Monthly Archives: September 2009

“Moral courage” queen Irshad Manji is a racist, a hypocrite and an ignoramus

It is an outstanding spectacle of hypocrisy to watch Canadian author, tv personality and huckster Irshad Manji making the rounds on American television talking about "moral courage." Her proponents describe her as some sort of courageous Muslim reformer, and most of her critics attack her as an Islamophobe, but I think she is neither. Her claim to be a reformer, or even a critic, are incompatible with the fact that she simply knows virtually nothing about Islamic theology, history or civilizations. The woman is an ignoramus, pure and simple. However, I would argue that she cannot reasonably be called an Islamophobe if that word is to have any meaning, since she has a lot of positive things to say about the religion, the prophet, the Quran, etc., and especially since she continues to identify religiously as a Muslim herself. However Manji is, in fact, a rather crude and vitriolic anti-Arab racist, and on those grounds watching her parading around the media talking about moral courage is perfectly outrageous.

Manji’s book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (St. Martin’s, 2005), as its title suggests, poses a simple question: what’s the trouble with Islam today? And it provides a simple answer: the Arabs.

Manji knows little, and did not bother to find out much, about her main subject when she sat down to write a book about Islam. In a manner similar to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Manji bases much of her critique on wild, grossly inaccurate generalizations about Islam, and extrapolates from her own personal experiences to construct a generalized, and absurdly and offensively reductive, model of supposedly “Islamic” mentality, practices, attitudes, etc. Not only does this frequently dispense with any distinction between culture and theology (actually what both of these woman do is employ these distinctions sometimes and dispense with them at others according to whim and expediency), it obliterates the heterogeneity of Islam as a social text and replaces it with an imaginary unity, which is generally negative.

Unlike Hirsi Ali, however, Manji does not turn her back on Islam completely. Instead, she seeks to recuperate it, at least in part, by identifying the source of “the trouble with Islam today.” Manji’s wretchedly written and annoyingly conversational book (reading it sometimes feels like getting hectored by an overconfident, belligerent and tipsy teenager) crosses the line when it comes to stigmatizing the Arabs.

She blames most if not almost all of the “trouble with Islam” on the Arabs and their culture. To underline this point, she almost compulsively refers to “desert Arabs,” “desert culture” and “the desert culture of Arabia.” Her obsession with sand – the vast majority of Arabs of course not being desert-dwellers or nomads – can really only be understood as part of an effort to create an aura of barrenness, harshness and desolation and to thereby suggest that the Arabs come from not only a physical but also a cultural and moral space that is devoid of anything good.

Using this imagery of the desert as a barely veiled and often overt code for Arabs and their culture, Manji engages in the most blatant anti-Arab racism imaginable, which may well account for the otherwise inexplicable popularity of her book in some quarters.

First of all, the Arabs are aggressors, spreading a corrupt and irredeemable version of Islam around the world. According to Manji, Arabs have used Islam to “colonize” the other Muslims. “Seems to me,” she writes, “that in Islam, Arab cultural imperialists compete with God for the mantle of the Almighty.” The veil, for example, is “a brand victory for desert Arabs.” In this way, Arabs have forced their own cultural degradation on the other Muslim peoples, forcing millions to “parrot the desert peoples,” and propagating “myths [that] have turned non-Arab Muslims into clients of the Arab masters.” “Who is the real colonizers of the Muslims,” she asks, “America or Arabia?" She even refers to “Arab-occupied Sudan.”

Manji seems to think that all Arabs live in conditions defined by nomadic Bedouin tribes, and that this is the source of most of the main problems facing the over one billion Muslims around the world:
…Muslims are a community brought together by faith in God. Everyone says we are. We believe we are. We must be. Suppose we’re not. Suppose we’re not really joined together by faith in God but by submission to a particular culture. Could it be that Islam, even of the passive sort, is more a faith in the ways of the desert then in the wisdom of the divine, and that Muslims are taught to imitate the power dynamics of an Arabian tribe, where sheikhs rule the roost and everyone else chafes under their rule?

Saudi Arabia, which she calls a “cauldron of duplicity,” according to Manji, “has mastered the art of colonizing Muslims.” Since the Arabs are, she apparently feels, innately or irredeemably backward, corrupt and tyrannical, as well as closed-minded, “as the Arab mind has become addled, so has the Muslim mind – as all Muslims must walk (or hobble) in lockstep with the initial followers of the faith.” Apart from the incredible notion that one-fifth of humanity shares something that can be in any meaningful sense called “the Muslim mind,” this passage holds “the Arab mind” (also a preposterous concept) responsible for any problem that might be identified with Muslim cultures around the world.

Oppression of other faiths by Muslims around the world? Fault of the Arabs: “Maybe it’s the desert mind-set that manufactured dhimmitude, the systematic repression of Jews and Christians in Muslim lands.”

Oppression of women in non-Arab Muslim societies? Fault of the Arabs: "And maybe the desert personality of Islam is why the rape of a woman in Pakistan can be made to compensate a dishonored clan, even if that clan’s honor was violated not by her but by someone else“ (even though such practices are completely unknown in any Arab society).

Lack of equality and democracy in Muslim societies? Fault of the Arabs: “Let me propose this much: equality can’t exist in the desert, not if the tribe’s integrity is to remain intact.”

Anti-Semitism among east Asian Muslims? Fault of the Arabs: “Mahathir has betrayed his own susceptibility to Arab influencers by holding Jews responsible for Malaysia’s currency crisis.”

Rise of Islamists in east Asia? Fault of the Arabs: “Desert Islam is also encroaching on Southeast Asia.”

Lack of reform in Islam? Fault of the Arabs: “this intellectual renaissance eroded under anti-colonialist rhetoric and the political pressures for Arab solidarity, which meant rejecting all things Western.”

A supposed lack of spiritual sophistication among Muslims? Fault of the Arabs: "A God, that is, who’s will you can’t predict. Too preposterous a thought for most Arab Muslims?”

She also holds the Arabs to be completely racist against other Muslims, telling a most implausible and unverifiable story about an Arab Muslim student who tells some Pakistanis they are not “real Muslims” because they are not Arabs. She goes on to describe another student who wanted to dissent from “Arab central command” and deal with “the Arab racism within her club.” To top this all off, she presents one of her observations as “another barometer of Arab hypocrisy,” as if that were a congenital condition of an entire people, or a category of hypocrisy all its own.

All trouble, real or imagined, “with Islam” in Manji’s account boils down to one central negative influence: the Arabs. Everything is their fault. Manji has virtually nothing positive to say about not only the Arabs in general or their culture (about which she seems blissfully ignorant) and almost nothing positive to say about any individual Arab either.

Moreover, according to this breathtakingly racist account, the Arabs contributed almost nothing positive historically either. Manji holds that Arab culture (which, she does not seem to realize and certainly never acknowledges gave rise to Islam in the first place) had infected the faith with its corruptions from the outset:
Isn’t it also plausible that Arab warriors, more familiar with their sturdy customs and with their novel faith, grafted many of these customs into the Islam they exported? It’s not hard to see how the cultural baggage of desert Arabs, such as tribal walls, would pose as Islam proper.

