Monthly Archives: June 2009

Naomi Klein?s speech in Ramallah

An esteemed reader asks me, “What do you think of Naomi’s Klein participation in the [BDS] movement – just listen to a speech she gave in Ramallah calling for a global boycott movement?” Thanks so much for this question, though I suspect it’s a clever way of getting me to sit down and listen to more of Naomi Klein (to which I do not, of course, object at all). Klein is a leading voice in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) program for dealing with Israel, and is an intelligent and influential commentator and activist.

Of course, I think it’s fine and laudable, since it’s what she thinks is right. The question is whether or not BDS is the best approach for Palestinians in dealing with the occupation and the all-important task of bringing it to an end at the earliest possible date. Klein makes a powerful moral case for why Jews should oppose the occupation, with which I, of course, whole-heartedly agree. I would add that a crucial additional point is that the occupation is not in Israel’s interests or those of the United States, two decisive reasons why Jewish Americans in particular should be strongly in favor of ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. It strikes me that to ignore this vital point is letting perhaps the most powerful argument of all fall by the wayside in an unfortunate and unnecessary manner.

The comparison of the occupation with apartheid on which Klein focuses a great deal of her remarks is apt in many ways, but there are two serious problems with it. First, it can often serve as a conversation stopper, by asking Western audiences that need convincing to conclude up front that Israel behaves like apartheid-era South Africa when there is a strong resistance to coming to this conclusion. I have always preferred to simply describe the facts of the occupation and let audiences come to their own conclusions. But this is not a major problem, and is more or less of a tactical quibble. The bigger concern is that drawing this analogy promotes the idea that because there are clear parallels between the practices of the occupation and apartheid, therefore a South Africa-style solution is readily available between Israel and the Palestinians. I will have much more to say about why this is a serious error in the near future, but suffice it to say that all the pressures that pointed White South Africans in the direction of doing a deal that in effect exchanged political power for the protection of existing privileges, in Palestine militate towards an end to the occupation. It seems to me that clear parallels in the practices of the occupation with apartheid aside, all of the other basic elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including demography, history, ideology, power relations, the role of the west and more, are entirely different. Klein describes this observation as “silly,” but, in fact, it is crucial, especially from the point of view of Palestinian national strategy. If the situations are fundamentally different, and they are, then the solution perforce cannot be the same.

Klein’s argument that Zionism is a form of racism based on economic exploitation seems to me a very poor explanation of the conflict indeed. I have heard this many times before and it seems to me an effort to smash the square peg of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the round hole of traditional colonialism and imperialism. I can only think that the persistent effort to make this mistake is based partly on ideology, partly on a lack of a sophisticated understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian history and interactions, and partly on sheer intellectual laziness. Klein may not be guilty of the last, but she does seem to fall victim of the first two. In fact, Zionism is driven by many imperatives, economic exploitation being, I think, among the very least of them. Even the taking of land does not correspond to this, since land could have been had far more cheaply and easily elsewhere. The Zionist movement is far, far more complicated than that, and is plainly driven largely by different motivations.

My fundamental concerns about BDS as a Palestinian strategy were outlined earlier in the Ibishblog, and Klein did not really address any of them. This may be because she is thinking in terms of western activism and I am thinking in terms of the practical strategies the Palestinian national movement can use to advance its cause, which are different perspectives. There is no reason to reiterate these concerns, but they remain entirely unshaken, if not reinforced, after listening to her talk. Specific forms of boycott that target the products of the settlements and the occupation can indeed be useful, but the BDS project rarely focuses on those. The same applies to companies that contribute to the apparatus of the occupation, which could usefully be targeted by boycott or public relations campaigns. Were this the main focus of BDS projects, it would be a different and much more appealing idea. But the reality is that BDS generally challenges Israel itself, which creates a very different dynamic that I think has more costs than benefits to the Palestinians, as I have explained.

Klein suggests that the BDS movement is a useful tool “for peace,” but crucially she does not define what peace would mean. Indeed, I detected a great deal of ambivalence and even contradiction on this crucial point in those parts of her talk that referred rather opaquely to the end goal. For this project to be, as she put it, “an effective strategy,” it must be crystal-clear about what its goals are. The tendency to fudge its aims to encompass visions that focus on both ending the occupation and eliminating Israel altogether — which are incompatible goals requiring very different strategies, tactics, rhetoric and everything else — seems to me entirely crippling. Klein’s Ramallah speech falls squarely into this trap. I listened to it carefully and could not come away with any clear sense of what, precisely, she thinks BDS would be promoting: an end to the occupation or an end to Israel? Any strategy, movement or project that is ambiguous about and cannot clearly define and articulate its goals, it seems to me, will not be able to serve as a useful strategy for anything (except maybe public education in a very limited sense) and cannot develop effective tactics either.

The Massad tenure case: time for the campus thought police to close up shop

Jacob Gershman, who used to write for the thankfully-defunct rag the New York Sun, reappears in The New York Post today to rail against Columbia University for tenuring Joseph Massad. I would say that there is almost nothing I can think of on which Massad and I agree, and I have made my sharp disagreements with some of his more irresponsible comments quite clear. However, there is no question that he qualified for tenure under Columbia University’s standards.

The Columbia faculty Ad Hoc Grievance Committee that looked into the trumped-up allegations promoted by the David Project and other members of the self-appointed campus thought police of the pro-Israel ultra-right, contrary to what Gershman seems to think, in fact cleared all the faculty in question of the allegations against them, citing concern only about one incident in which they found that, "Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly. While we have no reason to believe that Professor Massad intended to expel Ms. Shanker from the classroom (she did not, in fact, leave the class), his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism." These are hardly grounds for any form of censure, let alone the denial of tenure. One should note that Massad strongly denies the incident ever even took place. Indeed, the Report found, far more significantly that, "Testimony that we received indicated that in February 2002 Professor Massad had good reason to believe that a member of the Columbia faculty was monitoring his teaching and approaching his students, requesting them to provide information on his statements in class as part of a campaign against him."

