Monthly Archives: April 2010

Mearsheimer’s unhelpful, unrealistic and disempowering message to the Palestinians

For the past couple of years Professor John J. Mearsheimer has spoken at many Arab and Muslim American events, and in most of them he sensibly urged Arab and Muslim Americans to seek a working coalition with Jewish Americans in favor of a two-state solution. In fact, he has been a strong advocate of a two-state solution. Until yesterday, that is. Speaking at the Palestine Center in Washington, Mearsheimer suddenly reversed himself with astounding claims of prescience bordering on clairvoyance. He flatly declared:
“Israel is not going to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own in Gaza and the West Bank. Regrettably, the two-state solution is now a fantasy. Instead, those territories will be incorporated into a ‘Greater Israel,’ which will be an apartheid state bearing a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa. Nevertheless, a Jewish apartheid state is not politically viable over the long term. In the end, it will become a democratic bi-national state, whose politics will be dominated by its Palestinian citizens.”

As Emperor Joseph II in Peter Shaffer’s delightful fantasy “Amadeus” would have put it, “Well. There it is.”

Unfortunately, his subsequent elucidation yielded little more than an elaboration on this truly impressive parade of certainties, without any particularly illuminating additional insights or assertions. Mearsheimer lists a limited set of four possible scenarios for the future:

1) A two state solution, which he affirms is the best option for both sides but dismisses on the grounds that the Israeli public will never accept it and no Israeli government can agree to it. Moreover, the Israel lobby will prevent any American president from exercising sufficient pressure to force it from the outside. Furthermore, the Palestinians are badly divided.

2) Israeli ethnic cleansing on a greater scale than in 1948 and 1967, but which he thinks is extremely unlikely except under conditions of extreme Palestinian violence. Even then, he is skeptical that Israel would take such steps.

3) The emergence of a fully-fledged apartheid system in a greater Israeli state, complete with a Palestinian semi-autonomous but not independent bantustan, which he thinks is the only possible short and medium-term outcome. However, this openly apartheid system will fail because the world will recoil at such discrimination. Since it would be antithetical to Western values it will alienate the West, and it will make Israel a strategic liability for the United States. Moreover Israel will lose the support of most Jewish Americans, who cannot and will not support an openly apartheid state, and will be alienated by the growing religious orthodoxy of the Jewish Israeli population.

4) A democratic one-state solution, dominated by a Palestinian majority, is therefore the inevitable long-term outcome, because the inevitable mid-term apartheid system will prove unsustainable.

That’s a lot of inevitables for a so-called realist and a professor of political science, is it not?

In my view Mearsheimer misses at least two of the most obvious and plausible scenarios for the medium-term, in a manner that suggests he doesn’t really understand the conflict in a very complex way (actually, that’s kind of obvious). The first is the prospect of continued occupation or, as he would put it, the emergence of a fully-fledged apartheid state, resulting in an ever-escalating series of violent conflicts increasingly characterized by religious fanaticism. Indeed, he discusses the rise of religious fanaticism among Israelis as part of his evidence for why Jewish Americans will abandon Israel in the future, but leaves out the rise of Muslim extremism among Palestinians. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand and have created the most potent and dangerous alternative scenario to peace, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of this powerful dynamic, although he vaguely cautions against violence. At present, the Palestinian debate really is between secularists who want a negotiated two-state peace agreement with Israel, and Islamists who want an Islamic state in either all or part of Palestine. There is a similar debate in Israel, which he acknowledges, but he doesn’t seem to understand the synergy between the two and the outcome it could very well produce if the peaceful alternative is not realized.

It’s possible, I suppose, that for whatever reason Hamas will simply go away or become irrelevant, but it seems most likely to me that if the effort led by the PLO to achieve a negotiated agreement with Israel should fail in the manner he describes, then Islamists led by Hamas will in fact be the primary beneficiaries, along with, of course, the extreme right wing Israeli settlers. The two will then be poised to lead their societies in a mutually suicidal religious war over God’s will and holy places. It may be true that such a scenario leaves liberal and secular Palestinians nowhere else to turn except to a one-state civil rights movement, but it seems to me this ignores the possibility of the mainstream of the Palestinian cause becoming an Islamist movement or becoming dominated by Islamists or being subsumed in a broader regional Islamist discourse and agenda. Anyone who doesn’t see this possibility is not seriously looking at the existing set of social and political forces at play at the present time, and is not presenting an analysis that should be taken particularly seriously. It pains me to say that on so many levels, but it has to be said.

The second scenario that Mearsheimer ignores or has failed to consider is the real Israeli “nuclear” option in this conundrum, which is not, as he mistakenly thinks, widespread ethnic cleansing. I suppose that’s a possibility, but he’s right to be skeptical that it can be resorted to as a practical matter except in conditions of extreme violence. However there is something much less dramatic than that which Israel can do as a game changer in the medium- to long-term that would completely alter the strategic realities he describes, especially the tension between Palestinian demographic pressure on the one hand and Jewish attachment to some key parts of the occupied territories on the other hand. This is, of course, the imposition of unilateral borders, more or less along the lines of the West Bank separation barrier, with or without some other parts of the occupied territories. Israel is, in fact, militarily capable of creating and enforcing such a fait accompli and annexing key parts of the West Bank, not including most population centers, in addition to municipal Jerusalem (by its own definition of the term) which has already been subject to de facto annexation, and presenting the Palestinians, the Arab states and the world with a situation in which a sizable majority of the occupied territories are no longer under direct Israeli occupation and which Israel formally renounces any claims over and in which it has no troops or settlers.

The reason this is a kind of “nuclear option” that Israel would only resort to as a last-ditch effort is that it will be very difficult to enforce, would place Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt, and especially Jordan, in serious question, and consign Israel to many further decades, if not centuries, of warfare and enmity with the region and the broader Islamic world. It also begs the question of how the Israelis would deal with the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the territories it unilaterally annexes, but historically minorities of that size are, in fact, generally manageable, and the Israelis already experienced a similar problem in the aftermath of the 1948 war. Obviously such a “nuclear option” scenario carries, in the long run, similar risks to permanent occupation resulting in religious warfare, but it’s more attenuated and much more amenable to Western support and international understanding than ethnic cleansing and maybe even formalized apartheid and far more imaginable than ethnic cleansing of millions of Palestinians. In the long run, it might also prove a foolhardy, suicidal and self-defeating gesture, but there is certainly a space between the absolute minimum right-wing Israelis can accept as an outcome and the kind of ethnic cleansing of the entire occupied territories Mearsheimer envisages. I don’t know how he missed it, but obviously it’s a measure that falls right in between continued occupation turning into apartheid and massive ethnic cleansing.

I am very sorry to say that the social, economic, political and military forces at play are much more likely to produce the two scenarios suggested above than Mearsheimer’s somewhat fanciful and irrationally dogmatic prognostication that Israel will never accept a Palestinian state, and has no option other than apartheid which will inevitably lead to a Palestinian-dominated unified state. This scenario is not implausible, but it’s certainly more improbable than the two I mention above, which don’t factor into his analysis at all. They don’t seem to have occurred to him.

Mearsheimer himself says that the emergent single state he envisages will not be democratic for the foreseeable future, but seems to think that this will not give rise to violent opposition, and can and will be challenged by Palestinians with a “South Africa-style approach,” by which he seems to mean nonviolence aimed at global public opinion. I don’t know what history of the ANC he’s been reading, but the ANC did, in fact, rely on a carefully coordinated mixture of violence, including many dramatic acts of urban terrorism (not to mention necklacing), political outreach and propaganda to make its case to the ruling white minority that what it was offering was the best possible deal they could get. I’m delighted by the rise of Palestinian nonviolent protests in the West Bank, but it’s crucially important to realize that they’re taking place under Palestinian political conditions generally dominated by the PA and PLO, and consistent with their other peaceful strategies aimed at independence, including diplomacy and negotiations, state and institution building and boycotts and other economic measures aimed at the occupation and the settlements but not Israel itself. In other words, the logic of the nonviolent protests compliments the logic of the present PLO strategy perfectly, which is what has given them their broad strategic force and created significant anxiety among Israelis. If they were just spontaneous efforts by local villagers to respond to the separation barrier or some other abusive occupation practice without any national policy corollary, they wouldn’t be nearly as significant.

It’s possible that these nonviolent, peaceful approaches could make the transition away from the present PLO approach of seeking a negotiated agreement with Israel based on ending the occupation and towards some other approach based on eliminating Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian-dominated single state as Mearsheimer anticipates. But that is to take them out of a context in which they are consistent with the ethos and the intentions of the current national leadership and imagine an alternative national leadership which does not presently exist that fosters and marshals similar nonviolent and peaceful forms of resistance to discrimination and inequality, rather than occupation. Again, the specter of Islamism and armed struggle looms large, since it is, at present, the principal alternative to the PLO/PA approach within which nonviolent protests are taking root and being linked to a broad national strategy. Any analysis that doesn’t factor the Islamist political and cultural trend into its set of variables is fatally flawed. Mearsheimer does acknowledge the possibility of a violent Palestinian reaction to continued occupation, but warns against it, suggesting that this is the only thing that might give Israel cover for another, much larger, round of ethnic cleansing. But given his scenario of certainty and inevitability, it’s clear he doesn’t really think that Palestinians are likely or even plausibly going to turn again to violence and armed resistance. Perhaps that’s why in his analysis of plausible scenarios for the future, Hamas and the other Islamist movements play almost no part. Mearsheimer’s analysis is missing too many obvious elements, and seems to be constructed for an intended effect rather than a sound analytical conclusion (I will return to that observation at the conclusion).

Mearsheimer says that Palestinians would be better off with a two state solution, although given his conclusion it’s not clear why, but he claims that since they have no say in their future, they have no choice but to embrace a one-state agenda. However, he advises they should:
a) recognize this is a war of ideas;
b) adopt a “South Africa” policy of seeking to convert world public opinion;
c) use the Internet to communicate with the world;
d) build a stable of articulate spokespersons like Mustafa Barghouti (of all people), and seek political allies, especially Jewish allies;
e) emphasize they do not seek revenge against the Jews;
f) avoid any violence because it might give Israel the excuse for ethnic cleansing, and because any violent intifada will disrupt the effort to win over world public opinion.

This is not exactly what one could call an imaginative set of suggestions as it seems to correspond precisely to the imagination and much of the activities of the academic/online one-state constituency that Mearsheimer has now suddenly joined. Here, as usual, we are presented with a completely fake version of the ANC strategy reborn as some kind of international grassroots, boycott, public opinion and nonviolent strategy as the model for the Palestinians. Then there is the centrality of the internet, which no one can really doubt, but which is sure to appeal to online activists whose virtual work exists only online and nowhere else. Next come the “articulate spokespersons” and their “Jewish allies,” a familiar vision of amber waves of Anna Baltzer sitting next to purple mountains of Mustapha Barghouti, making the case to the fruited plains of Jon Stewart audiences across the land. As for avoiding threats of generalized revenge and violence, only the clinically stupid or the criminally insane fail to understand the importance of that, and even Hamas, while it continues to hypocritically preach violence and armed struggle, has, for the meanwhile, turned away from active armed resistance and has suppressed it by others in Gaza. Everybody who is in the least rational gets this by now, but only for now. In the context of the collapse of all hopes of an end to the occupation and the imposition of formalized, permanent apartheid, can there be any doubt that violence is very likely to be a major feature of the Palestinian response? It’s theoretically possible but practically extremely unlikely that their response will be entirely informed by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, if they follow the ANC path, it will be nothing of the kind.

