Monthly Archives: May 2011

Is Yemen about to disintegrate?

Last Sunday I was involved in a panel discussion on the Al-Hurra satellite station regarding Yemen, one in which I was invited to discuss the policies of the United States. The other panelists were all Yemenis, including opposition and government figures. The conversation illustrated a great deal about how far down the road to chaos and confusion that country has drifted.

The main topic was about news reports that al-Qaeda had overrun the coastal city Zinjibar. Both government and opposition figures denied this, insisting that these were jihadist forces of a different variety led by a veteran named Khaled Abdel Nabbi. Al-Qaeda is unlikely to align itself with someone whose very name – Abdel Nabbi (“slave of the prophet”) – they would consider a serious blasphemy.

The self-contradictory and self-defeating exchange of accusations between the Yemenis on the panel was very striking. Predictably, the opposition figures said Abdel Nabbi was closely aligned with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and acting on his behest. The pro-government spokesman claimed that, on the contrary, “everybody knows” that Abdel Nabbi is in the service of rebel general Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, and has been for years.

Both the opposition figures and I noted that this accusation was effectively a self-indictment of the regime, since Ali Mohsen only recently defected. “If he was working with jihadists, why wasn’t he arrested?” asked one of the opposition figures. What nobody noticed is that flipping the question on the government is also, in effect, a self-indictment by the opposition since accepting the proposition that Abdel Nabbi works for Ali Mohsen means that the government was complicit with these jihadists in the past and the opposition is now.

The panel, much like the power struggle between Yemeni elites in general, was reminiscent of two boxers flailing away but landing at least as many blows to themselves as to each other. It’s true that Saleh benefits in a way by “playing the al-Qaeda card” as the opposition puts it, since this underlines the threat of chaos as the alternative to his rule. On the other hand, the opposition also benefits since Saleh looks increasingly weak and out of control of his own country.

Today news reports suggest that the Yemeni Air Force bombed Zinjibar in an effort to retake the town, while security forces are said to have killed at least 20 protesters in another southern town, Taiz. So rather than any of this being an example of a calculated plot by one side or the other, it’s more likely that Yemen is simply slipping into total chaos and toward failed-state status.

Under any controlled circumstances, Saleh would easily have been able to prevent 200 fanatics from overrunning a regional capital. It’s possible he didn’t want to, as some opposition figures claim; but it’s also undeniable that military forces on all sides are concentrated in Sanaa, the scene of a power struggle within the elite that has effectively split the military.

Rebel commanders over the weekend issued “Military Communiqué Number One,” which in the contemporary Arab world usually means initiating a coup or mutiny. In addition to this power struggle, Yemen has faced the Houthi insurrection, the presence of al-Qaeda and other jihadist forces, popular protests that are also probably not under anyone’s complete control, a Somali refugee crisis, and the existence of an undereducated, under-employed and heavily-armed population. There are also simmering North-South tensions that could re-erupt into another major national conflict.

So it’s quicker and simpler to list the forces keeping Yemen together than the dizzying array driving it apart. There is no question that the primary problem is that Saleh is refusing to step down, when even many of his supporters realize that it’s past time for him to go. Reportedly he privately claims the issue is about the next generation: He doesn’t want his sons and nephews to step aside for their counterparts in the rival Al-Ahmar clan. But most observers must have concluded at this point that Saleh is simply incapable of voluntarily stepping aside.

Thus far in the “Arab Spring,” no autocrat has voluntarily resigned. In Tunisia and Egypt, the leaders were removed by the army. In Libya (and now perhaps Yemen) the army split and civil war ensued. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has thus far managed to hold on to military loyalty, and thus to power. The efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to get Saleh to be the first to voluntarily and peacefully step aside have proven a humiliating failure.

But opposition forces, especially within the elite and the military, are also hardly paragons of virtue and responsibility. As the television panel I was on concluded, while Saleh is certainly the core of the problem, both sides in the Yemeni elite power struggle are perfectly capable of inflicting damage on themselves, and on their country.

At this stage, Yemen looks poised for an extended period of conflict and chaos. And with so many centrifugal forces at work, the country may possibly even be heading toward disintegration.

Should the Palestinians Recognize Israel As a Jewish State?

Most observers expected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to target his harshest criticisms of the Palestinians during his U.S. trip on the Hamas-Fatah agreement. Surprisingly, his most important talking point turned out to be his demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.” To be sure, Netanyahu took every opportunity to denounce the Palestinian unity deal, compare Hamas to al Qaeda, and point out that some of its leaders had praised Osama bin Laden. But his most pointed, passionate, and persistent theme was that the core of the conflict, and the key to its solution, is that Palestine refuses to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”

As he told a joint meeting of Congress, “It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say… ‘I will accept a Jewish state.’ Those six words will change history.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor echoed Netanyahu, claiming, “The Palestinians’ and the broader Arab world’s refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state… is the root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is not about the ’67 lines.” Washington resonated to the voices of Israeli officials and their supporters similarly insisting that the conflict is not about territory or Palestinian independence, but about this issue instead.

The idea that Palestinians need to formally recognize the “Jewish character” of Israel is relatively new. Indeed, it does not predate the Annapolis Conference of 2007, where it was briefly floated by the Israeli delegation. Back then, Palestinians rejected it as an irrelevant diversion from final-status issues such as borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. The George W. Bush administration wasn’t impressed either, and in his address at the conference President Bush simply referred to Israel as “a homeland for the Jewish people.”

The historic requirement for the Palestinians was, in the words of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, to recognize Israel’s “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” The Jewish state issue was never raised during Israel’s negotiations with Egypt and Jordan. The Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognized Israel in the Letters of Mutual Recognition in 1993, which were the basis for the Oslo process and all subsequent negotiations, while Israel merely recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO then went through a torturous series of emendations of its core documents. The Palestinians had, at that point, fully satisfied all extant diplomatic and legal requirements regarding recognition of Israel, and waited in vain for Israel to recognize an independent state of Palestine in return.

Following his re-election in 2009, Netanyahu has increasingly made this demand a mainstay. Indeed, he and his supporters now say it is not only crucial, but that it is the only real issue, even though it was never raised during most of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, including during his first term as prime minister.

The idea that a state — or in this case a potential state — should participate in defining the national character of another is highly unusual, if not unique, in international relations. The Palestinian position, stated many times by President Mahmoud Abbas, is that the PLO recognizes Israel, and that Israel is free to define itself however it chooses.

There are several crucial concerns that make Palestinian acceptance of this new demand, particularly as a prerequisite to further negotiations, extremely difficult.

Apart from strongly feeling that they have already met all reasonable demands that could be imposed on them in regard to recognizing Israel without a reciprocal recognition of an independent Palestine, Palestinian leaders worry about the ways in which this could prejudice some key final-status issues, notably refugees. Palestinian leaders are well aware that a wide-scale implementation of the right of refugees to return to Israel is a nonstarter from Israel’s perspective. It’s also, however, the most politically challenging issue any Palestinian leadership will have to sell to its constituency to win support for an end-of-conflict agreementrefugee return is both a right clearly enshrined in international law and one of the principal themes of the Palestinian national narrative. It is one of the few major cards the Palestinians have left to play, and, while it is reasonable to urge them to work harder to prepare their public for the necessary concessions, it is not reasonable to ask them to compromise it away before an overall agreement is concluded.

While the Palestinians clearly accept the logic of two states, and have always acknowledged a final-status agreement will involve an end of claims between the parties, they reasonably feel that asking them to formally endorse language about Israel’s character as a Jewish state might prejudice leverage they could get on other crucial final-status issues from compromises on refugee return. Most serious observers have long understood that the issue of Jerusalem is the analogous problem on the Israeli side, and that no matter how much Israeli leaders and their public do not like it, no Palestinian leadership will accept an agreement that does not base the Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Therefore, the refugee issue is widely seen as the best, and perhaps the only, leverage the Palestinians have to get the Israelis to make their own most painful compromise on the future of Jerusalem.

Moreover, Palestinians are concerned that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state might be seen as endorsing discrimination against the Palestinian minority in Israel, which is approximately 20 percent of the population. They point out that Jewish Israelis do not agree at all on what the Jewish character of Israel means. Important sections of Israeli law, life, and society are structured in a discriminatory manner based on “nationality” (i.e., “Jewish,” “Arab,” and scores of other classifications made by the state) as opposed to citizenship. This discrimination applies to housing, education, military service and its many benefits, access to publicly owned lands and other important aspects of social and economic life. Palestinians are understandably uncomfortable with anything that might smack of acquiescence to these structures of discrimination that permeate Israeli society in favor of those classified by the state as “Jewish.”

For decades, Palestinians were told to recognize Israel and renounce violence, and through their sole legitimate international representative, the PLO, they did so almost 20 years ago, even though it meant effectively renouncing claims on a full 78 percent of the country in which they had been a large majority in 1948. They did this on the understanding that it would lead, in short order, to their own independence in an excruciatingly small part of what they regard, with impeccable historical credentials, as their own country. That has not transpired and does not appear imminent. Now they are being told that they have not done enough, that this novel concept is now the defining issue, that they once again have to read from a script being handed to them by Israeli leaders, and that if they will only say the new magic words the problem will be solved.

