Monthly Archives: March 2012

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Conflict

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/23/we_now_return_to_our_regularly_scheduled_conflict

The spread of conflict and violence across the Middle East is dampening widespread hopes of an “Arab Spring” that followed the peaceful ousters of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain have taken on an increasingly bitter sectarian character, especially with the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the uprising in Libya has degenerated into an all-out civil war compounded by an international no-fly zone intervention. Meanwhile, the situations in Yemen and Syria continue to deteriorate, suggesting that the relatively bloodless revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia may be more difficult to replicate than was initially hoped.

And now, with escalating violence between Israel and Palestinians — punctuated on March 23 with the bombing of a Jerusalem bus station that killed one Israeli woman — another potentially dangerous flashpoint may be emerging that could further push the region away from orderly democratic reform.

A quiet tit-for-tat war between Israel and Hamas has been brewing along the Gaza border for almost two weeks and appears very close to spiraling out of control. For the first time in many months, rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes have killed numerous Palestinians, including children and the elderly. Perhaps the most horrifying incident was the murder of an entire settler family in their beds in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, which has been widely assumed to be the work of Palestinian extremists, though Hamas denies any connection to the attack.

Even against their better judgment, Israeli politicians might again feel the need to retaliate for these attacks with a wide-scale assault on Gaza with ground forces — a replay of Operation Cast Lead, which was launched in December 2008. That conflict resulted in enormous devastation and loss of life in Gaza. The war also had extremely damaging political effects for Israel, as it led to widespread international condemnation and the Goldstone report, which accused the Israel Defense Forces of committing war crimes during the conflict.

A redux of Operation Cast Lead could have a major impact on the popular uprisings and reform movement sweeping the Arab world. The last war in Gaza created a powerful narrative in certain sections of Arab public opinion that cast the region as being the scene of a historic conflict between “the martyrs” (largely Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah and their small but vocal left-nationalist supporters), who were prepared to struggle and die against Israel and Western imperialism, and “the traitors” (pro-Western Arab governments and the Palestine Liberation Organization). Even more dangerously, it implied a corrective corollary: The “martyrs” should defeat the “traitors” and install Islamist governments, which would be supportive of “resistance” movements and take a generally hostile attitude toward the Western presence in the Middle East.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and many other Arab states is that they have not adopted this narrative or Islamist ideology, but rather have been based on patriotism, social consciousness, and demands for democracy and accountability. In Egypt in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood has wisely kept to the sidelines, understanding that the anti-government movement was secular, ecumenical, and patriotic, rather than Islamist. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood is obviously hoping to benefit from the newly opened political space and early elections, and is stealthily inching toward a more prominent role in shaping the new Egyptian order.

The Qatari-based Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has been emerging as the regional spearhead of efforts to spin the Arab reform movement in a more Islamist direction. Most notably, Qaradawi’sspeech on Feb. 18 in Tahrir Square was strikingly bold in its use of buzzwords that implied the need for an Islamist orientation to Egypt’s political future. While Qaradawi denounced “this cursed sectarianism” and was very conciliatory toward Coptic Christians, he explained the revolution in almost entirely Islamic terms. “Be on your guard against the hypocrites, who are ready to put on, every day, a new face, and to speak with a new tongue,” he warned, employing rhetoric typically used to denounce secularists and opponents of Islamist politics.

The Islamists’ attempt to carefully move toward seizing the reins of these popular movements is not limited to Egypt. The anti-government protests have been overtly Islamist in Jordan, while in Bahrain, radical Shiite Islamist opposition groups like the al-Haq party have rapidly risen  to prominence.

Whatever the reason for Hamas’s obvious lack of restraint in recent weeks, it is not helping the party’s reputation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Its popularity among Palestinians continues to decline: A mid-March opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research had Hamas support at a mere 33 percent of people in Gaza and 21 percent in the West Bank. Fatah, on the other hand, enjoys 42 percent support in Gaza and 39 percent in the West Bank. Hamas’s brutal crackdown on national unity rallies in Gaza on March 15, including the killing of at least one female protester, further discredited the organization. Perhaps Hamas hopes that another confrontation with Israel would bolster its foundering domestic credentials.

Israel’s own overreaction through its excessive bombing campaign in Gaza may partly be driven by anxieties exacerbated by regional instability, but its right-wing government in Jerusalem may also see advantages to shifting attention to another violent confrontation with Islamists. Israeli leaders have made no secret of their deep distrust of the Arab reform movement and their anxiety about democratic governments in the Arab world. It’s no stretch to imagine that Israel has concluded that it is better able to live with autocratic governments than secular, ecumenical, and democratic ones. And, of course, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed any opportunity to focus on security questions and place everything else on the back burner, as happened during the short-lived direct negotiations with the PLO last year. This wouldn’t be the first time the Israeli right and Hamas rode to each other’s rescue under the guise of conflict.

Another war between Israel and Hamas would, however, likely result in a lose-lose scenario for both sides. As with the last round, it would probably yield at best short-term political benefits but no long-term strategic changes, particularly because Israel is not prepared to fully reoccupy the Gaza Strip.

Even more worrying, a new war in Gaza could join the civil war in Libya, the sectarian confrontation in Bahrain, and the looming potential disintegration of Yemen in casting a negative pallor over what ought to be the beginning of an Arab political renaissance. It could set anti-Israeli and anti-Western sentiments into motion that have been largely absent from the productive impulses for reform in the region. It could also add to the sense that, however inspiring the Egyptian and Tunisian experiences may have been, subsequent developments risk spreading chaos — thereby bolstering tolerance for the status quo.

The saving grace of the Arab Spring is that the movement for reform is based on domestic considerations — accountability, good governance, democracy, and human rights. Even another bloody war between Israel and Hamas cannot avert attention from those grievances for long. Arab citizens likely know that agitating for good governance and accountability isn’t a panacea for all regional ills and that it can sometimes be a bloody process, as the examples of Libya and Yemen show. Moreover, they realize that Islamism, while it has its constituency, is both divisive and a political dead end.

If Israel and Hamas believe it is in their interests to start — or find themselves unable to avoid — another mutually self-destructive conflict, it certainly won’t aid the process of Arab reform and democratization, and raises some very troubling concerns about its future. But there’s almost no chance a resurgence of the Israel-Hamas conflict can stop the reform movement dead in its tracks either.

Bret Stephens’ Crisis of Empathy

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/27/bret-stephen-s-crisis-of-empathy.html

Sometimes crude binaries can be instructive, and it’s possible to distinguish two different types of people: those who seek out generous and universalist empathy with others, and those who prefer the warm cocoon of tribal solidarity.

In his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart very much places himself in the first category, while in his review of it for Tablet, Bret Stephens, unfortunately, demonstrates that he squarely belongs in the second. Stephens’ angry, mean-spirited tirade against Beinart begins with a frank display of this mentality. He opens his lengthy denunciation of Beinart by angrily condemning him for daring to imagine that a young Palestinian boy called Khaled Jaber “could have been my son.”

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Palestinian children fly kites bearing the Palestinian and Japanese flags crossing symbolic national boundaries in the southern Gaza Strip (Said Khatib / Getty Images)

Beinart writes that the evolution of his views on Israel and its occupation was kick-started by watching a video of the child crying out in horror as his father was being hauled away by Israeli occupation forces for “stealing water.” Beinart’s innate decency and humanity were, for whatever reason, deeply touched by this highly affecting scene. It’s always possible to be desensitized to the suffering of others, but for whatever reason he was moved by the child’s plight—and no doubt the irony of Israeli occupiers arresting a Palestinian for “stealing” what is, after all, the water that belongs to Palestinians and not to the Israeli occupiers. It tapped into humanist and universalist sentiments deep enough to see his own son in the young boy and, implicitly, himself in the father living under a system of systematic and brutal oppression and exploitation.