Mearsheimer, as I have demonstrated, is oddly and unjustifiably categorical in his implicit assertion that he can clearly see exactly what will happen in the future, without virtually any doubt. All I can say is that the Michel de Nostredame Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Clairvoyance at the University of Chicago has a much better crystal ball than I do. But there are so many obvious and crucial missing elements in his analysis that it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he basically doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Mearsheimer has spent the past few years mainly focused on elaborating how much and why he dislikes the pro-Israel lobby and the extent to which it has a baneful effect on American politics and policy. Frankly, I find it hard to read this speech as anything other than a continuation of that agenda, and I think the crucial sentence in the whole lecture is, “What is truly remarkable about this situation is that the Israel lobby is effectively helping Israel commit national suicide.” Now, I would certainly agree that anyone who is actively counseling or enabling Israel or the Palestinians to avoid peace and the painful, necessary compromises that will be required to achieve it is helping either or both of them to commit national suicide. But I detect something a little more in this remark, and it strikes me that this is the navel of the speech, so to speak, its probable starting point, the pointed jab he really wanted to make and around which he has constructed this entire, extremely shaky, argument.

Viewed in this light, Mearsheimer’s talk, while purporting to be largely aimed at a Palestinian and pro-Palestinian audience, is probably really aimed more at the American Jewish pro-Israel constituency with which he has been feuding. If I’m right about this, and I think I am, then his speech is much more Abu Alaa’ than Abunimah, in other words more like the way nationalist leaders in the West Bank have deployed the one state agenda as a threat to Israel rather than the earnest, passionate single-state devotion of its Arab-American advocates. His insistence that a two-state agreement has always been and remains by far the best option but is being taken off the table by Israel’s policies further suggests this important distinction, since many one-state advocates loath the idea of an agreement to end the occupation with every fiber of their being and consider it a capitulation to racism and colonialism. I suppose it’s possible that in a matter of a few weeks Mearsheimer genuinely had a sudden conversion to the religious-faith version of the one state agenda in which it is inevitable and unavoidable. But frankly I’m skeptical, and reading his talk in context, carefully, and between the lines suggests to me that it was probably primarily designed to further annoy, alarm, infuriate and frustrate Mearsheimer’s antagonists in the Jewish pro-Israel community.

Insofar as they are aimed at Palestinians, his conclusions are absolutely pernicious. They play into their most traditional and damaging fantasy: the idea that Palestinian numbers and presence on the land will, sooner or later, negate the Zionist project and deliver power into Palestinian hands in the whole of historical Palestine. This was a deep-seated belief since at least the 20s, and in every phase of Palestinian political life since then, and it remains a potent article of faith among Palestinians even today. This misapprehension, proven wrong time and again in practice, has been a key element in the steady accumulation of defeats, setbacks and miscalculations that have delivered the Palestinian national project to its present woeful state. I’m not sure I can imagine, short of a jihadist rant, a worse or more damaging message to a Palestinian audience than Mearsheimer’s conclusion:
“In sum, there are great dangers ahead for the Palestinians, who will continue to suffer terribly at the hands of the Israelis for some years to come. But it does look like the Palestinians will eventually get their own state, mainly because Israel seems bent on self-destruction.”

What is the take away from that indefensible assertion? Of course it’s that Palestinians don’t really have to do anything, except avoid the kind of violence that might justify massive ethnic cleansing by Israel, and simply wait for the Israeli project to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. This is the key refrain of the siren song of the one-state agenda, the chorus of certainty between each and every verse. It takes a perfectly reasonable observation — that because of the occupation Israel is charging headlong down the path towards self-destruction — which is undoubtedly true, but attaches to that accurate assessment the weird corollary that this somehow means Palestinian victory. As I keep saying, again and again, it is entirely possible for either or, quite possibly, both sides to lose everything in this conflict. Nothing about it is a zero sum. Just as both Israelis and Palestinians require a peace agreement to secure a reasonable future, both of them are likely to face wretched futures as far as the imagination can justifiably be stretched in almost any scenario likely to be produced by a lack of peace (leaving aside, of course, science fiction-like fantasies that have no relation to the political and other forces that actually produce outcomes).

What Mearsheimer fails to see is that while it’s true that extremists in the pro-Israel lobby are assisting Israel in its journey towards oblivion by counseling or enabling permanent occupation, he is performing the same Kevorkian-style tender mercy for the Palestinians by counseling and enabling the abandonment of efforts to end the occupation. Telling the Palestinians that they are doomed for a certain, probably long, term to endure formalized apartheid and there isn’t really anything they can do to avoid that, but that in the long run they basically don’t have to do much of anything for their national project to triumph since Israel will inevitably self-destruct is about as unhelpful, unrealistic and disempowering as anything I can imagine. It’s been my long-standing suspicion that while Mearsheimer clearly doesn’t like the pro-Israel lobby, he doesn’t seem to really understand, or even care that much about the well-being of, the Palestinian people. That Mearsheimer is using them and their cause as a foil in his ongoing feud with the pro-Israel lobby, which he has been at odds with for so long he is starting to resemble, all but confirms this.

Banning the burqa in Belgium and beyond

The Belgian parliament is considering a widespread ban on the wearing of burqas that cover the entire body and/or niqabs that cover the entire face in public spaces, preparing to be the first European country to enact such a ban. This follows a similar debate in France that has not yet led to a widespread law, although a woman was recently arrested for driving while fully veiled. In France, it is estimated that perhaps 700 women actually cover their faces in public, at least half of them European converts, while in Belgium the number is estimated at about 300-400 out of about 300,000 Belgian Muslims. In other words, the Europeans are busy banning something that virtually nobody does, and if I were a Belgian I’d appalled that my parliament was wasting time with such a socially irrelevant triviality. However, the growth of large, permanent Muslim minorities in Western societies in recent decades and the trend towards greater social conservatism among Muslims generally mean that this question is probably worth considering in theory.

Frankly, I find myself torn.

One instinctive reaction is to rally to the defense of a small, beleaguered minority in the name of freedom of religion and expression. There are a number of very valid points here. If people really believe, as a minority of the world’s Muslims do, that it is religiously mandated for women to wear a full face covering when in public, then impeding this could well be seen as a restriction of religious freedom. It could also be seen as a restriction of freedom of speech, since this is obviously as much of a cultural as a religious phenomenon (actually, it’s more cultural than religious, because very few Islamic authorities mandate the practice as required, unlike covering hair). And, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue, because of this element of expression and the gesture of defiance against an oppressive majority that would be begged by any such ban, it might actually prompt more women to start covering their faces rather than less. Finally, there is the clear element of cultural chauvinism at work. One could argue that what is going on here is that tiny handful of religious minority women are behaving in what in Europe is perhaps an eccentric but almost certainly socially harmless practice, but that it is so unfamiliar and challenging to European sensibilities that it is being suppressed in an irrational manner. One could further argue that in this sense, the burqa serves as a synecdoche for intolerance of Muslim immigrants generally and a dogmatic demand that they change their cultural practices to adapt to Western expectations rather than being allowed space to practice even their most personal choices such as standards of modesty.

There is, however, a second instinctive reaction, which is to recoil at the idea that women are in a sense walling themselves off from others in societies that do not expect women to spend most of their time behind closed doors, with male relatives or with other women. All the pseudo-feminist arguments about agency aside, it’s impossible for me not to see the burqa and niqab as expressions of a cultural sensibility that is fundamentally oppressive towards women and that cannot but restrict and impede their social engagement. Such reservations do not at all apply to the hijab which merely covers hair, and is pretty well the equivalent in terms of modesty to the choices made by women who wear shorts or miniskirts and those that prefer something at least knee-length, if not ankle-length. But in reality the face is so central to interpersonal communication that a faceless figure, especially if one does not have a history with that individual, can all too easily become a cipher or a blank screen upon which all kinds of ideas can be projected in a manner that is not helpful to either party. There is a reason why Freud insisted his patients lie on a couch in front of and facing away from his chair — the analyst ultimately had to become fully disembodied, detached from his image and persona, in order to become a perfect mirror for the analysand’s own self-analysis. That’s great for psychoanalytic therapy (for what it’s worth), but not for interpersonal communication in a modern society.

Moreover, this standard of “modesty” is associated with social practices that are repressive generally, especially towards women, and have at their core the idea that women really shouldn’t be seen, insofar as possible, except by male relatives or other women for completely irrational fear of all kinds of social and sexual mischief, and other symptoms of male hysteria. In other words, women who fully cover their faces yet seek fully engaged, normal lives in most modern societies are asking to be accommodated in social roles that their own choice of dress strongly implies are inappropriate. And, regarding what I’m calling the male hysteria behind this function of a rather extreme form of patriarchy, one can only speculate that the ultimate anxiety at work is the fear that instead of the presumed uncontrollable abundance of hyper-sexuality behind the veil, there really lies a disturbing and unmanageable lacuna. It’s tempting to think of the burqa as a kind of gigantic adult, yet infantile, fort-da game of peekaboo, regressively mediating male anxieties of social and sexual presence and absence. More prosaically one might simply observe that whatever is conjured up by the imagination will almost certainly be more exciting than almost any version of mundane reality, and, since people know this, the veil inevitably both provokes and manages male jouissance and anxiety. Be that as it may, there’s a strong element of cognitive dissonance in a fully veiled woman whose dress conveys the cultural sensibilities of purdah seeking full engagement with a society that operates in an extremely different and in many ways contradictory manner, whether in the Islamic world or the West.

The question then becomes whether or not one wants government to intervene in such a dysfunctional situation by imposing fines or some such discouragement. Here obviously is the great problem. Manner of dress ought, in so far as possible, to be determined by the individual, since social pluralism by definition means providing the greatest possible range of choices for people, within rational, necessary limits. If a woman wants to create barriers to effective interpersonal communication and social engagement for herself, assuming there isn’t any familial or social coercion at work, shouldn’t that be up to her? And who else is to judge what is and is not coercive? As I noted above, when you’re talking about a few hundred people in a country of many millions of people, it’s ridiculous for a government to waste its time on such question as a practical matter. But in theory, there are, I think, potential arguments for certain limits on dress at its most extreme stages.

With the hijab, it’s an easy matter: obviously it’s got to be a matter of choice because ultimately no one has a legitimate stake in whether or not somebody else covers their hair. It’s an arbitrary standard of modesty that falls well within almost any social construct and isn’t a barrier to any reasonable social function, interaction, right or responsibility unless people wish to be bigoted about it in either direction, holding the presence or absence of a scarf for or against an individual woman in an unjustifiable and irrational manner. But I think in the case of a burqa that covers the entire body except the eyes and, possibly, the hands, we find ourselves at an extreme, in some ways analogous to somebody who is completely uncovered, that is to say naked. All societies prohibit widespread public nudity, because there are things, minimally, that almost everyone feels we really don’t want to see to in public. By the same token, it might well be possible to argue that there are things, minimally, that we can legitimately insist on seeing in many public spaces, to whit the face, which is the primary means by which we identify and interact with each other in person.

The reasons for insisting on seeing the face are, in the end, the same as and the inverse of the reasons for covering the face: we do not want people to be anonymous, we want to know who they are. This is not only for reasons of cultural bias or effective interpersonal communications. It is, I think, a natural, instinctive human desire, beyond cultural norms, to want to react to a face that is reacting to our own, not a piece of cloth with a disembodied voice behind it. Covering it as a rule and a matter of social convention seems too close to obliterating the other’s social identity — and of course that was the whole point of the veil in the first place: for women not to have much of a social identity beyond what was permissible, in the guise of being spared the indignity and immodesty of the unwarranted male gaze.

There is, of course, also a potential security argument to be made, and that is being made, regarding public safety, and it’s not ridiculous. At this point it’s largely hypothetical in the West, as I don’t know of any cases of criminals of whatever variety using the burqa to evade the authorities, but it has certainly happened in Pakistan and elsewhere in those parts of the Muslim world where such dress is widely practiced. For a great and somewhat disturbing satirical take on this issue see the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-genre Pakistani horror film “Hell’s Ground” (2007, AKA “Zibahkhana,” which you can buy or watch on demand at made by my dear friend Omar Ali Khan, which features a crazed killer in a bloodsoaked burqa as its “leatherface” super-villain. No surprise that it is Pakistan that produced this hyper-dystopian take on the burqa as a social text, and made it the centerpiece of what is far and away the country’s most gruesome horror film. But I think the thus-far fanciful public safety arguments, in the West at least, are ultimately subordinate to arguments about the proper role of government and its relations to fringe cultural and religious minorities (I mean the burqa-wearing fringe of the European Muslim minority).

