Monthly Archives: August 2010

Israeli and Palestinian extremists are attempting to sabotage negotiations before they begin

I suppose it was to be expected, but the brazenness with which extremists on both sides are trying to sabotage upcoming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is simply breathtaking. The far more serious effort is on the Israeli side, in which activists, and even members of the government, to the right of PM Netanyahu are trying to destroy the key to the talks, which was a private understanding between Netanyahu and Pres. Obama that after the “settlement moratorium” expires on September 26, Israel would largely restrict building to the main settlement blocs, Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem and other areas generally understood to be the subject of a future land swap. The difficulty here is that this was merely a private understanding, although a clear one, between two political leaders, not an agreement between governments or states, and certainly not anything public. In fact, the whole idea hinged entirely on it not becoming public — the point was that while the settlement issue has proven itself to be toxic for both the US-Israel relationship and the process of getting peace negotiations started again, Israel simply cannot be allowed to continue to change the strategic landscape with further expropriations in the West Bank or projects in Palestinian areas of occupied East Jerusalem. Therefore, the way out was not to renew the ?moratorium,? and in fact probably not say anything at all other than some vague comments from Netanyahu about the resumption of building, and that from then on Israel would be judged by what it did rather than what it said about settlements.

This understanding was that the heart of the American-Israeli quid pro quo achieved during the lovefest at the White House earlier this summer. The Israelis got in return new weapons sales, reiterated commitments to its security, assurances on Iran and the protection of its own nuclear arsenal, and a promise of direct talks without preconditions. Both the Americans and Netanyahu were satisfied, but obviously several of his cabinet partners and Likud party activists were certainly not. The strategy to sabotage this understanding, which also means by definition sabotaging the negotiations, began in earnest a few days ago when Interior Minister Eli Yishai, head of the hardline Shas party, bitterly complained in public that in all likelihood Netanyahu’s policy was going to be to only build in the large settlement blocs after September 26. At the time, the most obvious explanation for this outburst was that he was preparing his own constituency for this and protecting himself politically by registering his disagreement. However, in recent days his comments have begun to look much more like the opening salvo in a campaign by the Israeli right to sabotage the understanding, and therefore the talks, by making it public and therefore politically untenable. The most recent additions to the chorus of objections have been FM Lieberman, who has made very strong statements about the need to start building in earnest (as if Israel has been doing otherwise in the past 10 months) after September 26, and a group of Likud party hard-liners who used the occasion of Netanyahu’s absence from the country to hold a meeting in order to plot major settlement expansions beginning at the end of next month.

As the Israeli extremists are attempting to make it very difficult for Netanyahu to live up to his understanding with Obama, Palestinians, being confronted with all this bellicose rhetoric from the Israeli right about settlement building, have been placed in a position of having to take their own strident positions about a settlement freeze being a precondition for negotiations, something we had gotten beyond only a few days ago. Now, and at considerable diplomatic cost to the Palestinian interest and especially relations with the United States, Palestinian leaders and politicians are finding it politically expedient, and maybe even necessary, to make their own bold pronouncements about settlements in response, suggesting that they will walk away from the talks if settlement activity resumes in earnest, among other things. As a consequence, the effort by the Israeli extreme right to sabotage the talks is developing a momentum of its own and is starting to look like it may spiral out of control and actually work.

I think it’s extremely important for their own sake that Palestinian leaders immediately shut up about the settlement issue and leave it to the United States to ensure that the prime minister of its ally and client Israel lives up to his private commitments to the American president. For them to be pushing the issue only makes it more difficult for the Americans and damages Palestinian-American relations without achieving anything except maybe promoting the nationalist credentials of the various political figures involved. It certainly only has a counterproductive diplomatic effect, and reinforces the idea that the settlement issue is where the battle is to be fought, thereby encouraging the Israeli right in its campaign, and the whole thing becomes a vicious circle that is not likely to play out in a manner beneficial to Palestinian interests. In other words, the only way they’re going to win this fight is if the Americans do it for them, and they need to make life easier for the United States in that regard, not, as they are doing, more difficult.

Meanwhile, although with somewhat less impact, Palestinian extremists on both the left and right are doing their best to also sabotage the negotiations and raise the political cost to the PLO leadership as much as possible, in the hopes that it will ultimately prove unbearable. Hamas’ rhetoric on the issue simply couldn’t be more overwrought: they’ve called the talks ?illegal? and said that they will ?eliminate? the cause of Palestine. Left-wing factions in the PLO opposed to Fatah and Pres. Abbas tried to hold a well-publicized meeting in the West Bank to denounce the whole concept of the direct negotiations. Worse still, the meeting was broken up by thugs, apparently affiliated with Fatah, which will do nothing to enhance the reputation of Fatah, Abbas, or the PLO, no matter who was responsible for ordering it. It’s an ugly throwback to the of authoritarianism of the Arafat era which many parts of the PA government have been moving beyond rather rapidly over the past couple of years. Obviously, there’s still quite a long way to go. We knew that already, but this was a fairly depressing reminder. And, of course, it only serves to bolster the case the ultra-left-wing factions were trying to make that the negotiations are bad and calling the PA and PLO leadership into question.

What’s really interesting in the big picture is that very few of the extremists on both sides are actually categorically opposed negotiations as such, they are tactically and strategically opposed to THESE negotiations, for their own various reasons. Yishai and Lieberman are probably not opposed to negotiations in principle, although it’s hard to imagine either of them agreeing to an arrangement minimally acceptable to the Palestinians. What they’re upset about is the prospect of limiting settlement activity. Because that is essentially the condition that produced the dual American-Israeli and American-Palestinian quids pro quo that allowed the direct negotiations to be agreed, they’re willing to sabotage the talks in order to defend major settlement expansion. They do not believe that an agreement is either possible or necessary, but they think settling the occupied territories is both.

For Hamas, I think it can be assumed that if they ever seize control of the Palestinian national movement, they will be not only ready, but possibly even eager, to negotiate with Israel as the focus most of their energy on the project to ?Islamize? areas under their control, which seems to be what they care about the most. Their main political aim is the defeat and marginalization of the PLO, and to secure their own control of the Palestinian national movement. It’s certainly possible to argue that as long as they are driven by the agendas of their fellow Muslim Brotherhood parties regionally and by their patrons in Damascus and Tehran it’s hard to imagine them seriously negotiating with Israel. However, should they ever secure power, they probably won’t have much choice unless they consciously decide to place the Palestinian national cause in the service of regional Islamism or Iranian foreign policy, or both, and completely abandon any form of Palestinian nationalism. There are certainly some figures in Hamas one can imagine doing this, but others who might actually want to govern a Palestinian theocracy that has some kind of long-term modus vivendi with Israel, and one can see the prototype of that in the Cold War that now exists between Gaza and Israel. Hamas is completely addicted to the rhetoric of armed struggle but, with the utmost hypocrisy, deeply and indeed violently opposed to it in practice under the present circumstances, at least in Gaza. In the West Bank, where they don’t have to pay the price or have any responsibility for the consequences, they are all for it.

So I think it’s fair to say that most people in both sets of extremist camps who are attempting to unravel the negotiations before they’ve even begun are not actually opposed to negotiations in theory, but are playing political hardball over domestic issues and putting their own ideological considerations and political power in front of national interests in a most repulsive and irresponsible manner. And, naturally, one of the things all of these extremists are most animated by is the idea that the talks could eventually actually succeed at the expense of their narrow ideological or political agendas. If, over the long run, there wasn’t any real possibility of successful negotiations, none of these detractors would be kicking up this kind of fuss. They must not be allowed to get away with it, for if the direct negotiations can be killed or severely wounded before they even begin, they are more vulnerable than we ever thought and both the likelihood and the consequences of a spectacular failure will be much higher than even the most concerned skeptics have been imagining.

