Monthly Archives: April 2013

What’s blunting a post-Boston backlash

Human beings make sense of our realities by telling ourselves stories. In political life, perceptions are everything. There is no independent, underlying “objective” reality. There are only subjective understandings of events and actors, refracted through various framing narratives. Competing, interlocking, and intersecting accounts, therefore, are the actual substance of social and political life. They determine its “reality.”

The identification of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev as the culprits responsible for the attack against the crowd at the Boston Marathon has proven surprisingly resistant to quick or easy narrativization. In the United States, instead of a clean and simple account that could be the focal point for anger and grandstanding, many different – and often mutually incompatible – interpretations are competing for the public’s attention.

The facts are so unexpected, incoherent, and bewildering that most Americans are continuing to grasp for a dominant – and of necessity reductive but comprehensible – account of why these men lashed out so viciously and pointlessly at what still seems to have been a random target.

Last week I warned about the danger the attack on the Boston Marathon might reinvigorate slowly fading anti-Muslim sentiments, and that it could have a highly negative impact on how Americans perceive terrorism and with whom they associate it. It still may, over time.

What was not expected by anyone is that the facts as they emerged would be so convoluted and contradictory that, instead of fitting into any given prefabricated framework, they would hint somewhat at many but strongly reinforce none. So, for now, the broad American reaction to the attacks has been split between multiple, competing narratives.

Of course Islamophobes see in this act a confirmation of their notion that Muslims in general are to be associated with terrorism. But even though it’s become clear that Tamerlan Tsarnayev, at least, had become religiously fanatical and intolerant in recent years, that does not explain the political motivations for the attack – assuming there were any at all.

Many focused on the fact that the brothers are half-Chechen. But their connection to Chechnya – where neither were born or ever lived – seems tenuous. They appear more American than anything else. Moreover, the biggest political losers here are probably the Chechen rebels themselves, whose cause and interests don’t include being seen as enemies by the United States.

It did not matter if the focus was on crimes committed against or perpetrated by Chechens over the past century. Again, this narrative failed to provide a stable, comprensible explanation for what had happened.

Others focused on some kind of family drama. The relationship between the much-older brother and his younger sibling is assumed to be one of manipulation, which it almost certainly was. But again that does not explain the act itself at all.

Another family drama account conjectured that the Tsarnayevs were acting in a kind of oedipal rebellion against their secular – and possibly pro-Moscow– father. It’s a neat bit of pop psychology conjecture but again explains little.

And then, of course, there are conspiracy theories on the political margins, blaming the US or Russian governments – or some other “hidden hand” – for the attacks. And that’s only to skim the surface of the interpretations of the known facts now competing for attention in the American public sphere.

The main effect of this proliferation of speculation and confusion has been that righteous anger has been blunted by the fact that – beyond the two suspects themselves – most Americans simply have no idea who or what ought to be held broadly responsible.

The Islamophobic impulse seems to have actually been stronger before the Tsarnayevs were fingered as responsible than it has been since then.

The other factor that has seriously undermined a major backlash has been the almost universal perception among Americans that this tragic tale had a bittersweet and heroic dénouement. For almost 24 hours, the public began to wonder if, in Boston, their society was slipping out of control, with multiple incidents reported involving shootings, bombs, and other potential sources of mayhem.

But when Dzhokhar was successfully captured alive the country breathed an enormous collective sigh of relief. The police and national guard were seen as valiant, the social system as working, and order finally restored.

Anger was thereby mingled with feelings of ultimate reassurance and vindication.

In the short run, the lack of a hegemonic framing narrative – combined with an uplifting ending to the saga as it was experienced by Americans in real time – helped mitigate the emergence of a major misguided backlash.

In the long run, much depends on what, if any, hegemonic narrative regarding the marathon attacks emerges. As the 9/11 backlash, which reached its peak many years after the event itself, demonstrated, the reaction can be a delayed one.



The long-term impact of the Boston bombs

The bomb attack on the Boston Marathon could prove a defining moment in American political culture and attitudes. Particularly for a new generation of young Americans, this tragedy is likely to be a profound formative experience. But it will also have a huge impact on the whole of American society.

The identity of the still entirely unknown culprits will probably play a major role in who and what is most closely associated with terrorism in the American imagination for years to come. And such a broad cultural impact could have significant political and policy implications, for better or worse.

The night of the attack I was scheduled to give a talk at an institution for college students from around the United States serving as interns in Washington DC. But I arrived early, just as American President Barack Obama began addressing his country regarding attack.

The atmosphere was deadly quiet and electric. Approximately 60 college students of every description were transfixed around a TV. I watched them watching him.

On September 11, 2001, I was Communications Director for a large Arab-American organization. As I looked at those college students, I instantly recognized facial expressions, body language, and a raw intensity I haven’t seen since then.

It’s significant that these were 18-22 year-olds, none of them old enough to have experienced the 9/11 attacks as American adults did.

They’ve already seen their share of tragedy, to be sure. Last year, Hurricane Sandy ravaged large sections of New York and New Jersey. And on December 14, Adam Lanza – at 20, one of their own age cohort – shot and killed himself, his mother, 20 schoolchildren, and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.