So, how to balance these twin sets of legitimate concerns, protecting the rights of minorities, promoting the equal status of women, and fostering healthy social interactions among the citizenry without completely giving in to a nanny state mentality? First, as I keep saying, I don’t think it makes any sense for European states in which a tiny handful of people dress like this with no clear public harm to be actually enacting laws prohibiting it. As long as this is a fringe and marginal practice, and there aren’t any demonstrable ill effects (it’s use by criminals to evade detection, etc.) there probably isn’t any real reason for governments to bother wrestling with the question of whether to impose fines because of it. On the other hand, if the practice became very widespread there might begin to be a more compelling argument based on broader social concerns, the rights and status of women and other serious issues. However, those would have to be balanced against protection of the freedoms of religion and expression.

If the issue is ever widely forced across the West, and I certainly hope it won’t be, and especially if this happens in the context of legitimate security concerns, it might be necessary to parse between different forms of public space in which this kind of dress is deemed improper (most obviously, behind the wheel) and others in which it would be permitted. Ideally, this practice will remain marginal and therefore symbolic in both directions (i.e., both the practice and its prohibition) and, indeed, fade over time as Muslim immigrants assimilate into Western cultures creating their own versions of Islam as a social text, that then also informs converts in a manner not derivative of the social mores of parts of Quetta or whatnot.

And in the end, I think that this is the issue and the concern: it’s got to be up to Western Muslim communities, and not Western governments, to really ensure that the burqa and the niqab remain, as they are, highly unusual if not virtually unknown in Western societies. Insofar as parts of Muslim communities feel it is absolutely essential and religiously required, any bans will simply compound the problem by forcing women to stay home rather than go outdoors without covering their faces. The conversation has to be within Western Muslim communities, and indeed increasingly Muslim communities around the world, to interrogate why and how this region-specific, and sometimes class-specific, cultural practice became identified as a religious imperative, to untangle that process and demystify the concept, liberating everyone from what is plainly a grotesque and unacceptable misreading of Islamic doctrine.

The argument about the hijab is interesting, but ultimately academic because its use doesn’t or at least shouldn’t restrict the ability of Western Muslim communities, and especially women, to thrive in their own societies. The burqa and niqab do, or at least they would if they were not so rare. The consensus among Western Muslims against wearing them is very strong, and needs to be strengthened. It’s already virtually unanimous in most places, and that needs to be maintained and, indeed, expanded. More suggestively, it represents a potential important starting place for Western Muslims, who have thus far generally, on religious matters at least, been subsumed in a derivative discourse shaped in the traditional Islamic world, to begin a critical dialogue that challenges some received wisdom from some of their homelands, and shape their own sensibilities that can reverse the influence and start affecting the way “Islamic modesty” is perceived in some parts of the Muslim world that desperately need to rethink the concept. But such a salutary process is more likely to be successful if it doesn’t seem to be mandated by the government of Belgium.

Obama’s Middle East policy: pushing back against the pushback

When the Obama administration decided to get tough with PM Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues over settlements in Jerusalem and generalized noncooperation with American national security interests vis-à-vis peace in the Middle East, the big challenge always was holding Congress. The President has a majority in both houses, and therefore control by his supporters of key committees, in addition to strong support from the Jewish community generally which is almost entirely Democratic. However, as I’ve been recently explaining, the Israeli strategy, I think from the beginning, has been to play Congress off against the White House and deal with a divided, rather than a united American government. As long as Obama can hold Congress on his side, and not Netanyahu’s, he’s essentially in the drivers seat. However, if Congress begins to seriously challenge him, it becomes much more difficult and politically risky and costly to confront Israel over settlements in Jerusalem and other issues. A couple of weeks ago, the President laid down the marker by saying that the lack of peace costs the United States significantly in “blood and treasure.” In other words, this is in the national interest, indeed, he called it “a vital national interest,” of the United States and not simply a bilateral, let alone domestic political, matter.

Outrage from Israel and its most dedicated supporters outside of the government started, really, during the first Netanyahu visit to Washington in the spring of 2009. He and his entourage were apparently not particularly surprised at the toughness coming from the White House, especially on settlements and the relationship between Iran policy and Israel/Palestine policy. However, they were apparently flabbergasted and appalled that typically reliable Jewish members of Congress backed up the President and were not sympathetic to the arguments they were forwarding. They went back to Israel hurt and confused, at least as much as politicians can be. During the present confrontation which began with the Biden visit that was supposed to be a lovefest and a healing of wounds but that was sabotaged by the Ramat Shlomo fiasco, the President’s greatest source of authority and leverage has been that Congress, including key Jewish members, has thus far stuck with him. It’s completely unimportant what Republicans like Eric Cantor or marginal figures like Shelley Berkley have to say. The question is, what do the key Jewish members, and indeed other members, of the foreign policy elite in both houses have to say? So far, for the most part, they’ve been very supportive of Obama.

However, in the past week some cracks in the ice have begun to appear. The letter signed by some 300 congressmen and a similar one signed by about 75 senators was pretty irrelevant, because it consisted mainly of boilerplate about the importance of US-Israel relations and did not criticize the administration directly. It was a no-brainer for most of these politicians, and no challenge to the administration in practice. However, for many weeks, Jewish advocates and others have been piling on the pressure towards members of Congress, especially Jewish ones, that siding with Obama in this instance represents some kind of betrayal of Israel or some such gobbledygook.

My suspicion is that, as I’ve written several times in the past, on a number of occasions the Jewish pro-Israel lobby (there are, of course, others) has overreached during this confrontation, most obviously the ADL’s attack on Gen. Petraeus. And, there have been other incidents like the AIPAC Congressional letters cited above, and letters to the President from World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, angry articles by advocates such as Ed Koch, Alan Dershowitz and Shmuley Boteach, and an obnoxious ad signed by Elie Wiesel attacking the idea of negotiations on the status of Jerusalem. Wiesel’s ridiculous text emphasized Jewish rights in Jerusalem but dismissed any idea of a Muslim connection to the city, and preposterously claimed that Muslims can settle anywhere in Jerusalem, making it impossible for any informed person to take it seriously.

All of this pressure has begun to take its toll on certain legislators, and the first significant casualty was always likely to be Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY, significantly), and so it proved. At the same time that it was being reported that Jewish American leaders were publicly criticizing but privately supporting the administration (in a reverse of the usual public praise versus private criticism), Schumer was letting it be known that if this spat over settlements in Jerusalem dragged on, he was prepared to begin to side with Netanyahu and Israel rather than Obama and the United States. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when he finally came out of the closet on the “Nachum Segal Show” (you can’t make this stuff up) to vow that Jewish members of Congress “will be meeting with the President next week or the week after, and we are saying that this has to stop.” He added that, “There is a battle going on inside the administration, one side agrees with us, one side doesn?t, and we?re pushing hard to make sure the right side wins and if not we?ll have to take it to the next step.” No doubt that’s true, but for chutzpah this is pretty ripe. He added, for good measure, “Palestinians don?t really believe in a state of Israel, they, unlike a majority of Israelis, who have come to the conclusion that they can live with a 2-state solution to be determined by the parties, the majority of Palestinians are still very reluctant, and they need to be pushed to get there.” As if, of course, there was any real basis for believing the present Israeli government is not “very reluctant” on a two-state solution.

Obviously, if it’s just Schumer, this is highly containable, but, as I say, it’s the first really significant crack in the ice, and who knows who these other “Jewish members of Congress” are who will also meet with the President on this issue and what they will say. Reacting to all of this, the administration led by figures such as Sec. Clinton, NSA Jones and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been on something of a charm offensive over the past week or so designed to try to explain to the mainstream Jewish American community that the Obama approach is, in fact, in not only the American national interest — a case made bluntly and clearly by Pres. Obama himself, as well as Sec. Clinton, Sec. Gates, Adm. Mullen and Gen. Petraeus, among others — but also in the Israeli interest as well. If Schumer is right, and undoubtedly he is, that there is a “battle” going on inside the administration, the side that argues that the lack of peace (not, of course, Israeli policy in general) is antithetical to US strategic concerns has already won, and there’s no going back on this. It’s a consensus, and if mainstream Jewish American organizations and Jewish American members of Congress and Senators like Schumer don’t like it, they’re really just going to have to get used to it. The charm offensive thus far is working. Apart from Schumer and some individual or marginal figures in the House, there has been no major series of defections from the legislators who are Netanyahu’s only hope of beating back the President of the United States.

So, the charm offensive is wise and strategically sound. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post last week said, somewhat incoherently, that while Pres. Obama had the right policies on Middle East peace he has been unable to communicate this to the Israeli public and therefore was on the brink of some kind of “blunder.” Roger Cohen of the New York Times (almost certainly no relation) argued that Israelis, and by implication their Jewish-American supporters, operate mainly from an irrational set of existential fears that do not take into consideration Israel’s actual strategic prowess. In other words, Israelis and their American friends, especially among Jewish Democrats, are one of the main beneficiaries of the Obama approach but many of them don’t realize this. And, both publicly and privately administration officials are trying to explain that their policies keep uppermost in mind the need to deal with Iran in a serious and effective manner, which is the most urgent concern of the Israeli government and also the mainstream American Jewish community. The message is: this is about Iran, whether you get that or not.

Thus far most strategically positioned Jewish Democratic members of Congress have stuck with Obama and Biden rather than defecting to Netanyahu and Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai. This is because they are genuinely loyal Americans loathe to side with another government over their own and also because they are loyal Democrats whose political future is strongly tied with the strength of the administration and, especially, the President. The charm offensive is required to solidify these impulses, since they’ve been under fairly heavy attack both on and off the record from those who would want these Jewish Democrats and others to actually side with the Prime Minister of Israel rather than the President of the United States.

Over the past couple weeks I’ve written many times that the name of the game for Pres. Obama is holding Congress, and if the charm offensive towards the Jewish community helps him to continue to do that, it can only be a good thing. There is, after all, no change in policy here, only an effort to explain it to a skeptical and alarmed constituency that is politically and strategically important. It therefore shouldn’t alarm supporters of the President’s policies, but rather encourage them.

And, there are real reasons for suspecting that Pres. Obama’s pressure on the Israeli leadership is starting to pay off. On Friday, there was a swath of interesting reports that suggested that the Israeli leadership is really feeling the pressure. The leaders of both Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman’s party) and Shas (Yishai’s party), the twin centers of ultra right-wing gravity in the present cabinet and Israeli society in general issued statements suggesting that they would not be categorically opposed to an unannounced settlement freeze in occupied East Jerusalem. Akiva Eldar and several other Israeli journalists wrote about the potential for a “gentleman’s agreement,” which is another term for the older idea of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in which Israel would not announce any settlement freeze in Jerusalem but would also refrain from any significant building, especially in Arab areas. Pres. Abbas has said several times that such an unannounced but effective freeze would be sufficient for a return to negotiations. And clearly the White House would be satisfied with such an arrangement as well. In addition, PM Netanyahu on Friday said that he was open to the idea of a Palestinian state with “temporary borders,” obviously a nonstarter from the Palestinian point of view but new language from him, and, more significantly, that the long-term future of Arab areas of Jerusalem were ?a question that will arise in the final-status arrangements.? This obviously is a far cry from the “undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people” or any other version of the usual, impossible, boilerplate.

None of this significant movement is imaginable outside of the context of the present US-Israel confrontation, and Obama’s policies generally. It could all be posturing for American consumption, but more likely it reflects a real discomfort in the Israeli government with the present standoff, especially as they have yet to be able to seriously muster significant congressional support against the White House, and therefore signifies potential real changes in Israeli policy. So, while there is pushback going on in Washington, there are actually serious signs of progress on the broader diplomatic front. That’s why the administration’s charm offensive pushback against the angry pro-Israel pushback is so important. And, it helps to explain why people like Schumer are starting to break with the administration and the extent to which the rest need to hold firm. This is about results, and there is every reason to think they’re actually starting to be produced.

