Monthly Archives: June 2009

Create a real American coalition on Middle East peace

The Daily Star (Lebanon)…

For years now, my colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine have argued that advocates of a two-state resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict need to form a real, functioning national coalition in the United States to support this goal. President Barack Obama has put a great deal of his political credibility and capital on the line in pursuit of negotiated resolution, forcefully articulating what all parties must do to build momentum toward this goal. The most interested parties outside of the region, specifically Jewish-American friends of Israel and Arab-American supporters of Palestine, have been alienated by decades of mistrust. However, to fully live up to this historic opportunity, these two communities need to do everything possible to work toward this common objective.

Historically, most American Jews and Arabs have largely seen each other through the distorted lens of a zero-sum perspective, assuming that what is good for Israel is necessarily bad for the Palestinians and vice versa. If this was ever true, it isn’t now. It may seem counterintuitive, but Israelis and Palestinians have the same need: a workable peace agreement based on two states. It follows that their supporters in the US should be able to unite under a common cause in pursuing this goal.

Obama has stated that Palestinians need to improve security measures and combat incitement; that Israel must end settlements and avoid measures that preclude Palestinian statehood; and that the Arab states need to become more involved in the peace process. A commitment to these principles is needed on all sides. Supporters of Israel may reiterate what is required of the Palestinians and the Arabs, but they cannot remain silent about Israel’s commitments. Supporters of Palestine may insist that Israel live up to its obligations under the “road map,” but they cannot ignore Palestinian responsibilities. Those with influence over Arab governments should be pressing them to do everything they can to support Obama’s initiative and seize this historic opportunity.

Jewish and Arab Americans cannot allow their past differences and historical competition to impede what has become a common imperative. Long-standing prejudices and misperceptions must be jettisoned if we are to play the role required of us. No other groups in the US have deeper ties, more connections, or a more sophisticated understanding of the history and perceptions that motivate both parties to the conflict than Jewish- and Arab-Americans. We cannot leave this to the government alone.

The history of rivalry and alienation between Jewish- and Arab-American communities has left deep scars, but must be moved beyond. Sincere, responsible people in both communities can demonstrate their constructive intentions by combating their peers who would continue to advocate rejectionism, violence, occupation and conflict.

Many Jewish-Americans remain suspicious that the support of Arabs and Arab-Americans for a peace agreement based on two states is merely the first step in a “plan of phases,” intended ultimately to lead to Israel’s destruction. Equally there are many Arab-Americans who have yet to be convinced that Israelis and their supporters who say they favor peace negotiations are not simply trying to buy time to build more settlements and consolidate the occupation so that no Palestinian state will ever be possible. Mutual distrust masks that most people in both communities are articulating the same goal. They are certain of their own sincerity, but extremely dubious of the intentions of those on the other side. Rather than assuming at the outset that the other party is playing a game of deception, it would make more sense to test the waters and see if it is not possible that, because Israelis and Palestinians have similar needs, their friends in the US can sincerely work together in that direction.

It is necessary, of course, to gauge each other’s sincerity, but this can only be done through active engagement and a sustained effort to forge a serious alliance based on common interests. But, it is neither necessary nor helpful to try to analyze opposing motivations, or insist that competing narratives become harmonized. It should be understood from the outset that, just as Israelis and Palestinians require the same peace agreement each for their own purpose, their friends and supporters in the US will have very differing motivations for joining a national coalition in support of a two-state agreement. A great virtue of a two-state resolution is that it does not require that Israelis and Palestinians reconcile their narratives. Each can live in its own state, with internal minority groups, and forge its future according to its own understandings and imperatives.

Since Obama called for more concrete measures to achieve peace, we should not only be increasing our efforts at outreach and dialogue. Responsible organizations and individuals should develop joint statements and efforts in pursuit of peace to support the president’s initiatives. It is time for mainstream and politically significant Arab- and Jewish-Americans to think about articulating a formal statement of principles that can give shape to an effective national coalition for a two-state agreement in the Middle East. Religious and other peace-oriented organizations and corporate entities with a stake in Middle East peace should be included in these efforts from the earliest opportunity.

The urgency and intensity of Obama’s political and diplomatic emphasis on building momentum toward peace brings an extraordinary, possibly unique, perhaps even final opportunity for Jewish- and Arab-Americans who both say they want Middle East peace based on a two-state solution to begin seriously working together to achieve this result. The president is doing his part. It is now up to all of us who agree with him to do ours.

Outrage is not a strategy

A recent exchange with several people for whom I have respect and affection regarding the question of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian national strategy and interest raises a crucial point that needs much more serious examination in the conversation among Arab-Americans and their supporters regarding the role of outrage in political life. It boils down to this: being upset is not a strategy, and outrage, however moral, is not a political program.

I am all for outrage. Righteous anger is absolutely essential to political life. If we are not upset by injustice and the wrongs and ills of our societies, we will not devote time, money and other resources to political struggle. Personally, I would never have become politically engaged had I not experienced profound and visceral outrage borne of countless personal experiences and the overall disgraceful situation facing the Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab peoples I grew up surrounded by in Beirut. I don’t know too many people who have developed a keener sense of umbrage at injustice or a deeper commitment to creating positive changes for the better, although these are qualities I obviously share with countless millions around the world. Outrage, therefore, is what brought me to political life, and what I think will bring most people who become engaged, as I think everyone ought to be.

