Monthly Archives: July 2012

Romney in Jerusalem

Taken at face value, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comments during his recent trip to Israel might seem alarming. But in fact almost all of them are boilerplate American campaign rhetoric.

Romney’s trip demonstrates the extent to which Israel has become an indispensable prop in the theatrics of American politics. It is de rigueur for ambitious American politicians, particularly on the right, to make at least one pilgrimage to Israel to demonstrate undying commitment to a set of bromides about the special relationship between the two countries.

In the short run, obviously, this is very useful to the Israelis. It is a demonstration that Israel actually functions as a domestic political consideration reflecting the balance of power within American society between competing interests that must be accommodated by any successful politician, rather than an aspect of foreign policy. There is an enormous set of American constituencies—Jewish, Evangelical Christian, hawkish conservative, neoconservative, liberal, trade unionist and so forth—that take unconditional support for Israel as axiomatic to their worldview. On the other side, there’s a disorganized mass of Arab and Muslim Americans, fringe leftists, marginal paleoconservative isolationists, and foreign policy experts and academics who actually know better.

To call it a mismatch would be an understatement. The bottom line is there is no cost whatsoever for doing your utmost to outbid any opponent on adoration of all things Israel and no benefit whatsoever to doing otherwise. So for a politician like Romney, going to Israel and making a series of fantastically one-sided, and in many cases indefensible, statements during a campaign is a no-brainer. This included a snide, uncalled-for insult against the Palestinian people that suggested they were culturally inferior to the Israelis because of their impoverishment, without recognizing the onerous restrictions of the occupation.

In the long run, however, Israelis may come to regret the centrality they are beginning to play in American domestic political life. Love affairs can end badly and bitterly. Some of their most passionate American supporters, such as some Evangelical Christians, plainly do not have the best interests of the Israeli state in mind and actually support the settlement movement. The term “Christian Zionist” is an obvious misnomer if ever there was one.

Romney’s remarks in Jerusalem failed to mention the words “Palestinian,” “two-state solution” or anything whatsoever acknowledging the need for peace. Instead, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing, Romney changed the subject entirely to the question of Iran. Some Israelis are probably delighted by this. However, the Palestinian issue isn’t going to go away because politicians don’t care to mention it.

And more dangerously still, one of the few eventualities whereby the special relationship between Israel and the United States might actually be severely undermined is if the American public comes to feel that it has been dragged or pushed by Israel into a conflict with Iran that goes very badly. These are dangerous waters for the US-Israel relationship, given the potential for unintended or unanticipated and extremely negative consequences.

It’s also vital to bear in mind that Romney hasn’t actually gone further than other presidential candidates during general elections on, for example, the sensitive subject of Jerusalem. George W. Bush, it should be remembered, declared in 1999 that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem on the day he was inaugurated. Of course, like all other presidents before and since, he invoked the presidential waiver keeping the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, where it’s going to remain. Romney didn’t even go that far, merely saying he would like to see the embassy moved to Jerusalem. An unhelpful comment to be sure, but hardly surprising or unprecedented.

Romney didn’t ignore the Palestinians altogether, since he did meet with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But exactly what they discussed isn’t publicly known. Fayyad is on record several times in recent months saying the Palestinian cause has “never been more marginalized,” and Romney’s Israel visit seems to confirm the accuracy of this diagnosis.

But for all of his efforts to bond with the Israeli right, appeal to its American Jewish and Evangelical Christian supporters, and court sympathetic donors, if elected, Romney’s policies would undoubtedly default to the standard American positions. America might end up with a new CEO, but it will still face the same fundamental equation in the Middle East.

Whether it is led by Obama or Romney, American policy will be still guided by an unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, support for a two-state solution, Jerusalem as a final status issue and keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv, and dealing with the leadership in Ramallah and not Hamas. And sooner or later, even if most Israeli and American politicians would like it to go away, the Palestinian issue will eventually reassert itself as absolutely unavoidable.

Romney Versus the World Bank

Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel was marked by a series of largely boilerplate comments about the special relationship between the United States and Israel. And, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he almost entirely avoided the question of peace and the two-state solution, preferring to focus on the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons. In his speech in Jerusalem, the word “Palestinian” did not once cross his lips.

But certainly Romney’s most striking remark, from a Palestinian point of view at least, came when he spoke to the in-crowd.

Romney in Israel
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a speech outside the Old City on July 29, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

Romney explained to some 40 wealthy donors at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel that he was putting the economic puzzle together:

As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $US21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

Not only did Romney get the economic figures entirely incorrect—Israel’s per capita GDP is about US$31,000 while the Palestinians’ is at US$1,500—he attributed this difference to “culture.”

Romney reportedly told the group—which, by the end of the night had given him around $1 million for his campaign—“Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.” He also bizarrely attributed Israel’s relative prosperity in contrast to Palestinian impoverishment to “the hand of providence.”

Romney and his team would be well advised to consult the latest World Bank report on the state of the Palestinian economy released July 25th of this year. The report emphasizes the need for the creation of a more robust private Palestinian economic sector and education reform and named the major constraints to private sector activity as tight Israeli restrictions on movement and resources.   It’s quite straightforward:

The Government of Israel’s (GOI’s) security restrictions continue to stymie investment…Despite the easing of some [Israeli] restrictions, most of the constraints on movement of people and access to resources have remained in place, constraining investment and productivity growth.

