Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Trouble with Jeffrey

In Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 black comedy, The Trouble with Harry, in an idyllic small town nobody knows what to do with an inconvenient person (in that case, the trouble with Harry is that he's a corpse and everyone is convinced they were somehow involved in his death and don't know how to dispose of the body). Washington and the broader political world, especially online, can be like that too. There is a powerful inclination to rhetorically do away with inconvenient people, and tremendous anger from the enforcers of various versions of ethnic and ideological correctness against the heretics, schismatics and apostates who, it is assumed, should naturally belong to the ranks of the faithful. When someone from “the other side” is taking an objectionable position, that's fine because it only reinforces reassuring binaries, clichéd narratives and the certainty of the converted that the received wisdom is indeed the One True Faith. This is even more intense when it comes to ethnic (let's face it, tribal) expectations. And the intensity reaches its crescendo when it comes to anything remotely related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine is a fascinating case in point. He's an influential columnist and blogger with a strong ethnic Jewish perspective and a deep attachment to Israel. This makes him anathema to many Arab and Muslim Americans (I've been vilified for agreeing to be interviewed by, and later — horror of horrors — coauthoring an article with, him), and to many on the extreme left, including some ultraleft Jewish Americans. But he's also a strong critic of the occupation; the settlements (he has written sympathetically about settlement boycotts); Islamophobia (I'd note that his initial speculation that Islamists might have been involved in the Norway terrorist attacks was hardly out of bounds and bore no resemblance to the disgraceful ravings of Jennifer Rubin or John Podhoretz); paranoid TSA pseudo-security practices (about which he has written hilariously); and bigotry in general. This provokes the ire of a great deal of the extreme right, including the Jewish far-right. So the extremes on all sides dislike him a great deal, and they are disliking him more with every passing day.

The trouble with Jeffrey is that he thinks independently. He doesn't fit neatly into any simple category. As far as I can tell he is basically a liberal, but with some hawkish views (especially on some Israeli wars and Iran, that I strongly disagree with), and other ideas that don't fit well with a kind of dumbed-down knee-jerk liberalism. So conservatives don't like him because he's basically a liberal and liberals don't like him because he thinks critically enough to take plenty of "deviant" positions. He's keenly aware of and writes frequently about his Jewish identity and all matters Jewish-American. But he resists knee-jerk thinking here too, particularly on matters regarding settlements and the occupation, and is a powerful voice against Islamophobia. So anti-Semites don't like him because he's proudly Jewish, and Jewish absolutists don't like him because he strays from the reservation when he thinks it's important, either pragmatically or on principle, to do so.

Goldberg's willingness to take on Israeli orthodoxy over settlements and the occupation was recently played out on Twitter in an extraordinary exchange he had with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Goldberg harassed Ayalon remorselessly about an absurd YouTube video Ayalon produced and has been promoting. It is a remake of a settler video and essentially argues there is no occupation, so there are no settlements, and strongly implies the occupied territories belong to Israel anyway. On his blog, Goldberg correctly noted that the video "argues, in essence, the following: The West Bank belongs to Israel now and forever, so fuck off." On Twitter, Goldberg (@Goldberg3000) bluntly told Ayalon (@DannyAyalon), “Your entire project is designed to legitimize Israel’s hold over the territories forever.” When Ayalon accused him of engaging in “1984” tactics by drawing logically unavoidable conclusions about the deputy foreign minister's intentions from his own statements, Goldberg devastatingly replied, “You, of all people, invoking '1984'? Your government supported a bill that punishes free speech! Talk about Orwellian." Part of the exchange was catalogued and analyzed by Tablet.

For this blasphemy, Goldberg was subject to a mandatory ritual lapidation by the self-appointed Beth Din at Commentary magazine, delivered with tremendous wrath and furious anger by none other than the high priest himself, Jonathan Tobin. For Goldberg, he wrote "the mere mention of Jewish rights… is wrong." In Tobin's worldview, Goldberg is a heretic because, “To speak of the West Bank as disputed territory rather than 'occupied Arab land' is beyond the pale, because it hurts the feelings of the Palestinians and puts the two claims on a level playing field." Both Tobin and Ayalon are, of course, perfectly aware of the small mountain of UN Security Council resolutions, all voted for by the United States one might add, that clearly hold that East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights are occupied territories and Israel is the occupying power. But what are the small matters of international law and requirements of peace, or for that matter the rights of millions of Palestinians, when it comes to the metaphysical, transhistorical, divinely-ordained and indisputable Jewish “right” to all of “The Land of Israel”?

As I noted in a recent episode of Al Jazeera English's The Stream program that was largely based around the Ayalon video, anybody is entitled to their opinion about the occupied territories, but because the Security Council is the legal and political arbiter of such matters in the international community, we can state as a legal and political fact that these territories are occupied by Israel, end of story. In other words, you can have an opinion that the sky is green if you like. None of the rest of us are bound to take that remotely seriously, and we are perfectly entitled to laugh in your face when you say so or, as in this case, detect something more sinister in the deception. Tobin accuses Goldberg, in effect, of lying about supposed “Jewish rights” in the occupied territories in order to sustain, "the mainstream Jewish liberal conventional wisdom to which he subscribes." Presumably this is a reference to the outrageous heresy of belief in peace with the Palestinians.

The attacks on Goldberg from the far-right do not, of course, begin or end there. On his blog he reports recently receiving the following love letter: “Pamela Geller is right, you want to see America and Israel destroyed. Why do you love Muslims so much? Are you a secret Muslim?” In this case the motivation was not his opposition to the outrageous Ayalon video but his strong stance against Islamophobia (he was one of the strongest supporters of the rights of the backers of the Park 51 planned lower Manhattan Islamic Center, a.k.a. “the Ground Zero mosque”). And Goldberg has been one of the most persistent critics in the mainstream American media of Geller, Robert Spencer and other professional Islamophobes.

Much of the far-left also has a profound distaste for Goldberg, including the Jewish ultra-left. Max Blumenthal rather hilariously described him as the "Chief Rabbi of a one man island," although this metaphor makes no sense whatsoever. Neither does attacking someone one thinks is completely irrelevant, or as the analogy implies, has no audience at all. Some left wing critics acknowledge that he's not exactly without any audience, such as Joseph Dana, who recently referred to Goldberg as “the dark lord of American Zionist hasbara.” Well, if all of this is the work of Netanyahu's American “dark lord of propaganda,” the Israeli government's public diplomacy is in much worse shape than even I thought it was. Goldberg is also, needless to say, a favorite target of the oddball Mondoweiss website (as am I). The intellectual and moral character of that site can be simply gauged by the fact that its proprietors, Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz, have seen fit to publish articles questioning the right of anyone to sit in judgment of Palestinians who commit drive-by shootings against random settlers, including pregnant women, implicitly defending, therefore, a fairly cold-blooded variety of murder.

Indeed, these attacks from fringes only makes sense, and only really occur, when there is a belief that the intended target has an audience and is genuinely influential. They are an acknowledgment that one is having an effect and an impact. And for the Guardians of Purity, those who think for themselves are especially dangerous. There is a vast amount, especially about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Goldberg and I disagree about passionately. But one thing is for sure: I never know exactly what to expect from him. And I doubt any of my readers know exactly what to expect from me either. Key perspectives become obvious over time, but people who think for themselves are likely to throw out curveballs on a regular basis, and this is the thing that the Guardians of Purity hate more than anything else: not inconsistency, but consistent independence of thinking.

In some cases it is the influence alone that I think accounts for the objections. I have several friends who are staunch liberals but not ultraleft, who are not Arabs or Jews, and who are not that heavily invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or anything around it, yet who have expressed a strong distaste for Goldberg which they have been unable to fully explain to me. As best I can understand it, there is a strong objection because they perceive him to be a kind of arbiter of Jewish liberal opinion in some sort of an unhealthy, hegemonic manner. It almost sounds something like the resentment Booker T. Washington used to face from those who thought all “respectable” African-American public opinion and major funding for community organizations needed to be approved by “the Wizard of Tuskegee.” I'm afraid I don't understand this. Maybe I'm just not close enough to the inner workings of the Jewish American community, but it seems to me a very heterogeneous bunch, and honestly I can't see that the Emperor Goldberg has a particularly vast dominion or endless brigades of lockstep followers. That he is influential is without question; all the more reason to be glad when he takes on Israeli extremists, including the deputy foreign minister, or Islamophobes, or what have you. But the unquestioned arbiter of a mass body of important opinion? Really? I have detected this resentment factor, but I haven't fully comprehended it.

It should be obvious that in spite of our many disagreements, I identify with Goldberg in this one respect: being the subject of campaigns of ideological and ethnic purity from the high priests of the True Faith on both extremes of the spectrum simultaneously. An amazing amount of balderdash was spewed out last week in a press release by the Zionist Organization of America about the American Task Force on Palestine in general and me personally, and it's only the most recent and noteworthy example of attacks on ATFP and/or me from the Jewish far-right. By the way, the vice-chairman of the ZOA recently wrote in the Jerusalem Post that Israel should annex all of the West Bank but provide neither votes nor citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there, which tells you pretty much exactly where they're coming from. And of course there are the daily love letters to me from the Arab extreme left, including more than one website largely devoted to praising my every statement and two twitter "parody" feeds that are, sadly, underwhelmingly unfunny. Not a week goes by that I'm not described online by somebody as a “terrorist,” a “jihadist,” or a “radical Islamist” on the one hand and a “traitor,” a “collaborator,” and an “Arab Zionist” on the other hand. It goes with the territory. Such are the perils of life in the political center, the rejection of dogma in favor of independent thinking, refusal to adhere to prefabricated formulae, resistance to the dictates of stage-managed rituals of ethnic solidarity, and the willingness to say what one actually thinks knowing full well these are the inevitable consequences.

As with all sustained and coordinated vitriolic attacks, I suppose one must take these things as a compliment, because they are certainly an acknowledgment that one is having a major impact, or at least is considered, by the self-appointed enforcers of ethnic and/or ideological purity, profoundly threatening. These communal comisars are, of course, stultifyingly predictable in their own thinking. Indeed, they are frozen in non-thought. The thing that alarms them the most is an independent thinker willing to take nuanced, balanced and, worst of all, unpredictable positions based on reason and principle rather than ethnic affiliation or prefabricated ideologies. So in the end, the trouble with Jeffrey (and the trouble with Hussein for that matter) is strongly analogous to the Trouble with Harry: what to do with an inconvenient, disconcerting, unsettling, and, ultimately, terrifying presence that disrupts the otherwise idyllic space of the pristine ideological imagination?

The ex-spy who stepped into the cold (with Michael Weiss)

In 2007, an organization called Conflicts Forum, which at the time was being funded by the European Union, issued a report intended to promote a “positive assertion of Islamist values and thinking” in the West. It laid out a public relations campaign for rebranding “resistance movements” in the eyes of Westerners in terms of “social justice,” specifically promoting “Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s values, philosophy and wider political and social programmes.”

“We need to clarify and explain that Islamist movements are political and social movements working on social and political justice,” the report explained, “and are leading the resistance to the U.S./Western recolonisation project with its network of client states and so-called ‘moderates.’” The authors also asserted that “the progressive space of social movements [in the West] is empty” and asked “how the West can learn from the values and the notion of society that Hezbollah and Hamas have at the centre of their philosophy.”

Conflicts Forum, which received $708,000 from the EU between 2007 and 2009, is the brainchild of Alastair Crooke, a former long-serving British intelligence agent and adviser to the former EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. In recent years Crooke has emerged as the leading Western champion of Arab and Muslim extremists and anti-Western regimes. Conflicts Forum, in other words, does not seek to resolve conflicts but rather exacerbates them.

Crooke’s most recent intervention was a commentary in Asia Times in which he argued that the Syrian uprising is almost entirely the work of extremist followers of the late Al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Crooke also affirmed that a large majority of Syrians back the dictatorship of President Bashar Assad, who they believe shares their desire for radical reforms. In this way he merely parroted the demonstrably false propaganda of the Syrian regime.

In an earlier essay for Foreign Policy, Crooke insisted that Assad was uniquely immune to the “Arab Spring” because of his championing of “resistance” movements – news, no doubt, to the 10,000 detained Syrians and the families of the 1,400 dead, who Crooke now expects us to believe are all followers of Zarqawi.

Crooke is noted for arranging back-channel meetings between Western officials and members of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But other than the grant from the EU, the rest of his funding remains mysterious, as do his core motivations, about which he is decidedly coy.

Crooke is a strong supporter of the Iranian ruling faction and its ideology, and has maintained “there’s absolutely no evidence the election [of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009] was stolen.” He apparently believes that the radical Shiite Islamism espoused by Iranian hard-liners is the key to the future of the Middle East, as opposed to any form of liberalism or democracy, or the conservative Sunni Islam championed by Gulf Arab monarchies. He cites Hamas as a Sunni group positively influenced by Iranian notions of revolution and resistance.

Most of the publications on the Conflicts Forum website reflect official Iranian ideology and foreign policy, including articles explaining “Iran’s commitment to the Palestinian cause,” attacking the Palestinian Authority, strongly supporting Hamas, celebrating the “principled foreign policy of Ayatollah Khamenei,” and casting the Arab Spring as an Iranian-style “Islamic awakening.”

Conflicts Forum strongly advocates the narrative that the contemporary Arab world is the site of a macro-historical struggle between a “culture of resistance” and a “culture of accommodation,” meaning all moderate, secular and pro-Western forces in the region. Crooke’s attachment to Assad appears to be a function of the Syrian regime’s self-professed role as a supporter of “resistance” and its strong ties to Iran and Hezbollah.

