calls on action, more than has been done in the past, and strongly condemns words as opposed to practical action in response to the events:
"Mere verbal expressions of condemnation and disapproval of what is being done to our Palestinian brethren in Gaza, and of solidarity with them, mean nothing before the immensity of this horrific tragedy to which they are being subjected.

The Arab and Muslim worlds are called upon, more than at any past time, to take practical steps in order to stop this continual aggression and to break this cruel blockade that has been imposed on that proud people."
Cole's translation is well worth reading and many of the articles linked here came to my attention via his site.

Daoud Kuttab--a Palestinian journalist and former Princeton professor--has an op ed in the Washington Post in which he points out that Hamas was losing its popular appeal prior to the Israeli attacks--polls conducted in November gave them a 16.6% approval rating and Fatah 40%. He suggests that the IDF's attack serves to resurrect Hamas's bona fides while shoring up support for the government on the eve of elections in Israel. A more cynical person might suggest that Tel Eviv definitively wants an unattractive and unrelentingly hostile government in Palestine as it justifies intransigence. Kuttab, however, critically undermines the moral appeal of his argument when he poo-poos the rocket attacks into neighboring Israeli villages as "amateur rockets" which are "nagging" some of their citizens.

Benny Morris, an Israeli historian (whose books I've found especially enlightening) has an op ed in today's New York Times which gives a better sense of what the Israeli public fears. He outlines three "dire threats":
a) An Iran pursuing a nuclear program which many believe is intended to build Iran nuclear weapons, which they feel will be used against them. They regard Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and of the existence of homosexuality in Iran as evidence of his irrationality.

b) Hezbollah has rearmed in Lebanon, and now according to estimates has 30,000 to 40,000 Russian-made rockets.

c) Hamas, "whose charter promises to destroy Israel and bring every inch of Palestine under Islamic rule and law," has an army of thousands in Gaza and a substantial arsenal of home made and Russian made rockets.
Morris also undermines his argument with disingenuous claims. The "direness" of the threat to the north is substantially accounted for by reasonably successful talks with Syria, which Tel Eviv has just to all intents and purposes put on the kibosh. Clearly Hamas presents no clear and present existential danger to Israel, as we witness its armed forces basically running roughshod over the, what are in fact, irregulars in Gaza. Finally, Ahmadinejad is not the commander in chief of the Iranian armed forces and would, under no circumstances, have access to the button, so to speak. His irrationality is therefore a matter of relative indifference when calculating the potential threat arising from a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

That said, it is always very easy to dismiss the threats made to someone else than it is to yourself and I think it is misleading to pish-posh these threat analyses as mere propaganda. However, they do seem to indicate that we should worry more about irrational responses from Tel Eviv than from Iran. I suspect that the realists more regularly prevail there, however, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Morris's ultimate point remains fairly pointed, that the Israeli long term threat is internal--the birthrate of Israeli Arabs.

Israeli ideology does not make room for the notion of a non-majority Jewish state. Arab ideology does not make room for the notion of an Israel ruled by Jews. The raison d'etre of all the political associations on offer in both Palestine and Israel would be undermined by peace.

Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece which points out that Hamas quite literally calls for genocide in Israel, quoting Palestinian cleric Muhsen Abu 'Ita as saying "The annihilation of the Jews here in Palestine is one of the most splendid blessings for Palestine." But, he says, Israel has won most of its conflicts as the proverbial hedgehog, when now it is the fox.

Either way, I'd say Morris is right when he says we can expect the conflict to continue.

2. Daryna Krasnolutska and Stephen Bierman at Bloomberg report that Ukraine has agreed to pay the amount Gazprom says it owes--over $2 billion. President Viktor Yushchenko’s office said in an email that the November gas has been paid for--$806 million--and that an advance payment has been made for December supplies, which were forecast to cost about $862 million in full. Gazprom had threatened to cut off natural gas supplies to the Ukraine on January 1 if back payments were not made. Since much of the natural gas that Europe consumes is provided via pipelines which traverse the Ukraine, the situation set off alarm bells across the continent as well as in the US.

3. Philip P. Pan and Howard Schneider at the Washington Post report that President Medvedev has signed into law a Constitutional amendment which extends the Presidential term to six years from four. The amendment will not come into force until the next presidential election. Many see this as a move to prepare a longer term for Putin who they believe will run for President again.

4. Glen Carey and Matthew Brown at Bloomberg report that Gulf Arab leaders have agreed to a plan to create a monetary union and central bank for the region. The plan must now be submitted to the national governments of the Gulf countries which are interested in the proposal. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE will submit the plan. (Oman has withdrawn from the effort, which began in 2001 when the entire Gulf Cooperation Council agreed to form a monetary union along the lines of the European Union.)

