Monthly Archives: November 2012

Arab Americans Need Political Normalization

Following the recent election, and noting the growing influence of nontraditional power blocs such as Latinos, Arab Americans have again raised the question of how they can become politically empowered. There is only one answer: become politically “normal” Americans.

This seems simultaneously a provocative and absurdly facile response. Who wants to be “abnormal?” The initial reaction might be outrage: in what way are you suggesting we’re not “normal Americans?” But for many Arab Americans, especially as a collectivity, becoming politically “normal”—successfully acculturated to and invested in the American political system—is easy to endorse in theory but exceptionally difficult to accomplish in practice.

A coalition of groups demonstrate calling for an end to Israeli attacks in Gaza December 30, 2008 across from the Israeli Consulate in New York. (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)
A coalition of groups demonstrate calling for an end to Israeli attacks in Gaza December 30, 2008 across from the Israeli Consulate in New York. (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)

Normalization means accepting that the system is open to all. There are no laws preventing effective participation, and no candidates who aren’t responsive to the normal levers of influence: votes, money, time and advocacy. But there is a self-defeating delusion prevalent among many Arab Americans that they are uniquely excluded. Some identify anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia as insurmountable barriers. Others say our opponents are so powerful that we cannot be heard.

Moreover, the community is badly divided along numerous axes. Many Arab Americans have imported political allegiances from the Middle East. They identify primarily with organizations or constituencies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Palestine, rather than those here in the United States, and formulate their policies accordingly. As my friend and colleague Ziad Asali, President of the American Task Force on Palestine, has pointed out, this is the equivalent of running into the middle of a football game waving a tennis racket and expecting to affect the outcome.

Many Arab Americans left the Middle East precisely to get away from politics, where it has been a terrain of oppression, corruption and, above all, defeat. Politics are considered dirty, because in the Arab world they typically are. Woe betide those on the losing side of a major political fight in most Arab states. So there is a completely unrealistic sense of the cost of political engagement. Many Arab Americans believe even the most mainstream political engagement will get them on some kind of “list,” invite law enforcement surveillance or damage their business opportunities. Such paranoia often functions simply as an excuse to refuse to donate time and money.

No doubt since 9/11 Arab and Muslim Americans have been subjected to unfair and abusive scrutiny by law enforcement. Scandals involving surveillance and infiltration of mosques in southern California and the greater New York City area are all too real. Yet there is no American mukhabarat (secret police). And overzealous and misguided counterterrorism policies don’t mean there is a higher price or a greater barrier to mainstream political participation.

To the contrary, Arab and Muslim Americans can point to numerous instances in which arrests have been made and potential threats thwarted due to their own cooperation with law enforcement. And, as with the growing problem of cultural and political Islamophobia, the most effective response is communal empowerment within the system that would make the social and political costs of discrimination and bigotry prohibitive for promoters of fear and hatred.

Anti-Arab racists and Islamophobic bigots have been able to thrive over the past decade. But one of the principal causes has been the relative impotence of the unorganized and divided Arab and Muslim political response. Serious, respectful and patriotic collective engagement in our country’s political system simultaneously raises the costs of hate speech and proves the bigots wrong. Continued relative disengagement gives them free space in which to operate and does nothing to expose their false accusations.

Probably the greatest barrier to Arab normalization in American politics is the profound alienation many feel towards U.S. policies, particularly regarding the Middle East and Israel. Political correctness and litmus tests, ruthlessly enforced by social and ideological bullies, cripple the community’s ability to successfully participate in American decision-making.

Many influential Arab Americans operating in academia or online forums represent the far left. Others, more quietly but just as insidiously, operate from the Muslim religious right. In their respective echo chambers and cult-like environments, they thunder in righteous indignation that the entire U.S. political system is corrupt and corrupting, engagement with it is debased and debasing, and those who engage seriously betray indispensable moral values and principles.

They revel in the imaginary moral authority of victimization and alienation, and enforce a crippling political correctness, typically based on paranoid and chauvinistic Arab nationalism. This ensures either willful disengagement, or guaranteed ineffectiveness by insisting on political messaging that is not receivable by the government, the policy community or mainstream American society.

For decades Arab Americans have been saying, “We should follow the example of the Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Irish, etc., and engage and empower ourselves.” American political normalization indeed means doing exactly what those communities have done: putting aside imported politics and allegiances from the old world and looking for every opportunity to deal with the government and all key actors on terms of mutual respect. But the litmus tests of political correctness ensure that any Arab American who actually tries to follow those examples and become politically normal in American terms is instantaneously vilified as treacherous, corrupt and morally bankrupt.