Conflicts Forum’s documents do not reflect Western efforts to understand Islamist movements; rather, they speak in a clearly and unabashedly Islamist voice. Its advisory board includes Azzam Tamimi, a prominent Hamas sympathizer in the United Kingdom who has defended suicide bombings. It also includes Moazzam Begg, who, as London’s The Daily Telegraph recently reported, confessed in a signed statement to the FBI that he learned how to shoot guns and operate explosives at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

Crooke’s and Conflicts Forum’s activities are alarming from a Western point of view, but even more so from the perspective of those interested in the spread of democracy and liberal values in the Arab and Islamic worlds, above all Arabs and Muslims themselves. What such activities champion are in fact ultra-right wing, reactionary and fundamentally totalitarian ideologies hostile to human rights in general, and more specifically to the rights of individuals, women and minorities. Crooke is evidently a spy who gladly stepped into the cold.

This man, his odious views, and his nefarious organization have had a free pass for far too long. It is time to recognize Conflicts Forum for what it is: a champion not of “resistance and revolution” but of violence, intolerant religious fanaticism and totalitarian ideologies. That should be enough to make Crooke and his organization anathema to anyone even remotely interested in a decent future for Arabs and Muslims.

The costs and benefits of Palestinian UN options

Talk delivered at the 65th Middle East Policy Council Capitol Hill Conference, "Arab and Israeli Peace Initiatives: A Late Chance for Negotiations?", July 25, 2011. For video of the event and a full transcript, click here.

I’m going to look at what looms ahead potentially at the United Nations in September, because that seems to be the most immediate diplomatic and political context, from a Palestinian perspective anyway, and has huge repercussions.
First of all, I’d like to put this whole conversation in its context, at least the way that as I understand it, and also the way the Palestinian leadership and a lot of Palestinians who are talking about some kind of U.N. initiative in September, understand it.
The first point is that while it’s certainly true that there are a lot of Israelis and Americans and Europeans and others who are frustrated at the lack of progress diplomatically, the lack of viable, working peace process or any negotiations, Palestinians live under occupation. And they uniquely find the status quo not only untenable but unbearable, intolerable. And that has very profound implications for Palestinian leaders and the Palestinian political scene, because while it is frequently alleged on the Israeli right and on the Arab left that the leadership in Ramallah of the PLO and the PA is content with the status quo because their rule in Area A of the West Bank is fairly stable and relatively unchallenged, this is, I think, completely wrong.
Over the medium and long term, they’re not content at all, because they understand that if their policy and their program of achieving Palestinian statehood and independence through – primarily through diplomacy and negotiations, augmented by state-building and other measures is seen by the public as having permanently failed, they will be finished in Palestinian society, that they don’t have a future beyond that approach. And when that approach is shelved, people will look elsewhere. And who they’d look to is not mysterious. A lot of people posit the emergence of a third force – that could happen – but right now, the alternative to the PLO and the PA is sitting there in Gaza. We know exactly who it is, what they say, what their agenda is. And I think we can speculate about the consequences to the Palestinian national movement of an Islamist takeover of that cause.
So the status quo, in fact, is totally unacceptable to the Palestinian leadership in spite of whatever stability they have in the areas that they control in the West Bank and despite of these accusations. The breakdown in diplomacy after the direct talks failed and particularly after the United States was unable to get Israel to agree to a three-month extension of its partial temporary settlement freeze moratorium, in spite of a very attractive and generous package of inducements, led, I think, the Palestinian leadership to conclude that the process as it’s structured now is simply dysfunctional, it’s simply not working for them; and if they continued to rely primarily on – for their long-term goals on a process that is dependent on Israeli enthusiasm for making an agreement and American determination, that really they were surrendering themselves too much to a process that they couldn’t control and in which they didn’t have sufficient initiative or agency.
So there was this tremendous desire to find an alternative formula, an alternative path forward diplomatically, while at the same time continuing to stand strongly against violence and these other principles that they are committed to. And I think also there’s a kind of subtext here that’s important to appreciate, which is that this frustration over the past couple of years with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with his cabinet and with the American role – not with the Obama administration particularly but with the American role generally – has led many Palestinian leaders to want to find a way of demonstrating to these two parties that it has actually viable and maybe even powerful alternatives, that in other words, it’s not completely dependent, that it has other options and second-best scenarios, so to speak. So this is another impulse, I think, that’s very important.
Now, the other really crucial thing to understand, to contextualize these ideas, is that the official position and, I think, the real position of the PLO leadership, as continuously emphasized by President Abbas, is that they prefer negotiations to any kind of U.N. initiative, and it’s understandable, as I’ll explain, because virtually every idea about approaching the U.N. carries with it significant dangers and cost. So it’s completely understandable that from a Palestinian point of view, this is perceived as a kind of leverage to get negotiations restarted if they possibly can. In fact, today, Abbas’ quote is this is: negotiations is our first, second and third choice. This is literally what he said. So he’s really trying to emphasize how much they would like to negotiate.
And what they’re asking for, looking for, are clear terms of reference, which have not been forthcoming, and a framework for the negotiations, which also has not been forthcoming. They’re interested in President Obama’s speech and the framework that was suggested by it: talks based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps and focusing – although this makes both parties uncomfortable – on borders and security first. They’re potentially open to that.
There were two extras, two little fillips thrown in by the president for both parties:  one, for the Israelis, that the Palestinians ought to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, whatever that means, which I think is the right answer to that request – well, what does that mean? Please provide a definition. And I think that ought to at least make the request a little clearer. And for the Palestinians, a full and phased withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the territories that will become a Palestinian state. That’s fairly new. That’s a new formulation anyway, from the United States. And it was important.
But nothing has been achieved to create terms of reference or a negotiating framework out of that vision. And as a matter of fact, the Quartet at its last meeting was unable to reach any consensus on this. It was apparently three to one over this Jewish state question and maybe some other divisions. And the European Union is also rather badly divided, with its last meeting issuing a rather anodyne statement.
So not only has the West not produced a clear, working framework or set of terms of reference or anything like that; I think it’s fair to say that Western policy is extremely divided, unusually divided, on this subject. Really, the role of the Quartet until now has been to give international backing to American-led initiatives. And that’s failed to be produced. I don’t think it’s ever happened since the founding of the Quartet, frankly. So you have on top of everything else a kind of breakdown in the coherence of the Western approach to the specifics of negotiations, which are essential to restarting them. And that only pushes the Palestinians further toward the United Nations. However, none of the options, as I say, is cost-free to say the least. And I just want to look at each of the three main ones that have been considered or discussed publicly.
When they first started talking about this in public and people started speculating about it in public, the terminology that was usually used was that the Palestinians would look for recognition from the U.N. in September, which is meaningless, because the U.N. doesn’t recognize states. States recognize each other. The U.N. has member states. So it was assumed that what Palestinians would do – and it’s still widely assumed what Palestinians would do is submit an application to the secretary-general to be referred to the Security Council, which is required for a recommendation to the General Assembly and a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly, which would make a potential state, a member state, of the United Nations.
I don’t think there’s much doubt the Palestinians could get the two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, but there’s also no doubt that the United States will veto this in the Security Council, and so it won’t happen. And there is a significant potential cost to a confrontation with the United States over the question of statehood in the Security Council, which I think is putting it rather mildly. I’ll illustrate it only by reminding you of the veto cast last year on the question of settlements, which effectively killed that issue, because ever since then, Israel has had in effect a kind of a free hand on settlements. It announces settlements all the time, and there’s virtually no international response. The last thing I heard was Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief saying she was "disappointed" by some very provocative announcement – which is the mildest possible language – and even muted Palestinian responses.
So for the time being, that sort of shelved the issue. Now, I really think it behooves everyone to think very carefully about repeating that potentially on the issue of statehood. I mean, the issue of settlements is bad enough. So a confrontation with the United States in the Security Council over the question of statehood carries with it simply enormous political and diplomatic costs for the Palestinians, which is why I think it’s less likely than likely, in spite of the political pressure to do it.
The second thing that was talked about quite a lot was some kind of a resolution in the General Assembly under General Assembly Resolution 337, the so-called Uniting for Peace Resolution from 1950, that was designed to get around vetoes by a Security Council member. It was prompted by American frustration with continuous USSR vetoes in the late ‘40s on the question of Korea. And this particularly animated the Israeli press because it permits member states to take various coercive actions to meet breaches of the peace or acts of aggression and whatnot. But its practical implications seem very, very nebulous because there already are states that have been practicing sanctions and boycotts against each other in all kinds of conflicts without any 337 Resolution, and that includes the Middle East Conflict. And it doesn’t go to the question of statehood or the question of membership. It seems entirely off point, frankly, and without practicality. So we haven’t really heard much about that since people looked at it carefully.
The idea that’s dominating the conversation now, at least in public, is the idea of a Palestinian application, either instead of a move in the Security Council to request full U.N. membership recommendation to the General Assembly or after it, would be a request directly to the General Assembly for non-member state status. Right now, the Palestinian representation in the U.N. is the PLO observer mission, which is not a non-member state.  It’s a political entity, observer mission. And there are a number of those, in particular the EU and the Holy See.
And that would require, as I understand it, 50 percent plus one, which the Palestinians would certainly get. And this is appealing in some ways and also not appealing in some other ways and carries very significant costs if it’s pursued. The first thing that it wouldn’t do, of course, is it wouldn’t establish an independent state of Palestine. This just would be kind of a declaration by the U.N., by the General Assembly – that's all.
I think it’s hard to imagine it accomplishing the goal that President Abbas and others keep sort of suggesting it might. I mean, they don’t really put it in the context of non-member state status, but this is how I take it anyway, of getting on a more equal footing with Israel in the diplomatic register. And particularly, there’s an emphasis on wanting to negotiate about the future of the territory of another state, not the territory of an undefined area under military occupation. I am not sure that such a vote in the General Assembly would actually accomplish that in practice.
Let me tell you, however, about what it might achieve. What it might do is first, as at least some people are hoping, is possibly give the Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court.  It’s, I guess, conceivable, since I can’t see anything that absolutely precludes a Palestinian entity that is a non-member state in the general assembly at least trying to accede to the Statute of Rome and become a part of the assembly of parties at the International Criminal Court. It’s theoretically possible.
But there are a couple of problems with that. And first of all, would this status actually be taken as real state status, especially when it comes to the question of territory? And the question of territory is very important for the ICC, because Israel is not a party to the Statute of Rome, which means that Israeli citizens cannot be prosecuted based on actions they take within Israel or because of their status as Israeli nationals.
What the PA tried to initiate in January of 2009 with a letter to the ICC was an authorization to the court to have jurisdiction or request that the court exercise jurisdiction in the territories nominally or supposedly under the control of the PA, including Gaza – this really was kind of a reference to the Gaza War – because if the PA or Palestine were regarded as a state by the ICC, Israel could be liable for actions committed within the territory that is assumed or recognized to be under the control of that state, if any.  So you see the importance of territory here. So this non-member state might not be understood to actually control territory in any kind of sovereign way, so it might become extremely complicated.
However, I do think this has been one of the guiding concerns of Israel about all of this, because the Statute of Rome has several elements that might be seen as very threatening and alarming to the Israelis, should they ever fall under it. All belligerent parties are potentially liable to war crimes such as, you know, unlawful use of force against civilians or property or whatnot. But there are two things, two passages that might apply – that might particularly apply to the Israelis.
One is that the Statute of Rome specifically lists settlement activity and the transfer of population into an area under military occupation as a war crime. This must be alarming to the Israelis because there’s no doubt – the Security Council has reaffirmed many times that this is an area – the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights for that matter, are under Israeli occupation and that Israel is the occupying power. So this is a concern.
There’s also a crime called crime of apartheid, which is described roughly as a system of discrimination favoring one ethnic group over another, with the intention of perpetuating that system. That last part might be the out there, but I think if you looked at any sort of political system or social system anywhere in the world, probably the system that Israel operates under the occupation falls closest to meeting that definition than any other. It’s obviously a vulnerability.
As I say, it’s not at all certain or even likely that such a recognition, or such status accorded, by the General Assembly would actually give Palestinians direct access to the ICC or give the ICC, in its own mind, jurisdiction over the territories it claims.  But that’s one possibility that’s been discussed. The ICC, when they received the letter in ’09, made no determination. They received it without prejudice, and they never came to any conclusion about it. Whether this would help them do that – although statehood was obviously an issue, territory was obviously another issue for them – whether that would resolve this issue or not is very much in question.
The other thing that appeals, I think, to Palestinians about this idea is that there have been 16 non-member states in the history of the U.N., not including the Vatican, the Holy See, which is currently the only non-member state. And if you allow for states that have united – Vietnam and Germany – all 16 of those are now member states of the United Nations. And this history must be, at least in an aspirational sense, very appealing to the Palestinians.  If a state of Palestine can become a state observer – and the Vatican has never wanted to become a member state – and became the latest state that intends ultimately to become a member, it might be, they would hope, difficult to prevent that in the future.
There are costs. I’ll try to explain these significant costs. First is Israeli unilateral retaliation, which they’ve threatened. They’re currently talking about revoking or abrogating the Oslo Agreements, whatever that might mean – possible annexation, who knows. There’s American retaliation. Congress has threatened the cutoff of aid.  And the U.S. is the single biggest donor annually to the PA, not if you include all the EU, but alone. That’s a significant amount of money that’s at stake here, plus general relations with the United States, which is very important.
Finally, the Israelis have the idea of countering any Palestinian majority in the General Assembly with a group of 30 states that would be small in number but represent the most powerful, influential countries: most of the West plus Japan. And they would present this, in effect, or maybe even overtly as the camp of the so-called “civilized world,” and claim that all these countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America might be with the Palestinians, but, you know, the important countries, the “civilized world” or something like that, they’re with us. And this might be another kind of victory for Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
So, all these options carry with them very serious costs. And all parties, including the Palestinians, have a very serious day-after problem; what do they do the day after? And particularly, from a Palestinian point of view, if any of these measures is seen as a diplomatic “success,” but nothing changes on the ground for Palestinians and because of Israeli retaliation the loss of U.S. aid or other measures, things actually get worse as a consequence for people’s daily lives, plus the frustration, there is a potential for an outbreak of popular anger.
Now, people look at the nonviolent movement in the West Bank and the nonviolent nature of a lot of the Arab uprisings and hope – and I hope so too – that if there is another explosion of anger, that it would take a nonviolent form. But the occupation is the system of control and discipline. I do not think the Israelis have many options of dealing with a sustained campaign of nonviolence other than the use of force eventually. And there are many Palestinian factions who are totally committed to armed struggle and violence and would certainly take advantage of that kind of situation. So how long it could stay nonviolence, even if it started in a nonviolent way, is extremely questionable and would be a headache for the Israelis and the PA as well.
So there are very powerful incentives, which is the subject of this panel, to resume negotiations, for everyone, but such talks might be indirect. Even providing a framework, even providing a road map or especially providing terms of reference that is seen to be meaningful might be enough to stave off any kind of train wreck or confrontation.
And the most obvious way out is for everyone to agree that Palestinians would seek a mission upgrade, not a change of status exactly, to keep the PLO observer mission as the Palestinian presence in the U.N. but with upgraded rights and privileges, sort of EU-minus, since they probably can’t aspire to have all the privileges of the EU without provoking some kind of politically damaging, diplomatically damaging confrontation, but they could get more rights and responsibilities and privileges than they have now. That would be a kind of diplomatic victory.
I think the bottom line is that the Palestinian leadership politically and diplomatically needs an incentive not to do this. They need a political reason not to do this. They certainly need something they can turn to their public and say: This is why we decided not to. If they’re left with absolutely nothing, they’re going to be in an extremely difficult political situation and also diplomatic one. And that might precipitate something that would harm – a confrontation that would harm all parties and that would be best avoided.