There is a second, perhaps more significant pushback beginning to develop, and it’s a serious and coordinated assault on the reputations of Pres. Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad aimed at an American audience, including many powerful people, that frankly doesn’t know very much about them. Again, it’s all about results that are starting to be produced. In particular, the policies and approach of PM Fayyad have been deeply alarming to many Israelis and their supporters on two grounds: first, his approach actually threatens to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state, to which some of these individuals are deeply opposed; and second, even some those who theoretically are not categorically opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state are greatly disconcerted to find Palestinians taking the initiative and creating their own “facts on the ground” that narrow the range of Israeli options and force issues they would prefer to see left up to diplomacy and the caprices of Israeli domestic politics.

The most dramatic gesture in this direction has been the announcement yesterday that the so-called “Palestinian Media Watch” run by an extremist settler called Itamar Marcus, is planning to run widely placed ads all over the American media accusing Abbas and Fayyad of “glorifying terrorists” and therefore, by implication, of being terrorists as well. This dovetails with increasing concerns coming from the Israeli military and right-wing about not only Palestinian state building, but more specifically the wave of Palestinian nonviolent protests that are being increasingly encouraged and, indeed, lead by the Palestinian national leadership including the President and especially the Prime Minister. I’ll have a lot more to say about this slanderous and preposterous attack in the near future, especially as it continues to develop. Stay tuned on both counts.

Language, legitimacy and political theory in Shakespeare?s most dangerous play

The other day I wrote on the Ibishblog that Richard II is my favorite of the early Shakespeare plays, and that I thought it was the one about which he was most careful and into which he put most work. I feel the need to explain this in a little bit more detail in a posting that no longer pays any attention to the Shakespeare Theater Company’s misguided adaptation that has now closed. First of all, I see more care, and indeed carefulness, in Richard II than in not only the early comedies, but also the four history plays that preceded it: Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three, and Richard III. It seems that this first tetralogy proved so popular that Shakespeare went back and did another quartet of histories that are a prequel to the first, beginning with Richard II and culminating in Henry V, which of course sets up the earlier produced Henry VI-Richard III cycle. Most of these eight histories rely on Rafael Holinshed’s Chronicles as their main source, although some clearly also tapped into some accounts. However, Richard II is unique in that it seems to be derived from at least eight separate historical accounts, including Chronicles, a really extraordinary number, and also in literary terms plainly from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (and in at least one famous line Doctor Faustus as well), and possibly even the anonymous play Thomas of Woodstock.

The reason Shakespeare evidently researched, and indeed wrote, Richard II with such care and attention to detail is, of course, that he was playing with fire, and he knew it. Richard II is, after all, about the deposing and murder of a monarch, very heavy stuff for a Renaissance audience. It was even more delicate because of some superficial similarities between Richard and Elizabeth, particularly that they were both childless and frequently criticized for the alleged misbehavior of favorites and sycophants. Later on in her reign, Elizabeth reportedly bitterly complained about the number of public performances of Richard II and reportedly declared, “I am Richard, know ye not that?” The most troubling of these public performances was, of course, the one commissioned by supporters of the Earl of Essex the evening before his ill-fated rebellion. Shakespeare’s company was interrogated in the investigation into the plot, and they told the authorities that they had complained that the play was “so old and so long out of use that they should have a small company at it” but that since they were promised 40 shillings above their usual take, they did it for the money. Possibly. At any rate, Essex’s followers obviously felt a production of the play would be an important gesture setting up their planned deposition of Elizabeth, so the play’s ideas were not only dangerous in theory, they were dangerous in practice as well.

And, indeed, Richard II is hardly the only political Shakespeare play (most of them have at least some element of politics), but it is the one that seems to involve ideas closest to what we now call political theory. It was written after a century of political speculation in England in which the concept of the divine right of kings had been slowly chipped away at by new ideas that began to incorporate more of a sense of the responsibilities of monarchs as well as their prerogatives, and had begun to suggest that political rights were contingent on concomitant responsibilities. Since at least the Magna Carta, the English monarchy had been first among equals in a super stratum of aristocrats that ruled the country. But, the idea that there was an element of meritocracy or minimal competency and responsibilities that might trump divine right and coronation, was slow to enter into theoretical conceptualizations of government. And, of course, generalized conceptions of political responsibility as an essential component of political legitimacy go far beyond simply respecting the recognized, specific and limited rights of peers and commons. Leaving people alone within clearly defined and limited spheres is one thing, but expectations of good governance are something entirely different. By the time Shakespeare composed Richard II in about 1595, such notions had been gaining ground for a number of decades. Early understandings of constitutionalism and limited monarchy were becoming more widespread, articulated in formulations such as Henry de Bracton’s influential dictum that the king serves “under God and under the law because the law maketh a king,” and Sir John Fortesque’s formulation that, “the king exists for the sake of the kingdom, and not the kingdom for the sake of the king.”

In Richard II, Shakespeare dramatizes the tension between what are essentially medieval notions of divine right and political legitimacy versus emerging Renaissance conceptualizations of political responsibilities and merit in the persons of Richard and Bolingbroke. He lays out the case clearly for both perspectives, but scrupulously doesn’t take sides, so that it has been entirely possible for commentators over the centuries to read either perspective into the play. Indeed, Shakespeare makes it more difficult to adopt one position or the other absolutely by focusing the first half of the play, before the deposition scene, largely on abuses and mismanagement by Richard (Bolingbroke’s case), and the second half, following the deposition, rebuilding sympathy for Richard, his position and his predicament, and calling attention to the sacrilege of his deposition (Richard’s case). And this budding sense of constitutionalism is reflected in the Bolingbroke co-conspirators’ concern that Richard confess to a bill of particulars against his rule so that “the commons will be satisfied,” suggesting that there are red lines which a monarch may not cross without inviting deposition, and also that Parliament must be satisfied for the resignation and transfer of power to a new king to be sustainable, in spite of the plausible claim of succession forwarded by Bolingbroke.

Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian effectiveness and skills are contrasted with Richard’s grand regal theatricality. Richard is, at heart, a drama queen. He revels as much in his abjection when he is deposed and imprisoned as he ever did in his Royal Majesty on the throne. One of the most remarkable, and for many commentators troubling, aspects of Richard II is the seemingly bizarre conduct of the title character when confronted with the Lancastrian rebellion. He swings wildly back and forth between despair and defeatism, a new experience by which he seems to be truly enthralled, and vainglorious assertions of his divine right and protection by God. His despair speeches are justly famous, most notably “for God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings,” etc. The crux of Richard’s rule is precisely this theatricality, this incessant role-playing. Bolingbroke knows it, which is one of the reasons he is able to move against him so effectively.

Richard doesn’t rule exactly as much as, literally, act like a king. Even after his dramatic and crushing defeat, when he has come to effectively surrender, his uncle York remarks of him, “Yet looks he like a king: behold, his eye, as bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth controlling majesty.” Apparently, he always did. When Richard, wallowing in abjection during the deposition scene, becomes hysterical when Northumberland attempts to force him to read out loud the bill of particulars of his misrule to “satisfy the commons,” Richard demands a mirror which he then histrionically smashes, declaring “A brittle glory shineth in this face: As brittle as the glory is the face; For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers. Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport, How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.” Bolingbroke, however, has his number, icily countering, “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed, The shadow of your face.” Precisely so. Richard’s rule has been a shadow of a rule, whereas Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian insurgency, quite possibly planned from the beginning and the challenge against Mowbray that may have been designed as an opening salvo leading precisely to this seizure of power, is all too real.

This tension between political effectiveness on the one hand versus legitimacy on the other hand, as well as the artifice and theatricality of monarchy is played out very clearly in the language throughout Richard II. It is the only of Shakespeare’s plays that is almost entirely in very precise pentameter and much of it, especially in the court scenes, involving not blank verse but rhyming couplets. Normally Shakespeare is very judicious in his application of couplets, reserving them for moments of special emphasis or the conclusion of a thought, an interaction or a narrative development. In Richard II, Shakespeare uses a wild proliferation of rhyming couplets as well as a strict adherence to pentameter in order to achieve the effect of formality and faux grandeur in Richard’s court. Foregrounding the artifice of language, much less naturalistic than Shakespeare’s already stilted and extremely idiosyncratic phrasings and constructs, helps dramatize the histrionic artifice behind Richard’s entire hold on power. It’s all a show.

Bolingbroke’s grasp of that allows him to use the actual mechanics of power — appealing to public opinion and flattering the common folk, playing on the anxieties of his fellow nobles, making the specific case of mismanagement against Richard and his cronies thereby raising the question of political responsibilities balancing political legitimacy and divine rights, marshaling and deploying quickly military allies at a moment of the enemy’s exposure (Richard’s trip to Ireland), constructing a plausible claim of succession so as not to disrupt the established order of monarchy, etc. — to unseat Richard with relatively little effort. It’s also impossibly rapid. Richard II is one of many Shakespeare plays in which there are multiple time registers in simultaneous and impossible operation, and in which the audience is manipulated into assuming that significant amount of time has passed when in fact according to the literal chronology of events, or at least one of them, a ludicrously short amount of time has actually gone by. In this case it would appear that mere days pass by between Bolingbroke’s banishment and his deposition of Richard.

We note, of course, that while the formality of the rhymed couplets in the early scenes underscores a presumed common understanding of authority and legitimacy in Richard’s court (soon to be tested by the rebellion), the specific content of many of the couplets, especially those of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, are discordant or combative in their content. So, behind the careful formal harmony of the language lurks significant disharmony of meaning, in the same way that in the first scene both Bolingbroke and Mowbray can be read as threatening Richard in different ways behind formal professions of obeisance. It’s noteworthy that John of Gaunt’s condemnation of Richard’s rule, which sets the stage and makes the case for the rebellion, is entirely in blank verse without any rhyming at all, suggesting that formality which calls for strict deference and obedience is no longer directing his words. Once the action has moved away from Richard’s court into the contest for power driven by the Bolingbroke rebellion, the insistence on rhyming couplets, but not on pentameter, abates in the text. There are still some, of course, particularly from Richard himself, or in the normal Shakespearean manner to complete a thought or foreground some aspect of the narrative for dramatic emphasis. But couplets do not go with either the discord of civil conflict or Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian and goal-oriented political style. Even Richard increasingly abandons rhyming as the conflict careens towards its rapid and decisive resolution.

However, once Bolingbroke assumes the throne, just like the argument over who killed Gloucester, the rhyming couplets suddenly stage a dramatic return, although their structure is significantly different this time. In effect, what the language is telling us is that Bolingbroke understands the need for theatricality and artifice in a royal court, the formality that incessant rhymed couplets within the pentameter convey. But, he doesn’t quite know how to use them the way Richard did, and his couplets appear self-defeating. By the end of the play, he appears entirely trapped in them. It’s the first instance in which we have a sense of the limitations of his political skills. Bolingbroke is, in effect, unconvincingly mimicking Richard, a natural and accomplished actor on the stage of the court. He, as Richard says, “knows well how to get,” but at the earliest stages of his new reign, because of the language, we begin to wonder if he knows well how to use. In fact, it falls to his son, the future Henry V, to really take the power that has been usurped and put it to maximum effect before all those gains are then squandered during the disastrous reign of his own son, Henry VI.

