Monthly Archives: September 2010

Separating gimmickry from reality on settlements

Israel’s temporary, partial settlement construction moratorium has finally expired without being renewed in any way. This is in spite of repeated American entreaties to the Israeli government to extend the moratorium and repeated Palestinian warnings that negotiations could not continue if building resumes. As things stand, the issue is unresolved and poses a serious threat to the future of negotiations, with the United States urgently looking for a compromise and the Palestinians putting off any final decision for at least another week.

However, it is likely that both parties will seek a way out, since neither can afford to be blamed for a meltdown of the negotiations at this early stage. The main weapon Washington has, since it prefers to keep itself at arm’s length from final-status issues for now, is the finger of blame it can point in either direction should the talks flounder. The Palestinians could be blamed at less political cost to the Obama administration and probably have more to lose in any confrontation with the US than Israel does. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also very concerned about appearing to be the party at fault. Both the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships have been in this situation over the past year and a half, and neither wishes to experience it again.

The strong Palestinian line on this matter is understandable but also problematic. There is no doubt it is a serious political problem for the Palestine Liberation Organization to continue direct negotiations with Israel without any extension of the moratorium. However, it would be even more damaging diplomatically and in terms of the Palestinian national interest for the PLO to end up in a major confrontation with Washington, especially if it were blamed for a breakdown in talks.

In fact, the settlement issue is not really so much a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian question as a bilateral Israeli-American one. It was the Obama administration that pushed the settlement issue when it began to strongly reengage Middle East peace efforts. The Palestinians were following the American lead, albeit with far less maneuverability. And the Palestinians on their own do not have leverage with Israel to have much impact on such a sensitive domestic political issue. As a practical matter, if the Palestinians are going to get anything out of the Israelis on settlements, it’s going to be the Americans who get it for them.

The crisis is both of very real significance and also entirely symbolic. The settlement issue is crucial because with every significant expansion of the Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories, the borders of a Palestinian state become more difficult to draw, and the – often belligerent – constituency in Israel with a vested interest in opposing territorial compromise is enlarged, entrenched and strengthened. At the same time, the idea of extending what was always a partial, temporary moratorium on settlement construction that never included Jerusalem and had many loopholes was essentially a political gimmick.

Since the moratorium did not ever have much impact on settlement activity, the best way out of the impasse may be to separate gimmickry from reality. On the one hand, influential portions of Israeli society want to see more settlement activity in the coming months. On the other, all sensible parties, including Israeli parties, must recognize that, however it is marketed, Israel cannot be allowed to continue to reshape the strategic landscape while negotiations are proceeding.

This suggests the usefulness of an informal understanding, enforced by the US, that Israel can build modestly in “consensus areas” generally understood to be the likely subject of a land swap between Israel and a new Palestinian state. However, Israel must not engage in significant new land expropriation in the West Bank, incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, or building in the “E-1 corridor” that would cut Jerusalem off from the West Bank.

Not only would such an understanding resolve, for a limited period of time, the strategic problems posed by continued settlement activity, it could and should buy time for negotiators to focus on fixing the borders of a Palestinian state, which would defuse the issue over a much longer term. However, being both informal and a compromise that gives something to both parties, but not what each really wants, the proposal leaves both leaderships facing potential domestic political challenges.

For all its obvious imperfections, such an informal compromise, if seriously enforced by the Obama administration, could defuse the crisis and buy significant and precious time for negotiators. One way or another, both Israel and the Palestinians in their short-term diplomatic and long-term national interests need to find a way to go forward with negotiations without allowing political gimmickry to cloud the vital strategic imperatives. Talks must continue, but Israel cannot continue to alter the strategic landscape as they proceed.

Netanyahu’s subtle, insidious, unworkable demand

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently been reiterating the demand he has focused on since regaining power that Palestinians and other Arabs recognize Israel as not only a “Jewish state” but specifically as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This demand has been flatly rejected not only by the Palestinian leadership, but more recently by the Arab League.

The demand for explicit Arab recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is a relatively new phenomenon, and was not part of either the Oslo process or the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. It was formally introduced into the conversation for the first time during the Annapolis meeting of November 2007, in which then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert demanded the Palestinians make some kind of statement recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. They refused, and the Israelis asked President George W. Bush to do so in his address. Yet Bush simply reiterated language from the Balfour Declaration about Israel as “a homeland for the Jewish people,” which has very different political and legal connotations.

The reason the Americans avoided such a formulation at the time was that they agreed with the Palestinians that the demand, at that stage of negotiations, was an attempt to foreclose the refugee issue, and that such a step would be bad for negotiations as a whole because reciprocal compromises on that issue and Jerusalem would probably be required to reach a successful agreement. The Palestinians are obviously also concerned that any recognition on their part of Israel as a “Jewish state” might imply an acceptance of discrimination against the large Palestinian minority in Israel.