But Stephens is having none of it. How, he asks indignantly, could “someone named Khaled Jaber…have been Beinart’s son?” The answers are so simple and fundamental that they are embarrassing to posit. He could be his son because all people are brothers and sisters, and we all can and should identify with each other across ethnic, racial, religious and cultural divides. Beinart can do this. Stevens, apparently, can’t, and indeed is offended when others do. He demands to know “Are they [the Jabers] supporters of peaceful co-existence with Israel or advocates of terrorism?” With these and other litmus tests, Stephens posits that Beinart’s expression of human fellowship is in fact a failure of journalistic integrity. It’s true that Beinart never stopped to ask if these are “good Arabs” or “bad Arabs,” but simply identified with a child suffering from the abuses of an occupation. Indeed, the occupation itself rarely stops to ask such questions; the occupation treats almost all Palestinians as noncitizens and denies their basic human and national rights.

It’s even more ironic that Stephens would harp on Khaled Jaber’s name given that his own family name is itself an adopted one. His paternal grandfather apparently was named “Ehrlich,” just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father was born with the surname Mileikowsky (although the Prime Minister often tries to draw a connection between his family’s ideologically-adopted name and that on an ancient Jewish relic found in Jerusalem bearing the name Netanyahu).

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with adopting the classically Anglo-Saxon “Stephens” as a more socially convenient surname in the New World. It just that, under those circumstances, Stephens’ dismissal of the notion that Beinart could possibly have a son called “Khaled Jaber” denotes a peculiar blindness to Stephens’ own complex family history of name-changing and a very narrow and rigid view of what names might meet in any given human family. My own maternal surname is Schenck, because my mother is a direct descendent of one of the original Dutch inhabitants of Brooklyn, while my paternal name is Ibish, which derives from Syrian Kurdish ancestry. If Schenck and Ibish can meet in me, why not Jaber and Beinart (or Stephens, or Ehrlich, for that matter) in someone else? Stephens’ outrage that Beinart would dare to imagine that he might have a son like, or even called, Khaled Jaber is not only mean-spirited, it’s downright disturbing.

Stephens’s review boils down to an extended defense of Israel’s occupation. Citing the predictable, if not inevitable, consequences of unilateral Israeli actions (as opposed to mutual Israeli agreements with Arabs such as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan), specifically the “unilateral redeployment” in Gaza conducted by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 (which Sharon correctly never called a “withdrawal”), Stephens argues “against further territorial withdrawals, at least until something fundamental changes in Palestinian political culture.” Of course, what supporters of peace are asking for is a reasonable two-state Israeli-Palestinian agreement, not unilateral “withdrawals.”

Stephens cites Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic as quite correctly observing that, “characterizing anti-Semitic acts as a response to something Jews did doesn’t explain anti-Semitism.” Yet he’s quick to return this compliment directly to the Palestinians; for Stephens, things Palestinians do or don’t do justify occupation and all of the abuses that go with it. For Stephens, Palestinian actions do explain morally and politically indefensible anti-Palestinian sentiments and policies. “Would Beinart,” he demands, “object to an argument that African-Americans are at least partly responsible for white racism because they commit a disproportionate share of violent crime in the United States?” Yet this is precisely the logic Stephens employs when it comes to the Palestinians.

“Palestinians need not celebrate suicide bombers or cheer the murder of Jewish children,” Stephens writes, as if this were the typical Palestinian mentality or majority position. In fact for the past fifteen years at least the majority of Palestinians, like the majority of Israelis, have been in favor of a two-state peace agreement. But they both just do not believe the other side is sincere.

The behavior of both parties has given ample scope for doubt on each side, and for those, like Stephens and his numerous Arab counterparts, there is no difficulty whatsoever in finding any number of reasons to dismiss the sincerity of the other party. It’s an extremely simple matter to come up with reasons not to cooperate with rivals and those who have been historical enemies. It’s much harder, but much more noble and constructive, to—as Beinart has—frankly acknowledge the faults on both sides and look for grounds on which to cooperate and find a mutually-beneficial conflict-ending solution. But this requires a political, intellectual and moral leap beyond comforting narrow identifications and tribal narratives. It requires embracing principles and enlightened strategic goals.

It is, sadly, the moral aspect of this challenge that Beinart, like others on the Arab side, has had the courage to embrace that bothers Stephens the most. Stephens casts Israel as surrounded by “the ardent, sometimes fanatic, hostility of 350 million neighboring Arabs,” more than 1 billion additional Muslims and its own Palestinian citizens. Without any basis in fact he declares that, “The Arab Spring has become an Islamist winter,” even though Islamists are not actually in power in any Arab country at all thus far. And, he posits, Iran is poised to become a nuclear power bent on the destruction of Israel. Under such circumstances, he argues that since politics always involves choosing “the lesser evil,” Israel’s policies of not only maintaining its occupation but continuing to expand its settlements are somehow rational. He dismisses Beinart’s call for a boycott of the settlements in Israel’s own interests as part of “modern-day Israel bashing,” and refuses to acknowledge the threat that the settlements pose to Israel’s security, not to mention its self-definition as a “Jewish” and “democratic” state. The fact that the de facto Israeli state, which for most of its existence has included the occupied Palestinian territories, is now neither Jewish nor democratic in any meaningful sense does not appear to cause Stephens any serious concern. He certainly proposes no solution to this issue or even recognizes it as a serious problem.

“Israel,” Stephens writes, “exists so that the Chosen People might suffer a little less as a Choosing People,” and if it “chooses” to extend the occupation indefinitely denying millions of Palestinians their basic human and national rights for whatever reasons it sees fit, so be it. The notion that anyone might raise moral or enlightened, long-term strategic objections to such a choice—the de facto policy of the present Israeli government, which includes numerous senior figures who have dismissed both the possibility and the need for a peace agreement with the Palestinians—he identifies as “the core problem” with Beinart’s book.

I don’t think Stephens has any real appreciation for how deep or dangerous these waters he is leaping into really are. If Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in general were to embrace the same attitudes towards Israel, especially if the Israeli state were to follow his prescriptions, what kind of policies should we expect them to adopt in the long run? His law of the jungle—an unabashed version of Hobbes’ “war of all [tribes] against all”—leaves little room for a bright future for Israel and its people.

Were Stephens to have been born with the name “Jaber” rather than his own (or “Ehrlich,” for that matter), to what faction of Palestinian politics would he adhere? He wouldn’t necessarily be a member of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but he certainly couldn’t, on the basis of this logic, be among those nobly striving to seek peace with Israel, building institutions on the ground in spite of the occupation, persisting in what is universally recognized as extremely effective security cooperation with occupation forces in “Area A” of the West Bank despite the lack of any clear path towards liberation, or seeking to reconcile themselves to permanent coexistence with an Israeli state that defines itself as Jewish.

His logic of choosing between “unpalatable alternatives” and emphasizing tribal self-protection above all other values militates passionately against any of those policies. And would he not also surely be informed by the Palestinian mirror image of his own Jewish tendentious, chauvinistic and, frankly, paranoid worldview? It should come as little comfort to him that, indeed, there are lots of Palestinians and other Arabs who share his mentality. But it should be a great comfort to the rest of us that the large majority, like most Israelis, do not.

Yes, a settlement boycott can work

http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=380578

Peter Beinart’s recent call in the New York Times for Jewish Americans to boycott Israeli settlement goods has been met with angry responses from many Jewish Americans. This includes some who are opposed to the settler movement. The most important of these objections hold that a boycott cannot work because Jewish Americans won’t go along with such a program and there isn’t much to boycott anyway. Both arguments hold little water.

In Jewish American circles, this is a new idea. Initial resistance on the grounds of ethnic solidarity and because of a bitter history of anti-Semitic boycotts was predictable. But there is no reason to think that a sustained campaign to convince Jewish Americans that boycotting settlements is an important aspect of salvaging Israel’s character as a “Jewish” and democratic state cannot make headway.

Already, a significant proportion of Jewish Americans deeply oppose the occupation and settlements. Beinart’s plan is the first program to give them a way to express this opposition in a proactive manner.

Over time, the agenda could catch on, especially among young liberal Jewish Americans in need of a practical program to contest the occupation and support a two-state solution. The vociferous rejection of a boycott implies that one just might work. If the scheme were completely ridiculous, ignoring it would be sufficient.