But this is different. While traumatic events, neither of them were regarded as terrorism. No other terrorist act in the United States since 9/11 has had the profound symbolic resonance of the Boston bombings.

It seemed clear that for these students this was a defining experience: an unmistakable confrontation with political violence and sabotage directly aimed at highly symbolic national targets with an evidently ideological, although still mysterious, motivation.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, terrorism in American culture has been virtually synonymous with extremist Muslim political violence. The memories of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and more recent experiences with other kinds of terrorists, have not shattered this false equation. But doubts have been growing.

The Boston Marathon attack comes at a crucial cultural moment, just as the zone of impunity surrounding anti-Muslim bigotry has begun to palpably recede. Even on the political and cultural right, a major pushback against Islamophobia has been well underway.

The Boston bombings are perfectly positioned chronologically to have a maximal impact on how broadly or narrowly “terrorism” and “terrorists” are defined in the imaginations of many Americans.

If the culprits prove to be Arab in origin or Muslim, that could well reinforce a highly damaging stereotype that has been steadily receding back to the American social and cultural margins where it belongs. It could, at least partially, undo years of painstaking effort by so many Americans to push back against post-9/11 prejudices.

If, however, as is at least equally plausible at this stage, the perpetrators are found to be from an entirely different identity group, that would almost certainly prove the biggest blow yet to the illusion that Muslims and terrorists are more or less synonymous.

It’s difficult to overstate how much is at stake.

Many Arab and Muslim Americans have been open about their anxieties, and organizations have rushed to issue condemnations.

A similar, and sometimes sinister sentiment, is also brewing on the far-right. Some Tea Party activists are accusing the government of staging a “false flag” operation to blame them and suppress their political activities.

The white, Christian extreme-right has less to fear, since their core identity makes them part of the majority community. But some of their advocates are conveying profound concern about the consequences should they find themselves collectively and politically blamed.

The false equation of behavior and identity has to be broken.

The conscious or unconscious conflation of “Muslim and “terrorist” in contemporary American culture is completely dysfunctional. Replacing stereotypes about Muslims with stereotypes about the far right not only isn’t going to happen – it also wouldn’t be an improvement.

Distinguishing between behavior and identity is essential for the health of American culture. It’s also vital to sound counterterrorism and law enforcement policies, free from the distortions of false assumptions.

The outcome of the Boston investigation, and how the American government and society deals with it, could provide a historic opportunity for a step backwards into deeper prejudice or a leap forward towards clearer thinking.

Watching those students watching their President left me with little doubt of how much impact it is likely to have, one way or the other.


Boston Marathon Attacks Will Now Define Terrorism For Americans

The social and political impact in the United States of the outcome of the investigation into the bomb attacks on the Boston Marathon is almost impossible to overestimate. It will, in all likelihood, define several key cultural markers for the next generation of Americans.

Although the country has been awash with violence of many different kinds, including various terrorist acts, this is by far the most culturally and politically significant since the 9/11 atrocities. Like 9/11, and the Oklahoma City bombing before it, the attack on the Boston Marathon has profound and national symbolic resonance. Nothing since September 11, 2001 compares in this regard.

Aid Workers Help Injured
Medical workers aid an injured woman at the scene of a bomb blast near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston on April 15, 2013. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Few facts are known and authorities say no suspects are identified or in custody. Therefore, a huge range of potential perpetrators with widely divergent motivations remains potentially culpable.

But within the wide range of possible scenarios, three obviously stand out. The culprits could be right-wing, anti-government American extremists. They might be some other kind of domestic extremists, or even a lone madman. But there is also the distinct possibility that the bombings may prove to be linked to some group of Muslim extremists, either foreign or domestic.

It is this last category that would have most impact.

Deep reservoirs of antipathy between the Christian West and the Islamic world, and ingrained stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as hostile, violent and fanatical, informed a period of unprecedented Islamophobia in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. For much of the past decade it became possible to vilify and stigmatize Muslims or Arabs in general with little, if any, social and political cost. This was particularly true on the cultural and political right.

The manifestations of such bigotry have been deeply excavated elsewhere and need not be recited here. What is crucial is that in the past few years, the period of relative impunity for post-9/11 Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism was clearly starting to have run its course.

Crackpots were readily identified and increasingly shunned. Muslim Americans made significant progress in mainstreaming themselves and their image with their compatriots. And a significant pushback against bigotry emerged, including within the conservative movement itself.

If the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks are eventually linked to any kind of Muslim extremists, or even a deranged individual of Muslim origin, the likely impact is that this will set the clock back many years, if not a full decade, on the abating of the post-9/11 Islamophobia epidemic.

Muslims in general, however unfairly, will be identified more strongly than ever in the minds of bigoted Americans, particularly on the right, with political terrorism as a phenomenon. And many Americans who have been moving away from such prejudices will be drawn back into them. Officials will be once again tempted to rely on stereotyping as a tool of counterterrorism and law enforcement.

The calls for discriminatory measures—certainly against citizens of a list of Muslim countries, plus Cuba and North Korea (always thrown in for good measure), and possibly even against Muslim or Arab American citizens themselves—may again become shrill and voluble. And, once again, it could take a considerable effort to push back against them.