Having corrupted Islam from the beginning, the Arabs also did not contribute anything of note, according to Manji, to Islamic civilization beyond the purely brutal and martial. But with such an inauspicious opening, “what went right?” she asks, in the glorious heyday of Islam when the whole thing was lead by a bunch of vile, backward and despicable Arabs. Her brilliant explanation: having run amok militarily, the Arabs had to turn to others to provide the learning, the culture, the civilization of Islam, they being strictly incapable of such things:
…the realization that absolutism doesn’t bring prestige may be what fired up ambitious emirs to engage the best minds of the day – those of the Jews and Christians, of course, but also those of non-Arab Muslims. It was non-Arabs who created the vast corpus of Islamic law up to and during the golden age.

So the edifice of Islamic civilization was developed without significant contribution by the Arabs, except as rulers, but was created instead by everybody else: Jews, Christians and to some extent non-Arab Muslims. And now, the Arabs singularly stand in the way of Islamic reform: “Can the norms of the desert be dislodged from Islam? If not, we have no hope in hell of reform.”  She asks, rhetorically of course, “Is colonization by desert Arabia the problem [in Islam] we need to help reform?”

Manji’s deep-seated anti-Arab racism is complimented, or rather compounded, by her equally intense philo-Semitism. Indeed, having stripped the Arabs of any claim of credit for the achievements of Islam and Islamic civilizations historically, she points us helpfully in the right direction for whatever credit might be available, asking, “How many of us [Muslims] know the degree to which Islam is a ‘gift of the Jews’?”

Manji complains at length about the extent to which non-Arab and non-Palestinian Muslims are pressured by their religious leaders on the basis of religious affiliation to side with Palestinians in the conflict with Israel. “Arab grudge matches have no business covering Islam,” she writes (as if the problem of the longest military occupation in modern history were simply a grudge).

And, to be sure, many Muslims may feel or have been made to feel bound to side with Palestinians on religious grounds – just as millions of Jews and Christians of various denominations have been religiously coerced into adopting a knee-jerk pro-Israel position. It goes without saying that a religiously-inflected stance on any clash between two competing forms of ethno-nationalism is strictly irrational and invalid. The relative merits of competing claims and forces should be judged by fairly, dispassionately and rationally according to universal standards and through the essential documents the human family has adopted to regulate relations between different states and societies such as the UN Charter, UN Security Council Resolutions and the Geneva Conventions. This standard might not always be easy to achieve, but it is in every way preferable to a default to some automatic affiliation based on racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors.

What Manji does, sadly, is not to rid herself of an irrational attachment to Palestine and the Arabs, and hostility towards Israel and the Jews, on spurious religious grounds, as would be wise and proper, and as every Muslim would be well advised to do. Instead, she inverts this all-too-common error and simply adopts the opposite, equally illogical and indefensible position of an irrational attachment to Israel and the Jews, and hostility towards Palestine and the Arabs, also on completely spurious and emotional grounds. Manji buys into some of the crudest mythology about the origins and history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even referring to “the land the Arabs belatedly minted Palestine,” as if Palestine were somehow an ersatz construction and an Arab plot.

She also has swallowed the lines that Palestinians were made refugees largely because they left at the urging of Arab leaders, that the Arab states bear more responsibility than Israel for their suffering, and that the UN is part of the problem for caring for the refugees.

Manji believes in a weird fantasy version of Israel in which, “As a Muslim, I could become a citizen of Israel without having to convert,” without, of course, explaining how that would work (and if she were a Palestinian, she would be legally barred from moving to Israel even by marrying an Israeli citizen, the only path that otherwise springs to mind).

Her profound ignorance about Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, not to mention the millions of stateless Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, is further evinced by her claim that Israel is “the only country in the Middle East to which Arab Christians are voluntarily migrating.” There is, of course, no mechanism for Arab Christians to “migrate” to Israel.

But then, Israeli forms of discrimination are not only fine with Manji they are justified and laudable:
When it comes to citizenship, Israel does discriminate. In the way that an affirmative action policy discriminates, Israel gives the edge to a specific minority that has faced historical injustice. In that sense, the Jewish state is an affirmative action polity. Liberals should love it.

The problem is that in Israel, its Jewish citizens are not a “specific minority” but a dominating majority that holds and disseminates power in its own interests to the detriment of a 20 percent Arab minority and millions of completely disenfranchised and stateless Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The bottom line is that, for Manji, Israel even as an military occupier and colonizing force is still wonderful and praiseworthy: “Israel, I find, brings more compassion to ‘colonization’ than its adversaries have ever brought to ‘liberation.’”

She even praised the Israeli construction of the separation barrier that snakes through much of the occupied West Bank in an article for the New York Times called How I learned to love the wall.

On the other hand, if there is one group of Arabs that Manji particularly dislikes, it is the Palestinians. In an amazing passage in her book, she recounts going to meet a group of Palestinians including the noted lawyer and human rights activist Raja Shehadeh. After speaking with these Palestinians living under occupation, she decides to discount everything they have to say, which she describes as “the script,” because they focused on the way in which the Israeli occupation has made their lives wretched and needs to end.

After two others have tried in vain to explain to her the problems and hardships of life under foreign military occupation, she remarks that, “Two of the three Palestinians have dutifully delivered their lines,” assuming that these men did not believe a word they were telling her. When Shehadeh too dares to focus on Israeli policies and the problems of living under occupation, Manji marvels at how, “An otherwise robust intellectual would censor himself in front of two compatriots.” In a later passage she complains that, “Raja Shehadeh doesn’t dare venture beyond the hallways of half-truth.”

She gives no consideration to the idea that these Palestinians were in fact telling her what they wanted her to understand, and which she plainly reveals in her book that she does not understand at all, which is that Israel operates a brutal occupation in these territories and has used it to take land away from one people and giving it to another (perhaps the settlements also qualify as “affirmative action” in her mind). Manji proved completely incapable of listening seriously to Palestinians and instead of considering what they had to say about their lives, took the whole thing to be a demonstration of the tyrannical nature of Palestinian society. She has produced a novel (and exceptionally arrogant and mean-spirited) approach to the old art of dismissing and delegitimizing the Palestinian narrative and experience in order to protect Israeli policies from justified criticism.

And this is the individual who now presumes to lecture us all about "moral courage."

A new US perspective on Middle East peace

http://www.commongroundnews.org/article.php?id=26406&lan=en&sid=1&sp=0&isNew=1

Washington, DC – Under US President Barack Obama’s Administration, the United States has vigorously re-engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and made commitment to Palestinian statehood a national security and foreign policy priority. Obama has said that it is “absolutely crucial” to American interests to resolve the conflict, and appears determined to persist despite all difficulties and obstacles.

There are several crucial reasons for this intensification.

First, while the benefits to American interests of ending the conflict have been clear for many years, the substantial costs to the United States of failing to secure a peace agreement are becoming more widely understood. The conflict has become an exceptionally powerful weapon in the hands of fanatics throughout the Middle East, fuelling anti-American sentiment throughout the region. The administration has understood that ending Israel’s occupation would be a singularly effective counterattack against extremism.