However, there are serious limitations to the practical application of outrage. Having served its purpose as an indispensable motivating factor, outrage must quickly be coupled with a clearheaded and dispassionate analysis of how outrageous circumstances came to develop and are maintained. This means separating, at an early stage, one’s emotions (which should not be jettisoned, but rather enhanced and refined by the facts) from our willingness to look at reality clearly, honestly and self-critically. This process takes time and is often painful, but it is absolutely essential. However, even this is not sufficient as an additional process that is even more significant to becoming an effective political actor is required. Motivating outrage and illuminating analysis must combine to produce a serious, practicable strategy for accomplishing realizable goals that take into account all the factors that help to shape political realities. This is the most difficult and painful step of all, for it requires unsentimentally assessing all the relevant factors in play, especially the factor of power, and distinguishing between achievable and unachievable goals, and effective and ineffective methods of pursuing them. It means making a clear distinction between words and deeds that advance an achievable goal and those that are counterproductive. It means determining a realizable objective, keeping one’s eyes on the prize, and not being distracted by any considerations extraneous to achieving the aim. This does not mean abandoning principles at all, it means working seriously to advance them in the real world and pursuing success as opposed to failure.

For supporters of Palestine, this process of honest political reflection is particularly painful, especially because the array of power in all relevant equations is not favorable. However, Palestinians do have their own forms of power, particularly as regards the question of ending the occupation, if they apply them wisely. It would be wrong to see the Palestinian people as powerless objects of history rather than subjects fully engaged in shaping their own reality, however constrained their options sometimes may be. At the same time, it is self-defeating and foolish to believe that Palestinian national ambitions, even those that can be defended as moral, just, and rooted in international law, are not constrained by certain irreducible realities for which there is no practical remedy.

As I have observed several times recently, the outcome of the 1948 war is, as a matter of fact, irreversible. The state of Israel is a fait accompli, and there is no realistic prospect for the refugees to return en masse to Israel proper. Outrage, moral principles, invocations of international law, steadfastness, etc., are not strategies for achieving this result. Indeed, no one has ever forwarded a practical strategy for implementing the right of return on a mass scale, because it is perfectly obvious that the Israeli state is unshakable on this issue and that there is no plausible exercise of actually existing power that could change this fact. As I have observed elsewhere, the right of return is a vital principle of international law that should be upheld as a principle. I believe that Palestinian negotiators should press for Israel to recognize the right of return in principle, that Israel should apologize and accept its responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem, and allow for a measure of return of refugees, even under the rubric of family reunification, that constitutes a limited application of the right.

However, expecting that there will be a mass return of refugees is, quite simply, unrealistic and if Palestinians make that an irreducible demand in their negotiations with Israel, these negotiations will fail and the occupation will continue into the indefinite future. It is clear that Palestinian negotiators have understood this for many years, but the public has yet to be properly prepared to accept this reality. The hegemonic Palestinian narrative brilliantly dissected by Hassan Khader in al-Hayat a few weeks ago reinforces an unrealistic set of attitudes and expectations that complicates the development of a sound national strategy and inhibits the kind of clearheaded, honest and self-critical analysis I described above. The idea that this painful and unfortunate, but undeniable and unshakable, state of affairs can be overcome through the cultivation of outrage, unity, moral lectures, or even boycotts and sanctions, is not only unrealistic, it is quite fantastic. Outrage, fantasies, wishful thinking, and repetition of slogans and deeply seated beliefs are not strategies. Anyone who thinks that the state of Israel is going to agree to dissolve itself or take steps that a virtual unanimity among Jewish Israelis regards as tantamount to the dissolution of the state because Palestinians and their friends insist on it or because of what will certainly for the foreseeable future remain extremely limited sanctions and boycotts (which most Western governments and institutions will not participate in) is frankly kidding themselves.

None of these are strategies. They reflect only the first element of what is required to produce an effective political position: outrage. Clearheaded analysis is missing, as none of these positions honestly accept the obvious fact that the Palestinian national movement does not have and will not be able to acquire the power or leverage to coerce or convince Israel to take this step. Most people who engage in absolutist discourse on the right of return seem either not to understand the concept of an actual, practical political strategy or reject the idea as some kind of debasement of a sublime moral principle. Under such circumstances, strategy is quite out of reach. The idea that underlies so much "one-state" rhetoric that Israel is an incredibly fragile, temporary entity that is about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that all that is required to overcome it is determination, steadfastness and moral principles is a particularly self-defeating, if unquestionably appealing, fantasy. Wishful thinking is the very antithesis of clearheaded, sober and serious political analysis.