I don’t care for Massad’s overheated rhetoric. His outrageous attacks on Palestinians like Mahmoud Darwish and PLO leaders are indefensible. His suggestion that Israel and Zionism are anti-Semitic is silly and pointlessly provocative. His claim that homophobia in the Arab world is the product of neo-colonial agitation by a “Gay international” is not homophobic (as is sometimes claimed) – Massad is no Alan Bloom – but it is preposterous. However there is really no serious question that by Columbia’s standards his written scholarship and reportedly outstanding teaching and service records fully qualify him for tenure and it is fitting that he received it.

The significance of the Massad tenure case really is that it was the ultimate test for the new ultra-right wing, pro-Israel campus thought police established in the past few years to enforce a new orthodoxy in American academia on Middle East affairs. Organizations like Daniel Pipes’ notorious "campus watch," which had in its initial mission statement an overtly racist complaint about the number of Arab and Middle Eastern professors in Middle East studies departments, the "David Project," David Horowitz’s various organizations and others have gone after numerous professors, but none provided a more obvious test case of their potential ability to intervene in tenure battles than that of Joseph Massad. The Ward Churchill incident is an entirely separate matter. Without going into any details, I think it’s fair to say that Norman Finkelstein essentially self-destructed at Depaul University. The two major test cases both centered around Columbia, at which these forces have considerable influence. The effort to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El Haj (full disclosure — I briefly went to high school with her in Beirut) at Columbia and Barnard was always a longer shot. Predictably, it failed. But with Massad, given the extraordinary campaign against him and the considerable case to be made that his views might be considered anathema in a great many circles, this was always likely to prove whether or not an external and politically-motivated campaign to deny a qualified academic tenure based on his opinions was really possible in American academia at the present time. The answer, thankfully, is: no

Obviously, Columbia was tempted to do so. The decision to grant him tenure comes at some significant political cost to the University, as the New York Post article suggests. However, capitulation to external political pressure would have set an unworkable new standard of political correctness in the tenure process both at Columbia and in American higher education generally. Moreover, Massad would have had a very plausible lawsuit at his disposal, which, among other horrors, would probably have involved significant discovery into the circumstances regarding the receivership of the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia, which the University was surely desperate to avoid. Additional discovery might have led to further embarrassing discoveries about the nature of the campaign against him and others, and the activities of right-wing pro-Israel organizations in this and other regards. In the event, Columbia obviously decided that the costs, both principled and practical, outweighed the benefits, and made the correct decision to recognize that Massad had met all the University’s standards for tenure.

The campus thought police may have succeeded to some degree in creating a chilling atmosphere in American academia on Middle East matters, but it has failed in its principal task of thwarting controversial but plausible tenure cases. If it cannot succeed in organizing the denial of tenure to Joseph Massad at Columbia University in New York City, it won’t be able to succeed in many other cases elsewhere. The project overall is clearly a failure. Campus Watch, the David Project and the others have wasted the money of their contributors and failed to produce the goods. It’s time for them to face the facts and close up shop once and for all. Columbia’s decision demonstrates that even the most vulnerable, provocative and controversial faculty, who are otherwise qualified, cannot be denied tenure in major American universities even under the most favorable political conditions for the campus thought police. This is an extremely important victory for academic freedom, and free speech generally, in the United States. The principle that American professors are to be judged on the quality of their work and not on the nature of their opinions is an essential element to freedom in our country. I don’t agree with almost anything that Joseph Massad has been saying in recent years, but I’m glad and relieved that Columbia has granted him tenure. As for the campus thought police, they should admit failure and be gone forever.

Apparent movement from Israel suggests Obama approach may be paying off

The past 48 hours have provided significant evidence of movement by Israel, at least rhetorically, in the direction of cooperating with President Obama’s efforts to restart the peace process with an eye to early significant progress. Ha’aretz reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu has reformulated his “bottom line” on Palestinian statehood from the more restrictive and unworkable version outlined in his address two weeks ago. After a meeting with European officials, Netanyahu listed these as, "The recognition of a Jewish state, demilitarizing a Palestinian state, and recognition that any agreement signed will be the end of the conflict and an end to demands [of Israel]." None of this is likely to prove impossible for Palestinian and American negotiators to deal with. And, significantly, the meetings in Paris and Rome showed that Europeans and the rest of the Quartet are as committed to a settlement freeze as the Americans are. Netanyahu is facing a united front of everyone else, including strong supporters of Israel in Congress, on the settlement issue, and seems to be increasingly desperate for some space in which to maneuver.

Strikingly absent were any demands that strike at the heart of Palestinian sovereignty such as control over the airspace and electromagnetic spectrum in Palestine, which could be the subject of some accommodation of Israeli security concerns but not outside the sovereign authority of the Palestinian state. As for demilitarization, Palestinian leaders have, in reality, been conceptualizing their state as non-militarized for a long time. Palestine will have little need and even less use for a fully-fledged military establishment and the funds needed will be far better spent on education, economic development and health care than on a vainglorious but redundant army. Netanyahu here is presenting a Palestinian intention as an Israeli demand. Obviously an end of conflict agreement would be just that and would signal an end to demands made by both Israel and Palestine on each other.