Second, the Obama Administration is taking a more holistic approach to retooling the American relationship with the region, compared to its predecessors. Rather than viewing each relationship and problem independently, and dealing with them on a case-specific and usually bilateral basis, this administration understands they are both independent and interconnected.

Third, it has become increasingly clear to many American friends of Israel, including numerous prominent Jewish Americans, that a peace agreement with the Palestinians and an end to the occupation is not only in the United States’ national interest, it is also in Israel’s interest. If it persists with the occupation, Israel can be meaningfully neither Jewish nor democratic, and will not know either peace or regional acceptance. This understanding has allowed many prominent Jewish Democrats, including key members of Congress, to support Obama’s push for an Israeli settlement freeze.

Indeed, Obama’s initial strategy for advancing the peace process was to secure Israel’s implementation of its commitment under the roadmap for peace, issued under former US President George W. Bush, to freeze settlement activity in the occupied territories. Obama was also trying to secure diplomatic gestures from Arab states as a reciprocal move.

Obama met with only partial success on both sides, with Israel reportedly agreeing to a temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank, but not in occupied East Jerusalem. At the tripartite UN meeting between Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders on 22 September, Obama made it clear that he did not accept this proposed compromise on settlements by Israel, but was setting the issue aside for now and moving forward on permanent status talks.

While previous administrations would almost certainly have embraced the proposed Israeli compromise, Obama continues to reject the legitimacy of Israeli settlement activity and has left the issue unresolved.

At his UN General Assembly speech the following day, Obama laid out a number of stipulations for the negotiations that strongly favour the Palestinian position, pledging to “end the occupation that began in 1967″ and insisted, above all, that the status of Jerusalem is to be addressed by new talks.

Including Jerusalem in the talks runs directly counter to Israeli positions and strongly reinforces the Palestinian view that the city must be the capital of any Palestinian state. It is a central question that cannot be ignored. Perhaps even more than settlements, this issue will prove extremely challenging for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially given his coalition partners’ uncompromising stance on Jerusalem.

Ultimately, the main message senior administration officials, including Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are sending is that the administration is “determined” to achieve a two-state peace agreement.

This determination, a willingness to take political hits and keep on going, was evident in Obama’s words at this week’s UN General Assembly meeting when he declared, “…Even though there will be setbacks, and false starts and tough days–I will not waiver in my pursuit of peace.” Any party counting on wearing down, waiting out or chasing this administration away from negotiations must now seriously reconsider its strategy.

Campus Watch are damned liars

This morning it came, quite accidentally but also fortuitously, to my attention that the notorious “Campus Watch” website, overseen by Daniel Pipes, responded to the Ibishblog posting from June 29 entitled, “The Massad tenure case: time for the campus thought police to close up shop.” Campus Watch shamelessly and preposterously denies that it has any intention of having an effect on the hiring and promotion of faculty involved in Middle East studies or who express opinions on Middle Eastern related political matters. Anyone who has visited that site is now fighting the urge to disintegrate into peals of hysterical laughter. It’s a little like a lobbying group claiming to have no intention of influencing policy or legislation. What, pray tell, is it there for, then? Why create this index of offenses and offenders, this virtual blacklist, if not precisely to chill speech and, ultimately, to influence not only academic conduct, but academic hiring and promotion as well? The claim is absurd, and they know it.

But an even more blatant lie, on a more specific but more easily testable matter, is also proffered in this exceptionally dishonest response, to wit:
Demonstrating further that Ibish has neglected to do his homework, he makes the following allegation:
“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…”
Campus Watch’s mission statement has never contained any language pertaining to the ethnic background of Middle East studies professors. Ibish is likely referring to an article co-authored by Norvell B. De Atkine and Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes in 1995, long before Campus Watch came into existence, titled, "Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?" The article examines the benefits and problems associated with the growing number of academics of Middle Eastern origin in the field of Middle East studies, none of them based on racist language or assertions.

In English, we call this a lie. But you need not take my word for it, even though I have this all amply recorded in both my files and my memory. Campus Watch’s initial mission statement is, in fact, readily available through the invaluable “Wayback Machine” which stores images of websites archived by dates. The earliest capture of the Campus Watch site is from October 1, 2002. This incontrovertibly establishes that the initial “about us” section of Campus Watch included the following statement:
Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them. Membership in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the main scholarly association, is now 50 percent of Middle Eastern origin.

It is therefore plainly the fact that Campus Watch’s mission statement did indeed contain overtly racist language pertaining to the ethnic background of Middle East studies professors. It cast the presence of “Middle Eastern Arabs” as a problem in Middle East studies, and bemoaned the fact that MESA’s membership “is now 50 percent of Middle Eastern origin.” Campus Watch’s denials are nothing more than blatant lies, which are easily exposed with a simple click of the mouse. It typifies everything about their approach to their work and their engagement with the academic world.

Which brings us back to the question of tenure. True enough their present site, while plainly designed to chill speech and obstruct hirings and promotions, is chockablock with denials that it intends to do any such thing. But just in case anyone had any doubts that this, too, is a blatant lie, a consultation of the October 2002 website will confirm that its “main goals” were then listed as including the intention to, “Identify key faculty who teach and write about contemporary affairs at university Middle East Studies departments in order to analyze and critique the work of these specialists for errors or biases,” and, “Keep the public apprised of course syllabi, memos, debates over appointments and funding, etc.”

In other words, at its inception Campus Watch made no bones about its intention of identifying “key faculty” with which it disagrees and indeed engaging with questions involving funding and appointments. That they have had subsequently to back off from saying so directly, because this was an effort at overt outside interference in academic questions such as hiring and tenure which should obviously be independent of political bullying by fanatics of any variety, including Mr. Pipes and his employees, does nothing to diminish the very obvious fact that they are continuing with the project they began in 2002. In the end, it is all about compiling a McCarthyite or Nixonian enemies list of “key faculty” and poisoning the atmosphere with regard to their potential funding and appointments.

Anyone who cares about academic freedom and integrity should be delighted at the spectacular degree to which this project has failed, and amused by Campus Watch’s efforts to deny what they not only blatantly and shamelessly do, but also what they used to publicly boast was their founding and core intention.

Obama’s UN speech greatly strengthens the Palestinian position in negotiations

If Netanyahu and the Israelis felt like gloating last night and this morning, that feeling is long gone. President Obama?s speech at the UN General Assembly this morning laid down some very important markers for all parties and committed the United States to a number of principles and positions that are going to make life extremely difficult for any Israeli government that does not wish to cooperate on peace or thinks it is going to get a free ride from this administration. Indeed, in many ways the speech corrected widespread misunderstandings of what happened yesterday in the bilateral and trilateral meetings, and underscored the seriousness of the Obama administration, and the fact that they have neither been deterred nor backed down in any meaningful sense on peace. Most importantly, it greatly strengthens the Palestinian hand in the run-up to permanent status negotiations.

On the major issue that has dominated until now, the settlements, President Obama laid down the following marker: ?we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.? This only underscores what was obvious from what happened yesterday: the United States has kept the settlement issue alive, accepting Israel?s private assurances privately but continuing to insist that settlement activity is not legitimate. This means that (I would argue in marked contrast with what other administrations in the past would undoubtedly have done) Obama has retained the settlement issue as a card to play with Israel in the event of any future crisis. The settlement issue is on hold, but it is by no means off the table, as today?s speech makes crystal clear.