Direct talks, yes, but with state-building too

The resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in early September offers significant opportunities and pitfalls for all parties.

For the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement of the talks represents the culmination of almost a year of intensive diplomacy. Whether or not the United States has a backup plan if talks founder is entirely unclear. The administration’s assumption appears to be that direct talks will generate their own dynamics; but if they don’t, it’s not evident what the next American step will be.

Nonetheless, the administration deserves credit for having revived diplomacy, which was interrupted for several years, under inauspicious circumstances. In a rare, extremely significant joint display of support for these efforts, the American Task Force on Palestine issued a statement welcoming negotiations in conjunction with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group that represents a range of mainstream Jewish-American organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, among others. The statement endorsed a two-state solution and urged the parties to show courage, flexibility and persistence.

Crucially, Clinton indicated that the United States was pursuing a multi-track policy. She stressed the need to “to help Palestinians build the institutions of their future state, an effort which must continue during the negotiations.” Washington has understood that diplomacy must be augmented with state-building in the West Bank, for political and strategic reasons, and that this is not merely an economic development project, but also an indispensable component in the quest to end the conflict.

It is also a sign of American recognition of a point Palestinians have been implicitly making for a year now: that early progress in top-level diplomacy is unlikely given the political weaknesses of leaderships on both sides and the enormous differences between them on aspects of a final-status agreement, especially the future of Jerusalem. Therefore, constructing the framework of a Palestinian state at this juncture might be as significant, if not actually more so, than what can be achieved at the bargaining table, at least initially.

For the Palestinians, the Quartet statement was essential to making the return to negotiations politically palatable. In particular, the Quartet’s reference to a one-year timeline recognizes Palestinian concerns that talks should not be open-ended. The statement affirms that talks “can” be concluded within a year, but not that they “should” or “must” be. It is an aspirational sentiment rather than a set deadline, but acknowledges legitimate Palestinian concerns.

Palestinians have received other assurances and guarantees both verbally and in writing, but these have not been made public. However, it does not appear that they have yet secured an effective enforcement mechanism that can hold the parties accountable for fulfilling their commitments. This has been an important Palestinian position, and will undoubtedly be a prerequisite for success as talks continue. It is probably the single most important role the US can play at this stage, but implementing it will mean overcoming significant Israeli resistance.

As for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the achievement of direct talks without any public preconditions – notwithstanding the obvious private commitments that have been made to Washington on a number of issues, including settlements – represents both an important victory and, potentially, a very dangerous development.

Until now, Netanyahu has been generally able to triangulate between the demands of his right-wing coalition partners and Washington’s expectations based on American national interests. If the Palestinians play their cards right, such maneuvering should become more difficult to sustain, and it would appear that the PLO position on final-status conditions is much closer to the American one than is the Israeli position. This is a new and unusual development, although it does not undermine the special relationship between Israel and the United States.

There is a consensus in Washington that it is essential, not optional, for the US to help achieve an end to the conflict, therefore to also end the Israeli occupation. This potentially provides the Palestinians with crucial leverage over Israel. However, to take advantage of this, the Palestinians must convince the Americans that they are strategic and political partners, willing to take politically costly decisions in the interests of reaching common objectives.

While major progress at the early stages of negotiation is extremely unlikely, so is a spectacular meltdown, as neither party wants to be perceived as having sabotaged the negotiations. The ability to assign blame for failure is probably the single biggest card that the US possesses, though it will be highly reluctant to use it, especially against Israel. However, it should be enough to keep the balls in the air for now, allowing state-building in the West Bank to steadily improve the strategic landscape in which negotiations take place, while also laying the groundwork for a successful peace agreement.

Palestinians set their crosshairs on educational reform

In an important new move, the Palestinian Authority has recently begun highlighting education as one of the main centerpieces in the next phase of the state and institution building program. Under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA understands that an effective and progressive educational system is essential for economic and social development, building a functional state, and laying the groundwork for peace with Israel.


On August 8, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad gave a speech emphasizing the importance of improved education in combating fanaticism, promoting culture, and developing analytical capabilities in Palestinian society. He called educational improvement a “key priority” of the state and institution building program and “one of the most important criteria for measuring its success.”


In his speech, Fayyad singled out three essential aspects of education that need special attention. These were bold observations that are striking, not only in the Palestinian context, but in the Arab context at large.

First is the crucial need to respond to the decline of language skills and competency, particularly in Arabic. What this rightly suggests is that while in the early decades after 1948 much of Palestinian society responded to their predicament and the creation of the refugee problem by turning to education, the level of education among Palestinians has been in a kind of freefall in the last couple of decades, especially in the Occupied Territories. The turning point was probably the outbreak of the first Intifada in which energies began to be channeled away from education in favor of political activism.


Second, the PA believes there is an “urgent need” to promote analytical capabilities and critical thinking among Palestinian youths and students. Palestinian education, as with much of the rest of the Arab world, relies too much on the rote memorization and the simple ingestion of raw data or received wisdom rather than the cultivation of critical thinking and analytical skills. The PA is clearly concerned about the need for the future Palestinian state to focus on its human capital as a key resource for development and prosperity.

Without analytical and critical abilities promoted by an effective educational system, human capital is reduced simply to highly structured labor rather than a modern, creative, dynamic society that can thrive without major natural resources or luxurious arable lands for agriculture.


In his third and closely related point, Fayyad spoke about the need to use education to combat the growing prevalence of narrow-minded rigidity, enforcement through spurious appeals to supposed religious or cultural traditions, in both Palestinian thinking and social conduct. As an example he cited the increasingly widespread practice of avoiding handshaking between men and women which he said was not related to any real religious doctrine or traditional mores but nonetheless was becoming “not only accepted but expected.” Obviously, this handshaking taboo is only one example of many manifestations of the kind of reactionary tendencies he wants Palestinian education to combat and is a symptom of the overall constriction in Palestinian culture and attitudes he rightly finds alarming.

Hamas, the primary enforcer of such attitudes among Palestinians, was predictably enraged and said Fayyad was seeking to corrupt the youth of Palestine and destroy its culture.


Obviously the education sector is of key strategic and political importance. It not only helps shape social attitudes, it’s an essential function of government that must be carried out as effectively as possible. And, of course, it is precisely through providing education and health services over the years that extremist groups like Hamas in Gaza have won political support and spread its ideology among people who need those services. The Palestinian leadership seems well aware that it must urgently do more to provide these services themselves, and more importantly do it in the right way to create a Palestinian society that can thrive in the modern world.


This new plan for intervention is exceptionally important to lay healthy foundations for a successful, viable Palestinian state that could live in peace with Israel.


But more importantly, it is impressive and unusual in the Arab context to find a serving prime minister, with the support of the president, openly attacking what might be called the closing of the Arab mind, and to find a government proposing concrete plans to combat reactionary trends and promoting analytical skills and critical thinking. It’s not just the Palestinians who need to learn such lessons, it’s the entire Arab world.

Why does George Will hate Israelis so much?