As for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, even many in Israel recognize the utter meaninglessness and pointlessness of such a demand, and both US and Palestinian officials have dismissed it as irrelevant. Its only practical effect is an effort to foreclose serious negotiations on the right of return, which should serve as a counterweight to the issue of Jerusalem which will constitute the most politically difficult concessions by both sides. The Israelis tried to get away with this at Annapolis and were thwarted not only by the Palestinian delegation but by President Bush himself. At the end of the day, Palestinians may make some meaningless statement in this regard, although Israel like all sovereign nations defines itself, but only after the main issues, especially concerning refugees and Jerusalem are resolved. The main thing is that all parties, including many Israelis and the Obama administration, are well aware that this is partly a red-herring and delaying tactic and partly an effort to foreclose the refugee issue. There is no evidence it will work in either way.

The same report suggests that Israel is proposing a three month settlement freeze with “an exception for some 200 structures which are current in advanced stages of construction,” precisely the kind of face-saving agreement I have been describing on the Ibishblog for weeks that would allow Netanyahu to effectively accept the US conditions while not fracturing his right-wing coalition. Of course, this is a bargaining position, and the administration may well and should push for a more far-reaching agreement. No one has failed to grasp that the biggest single failing of the Oslo process was that it allowed Israel to continue building settlements and making the problem far more difficult to resolve. This is not going to be permitted to happen again, as long as most parties, especially the United States, are committed to securing progress.

If something along these lines develops, Palestinian and Arab reaction will be crucial to ensuring that the “temporary” freeze becomes effectively permanent or extended for enough time to ensure that it does not scupper the resumption of permanent status talks, which would then make additional settlement activity practically unworkable. It is going to be neceesary to prove David Ignatius wrong in his prediction that, "The Obama team is assuming that if it can pressure Israel into a real settlements freeze, the Arabs will respond with meaningful moves toward normalization of relations — which will give Israel some tangible benefits for its concessions. But that hope appears to be misplaced." The Arabs are going to have to play their role – or take deserved blame if the whole project grinds to a halt becuase they have not been willing to do their part.

Obama’s policy towards Iran and American power in the Middle East

An esteemed reader, and we are very glad to have him chiming in, asks me: ?Old friend, Obama was correct in not taking sides when the Iranian election results had first triggered the protests. Given that non-elected clerics decide who’s permitted to run for elected office, legitimacy becomes lost long before the first ballot is cast – regardless of the final count. However, the protests obviously morphed into a battle for genuine representative government and Hossein Mousavi has opted to make that his quest. Accordingly, wasn’t Obama’s shift to a more unambiguous condemnation saliently late by anyone’s reasonable standards? It’s pretty sad when France, Britain and Germany march for freedom ahead of us.? Thanks for that important and timely question.

First of all, I don’t think Obama’s stronger words were late at all. I think they were well calibrated to manage the twin (and not always fully compatible) imperatives of promoting American values and defending American interests. The administration has been pretty strong in defending the rights of Iranians to free assembly and protest, which is proper. However, the administration has also remained carefully neutral on the political power struggle that has been taking place at a parallel register to what is happening on the streets of Iranian cities. This is a wise policy in my view, given how opaque the internal machinations within the ruling elite in Iran have been. Obama and his supporters have been making the case that it would be a strategic mistake for the United States to be openly seen as taking sides in the power struggle within the Iranian elite, providing the ruling faction with a more plausible basis for making its claim that this is all being driven by American and British agitation, and therefore justifying a harsher crackdown and delegitimizing opposition forces. The rejoinder that ruling forces are making that claim anyway elides the fact that more overt intervention, even rhetorically, would make this claim less preposterous and have a negative impact in Iran. The fact that no opposition forces are urging the US government to take this stance seems to me decisive evidence that the administration is doing the right thing.

Beyond this, there is an additional concern that the administration must take into consideration but cannot really articulate publicly. American interests regarding Iran cannot be based on simply encouraging regime change or transformation from within. US interests will remain very similar no matter which faction takes power in Iran. On the most central issue, the nuclear question, there is no evidence that the opposition forces within the ruling elite led by Rafsanjani and Mousavi are any less committed to pursuing the research and development that brings Iran ever closer to nuclear power and which is the biggest single issue between the two countries. Whoever takes power in Iran, the effect of the ongoing occupation in Palestine will still be a major disruptive element in the relationship. It’s not clear at all that regime change or transformation would resolve any of the most fundamental questions facing US-Iranian relations. Moreover, assuming for a moment that the opposition will fail to create major change in Tehran, the United States will still have to be pursuing its interests as it was before the election dispute, with the interesting “open hand” combination of incentives and implicit threats that has been crafted by the new administration. It would make little sense for the administration to essentially abandon its opening to Iran, whomever is in power, because of an internal power struggle the outcome of which is entirely unpredictable. The worst case scenario, surely, would be for the administration to prematurely and unwisely take sides in an internal power struggle in Iran, thereby foreclosing and obviating a rather well-thought-out and carefully implemented strategic change in the American posture towards that country.

Finally, I think it would be a mistake to measure US policy towards Iran according to the positions taken by secondary powers like Britain, France and Germany. They simply do not have the same interests and responsibilities globally and in the Middle East that the United States does. They are therefore much more free than the United States to take extra-strategic positions without significant fear of potential consequences. The United States is treading very carefully in Iran, as it certainly should. There is far too much at stake for us to adopt a policy driven by emotions and sentiment, and the promotion of American values must be tempered with a due regard for important American interests in the region and the world.