President Obama said today that, ?The goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security ? a Jewish State of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.? This is worth parsing, as he has acknowledged that Israel is a ?Jewish? state, without defining that (and since Israel defines itself, this is pretty well beside the point), but speaks of a Palestinian state that ends the occupation that began in 1967. This anticipates a border conversation that entails less rather than more modifications to the armistice lines of 1949. It is not the kind of rhetoric likely to be pleasing to Mr. Netanyahu, to say nothing of his coalition partners. Even less Israeli-oriented was President Obama?s suggestion that he intends to, ?develop regional initiatives with multilateral participation, alongside bilateral negotiations,? although there might be a way for them to live with that.

But perhaps most pointed were his observations that, ?all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private,? which in the past might have stung Arab eyes more, but at the moment seem very squarely aimed at the Israeli government. That this observation was immediately followed by the point that, ?The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians,? indicates a strong connection between the two thoughts. Under this President, the United States does not intend to allow the strategic relationship with Israel to contradict the strategic need for peace and Palestinian independence. And, in another passage that might have been written in reference to yesterday no matter when it was actually penned, the President affirmed that, ?even though there will be setbacks, and false starts, and tough days ? I will not waiver in my pursuit of peace.?

In my view, almost everything about the President?s speech today vindicates and reinforces the reading of yesterday?s events I advanced in my posting earlier this morning. It?s become more clear than ever that President Obama is not going to drop this issue or back down in the face of Israeli stonewalling on settlements. He?s not going to be dragged into an endless series of dead ends either.

And, it would strongly appear that he has established a framework for setting up permanent status talks that is much more advantageous to the Palestinian than to the Israeli position, especially in the passage in which he promised ?to re-launch negotiations ? without preconditions ? that address the permanent-status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians; borders, refugees and Jerusalem.?

Explicitly including Jerusalem as one of the core issues to be dealt with in the negotiations President Obama is promising to begin in the near future runs directly counter to Israeli positions on the status of this issue and strongly reinforces the Palestinian view that Jerusalem is a central issue that cannot be set aside or ignored. Perhaps even more than settlements, this issue will be extremely challenging for Netanyahu, especially given the attitudes of some of his coalition partners on the matter, to deal with effectively.

By emphasizing the importance of Jerusalem to the upcoming permanent status negotiations, President Obama has greatly strengthened the Palestinian negotiating position and, in effect, sided with it against the Israeli stance. It?s likely that a lot of people will fail to understand the significance of this gesture, but the Israeli government and its supporters, I can assure you, will not be among them.

Obama is doubling down, not backing down, on Middle East peace

Most reactions to the tripartite meeting at the UN yesterday between Pres. Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu and Pres. Abbas were negative, and this is entirely understandable since no one had anything particularly new to say. Reaction in the Arab world was particularly agitated, with many commentators arguing that Obama has "capitulated" to Israel’s position on settlements, and some even throwing up their hands entirely about any possibility of progress under this president. Most Israeli reactions were not particularly more enthusiastic, but Foreign Minister Lieberman did claim vindication for his government’s position in refusing to come to public terms with the United States on a settlement freeze. Most American reactions seem to share the President’s evident frustration with the parties, some sympathetically and some feeling that Obama has been naïve or at least unduly ambitious in his engagement thus far.

It is certainly true that Pres. Obama has been unable to reach a public agreement with the Israeli government on a settlement freeze, but this isn’t necessarily or simply a bad thing. Under the circumstances, it would appear that Netanyahu in practice could not accede to the full scope of American demands that a settlement freeze publicly commit to a longer timeframe and to including all parts of Jerusalem without seriously risking the collapse of his government. His right-wing allies were willing to go along with a settlement freeze limited in time to nine months or so but not one that includes all parts of Jerusalem. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis were prepared to back down, so now, in effect, the Obama administration has decided to move on towards permanent status talks anyway.

One way of reading this is that Obama has backed down, because he is probably not going to be pursuing the issue aggressively in the coming weeks. However, it is equally true that Obama has undoubtedly secured wide-ranging private assurances on settlements from Israel without compromising any of the principles he has laid down. The Israelis may be claiming to have gotten something out of Obama, but in fact Obama has apparently secured significant private assurances from the Israelis without amending his position (the administration never said this was a precondition to permanent status talks) or without pretending that Israel has agreed to something it refuses to agree to.

As in his dealings with the Israelis, Obama has had only partial success with the Arab states. Apparently, some of the smaller Arab states have, like Netanyahu, privately agreed to a partial accommodation of Obama’s position, some reportedly promising a return to the status quo ante sub-recognition diplomatic links involving trade missions and so forth that existed before the second intifada. However, it would seem that new diplomatic overtures from key states such as Saudi Arabia were never going to be forthcoming in connection to a settlement freeze as Obama had been proposing. This reticence, while it might be justifiable on many grounds, has given Netanyahu a certain degree of cover in claiming that he is, at least, not the only party to be only partially agreeing with Pres. Obama’s demands.

What is fascinating is that, having hit a brick wall with his initial proposals, Obama is not, in fact, backing down at all. Rather, he is doubling down on Middle East peace, willing to accept the political price of being defied by both the Israeli government blatantly and the Arab states to a lesser but still significant extent, and is not taking no for an answer. Other administrations would have already accepted the Israeli position as a legitimate and useful one, and congratulated Israel for the 9-12 month settlement freeze, not including buildings already under construction or Jerusalem. Obama has completely refused to do that, but has also not allowed this stonewalling by Netanyahu to torpedo his entire Middle East peace initiative. Instead, he has absorbed the blow, so to speak, and, in effect, called Netanyahu’s bluff by insisting that the parties go forward into permanent status talks anyway. The New York Times today reports that administration officials including the President have assured the Palestinians that these talks will have "clear terms of reference," in other words that the talks will look a lot more like the ones the PLO wants to have been those that Netanyahu will be comfortable with

If Netanyahu was trying to sabotage Obama’s peace initiative at an early stage by refusing to accommodate his demands for a complete and total settlement freeze, then this plan has not been a success, but a failure since the President is insisting the process move forward and pocketing whatever private assurances he has gained from Israel without any public acknowledgment of them. It’s true, and regrettable, that he has not succeeded in achieving his first major goal, but it’s important that President Obama is not letting this deter him from pushing forward, and it’s extremely premature to conclude, as some ideologues on both sides (who don’t want peace talks to succeed anyway) are, that Obama’s initiative has "already failed." The administration might be accused of a miscalculation, but not of a fatal failure.

I think we can be sure that even though there has not been a public accommodation on settlements, there is a private understanding that will mean that beyond what has already been announced (significant though that is), little, if any major, settlement activity will actually be taking place for the next year or two. Moreover, Netanyahu may have been able to stonewall Obama on settlements, but this only intensifies the diplomatic heat he will face going into permanent status talks. And, of course, there is the point of view (which I find extremely plausible) that Netanyahu deeply fears these negotiations because they will demonstrate not only the distance between his position and that of the United States on peace, but also how much closer to the American view the Palestinian one currently is.