I doubt there is a single Palestinian who does not believe that behind Netanyahu’s demand lies a fundamental disinclination to agree to a truly independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Indeed, at the Knesset on May 16 and at the Congress on May 24, he insisted on a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, effectively denying this potential Palestinian state control of its own borders. This places Netanyahu squarely at odds with U.S. President Barack Obama’s clear reference to a “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces” from the areas to become a Palestinian state, as does his continued strong implication that he is not prepared to negotiate seriously about Jerusalem. Therefore Netanyahu’s insistence that the only real issue is for Abbas to intone the incantation “I accept Israel as a Jewish state” rings exceptionally hollow.

Netanyahu’s demand is an additional and quite recent complication to an already tangled knot, but it has sunk so deeply into the Israeli and pro-Israel consciousness that some sort of language to satisfy it may ultimately have to be found. Reciprocal recognition of the Jewish right of self-determination in Israel and the Palestinian right of self-determination in Palestine might well prove a requisite final flourish on a peace agreement. But expecting or demanding Palestinians to embellish their already unrequited recognition of Israel with an extremely problematic, premature, and, at this stage, politically impossible statement about Israel as a “Jewish state” (again, whatever that might mean) can only be interpreted as another, and entirely gratuitous, obstacle to peace.

Parsing Netanyahu’s Washington talking points

The Israeli Embassy in Washington helpfully sent their allies in Washington a set of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's talking points in relation to his speech in Congress yesterday and to AIPAC at the weekend, which were published by Ben Smith of Politico. They are the following:

Netanyahu's vision of peace:

1) Mutual Recognition of the Jewish state and the Palestinian State

2) A Palestinian state that is independent and viable

3) A Palestinian state that will be fully demilitarized, with an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.

4) The settlement blocs and areas of critical strategic and national importance will remain a part of Israel.

5) In any peace agreement, some settlements will end up outside Israel's borders.

6) The solution to the Palestinian refugees will be found outside Israel. 

7) Jerusalem will remain Israel's united sovereign capital.

First of all, it should be noted that, as is obvious and has been pointed out by Zvika Krieger of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, these stances are "Israel's starting offer for negotiations." The same applies to a number of the Palestinian official positions, for example on the right of refugee return. In other words, serious Israelis and Palestinians understand that major compromises will have to be made on these and other positions in any actual agreement. Second, these points and Netanyahu's substantive positions in his speech before Congress were restatements of his May 16 speech at the Knesset in which he laid out these positions and claimed that they were a “consensus” among most Jewish Israelis.

Because there is no ongoing diplomatic process between the two parties, and hasn't been one since late September, and it isn't likely to resume anytime in the near future, the diplomatic implications of these speeches are fairly limited. The speeches are both best seen as more political than diplomatic. Domestically, Netanyahu was seeking, and indeed succeeded, in establishing himself as the unquestioned leader of the Israeli center-right and far-right coalition, fending off challenges from rivals within his Likud Party and others such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the largely Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu Party, and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. It's become clear that a combination of factors have driven the Israeli polity seriously to the right over the past decade, and even more over the past five years. This began with the extreme reaction to the second intifada that led to the political resurgence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and has been further exacerbated in recent years by the growing population and political organization of right-wing oriented Russian immigrant and ultra-Orthodox communities. Sadly, there is little doubt that the current right-wing coalition government in Israel really does represent a combined majority sentiment in Jewish Israeli society that brings together the center-right, the far-right and elements of the extreme-right. The Israeli left, and even the traditional Israeli center, is marginalized to the point of being moribund, at least for now. Representing the current face of the old-school Jabotinskyite ultra-hawkish and maximalist but secular Likud orientation, through his three consistent speeches in the past two weeks at the Knesset, Congress and AIPAC, Netanyahu has strongly consolidated his position as the leader of this uneasy right-wing coalition and fended off the possibility of any serious challenge for the foreseeable future. His position as Israel's prime minister seems more secure than ever, and it's hard to imagine that a new election would leave him in a weaker rather than a stronger position vis-à-vis both his right-wing “frenemies” or any challenge from the traditional center or the left.

The second sense in which these speeches, especially the two in the United States, were political rather than diplomatic was a thinly-veiled effort to bolster the chances of Republicans unseating Pres. Obama in the upcoming 2012 elections. It's no secret that Netanyahu is deeply uncomfortable with Obama, and that the two men have a testy, if not indeed acrimonious, relationship and little regard for each other. Neither can afford an open public confrontation, but Netanyahu's public lecturing of Obama following the President's Middle East policy speech was stunning in its arrogance. Obama did not fail to indirectly communicate his exasperation during his own AIPAC speech. Netanyahu directly accused Obama of not understanding reality, while, more diplomatically, Obama said Israel (read Netanyahu) needed to face certain uncomfortable realities, in effect returning the compliment.

Obama's Middle East policy speech was essentially a recitation of familiar American positions, but he was explicit about a number of items that have usually remained implicit: that negotiations must be based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps; that the parties should focus on borders and security understandings first; and that there would have to be a “full and phased” Israeli military withdrawal from the areas that will become a Palestinian state. He also failed to rule out dealings with a new Palestinian government arising from the “national reconciliation agreement” recently signed by Fatah and Hamas, although he said there were "profound and legitimate" questions about the deal for which Palestinians would have to provide “a credible answer.” This is clearly a reference to the Quartet conditions and the role Hamas will be playing in any new Palestinian Authority government. But it does stand in contrast to demands by Netanyahu and his American supporters that no dealings with any Palestinian government arising from the agreement are acceptable.

None of this is shocking or dramatic, and Obama's positions were unsurprising, reasonable and consistent with well-established American policies. Netanyahu's extraordinary overreaction was partly the reflection of a genuinely visceral sense that Israel's international isolation on the future of the occupied territories is growing, not only with the international community at large, but with the Obama administration and, indeed, the American foreign policy, intelligence and military establishment in general. The contrast between what Obama, the United States and the international community are envisioning as the essential elements of a two-state agreement and the talking points cited above as reflected in Netanyahu's speeches is quite stark. However, there was also a histrionic and theatrical quality to the enraged response, which I think was clearly intended to give political cover to Republican presidential hopefuls like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney to issue strong denunciations of the President on Israel policy, which they immediately did. Even after Obama's AIPAC speech — in which he shifted tone and emphasized US-Israel cooperation (designed, of course, to please his audience), but did not alter any of his positions and did issue a stark warning to Israel that international (and implicitly American) impatience with the lack of progress on peace negotiations is becoming untenable — some of Netanyahu's Republican supporters like Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin continued to issue dark warnings to Jewish Americans that a second term for the President would be a disaster for Israel.

It's long been observed that Netanyahu thinks, acts, and talks more like a right wing American Republican than any version of an Israeli politician. His speech before Congress was masterful as an object lesson in how to speak to an American, and particularly congressional, audience. Given the paucity of talent in the present GOP field, it's even tempting to speculate that were he in a position to do so, Netanyahu would actually have a very good shot at winning the Republican nomination for US president in 2012. As things stand, however, it was merely a secondary goal, but an important one, of his reaction to Obama's speech, and some of the tone of his own in Congress, to help nudge Republicans towards what looks like an unlikely victory in November of next year.

Having established all of that, let's look at the talking points — the so-called “vision of peace” the Israeli Embassy released on Netanyahu's behalf — point by point, bearing in mind that these are opening bargaining positions at best and, in context, actually political positions aimed primarily at a domestic Israeli audience and secondarily at having an impact on US internal politics.

1) Mutual Recognition of the Jewish state and the Palestinian State

The question of mutual diplomatic recognition between Israel and Palestine is largely an onus on the Israeli side, since the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, recognized Israel formally and irrevocably in the Letters of Mutual Recognition in 1993. In return, Israel merely recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Therefore the Palestinians have recognized Israel for almost 20 years, while Israel has never recognized a Palestinian state or allowed one to be created. On the contrary, it has continued building settlements and deepening the occupation in many ways during this period, and the number of settlers since 1993 has increased from 200,000 to more than 500,000.

What this talking point refers to, however, is not mutual recognition between two states, but the new demand that first was raised at the Annapolis Conference in 2007 and has become an obsession with Netanyahu that Palestinians recognize Israel, as he usually puts it, as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This is therefore not a political but an ideological demand, essentially asking the Palestinians to embrace the fundamental precepts of a classical and very old-fashioned Zionism rather than agreeing to accept Israel as a neighbor with which they will live in peace and security, and as a legitimate member state of the United Nations that is free to define itself as it wishes. I have written before about how problematic this demand is for Palestinians, how unnecessary it is for peace (which is why it played absolutely no role in diplomacy or negotiations prior to 2007), and how it is an attempt to foreclose or prejudice genuine final status issues such as refugees and, by extension, Jerusalem. I will have a more detailed evaluation of this in a forthcoming article, and I've written extensively about it in the past.

2) A Palestinian state that is independent and viable

This represents a genuine reason to be hopeful and optimistic. Historically, Netanyahu and almost all Likud party leaders have been opposed to Palestinian statehood, but he is now on the record on numerous occasions in support of the concept. It is still debatable what he means exactly by the terms “state,” “independent” and “viable,” but this position is an extremely constructive one on its face. It demonstrates that while, as I noted above, the entire Israeli polity has shifted quite dramatically to the right over the past 10 years, the Israeli right itself has also shifted dramatically in its rhetoric about Palestinian independence. Many leaders and parties that absolutely ruled out Palestinian statehood, including Netanyahu, in the past now accept the concept at least in theory. This can only be regarded as progress. Absent a genuine negotiating process, it will be impossible to test Netanyahu's commitment to this principle or what he precisely means by the words cited in this talking point. It is very deeply in the Palestinian interest to try to find a formula as soon as possible to return to those negotiations so as to test these assertions and discover whether he means what he says and what it is he thinks he is describing. Until then, Netanyahu is free to make this commitment without any fear that he will actually have to participate in its realization or clarify his positions on these terms.

