Monthly Archives: September 2012

Blasphemy: an indispensable human right

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

As I predicted last week, the Organization of Islamic Conference has seized on the controversies regarding an anti-Islam video clip on YouTube and satirical cartoons about Mohammed in a French magazine to renew its call for a global ban on “blasphemy.” The OIC is, in effect, not only announcing that Muslim states in general have no intention of allowing real freedom of conscience and speech, but they want to bully the West into eliminating those freedoms as well.

OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu called on countries that respect free speech to “come out of hiding from behind the excuse of freedom of expression.” OIC governments apparently cannot resist the populist appeal of perversely posing as “defenders of Islam” by attacking free thought and free speech.

Who, after all, will be authorized to define “blasphemy”? Does anything that offends any religious sensibilities qualify as “blasphemy”? Will a critical mass of objections be seen as legitimate grounds for silencing critics of religious doctrine, scholarly inquiry into their origins, skeptical analysis of superstition and faith, iconoclasm, or mockery of religious claims, symbols, assertions, and shibboleths?

Iran is a member state of the OIC. It has just raised the bounty, issued decades ago, against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. The novel, which is a fine one, is not, in fact, blasphemous by any reasonable definition. It probably would’ve been an even more interesting book if it had been. But it offended people, most of whom had not read it, was declared and widely considered “blasphemous,” and therefore presumably would be banned under the OIC’s proposals.

Pakistan says it’s going to press the issue of a global “blasphemy” ban at the UN and other multilateral institutions. This is the same country that is persecuting a teenage Christian girl for alleged blasphemy in a most horrifying and indefensible manner. Along with a number of other Muslim-majority states, Pakistan allows for the death penalty, at least theoretically, for “blasphemy” criminal offenses.

Several Arab states, including Egypt and Kuwait, have recently been toying with new criminal definitions of “blasphemy” that specifically ban insulting the wives and companions of the Prophet Mohammed, which is barely concealed code for the suppression of Shiite doctrinal criticism of Sunni Islam. The OIC is based in Saudi Arabia, a country that does not allow freedom of worship for any non-Muslims. The examples of the hypocrisy behind these calls are simply endless.

If freedom of religion, conscience and speech are to mean anything, religious doctrines, symbols and assertions must be open to inquiry, criticism and, indeed, ridicule. Otherwise, the human thought process will be shut down by force of law in order to protect the sensibilities of the superstitious, and free inquiry into the most central issues facing humanity since the birth of the species will be effectively foreclosed.

These calls reflect a paranoid worldview that is widespread among Muslims that their religion is under some kind of global assault. If so—because Islam is spreading faster than almost any other religion, with the possible exception of Mormonism—it’s an odd kind of siege. In reality, Islam is thriving in its countries of origin and spreading quickly into the West.

What this idea really bespeaks is a terror that most faiths contain at their core: that serious, skeptical, dispassionate evaluations of their specific claims will reveal them to be indefensible, hollow and easily debunked. Embracing modernity requires tolerating such fears without demanding the enforcement of religious orthodoxy, even of an ecumenical variety, through the power of the state.

In fact, and unfortunately, the devout of the world have little to fear. Sigmund Freud was right in his seminal 1927 tract on religion, “The Future of an Illusion,” that as long as people fear death and yearn, in an Oedipal manner, for an all-powerful supernatural father-figure to “exorcise the terrors of nature” and “reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death,” we are likely to be stuck with metaphysical superstitions and religion. There is little chance, in short, that human society at large will ever be free of its grip.

Reason and skepticism, for good or ill, are not poised to overthrow faith. Islam is thriving in the modern world, both in its traditional lands and in its new adopted homes. Its politicized devotees are acquiring increasing power in post-dictatorship Arab societies. And on top of all of this, the OIC wants to globally shut down freedom of thought, conscience and speech to further “protect” Islam from perceived slights.

There is only one appropriate response to this, in language the devout should be able to easily understand: to hell with you.

Free Speech: A Cloistered Value?

One of the most troubling responses to the Middle East violence provoked by a controversial anti-Islam video clip came from the eminent scholar Stanley Fish. Writing in the New York Times, Fish reads the protests entirely through the Western traditions that led to contemporary American free-speech protections. By casting the protesters as a binary, polar opposite of American sensibilities, and then trying to sympathize with them, Fish is simultaneously but groundlessly triumphalist about Western free speech values and disparaging about their universality.