A couple of months ago on the Ibishblog, I had the pleasure of describing John Mearsheimer as “the Kevorkian of Palestine” because of the dreadful, destructive advice he was offering to the Palestinian people, and now it’s incumbent on me to point out that George Will is working overtime to become the Kevorkian of Israel. The politics of assisted suicide is an amazing phenomenon, in which zealots operating out of emotion provide people in other societies the worst possible advice that will inevitably lead to self-destructive outcomes. Will has been on a tear on the pages of the Washington Post and elsewhere during his apparently ongoing visit to Israel, taking policy positions and presenting tendentious, self-contradictory and even fabricated versions of history that would make even the most jaded settlers blush. This is beyond being a friend who lets friends drive drunk. This is a "friend" distributing a steady stream of tainted smack and frequently used needles all over the neighborhood.

In the fourth installment of his seemingly endless anti-peace campaign, today Will dismisses the prospect of Israel ever withdrawing from the West Bank because without it, he claims, Israel would supposedly lack strategic depth (this argument could be made about any territory in almost any context, of course — all it takes is a simple assertion). He assumes, without making any argument to defend this idea, that a Palestinian state centered in the West Bank would inevitably be Islamist and launch violent attacks against Israel. The only thing he can come up with to defend this assertion are totally invalid analogies to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon and unilateral redeployment in Gaza. It’s true that both yielded instability and violence in both directions, although much more violence from the Israeli side than the Palestinian or Lebanese ones, which of course he does not acknowledge. He even bizarrely compares the stupid and counterproductive but almost entirely ineffective projectiles launched from Gaza in the general direction of southern Israel to the Nazi bombardment of London, which gives a strong indication of his nonexistent sense of proportion and reliance on preposterous hyperbole. What Will and all his extremist Israeli friends who are addicted to the occupation are deliberately eliding in these wildly inaccurate analogies is that these unilateral actions were taken strictly for Israeli interests and out of Israeli strategic concerns, and were not pursuant to any agreement whatsoever with any Palestinians or Lebanese, and that the other side, including extremist groups, therefore had no vested interest in any resulting arrangement.

What Will doesn’t acknowledge is that a wise and workable Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories would perforce be pursuant to an agreement with the PLO and a Palestinian government which would have a vested interest in making that agreement work. In other words, the correct analogies are not Israeli unilateralism in Gaza and southern Lebanon, but the negotiated peace agreements Israel has already concluded with Arabs, such as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and even the armistice with Syria. When Arab governments have entered into agreements like this with Israel, they have had a vested interest in making them work, and so it would be with a new Palestinian state. In fact, the one scenario that might produce the results Will predicts is a third act of Israeli unilateralism, a withdrawal from the parts of the West Bank it decides it doesn’t want and the de facto annexation of the rest, perhaps more or less along the lines of the West Bank separation barrier or any other new de facto border Israel cares to draw. There are many in Israel who are not only thinking in those terms, but actively preparing for such an eventuality. Will doesn’t seem to understand that unilateralism almost inevitably perpetuates and exacerbates the conflict, whereas agreements end conflicts. The problem is that he simply cannot stretch his fossilized brain to imagine an effective, well functioning and responsible Palestinian state even though the framework for that is being built in the West Bank as we speak — a reality he seems blissfully unaware of — that is most notably characterized by a well-functioning security force that coordinates with Israeli forces in order to contain violence and allow for greater access and mobility on the part Palestinians. He writes as if the entire Palestinian national movement was simply Hamas, and as if the PLO and the PA do not exist.

In the third installment, Will expresses an understandable sensitivity to the number of Israelis who have been killed in the conflict, but does not acknowledge whatsoever the far greater number of Palestinians and other Arabs who have perished or been maimed, and who appear to be of no consequence to him. He offers one of the most tendentious, misleading and self-contradictory narratives of the conflict I have ever read, which boils down to a history of “Arab violence” towards Israel, as if the conflict has been an entirely one-way street and Israel’s actions were always and entirely self-defensive. In numerous instances his dates don’t add up, so he doesn’t even have his own warped chronology correct. Needless to say, he doesn’t mention the occupation, the situation facing the Palestinians living under the occupation, Israel’s occupation policies, the settlements, any of the various wars launched by Israel for its own purposes, or anything of the kind. He does however glibly assert that the creation of Israel did not involve the destruction of a Palestinian state, because such a state did not exist. That’s technically true, but it’s a lawyerly manipulation to avoid recognizing what the creation of Israel did to a Palestinian society that otherwise could and almost certainly would have become a state as the rest of the mandated territories in the Middle East became. It’s a half-truth designed to cover up the reality that in 1948 an existing and thriving Palestinian-majority society was destroyed in the process of the creation of Israel, a fact that haunts the entire region to this day. Anyone who is familiar with my work knows that I do not care to dwell on this and prefer to move forward, yet it is a fact that cannot be denied or papered over with this kind of dishonest technical legal obfuscation.

In his second installment, Will presents the brief, apparently directly from the desk of Netanyahu, for an Israeli attack on Hezbollah and Lebanon, and on Iran, replete with lavish helpings of the moldiest clichés in the back of the Likudnik cupboard. Clearly such actions cannot come too quickly for him, and he doesn’t seem to have the least reservations about the consequences. The opening gambit in this dreadful series was the first installment, a ham-handed attempt to attack the supposedly weak, unpatriotic and cerebral Pres. Obama by comparing him to the idealized caricature of a robust, patriotic and unflinching PM Netanyahu. Will joins the chorus of those who object to Obama’s acknowledgment Palestinian suffering in his Cairo speech, and as far as I can tell Will has never once in his life expressed the least sympathy for the very painful history and even basic humanity of the Palestinian people because he identifies so completely with their rivals in this complex and overdetermined conflict. He seems to be one of the worst examples of the kind of dangerous outsiders who are more Israeli than the Israelis or more Palestinian than the Palestinians, seeing the other side entirely as villains and their own friends entirely as victims or heroes. It’s not only stupid, it’s unworthy of small children.

Will is also deeply impressed with a 2000-year-old artifact Netanyahu famously keeps in his office bearing the name "Netanyahu." That’s very interesting, and even though no one in their right mind would deny the deep Jewish history in and ties to the land, Netanyahu’s name was adopted by his father sometime in the 20s or 30s (originally it was a pen name), and the actual family name is Mileikowsky, which makes sense for a family whose traceable history appears to be largely in Warsaw and other parts of Poland. I do not raise this point to challenge Jewish history in or attachment to the land, but frankly the connection between the Mileikowsky family of which the Prime Minister is a part and this 2000 year old seal with the name they adopted for political reasons in the 1920s is, to be polite, somewhat forced. I agree with Will that the correlation is impressive, but it’s impressive as a prop for political theater and doesn’t prove or suggest anything about present realities other than something everyone already knows, which is that there is a deep Jewish history in ancient Palestine. On the other hand, I’ve never seen Will acknowledge Palestinian history, presence in, and attachment to the land of Palestine, and he spends a great deal of time and effort implicitly denying that they have any political rights in it.

To sum up Will’s four-part rant (assuming there isn’t going to be a fifth installment): the Jewish Israelis have a deep history in Palestine which grants them exclusive political rights in the territory, and that this, combined with glib arguments about strategic depth and fatuous analogies based on unilateral actions rather than agreements, mandates that there be no agreement providing for an independent Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace and security. Instead, the occupation must continue indefinitely. He also advocates attacks against Lebanon and Iran, and the sooner the better. All of this is backed up with some of the most embarrassingly tendentious and misleading, not to say dishonest, historical narratives I’ve read in quite some time, much worse than one would get in most of the mainstream Israeli press.