Those who place all their hopes in boycotts and sanctions are not being honest with themselves about what parties are likely to participate in broad-based sanctions and boycotts against Israel (going beyond settlements and the occupation) and how much effect such measures are likely to have in convincing Israel to take measures most Israelis would regard as an existential crisis. Hamas asks Palestinians to put their faith in armed struggle. The boycott and sanctions movement asks them to put their faith in social, economic and cultural pressure. In fact, these are the twin pillars of Arab and Palestinian resistance to Israel since 1948: armed struggle and boycott. I can find no reason to suspect that either of them will be any more successful or less counterproductive in the next 60 years than they have in the last 60 years. Outrage is not a strategy, and neither are steadfastness, unity, or measures like armed struggle and boycotts that have proven their ineffectiveness over many decades. They are not political responses. They are emotional reactions. This is understandable, but it leads nowhere. The Palestinians, the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian national interest cannot afford further decades of wishful thinking and outrage as a substitute for a real political strategy.

It is now all or nothing in Iran – the government has created a revolutionary situation

It is obviously very difficult for those outside Iran, and probably even for many of those inside it, to make coherent sense out of the dramatic political developments rocking that country since the presidential election nine days ago. The essential facts are well known. What is opaque is how they are operating politically within the country and what direction Iran is moving in. However, it seems increasingly clear that the regime in Tehran and Qom has doubled-down on everything from the election results to the legitimacy of the supreme leader, and has left the opposition and the protesters no choice but to view their relationship with the government as a zero-sum confrontation that has, perforce and by the deliberate choice of the government, become a revolutionary situation. Iranians are being told by their government: choose between us and the unknown, between us and chaos, between us and revolution.

The broadest outline of the facts is that following a disputed presidential election that appears to have been the subject of a rather crude falsification, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in daily protests that have grown in size and intensity over the days, culminating in significant violence yesterday. The question everyone had to consider and calculate has been, what is the fundamental aim of these protests? Are they essentially efforts to roll back one specific election result and a popular outpouring of support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, or even a broader effort to reclaim the authority of the ballot box? Or, more significantly, are they wittingly or unwittingly part of an effort by an old-guard revolutionary elite to push back what it perceives as a “coup” by upstarts from the military and intelligence services, especially the Revolutionary guard, using Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a puppet for their assertion of new power within the Islamic Republic? Or, most dramatically, are the protests essentially, or inevitably becoming, a rejection not of an election, or of a faction within the regime, but rather the rejection of the regime itself, of the Islamic Republic as such? In other words, how much is at stake for the government, and what is the extent of the ambitions of the protesters? Obviously, there are many organizations and motivations at work in the protests, but the question has been (and remains) what is the political direction this uprising is taking, in what direction is it shifting the Iranian state?

The government appears to believe that the protests are increasingly moving from more limited concerns regarding the election to encompassing a broader and completely unacceptable challenge to the system itself, and more significantly, and that they are making this a self-fulfilling prophecy. The regime has consequently become increasingly united in its response to the protesters. After initially suggesting that a recount was necessary or possible, the regime appears to have fallen back on the position that the election was above-board and must be defended at all costs. At this stage, the actual election and the political future of Mousavi appears to be almost beside the point. The violence yesterday suggests that we have moved beyond the phase in which some sort of climbdown from the government regarding the election would seriously address the dynamics fueling the protests, particularly since the government has taken the election results essentially off the table.

The more significant sign of a circling of the government wagons is the reported show of support for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by the so-called “Assembly of Experts,” an 86-member clerical committee in the “holy” city of Qom that has some degree of oversight on the activities of, and essentially appoints, the supreme leader of the vilayyat e-faqih. There were strong indications that former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — widely considered to be the most influential figure in what might be called a “moderate” wing of the regime, or alternatively the “old-guard” of revolutionary elites as opposed to the new class of Pasdaran, military and intelligence elites supposedly tied to Khamenei and represented politically by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — was attempting to use the civil unrest to try to undermine Khamenei?s position in the Assembly of Experts and essentially remove the supreme leader. Indeed, it’s entirely possible to read the Mousavi-Ahmadinejad election as a proxy battle between an odd coalition of old-line conservatives and reformists cobbled together by Rafsanjani versus Khamenei?s increasingly entrenched and military-centered power base. Their personal and political rivalry has been a subtext of a great deal of Iranian political maneuvering for at least 15 years, but appears to have reached something of a decisive turning point.

If it’s true that the Assembly has issued a statement of support for Khamenei, it would appear that Rafsanjani, if there was any truth to the speculation about his intentions, has essentially been (again, and perhaps finally and decisively) defeated, and, for whatever reason, the highest level of the regime has rallied around the conservative ultra-right led by the supreme leader and his agent, the president. This scenario fits rather nicely with the news today that Rafsanjani’s daughter and at least three other members of his family have been arrested for taking part in “illegal demonstrations.” It would strongly appear that Rafsanjani’s efforts to use the election, and now the protests, to unseat his long-time rival have not only failed, but that they have exhausted themselves, and that, for the time being, efforts to undermine the authority of the supreme leader from within the regime are all but crushed.