3) A Palestinian state that will be fully demilitarized, with an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.

The first element here is problematic in some ways but almost certainly achievable. For many years now the Palestinian leadership has made it clear privately and implicitly that it seeks a non-militarized state of its own volition, because it recognizes that wasting money on a small army that will not be able to mount or win wars is completely pointless and that all resources should be focused on developing Palestine's infrastructure and extremely promising human capital. The wisest Palestinians look to something approximating the Costa Rican model in which the state is non-militarized, but with a strong police and border force to ensure security, and remains neutral in armed conflicts. This approach has helped to give Costa Rica a much higher standard of living than its Central American neighbors, and the Costa Ricans have managed to use their neutrality and international support for their position of non-belligerence to avoid being drawn into the many vicious conflicts and civil wars in Central America over the past decades. Palestine can and should attempt to emulate this wise approach, but it is much more politically achievable as a deliberate and independent choice that the Palestinians make in their own interests than as an Israeli demand. The Israeli leaders know that this is a Palestinian intention, and they also know that by making it an Israeli demand they make it more difficult to sell to the Palestinian constituency. It is therefore cynical and unhelpful to harp on this issue, which is best left to the Palestinian leadership that is thought to be committed to the principle on solid political and strategic grounds.

The second principle here, what Netanyahu has repeatedly referred to as a “long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River,” is an absolute nonstarter for the Palestinians and can only be regarded as either an opening gambit he knows full well will have to be abandoned or, if he intends to stick to this to the bitter end, as a conscious effort to sabotage a workable agreement. A Palestinian entity that does not control its own borders will not be a “state” in any meaningful sense of the term, but rather a bantustan and vassal of Israel. Palestinians will not, then, have achieved independence, but a deeply modified and attenuated form of ongoing occupation. This demand is completely at odds with Pres. Obama's terms laid out in his Middle East policy speech in which he specifically called for “the full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces” from the Palestinian state. Obama said “that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.” Obviously, this is completely inconsistent with Netanyahu's unworkable, unreasonable and unacceptable demand that Israel would continue to control, at least on a long-term basis, the Palestinian border along the Jordan River. The Palestinians have repeatedly said that they would accept the presence, possibly over a long-term, of international peacekeepers on their borders, including Jewish troops and even commanders from other countries, but a continued Israeli military presence in or on the borders of Palestine is totally unacceptable. It is simply contradictory to the most fundamental concept of Palestinian independence, and if Netanyahu intends to insist on this till the bitter end, even as negotiations begin to approach the conclusion of a permanent status agreement, he will be deliberately and willfully sabotaging such an agreement because it will be a clear-cut negation of Palestinian independence.

4) The settlement blocs and areas of critical strategic and national importance will remain a part of Israel.

Everyone agrees on the principle of a land swap. There is no question that there are settlement blocs, Jewish areas of occupied East Jerusalem, and perhaps some other geographically small areas of the occupied territories that would be annexed to Israel in exchange for equivalent territory ceded to the new Palestinian state. So in that sense, this principle is noncontroversial. However, Netanyahu has been deliberately vague about what settlement blocs he has in mind, although he has said that some settlements will be outside the borders of Israel at the end of an agreement. So it is a welcome recognition on his part that Israel does not intend to annex all settlements. However, some large settlements, particularly Ariel, extend deep into the territory of the West Bank, almost bifurcating it. Netanyahu has spoken in terms of being “generous” (an extraordinary term to be applied to territories under foreign military occupation) with the size of the territory of the Palestinian state. At the same time, in his speech at Congress Netanyahu denied that Israel is a “foreign occupier” at all and referred to the occupied territories as “the Jewish Land.” This might be Zionist boilerplate, but it doesn't bode well for what he thinks reasonable land swaps might entail. This is exacerbated by his reference to other “areas of critical strategic and national importance,” whatever they may be. He may be referring to areas of supposed military importance based on an anachronistic model of warfare that has been transcended by new technologies, or more simply to religious and political irredentism regarding areas like Hebron, which are a sine qua non for a genuine Palestinian state. So on the one hand this talking point is noncontroversial and even gives ground for some hope. On the other hand it contains implications that raise the deepest possible suspicions that what Netanyahu is imagining is simply impracticable and unworkable, as well as at odds with not just Palestinian but also international and American expectations and requirements.

5) In any peace agreement, some settlements will end up outside Israel's borders.

This point was covered above. I take it as an important admission, but of course he might be referring to small, largely irrelevant settlements, unauthorized outposts and other areas of limited significance. Again, a real diplomatic process will be required to test what he thinks he means by this and Palestinians should look for every opportunity to obtain such clarification.

6) The solution to the Palestinian refugees will be found outside Israel.

This is, and has for many years, been commonly understood as the inevitable outcome of negotiations since a wide-scale implementation of the right of return is a nonstarter for almost all Jewish Israelis for obvious reasons. However, the refugee issue is a crucial Palestinian negotiating card and it is right and proper that, as they prepare their people for the necessary concessions, they also protect this vital negotiating leverage and ensure that the most that can be secured for the refugees through a workable agreement is achieved and that this brutal and politically wrenching concession is reciprocated by a similar bitter political pill that Israel must swallow. That brings us directly to Netanyahu's final talking point:

7) Jerusalem will remain Israel's united sovereign capital.

 All Israelis who are serious about peace understand that the Palestinian capital must be based in East Jerusalem, that this is a sine qua non of peace and a red line no Palestinian leadership can or will be willing to cross. In many ways it is the Israeli analogy to the Palestinian right of return issue: the deep, painful, existential concession that must be made because without it, the other side simply will not come to terms. It therefore has been for many years also commonly understood as the inevitable outcome of negotiations that the Palestinian capital will be in East Jerusalem. Now Netanyahu's language appears to be categorical in ruling out serious negotiations on Jerusalem, let alone it serving as a Palestinian as well as an Israeli capital. But parsing the language of this talking point carefully, there does appear to be some potential wiggle room for reconciling the two positions. Most parties on both sides would probably prefer not to see Jerusalem divided in any physical sense, therefore the "united" part is no dealbreaker. That Jerusalem will be Israel's “sovereign capital” does not necessarily rule out that Jerusalem can also be Palestine's “sovereign capital” as well. This sounds counterintuitive and contradictory, and may even sound like an oxymoron, but Jerusalem is a sui generis case for which a sui generis solution undoubtedly will have to be found. I do not think it is inconceivable that a united Jerusalem (that is to say without physical divisions such as roadblocks, checkpoints, customs and immigration stations, etc.) can simultaneously serve as the sovereign capital for both Israel and Palestine. It depends how one defines sovereignty, where and how that sovereignty is exercised, whether there is the possibility of separate sovereignties with joint administration or other formulas that could square this circle.

Because these were political and not diplomatic speeches, I'm sure Netanyahu intended all of his audiences to understand this as ruling out any compromise on Jerusalem, and that's how most people took it. That's certainly how it reads at first glance. But there is evidence that behind the decades of bluster about Jerusalem as the “eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish people” has always lurked a gnawing, grudging sense among serious Israelis that a compromise on the city will be necessary. Israel is often said to have annexed occupied East Jerusalem. That's not exactly correct. What Israel did was not an act of formal annexation, but the extension of Israeli civil law to all of what it defined as “Municipal Jerusalem.” In 1980, the Knesset passed the "Jerusalem Law," that declared: "Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel." The law was declared null and void on numerous occasions by the UN Security Council, in resolutions all voted for by the United States, most notably Resolution 476 which reiterated “the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.” Now that El Salvador and Costa Rica have removed their embassies from Jerusalem, all of which is still considered a “corpus separatum" under international law, Israel's international isolation on its maximalist claims regarding Jerusalem is again total.

Statements declaring or implying that Israel will make no concessions on Jerusalem and will not agree that any part of it will serve as the Palestinian capital might make for good politics in Israel or before Congress. But just as when Palestinians insist there will be no compromise on the complete implementation of the right of return for refugees, Israelis who believe in peace at all must be viewing absolutist statements about Jerusalem as vital negotiating leverage which they privately understand will require a genuinely painful but absolutely indispensable concession. It's understandable that neither party wants to undermine this kind of powerful leverage in advance of the resolution of the permanent status issues and the achievement of an end-of-conflict agreement. But it's also clear that both sides need to do more to prepare their respective publics for the compromises that, if they are at all serious about peace, they certainly know will ultimately be unavoidable.

Netanyahu's talking points contain no new ideas, but there are aspects of them that are promising and some that can be worked on in serious negotiations. Insofar as they are, as Krieger suggests, an opening gambit consciously crafted not as final positions but as starting points for a serious process, there is no reason to despair because of them, particularly given that negotiations are not presently ongoing and are unlikely to resume until after the 2012 US presidential elections. Still, Netanyahu has adopted some positions that place him very seriously at odds not just with the Palestinians, international law, and the international community, or even Obama personally. They pit him against a well-established consensus that the American national interest requires as essential and not optional the establishment of what Sec. Clinton called the “inevitable” Palestinian state and an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The apparent contradiction between American goals and interests and the vision for the future suggested by Netanyahu's talking points is going to be an increasing strain not only on the personal and political relations of the two leaders, but, in the long run, an increasing issue between the United States and its national interests on the one hand and Israel and the maximalist ambitions of some of its powerful political factions on the other. Even more ominously for Israel, as two of its most prominent and staunch supporters among the American commentariat, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, both pointed out in hard-hitting columns today, Netanyahu's policies and positions that have done nothing to advance the peace process are leading Israel in a clear and disastrous direction: its development into what both bluntly called an "apartheid state" and therefore an international pariah.