These restrictions, along with a dependence on international aid are a function of not providence, but, well, the occupation. The report notes that the occupation “has skewed the economy towards the public sector and non-tradables.”

The bottom line: “The major constraints to private sector activity are the tight Israeli restrictions, and growth will not be sustainable until Palestinians have access to resources and are allowed to move freely.” To be sure the report notes that there is much the Palestinians need to do, particularly in shifting education reform to produce a more dynamic and employable workforce geared towards a robust private sector. But it also makes clear that the development of such a sector depends even more on the easing of Israeli restrictions that are the consequence of its occupation policies.

So much for “culture” and the “hand of providence.” It’s not surprising that Gov. Romney went to Israel to pander to the myriad American constituencies that are committed to uncritical support for Israel. But it’s indefensible that he would seek to blame Palestinian impoverishment entirely on Palestinian culture and policies while ignoring the obvious, inescapable and undeniable onerous effects of the occupation, which he did not in any way mention. These have been identified not only by the most recent World Bank report but by all serious investigations into the state of the Palestinian economy as central to its most pressing problems.

Denying and ignoring the occupation has become a parlor game in much of American political culture, and an active, powerful political movement in Israel that seeks to establish a greater Israeli state. There is no doubt that if Romney wins the presidency, his policies will reflect traditional American approaches to two states and not, whatever it may mean, “the opposite of what President Barack Obama has done.”

But seeking to curry favor with Israel and its American allies by gratuitously insulting the Palestinian people and ignoring, and in effect denying, the reality and effects of the occupation Romney does no favors to Israel or the Palestinians, and certainly doesn’t enhance the national security interests of the United States.  Don’t try your hand at foreign policy without doing your homework first.

Debate Aversion Therapy

The one thing almost all observers agree on is that progress towards realizing a two-state solution is on indefinite hold for the foreseeable future. This means we are facing an open-ended interregnum that all parties can use to seriously debate their options and to act unilaterally to either promote or obstruct peace. The problem is that both Israelis and Palestinians are mystifyingly avoiding their crucial national debates so that the real momentum has been handed over to some of the most dangerous forces at play, particularly the Israeli settlement movement.  Today’s disturbing New York Times op-ed by Dani Dayan demonstrates the current triumphalist spirit of the greater Israeli project.

Most Israelis, living far from the occupation in the central coastal area around Tel Aviv, appear to be living in a dangerous collective denial about the threat this poses to their future. They are choosing to ignore it, and there seems to be no stomach for confronting or restraining the settler movement.

Israeli soldiers stand guard outside a mosque in the village of Jabaa, east of the West Bank city of Ramallah, after arsonists tried to burn it overnight on June 19, 2012 (Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images)

Every poll shows that the Israeli majority wants a two-state solution. Yet they are doing nothing to stop the settlers and their supporters from seriously damaging the chances of such an outcome. Settlement construction has rarely been more vigorous; the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank, according to the Israeli government, has surpassed 350,000. And that frightening figure doesn’t include the settlers in occupied East Jerusalem.

Numerous other measures are entrenching the occupation in significant ways. The recent official recognition of a university in the Ariel settlement, which is a panhandle deep into what would have to be any future Palestinian state, is only one such example.

Meanwhile, the Israeli extreme right is increasingly calling for the creation of a greater Israel involving the annexation of most or all of the occupied West Bank. A recent conference to that effect in Hebron demonstrated the momentum this movement has gained, as do numerous commentaries in the Israeli media. And, of course, the Levy Committee Report recommendations in effect advocated doing exactly that.

So the only real long-term vision being promoted and actively pursued in Israel is the untenable notion of transforming the occupation into permanent Israeli rule in the West Bank without giving full political rights or citizenship to its Palestinian population (Gaza goes unmentioned). In other words, the political and practical dynamics in Israel are moving the country ever closer to becoming a formalized apartheid state. The rest of Israeli society appears to be reacting with a collective shrug.

The Palestinians, too, are avoiding their own crucial national debates. Palestinians need to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with a protracted period in which real progress with Israel on agreeing to an end to the occupation is likely to be forestalled.

But both the public and much of the leadership appear fixated on issues that are largely symbolic. The most telling barometer of this is the uproar over the question of whether or not the late President Yasser Arafat was poisoned, and if so by whom.  The Palestine Liberation Organization was recently able to secure its latest hollow victory, UNESCOrecognition of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage Site in its newest member, Palestine.

And the leadership is apparently seriously contemplating an effort at the UN to secure non-member observer state status for the PLO mission. Not only would such recognition do little to alter the prerogatives of the Palestinian mission at the UN, it wouldn’t change any aspect of the strategic equation on the ground or improve the life of a single Palestinian.

These symbolic issues are not only a kind of collective evasion of the crisis facing the Palestinian people, but some of these moves, such as renewed UN efforts, could come with very high real costs in terms of relations with, and aid from, the West. As a consequence of last year’s UN bid, Western aid has been cut to about half of its previous level and much of American support for the Palestinian Authority for fiscal year 2012 is now, once again, subject to congressional holds. Some news reports have even suggested that the US is privately urging Arab states to withhold aid to the PA in order to pressure them not to resume any UN initiatives.