The evolution of Syrian policy towards Palestine and the Palestinians

Talk delivered at the ATFP/Carnegie Endowment briefing, "Owning a Piece of Palestine: Syria’s Assad Regime and the Palestinian Question," July 27, 2011. For an audio recording and full transcript of the event, click here.

The policies of the Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad regimes in Syria have systematically undermined independent Palestinian national leadership and asserted control over the Palestinian cause and movement. These policies did not arise in a vacuum, but rather are a continuation and intensification of traditional Syrian approaches to the question of Palestine. These Syrian efforts to “own a piece of Palestine" — if not the whole thing, at least as an issue — are not unique among the Arab states. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others have also been involved in efforts to deploy this issue in the service of their own foreign policies. None, however, has been as adamant about its right to define and control the Palestinian issue, the subordination of that issue to a broader Arab agenda which it also defines, and to consistently oppose and undercut the independent Palestinian leadership by supporting opposition movements first from the far left and more recently the religious right under the Orwellian rubric of “independent opposition.”
As the Ottoman Empire was being dismantled following World War I, most Syrians, Palestinians and other Arabs regarded Palestine as “Southern Syria,” and particularly during the era of Prince Faisal's rule in Damascus, agitated for the “reunification” of a greater Syria as opposed to the creation of several independent states. Faisal was seen as the one leader who might unite a broad alliance of Arabs to both unify a "greater Syria" and, from a Palestinian point of view, be the vanguard of a broad-based Levantine opposition to Zionist ambitions. Over time, however, the Palestinian national movement gained an increasing sense of independence in several stages. First, after the downfall of Faisal, there was a need to focus on defending Palestine from Zionist plans to establish a Jewish state rather than reunification with the rest of "greater Syria." Second, before, during and immediately after the establishment of Israel, several Arab states, particularly Syria, Egypt and Jordan were maneuvering to try to both mitigate the damage it caused to them and to foreclose each other's ambitions.
After the collapse of the United Arab Republic in 1961, and particularly the crushing defeat of the Arab armies in 1967, Palestinians were confronted by the unavoidable necessity of creating independent national institutions and decision-making. Several Arab states sought to control this process, but Palestinians proved adept in playing one off against the other to gain as much space as possible. Syrian governments initially supported Fatah as an insurgent challenge to the first incarnation of the PLO, but rapidly turned against the organization, at least at the ideological level. From the 60s through the 90s, Palestinians were divided between three main perspectives: 1) independent nationalists led by Fatah; 2) Arab nationalists led by the PFLP; 3) Marxist-Leninists led by the PDFLP. Syrian regimes strongly preferred the second two groupings, but even more their own self-created "Palestinian" institutions, particularly the PFLP-GC and As-Sa'iqa, as well as Syrian dominated elements of the Palestine Liberation Army. All three of these forces came to blows with the mainstream national leadership throughout the decades.
This pattern was intensified following the establishment of the Baathist regime by Hafez Al-Assad in the early 1970s. As a Baathist, Assad was by definition part of the absolutist Arab nationalist camp, however within the Baath party he was leader of a pragmatic and Syria-first camp. From these twin and often seemingly contradictory ideological positions he continuously harassed the PLO for decades, frequently accusing its leadership of treason and betrayal of the Arab and Palestinian causes, while at the same time unabashedly asserting particular Syrian national interests and imperatives, including occasionally bluntly resurrecting the assertion that Palestine remains, in essence, “southern Syria.” This ideological oscillation between maximalist, absolutist forms of Arab nationalism and strident assertions of Syrian particularism and primacy gave the Assad regime a unique ability to harass independent Palestinian national leadership on multiple fronts simultaneously.
The main Syrian ideological position, or the one repeated most consistently, was that the Palestinian cause was subordinate to a broader Arab revolution, and that Palestinians should be a vanguard of transformation in the entire Arab world first, before their own cause was attended to. The PLO, particularly under Yasser Arafat, essentially took the contradictory stance that while Arab states and societies had a responsibility to assist the Palestinian cause by whatever means possible, the Palestinians nonetheless had a completely free hand in decision-making. In early decades, this PLO expectation included launching attacks against Israel from the territory of those states, with or without permission. Plainly neither of these stances is, on its face, politically functional or defensible, and reflects not only strongly opposing but also fundamentally unreasonable positions.
The Assad regime also repeatedly confronted the Palestinian national leadership with force, including numerous assassinations, proxy conflicts and occasionally direct armed conflict. This was most dramatically expressed in Lebanon, where in the 1970s the Syrians consistently sided with anti-PLO elements and militarily intervened on behalf of forces confronting the Palestinians and their allies. It was even more starkly revealed by strong Syrian backing for Lebanese Shiite forces, as well as direct military intervention by their own forces, in the “war of the camps” when the PLO tried to reassert its presence in Lebanon following the 1982 Israeli invasion. However, despite decades of relentless effort, the Syrians were never able to gain control of the Palestinian movement or place its subordinates in leadership positions.
In the late 1980s and early 90s — following the Gulf War, the first intifada and the collapse of the Soviet Union — both Syrian and Palestinian calculations shifted. The PLO completed the process of moving away from a program of armed struggle to one based on negotiations and eventually entered the Oslo Accords with Israel. Syria, on the other hand, became the leading Arab state opponent of this approach and rhetorical champion of Arab rejectionism. However, it shifted its support from left and nationalist opposition groups, which had lost support and momentum after the collapse of the USSR, to right-wing Islamists, particularly Hamas.
While the PLO had carefully avoided numerous efforts to get it to locate or relocate its headquarters in Damascus, understanding the implications of such a decision, for the bulk of its existence Hamas' Politburo and much of its military command has been based in the Syrian capital. By shifting its attention from left and nationalist Palestinian opposition to that based on the extreme religious right, in spite of the ideological incoherence of this position, the regime of Bashar Al-Assad has continued the tradition established by his father of confronting and co-opting the Palestinian national independent leadership and agenda by whatever means possible.
Events since the Syrian uprising began illustrate the cynicism of this approach. The manipulation of border regions on this year's Nakba and especially Naksa days; the killing of at least 11 Palestinians by the pro-Assad PFLP-GC at the Yarmouk refugee camp; the virtual split with Hamas because of its inability to side openly with the regime against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood; and the recent move to recognize independent Palestinian statehood in contradiction to all past ideological pronouncements and almost a century of Syrian policy that has opposed such independence, all demonstrate that for this regime, as with the last one, the Palestinian issue is a card to be played in foreign policy, regional affairs and, at long last, in a bid to clinging to power by any means necessary. In fairness it should be noted that other Arab states have also tried to manipulate the Palestinian issue to similar ends, although none with the same intensity and harm caused by that of Syria. It's also worth noting that almost none of the Arab states have had any comment on the brutal suppression of the Syrian uprising by the regime, and that includes the Palestinian national leadership.
Were the regime to survive its present extreme difficulties, it is almost certain that the rhetorical recognition of an independent Palestine would prove as cosmetic as Syria's recognition of Lebanese independence. In neither case have the regime and its supporters truly accepted that these are independent societies and states, and in both cases efforts to exercise Syrian hegemony, at an absolute minimum, over their leaderships and decision-making is virtually guaranteed. And so is a determination to continue to "valiantly fight" against Israel… at least until the last child in Gaza and southern Lebanon, that is.

Defusing a Palestinian Statehood Bid at the UN

Palestinian leaders need a reason not to ask the United Nations for recognition in September, which would be risky for everyone involved

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Palestinian President Abbas wipes his brow after addressing the UN in September / Reuters

For most of 2011, Palestinian leaders have been privately and publicly speculating about potential statehood initiatives at the UN General Assembly meeting in September. The PLO may present some plan in effect asking the UN to recognize Palestine as an independent state, which wouldn’t make it so, but it would put Israel and the U.S. in a very awkward position. These ideas have been opposed by both Israel and the United States, which have described them as “unilateral,” and met with a mixed response among European states. To date no clear plan or strategy has been put forward but language of a draft resolution could be unveiled as early as Thursday.

In recent months, Palestinians have floated a number of ideas about what they might try to do at the UN meeting and what they hope to achieve. As President Mahmoud Abbas keeps insisting, it seems Palestinians would prefer to resume negotiations with clear terms of reference. With neither negotiations nor clear terms thus far forthcoming, however, and with time quickly running out, a UN initiative of some sort looks increasingly likely. The political and diplomatic results will depend on what, exactly, the Palestinians propose.

Despite persistent claims by both the Israeli right and the Palestinian left, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is not content with the status quo, in spite of the fact that its rule in “Area A” of the occupied West Bank is, for now, secure. The Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization leadership likely know that if their long-term strategy of securing Palestinian statehood, mainly through negotiations and diplomacy, is seen as a permanent failure, they will be finished in Palestinian politics. They need only look towards Gaza, where Hamas was elected, to see the alternative national leadership waiting in the wings. An Islamist take-over of the Palestinian national movement, they know, would have dire consequences for the cause of independence.

Many Israelis and Americans are frustrated at the impasse in peace talks. So too are the Palestinian people and leadership, for whom the special conditions of occupation and the ongoing Israeli settlement project make the status quo particularly alarming. Following the rapid breakdown of direct negotiations last year and the Obama administration’s failure to secure even a three-month extension of Israel’s partial and temporary settlement moratorium — even with an astoundingly generous package of inducements — the PLO concluded that they could not continue to rely primarily on a peace process that requires Israeli enthusiasm and American determination.

Palestinians had hoped that a convergence of bottom-up state-building and top-down diplomacy, led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, would be the key to independence. Left on its own, the state-building plan has been little more than a development project under occupation. This has given the leadership a sense of urgency that has impelled its turn towards possible statehood initiatives at the UN.

The most widely discussed option is for Palestinians to apply to the Secretary General for full UN membership, leading to a referral to the Security Council. If the Security Council approved the request, it would be forwarded to the General Assembly where it would require a two-thirds majority, which Palestinians would almost certainly get. But the United States has made it clear that it intends to veto any such resolution in the Security Council, making full UN membership for Palestine impossible at present.

Another option under discussion would be for Palestinians to seek a General Assembly resolution under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution 337 of 1950. This was an American-led initiative to overcome persistent USSR vetoes of Security Council resolutions regarding Korea. However, Uniting for Peace resolutions do not address UN membership, but rather are concerned with a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” They are a way to authorize use of force, sanctions, and other coercive measures by the UN General Assembly in spite of a Security Council veto. It is very difficult to see how such a resolution would advance the cause of Palestinian membership in the UN. Boycotts and sanctions have been in place in many contexts, including the Middle East, without such a resolution, and there is no indication that it would have any practical impact on either Palestinian UN membership or coercive measures aimed at Israel by other member states.

The most recently floated idea is that Palestinians could apply for non-member state observer status, as opposed to the PLO’s present observer status as a non-state mission. Theoretically, this would require a 50 percent-plus-one vote in the General Assembly, a tally Palestinians could likely easily achieve. However, such a change in status would make Palestine neither a member state of the UN nor a state with practical independence. Abbas and others have said the goal is to gain a more even footing with Israel diplomatically and to negotiate over the occupation not of undefined territory, but the territory of another state. Whether such a change of status in the UN would achieve this result is highly questionable.

But there are real reasons to pursue non-member state observer status. In the UN’s history, other than the Vatican,16 states have had held that status, and all 16 eventually became members. It could also provide Palestine with access to the International Criminal Court, possibly allowing it to accede to the Statute of Rome and become a member of the Assembly of State Parties. This is no doubt among the most important of Israel’s concerns about such a move, against which it has threatened unspecified unilateral retaliation.