What was Netanyahu so enraged about?

President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech last Thursday did not break any particularly new ground on Israeli-Palestinian peace or Washington’s basic positions on negotiations. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of his supporters reacted furiously. Why? The reasons are deeply illuminating.

There were three elements to Obama’s speech that the Israelis did not like. First, Obama reiterated the well-established idea that negotiations will be based on the 1967 borders with mutually-agreed land-swaps. Even though this has been essentially understood since UN Security Council Resolution 242 and has been clear-cut United States policy since at least 2005, Obama stated the principle more clearly than usual. The Israelis regard this, essentially, as a concession to the Palestinians for which they will no longer be able to extract anything in return.

Second, Obama explicitly outlined what has been implicit US policy for most of his administration: That the parties should work on reaching understandings on borders and security first, and base progress on other permanent-status issues on those agreements.

Neither side seems particularly comfortable with this formula, which might defuse the settlement issue but also make reciprocal compromises on deeper, more existential problems like Jerusalem and refugees more complicated. To work, it will also mean instituting an informal understanding based on the Clinton parameters limiting Israeli settlement activity in occupied East Jerusalem to Jewish areas, something Netanyahu and his allies deeply oppose.

Third, Obama did not rule out dealing with, and possibly even providing aid to, a new Palestinian government arising from the Hamas-Fatah agreement. He said the agreement raised “profound and legitimate questions” for which the Palestinians would have to provide a “credible answer.” However, he didn’t adopt the Israeli line that no dealings with any such unity government would be acceptable.

There was a good deal to irk the Palestinians as well, especially Obama’s strong statement against any efforts next September to seek United Nations recognition for a Palestinian state. However, the plainly infuriated response by Netanyahu and his supporters seemed completely disproportionate to the substance of Obama’s remarks.

There are two factors informing this strong overreaction. First, and most important, is the Israeli sense that while Israel can deal with the Palestinians from a position of overwhelming strength and effectively impose any reality on them, at the international level the walls on Israel’s maximalist ambitions are closing in.

Obama’s speech is best read in contrast to Netanyahu’s speech the previous Monday before the Knesset. The Israeli prime minister ruled out negotiations on Jerusalem, spoke of annexing settlement blocs, and demanded a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. These positions are incompatible with not only international and American expectations about the nature of a two-state solution, but also American national interests and the vision of peace laid out in Obama’s subsequent speeches.

The American foreign policy, intelligence and military establishment has finally concluded that the creation of a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation that began in 1967 is essential for the United States to successfully pursue its other interests in the Arab world and, indeed, other parts of the Islamic world. This rethinking was mainly prompted by the problematic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has only been reinforced by the “Arab Spring.”

In this context, Obama warned Israel that “there is an impatience with the peace process, or the absence of one not just in the Arab world” but “already manifesting itself in capitals around the world.”

The Israelis appeared more pleased with Obama’s address to the AIPAC convention this past weekend, in which he highlighted Washington’s support for Israel but also reiterated all his basic positions. However, last week’s events greatly strengthened Israel’s sense of being isolated not only internationally but also from the US with regard to its vision of the future. It might hope to impose unreasonable conditions on Palestinians, but cannot hope to do so on the world, especially on the Americans. This explains the hint of panic in the Israeli reaction to Obama’s unsurprising, reasonable, carefully-crafted remarks.

Netanyahu and his allies are fundamentally uncomfortable with Obama and would prefer to see a Republican in the White House after the 2012 US presidential election. The enraged Israeli reaction was an invitation to Republican hopefuls such as Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney to issue strong denunciations of the president’s remarks, which they immediately did. Even after the AIPAC speech, some of Netanyahu’s supporters are continuing to issue dark warnings to Jewish Americans that a second term for Obama would be disastrous for Israel.

So, while there was genuinely visceral anxiety among those like Netanyahu that Obama’s speech reinforced Israel’s international isolation on the future of the occupied territories, there was also a degree of politically-calculated histrionics aimed at helping Republicans in their effort to unseat the president in 2012.

What Netanyahu and his supporters are failing to understand, however, is that Obama’s remarks do not reflect his personal predilections. They are based on a strong American consensus regarding US national interests, especially the need for what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the “inevitable” Palestinian state.

Members of Congress and Republican candidates are free to say whatever they want, since foreign policy is not their direct responsibility. But whoever ends up in the White House will have to base his or her policies on American interests, not on political calculations. Netanyahu, like any other Israeli leader, will not be able to ignore, flout or oppose these interests in the long run.

More on ?Walid Shoebat? and his allies and competitors in the ?reformed terrorists? scam

Several readers have asked for more information on the “reformed terrorist” scam and the conman who sometimes calls himself “Walid Shoebat,” and sometimes doesn’t, and on the entire phenomenon. There are a few more interesting things worth pointing out about these sordid people and their dirty dealings that weren’t touched on in my last blog posting, which was prompted by revelations that yet again the federal government, in this case the Department of Homeland Security, had paid this man $5000 to help “train” security officials. Of course, I was only encouraged by a Tweet by a defender of “Shoebat” who produced this masterpiece: "you just stay out of the truck stop restrooms cause I know who you are and what you do I saw you. Leave Walid be you closet cas." [Sic on all that]. It could hardly have been better calculated to make me want to revisit the subject as soon as possible. The first point is to re-establish how truly dangerous unrestrained, hysterical, hate speech on the order practiced by “Shoebat” can truly be. His sentiments frequently veer towards the genocidal. For instance, he recently stated, “I would wish that the whole Muslim world would listen to Mr. Bakri and fight by the sword literally. This way the nukes will take care of the whole problem once and for all." So now that we’re all back on the same page, here’s some more about “Shoebat” and his partners in robbing credulous churches and ignorant, incompetent government agencies with the nonchalance of the most accomplished burglars.

Thom Cincotta recently authored an extremely revealing report about this hate-speech cottage industry called “Manufacturing the Muslim Menace” for the group Political Research Associates. It begins by documenting “what one official involved in homeland security said was how she understood the underlying theme of a speech by Walid Shoebat at an anti-terrorism training in Las Vegas in October 2010.” The report states, “Our investigator had turned around after Shoebat’s speech and asked the woman seated one row back what she thought was the solution offered by Shoebat. ‘Kill them…including the children…you heard him,’ was the full response.” Of course this doesn’t mean that the official was endorsing this view, but it certainly was her understanding of his message. I’m not sure I could’ve summed it up anymore neatly myself. Since “Shoebat” insists that Islam is not only evil and demonic but is itself “the devil,” such an interpretation of his message seems wholly justifiable. The report reasonably suggests that given how extreme his language tends to be, “Shoebat may be the most outlandish example of the coterie of anti-Islamic bigots and fear mongers who are training law enforcement officials and anti-terrorism agents.” The report also helpfully notes “Shoebat’s financial remuneration for his appearances is obscured in complicated financial arrangements he claims are needed to protect him from terrorism.” In other words, somebody tried to look into this and found it deliberately obscured and not worth getting to the bottom of. Suffice it to say, the man is making a living, and almost certainly a tidy one, from spreading this poison around our society.

“Shoebat” frequently partners with Zak Anani, another purveyor of particularly gigantic tales. In the most extraordinary "coincidence," this self-described “former terrorist” and former mass-murderer, claims to have killed no less than 223 people during the Lebanese civil war, “two-thirds of them by daggers.” (Exactly the same claim, word-for-word, attributed to “Walid Shoebat,” as cited in my last blog posting.)  How and why they claim to have killed exactly the same number of people, in exactly the same way, at around the same time, in two different places, and two separate wars, has never been explained. It would be interesting to know who the ghostwriter or coach behind these laughable fabrications is, since they clearly got it from the same set of fantastical talking points. I will not bother to dwell on how ridiculous these claims are, even considered in isolation from each other, in the first place.

Anani claims to have joined “an Islamist militia” in Lebanon in the early 1970s, at age 13 (naturally he does not specify which militia that was, and it is hard to think of a group that would have fit this description in Lebanon at the time). As usual with “reformed terrorists” and self-styled, for-profit “ex-Muslims,” there is a profound anachronism in his claims to have been raised in a climate of militant jihad in a place and time in the Arab world where such rhetoric was extremely rare if not completely unknown. He claims to have not only killed an astounding number of people, but also to have been subjected to extreme persecution in Lebanon, where he says he was “almost beheaded by an Islamist gang.” He ended up in Canada where “his house and car have been burnt, his family attacked.” Not surprisingly, Canadian police flatly deny these claims.

