Kabuki in Kabul

Wait, did Hamid Karzai actually want the Afghan parliament to reject his cabinet?

Hamid Karzai will be heading to the international London conference later this month with a full cabinet, albeit not an entirely legitimate one. The Afghan president has decided to ignore his testy parliament for the moment and simply install the ministers he wants, whether the lawmakers agree or not. What seemed like a defeat for Karzai -- having parliament reject his nominees -- might now become at least a short-term victory. But the whole shabby incident bodes ill for Afghanistan's attempt to clean up for the world stage in London.

The formation of the government has been a lengthy and contentious process. Karzai's first roster of nominees was roundly rejected by the legislature, which on Jan. 2 confirmed just seven out of the 24 names the president had suggested. A second vote two weeks later yielded another seven confirmations, leaving Karzai with 10 empty slots. This came less than two weeks before the important Jan. 28 meeting in London, which will set the tone for the Afghan president's relations with the international community over the coming months. Karzai then asked the rejects to fill in anyway, becoming acting ministers at least until after the conference.

The inability to confirm a cabinet was just another mess on top of the general shambles of the Afghan political scene. Karzai came to his second term in office after a badly flawed election, in which the fraud was so glaring and well-documented that nearly one-third of the votes had to be annulled.

Worse still, the president gained his pyrrhic victory by forming alliances with some of the country's most detested figures, men like Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord who has been widely accused of human rights abuses.

The wrangling over the cabinet has done little to raise Karzai's standing in the eyes of the international community, whose enthusiasm for the Afghan president has waned markedly over the past 18 months.

But, as with most things in Afghanistan, there is much more to the story than meets the eye. While the parliament's firm "no" to almost half of Karzai's picks looks like a major defeat for the Afghan president, some observers are convinced that Karzai is not at all unhappy about the outcome.

"President Karzai is not concerned about his rejected nominees," Qaseem Akhgar, editor of the Asht-e-Sobh daily, said in an earlier interview. "In fact, he used this opportunity ... to rid himself of the pressure exerted by his electoral allies to place their people in the government."

In other words, Karzai owed political favors to Dostum and others who helped him engineer his election; he had promised to place such supporters in important cabinet positions. But parliament rejected all of Dostum's allies, relieving Karzai of the burden.

"The rejection of ... his cabinet [was] no 'slap in the face for Hamid Karzai.' On the contrary, it is a success for him," wrote Thomas Ruttig, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.  "Karzai can tell them: I did my best, but parliament did not play ball." 

During the second round of voting, on Jan. 16, most political analysts thought Karzai would have an easier time of it. But again, parliament rejected 10 out of 17 nominees.

It might have been a flexing of political muscle in advance of the still-controversial parliamentary elections, slated for the spring. Parliament has been largely sidelined in the political process, say analysts, and lawmakers might have been trying to demonstrate that they still have power.

"Parliament wants to show what it is capable of, since elections are just over the horizon," Wahid Muzhda, a political analyst in Kabul, said in an interview after the first round of voting.

One of those who earned parliamentary disfavor was the proposed minister for women's affairs, Palwasha Hassan, a dynamic women's rights advocate who came to her confirmation hearings wearing a headscarf issued by the Five Million Women Campaign, a major event in Afghanistan. She was subjected to an extended examination by some of the more conservative lawmakers, one of whom asked her how she would ensure that women did not have "too much freedom" in Afghanistan.

Hassan was one of three women on Karzai's list, only one of whom, Amina Afzali, was confirmed.

Parliament also rejected five nominees from the Hazara ethnic group and three Uzbeks, leaving the lawmakers open to charges of ethnic prejudice. There were protests in a predominantly Hazara neighborhood the day after the vote.

So the president got kudos for supporting women and trying to form an inclusive, multi ethnic cabinet, while the parliament emerged as a hotbed of fundamentalists.

Those who have been confirmed will control the most powerful ministries. Hanif Atmar, a technocrat popular in Britain, retains his position at the Ministry of the Interior, while Abdul Rahim Wardak holds on to the defense portfolio. Longtime National Security Advisor Zalmay Rassoul becomes foreign minister, and Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, a former interior minister who was dismissed last year amid widespread allegations of corruption, returns to the government as minister for counternarcotics. Insiders say that Moqbel is a favorite of the Americans, who value his firm grip on the militias of the north.

The most well-known of those rejected in the first round is Ismail Khan, whom Karzai nominated to retain his post as minister of water and energy. But it seems that Karzai has no intention of replacing him -- he did not supply parliament with a second choice.

It will not be the first time Karzai has flouted the wishes of his legislature. His outgoing foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, was handed a vote of no confidence by the parliament in 2007. He has remained in place as acting minister ever since.

But while Karzai may be a round or two ahead in his scuffle with Kabul lawmakers, he is losing ground with the international community.

"The failure of 70 percent of Karzai's nominees to gain confirmation has undermined his international reputation," said Mahmoud Saiqal, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, in an interview after the first round of voting. "They may think about bringing changes in the leadership of Afghanistan."

This is not the ideal situation for Karzai ahead of the London conference, during which he has to convince his foreign backers that he can deliver on his promises to clean up Afghan governance. High on the agenda for the meeting will be the question of corruption. U.S. President Barack Obama has given his Afghan counterpart six months to make a start on putting to rights one of the shadiest governments on the planet (Transparency International rated Afghanistan second only to Somalia on its 2009 corruption index).

But Obama will most likely be disappointed.

"The government could certainly do more on corruption if only it really wanted to," said Ruttig said in an interview. "But some of Karzai's appointments show that he apparently does not pay too much attention to criticism."