Like many countries engaged in conflict, Israel is potentially liable for “war crimes” which includes unlawful use of force against civilians and property, most notably with regard to the last war in Gaza. But the Statute also defines a “war crime” as, “The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” which could easily be applied to Israel’s settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Despite Israel’s continuous insistence that these territories are “disputed” rather than occupied, the Security Council holds that the territories captured in 1967 are indeed occupied and Israel is the occupying power. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that such settlement of occupied territories is unlawful and a human rights abuse.

Another potential ICC vulnerability for Israel is “the crime of apartheid,” which the Statute defines as “inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

However, because Palestine would not have the clearly defined borders necessary to join the ICC as a state, and since Israel is not a party to the Statute, Israelis could not be prosecuted by the ICC based on their nationality, or for their actions in areas that are not in the territory of a state that is party to the Statute. In January 2009, following the war in Gaza, the PA formally recognized the jurisdiction of the ICC, implicitly asking for it to exercise its authority in areas the PA considers under its authority, including Gaza. The ICC “accepted the declaration without prejudice” to its applicability, but made no clear determination, apparently because of the nebulous nature of Palestinian statehood. Non-UN-member state status may or may not improve the chances of a clear ICC acceptance of jurisdiction in any territories claimed as part of the Palestinian non-member state.

The Palestinian leadership appears divided on these three options, including the prospect of seeking non-UN-member state status. Those with deep reservations are said to include PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo and Fayyad, among others, who are concerned with the potential consequences of such a move, especially a cutoff of American aid, as Congress has threatened. The United States is the single largest donor to the PA, providing at least $400 million per year. A losing confrontation with the United States in the Security Council could be disastrous for for Palestinian prospects. The U.S. veto of last year’s resolution on settlement activity effectively killed the issue for the time being and left Israel with a free hand on settlement ever since. Would Palestinians really want to risk statehood in the same way?

There are other risks. Israeli retaliation could include annexation of parts of the West Bank, for example, or abrogation of the Oslo agreements. A failed UN initiative, or one that “succeeds” without improving the daily lives of Palestinians under occupation, could lead to an explosion of popular anger in the West Bank. Even if this were to begin as a nonviolent movement, because the occupation is a system of control and discipline, Israeli forces are likely to use force even against large crowds of unarmed people, and there are many Palestinian factions committed to violent resistance that would not fail to take advantage of chaos. The situation could rapidly spiral out of anyone’s control.

Israel’s proposed response to these options has been to form a block of about 30 states in the General Assembly opposed to a Palestinian initiative. It would be small but comprised of most of the large western powers and Japan. They would present this as not just a coalition of the major world powers but of the community of “civilized countries.” Even this could prove a de facto victory of sorts for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no matter what the rest of the General Assembly decides to do.

Many Palestinians therefore hope that renewed negotiations would make the UN initiative moot. But this prospect is receding quickly, especially since both the Middle East Quartet and the European Union are so internally divided on the issue. These dangers underscore the need to find an alternative compromise that would avert the negative consequences of an initiative at the UN, which would produce largely symbolic value and very harmful practical consequences. One such option would be to try to find a widely acceptable option to upgrade the status of the PLO mission at the UN with additional privileges but without non-member state status. This might be especially appealing if it were combined in some way with a restatement of President Barak Obama’s vision of talks based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps and an additional statement that the international community is committed to a two-state outcome and will accept no other resolution of the conflict.

All parties have a clear incentive to work quickly to find a way around a confrontation in September that would benefit no one and could lead to unmanageable consequences. Whatever the formula, the Palestinian leadership and people must be provided with a clear incentive not to pursue a UN initiative that is unacceptable to other key players. Otherwise, Palestinian leaders, lacking any other diplomatic steps forward, may feel that their hand is being forced. Simply climbing down from their proposed plans, without a credible explanation for their public, would be politically untenable, in spite of the obvious dangers ahead.

Debating an extremist Israeli settler

Last week I had a fascinating debate with David Ha’ivri, an extremist Israeli settler—an event loosely connected to a conference of the pro-settler Christians United for Israel organization.

I call Ha’ivri an extremist settler for two reasons. First, many settlers are living in the occupied Palestinian territories not for ideological reasons but for practical ones. They have been induced to do so by generous Israeli government subsidies. Second, Ha’ivri’s worldview—that all the occupied territories belong exclusively to the Jewish people and that Palestinians there are not entitled to national or political rights—is by any standards extreme.

His vision involves permanent Jewish rule in all of Palestine, but no citizenship or votes for the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In our exchange, Ha’ivri opened with a recitation of Jewish theological claims to all of the “land of Israel,” including the occupied territories, interspersed with a tendentious narrative about recent history. He and the audience, mainly of his supporters, probably expected me to counter with a tendentious Arab historical narrative or Muslim theological arguments.

I did neither. I pointed out that those arguments exist, and are as passionately held on the other side, but equally unhelpful. In his opening he never mentioned the word Palestinian, and neither described the problem nor suggested a solution.

I continuously emphasized that there are two peoples of approximately equal numbers in a small area who show no signs of being willing to share power or abandon their national agendas. Therefore, the only way to avoid continuing and intensifying conflict is a solution that involves creating two separate states.

My main point was that this was not so much a debate between an Arab and a Jew, as one between a modern mentality and a medieval one. Modern thinking, I explained, recognizes both the inherent rights of individuals as human beings and the rights of self-defined peoples to national self-determination. Medieval thinking, on the other hand, relies on holy texts and symbols, and conceives of people not as individuals and groups of individuals, but as fixed categories in a divinely ordained hierarchy. Though he was born in New York, Ha’ivri really believes that he possesses many rights in Palestine that Palestinians do not.

When the moderator, a friend of Ha’ivri, suggested there was deep significance in the fact that Jerusalem is frequently referred to in the Bible but not in the Koran, I dismissed this as irrelevant on two counts. First, historically this has not been, and it must not become, primarily a religious conflict that is by definition irresolvable. Second, ancient texts of whatever variety have nothing constructive to tell us about how to solve the real problems we face.

This modern, rational evaluation drew snickers from some of the audience. Most of them were clearly more comfortable with the religious absolutism Ha’ivri was offering, and deeply but erroneously and dangerously believe this is a religious struggle.

Many of them seemed more comfortable with the childish caricature he was offering of a morally pure Israel, relentlessly pursuing justice and friendship that is opposed only by degenerate Arab and Palestinian venality. The realistic evaluation I put forward, in which there were faults on all sides and no clean hands, has little appeal to absolutists. Nonetheless, I invited everyone present to join me in the modern world.

While I recognized the deep Jewish attachment to the land, neither Ha’ivri nor most others in the room showed any signs of acknowledging the deep Palestinian history, attachment and presence in it. His arguments, such as they were, boiled down to this: We have returned; we are not leaving; God is on our side. The organizers were distributing a pamphlet entitled “This Land is My Land,” which says it all.

Yes, I told him, you are there and you are a reality everyone must deal with rationally. But Palestinians are also there in equal and growing numbers, and they have the same rights you do, but you do not factor them into your thinking in any realistic manner. I noted neither he nor anyone in the audience would ever agree to be denied their basic rights, as he was suggesting Palestinians should, and that they would fight to restore them if they were taken away. To this, he offered no answer.

The whole conversation was, not surprisingly, deeply reminiscent of a debate I once had on Iranian TV with a leader in Gaza of Islamic Jihad. Nonetheless, some audience members plainly were listening to me and left with at least some challenging and unfamiliar ideas to grapple with.

Ha’ivri was amiable enough, but his mentality is extremely dangerous to Palestinians and Israelis alike. If mindsets like his guide Israeli policy, it would probably drag both Palestinians and Israelis, much of the region and possibly the world, into an apocalyptic cataclysm. This, sadly, is what some of Ha’ivri’s Evangelical friends, intoxicated with fantasies of a “second coming,” are gleefully anticipating.

Male hysteria in the bell tower: Buñuel’s El as the primary source for Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo has been the subject of so much commentary and analysis — especially since its re-release in 1983 after it had been removed from circulation for 10 years along with four other Hitchcock classics — that it is extremely difficult to write or even think anything new about the film. Some would say that it's been done to death (“oh God, not another Vertigo essay,” etc.). However, I'm about to undertake that quixotic mission not once, but twice, on the Ibishblog (hopefully in rapid succession), and this is my first offering on the subject.

What I'm suggesting here, in a nutshell, is that the (as far as I can tell) completely overlooked primary source outside of Hitchcock's own work for Vertigo is Luis Buñuel's 1953 classic El, one of the earlier of his quasi-surrealistic Mexican melodramas that have received far too little attention in critical circles. I don't think there's any doubt that Hitchcock and Buñuel were keen observers and admirers of each other's work, and the parallels between the two films are extremely profound. Both deal with male hysteria about women and loss of identity as a primary theme and have crucial sequences involving jealous, controlling men throwing, or threatening to throw, the women they seek to possess from colonial Spanish-style bell towers. Of course one can't, and I don't intend by any means, to simply let that observation stand as a case on its own, but it surely qualifies as exceptionally powerful prima facie evidence of a deep connection between the two films.

El and Vertigo share a common theme, one that is a major feature of art throughout the ages, and deeply connected to cinema in particular: male hysteria. In most cinema, the possessing, devouring (and often murderous) gaze is implicitly male, its fixation the fetishized, objectified female form. Male hysteria, in this case, refers not simply to neurotic symptoms, but to those directly connected to male anxiety about women: control and possession of women, the psychic and social implications of such control, and its powerful role in the construction and maintenance of an illusory sense of male identity and ego. It reflects, of course, not only the loss of identity but also the threat of emasculation. Historically hysteria was considered entirely a feminine phenomenon, for many centuries beginning with the ancient Greeks, linked to the bizarre notion that the womb itself as an organ (hystera in ancient Greek) could actually physically relocate itself for various reasons, creating physical and behavioral symptoms. Before Charcot and especially Freud, these notions persisted although there was a brief period of recognition of male hysteria in the 18th century, especially in Britain, when it was described as “the English Malady.”

In spite of the resistance from general culture and medical thought to embrace the concept of male hysteria until the 20th century, it's been a consistent theme of art since ancient times. In his invaluable book Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness (Harvard University Press, 2009), Mark S. Micale listed writers such as Burton, Shakespeare, Mandeville, Hume, Cheyne (author of The English Malady), Johnson, Wordsworth, Mill, and Flaubert as notable investigators of male hysteria and its various symptoms. I'd argue the list is actually far longer, and includes most of the canonical writers of Western classical literature, the Renaissance and all stages of modernity and postmodernity. In other words, in my view, the theme is virtually ubiquitous.

However, there is a particular affinity between the cinematic medium and the theme of male hysteria, particularly because of the centrality of the power of the gaze. In the outstanding essay, Male Hysteria and Early Cinema, Lynne Kirby examines the way in which Hale's Tours in the first few years of the 20th century used early cinematic train images to provoke fear and fascination with the new medium in the audiences. Both cinema and train travel, when first introduced, created widespread anxiety and even panic. The combination was irresistible. The shock of cinema was invoked to re-create the shock of train travel, often to devastating effect. Kirby argues that the train-related hysteria experienced by late 19th-century males was a key factor in permanently demolishing the idea that hysteria was exclusively a female phenomenon, and that the obsession of early cinema with the train as an instrument of trauma links film directly to that realization.

She appropriately quotes Walter Benjamin as noting that, “film is the art form that is in keeping with the increased threat to his life that modern man has to face. Man's need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him. The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus – changes that are experienced on the individual level by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on the historical scale by every present-day citizen.” Kirby suggests that cinema itself, at its earliest stages, produced de-gendered subjectivities in audiences: passive, traumatized, “feminized” male viewers and “masculinized” women. The intimate connection between the medium and this cultural crisis of patriarchy is fully played out in both El and Vertigo.

Hitchcock was an obsessive watcher of other people's films. He had a miniature cinema in his own home and, by all accounts, watched a new movie almost every night. His debt to Eisenstein is completely obvious and he acknowledged that on many occasions. There are other instances of direct influence that are quite obvious, and I think Luis Buñuel is a rather obvious case in point. In the 40s, Hitchcock composed a dream sequence in Spellbound with Buñuel's early collaborator and friend Salvador Dalí, which is in many ways interesting but also profoundly disappointing. The two were not a great fit artistically, for obvious reasons. Hitchcock was not a surrealist, while Dalí was only a surrealist, even in his “paranoid” period of paintings that can exhibit at least two distinct images depending on how they are viewed. Buñuel was not particularly well-known or admired in the United States during his period of exile from fascist Spain in Mexico during the 1950s, in which he made primarily surrealist-tinged melodramas. Without going into any details beyond the comparison I'm making here, I think it's obvious that a great exception was Hitchcock, who obviously admired his fellow master filmmaker.

El investigates a somewhat different version of male hysteria from Vertigo. El is about jealousy and paranoia that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: an easily accomplished union destroyed by almost deliberate self-sabotage. Vertigo is about fantasy and longing for an unattainable object, an object that is a construct of the mind of the delusional Scottie Ferguson and that he inevitably destroys. In El the destruction is aimed at the self and the relationship; in Vertigo it is aimed equally at the object and the self, in a total obliteration of any form of rational coherence. Yet both films are about the inability of a male protagonist to control a female object of desire. In both films, neurotic symptoms give way to deeper, underlying delusions and, ultimately, outright psychosis (that, at the end, we understand was there from the beginning). Their subject matters are therefore not precisely the same, but rather parallel and complementary.

