Readers’ interview III: Berman, Ramadan, settlements, Hamas, Lebanon, Arab-Americans and AIPAC

Once again I have grouped a series of questions into an extended post I’m calling an Ibishblog readers’ interview. So far, no one’s objected to this structure, and while it makes for longer reading, I still think the questions, although completely independently submitted, sometimes work very well together to move from A to B. By all means, please keep the questions and comments coming.

Q: It seems to me that Mr. [Paul] Berman [author of The Flight of the Intellectuals] as well as the vast majority of our intelligentsia should have abandoned any pretense of possessing any integrity regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by, for over sixty-three years, ignoring Israel’s state sponsored terrorism against the Palestinians. What’s your opinion in that regard?

A: I can’t comment about “the vast majority of our intelligentsia,” but I would say that Paul Berman does in fact strike me overall as being a fair-minded, serious intellectual. My differences with him are differences of opinion, not conclusions about his integrity. Berman is essentially a literary critic, which is probably the best single starting point for the kind of work he does, which is largely rooted in textual analysis. I think where he falls short at times, in my reading of his last book for example, is that on occasion he has less of a grasp of the subject (the evolution of 20th century Islamist political theory, for example) than he thinks he does. His focus on Amin al-Husseini, however, was not arbitrary in any sense. He couldn’t get to Buruma and Garton Ash without going through Ramadan and a critique of Ramadan requires a critique of Hassan al-Banna, which itself does not require but certainly invites a critique of Amin al-Husseini. His choice in this regard was entirely defensible and legitimate. And, he wasn’t unfair to al-Husseini, either. The only, albeit rather serious, problem was his according al-Husseini far more important a role in both the Palestinian national movement and in the Sunni Islamist movement in the Arab world than he reasonably warrants. As I wrote, he would have been better off acknowledging the much more significant influence of Rashid Rida, whose role he gets wrong. But this is not a matter of integrity, it’s a matter of opinion, and I think Berman has plenty of both. Having said that, I do think the overwhelming majority of people in the West, intellectuals and otherwise, would benefit greatly from more knowledge and sensitivity regarding Israel’s history of brutality towards the Palestinian people.

Q: Since you too seem bothered on the matter of pedigree, I would ask you, since Ramadan is to be made accountable for al Banna and the Grand Mufti, may we
hold Norman Schwarzkopf accountable for his father, who assisted in the coup in Iran in 1952? Should we demand that Norman issue a denunciation of that action? Are repudiations and denunciations the requirement here, using the Ramadan standard? And should we force Tzipi Livni to repudiate her father, for killing innocent Palestinians when he was a fighter for the Israelis? I could go on. Are only Muslims to be held to this standard?

A: I’m sorry, but I think you have misunderstood my arguments entirely. Neither Berman nor I are particularly bothered about pedigree. It doesn’t matter who Ramadan’s grandfather or father are, particularly, if his arguments don’t highlight and foreground the question. In fact, Ramadan spends a great deal of his writing embracing, tweaking, massaging and variously dealing with the legacies of his famous forebears. If he has seriously criticized any major position of either of them, I’m not aware of it. Berman is unfortunately right that Ramadan has seen as one of his major roles the custodian and promoter, and I’m afraid hence distorter, of his grandfather’s legacy. Under such circumstances, the substance of his grandfather’s opinions and agenda are relevant. It’s not a matter of DNA, it’s a matter of ideology and agenda. Obviously, Ramadan’s agenda is not the same as Hassan al-Banna’s, but in so far as it’s influenced by, and sees itself as an extension of, it that’s very relevant.

It would be extremely stupid for any of us to ignore Ramadan’s heritage when he makes such a big deal out of it. If he were, for example, a Trotskyite, converted Catholic, or radical Libertarian, implicitly or explicitly rejecting or at least moving past his grandfather’s legacy, his heritage wouldn’t matter at all, and any effort to bring it up would be superfluous and unworthy. But, in fact he has foregrounded the issue at all stages of his career and has built much of it on his position as a kind of Muslim Brotherhood prince. This is not to say that he hews to all of his father’s and grandfather’s positions. Obviously he does not. But also obviously his relationship to them is complex and exceptionally important, and to ask either Berman or me, or anybody else for that matter, to ignore this question when Ramadan himself goes on about it at extreme length is unfair. Finally, it’s preposterous to suggest that I would hold people of Muslim background to any kind of double standard when that would also apply to me. In other words, don’t be silly.