Richard’s addiction to artifice and playacting extends itself into his greatest abjection scene, the rather complicated speech he gives in his jail cell in Pomfret, alone, impoverished, friendless and in mortal peril. And in this in amazing self-indulgent exercise in relishing abjection, Richard now owns, rather brilliantly, blank verse as Bolingbroke and his court struggle to resume the formality of couplets that characterized Richard’s court. Behind that gigantic and impressive façade of theatricality lies a hollow shell of a man. In the deposition scene, when Bolingbroke asks him, ?Are you contented to resign the crown?? Richard replies, ?Ay, no; no, ay.? This, of course, when spoken, is a homonym for as ?I know no I.? He is not only a man divided against himself, as he says ?if I turn mine eyes upon myself, I find myself a traitor with the rest; For I have given here my soul’s consent, To undeck the pompous body of a king,? he also doesn?t know who he is: “I have no name, no title, No, not that name was given me at the font? And know not now what name to call myself!” This is not so much a loss of identity as the uncovering of a great absence within Richard that was always there, as he calls himself a ?king of snow? who is melting away ?in water drops? as he weeps for his lost throne. It was not only the crown that was hollow, but also the man who wore it. Alone in his prison cell before his murder, Richard imagines a multiplicity of people born of his own imagination, ?Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented: sometimes am I king; Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar, And so I am: then crushing penury, Persuades me I was better when a king; Then am I king’d again: and by and by, Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke, And straight am nothing.? All in his own imagination, both monarch and prisoner are roles to be played, acts of will on his own solipsistic, even narcissistic not to say monomaniacal, part. At his core, beyond these roles, is nothing.

In all of this I see the enormous care Shakespeare took in constructing Richard II, sticking entirely to pentameter and carefully using the frequency and nature of couplets or blank verse to reflect different political situations, attitudes and skill sets. As I already noted, Shakespeare refuses to take sides in this clash between a crisis of governance versus a crisis of legitimation. Richard correctly predicts that Northumberland will not long stick with Bolingbroke after he is crowned Henry IV, and so it proves. Indeed, Northumberland’s party led by Hotspur subsequently invokes the overthrow and murder of Richard as Exhibit A against Henry in their failed attempt to depose him. As first John of Gaunt and then the Bishop of Carlisle, among others, predict, Richard’s unacceptable mismanagement and then illegitimate deposition by Bolingbroke will kick off a long series of wars, and Shakespeare seems to see in these twin crises of governance and legitimation a kind of original sin which the English state needed to work through via the bloodshed of the ensuing civil conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster.

The one lesson Shakespeare seems to have taken to heart from his reading of this period of English history is the advice he attributes by Henry IV to his son, the future Henry V, that foreign wars are the key to English tranquility, happiness and political effectiveness. On his deathbed he confesses, ?God knows, my son, By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways, I met this crown,” and, that, ?I had many living to upbraid, My gain of it by their assistances; Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed, Wounding supposed peace. All these bold fears, Thou seest with peril I have answered; For all my reign hath been but as a scene, Acting that argument.? ?Therefore, my Harry,? he advises, ?Be it thy course to busy giddy minds, With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, May waste the memory of the former days.? This harkens back to his uncle York’s declaration of Richard’s grandfather, Edward, that “when he frown’d, it was against the French, And not against his friends; his noble hand, Did will what he did spend and spent not that, Which his triumphant father’s hand had won; His hands were guilty of no kindred blood, But bloody with the enemies of his kin.” In other words, the English are now embroiled in civil conflicts based on conflicting narratives and if ?giddy minds? are allowed to dwell on those narratives, civil conflict will erupt again immediately (as it does after the conquest of France and the death of Henry V). Even Henry IV?s effort to smooth things over by pardoning opponents like Aumerle and Carlisle does not resolve anything. The answer is foreign wars, especially against France. They provide an alternative focus for aggression, a change of subject from internal conflicts and a ready path to legitimation through patriotism and appeals to national glory. If Shakespeare?s depiction of Henry V?s triumphant rule is anything to go by, it seems he thought this excellent political advice and sound judgment indeed.

Interrogating the Iranian religious-secular binary at Lake Forest College

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to chair a panel at a major conference on secularism and the future of Iran at Lake Forest College in Illinois. In February, as regular readers of the Ibishblog will recall, I spoke at a conference on Iran and the Arab world at Rutgers University organized by Prof. Golbarg Bashi and her outstanding students, and I found it to be a most inspiring and uplifting event. The Lake Forest College conference, organized by Prof. Ahmed Sadri who I have known and admired for many years, was a completely different but also extraordinary event. The Rutgers conference was raw, passionate, intense and deeply emotional. All of those qualities may have been present at some level at Lake Forest, but Sadri’s conference was much more cerebral, much more academic and much more focused, and its speakers were a veritable who’s who of Iranian intellectuals in the United States. Maybe the only obvious major missing figure was the brilliant Said Arjomand, who gave the most outstanding talk at the Rutgers conference.

After the Rutgers event, I blogged that I found the affair not only inspiring, but in a marked contrast to the kind of atmosphere I’m used to encountering on the Arab academic left in the United States. The Lake Forest College conference only brought home these increasingly striking distinctions. Because it was a conference on secularism and the future of Iran, and focused very strongly on the green movement and its challenge to the Iranian ruling clique, the Lake Forest affair focused very heavily on a single, unavoidable topic: the fault line running through the Iranian opposition between secular and religious orientations. Most speakers strongly critiqued the binary between secularism and devotion, holding that such distinctions are arbitrary and false, and extraneous to the question of civil liberties and political rights now at stake in Iran. However, at least one powerful voice, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, continuously reasserted the validity of secularism as a philosophical concept and the centrality of its principles as a political value.

In this conference, as usual, the term “secularism” was overdetermined and ambiguous, referring to many things and nothing at the same time. Many speakers attempted to define secularism’s meaning, or different meanings that have been applied to the term. For me, as with Boroujerdi I think, at its bottom line secularism really refers to the neutrality of the state on religious matters, not with imposing iconoclasm or anti-clericalism on a willing or unwilling society. However, in the Iranian and broader Middle Eastern context, secularism has unfortunately come to mean varying degrees of repudiation of religion at various levels, as brilliantly dissected by Prof. Sadri himself.

The reason the conference focused so strongly on this question is that one of the greatest vulnerabilities of the green movement, and the Iranian opposition in general, is that its most significant division is precisely between those who yearn for less religion in public life and who are essentially secular, whether they define themselves in those terms or not, and devout oppositionists who are opposed to either the present ruling clique and/or the system of villayat e-faqih or the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Indeed, it’s extremely significant that much of the clerical establishment feels sidelined by the new pasdaran and basij-dominated ruling elite and has been at the forefront of oppositional politics since the election fraud last summer because they feel that a system many of them do not object to in theory has in practice been hijacked by thugs and hoodlums. To these disgruntled reformist clerics add a great many other devout but enraged protesters who either do not object to the system but to what it has become or who may object to some aspects of the system but nonetheless can in no way be described as secularists. However, obviously, many of the protesters and much of the opposition is motivated by rejection of the Khomeinite system and a drive towards a return to genuine secularism and the abandonment of divine politics in Iran.

None of this is straightforward, of course, and there are always shades of gray and gradations perhaps as complex as each single individual with their particular mix of ideas, prejudices, orientations and sentiments. My own view, which I did not hesitate to express on a number of occasions both on and off the stage, is that whether you want to call it secularism or not, the neutrality of the state on religious matters in societies that are heterogeneous in religious opinion (as all are) is a sine qua non for social pluralism, which in turn is a sine qua non for having a decent society that respects people’s basic civil liberties and rights. At the same time, obviously Middle Eastern societies including Iran are not going to be inclined to adopt the American approach by mimicking the First Amendment and its broadly interpreted establishment clause. Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Israelis, among others, are going to have to find their own ways of achieving social pluralism and religious tolerance. And obviously it’s crucial not to have the green movement split along the religious/secular fault line.

The sharpest disagreement of the event was between AbdolKarim Soroush, Iran’s preeminent living philosopher and intellectual, and Prof. Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University. Soroush’s talk was a breathtaking virtuoso performance that had all the appearance of being a sudden extemporaneous diversion from his announced topic, and I think that’s exactly what it was. It’s the kind of feat that could only be accomplished by someone in almost total command of a vast array of material in Muslim intellectual history. On the other hand, while its erudition was spectacular, some of its claims and assumptions seemed somewhat dubious, and Dabashi was quick to pounce. In effect, Soroush was arguing that much of traditional Islamic thought, including all of Muslim philosophy, has to be regarded as “secular,” because it is “worldly” rather than strictly speaking theological. This struck me as an incredibly broad reading and application of the concept of secularism, far beyond what is normally attributed to the term and probably beyond what is theoretically defensible. Soroush has long advocated the narrowest application of the concept and the realm of authority of a “religious” social register and an exceedingly broad application of what properly belongs to a “secular” social register in Iran and other Muslim countries. This orientation seems to have evolved recently into this exceedingly broad application of the political category of “secular” to any concept or practice that is anything other than, strictly speaking, theological, or to anything that has any “worldly” facets or applications. It might be, in fact, a politically useful way of framing the issue, but nonetheless it’s difficult to accept on face value. Dabashi openly scoffed that next Soroush would be arguing that the Prophet Mohammed was himself a “secularist.” Hyperbole, no doubt, but the critique struck rather powerfully.

Listening to this conversation from an Arab point of view brings home clearly that the Iranians have managed to bring their society to the point where a serious discussion about how an aspirational, but very real, oppositional political trend, centered around a reformist, civil liberties movement, can stay united by bridging the divide between secular and religious tendencies. More to the point, by example it illustrates how far the Arabs have to go to get to that stage. Obviously, we don’t have anything like the green movement in the Arab world, or any serious opposition movement that demands serious reforms for the better in the name of people’s rights. The secular-religious divide in the Arab world unfortunately doesn’t have to be carefully navigated in this context because this kind of aspirational politics either doesn’t exist or is socially extremely marginal. Indeed, secular politics generally are on the decline and the defensive across the board. Unlike in the Shiite world, among Sunni Arabs there is little tradition of clerics as political leaders, and where there are religiously-oriented political structures (all of the main opposition movements in the Arab world are, essentially, Islamist) they are invariably reactionary rather than reformist, and obviously not in the least bit interested in ensuring people’s civil or other rights. They attack the undemocratic regimes from their religious right, but clearly without believing in any of the essential components of a pluralistic or even democratic society. Sunni Arab religious leadership therefore tends to be either hopelessly quietist or alarmingly radical and therefore even more threatening than governments that, on their own, have little to recommend them.

As I noted above, a very significant segment of the Iranian clergy is disenchanted with the way the “Islamic Republic” has turned out, and feel sidelined by the new ruling clique. Ayatollahs Sane’i, Bayat-Zanjani and Dastgheib obviously speak for a great many in Qom in their bitter critiques of government repression, and implicit condemnation of concentration of power in the hands of the security services and the supreme leader as an individual. So the participation of not only clerics but extremely devout Iranians is a crucial element of the green movement, indeed in many ways it’s the green part. Mousavi, Karroubi and the other reformist politicians appeal to “a return to the constitution” and represent those Iranians who want to fix rather than change the system altogether. None of these people can be described, I think, as “secular” unless by the kind of definition Soroush was proposing. But there are obviously lots of other people involved in what is a very disparate movement with no clear leadership or clear agenda, other than the promotion of civil liberties, would have to be defined in those terms, and who want no part of any “return” to the 1989 amended constitution of the Islamic Republic.

These are real problems, to be sure, that the green movement and any effective oppositional politics in Iran will have to navigate and negotiate, but from an Arab point of view they are problems I would really like to have. One can only imagine with envy a time when the Arab world has to seriously confront reconciling religious and secular tendencies within the same broad-based, uplifting and aspirational rights movement that is confronting dictatorship with dignity and sincerity. The closest thing we see to this in the Arab world today is the budding nonviolent protest movement in the occupied West Bank, but that is confronting Israeli occupation, and not Arab tyranny. I was delighted and honored to participate in the Lake Forest conference on secularism and the future of Iran, but in truth it was yet another stark reminder of how very far the Arab world really has to go to get anywhere remotely near where it needs to be.

BDS in Berkeley: breakthrough or falling at the first hurdle?

Recent efforts by student activists and others to convince the University of California Berkeley to divest from two companies with strong ties to Israel and its defense establishment is the first really powerful test of the “BDS” movement in the United States. The bottom line is this: if you can’t get divestment through UC Berkeley, you’re done. UC Berkeley is the epicenter of not only liberalism, but even radicalism, in American academia and indeed American social life in general. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s proving so difficult.