Whatever details are confirmed when the full facts are revealed in time, it now seems clear that not only have events overtaken the issue of the election, but that any sense that one faction in the regime can successfully use the momentum and dynamic of the protests to force a change in leadership, especially at the supreme leader and Assembly of Experts level, is also now, it would seem moot (a report to the contrary from al-Arabiyya notwithstanding). It would seem, from the outside and in a (possibly vain) effort to cut through the fog of confusion and the overdetermined nature of these extremely dramatic developments that are almost certainly unfolding outside of anyone’s control, that we have now entered what can only be seen as at least potentially a revolutionary situation in Iran. I wouldn’t have said this until the bloodshed yesterday and the reported political developments regarding the upper echelons of the elite, but it strikes me that the regime is now united around upholding the election results, and therefore also around the power of the supreme leader and the legitimacy of President Ahmadinejad. It has made it clear that it regards the protests as a direct challenge to the regime itself, and the political system of the Islamic Republic, and not a challenge to one, isolated fraudulent election, or to a single, grasping political faction. The difference is all-important, for it means that either the protesters give up, and go home and accept the election results and Ahmadinejad?s victory, or they press forward on the terms now outline by the government itself, which has in effect declared the situation to be a conflict between the system itself and the protesters.

Having opted for an all-or-nothing approach to this outpouring of dissatisfaction, it seems to me that the regime has given popular discontent and all parties involved in the process little choice but to view the matter in the same light. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that an electoral recount or other half-measures would suffice to address this dissatisfaction, or that the regime can manage a shakeup at the highest levels on its own terms. The regime of the Islamic Republic has recoiled into its shell like a snail in the rain, and this simply hoping that it all stops as soon as possible. The Eastern European, “velvet revolution,” internal regime reform in the face of public outrage option seems to have been foreclosed, at least for the time being. It seems extremely unlikely that the Iranian people are going to be put off by police brutality or other forms of violence.

Two crucial questions remain to be answered in the coming days and weeks:

1) Is there a stomach among the population for a confrontation with the system itself, and a revolutionary spirit to match the revolutionary situation that has unfolded? Are Iranians really ready for another major domestic political upheaval? Can the regime simply tough it out until the protesters become exhausted, dispirited or too internally divided to press on?

2) If there is sufficient revolutionary sentiment to realize the potential of what is plainly a revolutionary situation, is the opposition too fragmented and contradictory to take advantage of it and unseat the regime once and for all? Or, will the regime have sufficient support to fend off a challenge from a fragmented and fractious opposition that will undoubtedly include many organizations and individuals with conflicting motivations?

If the regime is going to collapse, both Iranian history and other analogous situations such as the fall of communism in Poland (and elsewhere), suggests that this is likely to be a slow, spiraling process in which centers of opposition beyond street demonstrations spring up in unexpected and unanticipated locations, ebb and flow, and eventually coalesce around a central set of themes and personalities as yet probably unpredictable. Factors such as general strikes, non-cooperation with the government at various levels, defections of officials and clerics, and a unifying rhetoric uniting a very disparate set of opposition forces would all be indispensable features of such a process. The regime is hunkered down for the long haul, and the opposition should be thinking in similar terms.

As for the Obama administration, hands-off is the best policy. After a somewhat shaky start, the President seems to have his foreign policy approach well in hand, applying subtle pressure on the Iranian government and limited support for the protesters (or at least their right to protest and not be killed), without giving the regime in a credible basis for claiming US (or even more ludicrously, British) interference in domestic Iranian affairs. Conservatives always love to blame “outside agitators” for the consequences of their own transgressions. It’s important that the United States doesn’t do anything to provide a credible basis for such claims, as they may be one of the last, best hopes for a regime and the leadership that is massacring its own legitimacy, credibility, and, quite possibly, future.

Roger Cohen pens a great NYT column from Iran

Roger Cohen has written some interesting columns for the New York Times in the past few months, making many points I agree with, and some I do not. But his contribution to tomorrow’s edition written from a smoldering Tehran is his best yet:

"I’d say the momentum is with them for now. At moments on Saturday, Khamenei’s authority, which is that of the Islamic Republic itself, seemed fragile. The revolutionary authorities have always mocked the cancer-ridden Shah’s ceding before an uprising, and vowed never to bend in the same way. Their firepower remains formidable, but they are facing a swelling test."

Worth reading in its entirety.

Another question on the right of return

A reader writes, "If any Palestinians who desire to are not allowed the Right to Return to homelands within the present state of Israel, haven’t the Zionists won? Wouldn’t the Zionists succeed in consolidating a racially supremacist ‘Jewish’ state that maintains Palestinians as second class, minority citizens?” [There was more to this question, but it essentially reiterated these two points.]

I think I dealt fairly thoroughly with the issue of the right of return in a recent posting on the Ibishblog. I’d encourage you and anyone else is interested in my views on the topic to review that, and if you have any specific questions based on that perspective, I’d be happy to entertain them. However, there are aspects to this question that are worth considering.

First of all, I think we simply need to accept the truth of the matter, however unpalatable: the state of Israel is not going to agree to any peace arrangement that involves the mass return of millions of Palestinian refugees into Israel. Anyone who holds out hope for this as a realistic possibility, or predicates their support for any conflict-ending agreement that could actually secure the end of the occupation, is tying their aspirations (and, more significantly, the aspirations, rights and living conditions of Palestinians) to an unachievable objective. I cannot imagine a scenario in which Israel would agree to effectively dissolve itself, which is what the mass return of millions of refugees would entail. If Palestinians were to make that a dealbreaker, then they would not be open to an achievable peace agreement, instead preferring occupation and conflict for the foreseeable future. The same applies to the Israeli position on Jerusalem, which is a sine qua non for Palestinians.