Will ends his first installment of the series with the following quote from Netanyahu, supposedly delivered to an unnamed US diplomat 10 years ago: “You live in Chevy Chase. Don’t play with our future." Well, it just so happens that Will himself does in fact live in Chevy Chase, and his relentless cheerleading and incitement of the extreme Israeli right couldn’t be a better example of playing, recklessly, fast and loose with Israel’s future. He never offers any alternative to his vision of an endless occupation. He never acknowledges the millions of Palestinians who live in the occupied territories, or what to do with them, or how he expects them to react to this permanent occupation with which he is so enamored. He seems to share the bizarre attitude of the most extreme part of the Israeli right wing that Palestinians are simply not a strategic problem for Israel and can be managed through brute force (a proposition, I think, thoroughly disproven by this stage to even the most bloody-minded thug), that Israel’s security must be based entirely on military force and not diplomacy or reaching any kind of modus vivedi with its neighbors (who he regards as "perpetual enemies" in spite of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the ongoing security cooperation in the West Bank, the Arab Peace Initiative, etc.), and that Israel’s military superiority is a permanent fact of life that obviates any need for concessions on the Israeli part in order to make peace with any of its neighbors, especially the Palestinians.

Like the Israeli extremists whose views he shares and whose attitudes he seems to admire so much, Will doesn’t seem to be able to imagine how dangerously this conflict can evolve or the obvious fact that long-term security ultimately comes not only from military force but creating stable, tenable political relationships with other forces in the region. There is almost no question that if Israelis follow Will’s advice and perspectives, they will find themselves sooner or later embroiled in a holy war with forces beyond their control and, I daresay, both their comprehension and his. George Will and others like him in the United States are indeed the Kevorkians of Israel, pushing it down a suicidal path of self-destruction by living permanently in bitter enmity with almost all who surround it and refusing to make the painful, difficult compromises that all parties will be required make in order to end the conflict and achieve actual security. Sitting safely in his home in Chevy Chase, and indulging in his childish and frankly stupid Disneyland imaginary version of Middle Eastern history and realities, he’s wishing on this and many future generations of Israelis nothing but warfare, occupation, conflict and probably eventual calamity. The only question is, why does he hate them so much?

The ?Mosque controversy? demonstrates how passive and unorganized the Arab and Muslim Americans truly are

The pathetic and ridiculous ?controversy? about the plan to build an Islamic community center a few blocks away from ?Ground Zero,? the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks has sharply brought into focus, for me at least, one of the most troubling trends in the Arab American and Muslim American communities: the scandalous lack of serious political engagement and the deterioration of virtually all national organizations that are supposed or claim to represent these communities or major constituencies within them. There is nothing, obviously, legally that can be done to stop the community center backers from going forward with their plan which is fully protected by both private property and religious freedom rights. Mayor Bloomberg deserves enormous credit for his bold stance in defense of these rights and President Obama some credit for taking a firm position, which he then hedged slightly. Short of acts of vandalism and sabotage, which are not impossible but are unlikely if the building project goes forward, the only thing that can be done to try to stop it is to culturally, socially and politically harass the project’s backers into abandoning it as an intolerable burden. That is, of course, exactly what has been happening.

Everyone else allowed a small group of Islamophobic and extremist bloggers and other fanatics to define the issue, most obviously encapsulated in the utterly misleading phrase ?Ground Zero mosque,? which is not at but near ground zero (in a part of lower Manhattan in which almost everything is near everything else) and is not exactly a mosque for that matter. They were then joined by all kinds of scoundrels and opportunists, most notably Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, seeking to play on fear and hatred (two of the most powerful political motivators) to consolidate their positions as right-wing opinion leaders. Because of the way the narrative was shaped, even some liberals like Harry Reid felt unable to take positions they know to be correct, while an unfortunately small group of courageous conservatives stuck up for religious liberty. The whole conversation quickly became toxic as well as utterly irrational, and in its most sinister manifestation has led to protests against a number of mosque projects all over the country. In other words, opposition to the Manhattan community center project has given people authorization to oppose plans for building mosques to serve local Muslim communities without even hiding behind lies about traffic and parking and similar fabrications and base it all bluntly on an Islamophobic narrative.

The mini-narrative about the so-called ?Ground Zero mosque,? in which this rather unremarkable project is bizarrely presented as anything ranging from gross insensitivity to a triumphalist statement of victory by Muslim extremists crowing over 9/11, has dovetailed with the broader Islamophobic narrative that has been developing steadily since 9/11. This is an extremely dangerous situation because once a narrative becomes coherent and familiar, its political power can be fully realized. The main reason that there is so much more overt Islamophobia in 2010 than there was in 2002, immediately following the terrorist attacks, is precisely the development and propagation of the Islamophobic narrative. The bigots have had almost a decade to refine their arguments, congeal their ideas, create a semi-coherent narrative (no matter how nutty) and, most importantly, hammer away at the general public for week after week, month after month and year after year. There have been some violent incidents, of course, such as the Fort Hood shootings, that have reinforced elements of this narrative and done a great deal of harm. And it’s probably worth again noting that obviously the principal culprits responsible for the growth of Islamophobia in the United States were the 9/11 terrorists and their Al Qaeda backers. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s possible to argue that objectively there are more grounds for Islamophobia in the United States now than immediately after the 9/11 attacks. It’s plainly the consequence of the maturation (if you can call it that) and the accumulation of cultural capital and political influence of the Islamophobic narrative.

Many of us who have been systematically tracking the growth of Islamophobia in the United States have been struck by the way it has developed in spurts, sometimes tied to specific incidents, and sometimes to a sudden eruption of cultural artifacts reflecting this form of bigotry, and then plateaus, only to suddenly reemerge, stronger than ever. The present ?controversy? reminds me a lot of the gobbledygook that was so influential during the Dubai Port World brouhaha. Just as it is now necessary to call the backers of the Islamic community center ?radicals,? ?extremists,? and, in effect, terrorists, at that time a wave of people, including many self-righteous liberals, found it expedient to describe Dubai and the UAE more generally as ?an enemy to the United States,? “a sponsor of Al Qaeda,” and a country to be feared and greatly disliked.

That controversy was completely irrational and ridiculous, as the present one is, but what was important about it was not whether or not DPW ended up managing ports in the United States, but the cultural impact of what was being said and implied. I think that’s absolutely true of the present ?controversy.? It really doesn’t matter in the end, I think, whether the community center is built or not. For one thing, almost everyone who is going to have an opinion has already chosen sides between the two narratives: 1) defense of religious liberty and tolerance as important American traditions, or 2) identifying some kind of intolerable objection to the project, inevitably based on some degree of Islamophobic sentiment, and therefore opposing it in spite of religious and property rights and the principles of tolerance and diversity. In the broader cultural sense, the whole thing is already over, and whether the building is built or not will not to make much difference, I think, to the lasting impact (unless, of course, some people respond to it with an act of sabotage of some kind).

As with the DPW ?controversy,? what is really going to have a lasting impact is what is being said and implied about Muslim Americans and Islam in the United States, and all of this discursive accretion is having the long-term effect of promoting and consolidating Islamophobia in American cultural and political life. It is this cumulative discursive effect of a vile but maturing and strengthening Islamophobic narrative that is the reason that there is so much more Islamophobia the United States now than in the immediate aftermath and indeed the first few years following, the terrorist attacks. In other words, this narrative, and this subculture of fear and hate, has a life of its own, largely independent from what happens or doesn’t happen vis-à-vis terrorism, whether or not this community center or any other is actually built, or any other practical realities for that matter.