Does Israel Have an Immigrant Problem?

Thousands are flocking to the Jewish state for work. But increasingly, they are becoming a political football.

It's Saturday night in Tel Aviv, and a crowd of Filipino women make their way down Neve Sha'anan Street, a charmless pedestrian arcade lined with money-changers, calling-card centers, Africans selling stolen, bootlegged, or junk merchandise, and storefront bars where patrons lounge around plastic tables covered in empty beer bottles. The women, dressed in tight jeans, miniskirts, and slinky tops, walk past the "Kingdom of Pork" butcher shop and into the massive, grime-encrusted central bus station. Their destination is the Bahay Kubu, a dance club located on the third level. Tonight is the Ms. Filipino-Israel beauty pageant, an annual event hosted by Charlene, a bashful and giggly transvestite. During the week, Charlene is James, a nursing-home employee and one of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in Israel.

The figures are fuzzy and politically contested, but the most reliable estimates place the number of such workers around 300,000. There are an additional 20,000 Africans -- primarily Eritreans and Sudanese -- who claim to be refugees from persecution. The overwhelming majority of foreign workers are like James: economic migrants from China, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere who arrived in Israel on temporary visas to take jobs in the agriculture and construction industries or as caregivers for the elderly. According to the Israeli government, 30 percent of foreign workers are in the country illegally. Eighty percent of the foreign population lives in south Tel Aviv, crammed into slouching tenements near the central bus station.

The presence of a large, non-Jewish population in the Jewish state stirs great unease. In November, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz blamed foreign workers for a rise in unemployment and a "widening of social gaps"; the mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, recently called them a "burden on the welfare authorities." He added: "They consume alcohol and have introduced cases of severe violence." The situation is routinely described in the media as a ticking social time bomb. The military estimates that as many as 1 million Africans could try to cross into Israel (though the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees puts the number at 45,000).

Responding to such concerns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Jan. 10 that Israel will build two fences along the Egyptian border -- one around Eilat, the other near Gaza -- in the hope of staunching the flow of "infiltrators and terrorists." Construction is expected to take several years, and the fence will be entirely on Israeli territory. Netanyahu also directed the Justice Ministry to formulate a plan to sanction businesses that hire illegal immigrants. "This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said. "Israel will remain open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood our country." There is reason to be skeptical. For two decades, Israeli policy toward foreign workers and refugees, has been widely regarded as a complete failure.

Foreign workers first arrived in Israel in the late 1980s to address a sudden labor shortage caused by the outbreak of the first Intifada. Following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel issued work permits to Palestinians for menial, low-wage jobs, primarily in construction and agriculture. By 1987, the year the Intifada began, Palestinians comprised nearly 8 percent of the Israeli labor force. The uprising, which prevented Palestinians from traveling back and forth to jobs inside Israel, threw the economy into crisis. In response, the Israeli government began to import workers from abroad. By 2000, foreign workers comprised 12 percent of the Israeli workforce.

"From the government's perspective, there was a closed circle, with clear procedures and rules dictating each workers' entry and exit," Israel Drori told me when I visited his spartan, linoleum-tiled office at Tel Aviv University, where he is a professor of business. The number of foreign workers was supposed to rise and fall according to supply and demand, Drori explained, but the government proved unable or unwilling to effectively regulate the process -- a history he recounts in detail in his book, Foreign Workers in Israel. Many workers fell into the illegal labor market. Others arrive on tourist visas and never leave. Exploitation is rampant. "The state has been completely incompetent," Drori said. "It is really a disgrace." And whereas Palestinians went home to Gaza or the West Bank at the end of the day, the foreign workers -- like in Europe, like in the United States -- began to settle down.

"This fence has nothing to do with foreign workers," Yohannes Bayu told me in a telephone interview. "Those crossing the Egyptian border aren't foreign workers; they are asylum-seekers." Bayu is executive director of the African Refugee Development Center, an Israeli NGO that advocates for the rights of asylum-seekers.

The main problem, Bayu believes, is that Israel refuses to clarify who is a refugee, even though it is obligated to do so as a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But as of last year, according to Bayu, only 180 asylum-seekers were officially recognized by the Israeli government as refugees. The rest wait in limbo. The fence will, however, block the ability of refugees to escape from Egypt. "The treatment in Egypt is harsh and inhumane. If someone is caught by the Egyptians on the border, they will be imprisoned, tortured, or killed," Bayu told me matter-of-factly. "I recognize Israel as a Jewish state," he continued, "but Israel is also part of the world community and it has an obligation to deal with refugees."

Late last week, before a tour of the border area with Egypt, Netanyahu warned that a "surge of refugees ... are causing socioeconomic and cultural damage" that threatens to turn Israel into a Third World country. The problem, Netanyahu explained, "is the very success of our economy, which today is included among the developed economies around the world and has emerged out of this crisis better than most countries. Some of the countries and economies in our proximity are suffering great hardships, which in turn is increasing our attractiveness and is starting to draw populations from less-developed countries." The result, he said, is that foreign workers are taking the jobs of the "weakest Israelis." But as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO, points out, only 3,000 Africans came into Israel from Egypt last year. During that same period, Netanyahu's government issued 120,000 visas to foreign workers. The proposed fence, in other words, will do little to benefit unemployed Israelis if the government continues to acquiesce to employer demands for more and more cheap labor.

"The government is worried about the Jewishness of the state, so it will never give citizenship to a large number of foreign workers," Drori told me. "But this country needs menial laborers, so the foreign workers are here to stay. The question is how to regulate their presence with a greater sense of morality."