5. Tarek el-Tablawy and Khaled el-Deeb at the Associated Press report that the head of the Libyan National Oil Company, Shukri Ghanem, told the journalists in a telephone interview today that Libya has ordered cuts in production of 270 kb/d, more than the cut of 252 kb/d that the December 17 meeting in Oran had mandated. OPEC, so far as I know, has not released its data on what the actual production of each member state was in September--and that was the number from which the December 17 announced a cut. The reporters also talked to Conrad Gerber of Petrologistics, who suggested that OPEC was making good on their cuts.
"According to Gerber's figures - which come from carefully monitoring tanker shipments and do not include oil in storage - OPEC had already cut output by 1.56 million barrels per day by the end of November, and has slashed another 320,000 barrels per day in December."
In a separate Reuters story by Alex Lawler today, Gerber said that Iran was expected to increase production by 170 kb/d to 3.85 mb/d and Venezuelan production is steady at 2.32 mb/d. Presumably the additional production is inferred by looking at additional shipments, and hence supply, though the way it is put is deliberately obfuscatory.

6. The Wall Street Journal Asia's editorial board reports that Bangladesh had a 80% turnout for its recent elections. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won about 250 of 300 seats up for direct election. Islamist parties did not do very well.

7. Annika Breidthardt has an analysis at Reuters which argues that the commission of the new Reliance refinery in Jamnagar--a 580 kb/d capacity refinery which is very sophisticated--may bring Middle Eastern sour crudes to price parity with the light sweet benchmarks. Worth reading.

8. William Sim at Bloomberg reports that South Korea posted a current account surplus of $2.06 billion in November, up from $1.67 billion in October.
"South Korea may keep posting current-account surpluses in coming months as imports fall faster than exports amid a decline in oil costs, Yang Jae Ryong, a statistics official at the central bank, said in Seoul today."

9. Alan Beattie at the Financial Times wrote yesterday that a report just published by the IMF argues that tax cuts and specific industry bailouts are likely a waste of government resources in handling the financial crisis, what is needed is stimulus designed to provide credit to those who are having a hard time obtaining it. Providing funds to those who will likely put it in their savings would not be productive, in the organization's view.

10. Bob Willis at Bloomberg reports that the S&P/Case Shiller index declined 18% year over year in October, after falling at an annual rate of 17.4% in September. "The 20-city index is down 23% from its 2006 peak."

11. Greg Mancina in the Saginaw News tells us the news from Detroit is, now that the price of gasoline is averaging well-below $2/gallon, that in December trucks and SUVs are again outselling cars in the US. Depressing. But I suppose that simply means they are more popular than the alternatives--as long as the price of gasoline doesn't get too high. Completely understandable. Also, I imagine that the US might have some comparative advantage when it comes to making trucks and SUVs. That said, higher CAFE standards are desperately needed and this news means oil demand should recover in the US. Not that that's all that surprising. (see Daily Sources 10/15 #3--near the end where it is reported that SUVs maintained their market share in September.)

12. In a strange pair of pieces by the Wall Street Journal, we get a peek into some strange thought processes. The Editorial Board calls for a strong dollar--claiming it is the source of high oil prices--and a reversal of relaxed monetary policy in order to weaken Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. One might suggest that it's a tad late for that--and conveniently well past the time the financial bail out commenced--and that our monetary policy should focus on producing prosperity in the United States more than freedom overseas. But, beyond that, the estimation that a low crude prices will encourage the establishment of democracy in Venezuela, Russia, and Iran is based on the same faulty thinking that led to a 50 year and totally pointless embargo on Cuba. And to combat one almost laughable misapprehension: Russia's ability to squeeze European supply is not affected one whit by the price paid for it ... the fact is that Russia supplies a tremendous percentage of total supply which cannot be replaced if withdrawn. Still, the notion that Russia would have tried to use such a tool to pressure Europe in any but the most extreme of conditions is deliberately misleading. And a lower price only means that there is less economic incentive to get more out of the ground and thus meet Europe's future energy requirements.

I guess we can all take comfort though, in the revelation via Andrew Osborn's piece in the Wall Street Journal that Igor Panarin--a major US analyst in Russia--thinks that the United States will break up into different regions come 2010. Well, I guess I can say that I know of more than one region where there are people who openly advocate such a breakup--Hawai'ian secessionists come to mind--and there are plenty of blue staters fed up with the politics of red staters and vice-a-versa. It is a little disconcerting that Russian analysts would seriously be considering this future scenario. Still, sometimes it's nice to think that they understand us no better than we do them. It is also very important to note that Panarin says "But if we're talking reasonably, it's not the best scenario -- for Russia."

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