“Pro-Israel, pro-peace” Jewish American organizations are divided on the idea. J Street has rejected it, while it is embraced by Americans for Peace Now. Others groups argue that the idea is pointless because “there isn’t much to boycott anyway.” This is incorrect.

First, such a boycott need not seek to have a devastating economic impact on the settlement economy. The settlement project is heavily subsidized and is not conceived of as a moneymaking venture. Rather, it is an ideological program. With the exception of the Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights and a few others in the West Bank, what we have is historical irredentism at work, not entrepreneurship. The boycott is a political and symbolic statement. It should be conceptualized as expressing profound political objections, and a refusal to cooperate, whether or not it can make any real dent in the settlement economy.

Moreover, the idea that the economic activities connected with more than 500,000 Israeli settlers are immune from pressure is simply silly. These people live, work and produce on land that does not belong to them in contravention of black-letter international law. In fact, there is a great deal to boycott, while also maintaining the distinction between the occupation and Israel itself.

Since the boycott campaign was initiated by Palestinians, Israel and its supporters have reacted furiously. This again suggests that such a campaign can be effective. However, apart from the refusal of individuals to visit or perform in Israel, almost all meaningful acts of boycott and divestment have been connected to the occupation itself.

British trade unions have endorsed boycotts of companies benefiting from the occupation. The Netherlands recently canceled the visit of a delegation of Israeli mayors because it included settlement leaders. A group of Israeli academics announced they would boycott Ariel University. Several Italian and Irish supermarket chains won’t stock Israeli produce because Israel refuses to label what comes from the settlements, to distinguish it from what is grown in Israel proper. The Norwegian government pension fund divested from two Israeli companies doing business in the occupied territories.

The boycott led by the Palestinian Authority has reportedly led to the closure of numerous factories in several settlements. Elbit Systems, an Israeli company that provides components for Israel’s illegal separation barrier, has been divested from by numerous European companies and governments. The German state-owned rail company has refused to do business with an Israeli firm building a rail line linking Israel to the occupied territories. These are a few examples of how such boycotts can work, and in fact are growing.

Since most countries are united in seeing Israeli settlement activity as illegal and illegitimate, they must at least force the Israeli state to label goods accordingly and maintain separate statistics for the Israeli and settler economies.

Those critics who oppose both the boycott idea and the settlements would be more convincing if they offered viable alternatives, for instance backing the creation of a fund to provide settlers with incentives to return to Israel. But as long as they don’t outline any realistic substitutes, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they prefer to let settlement activity go forward with some mild scolding.

Bret Stephens’ Crisis of Empathy

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/27/bret-stephen-s-crisis-of-empathy.html

Sometimes crude binaries can be instructive, and it’s possible to distinguish two different types of people: those who seek out generous and universalist empathy with others, and those who prefer the warm cocoon of tribal solidarity.

In his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart very much places himself in the first category, while in his review of it for Tablet, Bret Stephens, unfortunately, demonstrates that he squarely belongs in the second. Stephens’ angry, mean-spirited tirade against Beinart begins with a frank display of this mentality. He opens his lengthy denunciation of Beinart by angrily condemning him for daring to imagine that a young Palestinian boy called Khaled Jaber “could have been my son.”

Nic6075655
Palestinian children fly kites bearing the Palestinian and Japanese flags crossing symbolic national boundaries in the southern Gaza Strip (Said Khatib / Getty Images)

Beinart writes that the evolution of his views on Israel and its occupation was kick-started by watching a video of the child crying out in horror as his father was being hauled away by Israeli occupation forces for “stealing water.” Beinart’s innate decency and humanity were, for whatever reason, deeply touched by this highly affecting scene. It’s always possible to be desensitized to the suffering of others, but for whatever reason he was moved by the child’s plight—and no doubt the irony of Israeli occupiers arresting a Palestinian for “stealing” what is, after all, the water that belongs to Palestinians and not to the Israeli occupiers. It tapped into humanist and universalist sentiments deep enough to see his own son in the young boy and, implicitly, himself in the father living under a system of systematic and brutal oppression and exploitation.

But Stephens is having none of it. How, he asks indignantly, could “someone named Khaled Jaber…have been Beinart’s son?” The answers are so simple and fundamental that they are embarrassing to posit. He could be his son because all people are brothers and sisters, and we all can and should identify with each other across ethnic, racial, religious and cultural divides. Beinart can do this. Stevens, apparently, can’t, and indeed is offended when others do. He demands to know “Are they [the Jabers] supporters of peaceful co-existence with Israel or advocates of terrorism?” With these and other litmus tests, Stephens posits that Beinart’s expression of human fellowship is in fact a failure of journalistic integrity. It’s true that Beinart never stopped to ask if these are “good Arabs” or “bad Arabs,” but simply identified with a child suffering from the abuses of an occupation. Indeed, the occupation itself rarely stops to ask such questions; the occupation treats almost all Palestinians as noncitizens and denies their basic human and national rights.

It’s even more ironic that Stephens would harp on Khaled Jaber’s name given that his own family name is itself an adopted one. His paternal grandfather apparently was named “Ehrlich,” just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father was born with the surname Mileikowsky (although the Prime Minister often tries to draw a connection between his family’s ideologically-adopted name and that on an ancient Jewish relic found in Jerusalem bearing the name Netanyahu).

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with adopting the classically Anglo-Saxon “Stephens” as a more socially convenient surname in the New World. It just that, under those circumstances, Stephens’ dismissal of the notion that Beinart could possibly have a son called “Khaled Jaber” denotes a peculiar blindness to Stephens’ own complex family history of name-changing and a very narrow and rigid view of what names might meet in any given human family. My own maternal surname is Schenck, because my mother is a direct descendent of one of the original Dutch inhabitants of Brooklyn, while my paternal name is Ibish, which derives from Syrian Kurdish ancestry. If Schenck and Ibish can meet in me, why not Jaber and Beinart (or Stephens, or Ehrlich, for that matter) in someone else? Stephens’ outrage that Beinart would dare to imagine that he might have a son like, or even called, Khaled Jaber is not only mean-spirited, it’s downright disturbing.

Stephens’s review boils down to an extended defense of Israel’s occupation. Citing the predictable, if not inevitable, consequences of unilateral Israeli actions (as opposed to mutual Israeli agreements with Arabs such as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan), specifically the “unilateral redeployment” in Gaza conducted by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 (which Sharon correctly never called a “withdrawal”), Stephens argues “against further territorial withdrawals, at least until something fundamental changes in Palestinian political culture.” Of course, what supporters of peace are asking for is a reasonable two-state Israeli-Palestinian agreement, not unilateral “withdrawals.”

Stephens cites Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic as quite correctly observing that, “characterizing anti-Semitic acts as a response to something Jews did doesn’t explain anti-Semitism.” Yet he’s quick to return this compliment directly to the Palestinians; for Stephens, things Palestinians do or don’t do justify occupation and all of the abuses that go with it. For Stephens, Palestinian actions do explain morally and politically indefensible anti-Palestinian sentiments and policies. “Would Beinart,” he demands, “object to an argument that African-Americans are at least partly responsible for white racism because they commit a disproportionate share of violent crime in the United States?” Yet this is precisely the logic Stephens employs when it comes to the Palestinians.

“Palestinians need not celebrate suicide bombers or cheer the murder of Jewish children,” Stephens writes, as if this were the typical Palestinian mentality or majority position. In fact for the past fifteen years at least the majority of Palestinians, like the majority of Israelis, have been in favor of a two-state peace agreement. But they both just do not believe the other side is sincere.

The behavior of both parties has given ample scope for doubt on each side, and for those, like Stephens and his numerous Arab counterparts, there is no difficulty whatsoever in finding any number of reasons to dismiss the sincerity of the other party. It’s an extremely simple matter to come up with reasons not to cooperate with rivals and those who have been historical enemies. It’s much harder, but much more noble and constructive, to—as Beinart has—frankly acknowledge the faults on both sides and look for grounds on which to cooperate and find a mutually-beneficial conflict-ending solution. But this requires a political, intellectual and moral leap beyond comforting narrow identifications and tribal narratives. It requires embracing principles and enlightened strategic goals.