There have been numerous individual Arab-American members of Congress, senators, governors and others who have enjoyed political success. But generally speaking they are not popular or influential figures within the community. In every case they got where they did completely on their own and in spite, not because, of their Arab-American identity. To date, this identity is still a political liability, and in no case has it proven an asset to any elected or appointed official.

On foreign policy, normalization means acculturation to the really existing policy making and framing discourse, not indulging in gadfly critiques or imagining alternative versions of the national interest. It means approaching officials with ideas that can help them achieve their goals, not angrily rejecting the consensus on the national interest with pseudo-moral grandstanding, or self-gratifying and purely rhetorical “anti-imperialism.”

Normalizing means becoming genuinely engaged in the political and policy-making system. That doesn’t mean agreeing with every policy, but it requires dropping a knee-jerk and undisguised attitude of hostility towards the law enforcement, defense, intelligence and foreign policy communities. Arab-American organizations that have allowed military, intelligence, FBI or other government agencies to rent recruiting booths at their functions are invariably subjected to vehement abuse. But who in their right mind would prefer such crucial agencies to have no Arab-American input and be run entirely by others? Only those who derive a neurotic emotional satisfaction from the jouissance and supposed moral authority produced by the pain of social and political marginalization. Yet this is a widespread affect among Arab Americans.

Above all, normalization means being willing to work with constituencies of all ethnicities and orientations to achieve desirable results, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the better. It requires normalization with all other Americans—including the Jewish American mainstream—to be part of the conversation and, when possible, forge alliances for mutually beneficial purposes.

It is normative American political behavior to, for example, shake hands with an ambassador, including Israel’s, on their national day, and talk to mainstream organizations, including pro-Israel groups, on a regular and mutually respectful basis. Refusing to engage in such elementary political protocol is, in fact, to reject normal American political participation.

The accusation of “normalization” with Israel, Israelis, and mainstream Jewish-American groups is one of the most damaging and ubiquitous condemnations employed by the commissars of Arab-American political correctness. Similar denunciations, although less consistent and more implicit, are leveled against those who dare to “normalize” with the American government, establishment and political system.

As long as normative American political behavior is stigmatized as anathema, political normalcy for Arab Americans, as a community, will remain a distant dream. Self-imposed marginalization will persist. And self-defeating Arab Americans will continue to regard “normalization” not as a goal, but as the most damning of invectives.


A Memo to the US President [whoever wins tonight]

Dear Mr. President: congratulations on winning today’s election. The third debate with your esteemed opponent reflected a broad consensus on foreign policy. Both of you therefore appeared well-positioned to make any necessary course corrections, but the job is yours.

US Middle East policy needs to be tweaked rather than overhauled. On most pressing issues, current policies reflect a reasonable balance between American values and interests, and the really existing options and politically plausible positions for any administration.

However, now that the election is over, the following matters require serious attention.

The current policy towards Syria is proving self-defeating, as many of us had warned. By limiting American engagement to soft power applications and declining to become involved in arming and otherwise empowering those rebels most friendly to our values and interests, we have allowed others to shape the armed opposition’s character.

Extreme “Jihadists” are becoming distressingly prominent in the struggle to overthrow the Syrian government, an inevitable and predicted consequence of our relative inaction. Soft power cannot shape the nature, or influence the outcome, of an ongoing armed conflict. Soft power initiatives can address humanitarian issues on the margins of a conflict, and also some aspects of its aftermath, but without being backed by any form of hard power, its impact even in those spheres is limited.

No one is advocating American boots on the ground in Syria. And, indeed, precisely calibrating the application of some form of hard power requires coordination with allies and careful review of intelligence. But now the election is over, the United States must move quickly to reverse the drift in Syria that is producing everything we have most feared: a new focal point for empowered Jihadists; a prolonged sectarian conflict characterized by gruesome atrocities; the spread of the war into neighboring countries; and long-term threats to the security of minority communities.

The lack of American leadership on Syria feeds the broader problem of a growing impression in the region that the United States is adopting an essentially passive attitude towards the tumultuous changes in the Arab world.

The basic American position that we cannot dictate to the Arabs what governments they elect, or object to democracy because Islamists may prosper, is correct. But both the government and much of the broader Washington policy community seem to be drifting towards an excessive accommodation of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists.