After a long campaign, pro-sanctions activists managed to get the student government to vote for such a resolution, but the student president vetoed it, and the struggle then became to get a supermajority required to overcome that veto. The first attempt to do this failed, but has been tabled until next week. It may or may not succeed, and at any rate it would only be a recommendation to the university without any force. So even if it passes in the end, it hardly constitutes an act of actual divestment.

But I think UC Berkeley is an interesting test in the opposite way that BDS proponents suggest: I don’t think it would be a tremendous and astonishing achievement to get UC Berkeley to go along with this idea. In fact, really it should not be difficult for such ideas to spread throughout the Bay Area. And I think that’s probably the limit, more or less, of its potential area of effectiveness in the United States, with some other, much smaller, pockets of extreme liberalism excepted. So the real test is not whether it can succeed at UC Berkeley against all expectations, but rather whether it will fail there against those same expectations, or at least my own well-informed understanding of what those expectations ought to be.

Spin is a wondrous thing, and I’ve rarely seen more spin in my life than has been engaged in by BDS proponents who have been trying to create the impression that there is a major movement in this direction in the United States and that is “succeeding” and, even more preposterously, “having results.” One day, I suppose it’s possible that such a thing may come to pass, but it’s very difficult if not impossible under present circumstances to imagine many major American institutions, even academic institutions, divesting or adopting any kind of generalized boycott against Israel. I think people who imagine this happening really don’t have a clear sense of the degree to which Israeli institutions are intertwined and enmeshed with American institutions, most specifically military and intelligence, but also corporate, nongovernmental, civil society and academic ones as well. The pushback from pro-Israel activists will be enormous and, I think in most cases, likely successful. I just don’t think there’s an appetite for this in most elements of American society. I’d be perfectly open to being proven wrong, but I think the UC Berkeley case illustrates my point extremely well. BDS activists are spinning the thus far unsuccessful UC Berkeley effort (at issuing a recommendation, mind you) as a “great achievement,” but I really don’t think any serious person can buy that line. They may have a success next week, and then some more in the Bay Area and a few other places, but I really think that will be all she wrote even in a best case scenario.

The problem, ultimately, with the BDS approach as on display at UC Berkeley, and in contrast to other boycott efforts that wisely target elements of the occupation such as the settlements, as opposed to Israel itself, is that it doesn’t advance any articulable or achievable political goal. No doubt that behind such efforts for the most part lurk one-state sentiments that, however noble they might be, don’t actually correspond to anything plausibly achievable. Since working towards ending the occupation is the only sensible course of action under the present circumstances, and the only seriously achievable goal that would advance both the Palestinian national interest and the cause of peace, activism should be measured by the degree to which it helps to promote that goal. If another goal is intended, I think people need to be very clear about what it is, and how they hope to get there, and I really don’t think anyone can really imagine that boycotts are going to be the primary tool in resolving this national conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Anyone who does think that is hopelessly, touchingly naïve. The very most generous thing one might say is that this is a movement waiting for a leadership to emerge deus ex machina that could translate its momentum, if any, into actual political results vis-à-vis Israel. If the goal is ending the occupation, then the problem with BDS is that instead of distinguishing between the occupation and Israel itself, and separating the interests of the majority of Israelis from the settlers and other proponents of maintaining the occupation at all costs, it conflates them and creates an atmosphere which encourages Israelis in general to circle the wagons against outside pressure rather than understand that ending the occupation is in their own interests.

The Berkeley resolution doesn’t, in fact, talk about occupation, but rather about war crimes, mainly with reference to the war in Gaza. So, perhaps, its proponents might argue that it is simply a principled stand against companies connected to an entity (the Israeli military) that has committed war crimes, and not to any broader political agenda or achievable goal. I think that’s probably disingenuous. If it is true, then it means this is not only a largely empty gesture, but a pointless one as well, literally, since the war is over and the political agenda has moved on in every direction. I think it’s clear from most BDS rhetoric that BDS proponents do see boycotts and divestment as part of an overall political agenda, but usually the intended outcome is left very murky — indeed, it’s noteworthy that the Berkeley effort has had support from prominent people who completely disagree about what the appropriate overall political agenda (two states, one state, etc.) has to be. This reflects a serious degree of confusion. Clarity is required and political goals dictate strategy, which then defines tactics. In this case, the goal is amorphous, even contradictory, so the strategy is unclear and the tactics, such as this action at UC Berkeley, seem unconnected to any coordinated effort that has a focused, organized goal. It’s extremely unlikely that such wild, uncoordinated efforts could ultimately produce any kind of intended effect. Indeed, it’s more likely to have unintended effects.

There are other kinds of boycotts and divestment, which I wholeheartedly support, and which make eminent political sense because they fit perfectly into a broad strategy that is being coordinated by a national leadership. Sanctions targeted at the occupation, the settlements, the wall in the West Bank, etc. and that scrupulously call attention to the distinction between Israel and the one hand and the occupation on the other hand and that separate the two and pull their interests apart are useful both in terms of political symbolism and, potentially, as practical pressure on certain vulnerabilities regarding that aspect of Israeli behavior that most needs changing. Such sanctions and divestment are consistent with the PA strategy that combines diplomacy with state and institution building, nonviolent protests and economic measures aimed at the occupation, and that has a clear intended outcome: ending the occupation. This strategy seeks to continue the process of dividing Israelis between those who support maintaining occupation at all costs and those who understand distinction between Israel as such and the occupation and the settlers.

Of course, there are plenty of people who support the broad kind of BDS that tends to unite rather than divide Israelis and which has no clear strategic aim, and who in fact are opposed to ending the occupation and prefer instead the one-state agenda aimed at the elimination of Israel and the creation of a single, democratic state in its place. For them, the fact that measures like the proposed Berkeley resolution target Israel generally is a positive thing. They’ve no interest in dividing Israeli society, only in confronting it. They’ve no interest in ending the occupation, since they don’t recognize the occupation, or at least have adopted logic that doesn’t allow for one to meaningfully speak in terms of an occupation, only discrimination in a single, at present undemocratic, state. Many of them also continue to talk about settlements, although that also doesn’t make any sense either given their logic, although they could talk about discriminatory Jewish-only towns or something like that. It never ceases to fascinate me that one-state rhetoric continues to be so deeply mired in two-state logic (occupation, settlements, etc.), categories that make no sense once a single state agenda has been adopted.

My point here is that there are sanctions and there are sanctions. Some have a clear goal and a positive effect, and others, and I’m afraid the UC Berkeley effort falls into this category, have unstated and entirely unclear goals, differently understood by different supporters, and would likely have counterproductive effects, if any. In a sense, this whole subject is rather moot, because I am completely convinced that there will not be any widespread boycotting and divesting of Israel and companies that do business in Israel in the United States generally, and that even if there were, that would not be anywhere near enough to get the Israelis to consider things like dissolving their own state. But if the Berkeley effort fails, and continues to fail, it will mean that BDS aimed at Israel in general and not the occupation, can’t take root even in the most fertile soil in the entire country. At that point, well-meaning activists really need to think of something else.

Obama’s blunt message to Congress: lack of peace costs us “blood and treasure”

Yesterday Pres. Obama gave the first clear indication of exactly where he stands in disputes embroiling the administration on how to go forward with Middle East peace in the context of the standoff with PM Netanyahu over settlements in Jerusalem. The President said that resolving the conflict is a “vital national interest of the United States,” and, echoing points made with varying degrees of emphasis by Gen. Petraeus, Adm. Mullen and Sec. Gates, very significantly added that such conflicts are “costing us significantly in terms of blood and treasure.” These are unprecedented comments from this or any other US president, and reflect the shift in the context of US-Israel relations and the new way in which Israeli policies are perceived in Washington, about which I have been writing for many months.

Please note that neither the President nor any of his aides are saying, as is sometimes wrongly suggested, that Israel or Israeli policies are threatening American security or American lives. But what they are saying is that the lack of peace, the continuation of the conflict and the occupation are serious strategic problems for the United States throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, including in Afghanistan and Iraq and with regard to Iran. The bottom line is that Israeli policies are no longer viewed primarily as either simply a matter of bilateral relations between Israel and the United States or functions of domestic American political considerations, as they sometimes have been in the past. Instead, they are increasingly being placed in a much broader context that gives them a very different significance and implication.

The long-standing debate over “linkage” is over: not only is linkage firmly established as a real and crucial phenomenon in the eyes of Washington, linkage is not simply being identified between one or two strategic issues, but many. Because of its symbolic resonance and political significance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation are rightly seen by the administration as linked to almost everything the United States wants to achieve in the Arab and Islamic worlds. This has created a new and extremely significant dilemma for Netanyahu, and is the context of the present standoff between the two governments.

The President’s message is unambiguous but multivalent. It is aimed at multiple audiences for multiple purposes.

First, obviously it’s a message to Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states that the United States is absolutely determined to achieve a peace agreement because it does not consider this optional, but regard it as essential to “vital” US national security concerns. The more the stonewalling from the parties continues, the more the Obama administration seems determined to express the depth of its commitment to doing something about this, not for moral or even political reasons, but for essential and unavoidable strategic considerations.

The President’s reference to “blood and treasure” is aimed, I think mainly, at the Congress. On Saturday I wrote that the name of the game in Washington now is the President keeping hold of his support in Congress, especially among well-placed pro-Israel Jewish Democrats. Thus far, he has been successful, which is one of the main reasons Netanyahu ducked out of the nuclear terrorism conference this week. I think the message is being sent to members of Congress who might be tempted to waver in their support for Obama is that the President is unequivocal that this is an issue of vital national security interests. It involves, ultimately, the lives of US soldiers. It is not a matter for political games, grandstanding or pandering. He’s drawing a line in the sand and saying: we need this as a country, now stick with me. And, of course, he’s right.

The final target audience are the factions within his own administration who have been feuding, in some cases publicly, as well as seriously debating how to move forward in the context of recalcitrance by all the parties — Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states — as well as the current standoff with the Netanyahu cabinet. No one now need wonder where the President stands. He has made that abundantly clear.

Of all of these, Congress is probably the most important audience at the moment. It comes in the context of the first glimmers of real pushback from the legislative branch, most notably a letter sent two days ago from most senators to Sec. Clinton that was essentially boilerplate, but which seemed to put the onus for resolving the standoff on the administration. In and of itself, it doesn’t signify much of anything, and I don’t think it greatly annoyed the administration, but I do think that it — along with several other efforts by pro-Israel organizations, most recently a letter from World Jewish Congress chief Ronald Lauder questioning US commitment to Israel’s security — helped prompt these extremely strong comments from the President. His remarks were buttressed by an exceptionally robust statement of US commitment to pursuing a negotiated agreement from the US deputy permanent representative to the United Nations before the Security Council also on Wednesday. Obviously, the administration’s present purpose is clarity, and making sure everybody understands this is not business as usual, that Washington is not backing down, and that it does not feel it has the option of walking away.

I have been writing and speaking about this shift of context for US-Israel relations and the peace process given the new conceptualization of regional dynamics and networked linkage for many months now, employing the analogy of a kaleidoscope in which, when one piece of the puzzle moves, the entire pattern rearranges itself. It’s becoming clearer that this is indeed a widespread perspective shared by the administration at the highest possible levels, as well as a consensus in the foreign policy establishment. It’s also clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is generally perceived to be at the center of that pattern of interdependent strategic dynamics, because of its tremendous political resonance. In other words, what happens in Palestine can affect what happens in Iraq, but not so much vice versa. What happens in Palestine can affect what happens even in Afghanistan, but not so much vice versa. What happens in Palestine has much more impact on what happens in Iran than the reverse, unless of course there was some kind of regime change via the green movement or some other force. Even then, it might still be the case that what happens in Palestine has, in general, more impact in Iran than vice versa. And, it’s also important to note, that more even than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is the problem of Iran and its nuclear weapons program that dominates administration concerns in the Middle East at the present time.