It is, sadly, the moral aspect of this challenge that Beinart, like others on the Arab side, has had the courage to embrace that bothers Stephens the most. Stephens casts Israel as surrounded by “the ardent, sometimes fanatic, hostility of 350 million neighboring Arabs,” more than 1 billion additional Muslims and its own Palestinian citizens. Without any basis in fact he declares that, “The Arab Spring has become an Islamist winter,” even though Islamists are not actually in power in any Arab country at all thus far. And, he posits, Iran is poised to become a nuclear power bent on the destruction of Israel. Under such circumstances, he argues that since politics always involves choosing “the lesser evil,” Israel’s policies of not only maintaining its occupation but continuing to expand its settlements are somehow rational. He dismisses Beinart’s call for a boycott of the settlements in Israel’s own interests as part of “modern-day Israel bashing,” and refuses to acknowledge the threat that the settlements pose to Israel’s security, not to mention its self-definition as a “Jewish” and “democratic” state. The fact that the de facto Israeli state, which for most of its existence has included the occupied Palestinian territories, is now neither Jewish nor democratic in any meaningful sense does not appear to cause Stephens any serious concern. He certainly proposes no solution to this issue or even recognizes it as a serious problem.

“Israel,” Stephens writes, “exists so that the Chosen People might suffer a little less as a Choosing People,” and if it “chooses” to extend the occupation indefinitely denying millions of Palestinians their basic human and national rights for whatever reasons it sees fit, so be it. The notion that anyone might raise moral or enlightened, long-term strategic objections to such a choice—the de facto policy of the present Israeli government, which includes numerous senior figures who have dismissed both the possibility and the need for a peace agreement with the Palestinians—he identifies as “the core problem” with Beinart’s book.

I don’t think Stephens has any real appreciation for how deep or dangerous these waters he is leaping into really are. If Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in general were to embrace the same attitudes towards Israel, especially if the Israeli state were to follow his prescriptions, what kind of policies should we expect them to adopt in the long run? His law of the jungle—an unabashed version of Hobbes’ “war of all [tribes] against all”—leaves little room for a bright future for Israel and its people.

Were Stephens to have been born with the name “Jaber” rather than his own (or “Ehrlich,” for that matter), to what faction of Palestinian politics would he adhere? He wouldn’t necessarily be a member of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but he certainly couldn’t, on the basis of this logic, be among those nobly striving to seek peace with Israel, building institutions on the ground in spite of the occupation, persisting in what is universally recognized as extremely effective security cooperation with occupation forces in “Area A” of the West Bank despite the lack of any clear path towards liberation, or seeking to reconcile themselves to permanent coexistence with an Israeli state that defines itself as Jewish.

His logic of choosing between “unpalatable alternatives” and emphasizing tribal self-protection above all other values militates passionately against any of those policies. And would he not also surely be informed by the Palestinian mirror image of his own Jewish tendentious, chauvinistic and, frankly, paranoid worldview? It should come as little comfort to him that, indeed, there are lots of Palestinians and other Arabs who share his mentality. But it should be a great comfort to the rest of us that the large majority, like most Israelis, do not.

Eastern Promises: Anthony Shadid masterfully recounts an immigrant homecoming

http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/019_01/9157

ANTHONY SHADID, the lead Middle East correspondent for theNew York Times, died on February 16 at only forty-three, succumbing to an asthma attack as he snuck out of Syria while covering the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Shadid, who had twice won the Pulitzer Prize, was universally acknowledged as the premier American reporter on the Middle East of his generation. He left behind an extraordinary body of work, culminating in the just-published House of Stone.

However, House of Stone is not a work of Middle East reportage; it is, rather, a memoir, devoted to Shadid’s deeply personal quest to uncover his heritage in war-torn Lebanon—and specifically in his ancestral town of Marjayoun, which his grandfather and grandmother, then neighbors but not relatives, both separately left in the early 1920s for the United States. Between the 2006 war pitting Hezbollah against Israel and the outbreak of a mini–civil war, mainly in Beirut, in 2008, Shadid took a year off from his then position at the Washington Post to rebuild his great-grandfather’s abandoned and dilapidated home in Marjayoun. Shadid describes the project as “a small odyssey,” a “meaningful search” for his family’s roots and a new sense of his own personal belonging in their land of origin. It’s clear from the outset that he anticipated discovery and reconnection as the outcomes of his building project, and as it unfolds, the completed project indeed grants Shadid a new sense of identity and purpose. The house, he writes, “makes a statement: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember who you are.”

House of Stone alternates between two stories: the account of Shadid’s effort to rebuild the house (in regular font), and the story of his family’s immigration to the United States (in italics). The structure of an alternating narrative cutting back and forth between a contemporary story and an older history that informs it is well established in both fiction and nonfiction, and in film as well. Think, for example, of another immigrant narrative, The Godfather, Part II, which intersperses the steady assimilation of Michael Corleone (into the culture of the Mafia and the American dream alike) alongside the formative saga of Vito Corleone’s immigration to the United States and gradual emergence as a Mob kingpin. This simple format works exceptionally well for Shadid. His two narratives unfold slowly—like the house itself—in both harmony and counterpoint to explain the motivations behind his project and its deeper purposes.

 

No one should turn to House of Stone for a sustained analysis of Lebanese politics or of the Arab political condition. This book has no index, and indeed does not need one; it won’t serve as a source for any sustained research project, save into the story of Shadid’s life or his readopted hometown. But it will provide non-Arab readers a very strong sense of Lebanese town culture and mores. Shadid is no anthropologist or sociologist, althoughHouse of Stone conveys tremendous insights into the social forces that shape life (for better and worse) in Lebanese towns—and in some ways in Levantine and even broader Arab societies as well. With the fair-handed sensibility and narrative voice he established in his dispatches for the Times, Shadid spares no one their sins or embarrassments. Yet, like so much else in Shadid’s writing, this book humanizes Arabs, both individually and collectively, for an American audience otherwise starved for such crucial moments of recognition with our present culture’s quintessential “Other.”

Shadid’s great skill as a journalist was that of a master storyteller, and he’s never been more effective than in his final book. The work essentially belongs to the tradition of nonfiction belles lettres, as noteworthy for its style and prose elegance as for its subject matter. But Shadid’s book also very much belongs to a particular genre of postcolonial literature: the journey back from the metropolis to the periphery by the immigrant—or, in this case, the immigrants’ descendant.

Such works have become a major strand of postcolonial literature as the immigrant experience shifts to tracking returns from the metropolitan center to the periphery. Shadid, returning to not only the country but also the physical home of his great-grandfather, provides the latest instance of this narrative of immigrant return to a lost and in many ways imagined homeland. Probably the most famous iteration of this genre is the story of Saladin Chamcha in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988). In the moving and powerful closing section of Rushdie’s much-misunderstood novel, Chamcha returns to India, reconciles with his estranged father, and reassumes his previously discarded Indian identity.

Shadid is more than one step removed from Chamcha, as a grandson of immigrants. Yet the project of recovering his Arab, Lebanese, and Marjayouni identity is essentially a hybrid of this literary genre—as well as an Arab-American iteration of the more specifically American “roots” quest of the identity-politics era. One of his relatives even sardonically invokes the name Kunta Kinte, the half-invented protagonist of Roots, Alex Haley’s 1976 book seeking to reconstruct his own family’s African-American migration story. In this “roots” sense,House of Stone is a quintessentially post–civil rights movement American book, exploring the contours of the hyphen in a hyphenated identity.

It’s also, in every sense, not only an Arab-American story, but the Arab-American story. The saga of his family’s emigration from Marjayoun to Oklahoma is a representative snapshot of the Arab-American experience at its core: an all-American immigrant narrative, but shaped very deeply by its Arab protagonists, their circumstances and their cultural heritage. In the United States, he writes, “fortunes were accumulated, not found,” and “for those who worked hard, profits were good.” At the same time, though, his family’s assimilation to American life often meant changing names, negotiating identities, and self-reinvention—as Shadid recalls, the members of his migrant family were “determined to be like their neighbors in Oklahoma.” I doubt that the Arab-American experience has ever received more affecting treatment than Shadid delivers here in his characteristically elegant prose. He describes, for example, the tension for these early immigrants between pragmatic assimilation and a no-less-powerful impulse to cling “defiantly to the traditions that they believed set them apart.” “Food was the mainstay,” he writes, as these Arab immigrants doggedly persisted in eating the familiar fare of their homeland, and “socializing was a necessary priority” among this diaspora community. “Visits kept to a village cadence,” Shadid notes, and “impromptu parties were convened on any night.” And during these gatherings, “never a word of English was spoken. On those nights, they were back in Marjayoun. They were home, together.”