At a panel discussion on an Arabic-language TV program yesterday, I made the case that US policy towards Iran is best advanced at this stage by allowing the upheaval in that country to play itself out without undue and possibly counterproductive American intervention, while redoubling efforts to make the United States appear to be a more solid pole of influence in the region. There are clear signs that Iran’s allies in the Arab world are deeply shaken by the internal unrest in that country, and the most effective American response would surely be to maintain its existing conditions on the engagement with Iranian allies like Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, take steps to reinforce its usefulness as a partner with its Arab allies, and confirm its indispensability to the region by ensuring that there is, in fact, progress on the most important political issue in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the United States holds firm while Iranian power shakes due to this political earthquake, and major progress such as an Israeli settlement freeze is accomplished, American influence in the region will be significantly advanced for the first time in almost a decade, if not longer.

How not to critique US media coverage of the Middle East

US news coverage of Middle Eastern affairs, including the way the Iran story has been (mis)handled, is so bad that it ought to be almost impossible to write a critique that completely misses the mark. Unfortunately, an article published on the Electronic Intifada website manages to do just that. The article essentially forwards two objections: first, that the US media have been giving undue coverage to the crisis in Iran that is reflective of US foreign policy goals; and second, that the US media has been indefensibly relying on “unverified” video and information. This strikes me as an incredibly weak critique, and an object lesson in how to bungle the very important task of holding US media to a higher standard in coverage of Middle Eastern affairs.

The article asks why Iranian demonstrations have been receiving a great deal of attention unlike protests in “Georgia or Peru.” It suggests that the only explanation is that coverage of the Iranian demonstrations serves US foreign policy interests: “Why are protests in Iran receiving more attention than those in other places? One logical explanation is that the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a key ally of the US and NATO.” It’s certainly true that more attention should have been paid to other issues in the past and present, including lots of Palestine and Gaza-related stories, but I don’t think it’s possible to seriously argue with the significance of the upheaval in Iran. Any critique that asks the readers to fail to understand the extraordinary strategic and political importance of the upheaval in Iran, which is without question far more significant than unrest in Peru or Georgia, is rooted in an unworkable definition of what is newsworthy.

It’s no doubt the case that US media tends to be parochial in its attitudes towards international affairs, but the idea that unrest in Georgia and Peru has the same global significance as the extraordinary developments in Iran is simply silly. The Arab media too have been far more interested in the extraordinary developments in Iran without being driven by a US foreign policy agenda, because the events in Iran obviously have a political and strategic significance that these other demonstrations simply do not. Assuming that every demonstration or every upheaval is equally newsworthy is frankly ridiculous, and failing to understand the importance of what has been going on in Iran to the rest of the region and to the world at large is just – and there is no other word for this – stupid.

The idea that “coverage of certain places might contradict US foreign policy there, something much of the media are proving unwilling to do,” is beyond simplistic. Critics on the far left share the view of the far right that the major American media is a monolithic and homogenous entity simply or effectively controlled by the government (Rush Limbaugh continuously refers to the media as “government controlled”), but this “analysis” elides the profound complexities of the actual relationship. The process by which American media coverage of international affairs is intertwined with US government attitudes and interests is real, but it is extremely complex, overdetermined and often subtle (although the result usually is not). To suggest that the American media simply ignores anything that may not serve US foreign policy interests is a caricature and not an analysis. How could one then, to take only one example, explain the exposé, which came precisely from the same major American media, of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, which was a disaster for US foreign policy interests in Iraq and the Middle East generally?

As for the reliance on “unverified sources,” this is primarily the result of a major crackdown on all serious forms of independent reporting and free speech by the Iranian government, especially in the past week, a fundamental reality that the article in question does not acknowledge. The implication that the media should simply ignore unverified sources when verifiable ones are unavailable due to a government effort to shut down all forms of legitimate journalism and quash a story is obviously absurd. The suggestion that because verifiable footage and information about other stories is available, they should therefore have primacy over what certainly seems to be a more significant story that can only be covered through unverifiable sources serves as just another way of suggesting that American media attention to events in Iran is excessive and the other stories should receive the same or more attention. It is not any more convincing than the more direct approach of asking, in effect, “why are you covering this when I think you should be covering something else?”

It would be hard to know where to begin with a serious critique of US media coverage of Middle Eastern affairs, because the weaknesses and mistakes are so striking. For serious media criticism, it is an embarrassment of riches. However, arguing that the US media should not be covering the story in Iran (or covering it less than it does), or that it should be covering other stories because better information is available about them, is a terrible approach. Even worse is the suggestion that the US media simply follows the US foreign policy agenda as if media organizations were simply agents of the State Department.

A real critique of US media coverage of Iran might include interrogations of the overreliance on uninformed commentators, the tendency to frame international relations as a partisan debate between Democrats and Republicans, the indefensible and increasingly maudlin romanticization of the protesters, the lack of a detailed analysis of contemporary Iranian politics, and the tendency to assume that all of the opponents of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are democrats and reformers when many are nothing of the kind. However, to argue that US media interest in the Iran story is simply driven by the US foreign policy agenda of trying to undermine the Iranian government doesn’t discredit US media coverage, it discredits media criticism.

Has the administration found a creative solution to the settlements issue?

The US-Israel dispute over Israel’s apparent determination to continue with settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories in spite of its Roadmap commitments and demands from the Obama administration is reaching a critical phase. MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum argues that, “Netanyahu believes that President Obama has gone as far as he intends to go and that he need only dig in to win.”

However, any impression that the US is backing down in this developing standoff is undermined by the fact that, “Special US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell has called off a meeting scheduled for Thursday in Paris with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the backdrop of the ongoing dispute over West Bank settlements.” Both Israel and the US claim to have canceled the meeting, giving contradictory accounts about how and why this has happened.