The Palestinian point since Annapolis has been that the Palestine Liberation Organization has already recognized Israel through the letters of mutual recognition that are the core documents of the Oslo process and all subsequent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and that Israel is free to define itself, as Palestine will be. The Palestinians rightly point out that it is extremely unusual if not unprecedented in international relations for a state to ask its neighbors to define its character. Many others agree that adding the issue to the negotiations introduces a new complication in an already vexed set of problems.

Since regaining power, Netanyahu has raised the stakes in two ways: first, because of the importance he has given the demand; second, in the specific language he is insisting on, which is exceptionally problematic from a Palestinian and Arab point of view.

The Netanyahu formulation – “the nation-state of the Jewish people” – is so crammed with subtle significance that it demands careful unpacking. It is a significant move away from the idea of Israel merely as “a Jewish state,” with its indefinite article and very broad range of potential interpretations. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis undoubtedly see Israel as a Jewish state, but there is absolutely no consensus among them about what that means, apart from the fact that there is a majority community that both sees itself and is defined by the government as “Jewish.”

Netanyahu’s version moves away from the indefinite article and imposes two definite articles that are probably the most significant aspect of this language. It is categorically “the nation-state,” nobody else’s and none other, of “the Jewish people,” a constituency that is implicitly clearly defined, discrete and readily identifiable.

What Netanyahu’s language essentially does with its definite articles is foreclose alternatives or pluralisms. In that sense, it represents a return not only to classical Zionism but even to an anachronistic pre-state ideology that privileges a global Jewish “national” identity over an Israeli one. Such categorical language cannot be entirely a matter of comfort for many in Jewish communities around the world who feel intense loyalty to their own nation-states.

From a Palestinian point of view, the language is unacceptable because it implies that Israel is not only a “Jewish state” because it has a Jewish ethnic majority and consequent self-definition, but that it “belongs” not to its citizens or its ethnic majority but rather to “the Jewish people” around the world and for all time. Netanyahu is asking Palestinians to accept that Jews (by Israel’s official definition of the term) around the world, no matter where they are and what, if any, connection they have to Israel or Palestine, enjoy political rights that are privileged and superior over any other group in a metaphysical, permanent and non-contingent manner.

The obvious implication here is that Jews around the world, most of whom are not Israeli citizens, have superior political and national rights in Israel to the Palestinian citizens of that state. Netanyahu is asking the PLO and other Palestinians to not only embrace and endorse Zionism, but a very old-fashioned Zionism at that.

Netanyahu is also asking Palestinians to accept Israel as a fait accompli, a reality, and a legitimate member state of the United Nations, but also as an entity that transcends itself and has a trans-historical, supra-political and even quasi-religious status as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” no matter who happens to live there or what they collectively decide. He’s not asking for recognition of the Israeli state; he’s asking for a permanent deed to the global Jewish community of the land and political rights in it for all time. This is a unique demand as far as I can tell in the history of international relations, and a completely unreasonable one at that.

In the end, to make a Palestinian-Israeli agreement work it may be necessary, especially after the refugee issue is resolved, to find language through which Jewish Israelis and Palestinians recognize each other’s right of self-determination in their respective states, and I don’t think this is unrealistic or unreasonable. But Netanyahu’s language is subtle, insidious and completely unworkable.

Beyond optimism or pessimism in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

While the build up to the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – the first direct talks in almost ten years to be brokered by the United States – was largely greeted with an excess of pessimism on the part of many observers, the fact that they have been resumed is, on its own, something of an achievement for US President Barack Obama and his administration. Indeed, it took almost a year of intensive diplomacy in order to get to these direct negotiations to get them going.

Both Israelis and Palestinians expressed satisfaction with the first round of talks in Washington, and the mood of the Palestinian delegation in particular seemed to be considerably improved when they left. Following the second round of negotiations in Egypt, US officials including Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell all made upbeat comments.

Leading up to the talks, attention both in the Middle East and in the West generally focused on the obvious obstacles to achieving agreement: politically weak leadership on both sides, powerful domestic opposition, total lack of trust between the parties, the unresolved issue of settlement expansion and, most significantly, seemingly unbridgeable differences on key final-status issues, including borders, refugees’ right of return, Jerusalem and security. In particular, the question of Jerusalem remains a huge sticking point. Several key members of the Israeli cabinet insist that control of Jerusalem is not up for negotiation, while the Palestinians cannot consider any agreement that does not provide them with a capital in East Jerusalem.

All of these issues will be very difficult to overcome, but it is surely premature – and counterproductive – to dismiss the negotiations as pointless or doomed to fail simply because reaching an agreement will be painful and complicated.

In many cases, the pessimism has been a consequence of focusing solely on obstacles, rather than potential incentives for an agreement for both parties. In other cases, it reflected not so much pessimism about, but rather opposition to, a negotiated agreement based on serious compromises. These include both short-term compromises by Israel on issues such as territorial control by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and increased security measures by the Palestinians, as well as long-term compromises required of Israel on Jerusalem and the Palestinians on the right of return for refugees.