Q: A recent article in the New York Review of Books and supposedly Ha’aretz have both reported that the so-called “freeze” is being systematically violated by Israeli settlers. Is this true and why doesn’t anyone address the terrible impediments, particularly the permit system, which prevents Palestinians from building on their own land?

A: Definitive information about this is hard to come by but all the evidence suggests that several things are going on. First, the moratorium doesn’t apply to certain kinds of building, or many important areas, especially municipal Jerusalem as Israel has defined it. So in that sense, there’s been settlement activity going on all the time. That said, as the confrontation over settlements in Jerusalem between US and Israel demonstrates, the political cost for Israel building in Jerusalem, especially in the Arab neighborhoods, has gone up considerably. Nobody really knows the substance of the US-Israel understanding that resolved the confrontation, but it seems to me that at a minimum the “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement means that in effect Israel will not be building in the coming months in Arab neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem and will be building lightly, if at all, in Jewish neighborhoods and try to keep that quiet. For now, in effect, I think it amounts to the implementation of the “Clinton parameters” in occupied East Jerusalem, although how long it will last is very much open to doubt. The complication in all of this is that Israeli politicians love to boast about settlement activity. There’s hardly a settlement that hasn’t been announced time and again, with great fanfare at every stage of the planning and construction process. This is in spite of the fact that so much of it has gone on in violation of Israel’s own regulations or permit system. So it’s not easy to keep track of things, and one has to rely on the various Israeli human rights organizations that keep close tabs on the subject in order to make sense of it.

Second, there is the question of the unauthorized (in Israeli parlance, “illegal,” although, of course, from a perspective of international legality, all settlements are illegal) outposts. Not only have they continued to crop up around the occupied West Bank, the Israeli government is retroactively recognizing them and ignoring court orders to dismantle them. One of the most cynical arguments we’ve seen deployed during the temporary, partial moratorium is the notion that, and Israeli officials really have made this case both publicly and in court, enforcing the settlement moratorium is so time-consuming and onerous that the Israeli government simply can’t find the time or resources to go ahead with court-ordered or otherwise mandatory dismantling of “illegal” outposts. Probably there isn’t any single greater question mark over the whole moratorium business than the issue of outposts. I think it demonstrates how insincere the entire, I think by now we can say with confidence fraudulent, gesture really has been. In the end, I’m sure that in a two-year period beginning with the first day of the settlement “freeze” there will have been as much settlement activity with as there would have been without it, if not more.

Third, as a matter of fact one has to acknowledge that in some parts of the occupied West Bank, settlement activity genuinely has been constrained by the order. As I say, I’m pretty sure that in the long run as much settlement activity as anyone seriously would, as a practical matter, have anticipated is actually going to take place during a 18-24 month period starting with the settlement “moratorium,” but it’s also true that some building has been prevented in certain areas and even dismantled, or at least scheduled to be dismantled. As with so much that goes on in the occupied Palestinian territories, it’s very hard to distinguish between Israeli announcements and the reality on the ground, both negative and positive. Really, we have to rely on Israeli and Palestinian organizations that actually monitor the situation to come up with accounts that are based on reality rather than on pronouncements. This cuts in both directions. There are plenty of instances in which the Israeli government claims not to be doing things that it is actually doing, but also plenty of times in which they claim to be doing things that, as a matter of fact, are either not going to be done or will be done sometime in the distant future, or which are intended to be done but in the end cannot be done because of American or other pressure. One of the things one learns in following the occupation is not to base one’s opinion on Israeli official statements of any kind. The Foundation for Middle East Peace, B’tselem, Ir Amim, Americans for Peace Now and many others are much better guides to what is happening or not happening than the newspapers are.

Finally, I think a lot of people make quite a big deal over the fact that Palestinians can’t get proper planning permission for building, especially in occupied East Jerusalem. The groups cited above all do, as does the American Task Force on Palestine, and many others. There has also been considerable coverage of this in the media, at least internationally. As long as there is occupation, this is going to continue to be a major problem. The solution to this, as with most other dire circumstances afflicting the Palestinian people, is an end to the occupation. Israeli rule in the occupied territories is almost certainly not going to allow Palestinian society the space it requires. That, after all, is the whole point of the occupation.