Meanwhile, many grassroots pro-Palestinian activists in the West are pursuing quixotic boycotts against Israel that are unlikely to be realized, would also be almost entirely symbolic, and are disconnected from the broader national strategy, such as it is, of the Palestinian leadership. Much of these efforts are connected to a one-state aspiration that, in practice, has only been adopted as a cause by the most extreme factions in Israel, which are seeking to realize it as a “separate and unequal” entity. In effect, the one-state agenda has predictably fallen into the hands of the settler movement, which is the only party on the ground seeking to implement any version of it.

Some Palestinians and their supporters in the West are placing most of their hopes on the emergence of a widespread movement of nonviolent resistance against occupation. And while there are some efforts to promote a culture of nonviolence among Palestinians, there is still a widespread misunderstanding that conflates nonviolent with unarmed resistance. Protests that routinely degenerate into rock-throwing are not, in fact, nonviolent. They fail to mobilize the moral power that genuine nonviolence evokes. Not fighting back in any way against oppressive forces when they engage in violence pricks the conscience of the dominant society and the world—which is what nonviolent Palestinian resistance needs to do.

Others place their hopes in national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which, as things stand now, simply won’t happen. Neither do these parties agree on anything substantial nor do they have any incentive to share power. Under such circumstances, national elections remain, unfortunately, out of the question.

Majorities on both sides are sacrificing their agency and are thereby allowing a dangerous and untenable status quo, that could erupt into another round of violence at any moment, to continue.

So how do we move forward? To start, the Israeli majority that favors peace must begin to reassert its agency by forcefully pressing its government to rein in the settler movement, halt settler violence, dismantle outposts and stop the expansion of existing settlements, particularly those that cut deep into the occupied West Bank. Moreover, it can loudly and clearly insist that Israel views its presence in the territories as a temporary occupation that will be resolved and ended through future negotiations with the Palestinians.

Palestinians should redouble their commitment to the institution-building program led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that has created many positive changes on the ground, improved the quality of Palestinian life, and begun to lay the foundations for a successful independent Palestinian state.

To do this, they will have to work to repair their relations with the West and restore the aid that was so central to its successes in recent years. Palestinians, Israelis and the world at large should pay careful attention to the recommendations of the most recent World Bank report, which stresses the centrality of international aid to the PA, the need for fostering a robust private Palestinian economic sector, and the crucial importance of education reform, as well as the onerous effects of continued Israeli restrictions.

Neither side is benefiting from the politically convenient but extremely dangerous bout of self-imposed debate aversion therapy. The majorities in both societies are likely to pay a high price if they continue to surrender their agency, avoid crucial debates and avert their eyes from what is actually happening around them.

Arafatuous: Al Jazeera’s new investigation into the not-so-mysterious death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is little more than baseless speculation.

In November 2004, a sad but very familiar scene played itself out: A sick, 75-year-old man who had been living in squalor for several years after an extremely difficult life — including a near-death experience in the Libyan desert — finally passed away. Doctors at the Percy hospital in France determined he died of natural causes: a stroke caused by an unidentified infection. As is so often the case, human life ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.

But, of course, this wasn’t just any ailing and frail 75-year-old man. It was Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, president of the Palestinian Authority, and national symbol of the Palestinian cause. This was the man who had overseen the revival of the Palestinian political and national identity, and who held a certain iconic status even for his most bitter Palestinian critics.

From the outset, there was a refusal to believe that such a “great man” could have died a squalid, mundane death. For many, his ending had to be heroic and romantic. He must have been assassinated. Anything less wouldn’t do justice to his mythological, larger-than-life status. As early as November 2004, Palestinian journalist Maher Ibrahim wrote in the Dubai-based newspaper Al-Bayan, “Israeli Radiation Poisoning Killed President Yasser Arafat.” A Palestinian grocer, Terry Atta, reflected public sentiment that has been widespread since Arafat’s death when he recently told Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper, “We all knew it was poisoning.”

As with the endless theories about “who killed JFK,” the Arafat murder conspiracy theories reflect a natural human tendency to protect the mythic and the iconic from the prosaic: How could a giant like John F. Kennedy have simply been shot by a pathetic loser like Lee Harvey Oswald? Counterintuitively, narratives about grand conspiracies are reassuring, while random twists of fate can be deeply unsettling: Is reality really so terrifyingly arbitrary?

Some Israelis, such as Lenny Ben-David, former deputy chief of mission of Israel’s embassy in Washington, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to suggest that their hated enemy was a “sexual deviant” who had died of AIDS. Conspiracy theories in all directions have never relented from the moment Arafat passed away, and Palestinian leadership bodies have established more than one commission of inquiry to discover “who killed Arafat?”

Enter Al Jazeera English. This week, with enormous fanfare, the Qatar-backed satellite channel released a TV special and series of articles reporting that a Swiss lab has found elevated traces of polonium 210 — a chemical element more than 250,000 times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide — on some of Arafat’s possessions, including his trademark kaffiyeh headscarf, provided to the network by his widow, Suha. As the channel must have known, and probably intended, this “revelation” unleashed a veritable tsunami of speculation, virtually all of it utterly baseless.

In a manner reminiscent of Glenn Beck, the conspiracy-minded American talk-show host, the station, in effect, insists it is “only asking questions.” But only the most naïve could doubt that the channel’s managers were well aware their story would prompt an orgy of conspiratorial theorizing.