Pakistani students gather near the US embassy during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Islamabad on September 20, 2012. (Farooq Naeem / AFP / GettyImages)
Pakistani students gather near the US embassy during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Islamabad on September 20, 2012. (Farooq Naeem / AFP / GettyImages)

Fish creates an indefensible framework implying that free speech can only be the product of Western, and indeed, Protestant political, social and intellectual traditions. Fish argues that the Protestant “bargain with the state” was to get freedom of religion in exchange for keeping it out of the public sphere. From that, he notes, we derive everything essential in American free-speech rights.

The implication is that it is almost impossible for any society that is not directly the product of the Protestant Reformation to embrace some variant of the principle of defending even unpalatable speech. His foil—demonstrating this supposed uniqueness—is not surprisingly the Muslims of the world, specifically the video protesters. Fish is convinced that, “the entire package of American liberalism… is one the protesters necessarily reject.”

Fish omits completely how organized groups in various countries sought to use the protests for their own political purposes. Worse, he badly misreads the psychology of many of the individual protesters, which was admirably summed up in the Sydney Morning Herald by Waleed Aly.

Fish implicitly argues that Islamic traditions invariably produce a totalitarian religious social order, relying on reductive, orientalist caricatures of what in fact are extremely heterogeneous Muslim histories, and intellectual and political heritages. There are deep traditions of pluralism within Islamic theology and Arab culture. Moreover, there is no tradition of mob protests associated with insults against Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. This mob reaction to perceived insults is not “traditional,” but rather grounded in a concatenation of circumstances, new interpretations of religion, and emergent political ideologies that developed during the 20th century.

Like all religions, Islam can be mobilized to legitimate almost any social and political program. The present burst of intolerance, chauvinism and paranoia on the Islamic religious right is clearly and traceably the product of a specific set of cultural and historical circumstances, most notably the encounter with colonialism, and the program by Islamists to reinterpret Islam along reactionary political lines over the past century.

Fish’s implication that this kind of intolerant reaction is essentially hardwired into all non-Western and non-Protestant traditions begs the question how Catholic and Orthodox Europe, or Latin America, ever adopted liberal values. And his framework suggests liberalism can only be adopted in Asia and Africa through colonialism, mimicry or Western cultural hegemony, and maybe not even then.

It is solipsistic, if not narcissistic, to imagine that—because the culturally-specific features of contemporary American liberalism (that, after all, in our own history was long in the making and is still not fully accomplished) derive from certain Protestant Western European traditions—this is therefore the only context in which such values can be firmly rooted. By pretending to “understand” the illiberal attitude of what he imagines the protesters’ mindset must be, Fish simultaneously privileges the American, Protestant and Western traditions (in that order) and implicitly dismisses all others as belonging to different experiences that cannot produce an adherence to values such as free speech.

Modernity may have originated in the West, but it no longer belongs exclusively to the West. Almost all existing societies participate in and help shape it. A few decades ago, Partha Chatterjee suggested that for the postcolonial world, modernity was always and inevitably “a derivative discourse,” that would invariably be defined in the West. With the rise of numerous postcolonial powers, that argument looks harder to defend.

Obviously there are going to be significant differences in the ways in which modernity and liberalism take root in different societies. Even among societies emerging from the Protestant Western tradition, American free-speech rights are uniquely permissive. Canada bans hate speech. Britain has official secrets, prior restraint, anti-blasphemy and notoriously lax libel laws. Numerous countries in Western Europe have made it a serious crime to question the historicity of the Holocaust.

Given these variations within societies emerging directly from the Western Protestant Reformation—all of which can still be called liberal societies that value and protect free speech—it should be obvious that globally there will be even greater variations. It’s wrong to think that the essential values embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and so forth, only be grounded in Western traditions. These are universal values because there is something innate to modern humanity that strives to realize the essence of these freedoms, whatever culturally-specific variations may occur.

In an effort to be open-minded gone terribly wrong, Fish forecloses the idea that other cultures and traditions, specifically the Islamic and Arab ones, can inform and secure freedom of speech and, implicitly, other liberal values. A quick survey of freedom of speech around the world suggests he is wrong about the unique ability societies rooted in the Protestant Reformation to embody these values. They have already spread far and wide. There is no reason to think that the Arab or Islamic worlds, or any other major cultural block in the modern world, is somehow uniquely immune them.