By contrast, Leila Ahmed’s brilliant memoir, A Border Passage (1999), may have been written in English and in the United States, but it’s very much an Arab, rather than an Arab-American, book. Its chapter “On Becoming an Arab”—which describes the process by which Egyptians of her generation were, from her perspective, virtually shanghaied into an ideological Arab-nationalist worldview during the 1950s—has received far too little attention. It’s fascinating to read Ahmed’s account as a counterpoint to Shadid’s enthusiastic embrace of his inherited Arab identity. Shadid, the roots-conscious hyphenated American, sees his journey back from the American metropolis as not only natural but healing and restorative; Ahmed, on the other hand, describes a far more rigid and oppressive Arab identity—and an enforced dislocation from a broader, more cosmopolitan, and richer cultural heritage in her native Cairo.

Several other recent memoirs have narrated the rigors of Arab migration, or in some cases exile—–most notably, perhaps, Edward Said’s Out of Place (1999). But Shadid seems to have tapped into something much more fundamental in the experiences that formed today’s Arab-American community. Said found himself most comfortable in a cosmopolitan, always-alienated, and intellectually rarefied cultural environment informed by Adorno’s “negative dialectics,” which held that “dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible.” More prosaically, Shadid yearns for something reassuringly fixed and settled: a home, and the recovery of something “lost”—a much more typical impulse among third-generation immigrants. For Said, cosmopolitan displacement was intellectually liberating, whereas for Shadid—and I suspect for most people—“being torn in two often leaves something less than one.”

The house in House of Stone serves as a potent and multivalent metaphor in Shadid’s imagination: It represents stability in the present; hope for the future; reconnection with a long-lost—and, he admits, in many senses imaginary—past; the continuity of family memory and commitment; and all the nuanced meanings of the untranslatable and overdetermined Arabic word bayt. As Shadid notes, bayt possesses connotations that “resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home,” and represents “the identity that does not fade.” It also stands in for Lebanon itself, that anarchic mosaic of ill-fitting parts, stabilized only through an equilibrium of inherently unstable elements. Lebanon is a country with no majority community, instead consisting of dozens of smaller groups often finding themselves in open confrontation and coexisting uneasily in adjacent sectarian enclaves. These qualities have doomed it to be the perennial site of foreign meddling and a venue for devastating civil conflicts and proxy wars. It’s impossible not to read in many passages the suggestion that the house stands in for the country built around it: “In its destruction, the house, liberated, revealed its origins. . . . In chaotic geometry, smaller stones climbed over each other in the rugged, disordered perfection of the Cave’s arcade.”

Indeed, writers addressing Lebanon’s inscrutable and tragic character have often used this same metaphor, characterizing Lebanon as a unique, marvelous, and impossibly divided “house.” Lebanon’s premier historian, Kamal Salibi, titled his definitive work on modern Lebanese history A House of Many Mansions (1988). Salibi was, of course, deliberately citing a saying of Jesus as recorded in John 14:2 to highlight what he viewed as the pressing question of how Arab Christians would fare in Lebanon in particular and the Middle East in general. Likewise, Shadid devotes of a good deal of House of Stone to the troubled history of Christians in his homeland—a theme that emerges as he recounts both his family history and his dealings with a host of Lebanese Christian villagers in the effort to rebuild his ancestral home. There is a widespread sense, which Shadid repeatedly expresses, that numerous factors, including the sectarian attitudes of Arab Christians themselves, are placing the future of Lebanon’s Christian communities at risk. As Shadid unsparingly observes, an allegiance to marginalized, sectarian identity in Muslim-majority cultures for Christians means that “we faced our own extinction.”

Shadid’s book is impressively self-aware and never shrinks from asking difficult questions, but it does not dive deeply into philosophical problems. Still, it’s possible to tease out, in Shadid’s sustained contemplation of the myriad meanings of the terms house and bayt, another body of complex thought from an unlikely touchstone: Heidegger’s musing on the overdetermined meanings of “dwelling” in his renowned essay “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Heidegger claims that “only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build,” and that “to build is in itself already to dwell.” Heidegger’s ponderous, difficult philosophical essay and Shadid’s light, accessible memoir have an unexpected resonance despite their radical differences. For Shadid, too, home begins with dwelling as thinking, an act of creative imagination that gives meaning to family, identity, and continuity. He imagines bringing his daughter to the house he rebuilt and teaching her the Arabic words of his great-grandfather: “This is bayt,” he writes. “This is what we imagine.”

There are even hints of Freud’s sense of the uncanny as the unhomely—the familiar made unfamiliar by neurotic symptoms—in Shadid’s story. American readers have especially prized Shadid’s work for its accessible transmission of the attitudes and experiences of Arabs in the Middle East—but for highly assimilated Arab-Americans like him, the Arab world (at least at first) is precisely such an uncanny place, simultaneously radically different and oddly familiar. Shadid’s project of rebuilding his great-grandfather’s house of stone is certainly neurotic—he describes it as “quixotic” and explicitly links it to the divorce from his wife that destroyed his American home—an effort to make the unheimlich homely and to refashion himself as “native” to a place that is both familiar and strange. He also seems to relish almost anything that links him with the “crazy” Shadids of Marjayoun village lore, merchants who drove impossibly hard bargains and were quick to anger, take offense, and bear endless grudges. This, too, is the kind of neurotic symptom Freud posited as the indispensable origin of art, culture, and civilization itself.

But if we were to boil the guiding metaphor in House of Stone to one primary element, the home Shadid ultimately discovers at the end of his quest is the book in the reader’s hands. The narrative of the construction of the house is, in effect, the story of the writing process at work. As Shadid patiently reconstructs his family’s home on its original site, he uses this struggle toward completion to recover in these pages the story behind the house—his family’s history. Throughout House of Stone, Shadid’s use of metaphor is simple, elegant, and effective. Tiles evoke historical and family detail, ancient trees summon forth the idea of social and familial continuity, new plants and flowers signal a fresh understanding of the past and present. Shadid’s rich, often anthropomorphic images, presented in the larger framework of the book’s alternating and intersecting narratives, nestle perfectly into each other like Russian dolls, revealing ever more nuance and detail. “The tiles at my feet were the remnants,” he writes, “artifacts of an ideal, meant to remind and inspire, vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East.”

But in more than one passage, Shadid is let down by overexplicitness, explaining the metaphor so baldly that it breaks the spell, like a conjurer walking us through the mechanics of the illusion during the magic trick. In a section describing his friend Assaad’s inability to decide whether he should return to Wisconsin, where he had settled only to leave, Shadid writes, “He was a man caught between two places, one where he would always be a stranger, one where he was no longer a native.” He continues, “Sometimes, it seemed to me, I saw Assaad’s displacement everywhere I looked.” Such painstaking literalness is, paradoxically,too direct: It actually subverts the impact of the narrative’s imagery, which, left on its own and never very far from the surface, generally gives the book a very effective and artful structure. In this manner, the book’s countless seemingly trivial details gain enough breathing room within the narrative to artfully enrich and interrogate its author’s broader concerns. One also occasionally gets the sense that some underzealous editing, probably as a consequence of an understandable readerly enchantment with the rich details and resonant themes of House of Stone, allowed the book to drag slightly in places. But these are quibbles about what is on the whole an exquisitely written text.