Millions of people now appear to be convinced that Arafat died of polonium poisoning, much like the former KGB agent turned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Many Arabs are blaming Israel. Others, following not particularly subtle hints in various aspects of Al Jazeera’s coverage, are suspecting an inside job conducted by rivals within Fatah. And numerous Israelis, including some former officials, have been once again hinting at a “secret illness,” as reported by Reuters correspondent Dan Williams on Twitter, obviously returning again to the utterly discredited AIDS theory.

There are at least three gaping holes in the Al Jazeera story that render it, in effect, little more than baseless, and indeed irresponsible, speculation.

First and most importantly, Arafat’s symptoms are well documented and completely inconsistent with 210PO (polonium) poisoning. Unlike Litvenenko, he didn’t lose his hair and his bone marrow was found to be undamaged. He also staged at least one brief recovery, which wouldn’t be possible in the case of polonium poisoning. It should be added that his symptoms were also completely inconsistent with AIDS.

Second, the Swiss lab report on which the Al Jazeera story relies, clearly states that its findings are inconclusive and provide no basis for concluding polonium poisoning, especially since his symptoms were inconsistent with that. The report also states that further testing may reveal that the 210PO levels detected may prove to have been naturally occurring, albeit unusually high.

Third, the provenance of the items in question is not well-established, and therefore the relationship between the 210PO levels discovered on them and Arafat’s condition is very much in doubt. Even an exhumation of the body, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) is reportedly considering, may not prove conclusive, as 210PO has a very short half-life of 137 days.

Finally, the timing of the Al Jazeera story is extremely suspicious. The PA leadership is currently embroiled in a series of controversies involving police brutality against demonstrators,suppression of dissent, potentially politically motivated corruption trials, and a growing financial crisis that has made paying the salaries of public employees extremely difficult.

The PA’s woes have paralyzed its diplomacy. A recent planned meeting of Palestinian officials with Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz fell through, at least partly due to public pressure. An upcoming meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and French President Francois Hollande, apparently designed to persuade the Palestinians not to renew their efforts for further recognition at the United Nations, is also meeting with considerable Palestinian public opposition.

Al Jazeera has a history of trying to discredit the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, most notably with the release of a dump of often undated and unsigned documents from the PLO negotiation support unit in January 2011. The current report, which fails to make a convincing case that Arafat was killed by 210PO poisoning, seems to be only the latest iteration of this pattern.

The core reporting in the Al Jazeera story doesn’t constitute journalistic malpractice, but the sensationalism with which it is being presented is clearly designed to reignite the rumor mill about Arafat’s supposedly mysterious death. But the burden of proof on those who would claim that the death of a sick, 75-year-old man who ended his days in miserable squalor following an exceptionally difficult life was due to anything other than natural causes — as established by his doctors at the time — is extremely high. So far, nothing, including the new Al Jazeera report, even begins to meet that burden.

A setback for Islamophobia

The Islamophobic movement in the United States has suffered a series of important setbacks in recent months. These developments promise to halt its slow, seemingly inexorable crawl over the past decade toward the mainstream of American cultural and political life, especially on the right. They may even signal the start of a process that pushes the worst forms of anti-Muslim bigotry back into the fringes whence it emanated and where it belongs.

The most noteworthy example of such a setback occurred last week when Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four other Republican House members sent a letter to various government inspectors general demanding the investigation of, among other people, Huma Abedin, a long-serving personal aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The letter alleged that Abedin was somehow part of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to “infiltrate” the US government.

The letter was not only widely perceived as vicious and groundless, but also as a prime example of McCarthyite guilt by insinuation and association and the most recent iteration of the “paranoid style” in American politics.

The letter essentially presents a conspiracy theory about Muslim Brotherhood plots to take over the American government or at least influence its policies in a nefarious manner. Its accusations against Abedin were worthy of old John Birch Society charges that various government officials were Communist “agents of influence.” The letter largely relied on the ravings of Frank Gaffney’s notorious Center for Security Policy, which specializes in trafficking paranoia and hatred against Muslims and rival conservatives.

But Bachmann and Gaffney chose the wrong target in Abedin, who is also married to former congressman Anthony Wiener. She wasn’t just a little-known figure with a foreign-sounding name and potentially dubious relatives. She is a well-known quantity in Washington, familiar to leaders in both parties and well-respected and liked. Washington in general was simply not going to suspect without any evidence whatsoever that Abedin was involved in any kind of insidious conspiracy.

The pushback was led by Republicans themselves. In particular, Senator John McCain launched a blistering attack on the letter on the Senate floor. House Speaker John Boehner also expressed dismay, as did Florida Senator and Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio. The Islamophobes’ miscalculation in this case was so severe, and the pushback so forceful, that this incident may well prove a turning point in the battle against anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States.

This wasn’t quite as dramatic as Joe McCarthy’s comeuppance at the hands of attorney Joseph Welch who asked him, “Have you left no sense of decency?” But it’s pretty close. The Abedin incident can and should be cited time and again when Muslim Americans find their loyalty questioned on the basis of their identity alone.

The most shrill, vituperative and overwrought professional Islamophobes in the United States had already been dealt a crippling blow by the right-wing Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who cited many of them as direct inspirations and heroes.

The massacre of young Norwegians he committed meant that the logical consequences of the hate inspired by the preachers of Islamophobia were suddenly no longer deniable. Perhaps even more importantly, Breivik’s mayhem wasn’t targeted primarily at Muslims, but at a large summer camp of Norwegian youth followers of a liberal party he detested.

Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, in particular, were badly damaged by Breivik’s barbaric rampage and the fact that he was discovered to have authored an endless, ranting manifesto citing them scores of times and suggesting Spencer would be a good candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.

And Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum has recently been inflicting enormous damage on itself by persisting in publishing the writings of Raymond Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been not only growing ever more strident but also falling victim to hoaxes including a so-called “sodomy fatwa,” and a supposed campaign by Muslim extremists to destroy the pyramids.

Are there fanatical Muslim clerics capable of such declarations? Of course there are. But did anyone actually say either of those things? It appears not, but Middle East Forum doesn’t want to admit that. Ibrahim’s mistakes are only increasing the already well-established impression that Pipes and his outfit are willing to embrace anything that makes Muslims look bad, even if they are preposterous misrecognitions.

American Islamophobia is largely a creature of the political right. In the 50s and early 60s, William F. Buckley led the campaign to drive anti-Semitism out of the conservative movement for its own good. The same process must be repeated now with regard to Islamophobia.

There isn’t anyone on the American right at the moment with the stature and influence Buckley had. It’s going to have to be a collective effort this time. But the American conservative movement desperately needs to cure itself of anti-Muslim bigotry, and it might finally be starting to do that.

Assad is Doomed

Today’s bombing attack in Damascus is a dagger in the heart of the Assad regime.  The bomb took out key government figures and detonated only a short distance from Assad’s own presidential palace. Reports are sketchy but it is clear that Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha, a recently appointed Christian regime hardliner, is dead. An even more key figure, Assef Shawkat, Deputy Defense Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law, has also almost certainly been killed. Other vital regime figures reported killed include Hasan Turkmani, Assistant Vice President and Chief of Crisis Operations, who is widely blamed for the campaign of torture in the country, and Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar.

Even if the regime survives for many months, or possibly years, today’s bombing will likely be remembered as the beginning of the end.

As has been the case from the outset of the uprising, everything the regime does to violently suppress the rebellion only strengthens it by undercutting support for the government and increasing sympathy for the rebels. An intensification of conflict might buy the government more time, but only deepens the likelihood that it cannot survive, even in a greatly modified form.

Syria Car Bomb OpenZ

Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13. Today’s bombing shows just how successful rebels have been. (AFP / Getty Images)

Several other figures were reported injured and possibly killed, and the blast took place inside the headquarters of the regime’s war effort. The government counterinsurgency and repression campaign is led by a group of less than 20 people, many of whom were undoubtedly in the room at the time of the explosion.

Assad’s brother-in-law Shawkat was particularly hated. Along with Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, Shawkat was a leading individual target for the rebels. He served as head of Syrian military intelligence, among other positions, and was a crucial cog in the family-centered regime apparatus in Damascus.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this will be both a practical blow to the regime’s campaign by removing key figures and an enormous psychological and symbolic catastrophe for the Assad dictatorship. It is reported that the bomber was a trusted security officer, possibly even from Assad’s own bodyguard. The message is clear: no one is safe and nowhere is inaccessible to the rebels.

The regime still, in theory at least, has enormous military means at its disposal to crush dissent. Most of the armed forces have remained in their barracks during the fighting thus far, presumably because rank-and-file Sunni Syrian troops are simply not trusted to remain loyal and mass defections are feared. More worrying is the prospect of the increased use of air power by the regime, potentially including MiG fighter jets. The most grim scenario could involve the deployment of Syria’s considerable stockpiles of chemical and other special weapons, as was used by Saddam Hussein against Kurdish rebels and Iranian forces in the 1980s.

But significantly, this bombing comes in the context of the opposition’s touted “Damascus Volcano” offensive, in which the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups are consolidating their forces around the capital in an effort at either a decisive battle or a major psychological victory. Today’s assassinations certainly accomplish the second goal. Whether the FSA was directly responsible for the bombing or not (it has already claimed responsibility, as has a shadowy Islamist group, “Liwa al-Islam”), the assassination of these key regime figures will be understood by the government and the public as part of their campaign.

The rebel “Damascus Volcano” offensive probably won’t succeed in bringing down the government in the immediate term. But even if government forces secure a technical military “victory” and push the rebels out of the capital, the “Volcano” will probably have a similar effect as the Vietcong Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War: a military defeat that nonetheless demonstrates the almost certain outcome of the conflict.

The most likely consequence of the “Volcano” offensive and today’s stunning rebel success in eliminating key regime figures is a huge intensification of the conflict, particularly on the part of the government. The Assad regime still has considerable support in Alawite, Christian and other communities making up a considerable proportion of the population, as well as numerous and horrifying remaining military options. A Balkanization, or “Lebanon-ization,” process in Syria is already well underway, with sectarian and ethnic enclaves emerging throughout the country.

Assad will eventually fall. Whether the process will break Syria apart or not remains to be seen. But if the outside world, and above all the United States, remain passive observers, they can hardly complain about the outcome.

A patronizing narrative pigeonholes Arabs

A dominant but highly misleading narrative about the Arab world has taken root not only in the Middle East but also in some parts of the West. This perspective assumes the inexorable rise of Islamist parties and is impervious to contradictory evidence. The recent Libyan parliamentary elections have provided the starkest example of a contrary development.