However, it is very difficult not to see the meeting cancellation in light of the Israeli government’s approval of 300 new settler housing units in the West Bank, beyond the territory incorporated by Israel’s “separation barrier.” This announcement is obviously a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s demands for a complete settlement freeze, and it is likely that the meeting cancellation is, in reality, a response to this unacceptable development. The State Department has reiterated that it is opposed to all settlement activity, including in Jerusalem, and that there were no “secret understandings” between Israel and the Bush administration to allow for continued settlement activity.

The AP reports that, contrary to Israel’s insistence that settlement activity focuses mainly on “natural growth” due to new births among existing settler populations, “Data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics…[is] showing that in 2007, 36 percent of all new settlers had moved from Israel or abroad.” The report adds that, “2007 wasn’t a random blip. Migration accounted for between a third and half of the population growth in each year between 1999 and 2007, save 2005, when numbers were skewed by Israel’s withdrawal of 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip.”

I have been arguing for a number of weeks that a US-Israel deal on settlement activity is likely, and that if it essentially serves as a cover for Netanyahu to effectively agree to a settlement freeze, also desirable. However, if an agreement provides a face-saving way for the administration to back down on its demands for Israeli compliance with its Roadmap obligations on settlements, it would likely prove a fatal blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to reengage seriously with the peace process and make any meaningful progress in the coming months. That would, of course, be a disaster.

Unlike MJ, I don’t see any serious signs that the administration is preparing to back down. All the statements coming out of the State Department and other administration sources over the past couple of weeks have been clear and firm about the United States position that all settlement activity must end. If Netanyahu believes that he has simply stared down the US government or has been rescued by the crisis in Iran, I think he is in for something of a surprise, as signaled by Mitchell’s cancellation of his meeting with the Prime Minister.

One can already see the outlines of what amounts to a face-saving agreement for Netanyahu to give way to the administration’s demands. Ha’aretz reports that, “Israel is considering enacting a temporary freeze on settlement construction, excluding projects already underway, if the United States agrees to continued construction for natural growth once the freeze ends.” Such an agreement might appeal to the administration not only as a way of avoiding a costly and pointless confrontation with Netanyahu, but also because it fits in with a scenario the administration has been toying with for some time. A temporary settlement freeze might give the administration grounds for deploying the Annapolis agreement provision that once Phase 1 Roadmap obligations are being met, Phase IV permanent status negotiations can begin simultaneously with Phase 1 implementation.

The administration has indicated interest in front loading these permanent status talks on the issue of borders, sketching out which settlements are mutually agreed to be retained by Israel in a land swap with a future Palestinian state. If a settlement freeze is in place until a broad understanding on which areas will eventually be retained by Israel can be arrived at by the two parties, additional settlement activity within those areas, so the logic goes, would no longer pose a mortal threat to the peace process or create additional complications to the achievement of a permanent status agreement. Therefore, the “temporary” nature of the settlement freeze does not contradict the administration’s strategy for significant progress, and the grandfathering of already initiated construction projects can serve as the necessary political cover for Netanyahu to essentially give way to President Obama on this issue.

If this sounds overly elaborate, or too much like a longshot, that’s because the settlement issue is one of the most difficult that any Israeli government will be facing until it is finally confronted with the need to compromise on Jerusalem and some of the other more difficult permanent status issues. No Israeli government has ever successfully implemented a genuine settlement freeze, and Netanyahu faces particular difficulties given the sentiments in his right-wing coalition. It is understandable and wise for the administration to seek to avoid a confrontation ultimately designed to bring down the Netanyahu government over the settlement issue because it would be a draining, exhausting and costly exercise that might leave little political momentum and capital left to actually push the peace process forward, and would reinforce the idea in Israeli politics that the settlements issue is political poison that leads to the downfall of governments. For all of these reasons, any realistic agreement on settlements that is effectively an Israeli capitulation to US demands would have to be couched in these kinds of caveats.

Just as it is reasonable for the Obama administration to give Netanyahu as much political cover as possible, without backing down on the essential elements of a genuine settlement freeze, it is also important for Palestinians and their supporters to understand the difficulties the administration is facing. The kind of agreement outlined by Ha’aretz, if it is really pegged to a major push to achieve an understanding on the nature of an Israeli-Palestinian land swap in preparation for Palestinian independence, would be an entirely useful development. It would be wrong to see this, in spite of its caveats and “temporary” nature, as a capitulation by the United States to Israel’s settlement agenda. On the contrary, if it is handled properly, it could be a creative solution to an extremely difficult hurdle that has to be overcome with considerable degrees of finesse and determination.

The Obama administration is to be encouraged in its efforts to find a solution that allows the parties to move into permanent status negotiations in a serious manner for the first time since January, 2001. Thus far, there is every indication that they are still serious about achieving this and not prepared to allow Netanyahu to simply dig his heels in and thwart the administration’s determination to find a way to move forward. The Obama administration appears to have developed a strategy that actually could work through a combination of a “temporary” settlement freeze followed by an understanding on permanent status border issues. Actually implementing it will be a tall order, but no one ever suggested that progress on Middle East peace would be easy or straightforward.

The New Republic?s ?wonderful? speech calls Middle East peace ?Hitler?s dream?

The New Republic has published on its website, with gushing praise, a deranged speech given by Elena Bonner, widow of the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who calls a two-state peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians “the dream of Adolph Hitler.” “Because the plan ‘two states for two peoples’ is the creation of one state, ethnically cleansed of Jews, and a second one with the potential to do the same,” she claims, “a Judenfrei Holy Land–the dream of Adolph Hitler come true at last. So think again, those who are still able, who has a fascist inside him today?” Apparently all those who yearn for peace in the Middle East.