However, there are strong indications that El served very directly as the primary antecedent for Vertigo. A great deal of work has been done in cataloging the influences on and sources for Vertigo, but if anyone has included Buñuel's 1953 classic, I'm not aware of it. For example Ken Mogg's essay The Fragments of the Mirror: Vertigo and its Sources exhaustively looks at potential influences on Hitchcock's masterpiece, but makes no mention of El. This is remarkable because on one obvious point, there is no mistaking the connection.

No image is more closely associated with Vertigo than that of the bell tower at the Mission San Juan Batista, a set constructed by Henry Bumstead, Hitchcock's brilliant art director on the film (and several others). Both Madeline and Judy die by falling from the bell tower. Indeed, it's impossible to think of Vertigo without immediately thinking of various images inside and outside of the bell tower, in particular the shattering final shot of Scotty standing, arms outstretched in limp defeat, as he looks down on the consequences of his crazed, careening set of maniacal actions.

El opens with credits that are entirely shot over the image of a bell in a bell tower. This is not any old bell tower, this is one in Mexico, as the Mission San Juan Bautista would essentially have been during the “old California days” before the territory became part of the United States. Madeline tells Scotty when she first describes the scene that it is a “village in Spain.” Indeed not. It is a village in Mexico. Not only do the two films share this iconic image as a defining motif, Buñuel gives us a template for the deaths of both Judy and Madeline. And it's impossible not to note that in both films, religion is associated with obsession, sexuality, danger and death. The bell tower, after all, is the highest point, the extremity, of a church, and source of the call to the faithful to attend prayers, but in these films it is also the scene murder, mayhem and symbolic rape. The suggestion, of course, is that taken to its extreme, like all obsessions, religion is a powerfully destructive force.

The opening sequence of El, which is an elaborate set piece during a high mass in a grand Catholic church (likely to appeal to Hitchcock's deeply Catholic sensibilities), is, in spite of the ambient noise of the service, essentially an exercise in what Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” It relies entirely on framing, montage and camera movement to tell the story, rather brilliantly, and there is no way that the artist responsible for the "pure cinema" of, for example, Marnie's deft escape from the Rutland office in spite of the cleaners would not have admired this. Buñuel was probably as much of a devotee of “pure cinema” as Hitchcock, and both of them have significant passages in almost all their films of it.

The scene depicts the sexually fetishistic and indeed masochistic ritual washing of the feet of pretty young altar boys by the priest, Padre Velasco, all officiated by rather pompous lay helpers including our protagonist. The scene is not only fetishistic, but ritualistic and extremely theatrical, with numerous shots of huge crowds in the cathedral straining to look at the priest's abjection before the novices whose feet he is worshiping. The most fetishistic image of all is the symmetrical row of bare novice feet waiting to be washed and kissed. The foot fetish theme, observed and aided by Francisco, who is one of the deacons whose job is to pour the water into the basins with which each quasi-catamite foot is cleansed and adored, is then repeated by him as he turns and casts his gaze across the row of feet among the worshipers. The shot pans over an analogous, echoing, row of them, only to return (in a classic Buñuel camera movement) quickly to a pretty pair of young, elegantly clad extremities. A similar “pure cinema” gesture is repeated in Buñuel's much later masterpiece Belle du Jour, as the unnamed title character's feet are shown drawn to, recoiling from, and then drawn back to the fetishistic brothel in which she eventually prostitutes herself.

At this point in El, the camera pans up, revealing an elegant, demure young woman who apparently immediately captures Francisco's imagination. At his possessive gaze, which she does not return or seem to acknowledge at first, she looks down, demurely, as if embarrassed by his sudden attention. Her gaze slowly rises to meet his intense stare. An obsession has begun. In an important contextualizing shot, the camera pulls back through the crowd in the cathedral, leaving the scene of fetishistic sexual/religious ritual and the instant attraction it seems to have engendered between the to-be couple, re-emphasizing the social gaze and the religious context of permissible fixation in which the drama is taking place.

The differences between Francisco's obsession with Gloria and Scottie's obsession with Madeline are obvious. In El, it is religiously and culturally inflected if not determined, whereas in Vertigo it is, to some extent at least, constructed by a deliberate criminal conspiracy. But there are some crucial similarities. One of the most important of these parallel themes is the tendency of both Francisco and Scotty to view Gloria and Madeline/Judy as disembodied objects, focusing on discrete aspects of their physiology or attire as their essential attributes. Francisco has a foot fetish. Scotty has a hair fetish. Scotty is fascinated by Madeleine's spiral hairdo, and it is the final flourish in his remaking of Judy into Madeleine: he cannot have her hair done in any other way. Elster calls his attention to it as well. There's also the repeated fetishistic focus on Carlotta's necklace, and, in the eeriest scene of all in Vertigo, the close-up shots of the lips, nails and hair of Judy as she is being re-transformed into Madeleine on the obsessive, hysterical instructions of Scotty.

The two characters have a marked tendency to obsess about the discrete parts of the female objects of their desire, as opposed to the person as a whole who seems irrelevant, uninteresting, unfinished or unsatisfactory. Everything must be right, but the discrete elements are individually greater than the sum of those parts. An anti-Gestalt is in effect. Even when Judy is finally and apparently satisfactorily recreated as Madeline — and a whole greater than the sum of its parts seems at last to have been achieved for Scotty — Carlotta's necklace — the ultimate fetishistic object in Vertigo — asserts its primacy and shatters the cumulative effect of the summation of the parts. Leaping off of the mirror in his gaze, coming to life from his dream, this fragmentary object single-handedly destroys his illusion and undoes the campaign to reimagine Judy as Madeline. There is much more to be said about this moment and this object in another essay, but what is important to note here is that in both of these films the synecdoches are invariably much more important than the totality of the desired other.

Francisco sees Gloria from afar in formal settings, many of them religious or reverential. She appears aloof, demure and inaccessible, but also caught up in the semi-spontaneous and un-staged impromptu moment in a theatrical environment supposedly not designed to produce this effect. She refuses his initial advance, registering a degree of shock at his boldness in a holy place, as he extends his hand to her and she walks off with an older woman, presumably her mother. Madeline, on the other hand, seems uncannily unaware of Scotty's rather unmistakable and barely disguised presence as he follows her around San Francisco on her merry dance, spiraling downward into himself. As he leaves the church in an effort to follow the two women, Francisco is briefly waylaid by Velasco and two other priests. When he tells them he must go do something “important,” Velasco admonishes him that, “if it's important, it's not good for Christians!” He has been warned.

Francisco lives in a bizarre house that is one third gothic, one third Art Nouveau and one third Antonio Gaudi. It doesn't have any analogues in Vertigo, certainly not Scottie's apartment, unless it is the sheer weirdness of Scotty's own mind. But it does call to mind, to some extent, Manderley in Hitchcock's first American movie Rebecca, and its “Alice in Wonderland” disproportionality between various figures, especially the young wife, and the exaggerated physical dimensions of the dwelling itself. In this case the strangeness of the flowing fixtures are another element. They certainly represent the odd amalgam of incongruous, warped ideas at war in Francisco's brain.

In Vertigo, these are expressed more directly in Scotty's actions, visions and delusions. In El, they are manifested in the physical structure itself, although perhaps it could be argued that the weird, spiraling, undulating landscape of San Francisco itself is Hitchcock's larger analogous framework to Francisco's house (in this sense, Scotty's home is not Francisco's, but San Francisco). This is, of course, emphasized by the idiotic priest Velasco's declaration that the house's architect, apparently guided by “sentiment, emotion and instinct… not reason,” must have been the opposite of Francisco who is so “normal and levelheaded.” This echoes Elster's disingenuous description of Scotty as the “hardheaded Scot,” when, of course, he is the ultimate romantic, and indeed delusional, ultimately, psychotically so. Both of these men have cultivated a manifest appearance of normalcy, levelheadedness and rationality, but both of them are in the grip of profoundly irrational, neurotic and indeed psychotic impulses.

Between the protagonists in El and Vertigo, there is a marked class difference. Francisco is fantastically wealthy, much closer to Gavin Elster, whom he somewhat resembles physically. Scotty is a man of “fairly independent means,” meaning he can freely retire from the police force and offer to support Judy, but he lives modestly, drives a middle-class car and shows no evidence of extravagance. Francisco is obsessed with his supposedly lost land in Guanajuato, and this drives his manifest neurosis, behind which lurks a more malevolent, misogynistic and psychotic streak. Scotty's neurotic symptom is acrophobia, the fear of heights, his vertigo, which is the screen behind which his own misogyny and psychosis lurks from the very beginning. So while their manifest symptoms and psychopathologies are very different, Francisco and Scotty share some deep-seated latent pathological tendencies that link the two films' images and concerns. Francisco's obsession, like Scotty's, is deeply rooted in the early 19th century, in this case his alleged ownership of large areas of Guanajuato, and in Vertigo the urban legend/historical legacy of the mad Carlotta and her unnamed lover/abuser. Both men are obsessed by the past of old Mexico and California, a Spanish colonial legacy and familial past that haunts them in their hysterical male fantasies of possession and desire.

Francisco is a control and neat freak about everything. Scotty is fastidious and careful, and obsessively controlling with Madeline and above all Judy, but mess and clutter don't seem to bother him. Scotty also seems to be satisfied with vague accounts of the urban legend of Carlotta, while Francisco is insistent on the details of documents so old (his lawyer tells him they are, after all, early 19th-century deeds) that they are no longer legally enforceable. Yet the need to control the narratives swirling around and haunting them, and through which they define their identities, is a powerful analog between the two characters. Both are repeatedly advised to leave well enough alone. Neither is capable of doing so, and take great offense at their allies who suggest it.

When Francisco enters the church for the second time, in a repetition compulsion looking for Gloria, he enters a very similar space in a very similar way as Scotty does in his entrance to the old chapel at the Mission Dolores while following Madeleine into the cemetery garden. The shot is extremely similar, even eerily so, and both are accompanied by haunting organ music. He stares at her from behind, with her hair done up in a bun, reminiscent of Scotty looking at Madeleine at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. But in this case, rather than being icily and preposterously indifferent to his presence, Gloria feels his gaze immediately, and becomes perceptibly excited and/or uncomfortable by it. She deliberately leans back to hear what it is he has to say to her. This is not the undead, aloof, ghostly ice queen Madeline. This is a warm-blooded woman who responds to male approaches, whatever the outcome might be.

Francisco confesses he's been coming to the church on a daily and nightly basis (though his role in the opening scene suggests he might be doing that anyway), on the grounds that he's been waiting for her to return. Repetition compulsion is in the air. She turns with her hand on her heart, apparently affected, and looks at him with wild-eyed amazement. She leaves quickly, but he follows her out and makes his pitch. She says she can't see him anymore, and the chase is on. His car follows hers, as Scottie follows Madeleine. In another instance of Hitchcockian or, Buñuel-esque, “pure cinema” Francisco observes Gloria meeting in a restaurant with her fiancé from outside the window. Her back is to him, just as Madeleine's is to Scottie in his first sighting of her at Ernie's restaurant. The affect is similar: jealousy, plotting, and a desire for possession.

Francisco knows and goes to visit the fiancé, who is an engineer at a construction company, and like Gavin he builds things (he calls the damn he's working on, “a hopelessly complicated job,” as Francisco's project also proves to be), although in this case it is Francisco who is constructing something. In Vertigo, Elster's shipbuilding construction is a metaphorical invocation of his elaborate murder plot, subtly in motion in the background of his first conversation with Scotty in his office. Francisco invites them both, and her mother, to come to a dinner party at his surrealistic mansion. Gloria is taken aback by Francisco's appearance as the host. As part of his pitch over dinner to Gloria, Francisco launches into a soliloquy about love at first sight, or more properly, the "amour fou" that was so beloved of the original Surrealists, including Buñuel. He insists that love cannot be built over time, but is immediate; that it emerges between people in an instant, and is instinctive, irrational, and, implicitly, self-destructive. Naturally he says this looking directly at Gloria. Another of the guests describes this as “a poisoned arrow.”

This also, apparently, is Scotty's view. His rational choice would have been Midge, or anybody else. Yet he is drawn instinctively to a woman who doesn't exist, seems to be insane and suicidal, is certainly at least completely disturbed, and who he believes is already married to an old school chum. His infatuation couldn't be more absurd or false, but it appears utterly irresistible and instantaneous. So obviously, Francisco and Scotty have similar perspectives on the matter of romance. Francisco thinks the love for a woman is “nurtured from infancy, and that a man walks past 1,000 women then suddenly meets one… that instinctive one! She fulfills a dream, answers the longing, this is a man's lifetime wish.” This might have been Scottie speaking at Ernie's.

As the party continues, Gloria is aware of Francisco's devouring, ravenous gaze and is both excited and alarmed by it. At the moment of her discomfort, the scene is disrupted by a commotion and explosion of dust from a storage room as Francisco's butler is trying to uncover a bridge table. This cluttered, dirty, profane interior space recalls the storage room behind the flower shop which is the first place Madeline leads Scotty — and also the outer portion of the fruit cellar in Psycho — a physical manifestation of the sudden, unexpected and unwelcome uncovering of a long-forgotten, polluted and filthy psychic interior – the return of the repressed indeed. As Francisco orders the butler out and the clouds of dust begin to settle, the piles of junk in the room appropriately collapse in ruins.