These are bitter pills for both to swallow on either side, but the political realities are such that there are deep-seated and in many ways legitimate aspirations that simply cannot be secured because one party considers them irreconcilable with their fundamental national interests. It is essential that any peace agreement correspond to the minimal national interest requirements of all parties, and any vision of the future that does not acknowledge these national interests in a serious way is not a serious vision and does not participate in what is called the real world.

The reader asks whether accepting this would mean that, "the Zionists have won?" I think this is a very anachronistic and reductive way of looking at the problem, although it is true that I think that the 1948 war demonstrates the effective limitations of Palestinian national aspirations. I would add that the 1968 war and its aftermath until the present day demonstrates the effective limitations of Israeli national aspirations, and that a healthy understanding of both of these limitations produces support for a two-state agreement that ends the occupation and allows for Palestine to live alongside Israel in peace and security. However, even though there will be people on both sides who will declare that a reasonable agreement means, in effect, that the other side "has won," the whole purpose of negotiations, an agreement, and developing a more healthy attitude on all sides towards the conflict means transforming a zero-sum equation into a win-win dynamic. Israel has much to gain from such an agreement, and faces grave dangers if it is not secured. Palestinians have much to gain, as well, and face a grim future if it is not achieved. Although such an agreement would not resolve all outstanding problems, grievances and issues, it would succeed in ending the occupation and the conflict, and would allow both peoples to go forward outside of the context of occupation and warfare. Maximalists on both sides will declare the other side victorious, but in truth, both parties, and all the peoples of the Middle East, and certainly the United States, will be winners in the sense that their immediate circumstances and long-term prospects will have greatly improved.

One final point: I don’t think that this agreement would necessarily mean that Israel will always be treating its Palestinian minority as second-class citizens. However, in the context of a two state agreement, relations between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis will be a matter for the political system in Israel, the law courts, and other measures through which Palestinian citizens of Israel can seek to secure full legal and political rights within that state. Netanyahu’s efforts to force Palestinians to declare their recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" is a red herring, and a brand-new demand that has not been heard since Palestinian-Israeli negotiations began in 1993. Obviously, it will be up to Israel to define itself, as it does. This includes the perspective of Palestinian citizens of Israel, but should be entirely independent of the opinion of Palestine, the PLO, or anybody else. Obviously, there are extreme circumstances in which the domestic affairs of member states of the United Nations become international concerns, such as genocide at the most extreme level, but generally speaking questions of discrimination against minority groups are internal matters, particular to each state and society, and really this is the way that Palestine and Israel ought to approach each other. It is the only possibility for Palestinians and Israelis to achieve anything approaching a healthy relationship, through two states that are equally sovereign and relate to each other through the normal conventions of international relations and diplomacy.

On the political authority of Obama and the role of Hamas

A reader writes, ?After having read your recent FP article, I am left rather perplexed for two reasons,? essentially about the authority of President Obama in the US government, and the authority of Hamas among Palestinians. Thanks for these two questions. Let?s take them one by one, shall we?

Question one:
?First off, you seem to put a great deal of hope upon President Obama’s shoulders. This is problematic as it presupposes the President’s individual agency to bring about a settlement to a 61 year old conflict as well as completely shift decades old American policy. This perspective also completely overlooks the role of entire apparatus which has created and maintained the decades-old policy. Jimmy Carter, the only American president to have done some positive for the conflict and the only who has even attempted the effort, has repeatedly and openly attested to the limitations to which he found himself bound during his years in the White House.?

I think this is pretty straightforward, and is based on a misunderstanding about my perception of what is driving US policy in the right direction. There is no question that President Obama is firmly in the driver?s seat, directing policy according to his own judgments. However, and this seems to be what the reader is suggesting, Obama is not operating off on his own tangent or in a vacuum of support. In fact, Obama?s policy transformation of US policy on the occupation and the settlements, and the centrality to American interests of creating a Palestinian state, reflects a broad consensus that has been developing over the past two years in the American foreign policy establishment generally. As I touched on yesterday, this includes many Jewish-American members of Congress and other influential figures who are traditionally staunch supporters of Israel. I completely disagree with the reader?s implication that President Obama is following his own personal judgments and will therefore meet with insurmountable resistance from bureaucrats and other Washington power centers that will thwart his innovations. I think in fact his correctives have been widely welcomed throughout not only the government, but the foreign policy establishment as a whole, I think he is acting with the full support of not only his administration, but a majority in Congress and a majority in the foreign policy community more broadly. It is the resistance to Obama’s policies that is isolated thus far, and while I recognize that Prime Minister Netanyahu was trying to mobilize more support among Jewish Americans to resist the President’s leadership, I do not think he is going to succeed in getting the administration to drop their insistence on an effective settlement freeze.