This ludicrous idea would be of only passing interest if it had not been enthusiastically adopted by one of this country’s best known political magazines, and lauded by its publisher as “wonderful.” Marty Peretz has long been known to harbor extreme views on Middle East issues, but this seems to stake out a new dimension of extremism for both him and his chronically irresponsible (on this issue, at least) magazine. This increasing tendency for supporters of the occupation and pro-Israel extremists to equate peace in the Middle East and any realization of Palestinian national rights with Hitler is an extremely revealing and repulsive display of fanaticism, but also mounting panic that peace might actually be achievable.

Bonner’s hysterical opposition to a Palestinian state is supposedly based on the idea that, “The Quartet, and the Arab countries, and the Palestinian leaders (both Hamas and Fatah) put additional demands to Israel. I will speak only of one demand: that Israel accept back the Palestinian refugees.” Obviously the Quartet makes no such demand on Israel and it has been clear for a long time that Palestinian negotiators understand that Israel will not be agreeing to any mass return of refugees in a two-state peace agreement. The Arab Peace Initiative calls for the “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194,” which is deliberately vague and allows for a wide range of options for a Palestinian-Israeli agreement short of a mass return of refugees. In other words, Bonner’s claim is simply untrue, and I am sure she knows this.

It seems clear from the tone and attitude of her speech that Bonner in fact supports the occupation, which is not mentioned at all in this address that is full of the language of human rights by a self-described human rights activist. She evinces no interest in or recognition of the atrocious human rights situation for Palestinians living under occupation, and its questionable if she even recognizes or cares that a foreign military occupation is in place in the Palestinian territories. Her reference to the occupied West Bank as “Judea and Samaria” is a further indication of her attitude towards the territories, implicitly suggesting that they are, in fact, a part of Israel. This attitude explains the need to lie about the international and Arab position on the refugees in order to condemn peace as a Hitlerian and anti-Semitic plot.

Most noteworthy, however, is Bonner’s neglect of the most obvious question: if she is so passionately opposed to a two-state peace agreement, what is she for? Everyone who stands against a reasonable peace agreement based on ending the occupation should immediately be confronted with the need to explain what they think the alternatives are and what they feel is preferable to a reasonable peace agreement. Typically, opponents of peace based on a Palestinian state on both sides, but especially on the pro-occupation right (which is what we seem to be dealing with here in this “wonderful” address), are silent about what they actually favor. This is, obviously, because anything they are likely to propose will be so indefensible and outrageous that their extremist agenda would be instantly exposed, and so silence on the most screamingly begged question is required.

And this character has the almighty gall to not only pose as a human rights activist, but also to call advocates of peace fascists, and peace itself “the dream of Adolph Hitler.” Wonderful, Marty, just wonderful. The overwhelming majority of Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and Americans who support peace are going to have to work together to sweep aside this sort of fanatical opposition from extremists on all sides. Let’s give the supporters of violence, conflict and occupation much more to panic about in the coming months and years.

To help Palestine, no need to follow leaders

An astute reader of the Ibishblog writes to me, ?So I read the piece about divestment, and it sounds like the only solution you are proposing for everyone is to line up behind the PA, which might be very hard for many to swallow given their reputation.? Good point. Of course I don’t mean that at all, but I can understand how a quick reading of my posting on boycotts might give people the wrong impression. My point, which I think is absolutely accurate, is that a tactic of economic, social and cultural pressure such as boycotts and sanctions in a situation such as the Palestinian-Israeli dynamic is only likely to be effective as part and parcel of a broader political strategy. In this context, the broader political strategy must be ultimately aimed at securing a diplomatic solution, since no other practical option presents itself, and this requires at least consistency with national political strategy. Without this basic level of consistency, how would any leverage produced by boycotts and sanctions be translated into national-level political results?

However, I would never suggest that everyone has to support the PLO or the PA, or any Palestinian organization or party in order to aid Palestinians and their society. On the economic front, the opportunities are particularly broad ranging. Were people to channel their energies into economic development, creating businesses, social support, education and health care initiatives, infrastructure development, the arts, sports or anything at all that is constructive in the occupied Palestinian territories, I have no doubt their efforts would be highly effective in the aggregate and in the long run in affecting the situation for the positive. Moreover, all of this type of effort would have the added impact of not only being politically helpful, but also directly and immediately improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians. And, it would not be at all inconsistent with the imperative of transforming the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic into a win-win equation in which what is good for Palestinians does not threaten Israel and vice versa.

Most people concerned with the issue on both sides are used to thinking in zero-sum terms about how to defeat the enemy. Many supporters of Palestine are therefore accustomed to searching for creative ways of fighting back against Israel, rather than focusing on positive measures that would aid Palestine and the Palestinians (although, of course, some people do attempt both approaches simultaneously). However, I think it’s obvious that now is the time for Palestinians to focus on building the institutions and infrastructure that can allow them to function in an independent state. There is much that can be done to build Palestinian society, including independent businesses, organizations and civil society, without following the lead of any political organization or faction.

Obviously, I’m not asking anyone to line up behind the PA, follow any leaders, or anything of the kind. There are any number of useful and constructive things that individuals and organizations can do to support Palestinians and their national rights without looking towards any leadership whatsoever. Indeed, it will probably be the case that most of the most useful things done for Palestine outside of Palestine will be done in exactly this manner: without considering the opinion of any Palestinian political parties or politicians.