Francisco emerges to find Gloria staring out of one of the warped windows into the garden. He approaches her from behind, and the camera jumps to the other side of the window, looking at their conversation through the glass darkly. They converse animatedly and excitedly, but all we can hear is the distant piano playing from within. Their conversation is withheld, another gesture of “pure cinema,” and reminiscent of numerous scenes in Hitchcock films in which diagetic dialogue is deliberately, tantalizingly withheld from us. The most obvious example of this in the later Hitchcock classics from the 1950s is in the film immediately following Vertigo, North by Northwest, in which a very important dialogue between Thornhill and "The Professor" is suddenly and ostentatiously obscured by the roar of airplane engines. There are aspects of what is going on that we can only understand at most through our gaze, through the camera lens, and not through any dialogue. Words have been transcended, and deliberately withheld. Both Francisco and Gloria seem excited and even transported, though the asymmetrical and warped quality of the window is heavily foregrounded, and each is depicted in a separate, barred space as if in two separate frames, or two separate connected but unbridgeable spaces.

He passes around her from behind and opens the door to the garden. With their emergence into this space, dominated by ominous life-size statues of praying monks, (foreshadowing Francisco's own wretched and self-created fate), the dialogue resumes. He tells Gloria that his grandfather built the house there because he liked to live near the trees, and she says, “something in me loves trees, too.” Madeleine, in contrast, hates the giant redwood trees, because they tell her that she knows she has to die. But in this case, Francisco and Gloria have found one more thing, other than Catholicism and repetition compulsion, they share in common. Little else will emerge as the plot continues. Francisco grabs her and the two kiss passionately, followed by a fade to black. This is immediately succeeded by dramatic images of construction site explosions and giant rising cranes, the kind of "cheap Freudian joke" Hitchcock engaged in frequently and also publicly derided in himself. The most obvious examples are probably the fireworks during the kiss in To Catch a Thief and the inexcusable and notorious final shot in North by Northwest. Neither of these auteurs trafficked greatly in psychoanalytic subtlety.

It becomes clear that while the dam project has run into significant difficulties, so have the fiancée's plans to marry Gloria. He must return to the capital, but he wishes he never has to, and we already know why. Driving through Mexico City, he almost runs over a harried, dilapidated looking woman, who turns out to be Gloria. She seems horrified and afraid to see him, and turns away, but he is delighted and approaches her. As she explains she doesn't feel well, a large sign in the background reads “Bambi,” another not particularly subtle reference (Disney made that film more than ten years earlier, in 1942). On second thought she accepts a ride from him, in spite of her obvious fear, and on the ride she begins a long film noir-style flashback narrative.

She explains that her marriage went wrong on the very first night, as they travelled by train to Guanajuato (the site of his manifest obsession and hysteria) for their honeymoon. In a scene that is the inverse of the dreadful rape scene in Marnie, on the train Francisco immediately accuses her of thinking of other people and, in effect, being unfaithful. He withholds his affections in a cold, cruel and aloof manner. In the classic paranoid style, he takes her denials to be further evidence of his suspicions of her infidelity. Initiating a recurring pattern of hot/cold male hysteria, he awakens in the night to beg her forgiveness. She grants it without question with a passionate kiss, and onrushing train shots represent both the sexual implications repeatedly invoked by train shots in North by Northwest, and the careening, unstoppable nature of his hysteria. It also, of course, reminds us of the link between male hysteria, trains and the cinema established by Kirby.

The sweeping landscape panoramas of Guanajuato during the honeymoon scenes are highly reminiscent of the loving shots of San Francisco in Vertigo, especially when Scotty supposedly emerges from his catatonic melancholia after the inquest into Madeline's death. Yet Francisco remains largely obsessed with what he thinks belongs to his family, determined to possess what he believes is “rightfully” his, in both land and people. His manifest mania is for “justice,” and so is that of the former police detective and would-be chief of police, Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo. Both, of course, are in fact the agents of the most grotesque injustice, to themselves and to all those around them. In Guanajuato, Gloria meets an old acquaintance, and Francisco's suspicions began to run wild instantaneously. Many of the buildings in old Guanajuato are deeply reminiscent of the "old San Francisco" edifices that characterize both Elster's fantasy world created for Scotty and the scenes of his encounters with Madeline. The low-shot framing of the characters against the buildings is extremely similar, as if they were dominated and haunted by constructions of the past.

Francisco tells Gloria that he is most attracted to her “kindness and air of resignation” (whatever the latter might mean), but she tells him that her mother thought “the opposite,” without elaborating. She says, ironically, that she was most attracted by his “self-assurance,” the one quality he least possesses in reality. She does say, when pressed, that she finds him sometimes “unfair,” an accusation already manifestly demonstrated in word and deed. It couldn't be better calculated to offend a man whose manifest obsession is with “justice,” and he insists few men possess as a keen sense of it is he does. He takes the inevitable degree of umbrage, and this is reinforced by the appearance of the acquaintance at another table nearby. Demonstrating her point, he rushes to the conclusion that she may well be being stalked by the other man (who he also thinks is laughing at him, when he shares a joke with the waiter), which not only undermines Francisco's claim to a keen sense of fairness and justice, but also is an expression of his own stalking inclinations (which he shares with Scotty) and his acute paranoia. Other men are trying to steal his lands and his woman. He is characterized almost entirely by an exceptional degree of hysterical jealousy and possessiveness.

Once back in the room, his foot fetishism and obsessive/compulsive disorder reassert themselves when he picks up her shoes from the floor and lovingly puts them in the closet, rearranging them at the last second facing forward just as they were when he first saw her feet in the cathedral. When he discovers the acquaintance has the adjoining room, he becomes enraged and picks a fight with a man, leading to the acquaintance's ignominious expulsion from the hotel. In his rage, Francisco blames Gloria for everything, and she says the rest of the honeymoon was without any happiness. Upon their return, Francisco doesn't let her see anyone, including her own mother.

One day he unexpectedly bursts into her room in a good mood, presenting her a birthday present and ecstatically extolling the virtues of his new lawyer, who he is sure will be able to finally win his quixotic lawsuit. He announces the man is coming to dinner and orders her to be a perfect hostess, paying close attention to the main guest. Again, the framing divides them between windowpanes that are warped and twisted, and with theatrical curtains for effect. At the party, Francisco demands that Gloria pay close attention to the young lawyer, but inevitably becomes extremely jealous as they socialize and dance together. The lawyer tells her that the case is extremely difficult and that Francisco's optimism is ungrounded, totally contradicting what he has been saying all day. However, Padre Velasco does contrast the supposedly salacious way (it doesn't appear so to us) the lawyer is dancing with Gloria, noting that she is a married woman, with the "proper" manner Francisco is dancing with his partner (in whom he has no interest). There does seem to be an attenuated attraction between them, but no real reason for concern… yet.

The two go into the garden, on the same path that Francisco led Gloria when he first wooed her, between the twin statues of the reverent monks, although in this case other people are also present. When the butler tells Francisco they have gone into the garden, his reaction is palpable dismay, even though he virtually ensured and demanded that outcome. That night she is plainly excitedly preparing for a sexual encounter, but again he withholds his affections, going into his room and locking the door behind him. It is evidently a cruel punishment for a vivacious young woman. It is the beginning of a campaign of ignoring her consistently.

The spell is broken by the return of his incessant masochistic foot fetish, when at dinner after continuing to pretend she doesn't exist, he drops something, looks down and sees her feet. He arises with a look of affection and desire, which provokes an immediate positive response in her. The hot tap is on again, and he kisses her passionately, claiming he will “forget everything,” even though, as she professes, she has "done nothing” to forgive. She protests that the dinner table is not the time and place for such passion, and he immediately accuses her of being infatuated with the lawyer.

That night, the household is awakened in the wee hours by the sounds of her screaming and crying. It's evident some sort of sadistic exercise is taking place, although the nature of it is entirely unclear. Whatever is happening, Francisco's male hysteria is wreaking some kind of terrible vengeance on Gloria, much as Scotty's hysteria is unleashed on Judy in the second bell tower scene at the end of Vertigo. The next day, Gloria tries to enlist her mother's help but Francisco has already intercepted the mother, and frames matters in a way which induces her to admonish Gloria to understand his jealousies and “be good to him,” even after Gloria shows her a bruise on her upper arm. She has a similar experience with Padre Velasco.

When she returns from her meeting with the priest, who was also pre-prepared by Francisco, he follows her into her room armed with a gun. He shoots her point blank, but with blanks, just as Eve Kendall does with Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. The campaign of terror continues, in the vain effort to exercise total control both over another person and over wild, self-fulfilling paranoid fantasies. She tells her ex-fiancé that after the fake shooting, he “seemed like a different man” and the hot tap began to run again. But, she says, the worst happened that morning. The flashback continues with Francisco ranting on the phone with his new lawyer about the case, insisting that something must be done to win the unwinnable suit. She wants to visit her mother, but he says he needs her by his side, and tells her he's going to take her to “a wonderful place.” And here begins the greatest parallel between Vertigo and El.

This marvelous space turns out to be… a bell tower. The first shot of it is the same one that dominates the credits, looking directly up, vertiginously, into the heart of a giant bell. He drags her down, not up, a short flight of stairs, to look at the people far below. He describes them as “worms that could be squashed in an instant,” recalling both the "god's eye" shots from far above the bell tower in Vertigo immediately after Madeline's death in which Scotty appears as a tiny figure exiting the building to the extreme lower right of the frame, and also the image of Roger Thornhill fleeing the UN building after the murder of Lester Townsend. Francisco praises his own egoism and says if he were God, “I would destroy them all.”

She runs away from him to stand immediately under the largest bell, and he goes to her and tells her that since they are alone “no one could stop me from pushing you.” “What if I took you by the neck and I threw you all the way down?” he asks her, leaping upon her in a rape-like action that seems a prelude to an actual murder. In the struggle, he tells her he could be “sending you hurtling down against the sidewalk!” If this isn't the strongest possible and most immediate antecedent in any work of art I have ever encountered to the deaths of both Madeleine and Judy, I can't imagine what would be (the dragging of Judy up the steps has a rape-like quality as well). She struggles away from him and descends the spiral staircase as the bells toll ominously in the background. Francisco collapses, utterly defeated, and, although sitting, in a rather similar stance of utter confusion to that of Scotty in the shattering final shot of Vertigo, also in a bell tower with tolling in the background.

The flashback is ended, and her former fiancé tells her she seems to enjoy suffering, which at this point is fair enough, and consistent with the unrelenting sadomasochistic nature of this narrative. The same might be said of Scotty and Judy, if not all the main characters in Vertigo. The ex-fiancée says she has ample grounds to leave him, but she says she can't but doesn't know why. He promises to help her in any way he can, and she leaves to go back in the house, but we can see that Francisco has observed who has brought her home. The ex-fiancée and Gloria both appear as tiny figures in the distance, exactly the sort of entities that Francisco, were he God, would like to “squash.” He confronts her, she admits that her ex-fiancé brought her home, and Francisco accuses her of being a slut. She declares that this is the final straw, and she only wishes it were true because he deserves it.

In his utter despair, sure she has been unfaithful to him, Francisco is framed in the bars of the railings of the staircase of his house, a very familiar//// image William Rothman brilliantly established as a Hitchcockian motif of being barred, trapped and psychically inaccessible in his masterpiece of cinematic criticism The Murderous Gaze. The most obvious analog in late Hitchcock is Lila Crane, framed behind similar wooden posts at the top of the staircase to the fruit cellar in Psycho hiding from Norman, yet inextricably pulled towards her confrontation with “mother.” Francisco collapses while going up the staircase, pulls out one of the carpet rods and, in a bizarre and infantile display of maniacal repetition compulsion begins beating out an inane repetitive rhythm against the staircase. A very deep shot of the giant room is streaked with night shadows that form a perfect //// pattern. Whatever the nature of his psychosis, it is approaching its very apex. Gloria, hearing the racket, wisely locks her bedroom door.

The next morning, Francisco is in the grip of a neurotic writer's block: he feels a compulsive need to write a letter to the governor demanding “justice” in his lawsuit, but cannot compose it. He induces Gloria to write it on the grounds that she is as familiar with the details of the case as he is. She dutifully begins, but he stops her, saying that it is too humiliating. He tries to do it himself, but again proves impotent. They determine to write it together, but by dinnertime when the butler asks if they want to eat, it appears she is composing it entirely on her own. The hot tap comes on full again, and Francisco begs forgiveness in an abject manner, telling her the letter doesn't matter and that he has been making her miserable. She assures him she doesn't hate him and he begs her not to leave. He tells her he understands that she would confide in her fiancée out of desperation. She says she didn't want to but she had no choice. He becomes utterly enraged, and says this is the one thing he could never forgive, the cold tap now running at full freezing level.

That night, Francisco prepares a most gruesome and classically Buñuelian male hysterical plot. At the stroke of midnight he prepares a palette of grisly instruments: bandages, gauze, alcohol, razors, scissors, twine and a large needle, fastidiously arranged needless to say. Placing these items in the pocket of his dressing gown, he picks up two large strands of heavy rope, each tied into large nooses. His intention is not mysterious, no matter how grisly it might be. This concept, which in the works of the Marquis de Sade (Justine, to be precise) is been described as “stricturing," the sewing up of the vagina, is a recurrent theme in the films of Buñuel, an impulse he plainly felt was the ultimate expression of male hysteria and desire to control women (Buñuel was a great admirer of de Sade, like all the early Surrealists, and especially 120 Days of Sodom). The nooses, though plainly intended as an instrument of restraint, of course also invoke murder and hanging. As he approaches Gloria's bed, the noose fills the screen, emphasizing again the murderous, life-obliterating quality of the intended act. As he attempts to place the noose-restraints around her wrists in preparation for his grisly operation, she awakens with an appropriately terrified response of screaming and fighting back. The servants are roused. Francisco recovers the evidence of his attempted crime, and flees the room but collapses in hysterics on the ground of his own bedroom, sobbing inconsolably and beating the floor like a child.