Q: When can we expect you to call for Lebanon to grant citizenship to Palestinians and to take down those refugee camps they’ve been cramming 300,000 Palestinians into, denying them healthcare and employment? Or, are you not interested in the plight of “those” Palestinians because Israel is not involved?

A: Right now, and for the umpteenth time. I’ve called for that many times, although the subject hasn’t come up in the 12 months of the Ibishblog. I think Palestinians in Lebanon should immediately be granted the option of citizenship and, whether or not they take citizenship, full and equal rights within Lebanon. The same applies to Syria, although the situation of the Palestinians in Syria is much less dire than that of the Palestinians in Lebanon. I’d go so far as to compare the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon to apartheid, and describe it as one of the world’s more shameful cases of callous abuses of civil rights. As a Lebanese citizen, I’m extremely embarrassed by this, and I have been ever since I was a politically conscious human being. It’s an outrage! I’ve said all of this many, many times in the past, in many public forums in the United States, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world. I’d merely point to my very widely viewed appearance on the Doha Debates, in which I excoriated Lebanon’s treatment (and that of the whole Arab world, for that matter) of the Palestinian refugees and contrasted it negatively with the treatment of Palestinians in the United States. You can easily find that on the web and view it, if you’re really interested in my opinion rather than just trying to find some random stick to charge at me with. In other words, try this line on the next guy. It doesn’t work with me.

Having said all of that, the sad and miserable fact is that the only thing that all of the Lebanese factions can agree on is not granting citizenship or equal rights to the Palestinians in Lebanon. Syria, Jordan and other Arab states can and should accommodate the Palestinian residents as equal citizens if they wish to be, but as a practical political matter, there is almost no chance of this in the Lebanese context. This is, unfortunately, a reality. I don’t think there’s any constituent group in either the March 8 or March 14 groupings (not that they really exist since the aftermath of the last election) that sincerely would support the granting of citizenship or genuinely equal rights to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This unites virtually all the Lebanese from the far left to the ultra-right, and from Maronite chauvinists to Shiite Khomeinists. So in truth, there is almost no chance that this will, as a reality, take place. I think the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is an important secondary argument for the creation of a Palestinian state and a major example of the benefits to refugees, short of the universal application of the right of return, from the creation of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state would serve as a representative of the Palestinians, including refugees, on the international stage, and a haven for those refugees who cannot safely and reasonably continue under their present circumstances. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are exhibit A in that regard and need to be, literally, rescued. Their precarious situation has been in the past, and may well again become, a matter of life and death.

The reality is they are surrounded by Lebanese sectarian forces none of which have anything but a generalized ill will towards them, and it’s possible that whenever civil conflict erupts in that country they will be drawn into it in a very dangerous way. Among other things, the long-standing understanding that the Lebanese army and authorities will not enter Palestinian refugee camps makes them almost irresistible targets of anyone who wants to operate outside of the, already limited, remit of the Beirut government. I think the sad fate of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, which was hijacked by Salafist-Jihadist gangsters on a crime spree and slowly reduced to rubble by the Lebanese army that was confronting them was an excellent case in point of such dangers. Those who blamed the Lebanese army were wrong — they had no choice but to respond vigorously to the criminals. But in reality the refugees in the camp were blameless victims of the entire set to, and it was a tragedy of significant dimensions. So, obviously the best thing for the 200,000 or so Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is to be relocated to a Palestinian state in which they will not be regarded as an unassimilable alien presence.

Q: I’d like to ask you, in light of the apparently meaningless “reconciliation talks,” if, when and how do you see a change in leadership in the Gaza strip? How far do you think the so-called “proximity talks” (if they even start moving) can go without such a change?