An orgy of cynicism

The events surrounding the mayhem in the Middle East in response to an ostensibly crude anti-Islam video can only be described as a cavalcade of cynicism.

First there is the cynicism of the filmmakers and their sponsors, whose identity, political affiliations and ultimate purpose have not yet been adequately uncovered. The currently received account about Coptic felons in California is patently inadequate. This insidious film was very carefully calculated, and promoted by its front men, to provoke a hysterical response among Muslim extremists. The precise purpose—and the timing—of this project, its actual authors and their political intentions, remain to be discovered. American investigative reporters have an important task ahead of them. Whether they will be up to the job remains to be seen.

Second, there is the cynicism of the Salafist extremists who, predictably, seized upon the video clip for their own purposes and whipped up a frenzy of manufactured outrage to advance their political interests. They deliberately unleashed a campaign of violence in much of the Arab and Islamic world, directed generally against any manner of Western targets, all totally unrelated to the video. It’s likely that the dastardly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other diplomats was planned in advance and is a distinct phenomenon, separate from the rioting.

But the Muslim extremists stoking the flames of anti-Western violent outrage are following a well-established pattern of seizing on anything that confirms their paranoid and chauvinistic narrative of an Islam under constant attack by the West, and the notion that the American government, above all, is behind this fictional assault. These campaigns are not, of course, aimed at their ostensible Western targets, but are entirely domestic. They are designed to increase the domestic social and political authority of extremist Islamist movements and undermine and attack local authorities.

It’s been fascinating to watch the newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood parties in post-dictatorship Arab societies, and reactionary Muslim clerics in Arab states not hostile to the global and regional status quo, struggling to deal with the crisis. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood initially was part of the campaign of outrage, but quickly realized that the principal target would be the government of its own new president, Mohamed Morsi. They found themselves torn between their instinctive default toward a traditional adherence to the anti-Western paranoid and chauvinist narrative, and their new imperatives and responsibilities in government.

Indeed, they’re still struggling to cope with this newfound anomaly between their attitudes and their interests. While some statements from these organizations continue to reflect the traditional narrative, which is sympathetic to the attitudes, if not conduct, of the rioters, others have tried to defuse tensions. Numerous fatwas, statements by leaders, including the influential Youssef Qaradawi, and government actions have sought to calm the situation. Call this learning on the job, but the curve appears considerable. The spectacle has been fascinating but unedifying.

Then there is the cynicism of the professional Islamophobes in the West who have sought to distance themselves from the message of the film although it is consistent with everything they otherwise preach.

Finally, the subtlest form of cynicism in this affair has been from those in the Islamic world who have condemned the violence but also suggested that it again shows why the West should “balance” freedom of speech with restrictions on the right to give offense to religious traditions of others.

The Organization of Islamic Conference, and many Muslim leaders and intellectuals, have long called for the creation of a zone of censorship around religious sentiments in which free speech is formally curtailed or restricted. This is, of course, strictly antithetical to genuine notions of free speech, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of religion and conscience. Worse, it implicitly endorses the mindset of the extremists.

By citing the violent response of extremists and injured sentiments of non-extremists, such calls seek to sacrifice a fundamental human right to protect religious and cultural sensibilities. This must be categorically rejected not only by Western governments but also by all people committed to universal freedoms and fundamental human rights. The Muslims of the world are simply going to have to get used to the fact that freedom means everybody has an equal opportunity to be offended and that they must endure this without a violent response or the suppression of free speech. Asking for strong condemnations of intolerant, outrageous expression is reasonable. Asking for censorship is not.

The real political intentions and authors of the video must be uncovered. The violence of the extremists must be suppressed and punished, and their agenda exposed. Islamophobes must be held responsible for their hatred. And demands for censorship to protect religious or political sensitivities must be rejected out of hand. The orgy of cynicism has to stop.

A Hollow Call For “Justice”

Ben Cohen’s response to my recent piece systematically proves every point I make about Israel’s cynical new campaign to raise the issue of Jewish refugees. In particular he demonstrates that this is not about defending the rights of Jewish refugees, since no substantive demands on their behalf are made, but simply about using them to try to obliterate the claims of Palestinians. It’s one of the oddest cries for “justice” I’ve ever encountered, since it seeks merely to deny the claims of others.