It is a grave error to misread the Brotherhood as a bulwark against their more extreme Salafist or Jihadist rivals. Dealing respectfully and, when possible, cooperatively with Islamist governments is necessary and important. But it is inexcusable to harbor any illusions about their fundamental worldview, value system and attitude towards the West. And it is urgent and imperative for the United States to do a great deal more to politically empower and support those in the Arab world who share our ideals.

An overcorrection, which would imply an attitude of reflexive hostility to all Islamist groups, is certainly to be avoided. But a more healthy balance between support for Arab democracy and a realistic assessment of the Islamist political agenda must be developed. This is especially important in preventing potential but avoidable confrontations with new Islamist-influenced Arab governments by adopting policies that leave no uncertainty about American values and interests.

It is also imperative that the United States and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah work together to urgently repair their relationship. Annoyance at Palestinian diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations does not justify a policy that is inadvertently empowering Hamas.

In particular, support for the institution-building project led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad must be restored, especially as Qatar, Turkey and Egypt are vying for influence in Gaza. The current circumstances allow Hamas to argue they have friends, patrons, a strategy and a vision, while their rivals in Ramallah don’t. This is not in the American interest.

Resurrecting meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be difficult, but a peace agreement is indeed a vital American national interest. This must begin with repairing American-Palestinian Authority relations, with both sides taking the necessary and courageous measures required.

Proactive, assertive policies such as calling for the removal of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the limited intervention in Libya characterized what has generally been a sound approach to the Arab uprisings. But the sense of drift on Syria policy; the collapse of the peace process and crisis in US-Palestinian relations; and the impression that Washington sees the rise of Islamist parties in new Arab democracies as either inevitable or innocuous have all contributed to creating a new and dangerous impression of American lack of focus or even apathy.

This drift is easily reversible, and by no means should renewed American assertiveness involve any return to the hawkish aggressivity of the past. But it does require leadership. I’m confident your administration can provide that.

Abbas Stays Put On Refugees

In a recent interview with Israeli television, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed that Palestinians have no claims on the territory that became the state of Israel following the 1948 war, and that he does not believe he has either the right or the interest in returning to live in his home village, Safed, which is in Israel. The comments were angrily attacked by Hamas and small, far left-wing Palestinian groups, and derided as irrelevant by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But most engaged Israelis and Palestinians are well aware that Abbas was merely reiterating things that he had said many times in the past and wasn’t breaking any new policy ground.

Outside of the Middle East, however, Abbas’s remarks appear to have created a great deal of confusion, as have clarifying statements issued both by him and other Palestine Liberation Organization officials explaining that the Palestinian position on the refugee issue has not, in fact, changed. Here’s a basic summary of where the Palestinians stand on the refugee issue and peace with Israel.


Barack Obama watches as Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas shake hands at a trilateral meeting in New York on September 22, 2009. (Pete Souza / White House)

The fundamental Palestinian position is that the refugee issue is one of the four final status issues identified by the parties in the Oslo agreements of 1993. They are therefore to be determined by negotiation, and not by unilateral acts or statements by either party. This is the American position, and that of the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., E.U., U.N. and Russia). It is also, importantly, the official Israeli position, even though Israel has been seeking end-runs around it such as demanding Palestinians recognize the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state, or raising the issue of Jewish refugees and migrants from Arab states. Obviously the Palestinians and Israelis have very different opinions about how the Palestinian refugee question should be resolved in final status talks. But they are formally committed to dealing with them in that context.

Legally speaking, the Palestinians have a powerful case under international law for the right of return not only of refugees that were expelled or fled and prevented from returning in 1948 or 1967, but also their descendents. However, from the outset of the talks, serious negotiators, including the late President Yasser Arafat, understood that there was no possibility of compelling Israel to accept any agreement that allowed millions of Palestinians the option of potentially returning to the Israeli state and eliminating or greatly undermining the Jewish majority within Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries.

The fundamental principle of all negotiations between the parties since Oslo has been that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. There have therefore been many different conversations and trial balloons floated between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Palestinians and Israelis have wrangled over the numbers of Palestinians who might be allowed the option of returning, with Israel seeking to keep the sum to a minimum and package it under an alternative rubric such as “family reunification,” and Palestinians seeking a higher number but not one that would alter the essential demographic structure of Israeli society.

The problem facing the Palestinian leadership is that refugee issues are one of the few articles of real leverage they have left in dealing with Israel. But they are also a shibboleth of the Palestinian national narrative and a very politically costly, albeit necessary, compromise if there is to be a peace agreement.