Philip Weiss’ symptomatic misreading of Hamas

On his frequently interesting blog, Philip Weiss asks today, “wouldn’t the biggest power move/gamechanger be for Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist, and then fully initiate a civil-rights struggle?” I have a lot of respect for Weiss, but he is right when he notes further on in the same posting that, “I am surely confused here.” There are two problems with his formulation and one good insight, all mashed together. Let me try to unpack this a little, as Weiss is making an error that is all-too-common regarding the role and the nature of Hamas.

First, there is the issue of what the end-game of Palestinian national strategy is, should and can only be. Obviously, Weiss’ formulation is somewhat contradictory in this regard, since the acceptance of Israel’s right to exist presupposes that the endgame is a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel. This doesn’t square with the notion of a civil rights struggle which implies the pursuit of equal rights in a single state (a view that Weiss has increasingly drifted towards in recent months). There is no question that Hamas, and all Palestinian organizations, should recognize Israel’s right to exist, just as all Israeli political parties should recognize Palestine’s right to exist, since the only way to end the conflict is for two states to live side by side in peace and security. However, given Hamas’ attitudes towards Israel and its imperative and paramount goal of replacing the PLO as the main Palestinian national organization, there is almost no chance of it doing so in the foreseeable future. It is rather odd, unfortunate and unhelpful that Weiss would focus on Hamas as if it were the standard-bearer of Palestinian national anything, but more about that a little later.

A civil rights movement against the occupation, highlighting the way in which the occupation impinges on Palestinian human rights has always been an excellent option for Palestinians in the absence of diplomatic progress. At the moment, the diplomatic push by the Obama administration suggests that there are much more fruitful avenues to pursue at the present time in the realm of international relations. However, should this process stall, or sputter out altogether, attention towards a nonviolent civil campaign designed to call international attention to the outrageous conditions imposed by the occupation would be a very serious option for the Palestinian national movement. The first intifada was something approaching this, and was extraordinarily successful in numerous ways, especially in contrast to the catastrophic, militarized second intifada. However, for a human rights movement in the occupied territories to be successful, armed struggle, terrorism, rocket attacks and other militarized strategies would have to be suspended if not renounced. Just as it has never seriously contemplated recognizing Israel’s right to exist, Hamas remains committed to armed struggle and "martyrdom" as the path to achieving their goals.

This brings us to the heart of the confusion in Weiss’ idea: like a lot of Western and Jewish sympathizers with the Palestinian cause, he does not seem to understand what Hamas is, what it wants and how it intends to get it. Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood party of Palestine, and that ideology and affiliation defines much of what it thinks and does. First, it is a theocratic organization that seeks to “Islamize” Palestinian society along ultra-conservative lines and to establish an Islamic state theoretically from the river to the sea and as a practical matter in any areas that fall under its control. However, Hamas is not simply the religious far-right of Palestine, it is also a part of a regional alliance which has both domestic goals within each Arab state in which it is organized, and a broader regional agenda. I think that the Gaza war was a painful and distressing demonstration of how that regional agenda can trump the most elementary aspects of Palestinian interests. Moreover, due to the aid it receives from Iran and the basing of much of its political leadership in Damascus, Hamas is also a part of a pro-Iranian alliance, which also complicates and sometimes compromises its role as a Palestinian national organization. In other words, Hamas is not only ideologically disinclined to recognize Israel, and politically unable to do so given its overriding aim of replacing the PLO and need to draw a stark contrast with and outbid it, it also has patrons and allies that play a significant role in its calculations that have no interest in any recognition of Israel or peace agreement of any kind.

While the prospect of Hamas recognizing Israel’s right to exist is extremely unlikely, especially as long as its main aim remains its replacing of the PLO as the main Palestinian national organization, the idea of it leading a “civil rights struggle” anywhere and under any circumstances is positively weird. Hamas does not believe in civil rights as Weiss and I am using the term, a concept that is meaningless outside of enlightenment-derived traditions embodied in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other similar statements of principle. Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood ideology is rooted in a very different understanding of the nature of individual rights and the relationship between the individual and both the state and society. Some well-meaning Western observers seem to think that Hamas and other Islamist groups are some sort of Islamic version of leftist revolutionaries of earlier eras, but they are not. Hamas’ agenda could be described as anti-colonial, but not as consistent with civil or human rights as they are commonly understood in most of the world. Hamas might be able to serve as the vehicle of an anti-colonial movement, but not a civil rights movement, and there is a vast gap between the two.

People have a right to be supportive of Hamas’ agenda if they want to, but they must be honest with themselves and others about what is it, in fact, that they are supporting and what this would mean for minorities, individuals, women and governance in general in Palestinian society. I understand that he has visited them in Gaza, but if Weiss can imagine a scenario in which Hamas serves as the vehicle of a “civil rights struggle” then he has simply failed to understand the nature, ideology and agenda of the organization. Palestinians, like all peoples, will have a reactionary religious right in its political life, and for the foreseeable future this will remain Hamas. However, Hamas is not, and must not be allowed to become, the main Palestinian national organization, if the Palestinian national cause is to survive as a viable, independent political movement that is pursuing a just and achievable goal.

Why boycotts are the wrong strategy for Palestinians

A reader asks me: ?Why do you not support the movement for BDS [boycott, divestment, sanctions] a tactic that is non-violent, has had a positive role in ending other injustices, has begun to show significant results in the Palestine/Israel conflict and which terrifies the most regressive elements within Zionism, elements whose tolerance for endless ?peace process? jawboning seems limitless?? Thanks very much for this very interesting question.