Still, the one metaphor that really lets Shadid down is precisely the one that many readers will probably find most urgent: his bid to link his story to the “Arab Spring” protests that have convulsed the Middle East since late 2010. Most efforts to impose any form of grand narrative about these ongoing and unresolved uprisings seem premature and jury-rigged, and that’s very much the case with the epilogue to House of Stone. Shadid’s commentary on the region’s political upheavals feels uncomfortably tacked on to what is otherwise a very finely integrated story, and it stretches a bit to connect the story of Shadid’s uneasy homecoming to the broader quest for democratic reform in the Arab world. In Tahrir Square, for example, Shadid writes that “Egypt reimagined home,” much as he had done—via a collective “act of imagination . . . [creating] a different kind of community linked to what once was.” That’s a reasonable description of a great deal of what happened in Egypt and Libya, although he agrees the liberatory “Tahrir moment” might be very fleeting, referring to “what had once more, at last, been imagined.” Even so, the interpretive scheme here feels rather strained; his readers will be hard-pressed to see an evident connection—or even an implicit one—between the Tahrir protests and Shadid’s struggles to reimagine and refashion his forebears’ house and his own identity in the process. The only way to make sense of such a comparison is to posit that all acts of imaginative redefining are of a kind.

It’s an especially curious elision, since over the past year or so Shadid—who, for most of his career, had lacked the supple feel for political analysis that he typically brought to his reporting on the ground—was starting to emerge as a very impressive analyst of Arab political developments. Consider, for example, an especially trenchant anatomy of the Syrian crisis that he wrote early last November for PBS’s Frontline, titled “In Assad’s Syria, There Is No Imagination.” With a minimum of personal or confessional commentary, Shadid was able to persuasively interpret the Arab uprisings as creative acts of collective imagination, and the crisis in Syria as a failure of imagination. And what he wrote then is still true: The brutality of the government means “Syria is still subsumed in the logic of fear, which forces once diverse societies to hew to their smaller parts, obliterating the ability to imagine broader communities and other identities,” and the “lack of vision” by the opposition has not effectively counteracted this trend. The opposition forces in Syria have thus far crucially failed to reassure ethnic and sectarian minorities that their fears about a post-Assad future are unfounded. Shadid himself takes the leap of imagining a “post-Ottoman” milieu in which “people can imagine themselves as Alawite, Levantine, Arab, Syrian, Eastern—or some hybrid that transcends them all.”

Such a vision might be a little fanciful, but Shadid was extremely incisive in focusing on the indispensability of citizenship, with all its rights and responsibilities—a concept that has not been central to contemporary Arab political discourse—as the key to a better future for Arab societies now emerging from the suffocation of dictatorship. Whether cleverly, naively, or simply matter-of-factly, he cites the Tunisian Islamist Said Ferjani’s observation that “only in citizenship . . . could diversity be preserved and protected,” and allow Arab societies “to become greater than our parts.” Real citizenship, Shadid suggests, “would allow us to imagine” and therefore create an Arab future that is a genuine liberation, a factor that will almost be the single most important force that determines the long-term outcome of these uprisings. Even if he attributed this insight to Ferjani, Shadid demonstrated the rapidly developing strength of his own analytical skills—and, sadly, it still really does take an imaginative leap to dream of an Arab world defined by citizens, none better or worse than any other, free to define themselves and to participate fully in their societies.

A major story based on Shadid’s interview with Ferjani appeared in the New York Times on February 17, the day after Shadid’s death. It is, illogically but inevitably, more uncanny and unsettling to read the work of recently deceased authors—pieces written by my friend Christopher Hitchens are still coming out, though he passed away several months ago—than it is to encounter a newly discovered work of a long-dead writer. The Ferjani story and other short posthumous pieces merely set up the deeply moving experience of reading House of Stone in the full knowledge that Shadid tragically died in the few months between the book’s completion and its publication. It’s impossible not to note, however, the numerous passages that seem almost to anticipate the tragedy—though of course nothing of the sort could have remotely been on Shadid’s mind. A friend says of Marjayoun when Shadid is beginning his project, “The only time people arrive here is when they’re dead. . . . They bring people here to bury them.” A relative tells him defiantly, “This is where I will come when I die. I have a big, beautiful grave ready.”

Shadid’s construction project in Marjayoun was clearly an exercise in self-reconstruction: an effort to recuperate as well as reimagine the history of his family and to provide a new future for them and for himself. He clearly didn’t intend it as such, but the house will now stand not as a tomb, but as a living monument to Anthony Shadid for his relatives and the townsfolk of Marjayoun. A few days after his death, Shadid’s ashes were scattered in the garden he created around the house he rebuilt. To the rest of us, he bequeaths a very different monument: his extraordinary writing, which reached its apex with House of Stone.

Show, Don’t Tell: Why the Apartheid Analogy Falls Flat

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/26/show-don-t-tell-why-the-apartheid-analogy-falls-flat.html

series of recent articles have pointlessly debated whether or not Israel can accurately be described as “an apartheid state.” But the problem with the apartheid analogy is less its inaccuracy, and more that, however emotionally appealing some people may find it, it’s just not useful in ending the occupation and advancing the Palestinian cause.

True, apartheid is (vaguely) defined as a war crime under the Statute of Rome, but neither Israel nor most Arab countries (nor the United States, for that matter) are members of the Assembly of Parties at the International Criminal Court. In fact, the apartheid argument really is a historical analogy to the systematized, racist legal discrimination that used to exist in South Africa.

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Neither Israel nor most Arab countries subject to the International Criminal Court (Juan Vrijdag / Getty Images)

This historical analogy is vague and in some ways inaccurate. Inside its own borders, Israel’s social and political structure significantly discriminates against the large Palestinian minority (about 20 percent of the citizenry). But this cannot be accurately compared to apartheid. The system enforced by the Israeli military in the occupied territories, however, has a great deal of similarity to apartheid in South Africa. In some ways it’s not as onerous, but in many ways it’s worse.

Therefore, the analogy is tempting. Still, pro-Palestinian activists would be wise to avoid it, for several reasons.

First, it’s a conversation stopper, especially in the United States. Because they do not understand what life under occupation means for Palestinians, most Americans are not ready to accept at the outset of any conversation that Israel practices apartheid. They will simply assume that they are being exposed to hyperbolic anti-Israel propaganda and stop listening before they hear the facts.

It is infinitely more powerful to show rather than tell. Rather than leading with an announcement that Israel practices apartheid, it is much more effective to simply describe the realities: Every aspect of daily life in the occupied Palestinian territories for every individual is defined by whether the Israeli government categorizes them as an Israeli settler, and therefore a citizen of the state with all the rights and responsibilities accruing to citizenship, or a Palestinian noncitizen living under occupation. If you simply describe life under occupation, audiences will draw their own parallels between the occupation and apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow laws in the segregationist American south.

This discrimination applies to the laws people live under: where they may live; what roads they may use; what access they have to resources like land, water, education, and social services; whether they may be armed for self-defense; whether they may travel freely or have to pass through rigorous checkpoints with the permission of a foreign army; whether they may leave their country with any reasonable expectation of being able to return unimpeded; whether they have any say in the government that rules them or are totally disenfranchised; and whether they are routinely subjected to severe abuses under detention and military tribunals. All these, and almost all other aspects of daily life in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, are all radically separate and unequal on an ethnically-defined basis.

The system of ethnic discrimination imposed by military force and Israel’s “civil administration” in the occupied territories is by far the most extreme form of discriminatory abuse anywhere in the world today. When they learn these details, audiences conclude for themselves that this is a wicked, immoral and indefensible system and can see the apartheid parallels in a way that will not make them recoil before they know the details.

Secondly, the  analogy  incorrectly suggests that because these parallels exist, the solution must be the same. But while South African apartheid was ended by a reasonable quid pro quo that was the best deal possible for white and black South Africans alike, no such mutually beneficial arrangement in a single state has yet been articulated for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a politically misleading analogy that invites strategic error.

Finally, the analogy falls into the trap of conflating Israel and the occupied territories, which plays into the hands of Israeli maximalists and the settler movement. The implied one-state solution suggests that Israel is simply practicing extreme discrimination within an already-existing single state. This effectively lets Israel off the hook completely when it comes to the occupation. And, worse, it suggests that the expansion of settlements is merely construction taking place within that existing state rather than illegal colonization in occupied territories.