They therefore cannot afford to “give up” the issue in advance of an agreement with Israel, particularly if they are going to have any hope of getting an Israeli compromise on their own most difficult concession, an agreement regarding Jerusalem. On the other hand, Palestinian leaders clearly need to do more to prepare their people for the necessary and inevitable compromise on return, just as he Israeli leadership needs to prepare its people for a compromise on Jerusalem (which Olmert was indeed discussing with Abbas).

It looks like dissembling and confusion, and sometimes there is an element of that in Palestinian rhetoric about refugees and Israeli rhetoric about Jerusalem. But there is also the real conundrum of not giving anything away in advance for nothing, versus preparing your public for a painful and politically difficult compromise. Abbas’s remarks on Israeli television should be understood as a useful step forward in psychological preparation, which is why he was so savagely attacked by anti-peace factions. On the other hand, the backtracking and clarifications obviously undermined that.

What’s needed is bold, consistent, farsighted leadership from Israeli and Palestinian politicians alike, telling their people in no uncertain terms that they will have to compromise on cherished aspects of their national narratives. Israelis will have to compromise on Jerusalem. Palestinians will have to compromise on refugees. Nobody should expect either of them to make concessions gratis, but everyone should insist that, when the time comes, they do compromise.

Sharansky’s Hypocrisy

The Middle East has more than its share of outrageous hypocrites, but since his arrival in the region, Russian émigré to Israel Natan Sharansky has fought valiantly to secure a place among them. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Sharansky again lectures Arabs about human rights and democracy, expressing relief that Israel did not conclude a peace agreement with the odious regime in Syria.

Human rights activist and current chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images)
Human rights activist and current chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky addresses the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images)

Sharansky decries what he calls “the dismal aftermath of the revolts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia,” as if the outcomes in these three countries were all the same and simply bad. He shows no interest in the fact that Egyptians, Libyans and Tunisians have all at last been able to vote freely for new governments, with very different outcomes in each case, particularly regarding the fortunes of Islamist parties. In spite of his manifest denunciations of dictatorships, it’s almost impossible not to detect some latent nostalgia for the autocracies of Mubarak, Qaddafi and Ben Ali in his “dismal aftermath” characterization.

Sharansky suggests “a combination of pressure and encouragement [for…] nurturing the spread of free institutions, the rule of law and democratic institutions in all areas of civic life.” I also advocate this approach, and take a back seat to no one as a critic of Islamists, and tyrants. The difference is that Sharansky only applies these standards for Arab human rights to Arab governments, not Israel’s occupation, whereas I insist they are universal, and must apply to all people, including Palestinians living under Israeli military control.

If he were sincere, Sharansky’s human rights and democracy interventions would be helpful. But his political career in Israel betrays him as an expansionist Jewish nationalist who has cynically deployed this rhetoric to rationalize Israel’s occupation and denial of Palestinian human rights.

Sharansky extols the virtues of Arab “citizens… prepared to fight to preserve their hard-won freedoms” but fails to note that Palestinians living under Israeli occupation are not citizens of the state that rules them or any other state: the ultimate form of disenfranchisement.

Sharansky absurdly dismisses Palestinians as “the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years,” a malignant misrepresentation of history. But, he allows, at least in theory, “they have the right, if they want, to have their own state… but not at the expense of the state of Israel,” whatever that might, exactly, mean. Yet Sharansky has opposed every effort to actually make peace with the Palestinians or allow them to create such an independent state.

Sharansky rejected the Road Map of the Middle East Quartet, apparently because its main Phase One requirement for Israel was an end to all settlement activity. In 2000, he resigned from the government over the possibility of a compromise on Jerusalem, and in 2003 he authored an article entitled “The Temple Mount is More Important than Peace.” As a government minister he approved numerous confiscations of Palestinian property. In 2005, he again resigned in protest of Israel’s unilateral redeployment and removal of settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

This self-styled “champion of human rights” has robustly defended Israel’s policy of “administrative detention” without due process for Palestinians. His modus operandi is to “contextualize” Israel’s abuse of Palestinian human rights in terms of national and security necessity, in effect giving his own country a free pass when it comes to the standards about which he incessantly lectures everybody else. His basic dictum is that Palestinians must “prove” they are worthy of independence and human rights.

And he has accused Jewish Israeli peace activists of being “collaborators” intent on “setting the Jewish home on fire.” So much for political pluralism and tolerance.

Nationalism is often the handmaiden of the hypocrisy. But there is no excuse for being taken in by it, especially when the chasm between what is preached and what is practiced is as gaping as that between Sharansky’s words and deeds.