Canadian authorities and experts have also dismissed Anani’s tall tales of former terrorism, with noted expert Tom Quiggin, formerly of the RMCP, correctly observing that, “Mr. Anani is not an individual who rates the slightest degree of credibility, based on the stories that he has told.The Windsor Star quotes Quiggin as saying that, "Anani has said he's 49 years old, which would mean he was born in 1957 or 1958.  If he joined his first militant group when he was 13, it would have been in 1970 or 1971.  But the fighting in Lebanon did not begin in earnest until 1975.  His story of having made kills shortly after he joined and having made 223 kills overall is preposterous, given the lack of fighting during most of the time period he claims to have been a fighter.  He also states he left Lebanon to go to Al-Azhar University at the age of 18, which would mean he went to Egypt in 1976. In other words, according to himself, he left Lebanon within a year of when the fighting actually started." He added, “It appears to be that Mr. Anani is nothing more than an extremist who is trying to create an imaginative history from a contemporary set of fears and stories.” In other words, just like with “Shoebat,” Anani’s account is a transparent, inane fiction that announces itself as an absurdity on first glance to anyone with the least knowledge of the subject under discussion.

As my friend Omar Baddar pointed out in response to my recent posting, the Jerusalem Post also noted that following the by-now thoroughly debunked imaginary bank bombing that “Shoebat” claims he conducted on behalf of the PLO in the late 1970s, “Asked whether word of the bombing made the news at the time, he said, ‘I don't know. I didn't read the papers because I was in hiding for the next three days.’ (In 2004, he had told Britain's Sunday Telegraph: ‘I was terribly relieved when I heard on the news later that evening that no one had been hurt or killed by my bomb.’)” So, he couldn’t even keep his stories straight about whether he was in hiding and incommunicado for three days after the fictional “attack” that never happened, or whether he was listening to the news that very evening. He recently resorted to describing the author of this damning Jerusalem Post story as the “Holocaust-denial supporter Jorg Luyken” on the basis that the author has criticized laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and urging combating it with historical facts, since “the evidence of the Holocaust is irrefutable,” rather than through laws criminalizing stupid and offensive speech of this kind.

Yet, along with a crew of other shameless frauds, these individuals are making a repulsive career out of telling lies about themselves and spreading fear and hatred against entire communities and identity groups. Naturally, there is no honor among thieves. The falling outs have been vicious and most telling. The most amusing is the apparent war between Brigitte Gabriel, the most successful and ambitious of the Arab professional Islamophobes (who I have dissected in some detail in an earlier Ibishblog post) and “Shoebat,” Anani and another huckster called Kamal Saleem. According to Franklin Lamb, as she felt these three upstarts beginning to encroach on her lucrative territory, Gabriel exploded, "Not only are these creeps Arabs, but two of them are Palestinians!" Chris Hedges — who calls the three “Curly, Larry and Mo” — says that by 2008 “Shoebat,” Anani and Saleem were telling their audiences that “the only way to deal with one-fifth of the world’s population is by converting or eradicating all Muslims.” By trying to outbid Gabriel and everybody else in their degree of Islamophobic hatred, according to Lamb, “Shoebat… recently chortled, ‘let the spoiled brat from South Lebanon top that!’ following an appearance on Tovia Singer's radio show.” But as things have played out, Gabriel has proven to have a longer reach and a wider audience on the political extreme right, by emphasizing pure anti-Arab and Islamophobic hatred and downplaying apocalyptic, dispensationalist evangelical Christianity.

“Shoebat” also had an interesting falling out with a former collaborator called Simon Altaf. According to religion writer Richard Bartholomew, the two co-authored a book called “Islam: Peace? or Beast?” which preposterously claimed that the early text of the Book of Revelation in the Codex Vaticanus reveal the “mark of the beast” not to be the Greek symbols for 666 or 616, but rather the Arabic script for Allah. Bartholomew points out that the original text of the Codex Vaticanus does not include the Book of Revelation at all, and the supplement in question was added more than 1,000 years later than the original text. Moreover, the claim is ludicrous on every possible grounds. The two also cofounded the “Abrahamic Faith” website which, when it was first launched, according to Bartholomew “as well as pushing hardline Christian Zionism, it originally attacked other Christian groups, including Evangelicals and Charismatics, Billy Graham, and the Pope.” Bartholomew also points out that the site contained “an early version of Shoebat’s conversion narrative, in which he describes himself as having been involved in anti-Israel rioting during the Intifada, but which doesn’t mention any PLO membership or bomb-planting.

The split between the two apparently occurred when Altaf was ordained as a Rabbi by the Bnai Yahshua Synagogue in Florida, which apparently believes that “non-Jewish followers of Jesus have physical descent from Ephraim” (trust me, you don’t want to know…). “Shoebat” thundered that “Simon Altaf… turned polygamist and cultist of the first order.” An indication of how demented the whole argument was on both sides can be found here. Altaf shot back that “Shoebat’s real name is ‘Walid Salameh’” and that his “handler,” one Keith Davies, was originally employed by an ardent ex-Nazi. Altaf’s totally unverifiable tirade against “Shoebat” can be read here, on the site they originally cofounded.

The latest target of Shoebat’s avaricious wrath is Mosab Hassan Yousef, a.k.a. “Son of Hamas,” who spied on the Palestinian extremist group for Israel before moving to the United States and converting to Christianity. “Shoebat” originally endorsed Yousef, but has now written a tirade against him accusing him of being “more double agent than turncoat.” Presumably, this racket ain’t big enough for both of us, yet again. In an effort to dissuade American churches from hosting (and therefore paying) Yousef, “Shoebat” insists, “Mosab did not convert to what the West would recognize as Christianity, but to a fiery, Palestinian brand of the faith that is vehemently anti-Israel. According to Mosab, his main goal in coming to the U.S. is to infiltrate the main source of international support for Israel: the American church.” It’s about as subtle as when Shoebat’s most prominent patron and defender, Daniel Pipes, demanded I be banned from television after a series of severe drubbings I delivered him in televised debates (he later complained that he couldn’t get on television anymore because he refused to appear with me and therefore I was on and he wasn’t). Most tellingly, “Shoebat” accuses Yousef of “duping pro-Israel churches for his own personal profit.” Takes one to know one. "We are doing our best to warn the church," Shoebat’s handler, Keith Davis, explained. I’ll bet they are!

Yousef was defended by his Shin Bet handler, one Gonen ben Itzhak, who thinks, “Mr. Shoebat is playing a dirty game,” and that “Unlike Walid Shoebat, Mosab did not commit fictitious crimes against Israel,” and “Mosab served hard time in prison and paid for what he did.” Most pointedly he tells “Shoebat,” that because of his background in intelligence and experience, “I can smell a fraud and recognize a fake hero on the spot.” Yousef has also accused Keith Davis, on behalf of “Shoebat,” of trying “to recruit me [as a speaker] to use my story to raise money”.

Yousef says he didn’t respond to this e-mail and the worst that can be said of his veracity is that he has exaggerated his story — not invented it out of whole cloth like “Shoebat” — and his relationship with Israel and the Palestinian cause are complex to say the least. Whether he can be seen as an opportunist or not, even though he might be threatening to Shoebat’s racket, there isn’t any clear evidence yet that he is trying to mimic it. On the contrary, Yousef’s complex, ambivalent and often hard to reconcile and idiosyncratic stances make him far less appealing a speaker on ideological grounds to credulous pro-Israel fundamentalist churches than Larry, Curly and Moe. But clearly the fact that his story is based in fact and not fiction, and that he actually knows something about the subject he is addressing, makes him a very serious threat to the total frauds peddling complete fictions, absolute certainties and uncompromising hatred. The effort to take him out of the equation is extremely revealing about Shoebat’s motives and methods. 

How could DHS pay fraud, conman, fanatic ?Walid Shoebat? $5K to spread hate?

When I expressed horror and incredulity at reports that the Department of Homeland Security has paid a man who sometimes calles himself “Walid Shoebat” $5,000 to give a speech at the 2011 South Dakota Homeland Security Conference in Rapid City on May 11, I was asked for details as to why it think he is a fraud, liar, conman and fanatic. It really couldn’t be easier to explain. The following is just the most cursory and perfunctory review of this loathsome character’s history as a flimflam man. There is much more to be said about him, but this ought to satisfy any reasonable person that it is a scandal and disgrace that DHS has had anything to do with him whatsoever, let alone paying him thousands of dollars to spread his poison and lies.

This individual can’t even keep a straight story as to whether his is an assumed or real name, but claims to be a “former PLO terrorist” now converted to evangelical Christianity.  Nothing about his story is verifiable. The pro-Israeli “Hasbara Fellowships” speakers‘ bureau, closely associated with, even describes him as “the grandson of a Nazi ally.” Although he has often said that “Walid Shoebat” is an assumed name, adopted to avoid retribution from other Arabs, in one of his most overwrought articles, “Shoebat” insisted that this is, in fact, his actual birth name: “I even showed documents to prove that my true name is 'Walid Shoebat' and is not an assumed name as they say in the media…”   However, the biography posted on his own website,, once clearly stated that, “Walid is an American citizen and lives in the USA with his wife and children, under this assumed name.” It now states, "For the record, my name is Walid Shoebat."

His tale is so improbable, contradictory and unsupported by the least trace of evidence that even some passionate supporters of Israel have questioned its veracity. "Shoebat" has frequently complained about this publicly: "I get continual accusations for doing this for money, an accusation I already get from my enemies, but also from my Jewish friends." He has produced a littany of the most improbable tales of his youthful terrorist attrocities. According to a friendly article in Joseph Farah’s "His stated mission was "to kill as many Jews as possible." He started murdering people at 14, and within four years had accumulated "223 points" – a PLO term for 223 kills, two-thirds of them with daggers." Naturally, there is no mention of when and where these hundreds of supposed murders took place exactly. This sounds more like a sick joke than anything else, and its certainly completely untrue.