It is now officially established, and highly significant, that the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance led by Mahmoud Jibril trounced Libyan Islamists, particularly in that portion of the voting process reserved for party lists. The separate results for individual candidates are not yet fully clear, but the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood says it will probably win only between 15 and 20 out of 120 individual seats.

This result was not widely anticipated, to say the least. But what is even more surprising than the outcome has been the reaction to it. The Western commentariat in particular has, with a few notable exceptions, largely reacted to the emerging electoral outcomes in Libya with disinterest, or even in a dismissive way.

The prevailing view remains that Islamists have nearly unassailable appeal at the present moment in Arab elections, and that the Libyan result is an exception that does not challenge that rule. Because Libya cannot be easily reconciled with the conventional wisdom, commentators have been engaging in extraordinary rhetorical contortions to protect their views from highly inconvenient facts.

For instance, columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post, observed, despite the Libyan results, that what is taking place in the region is “an Islamist ascendancy, likely to dominate Arab politics for a generation.”

There is no doubt that Islamist parties will be major factors in the coming decades. But what Jibril’s victory demonstrates is that the “Islamist ascendancy” is by no means assured or even likely. There is an overpowering assumption, shared by voices on the left, right and center, that Arab politics are relatively homogenous across different states, and this is simply mistaken, even patronizing.

But the varying results in the recent Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan elections show otherwise. Firmness in sticking to this reductive perspective, despite the evidence of political diversity, is sometimes ideologically driven. However, in many cases it is simply an effort to embrace a comfortable narrative that simplifies a far more complex reality.

A second tactic in challenging the Libyan exception has been to suggest that, while Jibril’s alliance is not Islamist, it is also neither secular nor liberal in the Western sense. Those holding this view extrapolate from this that there is little difference between Jibril’s position and that of Islamists. Such an argument ignores the all-important gap between Libyans who are devout and those who would seek to make religion the centerpiece of politics and national life.

The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, is well aware of this dissimilarity. It has complained that Jibril and his allies don’t agree that “government must enforce Islam in every aspect of its work.” The main aim of the Brotherhood since its founding has been to erase all distinctions between Islam and Islamism, and between Muslims and the Muslim Brotherhood. The argument that Jibril’s coalition is no different than the Islamists only plays into the Brotherhood’s hands in an indefensible manner.

A third argument is that Libya is fundamentally different than the rest of the Arab world because of the legacy of Moammar al-Qaddafi, therefore that the elections mean little. Using this logic, no election results can be said to have regional significance. And if that’s true for one state, surely it’s true for all. But Arab societies are unique. Even the contiguous states of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are very different.

Fourth, it has been said that the Libyan results are regional and tribal in their consequences, rather than ideological. Islamism may have been defeated but, as troubling, tribalism has triumphed. However, the results of party voting were strikingly consistent throughout most of the country, which indicates otherwise. There is little evidence that this was primarily a tribal or regional vote, though Jibril’s belonging to the country’s largest tribe, the Warfala, certainly didn’t hurt him.

Imagine if Libya’s Islamists had won a decisive victory. We would have heard that this was more evidence of the ineluctable spread of Islamism in post-dictatorship Arab societies. How, then, can the Islamists’ defeat be anything but powerful evidence to the contrary?

Libya shows that Islamists can be defeated in contemporary Arab elections, and this should be celebrated and emulated, not ignored or dismissed. Worse, when the evidence is employed to derive conclusions in utter contradiction with observable reality, then the model that produces such distortions should be dispensed with as utterly inadequate.

The Anti-Balfour Declaration

Wonder what it feels like to have inadvertently put yourself between a rock and a hard place? Just ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday the Levy Committee, which he appointed last January, issued its report that was supposed to examine the question of Israeli “state lands” in the occupied Palestinian territories, but has far exceeded its mandate. The most significant aspect of the report is its blunt assertion that Israel is not “the occupying power” in the occupied territories. Its consequent outrageous legal recommendations all reflect that logic; it recommends that all Israeli settlements, including “unauthorized” outposts built on private Palestinian land, and every promise ever made by any official to any settlers, should be formalized.

Here’s Netanyahu’s quandary: Israel either is, or is not, occupying the occupied territories–and the report could well force him to take a clearer stand on that issue. If he accepts its recommendations in full, even if they are not fully implemented, he will in effect be accepting the notion that there is no occupation in the occupied territories. This would reflect rhetoric from his own Foreign Ministry, particularly Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, not to mention many Israeli policies that have treated the occupied territories as part of the Israeli state when convenient to its purposes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem. (Uriel Sinai / AFP / Getty Images)

However, Netanyahu can’t make the decision solely based on Israel’s policies, because they do not reflect a clear view of the territories’ legal status. In fact, many policies have carefully fudged the question and cultivated an atmosphere of ambiguity about the occupation. A large body of Israeli laws, court rulings, policies and, above all, treaties (including those with Egypt, Jordan and the PLO) all either explicitly or implicitly recognize the territories as occupied. So, of course, does a veritable mountain of international law including UN Security Council resolutions and the ruling of the International Court of Justice on Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

And, as David Kretzmer, a noted Israeli legal scholar, observed, “If Israel is not an occupying force, it must immediately relinquish ownership of all private lands seized over the years for military use, taken with authority as the occupying force in an occupied territory, and restore the lands to previous owners.”