Similarly, undue optimism has also taken hold in some quarters as the talks continue, in spite of the lack of any concrete achievement thus far. The impressive political spectacle engineered by the White House moved some noted sceptics, including the veteran American negotiator Aaron David Miller, to attenuate their resounding “no’s” into muted “maybe’s” about whether the peace process can work. The US administration’s unrelenting persistence on the issue, coupled with the presence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders insisting that an agreement is possible, seems to have at least temporarily won over some cynics.

Moreover, there is evidence of the effectiveness of American influence on the parties, if not their enthusiasm for negotiating with each other: the Israelis did not allow the murder of four settlers near Hebron by Hamas on the eve of the talks to prompt a pullout, and the Palestinians did not invoke either the flotilla attack in May or the ongoing settlement controversy to prevent their attendance.

That the talks are even continuing in the face of such serious difficulties is a testament to the will of the negotiators, the influence of the United States and the deep reluctance of Israel and the Palestinians to be blamed for any failure. Neither optimists nor pessimists will find anything that has happened in the negotiations thus far to seriously challenge any of their assumptions. But pessimists should bear in mind that if we are ever to have successful negotiations leading to a peace agreement, they are inevitably going to begin as modestly as this.

Freedom, above all, means the freedom to be wrong

The proposed Quran-burning spectacle, which was planned by an extremist Florida pastor for this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then canceled due to overwhelming opposition from the American mainstream, is an excellent example of how the First Amendment protects free speech in the United States.

The planned action would have been gratuitous, offensive, blasphemous and almost unanimously opposed by other Americans. But it was also absolutely protected under American law. A very large body of legal rulings over many years has established that the symbolic burning of American flags in protest against government policies is protected speech under the First Amendment. The same would apply to burning the Quran, or anything else that is symbolic, no matter how deeply it offends some people’s sensibilities.

On the other hand, the government’s response, which ultimately proved decisive, was not to attempt to censor or restrain this provocative act, but rather to employ its own free speech rights. Senior officials repeatedly and pointedly insisted that the burning, along with being deeply offensive, was actually dangerous and, most immediately, might place the lives of American troops, particularly in Afghanistan, in danger. The turning point was probably a phone call to the pastor by Robert Gates, in which the defense secretary reportedly insisted that this would be an act that might cost American lives. In other words, the government appealed to shame and patriotism in dissuading the preacher from going forward with his highly provocative plan.

This was a good outcome, but it certainly wasn’t optimal. One hopes in vain to live in a society in which extremists avoid provoking each other in a counterproductive and obnoxious manner, but every country has its fools. The appropriate response, but one that unfortunately doesn’t seem available at the moment, is for everyone to collectively shrug at a weirdo burning a large pile of paper on a historic anniversary. So what?

However, religious people often don’t take this view. But if something like the Quran is the word of God or is holy in some meaningful way, it doesn’t require angry mobs to defend it from nut cases. Demagogues can’t resist tapping into potential outrage in order to promote their agendas by whipping up emotions. And, it has to be said, a violent response to provocative and obnoxious speech is totally unjustifiable.

It is extremely important that the American mainstream was able to stop this provocation by persuasion, rather than by employing some kind of enforced restraint that would have jeopardized free speech. Martin Peretz, the publisher of The New Republic magazine, proposed seeking a court injunction to prevent the Quran burning. Commentator Pat Buchanan went further, suggesting that the preacher be arrested on spurious charges of “sedition.” Such actions would have not only been unconstitutional, they would have undermined the single most important freedom protected under American law, which, if upheld, would have effectively established new coercive powers of censorship.

Any offended Muslims who would have welcomed such moves would have been seriously misguided. In the long run, religious, ethnic and other minorities in any society invariably pay a higher price for a loss of liberty than majorities do, for obvious reasons.

It’s not an intuitively easy concept to grasp, but the only freedom that really counts is the freedom to be wrong. If virtually everyone agrees that something makes sense, it need not be protected by absolute guarantees of personal liberty. It’s only when an action or concept seems obviously and completely wrong, even immoral, to large majorities and social mainstreams that it requires a robust constitutional defense. The important point that the Quran burnings might have cost American and other lives was an argument based on dissuasion, not an instance of using the power of the state to prevent the burnings. If one accepts the principle that speech can be restrained because of a nebulous and potential social harm, it’s hard to see where, logically, that kind of censorship would become invalid.

Yet the controversy does demonstrate that there is a powerful rise in Islamophobia in American culture. Angry opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” and to numerous mosque-building projects around the United States, as well as other disturbing developments, illustrate there is more Islamophobic sentiment in the country today than there was in the first two or three years following the 9/11 attacks.

There is still a great deal of resistance to this bigotry on the part of mainstream American society, but the Islamophobic narrative has gained considerable cultural and political ground in the past few years. This is largely a function of the reinforcement of the idea that Islam and Muslims in the United States are a physical or cultural threat to American society, or both, independent of any actual events.

If Islamophobia was essentially a reaction to terrorist outrages and other provocations, it would have been at its zenith in the first years following the 9/11 attacks, not nine years later with no similar incidents occurring in the intervening period.