No decent person who is made aware of the realities of life under occupation for Palestinians can fail to see its immorality. Demonstrating the immorality of the occupation and the moral and political imperative to end it, not harping on inexact and misleading historical analogies, should be the imperative for pro-Palestinian activism.

Three Cheers for a Settlement Boycott

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/21/three-cheers-for-a-settlement-boycott.html

The backlash against Peter Beinart’s principled call for Jewish Americans to boycott Israeli settlement goods mirrors a debate that has been raging within the pro-Palestinian community. While many Jewish Americans, including those who are highly critical of the settlements, have reacted angrily to Beinart’s idea and reject the notion of any boycott of any Israelis whatsoever, in pro-Palestinian circles the debate has been whether or not to boycott all of Israel or to focus on the occupation and the settlements.

For several years now I have been strongly advocating robust boycotts aimed at the apparatus of the occupation and settlement goods, but not against Israel as such.

This position has been based on two essential understandings: first, that a generalized boycott against Israel would find few takers in the United States; and second, that such a boycott would unite Israelis and play into the hands of those who argue that “the future of the settlements is the same as the future of Tel Aviv.” This stance has won me considerable condemnation from many supporters of the BDS movement.

I’ve also argued that grassroots boycott campaigns that are disconnected from the policies of the Palestinian national leadership are pointless: any momentum they generate cannot be translated into political gains. The Palestinian Authority has not only supported settlement good boycotts, it has enforced them by law in areas under PA control in the occupied territories. This was wise and overdue, as it is unjust and unreasonable for Palestinians to continue underwrite the colonization of their own lands by purchasing goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements. But the Palestinian national leadership has not supported generalized boycotts against Israel for numerous reasons, not least of which that ultimately they must negotiate a peace agreement with the State of Israel.

Some of Beinart’s critics have argued that a Jewish American boycott of settlement goods is unjustifiable because they say “Palestinian intransigence” is the primary reason for the lack of peace. David Frum has even argued that the settlements are the consequence of such supposed intransigence, not a cause of it. But he has never explained how that justifies continued settlement expansion. His argument is a total non sequitur: how does Palestinian intransigence justify settlements?

In fact, Israel’s settlement activities are incompatible with a viable, reasonable peace agreement with the Palestinians. Every settlement expansion increases the size and power of the Israeli constituency with a vested interest in opposing territorial compromise and makes any potential border more difficult to draw. Moreover, settlement activity is clearly illegal under black letter international law, most importantly Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention is a human rights instrument designed to protect civilians. Settlement activity is prohibited because it is a human rights violation against those living under occupation, who have a right not to have their lands seized and given to other people.

Others, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, have expressed queasiness about the idea because of the bitter history of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic boycotts in the past. The argument is essentially a tribalist one, that Jews should not be pitted against other Jews. However, everyone interested in peace will need to see beyond bitter histories and be prepared to pay serious prices to end the conflict. Indeed, Jews need to confront other Jews, as Arabs need to confront other Arabs, to stop policies, actions and rhetoric that are making peace unattainable. Refusing to do so on the basis of ethnic solidarity is an unprincipled copout. Moreover, in a 2001 New York Times article I co-authored with Goldberg, we argued that, “It is understandable that Palestinians are supporting boycotts of products made in settlements… since the settlements are illegitimate and must not be legitimized.” Why, then, would it not be equally understandable for Jewish Americans to take the same position?

The final objection to Beinart’s proposal is that it won’t work. But why not? Every effective BDS action I am aware of to date has been clearly linked to the occupation. One of the biggest problems in pursuing peace is that Israeli society feels little pain from the occupation and mainstream Israelis have no incentive to confront the powerful and belligerent settlement movement. Boycotts that focus clearly on the occupation and settlements are vital to getting the Israeli majority to understand that even its friends vehemently object to settlement activity and underscoring the distinction between the occupation and Israel itself.

Opponents of Beinart’s call at the very least need to propose a viable alternative that can achieve these effects. If they don’t have one, they should either admit that they prefer allowing settlement activity to go forward, or they should think again.

Match, Spark…

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/14/match-spark.html

The recent flareup of violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza has all the disturbing qualities of a foretaste of more bitter things to come. Most troublingly, this latest round of attacks and counterattacks, which achieved nothing for either side, brings us ever closer to a possible third Palestinian intifada.

All evidence suggests that neither the mainstream Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, nor the Palestinian majority, has any interest in another uprising at the moment. But there is no political initiative presently offering any hope to the Palestinian people. Negotiations with Israel are in a semi-permanent deep-freeze, UN initiatives forestalled, and national unity talks also at an impasse.

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No one wants a third Intifada (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP / Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the financial crisis, particularly in the West Bank, which is largely the consequence of a decline in foreign aid, has undermined the extent to which Palestinians can at least have confidence that their living conditions are improving.

All progress, therefore, appears stymied, and this is an extremely dangerous and combustible equation. We are at a point where even though most people don’t want one, even a small spark in the right time and place could ignite a significant explosion.

Most Palestinians were undoubtedly outraged by the heavy bombardment of the Gaza Strip by Israel, and especially at the civilian casualties. However, there was also little sympathy for Islamic Jihad.  Widespread skepticism about the motives of the Palestinians involved in the fighting prevented this round of violence from catching the public mood of frustration and provoking more widespread unrest.

Few would have put it as bluntly, but many people agreed with the sentiments expressed by Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the influential London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat, when he asked: “I challenge anybody from Hamas or any other Gaza organization to come out with a compelling answer about why ‘tinplate’ rockets were fired into Israel in the first place, and whose interests are served for the lives of the Palestinian people to be lost in this saddening manner?”

Alhomayed specifically linked the participation by Palestinian extremist groups in Gaza in the latest round of violence with efforts to distract from the uprising in Syria. Others would see an even more direct connection to Iranian interests. Having lost much if not all of their influence with Hamas due to regional realignments prompted by the Arab uprisings, Tehran has redirected its focus among Palestinians to Islamic Jihad.

Both Iran and Islamic Jihad have an obvious interest in challenging Hamas control in Gaza, and outbidding it on militancy towards Israel. In the recent past, Hamas has been strict in forbidding attacks on southern Israel, particularly by other groups. In this case, they were either unable or unwilling to do so.

One possible motivation for Hamas leaders in Gaza to turn a blind eye, at least for a time, to attacks against Israel by more extremist groups is the internal split within the organization pitting its external leaders who are trying to adapt to a new regional environment against a Gaza-based leadership that is reluctant to make any radical changes.

The latest round of violence reinforces the status quo between Israel and Gaza, re-inscribes Gaza as the hub of armed resistance against Israel, and reaffirms the importance to both countries of Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation. All accounts strongly suggest that security cooperation between Israel and the new Egyptian government, even, if not especially, during the recent violence, remained very strong.

All of this serves to undermine recent moves by Hamas Politburo leaders abroad to reorient the organization away from Iran and armed struggle and towards policies conducive to those of Gulf Arab states, particularly Qatar, and Arab Sunni Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Israeli motivations are also highly suspect. Israel claims it initiated the current round of violence by assassinating Zuhair Qaisi, a leader of the so-called “Popular Resistance Committees,” because he was in the final stages of planning “a major terrorist attack against Israel.” But the timing of the assassination, which would inevitably have provoked at least some upswing in violence, is highly suggestive. It came just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was returning, openly dissatisfied, from a trip in which he apparently tried to convince President Barack Obama another US officials of the need to attack Iran.

Israeli officials openly speak of viewing the recent round of violence as “a mini-drill” for a conflict with Iran, particularly regarding its new Iron Dome missile defense system. Iran, too, is open to suspicion of using its Palestinian proxies to test the effectiveness of this new Israeli weapons system.

The apparent cynicism of most of those involved in the latest round of violence and skepticism about their motivations was probably a key factor in explaining why it did not produce levels of outrage sufficient to spark a third popular uprising against Israeli occupation. However, the long-term impact on Palestinian sentiments, particularly regarding Palestinian civilian deaths, could be latent and insidious.