What all of this demonstrates is the grave vulnerability, especially at the cultural and social levels, that Muslim and Arab Americans are presently facing. There are a lot of people who are exaggerating the situation, of course, saying preposterous things like ?it?s 1938 for Muslims in the United States,? comparing the present situation to Kristallnacht, or some other offensive and completely unhelpful hyperbole. However, the fact is that there is a worse situation at present, believe it or not, overall than the Muslim and Arab Americans faced in the aftermath of an unprecedented terrorist attack. This does not surprise me. Fear and hatred as cultural and political phenomena are born of worldviews that are shaped by narratives and discourses, not by events themselves. The events have to be interpreted in a certain way to feed into patterns of fear and hatred. With this many passionate Islamophobes, motivated by a plethora of different forms of malevolence and presenting variations on an Islamophobic theme, hammering away for years and years it was bound to have an increasingly negative impact. And, it’s almost certainly only going to get worse.

What IS surprising to me, even shocking, is the extent to which the Muslim and Arab Americans are by and large, collectively, and worst of all increasingly, simply passive observers in this entire cultural development that targets them. I’m not saying there is no one doing anything, but these communities as a whole have simply checked out of the cultural and political process in this country, at least in an organized manner at the national level. A fact that is probably not appreciated by enough people is that these communities are much less organized, and ready to defend themselves or push back against bigotry and discrimination, than they were 10 years ago, before 9/11! I’m not going to single out any group because this is a phenomenon that affects both Arab and Muslim Americans, left and right, secular and religious, pretty much across the board. The fact is that there is no national Arab or Muslim American organization that is not in some significant way or other smaller, weaker or more ineffective now than they were 10 years ago, and there are no new significant national community organizations either. There are effective local organizations like ACCESS in Michigan, social groups like the Ramallah Federation, policy-specific organizations like the American Task Force for Lebanon and the American Task Force on Palestine, and others that are able to play the roles that they have defined for themselves in a serious manner. But none of those groups claim, seek or attempt to represent the communities generally at a national level or even the generalized interests of constituencies within the communities.

So what this means in practice is that the Muslim and Arab Americans are content to be less defended at the national level on broad cultural and political issues than they were before 9/11. As communities, they are watching their organizations deteriorate, become marginalized, lie fallow or simply remain ineffectual in one way or another without seriously attempting to do anything about it. It’s really an extraordinary and bizarre reaction to a very dangerous situation. The reasons of course are completely overdetermined: probably most people aren’t aware of this because organizations like to present themselves as thriving and effective even when they’re in dire straits or otherwise unable to perform the functions they have defined for themselves; some argue that serious engagement with mainstream American culture and politics is unacceptable, impossible or degrading and voluntarily not only opt for but insist on not being represented within the mainstream of the national conversation (in an inverse of the founding of the Republic, they demand to be taxed without representation); some are so frightened that they think any form of political communal engagement will immediately place you on a list compiled by some form of American mukhabarat or lead to some other kind of dreadful difficulties; some enjoy their victim-status and the moral authority that parts of our society, particularly on the left, ascribe to objectified, exoticized Others. There are many more causes of this effect. Atomizing them is not that interesting in the long run. But it is truly striking, and to me shocking, that the Muslim and Arab Americans in general and at the national level are so self-deluded, self marginalized, self-defeating and alienated that they appear to be willing to be moving quickly in the direction of being absolutely passive observers in their own tragedy.

Obviously there are a lot of individuals and groups that must be exempted from this generalized indictment. There are lots of people doing outstanding work. But the truth is they don’t get the support they need from the people in whose interests they labor, and in general get less support now that the problem is much more extreme than they did 10 years ago when the situation was relatively calm and stable. And there is a pervasive pattern of not only ineffective or barely effective leadership, but also absolutely terrible and counterproductive leadership. The amount of self-styled ?leaders? among Arab and Muslim Americans who have no real sense of the political culture and system of the country they?re living in and an absolutely tin ear for how their words and deeds will be perceived by many other Americans is simply extraordinary, and it?s not getting better. If anything, it?s getting worse. Demagoguery is always popular but in a situation like this, the real task is not to please but rather to serve wisely the constituency. Leadership is required, and that means doing the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. That is in exceptionally and perhaps even increasing short supply among Arab and Muslim American ?leaders? and organizations, such as they are.

In spite of being able to identify some of the main causes of this extraordinary collective behavior, I’m really at a loss to explain how communities of millions of people can consciously watch the threat against them at every level steadily increase over many years while at the same time being willing to allow their ability to collectively push back against that threat erode and begin to approach something like a zero-level. I’m afraid to say I’m also unable to offer any solution. I don’t know what it will take to snap the variously apathetic, fearful, cynical or alienated Arab and Muslim American majorities out of their stupor and decide to engage seriously and meaningfully with mainstream American culture and politics in an organized, sustained, responsible and patriotic manner. If the situation isn’t bad enough yet, I don’t know when it will be, and of course at some point, it may have become too late to prevent some genuinely ugly developments. I scorn comparisons to 1938 or Kristallnacht, but that doesn?t mean the situation isn?t grave enough, in its own way. In the end, I’m sure American and other Western Arab and Muslim communities will successfully assimilate and also help further develop their societies. But along the way there are significant dangers and there is simply no excuse for the kind of passivity and self marginalization these communities at large are indulging in at the moment, or the generally dwindling, often dreadful, and almost entirely ineffective leadership they seem to be satisfied with.

Israel and Palestine: Between Alternatives

Although, a very strong international consensus has emerged, over the past two decades, that the only practicable means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a negotiated agreement allowing for two states to live side-by-side, in peace and security, little progress has been made towards that goal.

Even the new designation by the United States of resolving the conflict as a national security priority and strategic imperative has yet to provide any grounds for greater optimism.

It is also clear to most sensible observers, that the only plausible alternative, to a negotiated peace agreement is an intensified conflict, that is likely to drift away from a political dispute between two national groups about land and power, in a limited territory, and towards a broader and intractable religious conflict, over holy places, and the will of God.

Both, the importance, and urgency of resolving this conflict have never been more widely accepted and yet the obstacles – opposition from extremists on all sides, the growing settler population, the difficulty of compromise on Jerusalem – seem as daunting as ever.

American policy since the fall of 2009 focused on attempting to revive direct negotiations, on the apparent assumption, that they will, then produce, a dynamic of their own and open new diplomatic possibilities. At the time of writing, the Palestinian leadership is still seeking a formula to allow it to agree to direct negotiations in spite of powerful domestic political opposition.

Yet, it would appear that in effect, the United States has created a quid pro quo, although not between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but between each of the parties, and the Americans.

The Palestinians have no choice but to reenter direct negotiations because they need American support to achieve almost anything, and their only real tool, at the moment, to improve their hand vis-à-vis Israel, is to leverage the American national security interest in resolving the conflict. So their agreement is virtually guaranteed.

On the Israeli side, it seems that President Barack Obama left no doubt in the mind of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the United States will not accept new land expropriations in the West Bank or settlement activity in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem after the so-called “settlement moratorium” expires on September 26.

Indeed, Interior Minister Eli Yishai has publicly complained that Netanyahu will only permit building in the large settlement blocs, and other areas, that are generally considered part of a future land swap. So, counterintuitively, it is actually possible there will be less settlement activity in the 10 months, following the end of the moratorium, than during the 10 months of its supposed enforcement.