Narratives drive the reception and interpretation of events, not the other way around. The US government and the American mainstream may have prevented the Quran-burning spectacle, but the evidence that the Islamophobic narrative is gaining ground in American cultural and political life is irrefutable. The only rational response is for American Muslims to work with their fellow citizens to create and promote alternative narratives, which will be based on the same free speech rights that would have protected the aborted Quran burnings.

Should the West welcome new mosques? Should the East welcome other places of worship?

The controversial planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the “ground zero” site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrates a rather large gap between the perceptions of many if not most Western Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots, and the difficulty of balancing sensitivities and rights.

The project itself was an extremely dubious idea from the outset, particularly given the fact that it was virtually inevitable that the Islamophobic right would try to twist this into yet another source of tension between American Muslims and the broader American society. The backers of the project did, and continue to do, a woeful job of framing it in any way that might avoid alienating much of American society (even the name they chose, “Córdoba House,” is exceptionally ill-conceived for reasons that ought to be obvious, upon reflection, to anybody).

Only those living in a bubble would fail to understand what was likely to happen, but this group seems to inhabit just such an isolated cultural and political space. It seems evident they didn’t consult with anybody serious before launching the project and, if they did, they certainly didn’t get or heed any good advice. Instead of loudly and proactively framing the project in a way that might foreclose the inevitable Islamophobic attacks, the field was left essentially open to the ultra-right blogosphere to define and frame the issue, giving rise to the myth of the “ground zero mosque,” at which point the whole thing became toxic and, for American Muslims, disastrous.

Tension continued to run high leading up to the ninth anniversary of 9/11 yesterday, fueled also by lunatic preachers threatening to burn Qurans and other provocative actions and comments. One has to ask why this random ninth anniversary of September 11 terrorist attacks would be so much more charged than previous ones, and I think the answer clearly has to do with the rise of an Islamophobic narrative that is largely unconnected to actual events and has independently developed a powerful cultural and political force by virtue of repetition and dissemination.

Unless some kind of violent incident takes place to reframe the debate, the whole issue has played itself out some while back, and had already achieved its full cultural and political impact by, at the latest, Pres. Obama’s second remarks on the subject (in which he reaffirmed the legal right to but not the wisdom of the project). By then, the two narratives — one holding that defending religious and private property rights is essential to American traditions of freedom and tolerance; the other ranging from some assertion or other that this was “insensitive” all the way to claiming that this will be some kind of gloating victory monument to Osama bin Laden — had been fully established and most people who were going to be inclined one way or the other had already essentially chosen sides. At that point, the actual cultural or political impact was more or less completed, unless something dramatic happens to reframe people’s attitudes.

No one doubts that the community center backers have absolute First Amendment and private property rights (subject to zoning) to develop a cultural center in the building in question. Objections from more mainstream critics, leaving aside overt bigots and hysterics who ascribe all kinds of unfounded extremist motivations to the project, have focused on the question of sensitivity. But almost all of the standard objections to the project do involve at least some level of Islamophobic assumption, requiring some degree of conflation between the 9/11 criminals and Al Qaeda with Islam and Muslims generally. On the other hand, clearly the backers of the project suffered from serious lack of sensitivity at least insofar as they did not understand the need to frame it properly or how to do that. Their mishandling of the situation has been a major part of the problem from the beginning.

Many people in the American Muslim community would hold that no one should ask for permission in exercising such a well-established American right or care what their fellow citizens think about the exercise of such basic rights. This is a profoundly mistaken attitude. Even legal rights that are practically unchallengeable come with social responsibilities (free-speech rights are a great case in point, such as deliberately inflammatory Quran burning spectacles which are certainly protected by the First Amendment and are also certainly repugnant and indeed dangerous). The mark of a healthy, well-adjusted community is not a decontextualized defiant assertion of rights, but is instead a balancing of rights with social responsibilities includes a due regard for the sensitivities of fellow citizens.

The project itself was not necessarily, and indeed should not have been, any kind of affront to the sensitivities of most Americans, but there was always a deep risk that it could be perceived that way and allowing it to be defined by extremist bigots ensured that it would be. The responsibility in this case was not necessarily to refrain from the project altogether, although that’s certainly what I would have advised if I had been asked, but at very least to create a powerful and proactive messaging strategy to mute and blunt voices seeking to promote outrage over it.

Another important display of responsibility might have been to quickly engineer a positive solution to the controversy (and I can think of many) once it got going, seizing the moral high ground, being magnanimous and at the same time not appearing to capitulate to bullying. It wouldn’t have been that hard, but it would’ve required some courage, selflessness and genuine vision. Among other things, such gestures would have severely disrupted the Islamophobic narrative of Muslim “encroachment” into (implicitly Christian) American cultural space, and could have transformed a dangerous situation into a positive one.