Question two:
?Secondly, you mention that Obama is going to need help shifting Israel from its current political stance – considering how the current leadership has taken the already-bludgeoned peace process to a further halt, do you really think any shift within its policy will suffice for grounds for talks to begin? And what of the elected representatives of the Palestinians – Hamas? By completely ignoring the role of the elected representatives of Palestinians, we are simply subjecting the Palestinians to what has helped exacerbate this conflict: non-representative (also external) Arab parties dictating the Palestinian’s future without taking into consideration their interests. Israel must freeze its settlements and tear down the wall, Hamas must be involved in the peace talks, Israel must recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination if it requires that Hamas recognizes it, and the blockade of Gaza must end. Then we start talking about reliable partners for peace.?

This is somewhat more complicated. I certainly do think that if Israel were to agree to an effective settlement freeze and the Palestinians continue to do what they should on security, permanent status negotiations become the very real possibility, especially under enthusiastic and engaged American leadership. I don’t agree that there is any real possibility of non-representative or external parties dictating Palestine’s future (unless it might be Iran through Hamas, which is a whole other story). There is no question, although many people seem to be somewhat confused on the issue, about what entity is authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people with Israel: the PLO. This is not debatable as a legal or political matter, and there is no Palestinian, Arab or international document whatsoever that does not recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and no document that recognizes any other entity in that role. Even Hamas has never claimed such a thing, although they do call for an alternative and restructured PLO. So, there is no confusion about this, although supporters of the Israeli far-right and supporters of the Palestinian ultra-right like to pretend that there is.

There is, therefore, no legal or political basis or need for Hamas to be involved in permanent status or other national level negotiations with Israel, although there is always a usefulness in parties talking to each other, as they do. Additionally, there is the question of whether Hamas would even want to be involved in permanent status peace negotiations with Israel since they do not recognize Israel, do not accept the goal of a two-state solution, speak only in terms of a 10-50 year “hudna” (or truce) with Israel that is of no interest to any other party, especially the Israelis, and do not recognize any of the agreements or understandings that form the basis for these negotiations. If, in spite of taking all of these positions, Hamas would want to participate in major peace negotiations with Israel, the organization would be effectively schizophrenic, and its positions even more incoherent than we already have seen to date.

The conditions of the Quartet for Hamas to join negotiations and become a plausible interlocutor are also in the Palestinian national interest: that it must recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and disarm, and accept the legitimacy of existing Palestinian agreements. This last point is unshakable, while in effect Hamas could probably go far enough in meeting the first two requirements by irrevocably and clearly accepting the goal of a two state agreement with Israel and by renouncing terrorism, as the PLO did in the late 1980s. That it should take these steps is very much in the Palestinian national interest, since Palestinian national goals such as ending the occupation and achieving independence can only be secured through an agreement with Israel, and as long as Israel has plausible grounds for refusing to talk to a major Palestinian political party, it serves as a liability with regard to achieving independence and freedom.

Moreover, in all likelihood the Hamas leadership understands that an end to the occupation and independence is the most ambitious agenda that the Palestinian national movement can seriously pursue under the present circumstances. If they do understand this, then the only way in which their approach makes any sense whatsoever is that it is being primarily driven by the aim of replacing the PLO as the main Palestinian national political entity. To do so, Hamas must continue to outbid the PLO at all levels of Palestinian nationalism, since it cannot achieve domestic political primacy based on religious fanaticism alone (which is not a path to power among the Palestinian majority). It must yoke its ultraconservative agenda with a nationalist agenda in order to move beyond its rather limited base of core support among the Palestinian religious-right. In my view, everything that the organization has done in recent years should be viewed through the lens of its ambition to marginalize and effectively eliminate the PLO, and establish itself as the “address” for Palestine regionally and internationally, since that?s the only way their behavior makes any sense at all. If it is ever able to succeed in doing this, it will probably mean the elimination of the Palestinian cause as a viable political project. If the Palestinian national movement becomes indistinguishable from a broader Islamist agenda, its potential to succeed in producing any useful or politically worthy results will be effectively foreclosed.

Finally, there is the question of the 2006 election. The reader refers to Hamas as “the elected representatives of the Palestinian people,” which is not entirely false, but also misleading in its formulation. First of all, as noted above, it is the PLO which is empowered to negotiate with Israel, and that authority is not derived from or subject to elections, although most people agree that any permanent status agreement should be the subject of a broad-based referendum among both Israelis and Palestinians. Therefore, winning a majority in the 2006 parliamentary election does nothing to affect who is authorized to negotiate for Palestinians with Israel. On the question of Palestinian government, there were, in fact, two recent elections, not one. In January 2005, following the death of Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas was elected president (which gives him in fact authority over foreign policy) with 63% of the vote. One year later, in January 2006, Hamas-backed candidates won a parliamentary majority with 44% of the vote. That means that Palestinians elected one party to the presidency and another to the Parliament, producing a divided government. Therefore, to say simply that, “Hamas is the elected representative of the Palestinian people” is only half the story, at best.