While this concept is present in a number of Buñuel films, he mercifully never allowed it to actually be enacted, much in the same way he prevented the trapped aristocrats in The Exterminating Angel from actually descending to the point of cannibalism, something he later said he regretted. How far one should go with these gruesome tropes is hard to gauge, but Buñuel's repeated reference to the idea is plenty for me. Indeed, the original French poster for his last masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, features a pair of female facial lips crudely sewn together with twine. It's an arresting image, and probably as much as I'd ever want to see, although I will admit to owning an original copy of the first French poster. If it were not a metaphor, I wouldn't want to see it, let alone own it. So, if Buñuel can be accused of a certain diffidence, cowardice, and even a lack of courage, in this case that's what I appreciate. The suggestion is more than enough, thank you very much. Much the same can be said about all the intimations about necrophilia in Vertigo. The idea is there, but the act is not, and we should all be grateful for that.

Francisco is awakened to the news that his wife has fled, loads his gun, and goes off in pursuit of her about the town. In his quest, Francisco is pursued and preceded by giant shadows of himself, doppelgängers come to life more extravagantly than ever, and imagines that random servants are laughing at him when they clearly are not. The total psychotic break has certainly occurred, or at least reached its apex. He believes he spots her in a car, and in a perfect repetition of his initial pursuit of her by taxi, he jumps in a cab and orders the driver to follow her. The repetition compulsion motif is another very clear linkage between the male hysteria in El and Vertigo. The lost object is to be found by retracing steps and reenacting initial gestures. Scotty also repeatedly mistakes vaguely similar women in familiar spaces for Madeline, though they really do not resemble her at all. Francisco follows what he believes to be Gloria and her ex-fiancé into the same cathedral he first saw her, fondling his gun. He confronts the couple, but it is not her. Like Scotty after the death of Madeline, he has seen the lost object in all kinds of vaguely reminiscent distant images.

Francisco collapses in despair, but when an old man walks by him and coughs, it sets off a chain reaction of him imagining the entire church alternately laughing at him, coughing, and cutting back to normalcy. Many make horned gestures, the signs of the cuckold. This seems to have influenced a culminating scene in Roman Polanski's third installment in his claustrophobic trilogy, The Tenant. It also invokes Shakespeare's most extreme example of male hysteria, Leontes in The Winter's Tale, with his repetitive, thumping, pounding declaration of false cuckolding and horns: "Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head andears a fork'd one!" Francisco even believes that Padre Velasco is mocking him, and attacks the priest, turning on everything he supposedly believes in and destroying his carefully crafted public image of piety and respectability.

The dénouement of El features Gloria, a young boy (obviously her son), and a man who is not immediately identifiable approaching a monastery. Cassock-clad monks wander around, like the statues from Francisco's garden suddenly come to life. She is with Raul — her ex-fiancé, and now clearly her husband — and their seven or eight-year-old boy. They receive an exemplary report about the behavior of Francisco from the prior, who is surprised to discover they have named their son Francisco. Interestingly, when the monk asks if it is their son, they avoid the question and leave. He may be named Francisco because he is Francisco's.

Wandering again in the maze-like church garden, at least somewhat reminiscent of the graveyard at the Mission Dolores in Vertigo, the prior meets Francisco, who asks him if the visitors have left. He says he saw them and asks if it was “the engineer” and his wife, and if that was their son. He is told it was indeed. In a perfect Buñuelian ironic gesture, Francisco claims ultimate vindication: “then I wasn't as mixed up as they claimed. Time has proven my point!” He winds his way down a garden path towards a black hole in an ivy covered wall, veering wildly from side to side, like one of the statues from his garden come to life, totally obliterated in identity and unable to keep anything straight, including his own path.

Gloria and her husband had asked if he was going to be admitted into the order, and were assured by the prior that he was not suitable material. Francisco is no longer Francisco, and not even a Franciscan. He is reduced to nothing. He continues to veer wildly towards oblivion, and the music includes very loud and striking bell tones, much like the final passages in Bernard Herrmann's score of Vertigo. The film fades to black. (Several pieces of music in El echo Herrmann's magnificent score. There is a swirling passage in the otherwise unremarkable opening credits of El with its bell tower backdrop that sounds very reminiscent of a recurring motif in Vertigo. The piano music that is being played towards the end of Francisco's first dinner party in which he tries to win over Gloria as he walks over to the piano near where she is standing is also extremely reminiscent of the Wagnerian Liebestod quotations in the theme for the "love" sequences in Vertigo.)

Much like Scotty at the end of Vertigo, Francisco is staring into oblivion. He has lost his identity. His worst fears, self-created and self-inflicted, have come to life. He can claim vindication, but at what cost? His neuroses were a cover for a much deeper psychosis. His male hysteria, which seemed to be aimed at female targets, emerges as more of a self-directed, self-inflicted self-destruction. There is nothing of the old Francisco left, just as at the end of Vertigo, Scotty looks down from the edge of the bell tower into the abyss, into oblivion. Both films end abruptly with the male hysteric heading towards a black hole of nothingness, having lost their identity, and having consumed themselves in mania.

With a few exceptions, Buñuel's Mexican melodramas during his exile from fascist Spain are greatly underappreciated globally, and especially in the United States. The proto-feminist classic Susanna; his Mexican version of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de pasión, by far the best film adaptation of that novel (not even available on DVD in our own Region One at present, which is a scandal); and, of course, El, among many others are, in effect, forgotten masterpieces. But I think it highly unlikely that as attentive and obsessive a student of cinema as Hitchcock was disinterested in the great films Buñuel was producing in Mexico in the 1950s. While I can't demonstrate with any certainty that Hitchcock watched El before constructing Vertigo I find it almost impossible to believe that he didn't. The parallels are overwhelming, and if it is coincidental, it falls in the category of uncanny synchronistic phenomena, more than anything else.

There's no doubt at all that the differences in the films are more striking than the similarities. In no way could it be argued that Hitchcock “ripped off” Buñuel in Vertigo. Hitchcock's film could not have been more personal, idiosyncratic or unique. And, there is a difference in quality. Vertigo is one of the greatest pieces of 20th century art in any medium. El is in every sense superb and masterful, but it does not rise to that level. What I'm arguing, however, is that the parallels between El and Vertigo are powerful and not coincidental. In particular, it seems almost impossible to me that the bell tower scenes are utterly disconnected. Enormous work has been done in attempting to catalog the antecedents to Vertigo. I think there's little doubt that El surpasses all non-Hitchcock candidates as a direct predecessor, and indeed a direct influence, on that masterpiece.

Moreover, Buñuel's classic, like his entire Mexican quasi-surrealist melodrama ouvre has been grossly underrated, ignored and devalued. Like El, many of these superb films, while posing as potboilers, are cinematic art of the highest order, and had a considerable impact on other directors. It is, after all, implausible to think that Buñuel began as one of the most important pioneers of avant-garde cinema and cinematic art, and surrealism generally, but was simply wasting his time in Mexico (or perhaps producing the occasional noteworthy minor achievement), and then suddenly sprang back to life in Spain and France in the late 60s and early 70s producing the acknowledged masterpieces of the end of his career. In fact, I haven't seen any Buñuel Mexican surrealist melodrama that doesn't qualify as cinema art of the first order, the great bulk of them being masterpieces of the highest rank. And I think I've made my case that it's not really possible to talk about influences on Vertigo outside of Hitchcock's own work without putting El at the very forefront of the conversation.

Israel’s anti-democratic impulses grow

A recently-passed anti-boycott law in Israel allows anyone advocating a boycott of the country or “areas under its control”—in other words the settlements—to be sued by private citizens and denied government benefits and contracts. This egregious attack on freedom of speech and conscience is a symptom of several deep-seated problems that are having a profoundly negative effect on Israel’s international standing and on prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

Most damaging, the law again conflates Israel as such with the occupied Palestinian territories. In that way it ignores the legal or political distinction between the areas required for a two-state solution, which the rest of the world finds crucial. While Israel is formally committed to such a solution, its policies have systematically undermined this outcome. Settlement construction is continuing apace, with new tenders offered almost weekly. And now the Israeli government is considering moving 10 percent of its renewable energy quota to the occupied territories, further entrenching its presence.

Some proponents of what is known as the BDS movement—for boycott, divestment and sanctions—would like to target Israel generally. However, almost all effective boycotts in the West have been centered on the occupation and illegitimate settlements. A new move in Holland to boycott Israel’s Egged bus company on the grounds that it supports the settlement policy reinforces this consistent pattern.

The anti-boycott law isn’t about protecting Israel from boycotts that target the country in general, because basically these don’t exist in reality. It’s about protecting the settlers from boycotts of settlement goods, a movement that is very real and growing, especially in Europe. But the anti-boycott law is only the tip of the iceberg in a profoundly anti-democratic shift in Israeli political attitudes. This is partly a consequence of a siege mentality, but it also has a great deal to do with demographic shifts among the Jewish population.

The large Russian immigrant community is better organized than ever, and the extreme religious community is growing at a much faster pace than the rest of Israeli society. Both constituencies are pushing Israel toward a new form of authoritarianism, within Jewish society.

Indeed, more antidemocratic laws are pending, including measures to investigate the activities and funding of liberal non-governmental organizations and human rights groups. Right-wing forces in Israel are seeking Knesset veto power over appointments to Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent it from remaining the primary barrier to antidemocratic legislation. Israelis convicted of espionage may now be stripped of their citizenship. State-funded organizations are no longer allowed to recognize the Nakba. Israeli towns are now allowed to screen potential residents for “social compatibility.” Knesset members who visit “enemy countries” without permission can be banned from politics and prosecuted. Palestinians marrying citizens of Israel alone may not become naturalized citizens or residents. And so forth.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he’s uncomfortable with some of this legislation, including the anti-NGO bill. Yet his coalition is based on appeasing forces far to his political right. And one can only admire his adroitness and cynicism over the anti-boycott law.

He was unaccountably absent for the debate and vote on the law, meaning he was careful not to vote for it. Then the next day he showed up at the Knesset and defended the bill strongly. But he was careful to invoke the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court and said that whatever the institution decided would be enforced (most observers believe the anti-boycott law will not survive legal challenge). Finally Netanyahu claimed the law began as a petition by members of the opposition Kadima party, implying the whole thing was really their fault.

Palestinians, both citizens of Israel and those living under occupation, have become used to antidemocratic restrictions since the founding of the state. But Jewish Israeli society has maintained its own credible version of democracy, at least until now. Many Israeli commentators have noted that Israel’s claim as being “the only democracy in the Middle East”—which was always shaky for various reasons, not least the persistence of the occupation—now rings more hollow than ever.

Crucially, almost all of the antidemocratic Israeli legislation centers around one principal goal: maintaining, deepening and protecting the occupation and the settlements project. Even though a majority of Israelis in poll after poll say they are in favor of a two-state solution, the most far-reaching policies of their government and dramatic legislation from their parliament are pushing headlong in the opposite direction.

This means one of two things. Either a minority of pro-settler fanatics has been able to seize control of the political momentum because of the structure of Israel’s government; or the Israeli public simply doesn’t understand the fundamental incompatibility between enlarging the settlements and deepening the occupation on the one hand and seeking a workable peace agreement with Palestinians on the other.

As long as Israelis treat the occupied territories as an integral part of their state, they invite others to do so as well, thereby delegitimizing their own country. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Israeli society is deliberately choosing a future of formalized, permanent apartheid and conflict over peace, which the rest of the world will not accept. Israelis have none but themselves to blame for the consequences.

The Bahrain Stalemate

That Bahrain’s monarchy appears to be squandering the opportunity presented by its “national dialogue” between the government and the opposition should be the source of deep concern both regionally and in the United States. Bahrain’s strategic and political significance is totally disproportionate to its small geographical and demographic size, since it is the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a flashpoint in the Gulf region between Arab Sunnis and Shiites, and the subject of long-standing Iranian ambitions.

Since protests erupted on the island after similar movements toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the diverse but largely Shiite opposition movement has struggled against the minority Sunni-dominated government and royal family. Following a violent crackdown against protesters and a military intervention by Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces, the government has cast all opposition, of whatever variety, as part of an Iranian-inspired conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy.

The government’s response to protests — numerous killings, widespread arrestsmass firings, and the jailing of dozens of opposition leaders who have virtually nothing in common other than their demand for reform — has effectively divided the society into two irreconcilable halves. But, in this contest, neither side can possibly hope to “win” over the other. Bahrainis in both camps face a simple choice: make a deal or face a deeply uncertain and probably very unpleasant future.

The Shiite majority cannot be indefinitely marginalized and excluded from power — as it historically has been — without tensions continuing to intensify and potentially spiraling out of control with ever increasing levels of violence. On the other side, it’s clear most Bahraini Shiites understand that their chances of successfully overthrowing the monarchy are extremely slim. In any event, they know they don’t have a viable future outside of the GCC framework. The prospects of leaving the Arab fold altogether to join forces with Iran are politically implausible and, to all appearances, unappealing to the vast majority of Bahrainis.

The crackdown produced a lull in protests, but also a political stalemate. The government asserted its practical authority, but its legitimacy has been left in tatters, and its relations with the restive and suppressed sectarian majority at an all-time low. Thus far, the government appears to have no strategy beyond repression, which is, of course, a recipe for disaster.