“Shoebat” has also claimed that at age 16, PLO cadres recruited him to bomb the Bank Leumi branch in Bethlehem. In 2008, the Jerusalem Post reported that this story is “is rejected by members of his family who still live in the area, and Bank Leumi says it has no record of such an attack ever taking place.” The Post concluded, “If the Bank Leumi bombing claim is unfounded, it is unclear why Shoebat would have wanted to manufacture a terrorist past. True or not, however, it has plainly brought him some prominence and provided him with a means to speak in favor of Israel and be paid for doing so.” And that last detail, clearly, is the whole point.

The New York Times reported that in 2008, along with Kamal Saleem (another evangelical self-described “former terrorist,” who has claimed to be a descendent of the entirely imaginary and preposterously named “Grand Wazir of Islam”) and the equally bizarre Zak Anani, “Shoebat” was paid $13,000 to address the Air Force Academy about their alleged recruitment and training as terrorists. These men have presented a number of talks under the title, “Why We Want to Kill You,” which is also the title of a book written by “Shoebat.”

“Shoebat” claims that after a youth devoted to violent anti-Israel activity, “In 1993, Walid studied the Tanach (Jewish Bible) in a challenge to convert his wife to Islam. Six months later, after intense study, Walid realized that everything he had been taught about Jews was a lie. Convinced he was on the side of evil, he became an advocate for his former enemy.” The only thing that outstrips his passionate love of the Israeli state is his even more passionate hatred of the Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and Islam, claiming “The so called ‘Israeli occupation‘ is currently the only real freedom any Arab has had in any part of the Middle East in the 56 years of Israel's existence.”  He encourages Israeli violence against Palestinians and has urged Israel to “take back the holy Temple Mount.” He condemns the majority of Jewish Americans for being too weak on pro-Israel issues: “If I was a Jew I would be ashamed to call myself one,” since, “The Jews are not up to the task and no matter what we say, Jews will continue to fight Brit Zedak [sic], Norman Finklestein [sic] and Naom Chomsky [sic] et al. What we need is the support of a handful of people, and not the majority belly-achers.”

”Shoebat” is an extremist Christian fundamentalist who yearns for the apocalypse and the battle of Armageddon, is passionately anti-Islam and anti-Muslim.  He has frequently called Islam ”the anti-Christ” and has written that ”both the Antichrist and the revived beast empire will very likely be Muslim.” (Why I Left Jihad, Top Executive Media, 2005, p. 369) He also claimed during the 2008 election campaign that then-Democratic presidential candidate and now President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim saying that simply because of his name, “it is very clear that Barack Hussein Obama is definitely a Muslim.” And, according to “Shoebat,” Islam is not merely linked to demonic forces, “Islam is not the religion of God — Islam is the devil.” Just what we need officials at a DHS conference to hear, of course, and what American taxpayer dollars should be paying for.


A follow-up posting is now on the Ibishblog: More on “Walid Shoebat” and his allies and competitors in the “reformed terrorists” scam

One Step Forward

President Obama’s Middle East speech couldn’t possibly have — and almost certainly didn’t — please all of its potential audiences. His comments, however, were refreshingly honest in acknowledging the limitations of American power and influence and even broke new ground on a number of important subjects.

Obama returned to the theme that characterized his last major Middle East policy speech, on the Libyan intervention: the intersection, and often tension, between American interests and values. He wisely chose not to proffer a facile panacea that would almost certainly have proven unworkable.

Obama was strikingly frank in acknowledging that many Arabs feel the United States has pursued its interests “at their expense.” And he bluntly stated that “there will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region,” recognizing that there is no clear and consistent formula for resolving the ongoing contradictions between U.S. values and the aspirations of Arab peoples with some of Washington’s interests and alliances that are still considered indispensable.

Perhaps the most important change in tone in this regard was on Bahrain, where Obama condemned the crackdown in much stronger terms than the United States has to date. He called for dialogue but noted “you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” Even more striking, he compared the persecution of Copts in Egypt with that of Shiites in Bahrain, a stronger statement than anyone had anticipated. His remarks implicitly recognized the limitations of American influence with its own allies.

This statement is unlikely to be welcomed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, whose perceptions have become increasingly at odds with new American approaches to the Arab world, particularly when the Obama administration urged the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over vociferous Saudi objections. Nonetheless, as the Associated Press reported today, despite these disagreements, U.S.-Saudi defense cooperation is expanding, including the creation of a new “facilities security force” to protect petroleum and other key installations in the kingdom.

Obama’s promise of debt forgiveness to Egypt and expanded trade and development programs across the region will be broadly welcomed, as will his commitment to work with Arab reformers and civil-society groups seeking change. In most cases, including Syria, he stopped short of calling for regime change, but suggested that Bashar al-Assad has to either reform or “get out of the way,” again the strongest U.S. statement thus far.

On the most sensitive subject of all, Palestine, Obama reiterated familiar U.S. policies in support of a two-state solution and criticized Israeli settlement building. This is noteworthy since the Israeli government just announced major new settlement expansion projects in extremely sensitive areas around occupied East Jerusalem, the continuation of a pattern of such announcements timed to coincide with major meetings with American officials.

Obama bluntly stated that the continuation of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” At the same time, he warned Palestinians against efforts to delegitimize Israel and correctly pointed out that symbolic measures in the United Nations would not create a Palestinian state. Obama’s invocation of the 1967 borders recalls President George W. Bush’s 2005 statement that any changes to the 1949 Armistice lines would have to be agreed by both parties. Obama insisted that “Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state,” and suggested that the issues of borders and security should be dealt with first, and that such understandings would be the basis for progress on other permanent status issues. Neither side seems fully comfortable with such an approach.

Significantly, Obama did not close the door on working with a new Palestinian unity government, saying that the Fatah-Hamas agreement raised “profound and legitimate questions” for which Palestinians will have to provide “a credible answer.” This is a far cry from Israel’s blanket rejection of anything springing from the agreement, although it places the onus on the new Palestinian government to satisfy American and international expectations on its commitment to peace with Israel and the rejection of violence.

In essence, the vision of peace Obama reiterated was nothing particularly new for American policy, but it was considerably at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech at the Knesset. Netanyahu demanded as a prerequisite that Palestinians recognize Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people,” implying transhistorical and metaphysical national rights in this territory for all Jews around the world, whether or not they are Israelis. He virtually ruled out any compromise on Jerusalem, spoke of annexing settlement blocs and insisted on a “long-term IDF presence along the Jordan River,” ideas that are clearly at odds with Obama’s vision of a “sovereign and contiguous [Palestinian] state.”

The most important message Obama communicated on Palestine is that he believes a peace agreement is “more urgent than ever,” suggesting that in spite of the growing complications and the looming presidential election of 2012, his administration will continue to look for opportunities for progress.

There was a great deal to both please and annoy almost all concerned parties, and Netanyahu has already signaled his displeasure with the 1967 lines. But it was not a bad step forward: Within the constraints of U.S. interests and the limitations of its power, Obama offered a number of important commitments that can, in fact, be fulfilled, and that help to place the United States more on the side of the aspirations of the Arab peoples than it ever has been in the past.

Two Narratives for Two Peoples

Many Jewish Israelis and their supporters have reacted with outrage to a New York Times Op-Ed on May 17 by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, particularly its invocation of the Palestinian historical narrative. Most troubling to them was Abbas’s description of how his family was “forced” to flee their home in what became Israel in 1948 — a word choice they feel implies that Abbas and his family were evicted by Jewish troops.

Abbas did not make any such claim, of course. Palestinians did, as the historical record suggests, quite reasonably feel “forced” to flee a war zone even when they were not physically compelled to do so. But the focus on that one verb was also a distraction from the main point of his narrative: the ongoing denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This denial, which is unquestionably true, lies at the heart of the Palestinian refugee grievance. It is also a historical fact — confirmed even by Israeli leaders who personally participated in these actions like the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — that many Palestinians were subjected to forced expulsions, even if Abbas’s family was not among them.

What this disingenuous uproar points to is the continued refusal by both Palestinians and Israelis to recognize each other’s narratives as legitimate and to insist that their version of history alone is truthful.

Both sides fundamentally regard each other as interlopers. Modern Jews, particularly Jewish Israelis, see themselves as the sole heirs of the biblical Hebrews, and tend to view that ancient history as a metaphysical deed to the entirety of the land. They also tend to see Palestinian history as beginning with the Muslim conquest of Palestine, and sometimes dismiss most Palestinians as recent arrivals drawn to the area by the benefits of Jewish immigration in the 20th century. Palestinians typically consider themselves to be the descendants of all of the ancient peoples of the land, including the biblical Hebrews, and often question the lineal descent of modern Jews from the biblical Hebrews. They sometimes cast Jewish Israelis simply as colonialists and question key aspects of the Jewish historical narrative.

Israeli leaders have a long history of denying not only Palestinian history, but also Palestinian identity, such as Golda Meir’s infamous comment that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. Palestinians, of course, have consistently returned the favor, frequently implying that Jews are a religious community but not a coherent national or ethnic group with the right of self-determination.

The truth elided by both parties is that the Palestinian and Israeli identities are 20th-century phenomena that emerged in parallel and in contradiction to each other. One hundred years ago, the words “Israeli” and “Palestinian” were meaningless. This is not to say that Arabs and Jews don’t have deep histories, but both political identities are recent constructs, forged in the context of the ongoing conflict.