American Muslim religious and cultural (and, if they ever get any, political) leaders, in the urgent interests of their own community, are going to have to start to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of the cultural and political context in which they operate. It may not be fair when it comes to defending essential rights such as freedom of religion, but it’s the bottom-line reality. Even more urgently, they’re going to have to develop a much stronger understanding of how the Islamophobic narrative actually functions, in the long run to successfully counteract it and in the short run to, at the very least, stop inadvertently playing into it on a regular basis.

Legitimize Hamas and kiss the PLO goodbye

With the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, numerous voices in the United States have been urging the inclusion of Hamas in international diplomacy, a focus on Palestinian unity, or some formal American outreach to the Palestinian Islamist group.

There are many different ways of arriving at such a position. One is to allege, as MJ Rosenberg of Media Matters has, that without Hamas there is no chance of any Palestinian leadership being able to deliver on a peace agreement. This ignores the extent to which Hamas’ appeal relies on cynicism and despair about peace, and the likely surge of legitimation for any leadership that can secure independence for the Palestinians.

Another assumes that Hamas is somehow more “authentic” than the Palestine Liberation Organization because it is a violent revolutionary group. Some have transferred sympathy for left-wing revolutionaries of the past to this ultra right-wing fundamentalist organization precisely because it is violent and revolutionary. The preposterous assertion of Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, that both Hamas and Hezbollah are part of the “global left” is only true if the left is reduced to those militantly opposed to the status quo, in which case almost all religious fanatics and almost everyone on the extreme right would be perfectly valid candidates for inclusion.

A third begins by emphasizing democracy, and confusing democracy with elections only (though elections are a sine qua non of democracy), without due attention to the need for transparent, accountable institutions. George Washington University professor Nathan Brown has recently argued that because there have been no Palestinian elections in years so that terms in office have expired, there are two equally illegitimate and authoritarian Palestinian Authorities, one in Ramallah and the other in Gaza.

Arguments assuming that elections alone are what matter and that ignore why there can be no elections (Hamas is blocking them because it rightly fears the results), and that also ignore differences in legitimacy and repression between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas rule in Gaza, invariably end up becoming a brief for Hamas’ aspirations within Palestinian society. They also make Hamas at least co-equal with the PLO as a legitimate international representative of the Palestinian people.

Harvard professor Stephen Walt recently suggested that if peace negotiations fail, “Hamas will be in a strong position” to lead “a Palestinian campaign for political rights within [a] single state, based on well-established norms of justice and democracy.” Walt doesn’t seem to understand what Hamas is, what it believes in, what it opposes, or the implications of its regional affiliations. The idea that Hamas might become a civil-rights movement for international standards of justice and democracy is simply laughable.

It was particularly ridiculous given that Walt and others were expressing similarly naïve or disingenuous opinions either right before, or in Walt’s case right after, Hamas showed its true colors once again by attempting to sabotage the current peace negotiations – which the organization fears might succeed in ending the conflict before it can unseat the PLO. This Hamas did by murdering four Israeli settlers in a drive-by shooting; it claimed “full responsibility” for the killings, called them “heroic,” vowed to repeat the crime (and tried to the very next day), and declared all Israeli settlers to be “legitimate military targets.”

If this didn’t cut through the fog of the “constructive ambiguity” employed by Hamas leaders through a relentless pattern of contradictory statements designed to appeal simultaneously to hard-core Islamists and Western sympathizers, I can’t imagine what will. Actions are the surest test of any ideology, not a mountain of contradictory rhetoric.

All these analyses ignore the likely consequences of international moves to legitimize Hamas and accord it similar status to the PLO, without Hamas agreeing to accept the terms laid out by the Middle East Quartet. These include recognition of a two-state solution, renunciation of terrorism, and acceptance of the legitimacy of existing Palestinian agreements.

The first consequence is that legitimizing Hamas would provide the Israeli extreme right with much more effective arguments in support of the occupation and the settlements as forward defenses in an existential conflict. These Israelis would claim that there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with because Hamas insists it will never recognize Israel.

Second, recognition would lead to renewed isolation of all of the Palestinians and the occupied territories if the international community continues to view Hamas with deep suspicion; or it would signal a death blow to the PLO and, by extension, the whole Palestinian secular nationalist movement; or indeed it could lead to both.

Third, the rise of Hamas would alienate almost all the Arab states (with the possible exceptions of Syria and Qatar) who face Muslim Brotherhood or similar opposition groups attempting to overthrow their governments. It would likely lead to Palestinian isolation in the Arab world as well.

Palestinian national unity is crucial, but on whose terms will this unity be achieved? The square peg of jihad and martyrdom until victory cannot fit into the round hole of negotiations with Israel for a two-state solution. International legitimacy and recognition is a major asset to any party. Those who urge the United States and others to provide that gratis to Hamas will be doing so at the expense of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, favoring the Islamists in the internal Palestinian contest.

That is the first thing honest commentators who advocate such a path need to admit to themselves, and to everybody else.

The Future Palestinian State Takes Root (with Michael Weiss)

Many contentious issues could bedevil the Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations that began Wednesday, but on one subject both sides can
largely agree: The state-building program launched last year by
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has made measurable
progress. While the terrorist group Hamas rules in the Gaza Strip,
Palestinians in the West Bank are trying to build the framework of a
future state.

The West Bank economy grew by 8.5% last year (according to the
International Monetary Fund), despite the global recession and
regional factors inhospitable to foreign investment. Palestinian GDP
for the third quarter of 2009 was $1.24 billion, up from $1.18 billion
a year before.

Real estate in the West Bank is booming. Property prices in Ramallah
have risen 30% in the last two years, according to local developers.
In July, construction began on Ramallah’s Ersal Commercial Center, a
$400 million project expected to create thousands of new jobs. And a
joint Palestinian-Qatari company is currently building Palestine’s
first planned city, Rawabi, a high-tech suburb with business and
commercial districts and 5,000 homes. A further accelerant to the
housing market will be a new $500 million mortgage fund, established
by the Palestine Investment Fund, which will begin issuing loans later
this year.

These promising trends are reflected in the Palestine Securities
Exchange, especially its main Al Quds Index, which in June experienced
a 5% market capitalization increase to reach $76.8 million. According
to the Portland Trust, four out of the five main sectors of the PSE
increased in 2009, with banking up by 30.6%. That’s one reason the
European Investment Bank last December made a $6.4 million “anchor”
investment in Palestine’s first venture capital fund. The fund will
target export-oriented information and communications technology
businesses, which represent the only area of the Palestinian economy
that has seen almost uninterrupted growth over the past decade.

Enticing foreign capital is a main goal of the PSE. Last March, the
exchange (and the Palestine Telecommunications Company) took an
investor road show to London, with further tours planned for New York,
Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Like the Jewish Agency in the
years before Israel achieved statehood, the PSE has strategically
targeted members of a far-flung and prosperous diaspora. Among other
things, it recently established a $25 million mutual fund for Chilean
Palestinians, who constitute the largest Palestinian exile population
outside of Jordan.

The sine qua non for economic expansion has been the creation of the
new Palestinian security services, which are a model for the
state-building program in general. Palestinian forces have restored
law and order in now-thriving towns like Jenin and Nablus and have
coordinated effectively with Israeli forces, allowing Israel to remove
a significant number of roadblocks and checkpoints.

Palestinian state-building also includes institutional and civil
society reforms. The most recent was an intervention in the field of
education announced on Aug. 8. Mr. Fayyad identified three key goals
for reforming the curriculum: improving language skills, including
Arabic; promoting analytical and critical thinking; and combating
fundamentalism and extremism. The aim is not only to create future
generations of entrepreneurs and thinkers, but to ensure that they’re
accustomed to notions of peaceful coexistence with their Israeli

The state-building program has qualities of perestroika—efforts to
separate party from government and to replace a patronage-based
government designed to satisfy political constituencies with a
technocratic meritocracy. As part of this, the Justice Ministry
recently announced that it will seek increased separation of powers
and protection from political interference in legal cases, which has
been a persistent problem in recent years.

Mr. Fayyad’s efforts have generated significant opposition from within
the ranks of Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. As
an independent, Mr. Fayyad is held in suspicion by some of the
Arafat-era old guard. He is, however, supported by Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas.

In other quarters—including in a recent report by Washington’s
Carnegie Endowment—Mr. Fayyad has been criticized for running his
state-building program outside the context of Palestinian democracy,
since the terms of all elected officials have expired and no new
elections have been held. (Hamas adamantly opposes any new national
elections, as they have every reason to fear the results, and Fatah
has proven unable to organize more limited municipal elections.)

This criticism misses the fact that Mr. Fayyad and his program are
neither causes nor symptoms of the lack of elections, and the
state-building efforts go on in spite, rather than because, of the
electoral impasse. Moreover, although elections are important,
democracy does not consist merely of polling but requires transparent
and accountable institutions. Mr. Fayyad’s state-building program is
creating the institutional framework that is essential to a
functioning democracy.

To be sure, Mr. Fayyad is somewhat compromised by being the appointee
of Mr. Abbas, rather than an elected representative. And he has made
some miscalculations, such as trying (unsuccessfully) to block
Israel’s recent admission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development, which was widely seen by Israelis as unnecessarily

But the important point is that Palestinians have taken up the
responsibilities of self-government while pushing for the right of
self-determination. As direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
continue, the U.S. and the rest of the international community have a
vital interest in providing the technical, financial and political
support needed so that this project succeeds.

Contested Settlement

Israeli settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories has proved to be among the most serious irritants in the U.S.-Israel relationship. It is also one of the most significant obstacles to a negotiated settlement. But with direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations kicking off this week and Israel’s partial settlement freeze set to expire in a few weeks, the issue is once again poised to come to the forefront of the Middle East peace process.

President Barack Obama’s administration has already found itself entangled in this issue twice this year — first when Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel in March, and again when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington later that month. In both cases, Israeli officials announced controversial settlement projects in Palestinian areas of occupied East Jerusalem in a manner that was deeply embarrassing to the Obama administration. During his Israel visit, Biden condemned the settlement construction as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now” in one of the most public manifestations of the perceived rift that had emerged between the United States and Israel since Obama’s inauguration.

Israeli settlement construction is also rapidly climbing the ladder of Palestinian concerns. Palestinian leaders vividly recall the longyears of negotiations in the 1990s, during which the number of Israeli settlers doubled from 200,000 to 400,000, and now have almost reached half a million. The Palestinian nightmare is that additional years of fruitless talks will provide a stable environment for another major expansion of settlements, which would permanently foreclose the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

From his first day in office, Obama attempted to launch a major effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that would begin with an Israeli commitment to freeze all settlement activity. Netanyahu, however, deftly shifted the subject from the West Bank to Jerusalem, on which he had much more support from members of the U.S. Congress and in Israel. In response to U.S. pressure, he issued a partial, 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, which did not include Jerusalem and contained many loopholes, such as the grandfathering of no less than 3,000 settlement housing units deemed to have been started before the freeze began on Nov. 25. This allowed Netanyahu to successfully triangulate between U.S. concerns and the demands of his right-wing coalition partners, but the moratorium will expire on Sept. 26, forcing the prime minister to find another method for remaining in both sides’ good graces.

After spending most of last year attempting to get Netanyahu to agree to a complete settlement freeze, the Obama administration came to the belief that the contentious settlement issue was toxic for U.S.-Israel relations and an impediment to the resumption of direct talks. Obama effectively took the issue off the table following the U.N. General Assembly meeting last fall, when he declared that the United States still regarded further settlement activity as illegitimate, but was now focusing on restarting direct negotiations.

The Palestinians, having adopted the U.S. demand for a complete freeze, consequently were placed in an impossible situation. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after all, was unable to back down on this demand as easily as Obama.

To restart direct talks, the Obama administration therefore needed to find a formula that would allow the Palestinians to return to direct negotiations without a complete settlement freeze. Furthermore, any deal needed to strike a compromise that would prevent the talks from collapsing following the Sept. 26 expiration of the partial moratorium.

Many informed observers have suggested that Obama and Netanyahu reached a private and tacit understanding to resolve this conundrum during the Israeli prime minister’s White House visit on July 6. The two leaders may have reached an agreement that Israel need not extend the moratorium but that Israel will still, in practice, restrict building to Jewish areas of Jerusalem and large settlement blocs in the West Bank. These areas are understood by all parties to be the likely subject of a land swap in the event of a final-status agreement. Obama and Netanyahu’s deal, as long as it remained unspoken, would preserve Netanyahu’s viability with his domestic right-wing constituency while also preventing new land expropriations or incendiary projects in Arab areas of Jerusalem from derailing negotiations.

With the Aug. 20 announcement that direct talks were set to resume, it appeared that all sides were prepared to live with such an arrangement. However, several spoilers on Israel’s far right have emerged to try to kill the understanding by making it public. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and dissidents within the prime minister’s own Likud party have strongly opposed any such arrangement and hinted that Netanyahu had privately accepted this formula.

As early as Aug. 11, Yishai told the Jerusalem Post, “I believe that [Netanyahu] will resume building only in the blocs as a gesture” and said he opposed and would try to block any such de facto policy. The same Jerusalem Post article cited sources close to Netanyahu as saying that one of the appeals of such a policy is that it would satisfy both the Labor and Likud parties and that “Netanyahu had made a point of planting trees… in three ‘consensus’ areas: Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion,” suggesting this policy was already being observed in practice.

These strong Israeli public statements on settlements prompted an inevitable but ill-advised Palestinian reaction. On Aug. 23., chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made a pronouncement that any resumption of settlement building would lead to a Palestinian walkout from the talks, saying that “Israel has a choice: 12 months of peace, or settlements and no peace. They cannot have both.” President Abbas has suggested several times that an extended settlement freeze was once again a precondition for the continuation of negotiations, though that is going to be an extremely difficult policy for the PLO to follow in practice, given the diplomatic costs such a move would entail, especially with regards to its relations with the Obama administration.

For now, Netanyahu appears to have been able to hold off the right-wing offensive. Yet, this episode highlights the pitfalls that the Obama administration will face on the settlements issue as it tries to push negotiations forward in the future. There is a very powerful constituency within Israel — including within the state bureaucracy — for settlement expansion. Many observers argue that the pro-settlement constituency in Israel is one of the most effective in the country — permeating the bureaucratic apparatus that makes day-to-day decisions on settlement construction and using the mechanisms of Israel’s parliamentary system to act as kingmakers for prime ministers like Netanyahu who can ill afford to confront them. More importantly, no Palestinian leadership can make the painful compromises necessary for peace while Israel undertakes major settlement expansions.

Both sides can theoretically gain sufficient diplomatic space for the talks to proceed by agreeing to a formula in which Israel only builds within areas generally understood by all parties to be the likely subjects of a land swap. However, it is an open question whether Israel’s society and its government are capable of restraining themselves in this manner when such a significant constituency regards settlement expansion as an essential and even sacred duty. As Foreign Minister Lieberman put it on Aug. 25: “There is no reason to continue to freeze settlement.… We’ve done enough and we got nothing in return.”

The Obama administration will need to devise some method for containing the damage from this uncompromising Israeli posture, regardless of the Sept. 26 moratorium expiration. If it is unable to broker a compromise that satisfies its own concerns and that of the Israelis and Palestinians, it will be widely seen in the Middle East as a failure of both U.S. leadership and, more specifically, for the president himself. While the negotiations may or may not survive such a failure, it would be an extremely disturbing omen for the president’s ability to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and, more broadly, to succeed in his very ambitious agenda throughout the region.

In search of the invisible Arab lobby

This week HarperCollins released a new book by Mitchell Bard called The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance that Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, an obvious and ham-handed effort to counter the influential 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

Mearsheimer and Walt’s book was flawed in some significant ways. It wrongly identified pro-Israel groups as among the most important forces pushing the United States to invade Iraq in 2003 and ignored divisions within Jewish pro-Israel circles, especially the “pro-peace” camp represented by Americans for Peace Now and J Street.

However, the essential phenomenon they were describing is unassailably and obviously real: there is an extremely influential, although in many ways diverse, set of actors and organizations supporting Israeli interests in the United States. No one with a modicum of honesty and a passing familiarity with Washington, or with US policy for that matter, could deny this.

Indeed, the special relationship between the United States and Israel, based on an American commitment to Israel’s security, is not a matter of serious political debate or contest in the US and is essentially settled. Within that framework, there is obviously space for a wide range of approaches and attitudes, but the fundamental commitment of the United States to Israel and its most basic interests is, for the foreseeable future, beyond serious challenge.

Bard’s book, in contrast, is built on an absolute chimera: the notion that there is an “invisible” and powerful “Arab lobby” that undermines both American and Israeli interests in Washington. When I first looked at it, I had to wonder whether it was intended as a satire or a work of imaginative fiction. It turns out to be a gigantic stockpot in which anything and everything remotely connected to Arabs, Arab interests, criticism of Israel, or even criticism of US foreign policy in the region, is very carelessly tossed and set to bubble away in the hope of producing some sort of cohesion. It never happens.

The Arab Lobby is not only profoundly paranoid and silly, it’s also unbelievably sloppy. Bard includes a large amount of information, some accurate, some irrelevant, some inaccurate, and some even fanciful. An example of this dreadful carelessness is his identification of me as “ADC’s communications director” in the present tense, even though I have not worked at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee since 2004. Sadly, the book is littered with this kind of elementary error and bears all the hallmarks of a cut-and-paste job without any real fact checking or analysis.

Worse, The Arab Lobby reflects the author’s zero-sum mentality on Israeli-Arab relations, and on those involving Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans. Bard simply divides reality into two sets of binary categories: pro-Jewish and Israel versus pro-Arab and Palestinian. This may have been an accurate reflection of political realities several decades ago, but at present it is simply wrong. Since the United States, Israel and the Palestinians all need the same thing to secure their fundamental national interests – a negotiated peace agreement that ends the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Israeli occupation – there is in fact no clear binary of interests. To the contrary, the mutuality of interest in peace is becoming ever more apparent.

Bard’s paranoid attitudes are summed up in his symptomatic misrepresentation of the American Task Force on Palestine, at which I have been a senior fellow for the past five years. He acknowledges ATFP’s groundbreaking principled, pragmatic and constructive positions, but couches them in language that leaves readers in no doubt that it is all a ruse thinly disguising a concealed extremism. In Bard’s zero-sum world, it would have to be, wouldn’t it?

Time and again, the reader is torn between the impression that Bard is trying to create a large, invisible, elitist, and secret anti-Israel and anti-American “lobby,” and his frequent admissions that organized Arab groups in the United States – and even lobbyists representing the only Arab state with influence in Washington, Saudi Arabia – have had very limited impact on US policy and almost none at all on Congress.

In other words, the book oscillates very unsteadily between fantasy and reality. Bard finds himself trapped between an uncontrollable urge to boast about the effectiveness of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC (though he has the unmitigated chutzpah to describe the pro-Israel lobby as “mythical”), while also presenting it as deeply threatened by this secret pro-Arab alliance. Bard then depicts the latter as enormously influential (though what policies it has influenced he is somewhat at a loss to identify), and in the same breath contemptuously dismisses organized Arab and Muslim-American efforts as utterly ineffectual.

For all of its evident flaws, Mearsheimer and Walt’s book was highly influential because it was a rare effort by credible scholars to analyze a reality that everyone knows but avoids talking about. Inevitably, it generated considerable anger. Bard’s book, on the other hand, is unlikely to provoke anything other than mirth, not least among those of us supposedly involved in this “many-headed hydra” he is “exposing.”