The word that is defining the American position repeated by both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in recent days is "determined." They have been carefully sending the message, largely aimed at Netanyahu I think, that they are not going to be stonewalled into giving up on Middle East peace if that is his or anybody else’s intention. I think the administration is counting on the idea that sustained American pressure and engagement will, eventually, pay dividends and that Israeli and Arab leaders can only resist for so long. It would also appear that they are focusing on laying the groundwork for a process they envisage taking a number of years, and they are well aware that the shelflife of Israeli governments is usually quite limited. By refusing to accept Israel’s partial accommodation of his demands on settlements as satisfactory, and also refusing to be deterred in pursuing even broader negotiations that place all the permanent issues on the table, with "clear terms of reference," Obama is demonstrating that he is neither going to back down nor walk away even when the limitations of American influence, in this case on Israel, are publicly demonstrated. He is going to take the hit and keep on coming.

For Palestinians, this is definitely not all bad news by any means. True enough, the United States was not able to secure a complete settlement freeze, and, in all honesty, I don’t think anyone really expected that it could. That the American demand remains on the table, unfulfilled, is definitely useful from the perspective of Palestinian diplomacy. President Obama has made it clear that President Abbas is a full partner in the negotiations he is trying to start, and it seems likely that Palestinians have much more of an interest in moving quickly into permanent status talks, especially if they have clear terms of reference and tackle all the issues seriously and/or simultaneously, than the present Israeli government seems to.

Finally, not only does the Palestinian position seemed to be closer to the US one than Israel’s is, the Palestinians have demonstrated much more cooperation with the Obama approach than Netanyahu has, which is another significantly useful development. In the Arafat era, President Bush, who was keenly interested in personalities and had an instinctual approach to diplomacy, developed a powerful disliking for the Palestinian president that Israel was able to repeatedly exploit to its advantage. The same ought to be true in reverse in this case, not that this is personal or instinctual, but given that the Palestinians are the one party that has really spared little effort to cooperate with the Obama administration so far, this ought to prove extremely useful to them going into permanent status talks.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Palestinians have a clear interest in the resumption of these negotiations, even without the settlement freeze that has been established as a precondition. Of course, critics who are taking an entirely pessimistic perspective are, as always, standing on solid ground — Middle Eastern diplomacy, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian front, offers few historical and political bases for optimism (which I have always warned against anyway). If those critics are right, and even as a hedge against quite possible if not probable failure to develop major progress in the next 12-24 months, the question is: what can Palestinians do proactively and independently of diplomacy and the interests, and even whims and caprices, of the Israelis, Americans and Arab governments?

The answer, quite clearly I think, lies in the proposal advanced by Prime Minister Fayyad’s new government program that Palestinians move quickly and unilaterally towards creating the administrative, economic and infrastructural elements of statehood in spite of the occupation, building "de facto statehood." If anyone is frustrated, and who could blame them, by what happened in New York yesterday, and they don’t have a more serious alternative than Fayyad’s proposals (and I’m not aware of any), they should wholeheartedly embrace his program for unilateral, proactive and constructive institution building towards Palestinian statehood no matter what Israel says or does and no matter what happens at diplomatic meetings in New York or elsewhere.

Why an agnostic and secularist fights for American Muslim rights and against Islamophobia

I received the following question from a reader who follows the Ibishblog on Facebook: "Dr. Hussein, Your advocacy is commendable. As a Muslim, you fight for me. I am just wondering, given your personal belief system, why do you advocate for Muslims?"

First of all, let me say thanks very much for this extremely important and interesting question, which demands both a simple and a complex answer. The simple answer as to why I would fight for Muslim American civil rights and liberties and against Islamophobia and discrimination is because it is right in the abstract. It is important to fight against all forms of discrimination and defamation, but we do so most effectively when it comes to the communities we know best. Those who follow my work will note that I also take a keen objection to anti-Semitism, sectarian intolerance, homophobia and other forms of discrimination sometimes exhibited by Arabs and Muslims, and it is for precisely the same reasons. There are principles at stake here, and they are universal and humanistic.

There is, however, a more complex answer as well. First of all, let us address the question of my "personal beliefs system." I imagine that the reader is referring to my personal religious opinions. I am, and have since I was a very young child (probably around age 6 or 7, believe it or not), been a committed agnostic. This means that I’m skeptical about everything, including all the claims of all major religions and the claims of atheism as well. Without going into any details, I’m convinced that the great metaphysical questions of existence are beyond the comprehension of human beings at both the rational and the intuitive ("spiritual") registers. Indeed, and I’m sure I will be writing about this in more detail sometime, I embrace and celebrate what I have termed "the virtue of doubt," and I agree with my friend the late Edward Said that a secular frame of mind requires skepticism on all matters, especially the trajectory of history which is a genealogy of human choices.

However, these details are another subject for another time. Suffice it to say that since my arrival in Washington in 1998, I have taken every opportunity to make it clear that I am not "a Muslim" as such in terms of religious belief, but rather from the Muslim American community and part of the Muslim American community. This shouldn’t be difficult for anybody to understand, as it’s a simple distinction between private philosophical and religious beliefs and familial, cultural and personal affiliation.

At the same time, I’ve been quite firm in insisting that my agnostic religious beliefs and secular political commitments do not in any way diminish my share of and participation in the legacy and heritage of the great Islamic and Arab civilizations of which I am every bit as much an heir as the most pious of the faithful. Just as my Arab and Muslim heritage doesn’t in any way diminish my American identity or commitment, so too my agnostic persuasion and secular values do not in any way diminish my participation in and commitment to both the Arab-American and Muslim American communities.

And, in truth, even if I wanted to (which I don’t), I could not escape this participation. There is nothing outside the whale. We are all, whether we like it or not, to our fellow Americans simply Arabs and Muslims, with all the negative and (occasionally) positive connotations with which these identities are infused in American popular culture. As a matter of fact, my future and fortunes are inextricably tied to those of my fellow Arab and Muslim Americans, as theirs are to mine, and we have no reasonable option but to respect each other and try to work together to advance common interests in a reasonable way.

Anyone who thinks that an agnostic such as I, or a Christian Arab-American for that matter (unless they are a Bible-thumping evangelical, perhaps, and probably not even then), are somehow immune from or even less affected by Islamophobia, anti-Arab defamation or discrimination on the basis of religious bigotry or ethnicity doesn’t understand how these things work in the contemporary United States. I don’t think there are very many people in the Arab-American community who have been called an Islamist, a jihadist, a supporter of terrorism, anti-American, radical, extremist, an anti-Semite, etc., more than I have been, or in a more public way. Most if not all of the people who have called me this in, for example, major newspapers, or on major television programs, have known very well that not only am I not any of those things, but that I am both agnostic in my religious opinions and secular in my political orientation. It doesn’t matter one bit, of course, since it is our identity and our community, and not our actual opinions or activities, that are often under attack. Again, there is nothing outside the whale.