A picture dated February 10, 2009 shows the entrance of an abandoned Jewish synagogue with a removed Star of David from the wall in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. (Saddam Hussein / AFP / Getty Images)
A picture dated February 10, 2009 shows the entrance of an abandoned Jewish synagogue with a removed Star of David from the wall in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. (Saddam Hussein / AFP / Getty Images)

Cohen thinks the source of my “umbrage” is a conference. It’s not. It’s a much broader campaign, organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, to raise the issue globally as part of Israel’s political strategy. Israeli diplomats around the world, for example, have been instructed to raise the issue at every possible opportunity. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who makes no secret of his hostility to a peace agreement and support for the occupation, is leading the campaign.

Bona fide efforts by Jews from the Arab world to recuperate their history are legitimate and desirable. There is nothing to be gained by covering over aspects history that I described as “a stain on Arab honor.” Cohen suggests I repeat an “oft-heard claim of Arab propagandists that Jews lived in harmony and equality with their Arab and Muslim neighbors until the Zionist movement started meddling.” In fact I argued the contrary: that while Israel’s government was enthusiastic about the mass migration, growing hostility to Jewish communities in the Arab world after and before the creation of Israel made normal life impossible.

If the issue of Palestinian refugees did not persist and was not a final status issue, the Israeli government would not be launching this campaign. Cohen claims I am “fixated… with the notion of an Israeli plot.” It’s not a plot. It’s a well-publicized, announced campaign, with obvious political and diplomatic intentions.

Cohen’s repetition of crude hasbara talking points is demonstrated by his dismissal of “the hoary myth of the ‘Nakba,'” in contrast to “the horror of the ethnic cleansing” of Jews from the Arab world. This is the essence of the campaign: to downplay and dismiss the sudden and crushing destruction of Palestinian national society and the displacement of most of its residents in 1948, while describing the far more complex and protracted migration of Jews from Arab states to Israel, under multiple circumstances with many different experiences, in the most reductive and emotionally charged language possible.

Cohen’s main point is that, “We’ll give up our refugee status… if you give up yours.” Or rather that’s what he wants Palestinians to say to Jewish Israelis of Arab origin. Like the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Cohen wants Palestinians to drop what both parties agreed would be one of the four major final status issues: the question of the Palestinian refugees. That’s the purpose behind the campaign, dovetailing with many other efforts to achieve the same effect.

It’s telling that this is the only indication of what “justice” for Jewish refugees, to which Cohen refers many times, might look like. He doesn’t ask for their right of return to their countries of origin, because they don’t want that. He doesn’t raise the issue of their property rights, because that would also beg the question of who owned what in Palestine on the eve of the creation of the Israeli state. It would imply the right of Palestinian owners to all the property seized by Israel’s “Absentee Property Law” of 1950 and other actions that expropriated the lands and other possessions belonging to what had been the country’s majority inhabitants in 1948: the Palestinians.

So, “justice” for Jewish refugees doesn’t mean restoring any of their own rights to property, return and so forth. Instead this is just cynically using their narrative to deny Palestinians the ability negotiate over their own refugee issue. The message is in effect: Drop this issue, even though we agreed to negotiate over it in 1993.

As a question of history, memory and narrative, raising these issues is a perfectly reasonable project, although it doesn’t sit very well with the broader Zionist narrative. But as an effort to eliminate a core, long agreed upon, final status issue (the Palestinian refugees) or suddenly introduce a new one (Jewish refugees), the campaign perfectly reflects the politics of its leader, Ayalon. His argument is, in essence, that Jews must have their state—Israel—as a refuge, but Palestinians shouldn’t have one of their own. That’s the idea of “justice” that informs this campaign.

Ayalon’s hostility to Palestinian statehood, and insistence that there is no occupation and that Israel has full national rights in all of the territories under its control, are the obvious subtext. Cohen’s response to me confirms, not dispels, that undisguised reality.

Hitchens’ “Mortality” evokes an unforgettable voice

Narratives about dying are among the least appealing genre of memoir. Whether first-person or narrated by some long-suffering beloved, it seems almost impossible to strike a tone that is sufficiently moving and engaging, while simultaneously avoiding the maudlin, predictable or downright dull.