In a nutshell, I just don’t think boycotts are likely to be effective, especially ad hoc ones, in advancing the Palestinian national interest. Some forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions aimed at the occupation and that are part of a clearly defined political strategy focusing on the occupation and designed to help end the occupation could conceivably be useful, at least in theory. As you say, these tactics have been useful in other situations aimed at challenging extreme injustice, as the occupation certainly embodies. However, effective boycotts would have to be an integral part of a well-conceived and coordinated strategy that is driven by a political and diplomatic agenda. Ad hoc boycotts are unlikely to be particularly useful or effective, unless they are consistent with an overall strategy whose ultimate goal is diplomatic and coordinated by the Palestinian national leadership. Right now, that doesn’t exist because the national leadership is pursuing a different approach, and so this project is entirely disconnected from the overall national political strategy.

It’s extremely questionable whether the Palestinian national leadership at this stage would be well advised to pursue a strategy that includes boycotts, since the project of institution-building in preparation for a Palestinian state would certainly seem to be among the most urgent tasks facing the Palestinian people. In fact, most of what the Palestinian Authority and the PLO are trying to do in terms of institution building and economic development in Palestine requires a certain degree of coordination and sometimes cooperation with Israel. Obviously, many people don’t like this, and it’s one of the bases for the fatuous “collaborator” calumny, but honestly, there is no choice given the facts on the ground, so to speak, if one wants to do anything constructive in the occupied territories in terms of building Palestinian institutions and infrastructure and pursuing economic development. A strategy that emphasizes boycotts against Israel would be hard to reconcile with one emphasizing investment and institution building in Palestine. Among many other problems, it would probably eliminate Israel’s inclination to cooperate in any way with Palestinian institution and economic development projects.

Of course, many people who are involved in the BDS project are highly unsympathetic to the project of institution building towards independence and economic development for the Palestinian people, thinking that all such efforts under conditions of occupation means unscrupulous collaboration and treachery. Indeed, much of this project tends to be aimed not at the occupation but at Israel as such, which is one reason why it is highly unlikely that it will ever gain much traction in Western societies, especially the United States. Any BDS project aimed at Israel as such will run into exceptionally powerful opposition in Western societies, especially the all-important (especially to Israel) United States, which I don’t believe can be overcome in order for it to become a major factor in the Israeli-Palestinian equation.

Insofar as the BDS idea centers on in effect “defeating” Israel through sanctions and boycotts, I think it has no hope of success whatsoever. It’s a feel-good fantasy, and a way for people to reject all things Israel and Israeli, and to feel that they are doing something useful in opposition to Israel, and to mobilize sentiment, but I really don’t think there is any realistic prospect of widespread divestment and sanctions against Israel as such in most Western societies, and certainly not in the United States. I have been to numerous divestment conferences and meetings on American university campuses, and I always advised that divestment rhetoric was a useful way of beginning the conversation about the conditions of the occupation, but that divestment itself was an unrealistic goal and that people should use it tactically in order to begin a conversation and not seriously pursue it as if it were realistically achievable.

Even if widespread BDS were accomplished in Western societies towards Israel, which is certainly a remote possibility at best, I think it is extremely doubtful that this would be sufficient to compel Israel to capitulate and agree to the mass return of refugees, the creation of a single state from the river to the sea, or any other measure that would be regarded as a form of national suicide by most Israelis. The Palestinians, after all, have been facing what amounts to an exceptionally ruthless boycott since at least 1948, and this has not weakened their national spirit or their commitment to their national project. I think expecting such measures to cause the collapse of Israeli national morale is deeply unrealistic, and reflects what I have written about before as the deep-seated and extremely damaging fantasy that Israel is a fragile, temporary entity that is about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

Historically, boycotts (along with armed struggle) have been one of the two principal elements of Arab resistance to Israel since 1948, and while it’s true that the so-called BDS project is a new version of Arab boycotts against Israel (now focusing on Western societies), it’s still the boycott tactic yet again. It hasn’t worked in the past, and I’m convinced that it won’t work at the present time, especially not when it is done by ad hoc groups of people not only without being part of a broad diplomatic strategy by the national leadership, but in contradiction to the diplomatic strategy of the PLO.

I don’t agree that Israel or most Israelis are “terrified” of boycotts, although some may no doubt be worried about their potential to cause harm, which is a realistic concern. However, causing this kind of limited pain to Israelis is not the key to achieving Palestinian rights, which can only be secured in practice through an agreement with Israel since neither a military victory nor political tactics such as boycotts and economic pressure, which have been used by both sides in the conflict for 60 years, have succeeded in defeating or breaking the will of either Israel or the Palestinians. Only through a negotiated agreement can Palestinians achieve the end of the occupation. Given this reality, the costs of a BDS campaign probably outweigh any potential benefits. It is more useful to look for ways of moving past the zero-sum equation towards some form of mutually acceptable win-win dynamic that can produce a lasting agreement that end the occupation.

I understand and share the reader?s frustration with “endless peace process jawboning,” and it’s definitely true that 16 years since negotiations began we still have no agreement, settlements have increased and the occupation has become in many ways more onerous, which produces inevitable skepticism about negotiations. However, it’s also still the case that negotiations could succeed where nothing else can. I’ll have more to say about the reasons why negotiations with Israel on ending the occupation must remain the centerpiece of Palestinian national strategy. But these boycotts, while they appeal to many grassroots activists, are not a serious strategic response to the occupation. They may make people feel good and help mobilize some energy, albeit in the wrong direction, but I am extremely skeptical that they will ever be a major factor in bringing an end to the occupation, and they obviously have no chance whatsoever of precipitating the collapse or capitulation of Israel as many of their proponents seem to imagine they could.