Palestinian and Israeli national narratives both contain elements of the truth but they are tendentious and dismiss crucial and undeniable, but inconvenient, historical facts that are crucial to the other party’s identity. It is impossible, in the foreseeable future, for these narratives to be reconciled. Jewish Israelis will not become Palestinian nationalists, and Palestinians will not become Zionists.

One of the reasons that the two-state solution is the only way out of the conflict is that it would allow the two national projects and narratives to coexist in separate states. Rather than trying to base a resolution on arriving at one mutually accepted understanding of history, a two-state solution would also be a tacit acceptance that there are two mutually exclusive narratives, but this should not prevent each side from achieving some compromised version of its national aspirations.

Ultimately, it will be necessary for Palestinians to acknowledge the deep Jewish attachment to the land and for Israelis to acknowledge that the Palestinians are indeed its indigenous people, with not only civil and religious rights, but national ones as well.

But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is implausible because it implies a permanent, metaphysical national right belonging to all Jews in the world, whether or not they are Israelis. However, language in which Palestinians recognize a Jewish right of self-determination in the State of Israel and Israelis recognize the Palestinian right of self-determination on what are now the occupied territories, is almost certainly a prerequisite for the conclusion of a viable peace agreement.

Such reciprocal recognition of self-determination in two states will probably have to come at the end of negotiations, rather than as a prerequisite for them. The core final status issues, like refugees and Jerusalem, cannot be bypassed or foreclosed first.

The ultimate goal of a two-state solution, however, must be not only two states for two peoples but also two states that will each embody an expression of their respective people’s national and historical narratives, two stories that will coexist without one needing to negate the other.


Can Obama’s Mideast speech fit the square peg of interests in the round role of values?

 On Thursday US President Barack Obama will give what will probably be the most difficult foreign policy speech of his presidency thus far. Obama will seek to define an overall US approach to the Arab Spring. However, given the extreme complications facing US policy, it will be extremely difficult for him to articulate clear principles that can be consistently implemented.

Obama is likely to begin by focusing on the welcome death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. In spite of the undoubted importance of this achievement and the ongoing threat posed by his small but deadly group of followers, Al Qaeda is playing almost no role in the emergence of the new Middle East.

Instead, the regional order and the Arab state system are being challenged by pro-democracy protests that threaten American friends and foes alike. In his well-calibrated speech on the Libyan intervention, Obama focused on what he identified as a convergence between “values” and “interests.”

In other instances, these imperatives are at odds, creating what are likely to be ongoing policy conundrums into the foreseeable future. The most obvious example is Bahrain, where the United States disapproved of the government crackdown and Gulf Cooperation Council intervention, but has been ignored. Because it is the home of the US Fifth Fleet, and concerns about Iranian designs on the island, the United States cannot walk away from Bahrain and is left with few options other than muted protests.

The administration quickly came to the correct approach in Egypt, urging the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and a managed transition toward greater democracy. But this exacerbated situations in which American allies elsewhere staunchly refused to consider reform and began to look upon Washington as unreliable, thereby placing values and interests in a tension that was difficult to reconcile.

The perception that the Americans abandoned a loyal ally in Mubarak has deeply shaken some long-standing US partners, especially Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have reacted in part by moving to expand the GCC to include Jordan and Morocco, potentially creating a broader status quo-oriented alliance of Sunni monarchies. A striking commentary by Nawaf Obaid in The Washington Post suggests the development of a much more independent Saudi foreign policy that finds itself increasingly at odds with American perceptions.

An opposite but related conundrum has emerged in Syria, where the United States has been deeply reluctant to clearly call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time foe. Concerns about chaos and civil war, the anxieties of US allies – particularly Israel – and strong suspicions that the Syrian regime will survive the uprising have prompted a noticeably muted American response.

The United States is a status quo power in a Middle East wracked by the forces of change, but whose regional influence and power is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be waning. No doubt the Americans would prefer orderly transitions to greater democracy without upsetting the regional system, but few, if any, Arab governments, pro- or anti-American, are willing to engage in serious reform. This makes a clear American statement that it will unequivocally support pro-democracy demands by Arab citizens difficult to fulfill, and highlights the extent to which US values and interests will frequently be difficult to reconcile in the coming months.

Obama will also have to deal with the Palestinian issue under conditions of extreme uncertainty. The all-important details of the Hamas-Fatah agreement remain entirely unclear, as does the Israeli vision for the future. The resignation of the American special envoy, George Mitchell, indicates the extent to which negotiations are on hold for the foreseeable future. Moreover, last weekend’s violent suppression of protesters in numerous border areas by Israel, in which at least a dozen unarmed Palestinians were killed, reinforces the issue’s volatility and regional significance.

Obama is likely to reaffirm the US commitment to a two-state solution, but more detailed comments are unlikely. It would appear a stronger intervention is being tabled until at least the summer and that another major diplomatic initiative will probably not emerge until after the next American election.

This decoupling may be forced, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There can be no questioning the importance of the Palestinian issue to the Arab uprisings, but there is also a clear logic to treating the two as parallel but distinct tracks. There are at least as many risks in lumping them together as dealing with them separately.

For Obama to resolve the clear tension between American interests and values regarding demands for radical change in Washington’s relations with allied Arab states is an extraordinary challenge. Coming up with an actionable formula that can place the US on the side of the aspirations of the Arab people, which is essential, without further antagonizing and alarming its already skittish – and, in some important cases, alienated – allies will be the greatest foreign policy challenge this young president has yet faced.

Close encounters of the Islamlophobic kind

 Earlier this year I wrote a column about the growing crisis of Islamophobia in American culture. The depth of this crisis was brought home to me this week in a very powerful, albeit anecdotal, experience I had on a radio call-in show in Missoula, Montana. I’ve been appearing on radio and television programs in the United States at the national level on such controversial topics since 1998, and I’ve never experienced such a stained barrage of bigoted, irrational and implacably hostile sentiments. It was much worse, taken as a whole, than any experience I had in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and is yet another indication that a subculture of hatred in the US is growing completely independent of any political developments or objective facts.

It was all the more shocking as I had spent a couple of days in Missoula in February giving a number of talks on various aspects of US-Arab relations to large and sophisticated audiences that were extremely receptive. My hosts were the local World Affairs Council, a group of well-meaning and very well-informed individuals. Nothing prepared me for what I encountered on the radio. Call after call was hostile, irrational, bigoted and reflected different strands of what is becoming, in certain parts of American cultural and political life, and hegemonic narrative of fear and hatred against Islam and Muslims.

One caller was absolutely convinced and insistent that “they” wanted to “kill all of us.” After a tooth-pulling exercise in demanding to know who, precisely, this murderous “they” might be (I couldn't shake that immortal dialogue from the madcap film noir Kiss Me Deadly: “And who are they? They're the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit") it became clear that what she meant was that the world's Muslims in general (they) “just want to kill us” (everybody else, especially white, middle-class Americans). Eventually, she agreed that's exactly what she meant. When challenged, she cited the Crusades as her primary evidence. She also suggested that President Bush, not President Obama, deserves the credit for in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, another example of the degree to which we were in the sovereign realm of the enemies of reason.

Another caller was completely convinced there is a growing campaign to impose sharia law in the United States through the civil court system, and to teach it in American public schools. She was totally unimpressed by my pointing out that such things are quite impossible given the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that in fact there is no such campaign, or at least not one that can possibly have any traction. Didn't I know a conspiracy is afoot? The clear implication is that I'm undoubtedly a part of it anyway.

A third demanded to know if I “denounce Hamas, Hezbollah and the actions of the Syrian government against its people.” He asked the question in an interrogatory and accusative tone that clearly suggested I was guilty until proven innocent of being pro-Hamas, pro-Hezbollah and in favor of the Syrian government crackdown, even though earlier in the program a quote from one of my recent articles that was harshly critical of Hamas and its Western supporters had been read out by one of the hosts. Another caller suggested that everyone who wants to learn about Islam watch the outrageous propaganda film “The Third Jihad.” He seemed unable to tell the difference between the categories Islamist and Muslim. And on it went.

There are a couple of very important points to be made from this experience. First, we can see in these comments reflections of various parts of the Islamlophobic narrative as received wisdom. Sharia law is being imposed in the United States, and it's a conspiracy. In other words, “they're trying to take over our country.” Muslims want to kill non-Muslims and are prepared to lie about it. In other words, “they are an existential menace, at war with Western civilization and bent on mass murder.” “They all support terrorism, and if they deny it they're probably lying.” “If you want to find out about Islam and the Muslims, watch crude Israeli-funded propaganda movies like The Third Jihad and other Islamlophobic hate speech.” It all boils down to the idea that Muslims are a menacing, dangerous presence in the United States seeking to subvert “our culture” and "our civilization" in the name of a hostile and alien God and that there is indeed a clash of civilizations. As I've noted before, it's all anti-Semitism from the 1920s defrosted and barely warmed over for 15 seconds in a microwave.

What all of these elements also reflect is that over the past 10 years, as I've argued before, Islamlophobic narrative has become first relatively coherent, bringing together numerous strands of intolerant attitudes in one ugly web of fear and hatred that holds together about as well as any irrational conspiracy theory, especially anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, might. Second, that there has been a very successful campaign to not only gather these ideas together into a semi-coherent narrative but a concerted, coordinated and well-funded attempt to insert it into the mainstream American cultural and political life, especially on the political right, and drum it into the heads of millions of Americans through talk radio, cable news, the Internet and the blogosphere, and well-selling books all preaching pure Islamlophobic vitriol and conspiracy theories. It's clearly had a profound impact, as I noted earlier this year, and I've never seen it as dramatically in action as I did on that radio program in Missoula earlier this week.