But none of this should be overstated. The American commitment to Israel’s security is unshaken and unshakable. The special relationship, which has this commitment at its center, operates at a level beyond such political disputes. This doesn’t and indeed cannot change that. In addition, it’s important to state again that the administration’s concern is the lack of peace, which it blames on the parties generally and not just Israel. Arabs or any others who are enjoying some kind of schadenfreude at Israel’s, or at least Netanyahu’s, expense should be bracing themselves for their own dose of tough love, or possibly even just toughness, from the administration as soon as the standoff with Netanyahu is resolved, and possibly even before that.

Many supporters of Israel are understandably concerned about the new way of looking at these issues in Washington and within the administration, the confrontation over settlements in Jerusalem, and the implications of the President’s statement and those of other administration officials. But they should understand that Administration attention is focused on this issue now in large part because of its concern about Iran and its efforts to craft a workable policy on that issue, which is also the central concern for the Israelis. Moreover, a negotiated peace agreement is not only a vital American interest for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated peace agreement at the soonest possible date, it’s also indispensable for Israel’s interests. In fact, although the present Israeli government doesn’t act like it, it’s even more important for Israel than it is for the Americans. Whatever the settlers and their supporters, and the rest of the extreme Israeli ultra-right, might think, Obama is advancing, not threatening, Israel’s most vital national interests. Until now he has retained strong support in the Jewish community and among the most important Jewish members of Congress. It’s important for everyone that he retains this support, and he’s just given the strongest possible argument to the lawmakers for that: the lack of a peace agreement is costing the United States not only treasure, but blood.

A US Middle East peace plan in theory and practice

A few days ago a David Ignatius column in the Washington Post introduced a new Obama administration concept in the standoff with PM Netanyahu: the idea that the United States might develop and begin promoting its own specified plan for a Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. In effect, this plays on Israel’s deep concern about a settlement that is “imposed” by outside powers rather than one that is negotiated with the Palestinians. They fear this would deprive them of the leverage that comes from the asymmetry of power between the occupier and the occupied, and mean in effect negotiating with the United States rather than the Palestinians and suddenly being the weaker party in a new asymmetry of power. Ignatius accurately recounted that at the most recent of a series of meetings National Security Advisor James Jones has been holding with six of his predecessors, Pres. Obama dropped by for 10 minutes and asked directly about the prospects of such a move. Apparently first Brent Scowcroft and then Zbigniew Brzezinski strongly endorsed the idea, followed by others, and no one objected. The President apparently did not either welcome or dismiss this response, but listened and left. Ignatius quoted two unnamed senior administration officials endorsing the idea, creating the impression that this is a real and imminent possibility.

I think it’s impossible to read this as, at this stage at least, anything other than a trial balloon largely designed to pressure Netanyahu and his colleagues. Translated into English, the rhetoric first floated in the Ignatius column says to Bibi: “we haven’t heard back from you since the Shepherd Hotel fiasco and the insult to the President, and you have to come up with something quickly. The special relationship does not give you license to push us around, and you need to know we are going to be the winners in this confrontation. We are not going to accept a stalemate, and if you don’t come up with something acceptable, you’re going to force us to begin to move in this direction eventually. We have options. Don’t make us use them.” One should quickly point out that anyone rejoicing that the United States is seriously considering drafting its own peace plan and then trying to impose it on the parties should drink a big glass of water and breathe deeply. No doubt it’s true that there are many people in the foreign policy establishment who think it would be a good idea, and a faction within the administration that is pushing for it, obviously led by Gen. Jones. However, for many reasons it’s also obvious that the administration is quite a long way off from doing this, if it ever would.

At some point the United States will clearly have to fight with both Israel and the Palestinians, and possibly the Arab states as well, over substantive issues in order to midwife a workable negotiated peace agreement. This might involve a comprehensive American plan rather than bridging proposals. But for this to be productive, the fight needs to come at a time when it has a real chance of producing serious diplomatic benefits. It’s important to understand that this administration wasn’t looking for a fight with Israel now. Netanyahu, and much more specifically whoever decided to announce the Ramat Shlomo settlement expansion during the Biden visit and then the Shepherd Hotel expansion on the same day as Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, have forced the issue in a reckless and bizarre manner. The administration is rightly determined not to be seen as backing down, and not to take these slights and defiance with equanimity. But the administration’s goal is to get the two parties back into talks, with the hope that negotiations will begin to produce their own dynamic that can move away from bilateral US-Israel discussions about settlements in Jerusalem to Palestinian-Israel discussions about final status issues.

The problem is, of course, it’s not evident that the administration has either a clear sense of what to do once the negotiations begin, or a plan b if they continue to be frustrated by the recalcitrance of one or both of the parties. This is where the Jones-Ignatius trial balloon comes in. It serves two purposes. First, for the faction within the administration that wants the United States to intervene forcefully with its own proposals, it advances their idea in the context of a breakdown in political relations with the Israeli government. It offers a critique of “incrementalism” in this context and proposes a solution of bold gestures on the biggest issues. For the administration in general, and Pres. Obama in particular, this trial balloon more immediately and importantly serves the purpose of turning up the heat under Netanyahu, and sending the message I outlined above. Whether or not it’s the subject of any serious consideration within the administration, it underscores American determination and frustration with Israeli ambiguity on peace and defiance of reasonable US demands.

So, at the moment, this idea really operates at the level of a threat to Netanyahu, and an idea about having an idea if all else fails. Yesterday, Gen. Jones told reporters that “no decision” has been made about whether to begin drafting a plan or not, which is both clearly true and also not intended to be reassuring to Netanyahu (reassurance would have been in the form of “no intention” or “no plans” to do any such thing, which is certainly nothing like what he said). However, it is possible to imagine a scenario in the coming months and years in which mounting American frustration with the parties, especially Israel, transforms this trial balloon into a real strategic program for want of any better options. Israeli media have been expressing considerable anxiety about an “imposed” settlement, and that anxiety is not entirely misplaced. The reality is that, for reasons I’ve been explaining on the Ibishblog and in over 25 university lectures in the past few weeks, the Obama administration and more broadly the foreign policy establishment in Washington now sees an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a strategic imperative for the United States. So, this is more than just a squabble between politicians, or even a policy dispute, it’s about a newly perceived and fundamental contradiction between the vital national interests of the United States and policies to which the right-wing Israeli government are committed. If Israel simply will not play ball, they might leave the United States only two options: walk away, with disastrous consequences for US interests throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, or choose the right time and method to actually try to coerce or impose a settlement on all parties, including Israel.

The substance of such a plan is easy to anticipate, since there isn’t much wiggle room within the minimum national requirements for both Israelis and Palestinians. As Helene Cooper outlined in the New York Times, it’s going look a lot like the Clinton parameters and other familiar formulae. What’s more difficult to conceptualize is what it would take to drive an administration to actually place such a high-stakes wager, and how they could keep support of Congress in the process. And, what is almost impossible to imagine is how precisely the United States could “impose” such an agreement on the parties, especially an Israeli government right wing enough (as the current one seems to be) to be opposed to key elements of any reasonable agreement, especially regarding Jerusalem. Because it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to talk about in theory and very difficult to imagine working well in practice, it’s the sort of idea that’s well-suited for a trial balloon but less attractive as a policy.

There is also an important contextual contradiction between what might prompt the United States to publicly issue its own plan and the conditions that might make it an effective gesture. Frustration with the parties, especially Israel, is what really drives this idea, and has given it its present momentum. However, that frustration is produced by the kind of recalcitrance that would ensure maximal resistance to key elements of the plan by Israel and possibly others as well. In other words, the conditions that would give rise to it are the very same ones that would probably kill it. An administration facing an Israeli government willing to play ball on peace enough to make a plan workable would probably not feel the need to take this drastic step.

And, timing is everything. An American proposal issued at the wrong moment, such as the present one for example, might well prompt an even deeper bilateral crisis with the Israelis, but it would probably be rejected with such unanimity that it would die an epic death. Obviously, that might do far more harm to the cause of peace than good. And ill-chosen timing would also risk the administration losing support in Congress, which is crucial. At present, the Obama administration has very much the upper hand with Netanyahu because it has held key support in Congress, including from a number of extremely well-placed pro-Israel Jewish Democrats. It’s obvious that the Israelis were counting on countering administration pressure with congressional support, but for once they have not been able to muster it, at least so far. It’s obvious they didn’t have a plan b either.

If Netanyahu thought he might be the recipient of some serious congressional support, he might have braved the trip to Washington that he canceled mere hours after the Ignatius piece was published. But it’s clear Washington at the moment is largely hostile territory for him because he hasn’t been able to produce anything to defuse the crisis with the Americans. The idea that he suddenly realized that Muslims might make an issue out of Israel’s nuclear arsenal or, in the other explanation the Israeli government has offered, that they suddenly remembered the prime minister has to be around for Holocaust Memorial Day are both completely absurd. The Ignatius article and other administration comments both on and off the record about considering a US peace plan were the last straw, and he canceled his trip because he has nothing constructive to tell Americans both in the administration and in Congress who are expecting a reasonable response.

So to a very large extent the name of the game at this point is for the President to keep hold of congressional support. As long as he has it, the onus is very much on Netanyahu who is simply going to have to come up with something sooner rather than later because he is dealing with a united US government and has been unable to play off one branch against another. Any gesture to issue a US peace plan would have to be done and, crucially, timed in a manner that ensures congressional support, or at least non-opposition. For that to happen, either the atmospherics regarding the likelihood of an agreement would have to be very different than they are at present, or the level of frustration with Israel in Congress has to be a lot deeper than it is now, and in either case a considerable amount of political groundwork that has not been done would be required.

In spite of all of these serious pitfalls, the present line of thinking contains a great many positive elements. It continues the ongoing process of distinguishing between US and Israeli positions and interests in a very healthy way when too often for the past 20 years the default has simply been for the United States to support Israel in all things, no matter what. It reflects salutary administration determination and an unwillingness to be stymied by Israeli stonewalling or strategic ambiguity. And it shows the administration is seriously examining what its options might be. All of these are important developments that need to be encouraged.

Moreover, it really is important for the United States to have a clear understanding of exactly where it wants to go with the peace process. Right now, the US is committed to a negotiated agreement that involves the creation of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state and a resolution of the other final status issues, and that leads to normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. This is incredibly vague. The only deeper specificity thus far from the Obama administration has been some clarity on what the permanent status issues are — borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem — and an insistence that they all must be on the table in either direct or proximity talks. Again, that leaves far too much up to two parties that are defined by an extraordinary asymmetry of power and who have demonstrated for a long time that left to their own devices they are not capable of reaching a reasonable agreement. Therefore, it is actually important for the administration to seriously work on formulating a more detailed outline of what it thinks a workable agreement would look like, in order to ensure that everyone in the administration is really working for the same goals and in order to craft policies that advance the realization of such an agenda.

How you actually get to such a desired outcome is less important. In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s the result of an announced US overall peace plan that is “imposed” in some very difficult to imagine manner, or if it is the product of another process such as negotiations between the parties aided by US bridging proposals, assurances, inducements and so forth. But it is important to know precisely where you want to go. So, rather than having this idea remain simply a trial balloon designed to send a strong message to the Israelis, or having it all just go away and returning to approaches that have not yet yielded significant results, a measured way forward might involve seriously working on more specific outlines of what precisely the United States believes would constitute a workable and achievable agreement that would advance its interests in the region but not making this public or presenting it to the parties for the foreseeable future. This would allow the United States to operate with greater clarity and focus, but would avoid the pitfalls of a premature and ill-timed announcement of a US agenda that under the present circumstances would probably be rejected by Israel out of hand and possibly even also by the Palestinians and/or the Arab states, and might break key Congressional support for Pres. Obama.