But, I should emphasize, even if there were, I would not take advantage of that opportunity. We are not just talking, after all, about my own fortunes, but also those of my family and my community to which I have a profound and unshakable commitment. It is simply unacceptable to me that Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans should be defamed, mistreated or discriminated against, or that their rights are violated. This commitment is what brought me to Washington DC in the first place in 1998 to begin working as Communications Director of ADC. Obviously, it’s also what inspired me to write most of what I have written, which has mainly been about Arab and Muslim American civil liberties, rights and defamation, including three very extensive reports on hate crimes and discrimination against Arab-Americans, covering the periods 1998-2001, 2001-2002, and 2003-2007, respectively.

There is one final important point to make: this is also an important expression of my commitment to the United States and to American values. The attack on Arab and Muslim Americans that we have been witnessing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, especially the explosion of Islamophobic hate speech, is an attack on American values of fairness, inclusiveness, equal treatment under the law, religious accommodation, cultural diversity and freedom of conscience. Combating this rash of hate speech, and the discrimination it has inspired, is to defend the most essential elements of what makes this country great. As I noted above, there are many forms of defamation and discrimination facing many different communities in the United States that have to be opposed, however it’s obviously the case that the most effective opposition, because it is the best informed and most motivated, tends to come from or be led by people in the affected communities themselves. It is up to us to join this battle for our own sake and for our country, and for us to do it in an effective and intelligent manner that is productive rather than counterproductive.

In short, the reason why I advocate on behalf of the rights of American Muslims and against abuses and defamation is a combination of personal interests, family interests, community interests and national interests. Under such circumstances, I don’t think that either I or anybody else really has a whole lot of choice in the matter.

The outsourcing of stupidity in the English-language Arab press

One of the more disconcerting features of the English-language Arab press, which now contains a fairly wide variety of daily offerings (none of them particularly impressive yet), is the persistence on the part of several of these newspapers in printing the most ridiculous nonsense, as long as it is written by a Westerner. The most obvious instance of this, which I have complained about before, and in writing, is the positive addiction by whoever runs the Khaleej Times to the extremely idiotic, and often shamelessly anti-Semitic, nonsense spouted by somebody called Karin Friedemann.

On August 30, this newspaper published perhaps her most cancerous pile of garbage yet, in which she exonerates Al Qaeda for the attacks on the US embassies in East Africa and, somewhat more subtly but unmistakably, for the September 11 terrorist attacks as well, and argues that all accusations against it are simply an evil Jewish plot against the Muslims. Her article can only be described as a love letter to bin Laden and Al Qaeda, praising them in every way, comparing Muslims trained by Al Qaeda to Jews trained by the Israeli military, and describing its dead cadres as "martyred saints" with "miraculous healing powers."

Suffice it to say that this article, if you can call it that, is one of the most corrosive, stupid and malicious I have read anywhere in the Arab media, in English, French or Arabic, in many years, if not ever. I very much doubt that, had it been written in Arabic by someone with an overtly Muslim name (this character claims to be some sort of "convert" to Islam, but with friends like that…), that a newspaper such as the Khaleej Times (not to give it too much credit) or similar Arabic language newspapers would have published it. Perhaps a number of years ago, but not today.

As the Arab media has moved away from overt conspiracy theories and, in most cases, the most blatant forms of anti-Semitism, a couple of those that publish in English have found a way to continue to include these malignant ideas with a form of plausible deniability: simply attribute them to someone with a Western name. I’m not suggesting that anyone in these newspapers proactively asks these authors to write such drivel, or that they specifically go looking for this kind of material. I think that rather, they are susceptible to giving credence to what would otherwise be readily identified as the most arrant nonsense if it were submitted by an Arab or a Muslim, as long as it is e-mailed from the United States by someone with a Western background. It’s an extraordinary combination of internalized and externalized racism combining to perpetuate the lowest possible common denominator in contemporary Arab political discourse.

Obviously, this kind of thing and worse, is to be found in the Arabic language media as well. But rarely in this manner or at this level. It takes a character like Friedemann these days in the Gulf to openly, shamelessly and maliciously heap praise and exoneration on bin Laden and Al Qaeda and get published in a well-read newspaper. And, anti-Semitism always goes down better when coming from someone who purports to be from a Jewish background and who is an American. It would be no exaggeration to say that most of what she writes is nothing more than anti-Semitic ranting of the most crude and despicable variety.

No newspaper in the United States or Europe would print this kind of hateful rubbish, not because it is challenging, controversial or edgy, but because it is paranoid, idiotic and an amateurish rehash of classical Western anti-Semitism that is well understood as a caustic form of hate speech (sadly, the same understandings about comparable Islamophobia are not yet as widespread). Yet somehow, and to our shame, she has actually found a regular gig with a known (albeit not major) English-language Arab newspaper. That I’m the only person who appears to be bothered by this, at least enough to say something publically, though I cannot be the only person who noticed it, is extremely troubling.

Another example of precisely the same phenomenon can be found in the current issue of Al-Ahram Weekly (English edition). In it, someone called Jeff Gates offers a substantially more convoluted but no less insidious version of the same ideas. Gates suggests, in an almost amusingly implausible fashion (i.e. it would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic), that Israel was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and indeed for a series of "provocations," arguing that the war in Iraq and the entire American military posture in the Middle East is simply and solely a consequence of evil, deceptive Zionist manipulation by a gang of wicked Jews and their fellow travelers. Again, the anti-Semitism bubbles up to the surface as he concludes his piece by describing Jewish, or at least Zionist, Americans as "this enemy within" (how many times have Muslim Americans in subject to the same calumny?).

Again, I do think that the editors of Al-Ahram at the very least would have thought twice about publishing this article had it been written by an Egyptian, an Arab or an Arab or Muslim American (there is a whole other subject to pursue about this and many other government-funded Arab newspapers aggressively promoting attitudes entirely at odds with the foreign policies of their funders, but this is another subject for another time — and that’s a promise). The fact that it is signed by one "Jeff Gates" is probably a major feature of its attractiveness, and a salient point in explaining how such ridiculous, pathetic and malicious propaganda could make it into a newspaper that generally speaking avoids this level overt hate speech.

When dealing with the Arabic-language media, the situation is more complex, as one is surveying a field that is infinitely broader. However, this kind of nonsense is increasingly unusual, if not virtually eliminated, from the major pan Arab newspapers and is, in spite of what is implied by organizations like MEMRI, hardly the usual fare in all but the most extreme and fringe publications. On the other hand, it does tend to pop up from time to time in one form or another in many publications. The English-language press in the Arab world, in some cases, seems to have found the outsourcing of stupidity to be a solution for keeping these ideas in circulation while imagining that they are employing some form of plausible deniability or, worse still, invoking the supposed inherent authority of Western identity (either way, this is a manifestation of the rampant internalized racism in the Arab world).

The Khaleej Times has actually offered regular platform to a shameless anti-Semite, supporter of Al Qaeda, and certified nitwit. The widely read and Egyptian government-funded Al-Ahram Weekly has seen fit to publish an article that even children would both laugh at and understand is dangerous. I am pretty sure that they would not have published such utter crap, at least at this point in time, if these ghastly articles had been written by someone with an Arab or Muslim name instead of Karin and Jeff. It has all the charm and integrity of desperate resin-scraping, stems and seeds.

A false equivalency of false equivalencies?