Finally, there is the obvious corollary to any formal acceptance that the occupied territories are not, in fact, occupied: that Israel views them as de facto and de jure part of its state. Full acceptance of the recommendations of the report would amount to announcing the de facto annexation of the occupied territories. That, too, has its own obvious corollary: Israel is already neither demographically Jewish nor democratic in character. Rather than administering a temporary occupation, it is presiding over a separate and unequal system that discriminates between Jews and Arabs in huge parts of its territory.

In this sense, the report might be seen as an anti-Balfour Declaration: a political statement, which, if implemented as written, would ensure that Israel can no longer continue in a meaningful sense to be a “Jewish state,” except by systematic ethnic discrimination against large parts of its population.

There’s a word for such a system: Apartheid. Only by distinguishing between the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel proper can Israel sustain its objections to any application of this term to its polity. Accepting the Levy Committee’s report would, in effect, dissolve any such distinction and render Israel practically defenseless against the indictment that it is an apartheid state. The long-term legal, political and diplomatic ramifications for Israel are incalculable.

When systematic ethnic discrimination is intended to be maintained rather than temporary, it is a crime under international law. Although Israel is not a signatory to the treaty, this is how the Statute of Rome, which outlines the work of the International Criminal Court, defines Apartheid. More importantly, such a formalized system would be regarded as indefensible not only by the international community but by huge numbers of Jews around the world, particularly in the United States. Long-term support for such an Israeli apartheid state by Jewish communities overseas would likely be placed in significant jeopardy.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu does not accept the Committee’s report or implements it only partially, he will come under fire from significant sections of the Israeli right and the settler movement for implicitly recognizing that Israel is indeed an occupying power in the territories. That, too, has important implications, since settlement activity in occupied territories is strictly prohibited under international law, most importantly Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The Levy Committee attempted to bypss these prohibitions by denying that the territories are occupied at all. But it also accepted spurious assertions that Article 49 only prohibits “forced transfers” of civilians against their will into occupied territories. Such arguments are, almost unanimously, rejected by international legal scholars because in other sections the Convention already prohibits forced population transfers. Article 49, however, explicitly prohibits all “transfer” of civilians into an occupied territory, because it is meant to protect the rights of people living under occupation not to be colonized by settlers from the occupying power.

Defenses of the settlement project therefore invariably reject the idea that Israel is the occupying power, in spite of the unanimous global consensus that it is. Until now, Israel has been able to finesse the question of whether or not it is the occupying power in the territories, and therefore keep the legal status of the settlements similarly ambigous. The new report threatens to place Netanyahu in the extremely precarious position of clarifying whether or not Israel sees itself as an occupying power, with extremely dangerous political, legal and diplomatic consequences for any decision he might take. No wonder he has already referred it to his also recently-created “Ministerial Committee on Settlement Affairs.”

How Jibril Outmaneuvered the Libyan Islamists

The preliminary results from Libya’s parliamentary elections are incomplete, but the trend is clear: Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance seems headed for a clear victory over rival Islamist parties. The results so far strongly indicate that, while Islamists could regain some ground in individual seats, overall—especially in the party section of the vote—non-Islamists are headed for a decisive victory.

Demographically, Libya is a small country. However, assuming the result is not somehow reversed, it is highly significant for understanding emerging trends in post-dictatorship Arab societies.

It means, first, that the three post-uprising Arab states that have held elections have produced three divergent results. Islamists scored an overwhelming victory in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, and a narrower but clear one in the recent presidential vote. In Tunisia Islamists earned a plurality. But because non-Islamist parties—which collectively have more seats in parliament—are numerous and divided, the Islamist Al-Nahda is the decisive force for the moment.

This is all the more significant in that the three different results have taken place over the same 12-month period in three contiguous North African countries. Sociopolitical conditions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are very different, which helps explain the differing results. But the Libyan election contradicts predictions of an unstoppable Islamist trend, or the idea that Arabs in general will elect Islamist majorities in any free elections held under the current circumstances.

Second, Jibril’s apparent victory may well point the way forward for other non-Islamist forces in future Arab elections. In contrast to analogous groups in Tunisia and Egypt, Jibril’s alliance campaigned on its own merits, emphasizing Libyan nationalism and promising order and stability. It didn’t waste time terrifying voters about the threats posed by Islamists. And it included a certain degree of Muslim religious rhetoric in its campaign, while insisting on a non-Islamist stance.

Jibril was politically astute and speaking to his own people when lecturing Western media not to keep referring to him and his alliance as “liberal” or “secular.” In truth, they are neither, at least in the conventional Western understandings of the terms. But they can be reasonably described as nationalist and certainly as non-Islamist. Therefore, in contemporary Arab terms they could be held to represent a secular and liberal alternative to religious reactionaries.

Crucially, Jibril did not make the mistake of ceding Islamic legitimacy to Islamist groups. Instead, he insisted on a share of it for his own alliance—no doubt crucial to his apparent success. His rhetoric on religion and politics reflects an understanding of the need for Arab non-Islamists to deny Islamists the ability to create the impression of an exclusive claim on religious sentiment and civilizational heritage.

Jibril repeatedly stated that, “The Libyan people don’t need either liberalism or secularism, or pretenses in the name of Islam, because Islam, this great religion, cannot be used for political purposes. Islam is much bigger than that.”

This is precisely the kind of intelligent balancing act that moderate, nationalist and non-Islamist Arab political forces can successfully deploy against Islamist rivals in positive campaigns that emphasize what they have to offer their electorates.