This would ensure that the United States is ready with a proposal if it comes to feel it has no other choice but to present one, or otherwise finds it an attractive prospect. And, it might help end or at least reduce public squabbling between administration factions and personalities. The question is: could one really keep it off the public radar? I suppose a disciplined administration might be able to, and there is always the ability to simply deny any leaks emphatically even if they’re accurate. It’s well worth the risk in my view. Whether the trial balloon dies or grows into a real agenda, and whether or not the United States ever feels the need to publicly issue a comprehensive Middle East peace plan, a clearer sense within the administration of what precisely our country is trying to promote and achieve between Israel and the Palestinians is an extremely good idea.

The Shakespeare Theater Company’s Richard II and the dumbing-down compulsion

Anyone who went to see the Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of Richard II, which is wrapping up this weekend, and who knows their Shakespeare, was in for quite a nasty surprise at its outset. The first several scenes, running more than 20 minutes into the production, are not Richard II at all, they’re not even Shakespeare. They are from an incomplete manuscript usually referred to as Thomas of Woodstock that is contemporaneous with early Shakespeare, but possibly slightly earlier. Though some people have tried to attribute authorship of the play to Shakespeare, I think there’s almost no possibility that Shakespeare wrote it even though it shares many themes and characters that appear in several of his plays, especially Richard II, because the quality of the poetry simply doesn’t hold up to even his earliest and crudest work. If anyone ever doubted that, the STC production, in which the language suddenly and spectacularly soars when the dialogue switches from Woodstock to Richard, should firmly convince them. I have no idea how much of the audience throughout its run was aware of what was going on (I had no idea until the play started, and my companion was shocked when I told her, “wtf, this isn’t Shakespeare, it’s from a crappy play called Woodstock,” and later when I had to reassure her, “I’ll tell you when the Shakespeare starts”), but my guess is it’s quite a large number.

Now, all things being equal, conflating plays really isn’t a bad thing at all… if it works. Unfortunately, in this case it’s really a disaster. My negative evaluation is not being colored by my short-lived feud with the STC that seems to have been thankfully resolved. The bad blood had to do with my strong objections to some of their recent ghastly productions, especially The Alchemist, which was utterly ruined, and As You Like It, which I most certainly did not. Both were just awful, and there is no other word for it. They represented what is really objectionable about the current STC approach, which is a relentless tendency to dumb everything down in an insulting manner that also seriously degrades the plays themselves. The STC suffers from several endemic problems, the most serious of which are that it is self-satisfied, complacent and committed to gaining the largest possible audiences through pandering to what it imagines are the public’s limitations. This sometimes produces dire consequences, as with the two productions cited above. But not everything they do is awful by any means. The recent Balkan war-themed King Lear starring a Saddam-like Stacy Keach, both of which just received Helen Hayes Awards, was really very good. Twelfth Night was charming and funny and also quite well done. There was some dumbing-down in both of them, but other qualities carried the day, especially Keach’s brilliant performance.

The winding-down production of Richard II falls somewhere in between the two. It’s not a complete and total disaster, but the decision to conflate big chunks of Woodstock into its opening was an absolutely terrible idea that again reflects this unfortunate tendency to underestimate the capacity of the audience to deal with complexity. I can imagine the conversation that led to this atrocious decision quite easily. Richard II is shot through with what can only be described as a conspiracy theory, or a set of conspiracy theories, surrounding the looming political question of “who killed Gloucester?” It haunts much of the play like “who killed JFK?” or maybe even “who killed Laura Palmer?” Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was one of Richard’s uncles, and Richard II’s first scene depicts an enraged argument between Mowbray and Bolingbroke over the latter’s accusations that the former was responsible for his murder. The play is riddled with accusations and counter-accusations about the killing, and when Bolingbroke finally deposes Richard, a dizzying free-for-all of threats and blame over the murder again erupts in the court like the return of the repressed with a vengeance. But Shakespeare is never clear about who did, in fact, kill Gloucester.

Some scholars like to argue that in his audience “everyone knew” the received wisdom that the chroniclers of the day, especially Holinshed, held that Mowbray had organized the killing on behalf of Richard because of Gloucester’s outspoken criticism of his mismanagement and cronyism. I’m not sure I find this terribly convincing, and besides, if Shakespeare wanted to establish with certainty that this was the case, there are dozens of ways he could have done it. In fact, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to ensure that the question of Gloucester’s death is a zone of almost occult instability that emphasizes the eerie way in which the murder haunts not only Richard’s rule, but Bolingbroke’s as well (until Richard’s own murder supplants it), not to mention the play itself. Here’s where the STC’s dumbing-down impulse takes over. I’m sure Kahn and company were greatly worried that the audience would be confused by this deliberate and careful ambiguity about the actual circumstances of Gloucester’s murder, and all of these obscure implications and vague conspiracy theories. And then somebody had a brilliant idea: import parts of Woodstock that clearly depict Mowbray arranging for Gloucester’s murder on behalf of Richard, and then we will have clarity and the audience will not be confused anymore. Indeed, but at what price?

I would argue that this “clarity” does considerable damage to Richard II on several levels. For one thing, it undermines the finely wrought tension in the play between political legitimacy as embodied in Richard’s divine right versus political merit as embodied in Bolingbroke’s skills and effectiveness. Establishing Richard’s culpability clearly makes Bolingbroke’s case a little too strong to sustain the level of tension Shakespeare chose to craft and which the STC chucks away.

Similarly, we lose the extremely interesting interplay of the first three scenes of Shakespeare’s actual text. In the first scene, Richard appears impartial and judicious, almost wise, in remaining studiously neutral between his cousin Bolingbroke and Mowbray. However, in the second scene, another of his uncles, John of Gaunt, strongly implies to Gloucester’s outraged widow that nothing can be done about the murder because the King is ultimately responsible and must be dealt with only by God. This of course offers the potential for a completely different reinterpretation of Richard’s apparent judiciousness in the first scene, suggesting it may well have been a cynical and politically expedient means of hanging Mowbray out to dry. It also brings into sharper relief the question of Bolingbroke’s motivations for the accusation: is he merely pursuing a personal vendetta against Mowbray, or is he launching a long-term strategy aimed at Richard’s power by attacking its weakest point, the murder of Gloucester? There is a distinct and carefully crafted ambiguity about all of these questions, greatly adding to the richness of the play.

In addition, because the first and second scenes combine to create a belated sense of Richard’s own possible culpability in Gloucester’s death, this creates a potential ambiguous dual reading of the third scene, the trial in which Mowbray and Bolingbroke are going to duel to establish the veracity of their competing claims. After a tremendous buildup to the joust, at the last second Richard intervenes and banishes both men, Mowbray for life and Bolingbrook for first 10 and then, on reconsideration, six years. The reasons for this decision are not readily apparent, although Richard claims it is to preserve calm in the kingdom and apparently even Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, reluctantly agrees with this logic. However, given Richard’s evident attachment to and deep belief in the system that has made him King by divine right, a divinely-guided and accurate test of the competing claims at stake may have seemed too dangerous if he was indeed responsible for the killing. If Bolingbroke can establish Mowbray’s culpability through defeating him in the duel, assuming one believes God defends the right, then the finger of blame begins to point squarely in Richard’s direction. So the last-minute intervention and banishment, especially making sure Mowbray, who could betray him, is gone forever, could be read as a cynical effort on Richard’s part to avoid the conspiracy theory developing any further — what Nixon termed “the hangout route” during the Watergate scandal.

The point is that in Shakespeare’s text, both of these readings and indeed others, are plausible given the ambiguity about the actual circumstances of Gloucester’s murder. All of this is lost in the STC production because of the misguided decision to “clarify” this ambiguity by introducing large chunks of an infinitely inferior play by an infinitely inferior poet. I would argue that Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing, since he was an artist more than capable of shaping clarity and ambiguity to fit his own dramatic purposes. In fact, it’s one aspect of storytelling at which he is an almost unrivaled master. It’s possible that Kahn and the others thought that because in Shakespeare’s own audience “everyone knew” that Mowbray killed Gloucester at Richard’s behest, the modern audience needed a little help. First of all, I’m not at all convinced that “everybody knew” anything of the kind. This assumes a level of detailed knowledge of English history on the part of a lot of illiterate and semiliterate people in Elizabethan London that strikes me as somewhat implausible. But, for the sake of argument let’s say they did. More importantly, everybody really did “know” lots of things that Shakespeare makes crystal clear in his histories for narrative and other artistic purposes, so the question is: why does he go to such elaborate lengths to produce, layer and delicately cultivate this kind of ambiguity in Richard II? Obviously, the answer is because it is a crucial part of the dramatic purpose of the work and I think the STC production makes it extremely clear why that is important because of what is lost when this rich, complex ambiguity is replaced by crude, flattening clarity.

They don’t stop, unbelievably enough, at importing chunks of Woodstock. The STC production actually completely rearranges the structure of the first three scenes I described above, with the John of Gaunt/Duchess of Gloucester (Woodstock’s widow) scene that is the second in Shakespeare’s play coming before the other two, and the first and third scenes of Shakespeare’s text — the argument in the court and the duel scene respectively — incongruously and clumsily conflated. In the process, all of the carefully and delicately constructed ambiguity, tension, conspiracy and conspiracy theory about Richard’s relationship to Gloucester’s murder is completely lost. Of course, it’s every director’s and every company’s right to rearrange scenes however they want in any production, but the audience has a right to ask: does this work? In this case, unambiguously not.

And it gets even worse than that. In Shakespeare’s first scene, the argument at court, Mowbray angrily claims:
“For Gloucester’s death,
I slew him not, but to my own disgrace
Neglected my sworn duty in that case.”
What this “neglected duty” refers to is entirely obscure, and Shakespeare deliberately leaves it so. If Mowbray was implicated in the murder at Richard’s behest, since Gloucester died how did he neglect any duty? If he was not, what duty did he then neglect? According to Holinshed, Shakespeare’s main source, Mowbray wanted to spare Gloucester but was compelled by Richard to organize the killing. So, is Mowbray denying any connection to the murder? Is he appealing to Richard for protection? Is he disclaiming responsibility on the grounds of compulsion? Is he quibbling that he slew him not because he ordered other people to do it for him? Is this the line that sets up Mowbray for banishment because it implies that he might spill the beans? All of these readings and many more are opened up in Shakespeare’s text because of the carefully crafted ambiguity about the circumstances of the murder and in Mowbray’s oblique comment. In their lamentable drive to replace rich Shakespearean ambiguity with their own version of “clarity,” STC obliterates all these questions by going so far as to invent a new line for Mowbray following “Neglected my sworn duty in that case,” continuing the sentence with “by not apprehending the culprits” or something like that (obviously, I didn’t bother to write it down, but it leapt out at me like a giant wad of spit from the mouth of a hooligan).

Well, they certainly added clarity. They inserted it in the play with a bulldozer in the opening sequences jerryrigged from Woodstock, and with a scalpel in this little sliver of text deftly inserted in Mowbray’s speech like a bamboo shoot under the fingernail. With blunt force and surgical skill, STC got rid of one of the most intriguing and multivalent aspects of Richard II, largely I think because they just didn’t believe that we, the poor stupid audience, could possibly handle Shakespearean ambiguity and complexity. They’re wrong of course. I think any audience carefully paying attention, whether Renaissance or contemporary, is more than able to handle Shakespearean ambiguity and rich complexity, texts and plots that are open to a wild proliferation of signification and interpretation. Otherwise the plays wouldn’t have had the hegemonic cultural power they have wielded for so many years and in so many cultures and countries, far beyond the English-speaking world. This impulse the STC are gripped by to dumb everything down like this is the Achilles’ heel of what ought to be the most important theater company in Washington. Instead, one tends to look to productions of the Folger or even by the upstart Taffety Punk Company for genuine inspiration. What a shame.

Richard II is my favorite of Shakespeare’s early plays, and I think it’s obviously the one he spent most time and care on, in many ways. Not only does that mean I was greatly displeased by this extremely misguided adaptation because I think so much richness was lost, but it also means I have a great deal more to say about Richard II, and I’ll do so in an upcoming posting that puts the STC production aside and looks again at this astonishing masterpiece on its own terms.