The national dialogue, which King Hamad al-Khalifa first called for on May 31, was the first opportunity since the uprising began for the parties to begin to find a way out of this dangerous impasse. Several prominent opposition parties agreed to take part, including the largest Shiite group al-Wefaq and the nonsectarian social democrats in al-Waad. Their inclusion presented a serious opportunity to begin to craft a new consensus in the country.

Since proposing the so-called dialogue, however, the government has handed leaders of both of those opposition parties, along with other opposition figures, indefensibly stiff prison sentences in a mass trial that lumped together political figures of all stripes. Al-Waad leader and moderate Sunni reformist Ebrahim Sharif, who had scrupulously avoided calling for anything resembling the overthrow of the monarchy, was given five years. His sentence demonstrated both the totality and indiscriminate nature of the crackdown. The presence of Sharif, a moderate Sunni reformist, in the protests severely undermined the “Shiite/Iranian plot” narrative the government has relied upon, and he paid a heavy price for confusing people by not fitting any stereotype.

The national dialogue is rapidly falling apart, just as it enters its second round. Almost all opposition participants have complained the discussions are too broad, vague, and generalized to be politically meaningful. Results will be forwarded to the King for possible royal decrees. Or not.

Moreover, bitter acrimony has erupted, and four Wefaq members last week threatened to pull out on the grounds that the pro-government Salafist Member of Parliament Jassim Al Saeedi referred to the organization as “rawfidh” (“refusers” of traditional Sunni narratives about Islamic history, effectively the equivalent of “heretics”), a term regarded as highly derogatory by Shiites. During the course of the unrest, Shiite derogatory terms for Sunni Bahrainis, including the royal family, have also become well-known, generally some form of “visitors,” “strangers,” or “immigrants,” suggesting their presence is alien and temporary and their rule illegitimate.

All of this is disturbingly reminiscent of sectarian tensions at the height of the civil conflict in Iraq, when Sunni and Shiite Iraqis referred to each other as Umayyads and Safavids, respectively. Of course, Bahrain has not seen anything close to Iraq’s orgy of bloodletting, but the pattern is hard to ignore. Such terms not only draw clear sectarian distinctions, but they invoke bitter historical memories and age-old grievances, linking them to contemporary conflicts in an exceptionally dangerous way.

Over the weekend the situation deteriorated significantly, as Wefaq organized tens of thousands of protesters under the slogan “one person, one vote,” which will yet again be perceived as a direct challenge to royal authority and an implicit claim to power by a thus-far marginalized sectarian majority. At least one female protester was reported killed by tear gas asphyxiation in the oil-production hub of Sitra. Between the insults, the frustration, and the unrest, Wefaq’s board said it intends to pull out of the talks and ask its ruling Shura council for approval. The absence of the country’s largest opposition party would probably be the final blow to any chances the dialogue could have of creating a new dynamic in Bahrain.

It’s not clear whether or not Waad and other opposition parties will follow suit, as the opposition is divided on many issues. The royal family also has obvious competing factions, although the power of Saudi influence can hardly be overestimated. As an unnamed senior U.S. official was recently quoted by the Financial Times, Bahrain “is a divided country and a divided ruling family”.

Virtually every piece of good news coming out of Bahrain these days is offset by the bad. For example, the government recently released a 20-year-old poet, Ayat al-Qurmezi, who had been sentenced in June to a year in prison for reciting an anti-royal poem at the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout, then the epicenter of protests. However, Qurmezi now says she was beaten, electrocuted, and threatened with rape during her incarceration. Human rights organizations have issued scathing reports about both the crackdown and ongoing abuses, mainly directed against the Shiite majority. For its part, the government continues to cast the blame squarely on Iranian meddling, although the evidence of this is scant at best.

But, at some point, the government and the opposition are simply going to have to make a deal. Neither has any better, feasible way out. And, given the monarchy’s closing off of almost all oppositional political space in the country, the onus to actually and seriously begin this process, for the moment at least, lies squarely with the government.

Neither the Shiite majority nor the ruling family and its Sunni supporters are going to go away or give up. Indeed, given Bahrain’s small size and population, as well as its economic and security dependence on its neighbors, in the long run, they need each other to survive. The real existential struggle in Bahrain is not an ongoing sectarian conflict, but rather to find a win-win mechanism for workable, sustainable coexistence. Otherwise, a disastrous lose-lose scenario will become more and more likely. It’s difficult to say what, exactly, will happen in Bahrain if it continues down this path, but it’s likely to be far worse for everyone involved than any negotiated settlement possibly could be.

The Long Overdue State of Palestine (with Prof. Saliba Sarsar)

With the independence of the new Republic of South Sudan, the world is again reminded that states are created on the basis of local, regional and international necessity. At least two decades of international action, as well as a long, bitter and bloody conflict produced the independence of the south, a state that has been already welcomed by the international community, the African Union, the United Nations, and has been invited to join the Arab League.

South Sudan is only the latest newly-created state in the international community. In recent decades numerous new countries have come into existence, arising out of the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, and so forth. Yet more than 60 years after its existence was envisaged by the UN partition plan for Palestine, more than 40 years after its creation was implied in the UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and almost 20 years since the Oslo Accords led the whole world to expect that Palestine would, soon, enjoy independence, there is still no Palestinian state.

It’s hard to overestimate the strategic, political and cultural damage this failure to secure Palestinian independence is having on the Middle East as a region, and, indeed, throughout the globe. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing occupation that began in 1967 is completely disproportionate to its geographical and demographic size because of the profound emotional, ideological, religious and symbolic investment people throughout the world have made in it. Passions run high far beyond Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and it’s no exaggeration to describe the conflict and the occupation as a cancer on the body politic of the global community.

The bottom line is this: in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — what has been the de facto Israeli state since 1967 — there are approximately equal numbers, about 6 million of both, of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Muslims and Christians. One group has a state, citizenship, self-determination and independence. A small group of Palestinians, about 1 million, are citizens of Israel but subject to significant forms of discrimination. But the large majority of Palestinians live in the occupied territories without citizenship or enfranchisement of any kind, self-determination or independence, and are subject to the arbitrary and typically abusive rule of a foreign military. Moreover, they have watched as their land is steadily colonized by Israeli settlements, which are both a violation of international law and a human rights abuse against those living under occupation according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. Nowhere in the world is there any comparable level of separate and unequal as there is under Israeli rule in the occupied Palestinian territories.

David Ben-Gurion, who was Israel’s prime minister twice, during 1948-1953 and 1955-1963, respectively, eloquently spoke in 1945 of the Jewish yearning for national validation and self-determination. He stated, “We are a people without a State and, therefore, a people without credentials, without recognition, without representation, without the privileges of a nation, without the means of self-defense, and without any say in our fate.” These might easily be the words of a Palestinian leader in 2011.

Two years later, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, recommending the partition of Palestine into two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area to be placed under special international protection, administered by the United Nations. However, the UN Security Council failed to implement Resolution 181, and as soon as the British Mandate was terminated, Jewish leaders declared the establishment of Israel, leading to the intervention by five Arab armies in what was already a raging communal civil war in Palestine. This conflict left Israel in de facto possession of not the 55 percent of mandatory Palestine envisaged in the partition resolution, but 78 percent, which are now generally regarded as the internationally accepted borders of Israel.

Sixty-three years later, and following seven wars, the displacement of over a million Palestinian refugees during the 1948 and 1967 wars (who now number more than four million), two Palestinian intifadas, and countless dead and wounded, Israel remains a nation at war and in fear, and Palestinian national aspirations remain totally unfulfilled. Israeli settlements continue to be built at an alarming pace, with 200 already constructed, and the half-million Jewish Israeli colonists living in them are squeezing Palestinians into ever smaller areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and denying them access to water and other resources.

Peace efforts such as the Oslo accords (1993); Wye River accord (1998); Camp David meeting (2000); Taba negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli delegations (2001); George Mitchell’s proposal (2001); George Tenet’s plan (2001); United Nations Resolution 1397, which affirmed a vision of a region where Palestine and Israel would live side by side within secure and recognized borders (2002); the Arab Peace Initiative adopted unanimously twice by the Arab League (2002); and the “roadmap” for peace adopted by the Quartet (2003); have all been creditable efforts to develop peace, but none have succeeded and thus far the agony and tragedy have simply continued.

Years of conflict and insecurity, narratives of exclusion and pain, and incompatible visions of the future, let alone understandings of the past, have created a serious disconnect between Israelis and Palestinians. Each national community is caught up in its own tendentious and exclusive narratives: Israel using the past and the present to create the future; the Palestinians using the present to recreate the past in service of the future. Both are laboring under serious illusions.

Unfortunately, while US policy has emphasized that a two-state solution is imperative for American national interests, because of the “special relationship” between the two countries, in practice it remains steadfastly in Israel’s corner, vetoing 26 UN Security Council draft resolutions on Palestine since July 1973. Domestic political considerations and a powerful American popular and elite consensus in support of Israel make pressuring that country in the normal diplomatic manner very difficult for an American president. Palestinians have hoped to be able to use the “special relationship” to help mollify Israeli concerns and reassure them that because of American participation, they are not taking any inordinate risks in entering into a peace agreement with the Palestinians. So far, this strategy, while theoretically promising, has yet to demonstrate much efficacy.

According to almost all opinion polls, most Palestinians and Israelis are in favor of a negotiated two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders, with agreed upon land swaps. Unfortunately, similarly large majorities do not believe it will happen and do not trust the other side’s intentions. Unless President Barack Obama is able to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to negotiate on the aforementioned parameters, then the Palestinians will be facing many more checkpoints and a stonewall of delay while the Israelis continue to seize more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Unfortunately, many Palestinians and Israelis believe that Netanyahu has no interest in pursuing a negotiated solution along the lines that Palestinians would deem acceptable. And, even more unfortunately, his unenthusiastic approach to the peace process and insistent emphasis on security above all, including peace, has proven extremely popular in Israel and he leads an unlikely but extraordinarily stable coalition government. In other words, his default position of saying “no” to everything is serving his political interests, leaving him with few incentives to be more forthcoming.

However, as numerous Israelis with impeccable national security credentials, including some very strongly rooted in the political right, have been publicly stating in recent months, it is essential to Israel’s national interest to help secure the creation of a viable, democratic and peaceful State of Palestine. While the Israeli occupation resulted from conditions of the 1960s or even earlier, the time for its ending has come. An independent, contiguous, and secure Palestine (democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized, and neutral) living in peace alongside Israel is, as an apparent consensus of Israeli national security experts appear to recognize, the only way to secure Israel’s long-term safety and stability. The occupation is untenable, dangerous and, ultimately, self-destructive.

The Arab states, as well as the United States and Israel, strongly require the creation of a Palestinian state for their fundamental national interests. For too long the Palestinian question has been a volatile, destabilizing variable in regional politics, the source of conflict and tension, and a powerful tool in the hands of extremists of many different varieties. This understanding was most importantly expressed through the Arab Peace Initiative, but has also been repeatedly emphasized by Arab leaders across the region. King Abdullah II of Jordan, in his memoir, Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, expressed “a sense of urgency, a conviction that the window for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is closing.” We agree with him when he states, “Both sides have a moral responsibility to strive for peace… the alternative is more conflict and violence.”

Every moment that is lost only benefits the proponents of extremism on all sides. Albeit a minority, they will continue to monopolize the political narrative and dictate the facts on the ground in the absence of peace. The moderates will lose heart and fade away in the smoke of violence and hate and the fog of deception.

Enlightened leadership not only leads and serves but finds like-minded followers as well, leaders in their own right, who would be eager to sustain positive change for the common good of both Palestinians and Israelis. It not only responds to constituencies, it creates them. The need for allies for peace and statehood is equally important as the need for such a consensus locally, regionally, and internationally.

What Ben Gurion envisioned for his people in 1945, all Palestinians have sought for decades. It is high time that the United States and the rest of the international community stood by them, not just rhetorically or in terms of development aid, but with practical, effective diplomatic efforts that ensure that the occupation will end, and that a Palestinian state alongside Israel will be created, recognized by the major powers of the world, and welcomed as a member state of the United Nations. Without a doubt this will require Israeli acquiescence as well, which means that negotiations are unavoidable and indispensable.

But the international community has an important role to play in laying the groundwork for such an agreement, making it crystal clear that it will accept no other outcome, applying both negative and positive pressure on both sides to make it happen, and doing everything possible to avoid any other outcome. Simply leaving it up to the parties, which are defined by the most extreme degree of power asymmetry imaginable, is not a viable option. International engagement, led by but not exclusive to the United States, is more indispensable now than ever. Especially given the role the international community played in the creation of Israel, it has a right and a responsibility to play a similar role in the creation of Palestine.

This is a delicate process, and we are not proposing an implausible and impracticable “imposition” of a solution on the parties by an international community that is unwilling and probably unable to take such steps. Nor are we suggesting that the Palestinian demand for full UN membership in September is likely to prove successful. Clearly a failed confrontation with the United States at the UN Security Council over the issue of statehood is not in anybody’s interest, let alone the Palestinians. However, a greater role for the international community in resolving this exceptionally damaging and destabilizing ongoing conflict is essential. Palestinians can and should receive a major upgrade of their observer mission status from the General Assembly, and should be recognized on a bilateral basis by every state that is serious about Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There is much the international community can do to promote a two-state solution, particularly by clarifying its unshakable commitment to this outcome and its categorical refusal to accept any alternative. There is no longer any excuse for postponing or delaying such measures. They do not undermine Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; they support them insofar as they make the only reasonable, workable outcome far more likely and demonstrate that the world expects and will help the parties arrive at a two-state solution in the near future. The international community has made its commitment to Israel very clear since 1948. It must now move quickly to make its commitment to Palestine alongside Israel equally clear, especially to the Palestinians and the Israelis.