One of the callers also raised a long-standing tactical conundrum for Arab-American advocates, even dating back before 2001: how to respond to demands to condemn this or that organization or action by some Arabs somewhere. It might even be arguable that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, such questions were inevitable and possibly even understandable. But given the amount of time that has passed, my own copious track record on these issues (relevant only because I was the person being interrogated by this ignorant nitwit), and the fact that extremely harsh criticism I wrote about Hamas and its supporters was read out on the air early in the program by the hosts as part of a question, the assumption of the right to interrogate me simply because I’m an Arab-American was not only offensive, it was insidious. Not only did it assume certain negative attitudes on my part based solely on my identity, it also ascribed the authority to interrogate me about them to the caller based on his identity. There is a hierarchy of prerogatives implicit in all of this, such that I have to prove myself, as an American, to him because I am an Arab-American and he, presumably, is not.

There can be no question that had my name been “Bob Smith, Professor from Brown University” and I had said exactly what I had said on that program, no such question would have been asked and none of the hostile calls would have been placed. The whole thing was a reaction purely to my identity, based on my name and my affiliation with the American Task Force on Palestine, with the two words “Hussein” and “Palestine” ringing Pavolian alarm bells.

It was clear from the outset that with caller after caller, I was in the presence of that form of irrationality which is not only impervious to correction but which sees all contradictory evidence as confirmation of the paranoid fantasy. On the question of whether or not I support Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, a clear answer of no makes no impact. It’s assumed that there’s a good chance that I’m lying or practicing “taqiyyah,” a term that’s been systematically misrepresented in American Islamophobic discourse as authorizing Muslims (as if I were one instead of being an agnostic) to lie freely in the service of Islam. The game is called “gotcha,” and the only thing that can register is an apparent effort not to answer the question directly.

However, answering the question — which in my case is easy because as I have a very strong objection to the policies and actions of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime (the three entities in question) – implicitly acknowledges the right of the questioner to interrogate Arab-Americans on such matters in an inquisitorial and accusatory manner. The tone clearly indicates that the only response that will register is one that confirms the stated fears of the earlier caller that “they [including me] just want to kill us [not including me] all.” Attacking the question, which is the dignified and intellectually sound thing to do, falls into one trap: it will be taken by the questioner and much of the audience as confirmation of the inherent extremism in the Arab-American subject (namely me), and “prove” the inquisitorial point, reinforcing the paranoid fantasy. Answering the question falls into another trap: not only doesn’t dispel fantasy for many of its adherents, it submits to the indefensible process of interrogation based on ethnicity.

My response was to do both simultaneously. I attacked the question as unfair, unjust, accusatory and inquisitorial (and, implicitly, racist), and pointed out that I had a very large body of writing and speaking that made the question preposterous and based on bigoted and irrational assumptions about what someone with my name and affiliation probably thinks. Guilty until proven innocent. But of course given the Islamophobic narrative about Muslims being religiously authorized to lie to non-Muslims in the service of Islam, proof of innocence can never be achieved. I also answered the question, contemptuously of course, but I did say that I had a long track record of criticism for Hamas, Hezbollah and Syrian regime. I also pointed out that if the caller had bothered to listen to my comments or read my writings, he wouldn’t have to have such a stupid question. Nonetheless, by answering the question I very consciously and reluctantly fell into the trap of tacitly accepting its legitimacy, vigorous protests notwithstanding.

In the gotcha game, none of this makes a dent in the paranoid fantasy, of course. Suspicions will persist no matter what is said or done, and only evidence that reinforces the fantasy will be accepted. Contradictory evidence will be either dismissed or, in the final stages of paranoid delusion, serve as further confirmation of the paranoid fantasy. This dilemma has placed almost every Arab-American public figure between the Scylla of not answering the question out of righteous and fully justified indignation and the Charybdis of actually answering it. The dilemma wouldn’t be as acute if a clear answer actually resolved the matter. But since it doesn’t, there seems to be genuinely no satisfactory tactical response. My method of handling the problem – answering the question while simultaneously vigorously objecting to it – seems entirely unsatisfactory to me, but I can’t think of a more effective alternative either. Clearly this problem demands more sustained collective thought, and I'd strongly welcome any serious intervention on the problem.

My default is to view such challenging experiences as pedagogical opportunities or, as they say, “teachable moments.” In most instances, dealing with most of our fellow Americans, this is the norm. Slow and patient explanation usually pays off at some point. But the depth of paranoia in the Islamophobic fantasy is such that pedagogy and any appeal to reason is hopeless. The narrative has constructed a series of virtually impregnable barriers to any kind of corrective: huge webs of false facts about what Arab and Muslim Americans want and are doing; virtually unshakable and hostile assumptions about Arab-American opinions and attitudes that boil down to a conspiracy theory akin to classical anti-Semitism; and, above all, the deep-seated belief that Islam permits and encourages wholesale lying to the “infidels,” such that nothing one says will be credited unless it overtly confirms the worst fears. Everything else will be dismissed out of hand, or taken as confirmation.

In other words, one of the greatest strengths of the Islamophobic narrative, like its anti-Semitic predecessor, is that it is impervious to rational challenge. It reminds one of the adage about anti-Semites in which someone is railing against the Jews, and another objects that he knows a very fine Jewish family up the street. “Aha,” comes the retort, “you see how clever they are: they’re fooling even you.” Paranoid fantasies have a particularly insidious way of refusing to be dispelled. The old joke has it that a patient goes to a psychiatrist believing himself to be a grain of corn being pursued by a giant chicken. After much intensive therapy, the psychiatrist agrees with the patient that he is in no sense a grain of corn but a human being. The patient leaves the doctor’s office in high spirits, only to immediately return in a full-fledged panic. “But,” the doctor observes, “didn’t we agree that you are a human being and not a grain of corn?” “I know that and you know that,” says the patient, “but does the giant chicken know that?” In other words, paranoid delusions based on a coherent narrative, no matter how preposterous, are uncannily resistant to rational correctives or appeals to logic.

Is it necessary to write off those who have swallowed narratives of Islamophobia as irredeemable bigots in the grip of a paranoid delusion? Certainly there is nothing that can be done on a radio call-in program with people who take such attitudes. But in the long run, public awareness campaigns, especially those led by mainstream American social, cultural and political leaders and opinion-makers, to counteract Islamophobic ideology can and should be effective, just as other campaigns against bigotry, most notably the fight against anti-Semitism (Islamophobia’s close cousin and immediate predecessor) have been. It’s understood that a fringe in any society will adhere to bigoted perspectives, and that when an energized and empowered group of ideologues push hatred in many media over an extended period of time, such views will begin to penetrate a culture in the most damaging manner. We have been witnessing this happening in terms of Islamophobia in the West generally, including the United States, over the past decade, and it’s only getting worse. (The shameless, dangerous and hyper-aggressive Dutch racist and Islamophobe Geert Wilders is currently touring North America and on Monday I flew to Canada for a TV program, only to be confronted on the airplane by a front-page story in the Globe and Mail newspaper praising him for his bold and reasonable stances.)

It is striking that Islamophobic sentiment should reach such a crescendo in American and Western culture of full decade after the 9/11 attacks during which there has been no repetition of any similar act on American soil and during which the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims have made their opposition to bin Laden’s ideology crystal clear. It’s even more distressing that the events of the “Arab Spring,” particularly nonviolent protests in Egypt succeeded in ousting Pres. Mubarak in the name not of Islam or Islamism, but in the name of democracy, pluralism, accountability and good governance (all-American values) should have made no impression whatsoever on these callers in Montana. When I tried to invoke the Arab Spring, yet another caller vehemently objected that the sexual assault on the journalist Laura Logan proves that the protests were not nonviolent and that there is something deeply pathological with Arab and Muslim culture (she assumed the attackers were Muslims, although that is certainly not known for a fact since there were many Christians and others in Tahrir square). I expressed my indignation at the outrage, but pointed out that sexual assaults on women, by both individuals and mobs, happen on a daily basis in all societies, including our own. The caller, a woman as it happens, indignantly rejected this idea. I don’t know what world she lives in (okay, well I suppose rural Montana is the answer to that), but the willingness to take what was clearly a very ugly but isolated incident, deny that such incidents occur in the United States, and see in it confirmation of the worst stereotypes of a pathological Arab culture again points to the irrational animus driving so much of this thinking.

A decade ago, it was clear we had our work cut out for us to combat the growth of hatred against Arabs and Muslims post-9/11. Not only have we failed to make progress, the situation is markedly and obviously much worse. Meanwhile, the Arab and Muslim American communities are content to watch their organizations die, atrophy or marginalize themselves without exception, without stepping in to support them and without creating alternative groups that could better challenge these narratives of fear and hatred. I do not here offer a prescription, merely another barometer of how grim the prognosis is becoming. This is a generational and mass cultural crisis that will require a generational and mass cultural solution. Ultimately, the only answer is the promotion of responsibility and the shunning and shaming of those who promote fear and hatred, thereby blunting their message and driving it back into the fringes where it used to be, and where it most certainly belongs.