And third, the vote can and should be seen as a repudiation of foreign, and especially Qatari, influence in Libya. Qatar spent a great deal of money backing the Libyan uprising, and conventional wisdom at the time of the fall of Moammar Qaddafi held that it was positioned to be a kingmaker in the country. Libyan resentment over this presumptuousness is reflected in the election results. Since Libya has its own growing petroleum income, it enjoys relative economic independence and cannot be held hostage to foreign aid.

Libyan society will still face huge challenges. It is divided along tribal and clan lines, and the election was somewhat disrupted by eastern federalists demanding regional autonomy or independence. And the emerging Libyan government inherits few functioning national institutions from the former regime. Moreover, it will have to contend with the local dominance of numerous unaccountable militias.

But the economic and political elements for a successful Libyan national recovery are slowly falling into place. The obstacles remain significant, but there is every reason for optimism.

The Libyan election also importantly contradicts widespread doom saying about the inevitability of Islamist victories in contemporary Arab elections or the inability of non-Islamist forces to wage effective election campaigns. Early this year, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic observed, “When [Arabs] stop voting for Islamist parties, I’ll revisit my preliminary conclusion that Islamism is on the rise.”

The Libyan elections mean he and others, in both the West and the Arab world, can begin to think again.

No, Spain isn’t the greatest ever!

Nostalgia is always dangerous, but privileging the chronologically contemporaneous isn’t a healthy corrective. Spain’s remarkable achievement in winning a second consecutive European football championship on Sunday, following the team’s first world championship two years ago, is hard to overstate. Yet the chorus of voices rushing to proclaim them “the greatest international side ever” does just that.

There are several important objections to this indefensible assertion.

First, this appears to be a stopgap replacement for the bizarre cult surrounding FC Barcelona, which unexpectedly crashed and burned this year. This cult reached virtually messianic proportions, as illustrated in a deranged hosanna by journalist David Winner in The Guardian last April. Since it’s no longer possible to declare the current Barcelona team “the greatest club side ever,” this over-enthusiasm has been transferred to the Spanish national team (which by the end of the match on Sunday was entirely made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid players).

Second, it’s worth noting that there has been a general decline in the competitiveness of the European championship since the end of the Cold War. Eastern European teams, including Poland, Hungary, and the teams emerging from the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, all of which used to pose more serious threats, are no longer real factors.

This decline was established by the championship victory of Denmark in 1992, a team called in at the last minute to replace Yugoslavia, which was then under a sanctions regime. And it was underlined by the victory of Greece in 2004. With all due respect, it’s difficult to imagine either of these two thoroughly second-rate sides, let alone both of them, winning any of the European championships held before 1992.

Third, because football has changed so much and evolved over time, it is practically meaningless to try to pick and choose between sides from different eras. What we can point to, usefully, is a pantheon of great international sides that have punctuated the game with their dominance and redefined the sport in their own era. But it’s not possible or useful to construct counterfactual scenarios about which of these greats was “greater” than the others, because the periods of relative dominance or redefinition have all been noteworthy in their own way.

There’s no question that the current Spanish team is the dominant force at the moment, and the most powerful and influential squad in the past quarter-century. But numerous other past teams had at least as significant an impact.

Even in this moment of Spain-euphoria, a significant minority is loudly and rightly recalling the overwhelming brilliance of the Brazilian team from 1970, which still dazzles more than 40 years on.

Tiny Uruguay won two of the first four world cups, several Olympics, and 15 Copa America tournaments. While they have long faded from the spotlight, the Uruguayans still cannot be underestimated, as the last World Cup in South Africa proved. Italy won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938, dominating the international scene at the time. Brazil did the same in 1958 and 1962–becoming the only South American side to win a World Cup tournament held in Europe (the reverse has never taken place).

And, although Spain’s most ardent champions point to trophies as “empirical evidence” of “greatness”—as if something so subjective could be quantified—there are at least two major teams that have made huge contributions without major tournament victories.

The most significant of these, without question, is the Hungarian side of the early 1950s. The Hungarians introduced an (initially craftily concealed) original version of the 4-2-4 formation, bringing their center forward back towards the midfield as a pivot point to create far more dynamic spatial interplay on the pitch. They didn’t beat their opponents. They demolished them. The implications of this tactical transformation are still being developed to this day.

Football can reasonably be divided into pre-Hungary and post-Hungary circa 1950s eras. Before it was effectively disbanded by the Hungarian uprising in 1956, this side played 47 matches of which they won 40, drew six and lost just one: the World Cup final in 1954 in a fluke defeat to a West German side Hungary had crushed in an earlier round.

Building on ideas pioneered by the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the early 1930s, Ajax Amsterdam and Holland developed in the 1970s what became known as “total football,” which was also extremely influential. However, it didn’t win the Dutch national side any major tournament victories. But it’s ironic to hear fans of Spain or Barcelona disparage the Dutch legacy, as much of their style makes them direct heirs to that tactical approach.

This only touches on the great sides that dominated or redefined football in various eras. Right now, it is Spain. But proclaiming them “the greatest ever” reflects amnesia, ignorance or an indefensible attachment to the contemporary. Let’s give Spain their due, but not impoverish history in the process. And if they really do the “impossible” and win again in Brazil in 2014, we’ll revisit these claims then.