Given this opinion, had he not been a close friend of mine, I would probably have avoided reading Christopher Hitchens’ final, posthumously published, book, Mortality. But it would’ve been a terrible mistake: this is painful but richly rewarding reading.

The last few chapters are either new, or among the essays I chose not to read when they were first published out of sheer cowardice as their subject matter and tone—mirroring his own condition—grew increasingly brutal. If one of the reasons for my generalized disinterest in memoirs of dying is that a certain lack of empathy, then a sudden and equally undignified excess of it blocked my ability to follow the last installments of my friend’s account of his illness’ final, inevitable outcome.

As I knew would be the case, Christopher spares us nothing regarding the ever-escalating physical and emotional trauma to which he was being subjected. I was probably right to avert my eyes at the time. My reaction wouldn’t have done anybody any good. But, as Christopher rightly admonishes us, “the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.”

Mortality manages to avoid almost all the pitfalls of the memoir of illness or dying. It’s brief and to the point. It’s learned and reflective. It’s unsentimental but cries out with genuine human emotion: for himself, those around him including caregivers, and for humanity in general.

Christopher doesn’t feel sorry for himself, exactly, but he does acknowledge that he was being tortured. He compares his illness and treatment to the time he was voluntarily waterboarded in order to test the patently false Bush administration claims the technique did not constitute torture.

A particularly haunting passage is an extended meditation on Nietzsche’s dictum “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”—an evidently ludicrous proposition. Nietzsche experienced a profound trauma when interfering to prevent the brutal beating of a horse. Christopher links this episode to “the awful, graphic dream [also of a horse being beaten] experienced by Raskolnikov on the night before he commits the decisive murders in ‘Crime and Punishment.'” Christopher manifestly compares his trauma with Nietzsche’s, but there’s also a latent, and clear, identification with the horses.

For more than 10 years I was a frequent visitor to his Washington apartment. Even though he writes that “Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries,” that was exactly what I decided to do from the outset. I never asked anything, and silently absorbed whatever he or his wife, Carol Blue (who writes a moving afterword to Mortality), chose to tell me.

The only thing I had to offer was the normalcy of friendship and of conversations about anything and everything except cancer. In a barely excusable way, it’s gratifying to read that this paltry offering was not in vain since, “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends.”

One of the most moving themes in Mortality is Christopher’s powerfully conveyed horror at the inexorable erosion of his ability to do the two main things he lived for: speak and write. His illness, he writes, deprived him of “the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.” It took a while to set in, but the decline in both his ability and will to speak as he once did so masterfully was painfully obvious. His internal reflections on this terror are, inevitably, all the more deeply affecting.

In this context, he provides invaluable advice for writers: “Find your own voice.” For Christopher, writing was an extension of talking: “If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page.” It’s hard to overstate how much this resonates with me, since I use software to dictate, not type, almost everything I write. This advice helps most if you can think in complete sentences and paragraphs. Christopher thought in fully realized essays and even books.

As he chronicles his illness, Christopher continues to rail at his favorite targets: religious superstition (including intersessionary prayers on his own behalf), abuses by government (including the torture practiced by his adopted American homeland), irrationality, and any easy retreat into comforting illusions.

Had he been granted more of a reprieve, Christopher probably could have written a definitive memoir of the dying process. As it is, he’s left us a final fierce, unflinching and defiant parting shot that is plainly unfinished, but eminently worthy of his brilliant pen and, above all, that mighty, unforgettable voice.

You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee

Recently Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announced on twitter that he was launching a new “viral campaign” about Jewish refugees and migrants in Israel from the Arab world. From his official perch, Ayalon has jumped into a debate that already engendered much back-and-forthincluding on Open Zion, when it was introduced in the U.S. Congress in late July.

This new effort is part of a broader pattern on the part of some Israeli officials and their supporters to raise the issue of Jewish refugees from the Arab world to “counterbalance” or offset the issue of the Palestinian refugees. These efforts are also linked to Israeli-inspired efforts in the U.S. Congress to redefine Palestinian refugees to include only those who were alive during the 1948 war and to defund the UN agencies that care for the refugees. There is a broad-based campaign to try to render the Palestinian refugee issue irrelevant as a final status issue so that Israel need make no concessions because of it.