Once again Israel has reinforced, through violence, its role as the occupier, and reminded all Palestinians, no matter what they think of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and/or Iran, that they remain at the mercy of the Israeli military. This latest round of violence, even if it is contained to what has already happened for now (as it seems it will be), has certainly increased tensions across the board and added another layer of Palestinian grievance and frustration.

Another intifada probably won’t be sparked by what happens in Gaza, or anything involving crude and cynical violence between Israel and Palestinian extremist groups. But the latest flareup has heaped more kindling on the tinderbox building in the West Bank, which now even the smallest flame, in the right time and place, could ignite at any time.

Yes, America can act in Syria!

http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=375483

Last week, I argued that the United States was not doing enough to engage proactively with the unfolding struggle in Syria, and that this inaction was ceding the field to others in an unwise, unnecessary and avoidable manner. The response from many friends and colleagues was, “What would you have us do?”

Opponents of a more robust US policy toward Syria pointed to statements by unnamed senior US intelligence officials quoted by The Washington Post that President Bashar al-Assad is still “is very much in charge” of the country. They generally ignored the second part of the quote in which the official said that even though “the odds are against them,” Syria’s leaders “are going to fight very hard.”

President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials have implicitly defended a policy of inaction by arguing that “the regime’s days are numbered” and that “it is not a matter of whether but when” the Syrian government is overthrown. If that is the case, then why feel impelled to act?

Although it is difficult indeed to sketch a long-term scenario in which the Syrian regime survives in anything like its present form, nothing is inevitable, and that includes Assad’s downfall. This “inevitability” argument serves as stopgap logic for the United States to continue to do very little to influence events in Syria—a policy, or absence of policy, that may have a great deal of appeal during an election year. Of course, if 8,000 Israelis had died in the past year, its relevance to the American national interest would not be debated.

Obama has said that he would not “act unilaterally” in Syria. This is a shot aimed between the eyes of a straw man. Not even the most vocal proponents of robust American action, such as Senator John McCain, have suggested that Washington do anything unilaterally.

Many close allies and supporters of the administration, including the Center for American Progress in a recent report, have beenemphasizing the alleged lack of good options the United States has regarding Syria. A former State Department official, Aaron David Miller, laid out the case for inaction the Foreign Policy website a few days ago. Surveying what he suggested were the options facing American policy, he warned against “reckless ideas of how to make the Syrian tragedy ours.” Miller did admit, however, that “the longer the killing goes on, the more likely we be will dragged into doing more.”

We can be certain that in fact the war will intensify. Miller, the Center for American Progress and others have warned of the difficulties and dangers of creating safe havens or arming rebel groups. No one denies that giving weapons to the rebels carries risks. But critics have yet to answer the point that others will go ahead and arm Syria’s opposition, and by doing so will gain influence, empower their own Syrian allies, and therefore help to define the very nature of the opposition.

It’s a red herring to suggest that because the situation is complex, American leverage is limited and coordination with allies is essential, therefore little can be done. It may be that the diplomatic groundwork and the level of the crisis on the ground, particularly with regard to Turkish policy, is not yet sufficient to establish safe havens or buffer zones. However, that does not preclude developing a policy that anticipates and begins to prepare for limited intervention when it becomes necessary, as even Miller acknowledges it probably will.

In the meantime, there are some clear steps the Obama administration can take to enhance its policies and behave proactively rather than reactively. First, it should stop talking about the “inevitable” fall of the Syrian regime and clearly announce that regime change in Damascus is a goal of US policy. Having determined and announced that, a great deal of clarity should follow.

Second, the United States should, like the European Union and others, formally recognize the Syrian National Council as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

Third, the administration should publish a series of benchmarks that the Syrian National Council, or any other opposition group seeking this role, must accomplish in order to gain eventual recognition as, in effect, a government in exile. These should include, but not be limited to, developing well-structured relations with the Free Syrian Army and other armed rebel groups, and doing much more to reach out to Syrian confessional and ethnic minorities, as well as offering far-reaching, ironclad guarantees about their status in a post-Assad future.

Fourth, Washington should begin identifying those in the political opposition as well as armed groups on the ground that it believes can represent a better future for Syria. And then it must do everything possible, within the bounds of prudence, to strengthen their hands against both the regime and other opposition forces.

None of these are wild-eyed ideas or flights of fancy. Nor are they reckless or ill-advised. In fact, they are the minimum conceivable corrective to a policy of inaction that is both reckless and ill-advised.

Yes, America can act in Syria!

http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=375483

Last week, I argued that the United States was not doing enough to engage proactively with the unfolding struggle in Syria, and that this inaction was ceding the field to others in an unwise, unnecessary and avoidable manner. The response from many friends and colleagues was, “What would you have us do?”

Opponents of a more robust US policy toward Syria pointed to statements by unnamed senior US intelligence officials quoted by The Washington Post that President Bashar al-Assad is still “is very much in charge” of the country. They generally ignored the second part of the quote in which the official said that even though “the odds are against them,” Syria’s leaders “are going to fight very hard.”

President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials have implicitly defended a policy of inaction by arguing that “the regime’s days are numbered” and that “it is not a matter of whether but when” the Syrian government is overthrown. If that is the case, then why feel impelled to act?

Although it is difficult indeed to sketch a long-term scenario in which the Syrian regime survives in anything like its present form, nothing is inevitable, and that includes Assad’s downfall. This “inevitability” argument serves as stopgap logic for the United States to continue to do very little to influence events in Syria—a policy, or absence of policy, that may have a great deal of appeal during an election year. Of course, if 8,000 Israelis had died in the past year, its relevance to the American national interest would not be debated.

Obama has said that he would not “act unilaterally” in Syria. This is a shot aimed between the eyes of a straw man. Not even the most vocal proponents of robust American action, such as Senator John McCain, have suggested that Washington do anything unilaterally.

Many close allies and supporters of the administration, including the Center for American Progress in a recent report, have been emphasizing the alleged lack of good options the United States has regarding Syria. A former State Department official, Aaron David Miller, laid out the case for inaction the Foreign Policy website a few days ago. Surveying what he suggested were the options facing American policy, he warned against “reckless ideas of how to make the Syrian tragedy ours.” Miller did admit, however, that “the longer the killing goes on, the more likely we be will dragged into doing more.”

We can be certain that in fact the war will intensify. Miller, the Center for American Progress and others have warned of the difficulties and dangers of creating safe havens or arming rebel groups. No one denies that giving weapons to the rebels carries risks. But critics have yet to answer the point that others will go ahead and arm Syria’s opposition, and by doing so will gain influence, empower their own Syrian allies, and therefore help to define the very nature of the opposition.

It’s a red herring to suggest that because the situation is complex, American leverage is limited and coordination with allies is essential, therefore little can be done. It may be that the diplomatic groundwork and the level of the crisis on the ground, particularly with regard to Turkish policy, is not yet sufficient to establish safe havens or buffer zones. However, that does not preclude developing a policy that anticipates and begins to prepare for limited intervention when it becomes necessary, as even Miller acknowledges it probably will.

In the meantime, there are some clear steps the Obama administration can take to enhance its policies and behave proactively rather than reactively. First, it should stop talking about the “inevitable” fall of the Syrian regime and clearly announce that regime change in Damascus is a goal of US policy. Having determined and announced that, a great deal of clarity should follow.

Second, the United States should, like the European Union and others, formally recognize the Syrian National Council as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

Third, the administration should publish a series of benchmarks that the Syrian National Council, or any other opposition group seeking this role, must accomplish in order to gain eventual recognition as, in effect, a government in exile. These should include, but not be limited to, developing well-structured relations with the Free Syrian Army and other armed rebel groups, and doing much more to reach out to Syrian confessional and ethnic minorities, as well as offering far-reaching, ironclad guarantees about their status in a post-Assad future.

Fourth, Washington should begin identifying those in the political opposition as well as armed groups on the ground that it believes can represent a better future for Syria. And then it must do everything possible, within the bounds of prudence, to strengthen their hands against both the regime and other opposition forces.

None of these are wild-eyed ideas or flights of fancy. Nor are they reckless or ill-advised. In fact, they are the minimum conceivable corrective to a policy of inaction that is both reckless and ill-advised.