However, it is very difficult to imagine, under the present circumstances, any major breakthrough emerging from direct negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaderships that are both politically weak and appear to have so many irreconcilable differences about final status issues, above all Jerusalem. For this reason, Palestinians are no longer content to rely solely on diplomacy, which requires Israeli cooperation, and American determination.

In August 2009, the PA cabinet adopted a program of unilateral Palestinian state and institution building in the occupied territories. The idea is to create the framework, and the institutions, of a future state, in spite of the occupation and in order to end the occupation. It could be considered the Palestinian answer to Israeli settlement activity: unilateral changes on the ground, but in this case, consistent with international law, not threatening to any legitimate Israeli interests, and promoting, rather than hindering the prospects for peace.

Obviously, Palestinians are going to acquire great deal of international financial aid, technical support and political protection, if this policy is going to emerge as the game changing strategy it ought to be. It offers a parallel track, complementary to diplomacy, which can move the ball forward in very significant and even potentially dramatic ways when negotiations move very slowly, if at all. Unless there are unexpected breakthroughs, it may be that the most important role of the negotiations, at this stage, is to support and legitimate the state and institution building program.

However, since the conflict can only be resolved by a negotiated agreement, at some point, that dynamic would have to be reversed and the state building effort serve as a complement to a suddenly reinvigorated diplomatic track. Ultimately, what is required is convergence between the bottom-up approach of the state building program, and the top-down international diplomacy, that will ultimately resolve the conflict through a negotiated agreement.

Almost all the relevant parties have the right stated policy, in favor of a two state solution. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged this goal in his speech last year at Bar Ilan University. For their part, the PLO and PA leaderships have gambled everything on eventually achieving a peace agreement with the Israelis, and, if this policy fails neither organization is likely to survive the blow.

The problem across the board, not only in Israel and among the Palestinians, but in the United States and elsewhere, is to reconcile policy with politics that continue to prevent serious movement towards a negotiated resolution. The best course of action for the United States is to maintain its special relationship with Israel based on assurances of Israeli security, but make it clear to the Israelis, that ending both the conflict and the occupation are essential to American national security and are not optional.

The Obama administration is right to insist that Palestinians reenter direct negotiations, but they should recognize that the Palestinians are correct that to succeed, they must be based on clear and specific terms of reference, and that a mechanism, probably American-led, for holding the parties accountable for fulfilling their agreements is absolutely essential.

Palestinians must understand that the main leverage they have, at the moment, is the American interest in ending the conflict, and must therefore be as cooperative, and forthcoming, with the United States, as possible. It is essential that they present themselves as real partners to the United States in the pursuit of a peace agreement, willing to take bold, risky and costly political actions that serve the interests of this partnership.

Israelis have a simpler task: as a society, they have to honestly ask themselves what their vision of the future is. No one can say with any certainty what the present Israeli government really wants the situation to look like in the next two or three decades, and this ambiguity, while it may be politically convenient for politicians, is preventing Israeli society for making the difficult choices it must, in its own interests.

As for the international community, at large, it can, through the Quartet, continue to play an important role in supporting American efforts at the diplomatic level.

But, for the meantime perhaps even more importantly, it must greatly intensify support for Palestinian state and institution building in the West Bank. Preparing for independence will allow the Palestinians to bring that independence forward, and creating effective state institutions makes it far more likely the state will eventually be established. More importantly, this work is essential to ensure that the Palestinian state is a successful, stable, secure and well functioning one, something both Israelis and Palestinians need to be convinced of, if a peace agreement is to finally be achieved.

Hamas’ many-splendored contradictions

Hamas was in the news last week, accused by Egypt of having been behind the rocket attacks from the Sinai against the Israeli town of Eilat and the Jordanian town of Aqaba. This, once again, told us something about the paradoxes of the Islamist group.

From its inception, Hamas has been oriented toward both Palestinian nationalism and broader regional Islamist forces, especially since it is a core Muslim Brotherhood party. These two tendencies have usually worked at cross-purposes, since the Palestinian national interest is inconsistent with any version of a regional Islamist agenda. Such dynamics are further complicated by the fact that Hamas is the only Sunni Islamist party in the Arab world to be simultaneously part of the Muslim Brotherhood network and the largely Shia pro-Iranian alliance.

Hamas’ conduct needs to be viewed in the context of its primary strategic aim, which is to politically defeat the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, and replace them as the primary agent for the Palestinian national movement. While the PLO and PA also find themselves in a zero-sum contest for power with Hamas within Palestinian society, their aims are much broader, particularly creating the conditions for Palestinian independence.

Those who do not recognize the central importance of Hamas’ dual identity as both a Palestinian nationalist and a regional Islamist organization, or the fundamental incompatibility between the agendas being pursued by Hamas and the PLO, tend to stress the importance of Palestinian national reunification. The fact is, however, that such reunification is completely impossible as long as both of these organizations remain viable contenders for the leadership of the Palestinian national movement. Their most fundamental difference – whether Palestinians should seek a negotiated peace with Israel – is compounded by disagreements about the nature of Palestinian society and much more. One vision is eventually going to win out over the other as the unifying and dominant Palestinian national strategy.

Indeed, it is probable that Hamas’ future will be largely determined in the West Bank, rather than in Gaza. Its role as a spoiler cannot be underestimated, but Hamas’ long-term fortunes depend on an irrevocable failure of the national strategy of negotiations and of the PA state- and institution-building program. If either or both of these policies succeed, Hamas’ single-minded promotion of the strategy (though certainly not always the practice) of violent resistance and insistence on the non-recognition of Israel – even in the context of Palestinian independence – will become increasingly hollow and unappealing. If the PLO and PA strategies unequivocally fail, however, there is little to prevent Hamas from inheriting practically uncontested the leadership of the Palestinian movement and transforming it from a nationalist to an Islamist one.

It was in this context that Hamas condemned the recent Arab League decision to approve direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO and has been urging Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to pursue talks with Israel. Indeed, many speculated that the recent rocket attacks launched from Gaza and Sinai were either Hamas or Hamas-inspired attempts to undermine prospects for such talks.

Hamas leaders have also urged Palestinians in the West Bank to kidnap Israeli settlers, and have generally encouraged anti-Israeli violence in the West Bank, while largely suppressing it in Gaza. In the past, various Palestinian extremist groups, above all Hamas, have exhibited a kind of de facto alliance with extreme right-wing forces in Israel to take actions that reinforce the violent conflict whenever diplomacy threatens to make progress toward a peace agreement.

Hamas’ opposition to a peace agreement serves both its own domestic interests and those of its regional allies and patrons. In the Palestinian context, while Hamas leaders are no doubt aware that independence in the occupied Palestinian territories is the most ambitious goal to which Palestinians can plausibly aspire, they cannot acknowledge this as long as they are in a contest for power with a secular, nationalist rival. If both Hamas and the PLO openly seek the same outcome of ending the occupation, the principal difference between them would be Hamas’ extreme social and religious conservatism, which is not a path to majority status in present Palestinian society.

Hamas’ policies are deeply advantageous to their fellow Muslim Brotherhood parties across the Arab world, as well as their patrons in the regional pro-Iranian alliance. Gaza, after all, is the only territory in the region in which Sunni Islamists have been able to seize and maintain power for any length of time. Muslim Brotherhood parties in opposition in countries like Egypt and Jordan would benefit enormously, maybe even decisively, in their quest for power, and at least would enjoy a surge of legitimation should the Palestinian cause become an Islamist one led by Hamas. Iran and its allies have a vaguer but also powerful stake in undermining the regional status quo and promoting the so-called “culture of resistance.”