Musa Al Shaer / AFP / Getty Images

It’s long been a shibboleth of Israeli hasbara that there was “an exchange of populations” between Israel and the Arab world of roughly similar sizes, and therefore Palestinian refugee claims are moot. But the analogy is flawed in many ways and the new campaign is politically and diplomatically pernicious.

There is no doubt that the mistreatment of Jews in many Arab states in the decades following, and to some extent preceding, the establishment of the State of Israel represents a terrible stain on Arab honor. In many Arab states, persecution, anti-Semitism, violence and even expulsions contributed to the exodus of Jews from the Arab world. But the mass migration unfolded over many decades, and a great many different experiences and factors contributed to the profoundly regrettable emptying of the Arab world of most of its Jewish citizens.

The analogy is both a red herring and a sleight-of-hand.

It’s a red herring because when they first started negotiating in Madrid and Oslo, the parties agreed that there were four key final status issues: borders, security, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Until recently, no Israeli government attempted to raise the issue of Jewish refugees and migrants from the Arab world in Israel in the negotiations, just as Palestinians have avoided bringing up issues involving the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

It’s a sleight-of-hand because the political impact of the dispossession of the Palestinian refugees is precisely the opposite of the “ingathering” of the Arab Jews in Israel. The Palestinian Nakba of 1948 was the destruction of a national society. The migration of Arab Jews to Israel, by contrast, and especially from the Zionist perspective, was the realization of a national agenda. However painful and ugly the circumstances at times were, it was the realization of the very purpose of the Israeli state. And these Arab Jews make up a huge percentage of the Jewish Israeli majority, so their presence in Israel has been and is essential to the fulfillment and maintenance of the Israeli national project.

For this reason, Israel strongly encouraged Jewish migration from the Arab states, and was heavily involved in promoting it through various means. There is an ongoing and heated debate about whether an Israeli-supported Jewish underground movement planted bombs against Jewish targets in Baghdad in 1951 in order to sow fear and prompt Jewish flight. Given the 1954 Lavon affair in which Israeli agents attacked Western targets in an effort to try to poison Western-Arab relations, it’s not unthinkable these accusations could be true (in 2005, the surviving conspirators in the Lavon affair were officially honored by Israeli President Moshe Katzav). But it’s also not particularly relevant, since anti-Jewish sentiment and behavior in Arab societies, including Iraq, were independently making normal life difficult and sometimes impossible.

There has never been a groundswell movement for Jewish refugees and migrants from the Arab world to return, and Israel has rarely raised the issue except to try to counteract the Palestinian refugee question. There is a fundamental contradiction between regarding ingathering and “aliyah” as a glorious fulfillment of the promise of Zionism on the one hand and as a terrible human tragedy on the other.

The negotiating process is already overburdened with difficult emotional issues. During the Annapolis meeting in November, 2007, the Israeli delegation attempted to raise, for the first time, the question of the “Jewish character” of the state of Israel. Neither the Palestinians nor the Bush administration acquiesced to the introduction of this question. Both the Palestinians and the Americans understood that it had profound implications for the Palestinian refugee question. And they understood that in normal diplomatic relations, states define themselves without demanding a recognition of their “character” from their neighbors as a condition for peaceful relations.

However, since returning to office in March 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has harped on the issue so incessantly that he may have succeeded in making it a de facto fifth element, yet another complicating factor that makes achieving a final status agreement all the more difficult. It’s probably the case that, thanks to his efforts, some kind of language will have to be found to satisfy Israelis on that issue, although it will almost certainly have to come at the end, and not the beginning, of final status negotiations.

Both the Jewish refugee issue and the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state are clearly efforts to undermine one of the few remaining aspects of Palestinian leverage in the negotiations. For decades, everyone serious about the achievement of a workable two-state solution has understood that the most difficult political issues facing Israel and the Palestinians are Jerusalem and refugees, respectively. There has been an implicit assumption that a quid pro quo of painful concessions on these issues is a sine qua non for achieving a peace agreement. All the Israelis and Palestinians who have been serious about negotiations have understood this from the outset.