A: This is, of course, the question I always get first in my public lectures: what about Hamas? First, I completely agree with you that Palestinian national reunification negotiations are, at this stage, unfortunately pointless. There is a zero sum contest for power between the PLO and Hamas for national leadership of the Palestinian movement and the two parties cannot cohabitate as equals, as demonstrated in 2006-2007, because they disagree about everything. They have incompatible visions on all national questions, the future of Palestine and the nature of Palestinian society. The reality is one position is going to win and the other is going to lose. Obviously neither Islamists nor secularists will vanish and disappear from Palestinian society. However, I have no doubt that over the next 10-15 years a consensus will be established in one direction or the other among a decisive majority of Palestinians and one vision — either that of a negotiated peace agreement with Israel leading to the establishment of an essentially secular state or that of armed struggle leading to the rule of political Islam in whatever territory it can establish itself — will define the lone effective and consequential part of the Palestinian national movement. In my view, it is absolutely essential that a secular nationalist vision prevails and I don’t think the Palestinian cause, as such, can survive its transformation into an Islamist cause. The struggle against Israel would go on, but it would increasingly be about religious ideas like holy places and the will of God and not about Palestinian national rights or aspirations.

The obvious way of resolving this impasse would, of course, be new national elections that would resolve the conundrum created by the split decisions in the 2005 presidential election won by Fatah and the 2006 parliamentary elections won by Hamas. At present, Hamas is completely opposed to any elections, having rejected the PA’s efforts to hold elections in January according to Palestinian law and the Egyptian national reconciliation agreement, signed by Fatah, which would have permitted elections this July. I think the PA is right not to try to hold national elections in the West Bank only, as this would reify and consolidate the political division between the West Bank and Gaza that is absolutely antithetical to the Palestinian national interest. However, they were also right in scheduling municipal elections, that do not have national implications, for the West Bank at least, this July. Hamas is so opposed to elections of any kind at this stage because of their profound current unpopularity and likely trouncing in any election that they have not only opposed the municipal elections, they have ordered everyone not to participate. So, Palestinians will not have national reconciliation through an agreement and will also not have their present political division resolved, as it should be, at the ballot box either. Pres. Abbas recently compared Palestinian society in this regard to an airplane that has been hijacked by Iran, and honestly I don’t think that was a ridiculous comment. One can’t discount the role of regional actors in the Palestinian national division, and while much has been made of the American role supporting the PLO and the PA, there’s no doubt that the Iranian and Syrian roles in supporting Hamas are even more decisive, especially when it comes to blocking national reunification through the Egyptian agreement or through elections, both of which Hamas has rejected.

I think the outcome of all of this will be decided in the West Bank, and not in Gaza. It seems to me that everything depends on the fortunes of the PLO’s national strategy of diplomacy rather than armed struggle and the PA’s state and institution building program. If those are, over the next decade or so, largely seen as successful and moving in the right direction I don’t think preventing Hamas rule in Gaza or anywhere else will prove sustainable even though it is presently enforced at gunpoint. If, over a sustained period of time, it becomes widely perceived to be unsuccessful, I don’t think there’s anything preventing the gradual, or possibly even sudden, takeover of Hamas in the West Bank as well as Gaza and the transformation of the Palestinian movement into an Islamist one. Obviously, this will be a lot more difficult as long as the Arab regimes remained opposed to Muslim Brotherhood power, but it could happen anyway. If the Arab world started to fall to the Brotherhood, Palestine would certainly follow, and it’s possible this could operate the other way around, with Palestine being the bellwether for many other Arab societies to go Islamist. The whole thing is a nightmare of pretty colossal proportions either way, and against the interests of all rational or constructive actors. Therefore, it is essential for all parties to make sure that the PA’s domestic and PLO’s international policies succeed. And, I would add, this means that Israel and the United States will play a crucial role in determining precisely which Palestinians they will be dealing with over the long run.

As for negotiations with Israel, they can proceed very far without the involvement of Hamas. There is no question that legally and politically the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and every Palestinian, Arab and international document affirms this. So do the Letters of Mutual Recognition that are the basis of all Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Even Hamas recognizes this, although they call for the PLO to be restructured, by which they mean they should take it over. What this means, of course, is that talks not only can proceed far, they can be concluded without Hamas participation. Of course, for negotiations to be successful it would be preferable, and possibly even necessary, for outreach to the constituency Hamas represents, the Palestinian religious right, as well as outreach to the Israeli religious right and the settlers, among others. But the framework and substance of a negotiated agreement can be concluded without any direct Hamas input, and in fact the process of arriving at such an agreement will almost certainly relegate Hamas to its rightful position as the main representative of that 15-25% minority of Palestinians who have always been inclined towards religious politics. That constituency needs a voice, and Hamas is going to be that for the foreseeable future, but given that it is naturally and historically a relatively small minority, it certainly shouldn’t have a decisive national role. The same, of course, applies to the Israeli religious right as well.