By the way, Abbas? term expired in January of this year, but according to Palestinian law, the president remains in place until a new president is chosen through a new election, which has not yet happened. One of the only things that Fateh and Hamas negotiators were able to agree in their numerous negotiations in Cairo was that new presidential and parliamentary elections should be held in January, 2010. It’s obviously essential that this election go ahead under almost any circumstances, to clarify the will of the Palestinian people as to their elected government. However, to pick and choose which election one recognizes, who is legitimate or not legitimate based on which election result one likes, or anything similar isn’t particularly credible, and friends of Hamas are as guilty of this as Western governments have been. I have to say, I’m somewhat of a loss to understand the appeal that Hamas has for many people who ought to know better, and I have much more to say on this subject in the future.

Peace with no shticks, no tricks

It’s been well over a year since I began to explain to anyone who would listen to me that there was a sea change in attitudes towards the occupation and the settlements under way in Congress, including and especially from some crucially placed Jewish-American members who are traditional staunch supporters of Israel. For a long time, this was met with derision and skepticism. Following the Feb. 12 hearing of Gary Ackerman’s House International Relations Subcommittee into the Gaza war, and subsequent developments surrounding the Obama administration’s strong push to change Israel’s policy on settlements, these changes become more apparent to many people. Israeli press reports held that Netanyahu and his delegation were "stunned" to find that the firm American position on settlement expansion was not only consistent throughout the administration, but extended to key members of Congress who, in the past, could have been relied upon to support the Israeli government stance. I wasn’t surprised, but a lot of people I know are still struggling to internalize this transformation.

This pattern is essentially intensifying, with language that heretofore would have been considered unthinkable coming from friends of Israel who understand that Netanyahu’s approach to settlements is neither in the Israeli nor the American national interest. Harold Meyerson’s column in the Washington Post yesterday quotes Ackerman as stating categorically that, "having children can’t be an excuse to expand a settlement. Neither side should be expanding beyond its perimeters or attacking the other side. No expansions, no how, no way, no shticks, no tricks." This language not only lays out the firm American consensus that settlement activity is unacceptable, it also acknowledges that in the past Israeli governments have tried to play rhetorical games through which settlement growth would continue under some rubric or other that extends the process of transforming the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a manner that does irrevocable harm to the peace process. Ackerman is one of those who has cognizant of both what really might be considered "natural growth" to do with babies, and the past propensity of Israeli ministries, and their possible inclination at the present time, to use such rhetoric in order to conduct significant expansions of settlements territory or populations.

Having friends of Israel who are not hostile to settler babies take the lead in insisting that there be "no shtick, no tricks" from Israel on settlements represents a dramatic transformation of the American landscape on policy towards Israel and the occupation. Supporters of Palestine and Palestinian rights in the United States need to understand both the extraordinary opportunities that arise in this context and the serious limitations of how far it is likely to go. What we are looking at is a burgeoning consensus that the occupation must end in the interests not only of the Palestinians, but also of Israel and the United States. But we are not approaching a situation in which the special relationship between the two countries is undermined, up for grabs or in any sense in play. These are the bookends that define the new space that has opened up on Middle East policy within which friends of Palestine can find extraordinary new opportunities for advancing their goals. It’s still the case that far too many people dismiss or fail to recognize the significance of the transformation in American, and especially Jewish American, attitudes towards the occupation and the settlements. It’s also the case that for a variety of reasons, some activists continue to pursue strategies designed to attempt to challenge or undermine the special relationship, cut aid to Israel, otherwise overreach for implausible goals that will not only squander the present opportunities but also make life more difficult for Jewish-American supporters of the President’s strong stance on settlements and the occupation.

The political ground is shifting under our feet very quickly. Too many Americans most interested in Middle Eastern events — especially Jewish and Arab Americans — continue to think and speak as if it were still the mid-1990s (as the Israeli Prime Minister did last Sunday). However, to operate effectively in what is, whether people like it or not, a quite dramatically transformed political landscape, it is necessary to understand and acknowledge both the changes that have taken place and what can and cannot be plausibly achieved under these circumstances. We have a tremendous opportunity to move forward towards ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, under the leadership of the American President and with the support of key members of Congress, including staunch supporters of Israel. However, those who seek in vain to break the special relationship between Israel and the United States, or to go beyond issues involving the occupation and, rather than supporting the creation of Palestine, begin to challenge the existence of Israel itself, are not only failing to take advantage of the extraordinary new opportunities that have opened up, they are actually undermining the very basis of the new consensus.

It is extraordinary that just as a critical mass in the American foreign policy establishment, including many staunch supporters of Israel, begin to adopt the very positions that Arab-Americans and other friends of Palestine have been advocating for decades (i.e. ending the settlements, creating a Palestinian state, etc.), a significant subsection of Arab-Americans is moving away from those positions, deriding them as insufficient or implausible. This is a striking historical and political mistake, albeit the predictable consequence of extremely unhealthy levels of cynicism and alienation born of years of frustration and disappointment. It is essential that the Palestinian and Arab-American majority that continues to support the aim of ending the occupation and securing a reasonable end of conflict agreement with Israel makes its voice heard loudly and clearly in favor of peace with no shtick and no tricks.

Richard Byrne on Iran and Serbia

This posting from the Balkans via Bohemia blog by Richard Byrne illustrates I think exceptionally well and economically the models for how the current unrest in Iran might unfold building off of the experiences in Eastern Europe over the past 20 years. Well worth your time, as is everything Richard writes.

US-Israel deal on settlements is likely, but who will be giving way?