I get a lot of interesting responses to the postings on the Ibishblog, but those regarding my last posting on the UN Goldstone commission of inquiry into the Gaza war were particularly revealing. Both Arab and Jewish partisans tend to become enraged by any suggestion of equivalency between Israel and any group of Palestinians, particularly when it comes to conflict, warfare and armed struggle. Indeed, both the Israeli government and Hamas condemned the Goldstone report for the sin of "false equivalency," among other things. Both Jewish American and Arab-American readers have criticized my posting for pointing this out and committing — horror of horrors — a false equivalency of false equivalencies!

One of my regular Arab American readers was particularly upset by my suggestion that there was any kind of parity, even though the logic and the language were absolutely identical, between Israel’s objections to the Goldstone report and those of Hamas. He writes, "Do you actually believe that Israel attacked Gaza because Hamas was insufficiently decorous towards its tormentor? How do you account for the Israeli assault following a period of calm from Hamas? And why on earth would you spend even one millisecond suggesting that there is anything like parity between Israel’s behavior and that of Hamas?" Taking these three questions one by one: no I don’t think that on the first question; second, I think the chronology of who hit who first depends on who is doing the counting and when they start, however I think we can all agree that Israel is the occupying power and therefore has certain heightened legal responsibilities; and finally I would say that when there are interesting symmetries, for example the indistinguishable logic and language produced by both sides in the Gaza war in reaction to the UN report, that’s worth noticing and it’s meaningful.

On the broader question of the Gaza war and how it started, I’m not going to retrace all the positions outlined by the American Task Force on Palestine as laid out in our numerous commentaries, analyses and congressional testimony on the conflict. Anyone who likes can read them for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. But I would say that since we were able to predict in March of 2008 that the ever-increasing cycle of tit-for-tat violence between Hamas and Israel was leading inexorably towards a major Israeli action, and warned both parties against this cycle, perhaps we were onto something. I’d say overall both parties, against any sound judgment and their better interests, were itching for a fight. That may not include all Israeli and Hamas leaders, but enough of them combined to produce a critical mass of reciprocal violence to make the catastrophic war inevitable.

Throughout 2008, we warned that miscalculations and reckless actions on both sides would produce precisely the results it did produce. That doesn’t mean there is moral, legal or political parity between the two parties, because there are major distinctions between them at all kinds of registers. But it does mean that both of them contributed actively, recklessly and foolishly to a concatenation of circumstances that brought disaster upon the people of Gaza and which could and should have been avoided.

A number of Jewish and pro-Israel voices have similarly, but more privately, objected to my "false equivalency" in pointing out that the Israeli and Hamas responses to the Goldstone report were indistinguishable. People on both sides are convinced that their friends are the victims and the other side the immoral murdering gangsters. Indeed, pointing out this equivalency costs me with all parties, and it doesn’t really win me any friends at all. The Arab-American grassroots doesn’t like it, the Washington-based Jewish organizations don’t like it, and the US foreign policy establishment doesn’t like it much either. That’s not the point. This symmetry in reactions to the Goldstone report is not, in fact, a false equivalency of false equivalencies, it is a very telling parallel about the Manichaean and absolutist perceptions on both sides and the degree to which neither party to the Gaza war felt or feels constrained by basic rules of conduct or standards of responsibility pertaining to armed conflict. That’s a point worth making.

Arab-Americans like the reader who complained in the above quote will be outraged that I dared to draw a parallel between the occupier and the occupied. Jewish and other Americans who complained privately to me will be outraged that I dare to compare the government of Israel to a State Department designated terrorist organization. In fact, I haven’t compared either to the other. I have simply pointed out that at one register the two parties share a certain set of attitudes that helps explain how the Gaza war occurred when people like those of us at ATFP could see it coming more than 8 to 10 months in advance, and could also predict that it would be devastating to the people of Gaza and not advance the interests of either Israel or Hamas. This means that we are talking about a process that spiraled completely out of control. Recognizing and reflecting on the mirror-image reactions to the Goldstone report, perhaps, helps begin to explain how that happened when the disastrous consequences, both humanitarian and political, were quite obvious in advance.

For the record, let me state that interesting symmetries and parallels aside, the most salient feature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the radical asymmetry at its heart between an occupied and dispossessed people who are, at best, lightly armed, and a major nation-state with one of the world’s most powerful militaries and myriad additional resources and international support. If there were more symmetry of coercive power between the two parties, the conflict would probably already have been resolved. But I don’t think my reminding people that this is of the core of my entire analysis of the conflict and its resolution is going to mollify anyone.

What people object to is the notion of moral equivalency, when they are convinced that one side is moral and the other side is not moral. I definitely believe that the occupation is immoral and that the struggle to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state is a just one. But I think it is unrealistic to divide societies into good people and bad people, and assume that the ends justify the means or that the cause defines the morality of anyone and everyone on both sides, including during conflict. I demand the right, and I think everyone has the moral responsibility, to retain the capacity for critical judgment in spite of a moral and political affiliation with a certain cause (in this case, the cause of Palestinian liberation and national rights). If that commitment translates into an assumption that everything Palestinian is by definition moral, or more moral, than everything Israeli, which is by definition either immoral or less moral, or that one cannot agree with Judge Goldstone that both parties in a conflict violated the rules of war, or that they contributed to an unnecessary conflagration which benefited no one, then it is demanding an inadmissible suspension of independent thought and rational judgment.

This isn’t a false equivalency. It’s a correct equivalency: human beings should all be held to the same standards of moral conduct, especially when it comes to armed conflict, whether we believe their cause is just or not. That is a true equivalency of a true equivalency.

Israel and Hamas respond to the Goldstone report with the same logic and language

Israeli President Shimon Peres issued a statement in response to the UN commission of inquiry into the war in Gaza which found that both Israel and Hamas had violated the laws of war in their conduct and which recommends further inquiries and possible criminal investigations.

Peres’ logic is crystal clear: "War itself is a crime. The aggressor is the criminal. The side exercising self-defense has no other alternative." Then follows a list of largely true specific accusations against Hamas about its use of violence and its extremism. The statement allows no possibility that Israeli forces might be nonetheless subject to the laws of war, that its soldiers might nonetheless have committed war crimes with or without political or superior authorization, or that, given his logic, Israel is bound to respect the laws of war in its response to "aggression." All of these are preposterous notions, even if one were to accept his fundamental proposition that Hamas is simply an aggressor and Israel is simply a victim acting in self-defense. It is extraordinary, and every reader should take note that there is not a word in Pres. Peres’ statement that acknowledges that in acting in what he claims is simply self-defense, there are any limits to Israel’s actions or any need for accountability whatsoever.

Of course, Israel’s posture in the occupied territories, and there is no question legally and factually that Gaza remains under occupation, cannot in any sense be described as self-defensive, with hundreds of thousands of settlers and thousands of heavily armed forces operating outside of its borders in violation of Security Council resolutions and the Geneva Convention. Under no formulation can that posture be framed as "defensive." And obviously, whether a party believes it is acting in self-defense or not (and almost no one ever goes to war without believing or claiming that they are acting in self-defense), all are still bound by the laws of war and Judge Goldstone’s report holds both Israel and Hamas properly to account, within the limited means at its disposal, for their abuses.