The implementation of an agreement is another matter. It’s readily imaginable that this might have to start with the West Bank and extend itself by one means or another to Gaza. But my view is that if the train of a negotiated agreement that will end the occupation is leaving the station, Hamas will have to decide whether to get on board or stay behind, and I can’t imagine the people of Gaza tolerating a situation in which the rest of the Palestinians are moving rapidly towards independence and they continue to languish in a giant, rubble-strewn prison because of the irrational, or at least indefensible, policies of their rulers. In other words, I don’t see a change of leadership in Gaza as essential for progress in talks, I see progress in talks is essential for a change in leadership in Gaza.

Q: With $12trillion in petro dollars in US banks, which economists put it around 7-8% of US GDP- how can we Arab Americans take advantage of this Arab power and use it to compete with the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee?

A: Ah, the age-old question. I think the proven answer is, we can’t. The Arab states have demonstrated conclusively over the past 30 years and more than they’re not in the least bit interested in influencing domestic public opinion in the United States or intervening in American politics with the very limited exceptions of securing their aid packages or weapons deals and defense arrangements. I no longer subscribe to the view that they don’t know how to engage the American political system. I am absolutely certain that they simply have no interest in doing so except on very limited, parochial matters of concern. So there’s no chance of doing that.

Moreover, the Arab-Americans are a disproportionately successful, educated, prosperous community with plenty of money of its own. We don’t need petrodollars. But, the Arab-Americans to have also proven disinterested in affecting American politics. We complain, shout and scream, and play the victim well enough, but very few of us actually do anything to make the least bit of difference. In fact, I see the cynicism about Arab-American organizations and politics that prevails in the Arab-American community as essentially a smokescreen for not being involved and, especially, for not contributing financially to collective causes. I think people are always looking for excuses to withhold their time, and especially, money, and I think Arab-Americans are among the greatest masters of this art in the history of humanity. At an ADC convention several years ago, the great historian Walid Khalidi asked a simple question: why do the pro-Israel organizations have so much more influence than the pro-Palestinian ones? He went right down the line. Do they really have so much more money, numbers, education, etc.? The answer obviously in all cases is, no. It might be observed that they’ve had much more time to adjust to the American political system, but that hardly explains the extraordinary disparity. Instead, Khalidi offered the simple, obvious and unavoidable conclusion: they simply care more than we do. They, by and large, contribute their time and money to their cause, and we, by and large, do not. I think this is simply a fact. It doesn’t help that we have professional cynics, naysayers and choric, communal idiots so prominent in our discourse, falsely telling people there is either no need or no point in engaging in the American political system. But the only reason, in the end, there is a market for such grotesque nonsense is that people want an excuse for withholding their time and their money from anything constructive and instead nurturing their supposed victimhood like a hot house orchid and enjoying their symptoms.

One more point: I think that given all the circumstances it is a more rational approach to seek to build bridges, rather than compete, with mainstream Jewish American organizations. They and we, and our friends in Palestine and their friends and Israel, need the same thing: a negotiated two state agreement that ends the conflict. No doubt we’ve had a very long history of rivalry, opposition and unpleasantness between the communities, including JDL terrorism aimed at ADC that took the life of Alex Odeh, among other violent incidents. But it would be irrational not to recognize that when two parties need the same outcome, they should be willing to forge an alliance to achieve it. Of course, our ability to do this, or anything else politically, would be greatly enhanced by a transformation in the community’s willingness to support its organizations (I hold out very little hope for Arab governments getting involved in a serious way, unless people come to them waving the banner of Islam, of course). But I think the reality is that the best of our organizations are either small and starved or forced to seek financing that compromises their independence. The worst are fronts and shills for bad actors in the Middle East. There is only one solution: the community needs to wake up, immediately, and start supporting and funding the small group of genuinely independent, serious organizations that understand American politics and want to engage as sincere, patriotic American citizens with an Arab-American agenda. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath.