Monthly Archives: December 2010

American support for statehood is Palestine’s trump card

The diplomatic effort to secure bilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, especially in Latin America, or upgrades to the diplomatic status of Palestinian missions in the West is a net positive, as long as it does not undercut Palestinian relations with the United States.

Last week, Ecuador recognized Palestine in its 1967 borders, and Paraguay has said it will soon join what looks to become a virtually unanimous South American recognition of Palestine. Reports suggest that the United Kingdom is preparing to upgrade the mission of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the international representative of the Palestinian people, joining France, the United States, Portugal and Norway, which have all already done so.

The Latin American recognitions obviously embrace Palestine as, at least in theory, a fully-sovereign state with fully normalized diplomatic relations, and imply that it should be a member state of the United Nations. The Western upgrades to PLO missions have raised the status of Palestinian officials to ambassadorial or near-ambassadorial rank, thereby treating the representatives of Palestine as if they were officers of an established fully-sovereign state.

All of this seems to have taken Israel by surprise. If that’s the case, it only underscores the extent to which many Israelis are living in a state of denial about the viability of the occupation and the plausibility of preventing Palestinian statehood.

It is true enough that Israel has the military means to continue to deny Palestinians independence, and to colonize East Jerusalem and the West Bank, through force of arms. But what some Israelis appear to have failed to comprehend is the international stake in ending the occupation.

The world has not turned against Israel. There is still an overwhelming international consensus that it is a legitimate member state of the United Nations. Even in the Arab world the appetite for a long-term project aimed at the dissolution of the Israeli state has been relegated to the political fringes. While many Israelis mistakenly conflate outside reaction to the occupation with that toward their state, misrecognizing opposition to the occupation as “delegitimization” of Israel, the rest of the world sees the distinction more clearly than ever.

This point of view is most importantly being embraced in Washington, certainly by the administration of US President Barack Obama and also by many important members of Congress. There is a virtual consensus in the foreign policy establishment surrounding the government that resolving this conflict by ending the occupation is essential, not optional, for the United States. Many Israelis do not seem to have understood or truly processed the extent to which the United States now sees Palestinian statehood as essential to its own national interests and therefore “inevitable.”

Israeli Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer recently tried to warn his fellow Israelis that, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the US will also recognize a Palestinian state in the coming year, and then we will have to provide explanations as to how it happened.” This is probably an exaggeration as the United States will almost certainly continue to push for an agreement, but it recognizes the deep-seated American determination for the creation of Palestine.

But it is also essential that Palestinians realize this as well. Pursuing recognition in Latin America and mission upgrades in Europe is normal and positive diplomatic activity. Insofar as it causes Israel discomfort, that is largely beside the point. However, Palestinians need to be very careful to protect their relationship with the United States and the emerging American consensus in favor of ending the occupation and establishing a state of Palestine.

For a start, the United States has been the single biggest donor to the Palestinian Authority and increasingly used cash treasury-to-treasury transfers meaning that the authority has been able to use much of this aid at its own discretion. More importantly, Washington is the only country that under the current circumstances could conceivably broker an agreement with Israel whereby the Palestinian state is actually established. Palestinians will not be able to force their independence on Israel; they will have to somehow get the Israelis to agree to it. And for that, American support, cooperation and leadership is indispensable.

Thus far the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the Latin American recognitions, and earlier this year engaged in its own diplomatic upgrade of the Palestinian mission in Washington. But it did not like being put in the position of blocking PLO efforts to upgrade its status at United Nations agencies. Apparently the United States understands the need for Palestinians to pursue increased international recognition at the bilateral level, but isn’t ready to allow the issue to become multilateral, for fear that this might compromise, or supersede, the negotiations that Washington is overseeing.

The bottom line is that Palestinians need to be extremely careful here. Recognition from Paraguay and ambassadorial status in the UK is highly desirable, but the American consensus in favor of ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state is the only real, powerful and actionable political leverage the Palestinians have that can actually achieve the goal of independence.

BS litmus tests and double standards for Arab Americans have got to stop!

This morning I received one of the more disconcerting and annoying, although no doubt inadvertently, responses to an Ibishblog post I've ever gotten. A reader writes: "I read with interest and appreciation your somewhat generalized denunciation of Arab anti-Semitism. Would you be willing to get more specific (as in 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' being distributed by Arab governments) – and would you be willing to speak out in Arabic, in the news organs of the Middle East?"

Well of course my denunciation of anti-Semitism among Arabs and Arab-Americans was somewhat generalized, because I was talking about the phenomenon in general and in the big picture. The same can be said about my concomitant denunciation of Jewish anti-Arab and Islamlophobic sentiments. I didn't go into any details about that either, because I was talking about the phenomena in general. But this question “would you willing to get more specific” is really pretty obnoxious. In fact I've been very specific about this issue, and in 2010 alone I've written long essays, including another one coming out shortly in The Common Review, the quarterly journal of the Great Books Foundation, on the subject. I've taken on many individuals by name and in print, organizations and others on this very point for many years, and I've been very specific. Sometimes you have to step back and look at the big picture, particularly when it comes to the idea which was the main subject of my last essay, that Arabs cannot be anti-Semites because, like Jews, they are also Semites. Had people not been making such claims in the context of the Helen Thomas controversy, the whole essay wouldn't have been written and I wouldn't have felt any need to give a big picture review of what is and isn't anti-Semitism and to try to explain to that part of my Arab-American audience that doesn't seem to know about it the etymology and history of the term anti-Semitism, and therefore why it has the specific meaning it does.

As for the so-called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion," I can't tell you how many times I've discussed and referenced this issue, particularly in the context of references to it and plagiarisms from it in the founding document of Hamas. I'm not aware of any systematic campaign by any Arab government at the present time to distribute this notorious forgery, but I've written at length about the effect it had in spreading Western Christian anti-Semitism in the Arab world, first among Arab Christians and then among Islamists and other Muslims during the course of the 20th century. It's simply insulting to be asked this question after having written the essay I just did, among other recent ones touching on the same subject. This is exactly the kind of thing Arab and Muslim Americans who want to take constructive stances on issues like anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, extremism or other internal problems facing our community have to deal with on a regular basis, and it's just unacceptable. One of the conundrums facing thoughtful, reasonable, introspective and intellectually honest Arab and Muslim Americans is precisely this: it's never enough. There is always the follow-up question: "well, that's all well and good but will you…" (fill in the blank with some additional demand or another).

It's all based on a series of extremely insidious ideas and assumptions that need to be fought against at least as strongly as anti-Semitism or any other form of prejudice: the idea that Arab and Muslim Americans, no matter how forthright or intellectually honest they are being, at some social and political cost I might add, about some of the excesses in the discourses of our own communities and those of the countries of our origin, always have something more to prove. Will you denounce this? Will you denounce that? Will you sign this statement? Will you endorse this petition? Will you participate in this rally? Will you say this in Arabic? And, by the way, when will you stop beating your wife?

It's so obnoxious that it makes one want to throw up one's hands and either walk away, or take the gangsta rap route and embrace the stereotype by throwing it in people's faces or by exaggerating to the point where it becomes obviously an absurdity. Of course I'm not going to do that, and neither should anybody else. But the kind of response I got this morning from the reader, well-meaning though it probably was, couldn't be more discouraging or unhelpful. And, of course, it taps into rather deep reservoirs of anti-Arab stereotypes about oriental subtlety and dissimulation, dishonesty, “taqiyya,” and the simple assertion, that we've heard from American and other Western officials, commentators and politicians in the context of the Iraqi and other recent conflicts in the Middle East that Westerners tend to be straightforward and tell the truth, whereas “Orientals,” including Arabs, tend to engage in what the French would call in their charming phrase “Chinoiserie." This can refer to an artistic style but can also refer to racist Western conceptions of “Oriental subtlety,” deceptive practices and dissimulation. In other words, a certain kind of racism, or racist stereotypes anyway, lie at the core of these outrageous demands. So, my answer to all those questions is not only no, but hell no, unless I want to say such things anyway for my own reasons and purposes. Were it my cue to speak, I should have known it without a prompter, thank you very much.

In the past two years I had the distinct pleasure, following a decade of debating anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes on American television, of debating individuals such as a Hezbollah MP from Lebanon and, on another occasion, a senior leader of the so-called “Islamic Jihad” organization from Gaza on Arabic language TV stations. In both cases the “gentlemen” in question ultimately resorted to openly accusing me of taking the positions I was espousing, which of course were strongly in contradiction to virtually everything they were saying, because I live in the United States and have to submit to the exigencies of American culture and politics, and implying that if I were living in an Arab or Muslim-majority country, I would be agreeing with them wholeheartedly. It was infuriating, but also easily dismissible, because it was obviously a rhetorical tactic of last resort. So now having written a rather soul-searching, and in many circles unpopular, article about what the Helen Thomas controversy reveals about the way some Arab Americans think about Jewish power in the United States, anti-Semitism, and similar issues, to be asked whether I would repeat these sentiments in Arabic almost makes me regret having written it in the first place.

I've written before about the phenomenon whereby Arab and Muslim American “silence” on terrorism is more a function of deafness on the part of our fellow Americans than muteness on the part of our own community. The response to my recent posting I received today is a close relative of that conundrum: no matter what we say, it's never enough. There is always another question, another hurdle we have to jump over, another hoop we have to leap through, another doubt we have to satisfy. And it never ends either. There are those on the Arab-American left and Muslim-American right who think I make a profession of doing precisely that. They're completely wrong, of course. I'm saying what I think, without trying to tailor it to anybody's particular sensibilities, and it hasn't exactly won me a large pile of friends on any side. So be it. But there has to come a time, and soon, when this particular stigma against Arab Americans, the a priori assumption that we will only say certain things in certain contexts or in certain languages, that we will not repeat our views in the same way in both English and Arabic or to Western or Middle Eastern audiences, and that we are somehow always probably dissembling in some way or another, hedging, or being coy about some aspect of our real opinions or sentiments has just got to stop.

If some people want to see this as an angry or defensive reaction to a question that might be viewed as either reasonable or obnoxious depending on your point of view, then fine. I'm perfectly happy to admit to having been obviously annoyed by it, and I came by that honestly. But I want to say very clearly to anyone who cares about it that I absolutely refuse to jump through anybody's hoops, to meet anybody's endless series of BS litmus tests to make sure that I'm not really secretly some kind of radical extremist no matter what I've been writing and saying for so many years, or to in any way allow myself to be held to a different standard than is applied to others. I have written what I have written. It speaks for itself. If it's too much for some people, that's fine. If it's not enough for others, that's fine too. It is what it is, and it's what I think. The stakes are too high to do anything else: The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Palestinian diplomatic outreach must not harm relations with the United States

Ben Cohen, Associate Director of Communications of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), has written a thoughtful, interesting and, I think, wrong commentary for the Huffington Post on the ongoing Palestinian campaign for international recognition in Latin America and Europe. For Cohen, there is an incompatible contrast between the achievement of what the United States has announced it now regards as the "inevitable" Palestinian state, and the international pursuit of the Palestinian cause. His argument has to be taken seriously because while there should not be any such contrast, if mishandled there could be a kind of tension between the two. But in the end, his conclusion that they are fundamentally incompatible is not, or at least should not be, correct.

Cohen is reflecting the annoyance of Israel and its supporters with what they perceive as a Palestinian end-run around negotiations with Israel by seeking recognition in Latin America and bilateral upgrades to missions in Europe. The Palestinian pursuit of upgraded bilateral relations with third parties does not contradict or bypass indispensable negotiations with Israel but certainly does not involve the Israelis directly. As much the stronger of the two parties in an extremely asymmetrical relationship involving occupation, dominance and subordination, the Israelis are used to being in the driver's seat at all times. In this case, they find themselves somewhat sidelined and unable to prevent Latin American and European states from acting in their own interests to promote the cause of ultimate Palestinian statehood and independence. The only state in which Israel has any confidence in the final analysis is the United States, because of the special relationship the Americans have with Israel and their rock-solid commitment to Israel's security. Again, this is understandable. But it's not understandable for the Israelis to expect Palestinians to rely exclusively on bilateral negotiations with Israel, brokered by the United States, as the sole and only element of their diplomacy.

Proto-Israeli diplomats in the period leading up to Israel's independence, after all, did a great deal of diplomatic outreach around the world to lay the groundwork for the recognition of their own state, led by officials of the "yishuv," the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, such as Moshe Sharett and Golda Meir. To say that such efforts annoyed the Palestinians and other Arabs at the time would have been an understatement. It's important for the Israelis and their allies like Cohen to understand that Palestinians accept that there is no path to statehood other than a negotiated agreement with Israel brokered by the United States. This is clear and obvious, and the fact that Palestinians are pursuing multiple strategies to make that happen and augment rather than undermine that process doesn't contradict it. He should take very seriously the words of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who recently told Israel's Channel Two television, "What we're looking for … is a state of Palestine, we're not looking for yet another declaration of statehood. We're not looking for a Mickey Mouse state, we are not looking for some form of self-rule, we are looking for a sovereign state of Palestine, where we Palestinians can live as free people."

Much of Cohen's argument is based on placing the full blame on the Palestinians for the parties not having yet reached an end of conflict agreement that creates a Palestinian state. But the truth is there is plenty of blame to go around, all parties have made mistakes and miscalculations and missed opportunities, and the fact remains that Israel is the occupying power and holds most of the cards. He blames Palestinians for the present impasse in negotiations, conveniently eliding Israel's refusal to accept an exceptionally generous offer from the United States for a mere 90 day extension of a temporary, partial settlement moratorium that would clearly have resulted in a new round of direct negotiations. I'm not trying to let Palestinians off the hook here, but to pretend that if Palestinians had simply cooperated in the past, they would already have had their state is to evade huge chunks of recent, and indeed more distant, history. Unlike Cohen, I'm not interested in playing the blame game.

Everyone who warns Palestinians against unilateral declarations of independence is telling them something they already know: this won't be effective and isn't the path to freedom. Cohen also complains about threats by individual Palestinian leaders to suspend security cooperation with Israel, which would obviously be a huge mistake and which won't happen, or to dissolve the PA, which is similarly not a serious option under present or foreseeable circumstances. But when Palestinians seek bilateral recognition or diplomatic upgrades from third parties, it's not surprising that, as he quotes a pro-Israel communications strategist as complaining, "It's hard to convince the outside world why what the PA is doing is wrong." Apart from the fact that it's the PLO, not the PA, which is engaging in this diplomacy, I think it's pretty obvious why its hard to convince anyone that the very concept of Palestinian diplomacy and building stronger relations with countries around the world is “wrong.” Israel engages in its own diplomacy, as do countries around the world. Palestine, the inevitable, indispensable state-in-the-making should do so as well. It's hard to convince people that there's anything wrong with that, because, in the abstract, there isn't any plausible reason why it should be. In fact, its normal.

There is an important caveat, however. Palestinian relations with the United States are, and must be, paramount. The United States is the irreplaceable broker to the indispensable negotiations that are the only practicable path to peace and independence. If the Israelis are annoyed with Palestinian diplomacy while they happily busy themselves with announcing new settlement activity on a weekly basis in violation of international law, the Roadmap and clearly stated American and international opposition, so be it. It's better if the parties don't annoy each other, but since Palestinian diplomacy, unlike settlement building, isn't by definition illegitimate, and in fact at a certain level is absolutely necessary, then a limited amount of such annoyance is perhaps unavoidable and undoubtedly tolerable.

American annoyance, the other hand, must be both avoidable and intolerable from a Palestinian point of view. In her speech at the Brookings Institution on December 10, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made crystal clear her opposition to what she described as unilateral moves at the UN by the Palestinians to upgrade their diplomatic status in such multilateral bodies at this time. From a Palestinian perspective, that should be an end to it. These moves were blocked by the United States, and further such efforts are clearly inadvisable given open American opposition. But so far the US administration has not expressed any clear disapproval of diplomatic efforts to upgrade bilateral relations with Europe and Latin America. If and when it does, the Palestinians are going to have to consider these objections very carefully and understand that the symbolic recognition of Palestine by Latin American leaders clearly isn't worth any degradation in the relationship with the United States.

Cohen says Palestinians should forget about the rest of the world and concentrate on "reaching agreement with the one state that can make Palestine a reality: Israel." That's basically sound, except it places all the onus on the Palestinians for such an agreement and none on the Israelis, which is an analysis and formula that simply cannot work. Israel too has difficult, and indeed painful, choices to make, and he doesn't acknowledge any of them. But in fact Palestinians need to concentrate also on maintaining and developing their relationship with the one state that can make such an agreement achievable: the United States. Reaching out to the rest of the world is reasonable and important, especially insofar as it helps to solidify the international understanding that Palestine is an inevitable reality and a future member state of the United Nations. But if it ever starts to come at the expense of goodwill in Washington, diminishing returns will assert themselves very quickly and the cost to the Palestinian cause and aspirations will be prohibitive. Cohen is wrong there is an inherent contradiction between Palestinian statehood and the Palestinian cause, since in fact they are one and the same. But both depend, more than anything else under both current and foreseeable conditions, on the best possible relations with the world's only superpower.

Palestinians are pursuing bilateralism, not unilateralism

Last week the US House of Representatives adopted a resolution threatening a potential cutoff of aid to the Palestinians if they unilaterally declared statehood. It was essentially meaningless bluster, taking a strong stance against something the Palestinians aren’t currently pursuing or even seriously considering.

The real context of resolution is not Palestinian unilateralism, but multilateralism and, especially, bilateralism, and there’s a big difference between the three. Most Palestinian officials acknowledge that as an occupied people with the deck stacked against them, they haven’t got the power to do very much unilaterally.

In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) unilaterally declared an independent Palestinian state in the pre-June 1967 borders. Many developing countries recognized that state. But nothing happened. The only real consequence was to make any future unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence possibly look like a repetition of this embarrassing failure.

The Palestinians are also aware that the physical presence of the formidable Israeli military in the occupied territories means that, as a practical matter, Palestinian independence ultimately depends on Israeli acquiescence, however reluctant; on their own, the Palestinians are unlikely to be able to achieve it. So it’s always been obvious that third-party intervention is essential. During most of the past two decades, both Palestinians and Israelis have looked mainly to the United States, and there is no doubt that in the final analysis an American role as broker and more, is simply indispensable.

However, in the past couple of years, faced with diplomatic impasses, Palestinians have been developing a creative set of new strategies to augment these indispensable negotiations – notably state-building, nonviolent protests and settlement boycotts. They have also been pursuing multilateral and bilateral recognition, but not the unilateralism denounced by the US Congress.

The first efforts, aimed at upgrading the status of Palestinian representation in various UN bodies, were largely blocked by the United States on the grounds that they bypassed the negotiating process. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton recently warned Palestinians that “unilateral efforts at the United Nations are not helpful and undermine trust.”

Actually, such efforts aren’t unilateral at all, they are multilateral. It’s not surprising that Washington would view such efforts as a kind of end-run around the negotiating process it oversees, but it clearly makes sense for Palestinians to try to enhance their global diplomatic status in preparation for what Clinton has described as “inevitable” Palestinian statehood.

Importantly, the secretary didn’t say anything about the main effort currently being pursued by Palestinian diplomats, which is a series of upgrades to bilateral diplomatic relations. This has most spectacularly borne fruit in Latin America, with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia all having recognized Palestine within its 1967 borders in recent weeks. More recognitions are expected to follow shortly. In addition, Norway, France and other European countries had been quietly upgrading the diplomatic status of the PLO missions in their countries.

Slowly but surely, the world is adding Palestine to the roster of fully recognized countries and laying the groundwork for its future admission as a member state of the United Nations. If the Americans are annoyed by this, they’re not saying so publicly. It’s not clear why they should be. Since Washington views Palestinian statehood as “inevitable,” and in the end this can only be achieved with Israeli acquiescence and through negotiations, the US role as primary midwife in the birth of this new state is unchallengeable.

Palestinian unilateralism on independence has already proven its pointlessness back in the 1980s, and the Kosovo model – unilaterally declared independence immediately recognized and supported by most of the world’s most powerful countries – isn’t really available to them, at least at this stage. However, this diplomatic offensive for recognition is not only purposive and meaningful; it dovetails perfectly with state-building and, indeed, with American-brokered negotiations with Israel.

The Israelis may be annoyed, but as they continue settlement construction in violation of international law, the “road map” and clearly stated American and international opposition, they’re not in any position to be wagging fingers at anybody about complicating delicate diplomacy.

Palestinians obviously have to pursue negotiations aimed at an agreement with Israel that secures its acquiescence to Palestinian independence. But at the same time, it is vital for the Palestinians to pour as much energy as possible into state-building that prepares them for that independence; to continue pursuing measures that challenge the abusive practices of the occupation; and to seek to upgrade their diplomatic status multilaterally and bilaterally.

Palestinian statehood is becoming inevitable as Clinton says. Diplomatic recognition of that necessary, indispensable state-in-the-making from countries in Latin America and elsewhere, no matter how much it might annoy the Israelis, is simply another recognition of that fact and an important step in the right direction.

Arabs and anti-Semitism

The recent brouhaha over remarks by Helen Thomas regarding Jewish influence in American political life has again raised the hoary old argument that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because they are Semites. This unworthy semantic game either deliberately elides the point about anti-Jewish sentiment or stems from a profound ignorance of the history and meaning of the term anti-Semitism. There are many important points that need to be made about this matter. First of all, anti-Semitism is not the optimal term for anti-Jewish sentiment, among other things because there are other Semites than Jews, but it is the one we have, and comes with a long history and a well-established meaning. Rather than critiquing the term or coining a neologism to substitute for it, speakers of English should simply understand the term's history and commonly accepted definition and use it accordingly.

Much the same case can be made about the also highly questionable term Islamophobia, which has a much shorter history but which I argue we are also stuck with and might as well simply define accurately and use properly rather than dismiss or attempt to replace. Salman Rushdie and others I respect, and some who I do not, have suggested that because the term Islamophobia might be, and in some cases clearly is, used by ultra-sensitive religious types to try to inhibit criticism of, challenges to or satire against Islamic religious ideas and practices, the term should be dispensed with altogether. My point for a long time has been that we obviously need a clear term to describe the very specific set of ideas that inform fear and hatred of Muslims and that have little or nothing to do with actual opinions about real Islamic doctrine and practice. We have that term, for better or worse, and it is Islamophobia, and we should define and use it accurately rather than obfuscate, shun or replace it.

The same has to be said about anti-Jewish sentiment. Clearly we need a word to describe this very complex and in many cases very old set of ideas, and in English the term is anti-Semitism. Whatever we think about whether either Islamophobia or anti-Semitism are optimal terms or not, we are stuck with both of them. And after all, language is inherently unstable and there is always a huge gap between the signifier and signified, and between what the author of a set of words intends to communicate and what is understood by its recipients. There is no solution to this conundrum that is inherent in language and we simply have to live with it, so in the long run there is no word that can clearly convey a specific idea in a stable or containable manner and the best we can hope for is to have the widest possible commonly accepted understanding of what these terms mean and use and receive them with as much precision as possible.

Anti-Semitism is not the antonym of Semite or Semitism. It has a very specific history, and everyone who discusses it or is engaged in contemporary debates involving Jews, and those involving Israel and the Middle East, has an obligation to have at least a passing familiarity with it. The term anti-Semitism emerged in the middle of the 19th century, when in fact the only Semites with any kind of strong cultural, economic or political presence in Western society were Jews, and it was therefore universally understood as referring specifically to them. Anti-Semitism is essentially and historically a Western and Christian phenomenon, although it has never been strictly limited to such societies, and in its contemporary usage it refers basically to two distinct but overlapping strands of anti-Jewish Western thought.

The first is essentially religious and folkloric anti-Jewish sentiment in Christian Europe that largely predates the modern era. It's based on accusations of deicide, the rejection of Christ, the supposed connection of Jews with malicious spiritual and demonic forces, myths about Jewish practices such as the blood libel, defamation of Jewish religious texts and so forth. These religious and folklore traditions are essentially rooted in Christian antipathy towards Jews as the only major group of non-Christians in most Western Christian societies after the fall of the Roman Empire. One can think of this strand of anti-Semitism as anti-Semitism with a lowercase a.

The second strand of anti-Semitism, which should probably be referred to as Anti-Semitism with an uppercase A, is a set of social and political ideas that emerged in Europe during the 19th century essentially as a backlash to the emancipation of the Jews of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, most Jewish communities in Europe were heavily regulated, marginalized, literally ghettoized, highly restricted in their social and economic activities and very much under the control and influence of frequently obscurantist rabbinical authorities. After the emancipation, Jewish communities in much of Europe quickly flourished in their newfound freedoms and opportunities, greatly expanded their cultural and political engagement with and influence in many societies, enjoyed a surge in the size and geographical diffusion of their population, and in some cases became significant actors on their national scenes. This development was viewed with alarm by conservative, reactionary, nationalistic, ethno-centric and racist elements in many European societies such as France and Germany. The reaction to the expanded Jewish presence and influence in European societies was the emergence of an overtly racist pseudoscientific, social and political orientation that drew on but went far beyond traditional religious and folkloric anti-Jewish attitudes and developed into a political program to contain and reverse these Jewish gains under the rubric of Anti-Semitism. Political Zionism was, in fact, largely a response to political Anti-Semitism.

The racist German journalist and activist Wilhelm Marr did not coin the term, but popularized it and founded the Antisemiten-Liga, or Anti-Semitic League, in 1880 with the specific aim of combating Jewish influence and enfranchisement in Germany and other Western Christian societies. Anti-Semitic conferences and political parties, openly employing the term to denote a specific anti-Jewish political program in Europe during the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were widespread, and obviously found their ghastly culmination and logical conclusion in Nazism and the attempt to physically exterminate the Jews of Europe, and possibly the world, during the second world war.

The rhetoric of political Anti-Semitism, interestingly enough and as I have pointed out many times in the past, is virtually indistinguishable, except for some of the specific nouns, from the contemporary Islamophobia infecting an increasing amount of Western social and political culture. The idea in both cases is that Jews or Muslims respectively are an alien presence, worship a hostile and dangerous God, are religiously authorized to do terrible things to non-coreligionists, and are engaged in a conspiracy to attack, undermine or take over Western Christian or, as they are now in the Islamophobic era typically referred to, Judeo-Christian societies and culture. The basic message is: these people may look and seem perfectly reasonable and even constructive, admirable members of the community but in fact they are dangerous and are engaged in a war of civilizations against “us.” And the reasons why, and the contexts in which, these discourses resonated at certain historical moments are also highly analogous: the emergence and growing influence and enfranchisement of non-Christian communities in Western societies that for both cynical and genuinely paranoid or chauvinistic reasons some people found a need to demonize and stigmatize in order to inhibit or rollback their ability to thrive. It's pretty much as simple as that, although the motivations are obviously varied and complex.

I'm not going to waste anybody's time in going into the details of either folkloric and religious traditional Western anti-Semitism or political Anti-Semitism as it emerged in the mid-19th century. The scholarship has been done in exhaustive detail and is available to anybody with the least interest in finding out about it. But it is important to note that the history of both anti-Semitism and Anti-Semitism (I'll stick with the lowercase from now on I think, because really I'm going to be referring to both simultaneously even though they have distinct but overlapping characteristics) refers specifically to Jews and a specifically Western and Christian set of ideas based on a very specific history of the relationship between Jews and Western Christian societies over two millennia. For this reason, it is both ignorant and meaningless to suggest that other Semites or speakers of Semitic languages such as Arabs are incapable of being anti-Semitic because they are also Semites. Anyone who makes this argument is only revealing either their own paucity of knowledge or their willingness to dissemble with semantic games. Frankly, I think among Arabs and Arab-Americans the first is much more common, but I've seen what is incontrovertibly the second as well, and it's clearly the worse of the two.

Even if there were no such history, it would still be a very bad argument because obviously it is possible for people of a certain identity grouping to embrace negative stereotypes and bigoted ideas about their own community. There are, after all, some very well known Arab-Americans who express plainly bigoted anti-Arab sentiments from time to time such as Prof. Fouad Ajami, and others who are extreme anti-Arab racists such as the repulsive Brigitte Gabriel (given to sentiments such as “Arabs have no souls” and similar charming remarks). I use these examples only because I am considering here the relationship between Arabs and anti-Semitism, but there are anti-Semitic Jews like the late chess master Bobby Fischer and the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon (and, if we are to believe his dubious personal narrative, another example would be the writer who likes to call himself “Israel Shamir”), African Americans with "Negrophobic" (as far as I can tell we're stuck with that term for now as well, and it seems even more problematic for obvious reasons) opinions, and so forth. So undeniable origins or participation in an identity community is no guarantee of not holding bigoted views or negative stereotypes about that very identity. Obviously even without the very specific history of the term anti-Semitism I briefly outlined above, it would be entirely possible for a Semite to be anti-Semitic anyway.

But, of course, there IS this history and even though anti-Semitism as such is essentially a Western Christian phenomenon, it has spread around the world and has unfortunately gained some particular currency in the past few decades among the Arabs and the Muslims. This is largely, as even Bernard Lewis (and I use that phrase advisedly) agrees, a consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the plight of the Palestinians. There are some strains of anti-Jewish polemic in traditional Muslim theology and culture stemming from the medieval period of strong religious competition and argumentation between the three monotheistic faiths and also from the experience of Muslim rule over non-Muslims, including Jews, which was sometimes oppressive towards religious and other minorities. But there is nothing like Western Christian folkloric and religious anti-Semitism or modern European cultural and political Anti-Semitism in traditional Arab culture or Islamic theology. However, latching on to strains of anti-Jewish sentiment that do exist in parts of Muslim scripture and doctrine, European-style anti-Semitic sentiment has dug distressingly deep roots in contemporary Arab and Muslim discourse, particularly among Islamists.

The importation of European anti-Semitic ideas into the Arab world has a long and complicated history with many sources, but obviously anti-Semitic Christian missionaries and educators were a crucial source, as were various anti-Semitic Western governments and colonial officials. The ideas, not surprisingly, took root first and were propagated most enthusiastically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Arab world by Arab Christians who could readily understand the doctrinal aspects of Western Christian anti-Semitism (deicide, etc.). In the 1930s and 40s they spread into Islamist and some Arab nationalist circles as well. But until the Arab-Israeli conflict really got going, such ideas were, while no longer unheard of, nonetheless marginal in most of Arab culture.

The wars with Israel opened the floodgates. The Arabs and the Jews demonized each other, and the appetite for actual, Western-style anti-Semitic sentiments among the Arabs began to blossom. This trend was offset for several decades by leftist and internationalist sentiments that frowned on ethnic essentializing, traditional Islamic attitudes that were tolerant of Jews and Judaism, and the narrative that held that Israel was essentially a Western colonial enterprise unconnected to indigenous Jewish cultures and communities in the Arab world (which of course did not prevent anti-Jewish riots and other abuses in several ugly instances). With the growth of Islamist rhetoric, which often embraces Western-style anti-Semitism as axiomatic, particularly since the Iranian revolution of 1979, overtly anti-Semitic sentiment has found a disturbingly large audience in the Arab and some other parts of the Muslim world.

Of course the reverse is equally true. Israeli Jewish and other Jewish communities have concomitantly and simultaneously been developing anti-Arab racist and Islamophobic attitudes and discourses which are often either overlooked or simply tolerated by Western observers. There's no question that in the United States there is a great sensitivity to what is perceived, often rightly but sometimes wrongly, as Arab anti-Semitism, and very little recognition of or interest in Israeli or Jewish anti-Arab and Islamophobic discourse. Indeed, the right wing Jewish pro-Israel contributions to contemporary American Islamophobia could hardly be overestimated, and are at least as important a factor as religious Christian anti-Muslim agitation. So not only is this not a one-way street, it's probably equally grim on both sides.

Which brings us back to Helen Thomas. I really had intended to stay out of this altogether, and I'm not going to ultimately pass any definitive judgment on her recently expressed sentiments, but some observations seem necessary. Her initial comment was very disturbing, but could certainly have been dismissed as an off-the-cuff remark to a hectoring videographer by an exasperated and elderly journalist who was trying to be deliberately obnoxious to someone it seems may have been pestering her. The explanation offered at the time that she was referring to the occupation was never very convincing because she referred to Jews getting out of Palestine and going home to Germany, Poland or the United States, but not to Israel. But had it been isolated and off-the-cuff, as it first appeared, it really shouldn't have been that big a deal, especially since she apologized right away.

Certainly there were some obvious ways for her to fix things. A friend of hers approached me in the immediate aftermath of the first incident and asked what I thought could be done to repair the damage to her reputation. My suggestion was that she could draw on her vast experience of political life and work with some young staffers to put together a book on the apology as a phenomenon in American political life, as she experienced it in her many long years covering the White House and then also as applied in her own case. The United States is a country that believes in redemption and has a long history of accepting apologies and letting bygones be bygones, when things are handled properly. I thought a book linking her own experience with the need to apologize to the many cases she must have witnessed and covered firsthand would have made a very interesting read and also would have situated her conundrum in a positive and constructive context. It was not to be.

Instead, Ms. Thomas decided to make some additional remarks that got her into even deeper trouble. Parsing whether or not any of it descends to the level of anti-Semitism seems utterly beside the point. But to suggest, as she did in her subsequent remarks, that "Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by Zionists" is just silly, and it's indefensible. Let's take them one by one.

First, the White House is presently headed by an African-American president who is evidently sympathetic to ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, and whose administration is working hard to accomplish that as a core American foreign policy goal. The American presidency, especially this one, is not “owned by Zionists,” and anyone who thinks so is absolutely paranoid. The idea that anyone who accepts the existence of Israel as a member state of the United Nations and proceeds accordingly is therefore a “Zionist” is to strip the term of any meaning whatsoever. By that standard, every American president since at least Herbert Hoover would have been a communist since they accepted the reality of and dealt with the Soviet Union. And, of course, that's exactly what the paranoid John Birch Society used to argue. Richard Nixon must have been an arch-communist since he entered an anti-Soviet entente cordiale with Maoist China, of all countries.

Congress certainly is responsive to pro-Israel organizations and pressures, because those organizations have utilized the levers of American power: money, votes, time and public communications, while there is virtually nothing on the other side of the equation. There is nothing illegitimate about the way pro-Israel organizations influence Congress, a body that was explicitly and deliberately designed to be lobbied. It's just pathetic that Arab-Americans, Muslim Americans and their allies have created nothing that can counter this influence. But that's our own fault. As I've noted many times, there isn't anything except our own apathy, cynicism, paranoia and selfishness holding us back as there are no laws prohibiting our own engagement with the American political system and few if any politicians who would refuse our money or refuse to meet with us respectfully having accepted our money if we ever decided to start giving it to them in any sizable quantities. It is not the fault of the pro-Israel lobby that so many of the Arab-Americans, in a great reversal of the founding ethos of the Republic, demand to be taxed without representation. I suppose it's possible to argue that in any case where there is a powerful lobby on one side and virtually nothing at all on the other side, the powerful lobby “owns” Congress, in a sense. But this implies some sort of permanency or ontology, as if this was a natural state of affairs rather than a consequence of a reversible series of choices on both sides to invest or not invest time, effort and money in causes in which they profess to believe. One group puts its money where its mouth is and the other, generally speaking, seems to be content with sitting at home drinking tea, waving their arms around and impotently shouting at the television. If that's the point Ms. Thomas was trying to make, her choice of words was extremely unfortunate.

The Wall Street example is also silly. There are lots of successful and influential Jews on Wall Street, and lots of them got rich in the process. But anyone who thinks that the banking and financial industries in the United States are “owned” by any ethnic community doesn't understand the diversity in that industry, the extremely heavy presence of white Christian American males in it, and the fact that ethnicity or religion aside, the only thing that matters in that context is the ability to generate revenues. No one is going to make it on Wall Street by virtue of their religion or ethnicity, or be shut out because of it either. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination no doubt exist, but in the end the only thing that really counts in that milieu is the ability to make money for oneself and, more importantly, others. And Wall Street's role in Middle East policy seems virtually nonexistent.

Hollywood, as a synecdoche for the entertainment industry in general and the movie industry in particular, is the strongest case here. The film industry in Hollywood is, as a matter of fact, dominated at its senior executive level by Jewish Americans. This truth makes many people uncomfortable, because it raises certain anti-Semitic red flags, but it's simply a fact that is verifiable by going down a list of the CEOs of the major Hollywood film studios and companies in a way that doesn't apply to Wall Street or any other American industry I can think of. It's not total, but there is no other word that will suffice than dominant. And what's wrong with that? Really it's something for Jewish Americans to be proud of, and for others to admire rather than complain about. The history was most forthrightly told in Neil Gabler's "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (Anchor Books, 1989). It might have been argued that for several decades during which Hollywood churned out an enormous number of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim horrors perhaps this ethnic factor may have been a contributor. But in the post-9/11 era in which Hollywood specifically, and the entertainment industry in general, has almost entirely cleaned up its act (as I have I think conclusively demonstrated elsewhere) and the center of gravity for Islamophobic sentiment has shifted to the realm of nonfiction and commentary (which is certainly worse), one would have to question whether religion or ethnicity at the executive level, which haven't changed much in the past couple of decades, was ever really a factor in Hollywood's anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attitudes in the last few decades of the 20th century.

Indeed, all of this talk about Jewish power, which is after all what this is albeit translated into concepts such as “owned by Zionists,” even when, as in the case of the entertainment industry and especially Hollywood, there is some basis for it, assumes a couple of things that are evidently not the case. First, there is no longer any consensus on what constitutes proper Zionism or attitudes towards Israel in the Jewish community, although perhaps there once was. The range of approaches has now become truly extraordinary, running from the non-, post-or anti-Zionist Jewish left, to the pro-Israel/pro-peace liberals, to the pro-Israel/but not opposed to a two-state solution political center, to the pro-occupation right and all the way to the chauvinistic, intolerant, extremist and increasingly religious ultra-right. Thomas' riff was no doubt a reference to Jewish power in the United States, but the idea that this power, which is definitely a very real phenomenon, translates into a uniform set of attitudes or policy positions on Israel and especially the occupation is simply wrong. On top of which, most Jewish Americans are strongly Democrats and don't vote on Israel alone, or even Israel mainly. So this kind of reductive talk, whether or not it could be considered in any sense anti-Semitic, is certainly not reflective of the present spectrum of Jewish-American opinion or the way in which it impacts the policy debate in the United States.

I do think it's possible to read Thomas' most recent comments as a rallying cry to Arab-Americans to get more involved, and that's certainly good advice. But the phraseology is extremely unfortunate and, indeed, inaccurate. And certainly she didn't do anything to contradict the impression that was created in many minds by her original off-the-cuff ill-advised remarks, and more than reversed whatever corrective had been accomplished by her well-advised apology. The debate over whether her original or follow-up comments are anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist or simply inaccurate isn't particularly interesting. But it needs to be clearly stated that the idea that because Thomas is of a Semitic Arab heritage she therefore cannot be anti-Semitic herself by definition holds no water at all. Sadly, there is far too much genuine anti-Semitism among Arabs and Arab-Americans, just as there is a disturbing plethora of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment among Israelis and Jews around the world, including the United States.

Neither of these reciprocal phenomena of mistrust, fear and even hatred are causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they are the consequences, and, sadly, almost inevitable ones, of decades of bitter, existential struggle. In a debate with Alan Dershowitz many years ago at Harvard Business School, in which he tried to argue that Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism was a principle causal factor in originating and perpetuating the Arab-Israeli conflict, I pointed out that what he, and so many others, were engaging in through such rhetoric was a technique of classical sophistry known as a metalepsis, which often manifests as a substitution of an effect for a cause. He replied that in that case he supposed he was being a "Metalepsist," but I told him he was just being a sophist, and not in a good way. What's interesting about the debates I've had with Dershowitz is that while we can't agree at all on history, present realities, who is to blame or anything of the kind, we were able to agree on the only reasonable course for the future: peace based on two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. I think most Arab and Jewish Americans, and most Arabs and Israelis for that matter, can agree on that.

Since that's the case, we don't have to agree on anything else. We can work together towards that cause, without name-calling, without succumbing to bigotry and without justifying or rationalizing intolerance. This begins with not only recognizing that for different reasons we share the same policy goal, but also that Arabs are perfectly capable of being anti-Semites and Jews are perfectly capable of being anti-Arab and/or Islamophobic. All too often they both are, and it's not acceptable. It's up to both communities to police themselves and keep each other honest. We cannot, in the name of a counterproductive and atavistic tribal or ethnic solidarity, turn a blind eye to unacceptable rhetoric by our own ethnic fellows or co-religionists, and we can't hold others to a standard we are not willing to uphold ourselves.

Sec. Clinton’s speech offers new opportunities for Palestinians

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech at the Brookings Institution on December 10 has again shown that the Obama administration is not willing to walk away from efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in spite of the obstacles and setbacks it is facing. The position Clinton laid out presents an important potential opportunity for Palestinians to make the point that they are ready for and serious about peace, and to test Israel’s willingness.

Clinton delivered a well-balanced and clearheaded appraisal of US interests and was unambiguous about the importance of ending the conflict and the occupation. The secretary gave what is probably the strongest ever statement by a senior US official about Palestinian statehood, calling it “inevitable.” She described the occupation as “unacceptable” and “unsustainable,” and left no doubt that from the American perspective it must be ended.

Clinton also said the Obama administration plans to intensify its support for Palestinian state-building efforts. Since it now views Palestinian statehood as inevitable, Washington has a strong interest in using the state-building program to advance that cause in parallel to the diplomacy and to lay the groundwork for a successful, rather than a failed, state.

The secretary cautioned Palestinians against unilateral diplomatic moves, and Israel, in slightly stronger language, against “provocative announcements on East Jerusalem.” And she dismissed out of hand any notion of “economic peace,” saying that “economic and institutional progress … is not a substitute for a political resolution,” and that such ideas are “wrong” and “dangerous.”

In addition, Clinton left no doubt that the US remains committed, perhaps more than ever, to resolving the conflict through an agreement that establishes a Palestinian state. US diplomatic language on this point is deepening and intensifying, and this reflects a growing policy commitment to that outcome.

Clinton also said the US will press the parties to make their positions on key final-status issues as specific and clear as possible. This could spell trouble for leaders on both sides (particularly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), who for political reasons prefers to remain ambiguous about some controversial questions. If the Palestinians present straightforward positions on the final-status issues and Netanyahu does not, it will not only be an enormously clarifying development, but will also potentially set the stage for a more assertive American role in spite of Israeli objections.

It would be wrong to be cynical when senior US officials make Washington’s commitment to this outcome so unmistakably clear. The US has many options, but the situation is so delicate that most of them would probably make matters worse. The path the administration has chosen – to make sure everyone understands what is expected at the end of the day and that the US is not walking away – and at the same time emphasizing caution and recognizing the delicacy of the politics on both sides while pushing them to reveal their own intentions, is probably the most advisable course at present.

A combination of quiet diplomacy, looking for openings with the parties and getting them to take clear, specific positions on core issues, along with intensified support for state-building, might be the only serious, politically plausible US response at this stage.

Palestinians were unwise to allow themselves to be sucked into the settlement freeze extension gimmick, and should welcome the opportunity to focus on final-status issues, such as borders and Jerusalem. In the end, any practicable agreement will require Israel to relinquish control over a considerable amount of the settlements it has built anyway, so the settlement issue is a subset of the border issue, which is the real bone of contention.

No matter how frustrated they might be with the failure to secure an extension to the partial, temporary settlement freeze moratorium, Palestinians should welcome the renewed and rhetorically intensified US commitment to ending the occupation and securing the establishment of a Palestinian state. The bottom line is that while Washington remains committed to Israel’s security, it is also committed, in its own interests, to Palestinian independence and an end to the Israeli occupation. In other words, the world’s only superpower and Israel’s patron is genuinely committed to securing the Palestinian national goal.

Clinton gave the Palestinians a lot to work with and welcome, but, like the Israelis, they have yet to convince Washington of their seriousness about achieving a negotiated agreement. They should embrace the secretary’s call for the parties to take clear positions on final-status issues and lay out their vision for the future as specifically as possible. They would then probably be able to demonstrate that their vision of the future is closer to the US view than Israel’s is, assuming the Israelis are willing to reveal any vision at all.

Palestinians would thereby give the United States every reason to increase its support for the party better in sync with its own policies.

Three questions about the occupation and prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace

An Ibishblog reader poses a series of questions about my recent articles:

Q: First, do you think that Israel could continue to hold out a decision onwhat to do with the Palestinians? Earlier you noted that stasis is not possible, but isn't that what we have had since the failure of Oslo, a "stasis" that perhaps dates back to 1967?

A: I say stasis is not possible for the state and institution building program. My point in this context is that this project is predicated on continual expansion and will wither and ultimately die if it does not continue to expand. It is this very quality that gives it its greatest strength in terms of challenging the occupation. It actually doesn't allow for what its strongest opponents on the Palestinian side accuse it of: accepting the status quo and making that work. If it doesn't keep expanding, it will start retracting and will not survive. If it isn't the project that lays the groundwork for statehood, it's pretty meaningless. An understanding of that was strongly expressed in Sec. Clinton's address at the Brookings Institution on December 10. I think there are a lot of Israelis who grudgingly understand it as well.

Yes, of course there has been a consistent status quo in the occupied territories since 1967, but only in the broadest possible sense. In June 1967 the occupied territories became occupied by Israel, and they remain occupied. But that's hardly “stasis.” The ebb and flow within the context of that occupation has been fairly dramatic, including the first intifada, the Oslo years, the second intifada and now the circumstances defined by the new Palestinian security forces and the state building program. And that's leaving out everything that's happened in Gaza. And of course the biggest single change has been the gradual introduction of what are now 500,000 Israeli settlers. You don't have stasis in the occupied territories even though you have an ongoing occupation. You have a continually deteriorating situation in terms of entrenching the occupation, anger on both sides and an expansion of the constituencies opposed to a reasonable peace agreement, and conditions that ensure that a failure to achieve a peace agreement will result in another round of bloodshed that is even worse and more religious than the last. Offsetting this are signs of the growing maturation in Palestinian strategy to deal with the occupation, particularly the state building program but also nonviolent protests, settlement boycotts and other such strategies.

The bottom line is the status quo of occupation is neither acceptable nor tenable. If it isn't resolved it will eventually erupt in another wave of terrible violence. The biggest illusion possible is that the situation is stable or manageable. One of the very few virtual certainties I think is worth accepting in this situation is that absent an agreement to end the occupation there will be wave after wave of violent resistance to it in unpredictable spasms. I'm also willing to bet those waves become increasingly violent and increasingly religious, as we can see developed during the first intifada and then throughout the second. I think it's even reasonable to put the Gaza war in exactly that context as a third example, and it only deepens my point. So, no, “stasis” isn't possible in the context of the occupation at all.

Q: Second, if Israel will not allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, what is the alternative that you allude to twice in your essay? How does it fit with the "broader agenda" you spoke of?

A: Of course the only real alternative outcome to an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state is further conflict. I say Israel, if it will not end the occupation and allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, needs to explain, not least to itself, what its alternative scenario is. By this I mean that it's clear that Israeli society goes to considerable lengths not to face the actual choices confronting it, and that the Israeli political system has absolutely no consensus whatsoever on the fundamental, existential questions facing the country. Look at the current cabinet. One group, led by Defense Minister Barak plainly recognizes the strategic necessity of such an agreement. The second group led by Foreign Minister Lieberman rejects both the possibility and the necessity of such an agreement. The third group led by Prime Minister Netanyahu is as ambiguous as possible about the whole point, and he has made a careful practice of always offsetting his latest move with something else that maintains this ambiguity. If he does or says something that seems to indicate a commitment to peace based on a Palestinian state, he quickly offsets this with something that creates the opposite impression. And, of course, vice versa. In other words, there are three distinct camps inside the present Israeli cabinet alone, not even including the largest single party in the Knesset, Kadima.

Some Israelis might kid themselves that there are ways of making the occupation, or a modified occupation, work as a tenable status quo in the medium term. I think they're plainly wrong, and I was glad to see Sec. Clinton bluntly repudiate any such view in her most recent speech. Looking at the improved security situation in the West Bank, social and economic development in Area A, and the easing of the Gaza blockade (for what it's worth), and thereby concluding that the situation is stabilizing is about as self-deluding as possible. Palestinians plainly don't have any real desire to resume armed struggle or violent resistance, and any such move is clearly a terrible idea. However, over time if the occupation is not ended and the PLO strategy of negotiating with Israel to that end and the PA strategy of building the framework of a Palestinian state both atrophy and die, I don't think there's anything on the horizon at the moment that can stop an explosion of violence and/or the takeover of the Palestinian national movement by Hamas. So the alternatives are very clear: we can have a negotiated two-state peace agreement or we can have more conflict. Those are the only outcomes that existing forces are likely to produce.

Q: Third and this relates to the settlement freeze blog, what do you think of Abbas's threat to disband the PA? I know it's an old threat/tactic dating back to Arafat, but do you think that it will actually happen if Israel refuses to budge on the settlements and Area C?

A: I think it's a pretty empty threat under the present circumstances, because dissolving the PA makes no sense whatsoever. One can understand where it comes from: extreme frustration with lack of progress in ending the occupation and actually the intensification of the occupation, especially through ever expanding settlements. But politically and diplomatically it would be, under the present circumstances, a bizarre gesture indeed, and it won't happen.

However, there is a coherent underlying logic to this rhetoric. I do think it's true that in the long-run Palestinians will not accept partial, limited self-rule in population centers under occupation as an acceptable or tolerable status quo. The PA was supposed to be the vehicle of a transition that began in 1993 and was to have ended in 1998 that was supposed to have left the Palestinians in control of all of the occupied territories except for settlements, military areas and Jerusalem, pending a final status agreement after that. Instead, there was never any progress beyond the creation of Areas A, B and C, and no follow-up to the five-year interim period. Indeed, it was the lack of any such progress that set the stage for the disastrous second intifada. This was followed by the death of Pres. Arafat, the split within the Palestinian movement and the new era of state building. Developments have followed hard upon each other, with continual changes that have created new challenges and opportunities at every stage. So there has never been a serious consideration of dissolving the PA even though its purposes are limited and its time frame expired more than 10 years ago.

However, the PA is not an acceptable long-term solution. I can't think of a single Palestinian or pro-Palestinian perspective that thinks it is. Even if one wanted it to be viable over the long run, it can't be. It doesn't meet the minimum necessary standards for viability or political plausibility. It can't last. The PA is on something of a roll at present, because of the strong performance of the new security forces, the creation of a clean and transparent public finance system for the treasury and the ministries, and the impressive and strategically significant state building program. This definitely isn't your uncle's PA. However, even this more robust and dynamic PA is ultimately of limited purposes, and has defined its role even more clearly and specifically than ever as the body to manage the transition towards independence. Nobody is more forthright about this than Pres. Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. So it's not as if anyone imagines decade after decade of stable PA control limited to Area A as the occupation and colonization march on unimpeded. That's just not going to happen. Either the PLO and PA strategies will succeed or they will fail to secure independence, and the future of both entities will be decided entirely by that outcome.

I doubt there will ever be a formal dissolving of the PA outside the context of an agreement with Israel, but it's always possible in some future scenario. What's more likely, if there is no agreement to end the occupation, is the collapse of the PA and/or the PLO and their marginalized nation or capture by Hamas and other Islamists whose preferred aim would be to take over both of those entities entirely. So I read Abbas' comments as being a warning that is very strongly rooted in ineluctable political realities: if the occupation is to continue indefinitely, there is no future for the PA and Palestinians don't and won't accept the present arrangement as a semi-permanent one that can continue in calm and stability. Just like Sec. Clinton, he's trying to tell the Israelis that if they imagine that because the situation in the West Bank seems under control and largely positive compared to previous years therefore the medium and long-term circumstances will allow for the perpetuation of a modified occupation, they are dead wrong. This is a message that needs to be sent as strongly as possible by everyone and received by any Israelis who are making this disastrous miscalculation.

The end of the settlement freeze gimmick is not the end of the world, or the possibility of peace

For many months now I have been predicting that the US would probably be able to secure a three or four-month settlement freeze extension, allowing for the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And, indeed, the Obama administration moved heaven and earth to do so, but now it would appear they have accepted that the present Israeli cabinet simply will not agree to any such thing. Even in the face of inducements rightly called “overly generous” by the New York Times, and I would say almost absurdly generous, the present collection of politicians leading Israel found themselves unable to agree to the most practically minimal, if politically controversial, gesture in exchange for massive benefits including the transfer of a large number of the most advanced fighter jets in the world. I'm amazed, and I'm sure the Obama administration is as well. And it can't be the case that Netanyahu and his colleagues have won any new friends in Washington as a consequence.

While I thought it would happen because I did not think the Israelis would be so addicted to the settlement project that they wouldn't accept such an offer, I never understood the underlying logic of the 90-day extension drive. It always needed to be asked what the United States expected to be different three months after the extension was secured. The realistic prospect of securing a deal outlining the borders of a future Palestinian state, excluding Jerusalem, in such a time frame and under the existing circumstances was always quite remote. Perhaps the administration included some kind of unstated caveat to the inducement package that it would expect changes in the Israeli cabinet if a deal on borders could not be secured, but that's pure speculation. Suffice it to say the administration never put their proposal in writing, and the Israeli cabinet never came close to accepting it.

This is not the end of the world, or the end of the peace process. The United States has numerous options for how to proceed, although what the administration's next step will be is quite unclear. No matter what course the administration takes, it and the rest of the international community have to redouble all forms of support for the Palestinian state building project. With diplomacy in disarray, the importance and indispensability of state building, as the only real source of practical momentum at the moment, is increasingly obvious. On the diplomatic front, Palestinians were blocked from entrenching their position in the UN by the United States, but have succeeded in securing recognition from Brazil and Argentina, with Uruguay and several other states expected to follow. State building is practical and strategic, but increased international recognition for Palestine is important as well. Unilateralism is probably a dead end, but multilateralism isn't necessarily anything of the kind. Palestinians would be foolish not to understand that in the end Israeli opposition will make it practically impossible to establish and maintain a viable, sovereign and independent state of Palestine. But Israel would be foolish not to understand widespread international recognition of Palestine's legitimacy and existence has very significant consequences as well.

At this stage everyone needs to take a deep breath and assess what has and has not happened and ignore the Chicken Little voices that have yet another opportunity to tell us all about how the sky is falling. The settlement freeze was always a gimmick: temporary, partial, and with enough loopholes to ensure robust and continued colonization for the full 10 months right up to and including Sept 26. The three-month extension proposal that has just been abandoned was an even bigger gimmick, since it was after all a gimmick of a gimmick. We have lost almost nothing practical as a result of its failure. If Israel will keep building now, the reality is that it has always kept on building. And, given that Jerusalem would not have been included in any 90-day extension, it would have keep on building there the whole time, if it really wanted to. There also have always been, and this no doubt would have continued if not intensified, unauthorized settlements that the Israeli government does nothing to prevent or dismantle, with rare exceptions. And then, three months later, Israel would have openly resumed all settlement activities everywhere it wishes, and Pres. Obama would have not only provided disproportionate inducements but also committed to never asking for another settlement moratorium extension, possibly with nothing at all politically or diplomatically to show for it a few weeks later.

So the idea that, as a practical or strategic matter, we have just lost a great opportunity to achieve a breakthrough or a major diplomatic accomplishment is completely wrong. The settlement freeze issue has been, and still is, a huge political problem for all sides, in spite of the extent to which it is largely a chimera. The Obama administration clearly miscalculated on several occasions, first by making a total freeze a condition for direct negotiations but not applying sufficient pressure to secure it, and then by accepting the Israeli partial, temporary moratorium without providing the Palestinians sufficient cover to let it pass.

For their part the Palestinians allowed themselves to be sucked into the impasse without creating a political way out for themselves when it was entirely predictable that one would eventually have been needed. Worse, after direct negotiations began, they got hung up on the settlement freeze gimmick when what would have made sense was to let that issue go and take a firm stance on the substance behind the freeze issue – the borders between a future Palestinian state and Israel. The worst thing they could do at this stage is to continue to stick to their guns on this dead-end issue. It would make more sense for Palestinians to take firm and clear positions on final status issues, especially the borders of a future Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem. The settlement freeze question is a subset of the question of settlements generally, including both existing structures and expansion, which is itself a subset of two real permanent status issues. For Palestinians, the settlement question is essentially a subset of the borders issue: how much of the occupied territories will have to be exchanged in a land swap with Israel and what areas will become the Palestinian state. For Israelis, the settlement question is essentially a subset of the security issue, or as some Israeli officials like to say, the border issue is a subset of the security issue, which would make settlements a subset of a subset. No matter how you slice it, the settlement issue itself is not a permanent status issue as such but reflects other more fundamental questions.

Israel might feel triumphant at present, that it has faced down its super-power patron, which has backed off and accepted its refusal to accede to its demands, but faces a potentially very difficult set of short term challenges and a certain set of existentially threatening long terms challenges, largely of its own making. Israel, after all, has "won" the freedom to dig itself into a bigger hole, and deepen its presence in the occupied territories which, in the long run not only threatens its self-definition as a Jewish and democratic state, but also opens the prospect of ongoing and intensifying conflict that will become less and not more manageable, containable and resolvable. And so now Israel can defiantly continue to trap itself in an impossible situation. But the fundamental strategic problem remains the same: what is the future of the occupied territories going to be? How can Israel deal with an internationally illegitimate occupation that requires the forceful subjugation of millions of disenfranchised noncitizens? How long can such a situation remain nonviolent?

Of course there is only one way out for Israel and all the parties: a negotiated agreement allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic, viable and sustainable state depends on this. The Palestinians depend on it as well, of course. Israel has already built numerous settlements that will not remain part of Israel in the event of the creation of a Palestinian state. If it wants to build more structures that it will eventually have to give up, that really isn't the burning issue. There is a minimum of territorial size (22% of mandatory Palestine, in fact), contiguity and geographical coherence required for Palestinian statehood that would be accepted by the Palestinian people and would be successful. Those of us who haven't given up on the idea of a two state solution (which of course is the only plausible solution), and that includes most Israelis and Palestinians and the international community, already base our vision of the future on the understanding that a considerable amount of Israeli settlement will end up under Palestinian sovereignty. If the Israelis add a bit more to that mix it doesn't fundamentally alter the strategic realities. Of course, gigantic settlement activity would do that, but it's clear given American frustration over this issue that the price of such activity for Israel has become more significant than ever and that US scrutiny and criticism can be expected with every major move.

In other words, we are back to square one again and, having dropped this tempest in a teacup about a gimmicky and not strategically serious partial, temporary settlement freeze moratorium extension for 90 days, are facing the same fundamental reality: we can have a two state solution which involves a land swap in which Israel keeps some settlements in about 3-4% or so of the occupied territories and gives up the rest, or we can have an ever deteriorating conflict that becomes increasingly violent, religious, fanatical and out of everyone's ability to control. Whatever the administration decides to do to try to fix this prodigious diplomatic mess, financial, technical and political support for Palestinian state building is absolutely indispensable. One can make strong arguments for quiet diplomacy with both parties, which would at this stage almost certainly have the best chances of success, or interesting arguments for the US to lay out a series of its own positions on what the end of conflict would look like, which would be a high risk but also potentially high benefit move. I doubt the administration is ready for anything too dramatic, which is probably a good thing at this stage. So while they busy themselves with careful cleanup and quietly exploring where opportunities may lie with the parties beyond the settlement freeze dead-end, the immediate focus should be on as much support for Palestinian state and institution building as possible. It was always conceptualized by the Palestinians as a parallel track that could provide momentum when diplomacy faltered or even collapsed. Could there possibly be a better circumstance for it to play this indispensable role than now?

A narrow road to Palestinian freedom

A narrow road near the small West Bank village of Qarawat Bani Hassan is now the implausible epicenter of the Palestinian drive for freedom and independence. At first glance, the two-kilometer stretch is remote and of little practical significance, since it does not lead to any major hub and has no strategic value. But it is, quite literally, the frontline of the Palestinian state and institution-building program being led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The road’s significance comes from two crucial political facts. First, it is located in Area C, constituting 60 percent of the West Bank that the interim Oslo Accords, which were supposed to last for only five years between 1993 and 1998, designated to remain under full Israeli control. And second, the paving of the road was organized and paid for by the Palestinian Authority under the state-building rubric.

Consequently, and citing their alleged prerogatives in Area C, the Israeli authorities have destroyed the paved asphalt. Both Fayyad and local villagers have vowed to repave it time and again, and the Palestinian Authority has already allocated funds to do just that.

This road, in its own small, understated way is the first major practical embodiment of the long-term political and strategic logic of the Palestinian state and institution-building program, and a modest, quiet demonstration of how that that project inevitably leads to powerful challenges to the occupation.

The state-building program confronts Israel with a simple question about not only Areas A and B, but C as well: Is this land going to be part of the Palestinian state or is it part of Israel? If it is part of Israel, what’s the point of even discussing a two-state solution? But, if it is ultimately going to be part of a Palestinian state, how can that state ever be created if Palestinian infrastructure, development and institution-building are actively thwarted by the occupation? Who will create this state if not the Palestinians, and how can they if they are physically prevented from doing so by the Israeli military?

All of these questions lead to the most important one Israel has to ask itself, one on which there is no clarity or consensus whatsoever among Israeli leaders: What is their vision of the future in the occupied Palestinian territories? In other words, what do they intend to do with this land and the millions of stateless noncitizens who live there? What is it that Israel ultimately wants?

By channeling Palestinian energies into the mundane, workaday tasks of building state infrastructure and institutions, Fayyad is deliberately breaking from a well-established tradition of “heroic” and romantic Palestinian nationalism based on grand gestures and, even more typically, grand statements. There isn’t anything in the history of contemporary Palestinian nationalism that would have allowed us to predict that the act of paving a two-kilometer road in the middle of nowhere would actually become a potentially important moment, however understated, in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. But that’s exactly what has happened.

The state-building program, which has largely been welcomed by Israelis as long as it is restricted to constructive efforts and security cooperation in Area A, can only survive if it grows and expands. It does not allow for stasis. It was a matter of time before it began to creep into Area C and elsewhere, confronting Israelis with the difficult but unavoidable questions. As the quiet battle over this road demonstrates, Israel has a simple choice forced upon it by the state-building program: Either allow it to spread into Area C and continue to expand in every way, or interfere and, in effect, kill the entire project. If Israel chooses the latter, it will announce to the world and to itself that it never intended to allow a viable Palestinian state and must then explain to the world and itself precisely what its alternative is.

State-building efforts are also quietly at work in occupied East Jerusalem, with the Palestinian Authority renovating and re-inaugurating schools and other institutions. Israel has prevented Fayyad from going to ceremonies marking those efforts, but appears to be surprised to learn about what the Palestinian Authority was quietly doing to address Palestinian needs, even in Jerusalem.

Those who denounce the state-building effort and the Palestinian Authority’s activities generally as “collaboration” fail to understand the way in which that project inevitably leads to confrontations with the occupation that force moral and political clarity; or these critics oppose Palestinian statehood altogether in favor of a broader agenda.

However, as demonstrated by the “Freedom Road,” as Palestinians have now dubbed this little stretch of asphalt, built into the logic of the state-building program is what will increasingly become a series of quiet altercations with the occupation that will either lead, both practically and politically, to the creation of a Palestinian state, or force Israel to openly admit it will never allow any such thing to happen.