For the Palestinian people and cause, however, Hamas’ policies are disastrous. They have split the Palestinian movement into two irreconcilable camps, led to international isolation and the blockade of Gaza, fueled extremism on the Israeli right and undermined international confidence that Palestinians really seek a negotiated peace with Israel. What Palestinians urgently need is an end to the occupation, which can only be achieved through a two-state solution. The last thing they need is for their cause to become the centerpiece of a regional Islamist campaign to topple governments or a plaything in the hands of a cynical Iranian hegemonic agenda.

Middle East leaders’ undignified behavior

In the context of the Obama administration’s strong push for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the frankly undignified and needlessly complicating behavior of almost all the national leaderships in the Middle East has never been more apparent. Arab and Israeli leaders alike are not being honest with their publics about decisions they know full well they’re going to have to take because the United States is insisting on them based on the national security priority the Obama administration places the achievement of a negotiated agreement and its single-minded policy of arranging direct negotiations before the end of the month.

The most obvious recent example of this unfortunate tendency was the Arab League decision last week to approve direct negotiations with some very vague conditions and essentially leaving it up to Pres. Abbas to decide when and where they will commence. The Arab states have known for many months that the United States was going to insist on direct negotiations no matter what and that the Palestinians would be asking for their approval and that therefore they had, as a practical matter, no choice but to take the decision they did. However, in the weeks and months leading up to the unanimous decision, many of the 14 governments on the relevant Arab League committee pledged they would never do any such thing and demanded all kinds of preconditions, and it’s not clear how much, if any, of any of them have been met. To be sure the Obama administration has provided some kind of written assurances to the Palestinians and the Arabs, but their public reaction strongly suggests they are at best not fully satisfied with this response. The Arab states essentially did the minimum necessary, in many cases reversing their previous positions, and at the same time punted the ball to the Palestinians.

Let me be clear: the Arab League committee vote was the correct one both strategically and politically (indeed, it was unavoidable), and the move to cede real decision-making on this issue back to the Palestinians is in many ways a helpful one as it recognizes the primacy if not the exclusivity of Palestinian decision-making on these issues (exclusivity would be best, but primacy is better than nothing). What is striking and unfortunate is that these governments knew full well they were going to make this decision for quite some time and many of them were simply not honest about what they knew very well they would have to do, leading to what appeared to too many people to be an undignified reversal. The real indignity was not the decision itself or the recognition of American power and influence in the region, which is simply a fact, but the sometimes shameless posturing that led up to it. The most striking example was the attitude of Syria, which not only strongly opposed the idea of the resolution but actually denounced the decision of the committee on which it serves in the immediate aftermath of the meeting, although it’s not at all clear that actually voted against the resolution or did anything to really try to stop it.

Much the same can be said for the present behavior of Pres. Abbas, who knows two things by now: 1) he’s gotten just about all the assurances he is going to get (whatever they may be) from the Obama administration for the time being and 2) he has no choice strategically but to agree to enter into direct negotiations sometime in the next few weeks under the conditions that exist now. Palestinians have been looking for clear and specific terms of reference (and they’re not satisfied, apparently, with whatever has been arrived at thus far), benchmarks, timetables and a third-party (i.e. American) mechanism for holding parties accountable for fulfilling their agreements. I think it’s clear that neither the Israelis nor the Americans are terribly interested in benchmarks, and the Israelis are dead set, and have always been, against timetables. But I do think for negotiations to succeed in the long run at some point the Israelis and Americans have to agree to clear and specific terms of reference and, above all, a means of holding the parties accountable for fulfilling their obligations. As I wrote in a recent Ibishblog posting, the Catch-22 for the Palestinians is that if they’re not satisfied with what they have thus far received from the United States on these two fronts, they probably cannot get much more without entering into direct negotiations first, which relieves pressure on Israel in a certain sense. Of course, if they play their cards right, direct talks could be as much of a trap for PM Netanyahu as they are for the Palestinians, because everyone will have to then put their cards on the table. And, it should always be remembered that the Palestinians have both the most to lose and the most to gain from diplomacy, and that they have the least options and are most vulnerable to American pressure, especially compared to states like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The bottom line is that Abbas is going to have to go back into direct negotiations because the United States is insisting on them and the only real leverage the Palestinians have available at the moment at the highest diplomatic levels vis-à-vis Israel is to leverage the American national security priority in ending the conflict to their own advantage. At some fundamental level, the Obama administration and the PLO share a core goal of ending the conflict through a negotiated agreement that also ends the occupation and establishes a Palestinian state. It’s not at all clear that this is something the present Israeli government either wants or could agree to, and they haven’t been tested yet because of the lack of direct negotiations. Netanyahu has been able to maintain a degree of ambiguity on his attitude towards a real two state solution that has minimally satisfied both his right-wing coalition partners and the Obama administration, but this will be much more difficult as direct talks proceed if the Palestinians play their cards right. So while many people warn that direct talks can be a trap for the Palestinians, and they certainly could be, they can also be a trap for Netanyahu, or at least a real test of his willingness to go along with an agenda the United States considers imperative for its own national interest.

The problem at the moment is that Abbas and other PLO leaders, although not all of them, are continuing to speak in terms of more conditions and cast doubt on whether or not they may agree to the direct negotiations when they know very well they’re going to have to. One could argue that this is Negotiating 101 and that you always hold out for more even when you know you’re going to have to accept less. I think there’s obviously some truth to that dictum, but there’s also the question of diminishing returns. It’s not just a question of alienating the United States and losing the prospect of leveraging the American national interest in the Palestinian favor, it’s also a question of preparing the ground politically for what is the inevitable policy decision. My ATFP colleagues and I have said many times that the underlying problem preventing the realization of a peace agreement in the Middle East is the gap between politics and policy here in the United States, among the Arabs and the Palestinians and, of course, in Israel. At a certain point it becomes necessary to subordinate domestic politics to the policies of national interest.

The same critique applies, very much, to Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues on the question of settlements. The partial, temporary moratorium proved fraudulent since there was at least as much building in the West Bank during its 10 months as there was in the year before. In a sense, the United States has moved past the question of settlements, realizing it’s a dead end with the Israelis especially when they were able to maneuver the question into an argument about the status of Jerusalem rather than more land expropriations in the West Bank. The Obama administration has made it clear it doesn’t want to fight with Israel over formalized settlement announcements anymore and I don’t think the United States cares whether Israel formally extends the moratorium or not. In fact I don’t think there’s any chance they will. But I do think the administration has made its views very clear to the Israeli government: it will not react well to any new land expropriation in the West Bank or building in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. I think if the Israelis want to continue to build after the moratorium expires on September 26 in the large settlement blocs and some obviously Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem, that is to say in areas that are likely to be the subject of a land swap, especially if they do so modestly in practice (what they do is much more important than what they say on this issue), this will not create a crisis with the administration or even with the Palestinians. But I think the Obama administration has quietly but resolutely told the Israelis what the limits are and I suspect Netanyahu understands perfectly well that he’s going to have to respect them. It seems clear this is the quid pro quo for the direct negotiations not between Israel and the Palestinians but between the United States and the two parties separately, and that this is, if anything, what one can claim has been achieved by the proximity talks.