A deal, or at least a tacit understanding, on the outstanding issue of Israeli settlement activity is likely to be achieved in the coming days and weeks between the United States and Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu essentially dodged the issue in his major policy address on Sunday, affirming that there would be no "new" settlements, but sticking to his government’s position that "natural growth" would continue. On its face, this appears to be a position that is totally irreconcilable with the Obama administration’s firm stance that no new settlement activity, including "natural growth," is consistent with Israel’s Roadmap commitments or the requirements of the US administration. However, since a confrontation on this issue that could bring down the Israeli government over the question of settlements is in the interests of neither party, and would be a very costly diversion from the urgent need to move forward towards opening permanent status negotiations as outlined in the Annapolis agreement, some kind of accommodation has always been probable, as I explained in an earlier posting on Ibishblog.

The real question now is, will this American-Israeli understanding on what kind and degree of settlement activity is to be considered tolerable serve in effect as political cover for Netanyahu to essentially agree to American demands that settlement activity which changes the conditions of the occupation in meaningful ways is unacceptable, or will it be political cover for the Obama administration to essentially give way to Netanyahu’s attempts to secure a back door in the roadmap that will allow significant settlement activity to continue under the rubric of "natural growth?"

The problem is that "natural growth" is defined by many different people in many different ways, and has historically been used by both the settler movement and the relevant Israeli ministries in an extremely broad and expansive way that does not simply reflect internal demographic changes due to new births in the existing population of settlements, but has served as a means of significantly increasing the population and the size of the settlements. As with many other issues involving the occupation, when Israel speaks of "natural growth," it means one thing, when almost everyone else means something else. If there is to be an accommodation that allows for some measure of "natural growth" of existing Israeli settlements that is going to open rather than close diplomatic space, is going to have to severely restrict what constitutes "natural growth," and ensure that such activity does not expand the size of the settlements whatsoever territorially and simply accommodates minor demographic changes within the existing populations of the settlements.

Two days ago I was on a radio program (again) with the Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles Jacob Dayan, and he repeated the assertion that what was under dispute were essentially "babies" and "nursery schools." The truth is that neither the Obama administration nor the Palestinian Authority are concerned about babies and nursery schools in the existing Israeli settlements, but are extremely wary of the history of Israeli settlers and ministries using the rubric of "natural growth" to expand the territory and population of settlements in a significant way that threatens both the credibility and the viability of permanent status peace negotiations. However, accommodations for babies and nursery schools might actually be useful in providing the means for Netanyahu to argue that natural growth of settlements is carrying on, when in fact Israel actually undertakes what is, in effect, a real settlement freeze to all intents and purposes.

Signs of activity in securing an understanding are everywhere. Ha’aretz quotes the new Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, as saying that, “there has been some progress made on that front over the past few days. Both parties have expressed their determined will to put an end to this bone of contention, and some novel ideas have been proposed.” According to CNN, “Under discussion, this and another Israeli source said, was a proposal in which Israel would agree to no new settlements, no confiscation of new land and a limit on so-called ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements to allow access to vital services. One of the sources said a potential obstacle was Israel’s position that its laws and other administrative rules precluded it from blocking projects already approved and financed. But both sources voiced optimism some accommodation could be reached that created ‘no new facts on the ground.’"

Other potential aspects of a workable agreement on the issue might include limiting the very narrowly defined scope of allowable "natural growth" to areas within Israel’s unilaterally constructed separation barrier in the West Bank, or other limitations that narrow even further where extremely limited "natural growth" might be permitted. A timeframe limitation is also possible, as is the allowance of the completion of existing construction that is already underway or similar accommodations that would provide political cover to Netanyahu without significantly undermining the American position that settlement activity in effect must cease.

It is also possible that the United States might try to kick-start permanent status negotiations, especially to achieve an understanding on the eventual borders of a Palestinian state, in order to defuse the settlement issue in those areas which it is mutually agreed with the Palestinians that Israel will retain as part of a limited land swap. The Washington Post suggests that, “One option under consideration by the Obama administration would be to expedite Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the borders of a future Palestinian state, the diplomat said. If a deal were to be reached on borders, construction could continue in those areas which would remain under Israeli control.”

This is more than a crucial litmus test of the Obama administration’s ability and willingness to be firm with Israel on the question of a settlement freeze, and to succeed in shifting Netanyahu’s position while possibly providing him some political cover with regard to his ultra-right-wing coalition partners and the settlement movement and its supporters. It is, in fact, the sine qua non for progress in any meaningful sense on peace, since without a settlement freeze Palestinians will have neither the basis nor the confidence for going forward with this Israeli government. This is a hurdle that the Obama administration must overcome, and I have argued strongly in many venues over recent weeks that Palestinians and the Arab states should move quickly to support his position in order to facilitate his efforts to shift Israel on this issue.

The terms of the accommodation, if it is reached, will be quite obvious. It will become clear whether Netanyahu is formulating a face-saving way of accepting American requirements, or whether the Obama administration has in effect retreated from its insistence on a settlement freeze. The signs are very promising that the administration is going to insist that it is Netanyahu and the Israeli government that will have to accommodate the American position, rather than the other way around.