But what is even more disturbing about Pres. Peres’ miserable response to the measured and balanced findings of Judge Goldstone and his colleagues, in spite of a complete lack of official Israeli cooperation with his necessary and appropriate inquiry, is that its logic is fundamentally indistinguishable from that employed by the most extreme elements in Hamas, at least in terms of the logic of conflict. Is it not readily imaginable to picture Mishaal, Zahar, or any leader of the Izzedin Al-Qassem Brigades thundering into a microphone on television that, "War itself is a crime. The aggressor is the criminal. The side exercising self-defense has no other alternative," and then following up with a bill of particulars against Israel no less shocking and no less accurate than Pres. Peres’ self-serving indictment of Hamas? Indeed, is this not the logic, and its implicit corollary that under such circumstances those acting in self-defense are no longer accountable for their behavior, that underlies and rationalizes the most extreme actions by Palestinian militants including suicide bombings and rocket attacks?

It is noteworthy and extremely significant that the leaders of Hamas and the so-called "Islamic Jihad" organization have rejected the report as vehemently and angrily as Israel’s leaders. According to the Jerusalem Post, "a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip expressed astonishment because the report had failed to distinguish between the ‘aggressor and the victim,’" while Pres. Peres’ statement, in indistinguishable language, complains that the report, "fails to distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right for self defense." Both Israel and Hamas apparently feel that they are acting simply in self-defense, and that as such they are not accountable for their actions and are not obliged to obey the laws of war. Obviously, both parties are wrong, and Judge Goldstone and his colleagues are right.

My colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine warned repeatedly and in writing, in March and June of 2008, that both Israel and Hamas were heading towards a disaster, and that if those firing rockets from Gaza into Israel persisted, Israeli leaders would find themselves unable to resist a wide-ranging military assault on Gaza which would primarily kill and devastatingly affect Palestinian civilians, be entirely counterproductive to both Israel’s and Hamas’ interests, and prove disastrous for the people of Gaza. It has given us no satisfaction whatsoever to have been proven right on all these counts.

Interesting responses from readers on 242, and my replies

The Ibishblog has received some very interesting responses to my recent posting on Security Council Resolution 242 and its successor resolutions and one-state advocacy, and the logical conndrum of both relying on and fundamentally opposing its internal logic.

One careful and astute reader suggests the following way out: “what if the one state advocate relies upon the 4th Geneva Convention rather than UN 242? If I remember correctly, the former forbids the transfer of a state’s population to an occupied territory, period. No one questions that Israel is now a state, nor would most have trouble recognizing that it has occupied Gaza and the West Bank, without any reference whatsoever to 242. Now we have a basis for ending the occupation which commits us to precisely nothing re our attitudes towards Israel’s legitimacy going forward.”

It’s a nice try, but it doesn’t hold together. The problem is one perforce relies on 242 in order for the Fourth Geneva Convention, which the reader characterizes perfectly accurately, to be applicable in the occupied Palestinian territories in the first place. Otherwise, there would be, as Israel claims, a dispute and not an occupation, and the applicability of the Geneva Convention would be a matter of opinion rather than a matter of fixed international law.

There are scores, probably hundreds, of circumstances around the world in which an ethnic or sectarian group claims to be under the “occupation” of some member state of the United Nations. As far as I can tell, only three of these are so designated by the Security Council under any reading, the most clear-cut case being the occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights (the other two more murky instances being Western Sahara and Cyprus). In such cases the applicability of international law protecting civilians living under foreign military occupation is clear-cut and indisputable, and continuously causes Israel discomfort and diplomatic difficulty. Indeed, the entire Arab and Palestinian case against the occupation is based on this. If you remove the international legal designation of the occupation in Palestine by shifting away from 242 to something else, that Geneva Convention becomes essentially irrelevant.

Because the Geneva Convention relies on 242 as a predicate which establishes as an indisputable fact that this is an occupation and that Israel is bound by the limitations placed by the Convention and other instruments on occupying powers (Israel’s dodge is to say that it isn’t an occupying power, but it does respect the Convention’s limitations, even though it does not), dispensing with 242 means that the Convention may well not apply at all to this situation. Certainly, Israel’s case that it doesn’t would be infinitely stronger, and it would be a matter of opinion rather than a matter of law and fact.

Another esteemed reader questions the utility of 242, writing: “Even if I stipulate that 242 is somehow a legally binding resolution (which I do believe it is), the failure of the international community to enforce 242 seems to me to fundamentally devalue, or even entirely dissolve, its merits. What good is a law that is never enforced, or is enforced in an inequitable manner, such has clearly been the case with Israel and 242? How valid or useful is this law, in practical terms? If we determine that 242 is essentially void of practical or practicable merit, then does this cascade down to all the subsequent legal rulings that you discussed?”

I think these are two separate questions. It’s definitely true that neither plank of 242, which lays out reciprocal obligations of “land for peace” have been realized. Israel has not withdrawn from the occupied territories (land) and its right to exist in secure and recognized borders free from threats and the use of force (peace), and its respect for the same rights of its neighbors such as Lebanon, have not been realized. I don’t think that makes 242 invalid or anachronistic, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once tried to suggest. It didn’t take, and the Palestinian cause dodged a bullet on that one. The whole Israeli political/legal case defending the occupation is based on a rejection of 242, while the Arab case demanding an end to the occupation is similarly based on upholding 242.

Moreover, subsequent Security Council resolutions pursuant to 242 have included numerous extremely important declarations (all made unanimously, including with the support of the United States) such as that Israel’s de facto annexation of Jerusalem is inadmissible and that Israel specifically is required to withdraw from Jerusalem and more recent resolutions explicitly calling for the creation of a Palestinian state (for the first time).

I definitely understand and share the frustration of this reader, and probably most of my readers, friends, and fellow Arabs and Arab-Americans at the failure to realize the requirements of 242 after so many years, indeed decades, of outrageous occupation. But I don’t think it would be right to fail to recognize the political and legal significance of this crucial designation of Israel as the occupying power (something Israel would desperately like to get out of, but thankfully cannot). And it would also be wrong to understand the diplomatic space as static just because a resolution has not been achieved. Only the most cynical and jaded would fail to see the virtue in Pres. Obama’s efforts to secure a settlement freeze from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

All this talk about settlements, indeed the whole idea that the Israeli civilian presence in the occupied territories are settlements in the occupied territories depends entirely on 242. Without 242, it would become very easy to argue that these are simply Israeli civilians living in Israeli towns in some disputed area that is and will probably continue to be under the control of Israel rather than settlers illegally colonizing occupied lands. Personally, I’m extremely uncomfortable with that, to say the least. And, I think, so should everybody else.

But one thing is for sure, you can’t have it both ways. If you accept the logic of 242, then you accept the logic of 242 in toto. Neither the Israeli right nor the Palestinian Islamic right or ultraleft can legitimately pick and choose this bit and that according to their own convenience. Anyone can walk away from this logic, but that means embracing another logic which has to be coherent and explicable. Otherwise, we are simply stuck in the realm of emotions, agendas and slogans.