So it’s difficult not to see Israeli efforts to secure an end run around the refugee issue, foreclosing it as a practical matter of negotiations, as linked to a desire to stonewall on Jerusalem. However, since no Palestinian leadership is likely to accept an arrangement in which the Palestinian capital is not based in East Jerusalem, these efforts are fundamentally incompatible with the actual realization of a peace agreement.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon—who in the past launched an online campaign to deny there was any occupation of Palestinian lands at all—and his boss and party leader Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman haven’t been coy about their lack of enthusiasm regarding peace with the Palestinians. The history of the suffering of both Palestinians and Jewish Arabs must be honestly confronted, recognized and honored. But deliberately trying to introduce ever more final status issues, and delve even deeper into the painful histories that peace must overcome, is willfully and deliberately unhelpful. No wonder the new campaign about the Arab Jews is being championed by those Israeli leaders who make no secret of believing that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is neither achievable nor desirable.

Is peace a “vital” American interest?

“Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vital national security interest,” the voice of the American foreign policy consensus has intoned, with its trademark gravitas, for the past decade. “But,” it continues sagely, “We cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.” Around Washington wise heads have nodded grimly at the self-evidence of this hegemonic dictum.

Few have stopped to notice that this formulation is internally inconsistent to the point of being an oxymoron. Either resolving the conflict is a vital interest or it isn’t.

If it is vital, then obviously the United States not only can, but must, want it more than other parties. What’s vital, after all, can’t be subject to the whims of others’ perceptions.

If, on the other hand, this interest is subject to the needs, desires, political contingencies and caprices of other powers, how vital can it be? Handing “the parties” a veto of noncooperation is hardly consistent with genuinely deeming an interest to be “vital.”

There is, of course, a deeper complication. The primary reason for the caveat that undermines the assertion that peace is vital to the United States is actually that any American administration, because of the domestic political balance of power, is profoundly limited in the timing and nature of the pressure it can put on Israel.

The Obama administration began by gambling heavily on securing a settlement freeze, but proved unwilling or unable to apply the necessary pressure to secure and maintain a genuine freeze that actually slowed, let alone halted, settlement expansion. In retrospect, it probably would have been more helpful if they had avoided raising the issue entirely.

It is possible for American administrations to pick limited fights with Israel, although the fundamental American commitment to Israel’s security is not the subject of any debate. But the Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter and George H.W. Bush administrations all had carefully calculated confrontations with Israeli governments over specific issues and were fundamentally successful. Ronald Reagan, too, batted aside Israeli objections regarding the sale of AWACS observation planes to Saudi Arabia. So it’s not as if the American government is unable to take on Israel and its American allies if it wants or needs to.

But all of these confrontations preceded the era in which a two-state peace agreement was declared “vital” to American interests. Since then, no real fight has taken place as Israel has pursued policies, particularly settlement expansion, that make its realization more remote.

The Palestinians, of course, are also an important factor. Not only does an American administration require the will to act aggressively on peace, it needs some sense that there is a prospect of success. That depends in no small measure on believing that there is a Palestinian partner that can be relied upon. Yasser Arafat played just such a role with Bill Clinton during the Wye River negotiations, which ultimately set the stage for the collapse of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term in office.

Now that he’s back in the premiership, the Americans have once again found Netanyahu both personally and politically impossible to deal with on peace-related issues. But they’ve also found the Palestinian leadership to be, from their point of view, infuriating, particularly with regard to settlements and efforts to secure greater recognition at the UN.

Under the Obama administration, the United States has precisely come to see itself as “wanting peace more than the parties themselves,” whether that’s true or not. It views the Israeli leadership as belligerent and intransigent and the Palestinian leadership as petulant and incorrigible.

To this are added the domestic political constraints that allow partisan and personal politics to trump policy and the national interest. The consequence has been that the United States has all but bowed out from the pursuit of an interest that has almost unanimously been deemed vital but is now becoming increasingly regarded as unachievable.

Obviously it’s only unachievable, however, if it never was actually vital. Domestic politics, obstructionism or the interests of others couldn’t really be allowed to stand in the way of the achievement of a genuinely vital security interest of a global superpower. Americans have to stop kidding themselves and decide which part of their contemporary mantra about Middle East peace is false: Is it vital, or is it subject to the will and veto of others?

If Israeli-Palestinian peace is not actually a vital United States national security interest, Americans are going to have to seriously and honestly count the costs of accepting failure for the foreseeable future. But if it is still considered vital, as it should be, then Americans are going to have to abandon the traditional caveat.

Whoever wins the coming presidential election, Americans must indeed want peace more than the parties themselves, act resolutely on that understanding, and stop allowing domestic politics to trump the US national interest.