Lots of Israeli leaders are making all kinds of bold claims about what they’re going to do after September 26, but as I say, I think a lot of this is empty bluster. In fact, I think given the administration’s attitude it’s entirely possible, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem, that we will see less building in the 10 months after the ?moratorium? then we did during it. My point here is that Israeli leaders are not being any more honest about the policy decisions they’re going to have to make with their general public than the Arab or Palestinian leaderships are being. Nobody wants to frankly acknowledge American power and influence in the Middle East, but everyone accedes to it when push comes to shove. When that pushes past the point of diminishing returns, it becomes a pretty undignified spectacle and right now Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are all putting on a pretty unimpressive show.

Abe Foxman is wrong: suffering does not justify hatred

I had not intended to comment at all on the ridiculous controversy surrounding the construction of a Muslim community center near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but Abe Foxman, the head of the ADL, has left me no choice. Most of the opposition has come from the usual suspects: known racists, opportunistic politicians bereft of any sense of propriety and denizens of the quasi-xenophobic right such as Newt Gingrich. No surprises there. I am, however, surprised that the ADL, which has generally been quite good about religious and immigrants’ rights, and about hate crimes directed towards Arab and Muslim Americans, would join the chorus of opposition. But even that wasn’t enough to prompt me to add yet another voice to the shrill, silly ?debate? on this subject (especially silly because it’s pretty clear that with Mayor Bloomberg’s support, this building is in fact going to be built and when the dust settles the project will in all likelihood go forward without further incident).

What spurs me to this reluctant intervention is the logic Mr. Foxman used in defending his opposition to the project, which is explicitly designed to promote interfaith amity and is being run by an organization that, while certainly not my personal cup of tea, promotes as mainstream and moderate a version of Islam as one could hope for. Mr. Foxman is quoted in the New York Times as saying that, ?Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational.? He added that the families of the 9/11 victims’ ?anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.? This is an important moral and intellectual point that needs to be engaged immediately, because it’s so wrong and so dangerous. I’m not the greatest living expert on impulse control or self-restraint, but I feel absolutely compelled to make the following argument.

First of all, everyone of course is entitled to, and is probably continuously bombarded with, feelings that are irrational. If people weren’t irrational at some level we would never fall in love, commit acts of radical altruism and self-sacrifice, or be willing to sublimate our own most immediate and selfish personal interests for one version of the greater good or other. Human beings depend on these irrational affects, which are clearly in large part the product of evolutionary processes based on species survival. Without them, it’s unlikely humans would’ve survived, let alone thrived. Similarly, I doubt there’s a human being on the planet, if one is to be completely honest, who isn’t in the grip of negative, as well as positive, irrational impulses frequently during any given day. Who hasn’t been tempted to punch somebody in the face, grab someone else and kiss them, run another motorist off the road or some other ill-advised response to another person’s behavior or even simply presence? The whole process of child rearing and socialization is to explain, from the earliest age, to young children that these impulses, while they may be unavoidable, mustn’t be acted upon or often even expressed. Does the person deserve to be punched, and is it morally and legally reasonable to punch them? Is it plausibly acceptable to grab and kiss this individual and is there any basis for suspecting that it will be anything other than an unwelcome assault? Can there ever be a justification for running another motorist off the road except if that’s necessary in some scenario in which that driver is threatening the public safety? Almost always the answer to those questions will be no, so of course we don’t act on such impulses even when we, in my own case at least, frequently have them.

Mr. Foxman argues that victims of monstrous crimes such as the Holocaust or families of those murdered by the terrorists on 9/11 have a right to irrational feelings because of the extent of their injury and their grief. So far so good. As I explained above, everyone not only has irrational feelings, they have a right to those feelings, both positive and negative, because they are unavoidable. Victims of terrible crimes such as murder can be said to have greater grounds than most people for extreme levels of negative irrational affects such as rage aimed at those not responsible for the killings but in some other sense identifiable with the culprits. I’m not sure the fact that a murder is committed in the course of a larger and more monstrously widespread act such as a genocide as in the case of the Holocaust or an atrocity on the scale of 9/11 provokes or justifies greater levels of outrage, anger and grief in survivors and their families than any other murderer might. But they certainly have broader social and political significance because they are more likely to become the subject of the policy debate, or the parody of one which we are now having about the Islamic Center near Ground Zero.

Which brings us to the main point: people have the right to irrational feelings, especially since no one can control them, but they do not have the right to have irrational opinions, or at least no right to have those irrational opinions taken seriously by the rest of us. One can’t justify racism, collective guilt and bigotry based on crimes committed by some members of an identity community because one or one’s loved ones have been victimized by that crime. This is the crucial divide between thoughts and actions. We all have many thoughts, most of which we cannot control, and many of them are unworthy in one way or another. One cannot be held accountable, I think, for one’s unstated thoughts or unacted-upon impulses, whatever they might be and from wherever they may arise. The question is, always, what does one do and say, not what does one irrationally feel. The human thought process, especially when it comes to matters of deep emotion, is exceptionally complex and does not follow any clear or controllable patterns. One may easily feel many different contradictory things at any given moment that, if all given way to simultaneously, would render one entirely incoherent and possibly somewhat psychotic. No amount of victimization provides immunity or impunity from irresponsible words and deeds. Suffering is not necessarily ennobling, as some weird religious claims suggest (if so prisons would be the noblest environments in any given society, and they’re obviously not), but it needn’t be debasing either. Anger, even irrational anger, is understandable. Allowing it to give way to words and deeds that express bigotry, collective guilt and other plainly immoral and irresponsible interventions is not justifiable on the grounds of suffering.

After all, perhaps not everyone has been cruelly victimized in their life, but very many people have in one way or another, and it would be a very dysfunctional society or world that allowed a carte blanche for words and deeds of hatred and anger based on that victimization. We do not, after all, allow the relatives and friends of murder or rape victims to sit in judgment of accused defendants as members of juries. Judges must recuse themselves if they have an obvious bias. Acts of retribution against family members, or even those accused of the crime, are in themselves serious crimes. This is because the law recognizes that even the most understandable irrational affect based on victimization cannot be allowed to express itself either through unacceptable individual acts such as vigilante “justice” or, far worse, in the actions and policies of the state. Yet this essentially is what Mr. Foxman is advocating: that some of the relatives of the 9/11 victims who are allowing their understandable outrage to be expressed in indefensible generalized anger and condemnation of Islam and Muslims and to falsely and deeply irrationally equate Islam and Muslims generally with the terrorist culprits ought to have such special standing because of their suffering that public policy is actually built around it. It’s quite bizarre.

If we followed Mr. Foxman’s logic, vast numbers of people throughout the world would be ?entitled? to have irrational and bigoted opinions and have those taken seriously in questions of public policy and state behavior. It’s not only the victims of the Holocaust or 9/11 this could apply to. How about the victims of the arch swindler Bernie Madoff? The dispossessed and exiled Palestinian people, or those living under Israeli occupation for the past 40 years? The black South Africans who suffered for so long under apartheid? African-Americans with their own history of enslavement and abuse? The list is endless. Mr. Foxman’s logic not only leads to dreadful public policy, because it accepts not only the legitimacy but even the primacy of what he agrees is an irrational reaction to suffering, but if accepted as a generalized principle of acceptable human behavior, it would lead to endless civil strife, wars of hatred and vendettas between individuals, families, clans, tribes, societies and nations. In many cases it does, and many of the worst crimes in human history have been rationalized and motivated by this very sense of victimhood. To privilege any form of irrationality, especially in political or public policy terms is incredibly irresponsible and totally indefensible. But to embrace and promote the logic that underlies so much of the worst behavior people can indulge in out of a sense of victimhood is simply grotesque.