That such a reaction would be irrational counterintuitively makes it all the more plausible. Trauma, whether personal or national, typically does not produce, in the immediate aftermath at least, a fully rational response.

If, on the other hand, the culprits prove to be right-wing domestic extremists or any other persons without links to the Arab or Muslim worlds, or American communities, the crime could well prove a turning point in the opposite direction.

True, there have been dozens of violent incidents over the past decade in the United States that, as many have noted, had they been perpetrated by people of Arab or Muslim origins would have been far more notorious and used to promote fear and hatred. But none had the resonance or nationally traumatic quality of the Boston Marathon attack. And major terrorist attacks in Britain and Spain by Muslim extremists, or in Norway by a right-wing fanatic, had very limited impact on the American worldview.

In this case, however, if the criminals prove to be of Arab or Muslim origin in any way, this will strongly reinforce the association of that identity group with terrorism. But if it is not, it will surely help further break that already strained cultural association.

Whichever way it goes, the outcome is likely to have a massive, if not determinative, impact on the way terrorism and political violence are culturally associated and defined by an entire generation of Americans.

Does this mean that we’ve preposterously ceded the ability to shape our perceptions to small groups of crazy people? Sure it does. But that’s how human beings typically operate. And the rational corrective is invariably slow and painstaking.

What the “Israeli Peace Initiative” has to offer

On April 6, a group of prominent Israelis released the “Israeli Peace Initiative,” an answer to the Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002. The biggest difference between the two documents is that one is official, formally adopted by a large group of states, and the other is a civil society initiative. This puts the two documents on significantly unequal footing. However, the new Israeli private initiative bears serious consideration, given the paucity of any other Israeli response to the API and the lack of diplomatic activity generally.

Most of the signatories to the IPI are associated with the political left, which has lost ground in Israeli society over the past decade.

The extent to which their proposal resonates with the Israeli public or the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is questionable.

But both the API and the IPI demonstrate that there are clear grounds for negotiating a two-state outcome whose outlines are clear but whose details still need to be worked out. They show there are plenty of Arabs and Israelis eager to negotiate in all seriousness, and that a meaningful peace process is no fantasy if the parties really want peace.

The IPI joins a long list of other civil society peace process thought experiments from recent decades. But it does have some particular features. It introduces the idea of Jewish refugees from Arab states in a more sustained manner than has been raised in formal negotiations or in most other informal peace ideas. It accepts that the Palestinian state must be on land equivalent to that of the 1967 borders, but talks of land swaps incorporating up to 7 percent of the Occupied Territories, far in excess of anything Palestinians have considered acceptable. It entirely avoids the question of Jewish Israelis remaining in the Palestinian state, presumably on the reasonable assumption that no Israeli government will want the responsibility for their security and will insist on a full evacuation.

It essentially accepts the Clinton parameters in Jerusalem, that what is now Jewish will be Israeli and what remains Arab will be Palestinian, and that the city will be the capital of two states. It also includes the following interesting anomaly that: “the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter will be under Israeli sovereignty; [but] The Temple Mount will remain without any sovereignty.” It therefore dismisses the idea of a special regime for the old city in general or the holy basin, a mainstay of many other civil society plans. Perhaps the most “Israeli” part of the IPI is its categorical rejection of anything other than a “symbolic” return for an apparently very small group of refugees.

These ideas are intriguing, but much more important is the underlying diplomatic reality. The PLO knows what it wants, but lacks the leverage to achieve it. The Obama administration has hit a brick wall and is presently embroiled in detailed soul-searching about a potential American statement of principles. And, most worryingly of all, it has become disturbingly clear that Netanyahu has neither a vision for the future nor any meaningful diplomatic strategy other than a single-minded emphasis on security to the exclusion of peace.

This has left many Palestinians feeling that an effort to shift the diplomatic process to the multilateral level, probably through the United Nations, is becoming almost unavoidable even though without at least tacit American support this will almost certainly prove a dead end. These efforts are presently focused on the coming September, but there seem to be few grounds for believing that anything that really changes the strategic equation will take place at the UN or elsewhere this fall.

Many thoughtful Israelis are deeply concerned about the potential effects of such multilateralism, even if opposed by the United States, especially since Netanyahu appears to have no alternative approaches.

These worries were carefully dissected in a recent article by Jerusalem Posteditor David Horovitz, who suggested Israel should not oppose a declaration of Palestinian statehood but use it to its advantage.

The multilateral track is beguiling in many ways, but unless it is being used by the United States as a proxy for its own continued leadership – as with the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya – it will not produce the actual establishment of a Palestinian state.

Neither will the plethora of South American and other international recognitions of Palestine in its 1967 borders, which help reinforce the international consensus about the need for Palestinian independence but do not change either the balance of power or realities on the ground.

In the final analysis there is only one state’s recognition of Palestine that will be decisive: Israel’s, since it is in complete control of the territory that will constitute the Palestinian state.

All roads ultimately lead back to negotiations, which is why documents like the IPI that reinforce the understanding that such a process is entirely plausible, and that therefore peace is genuinely achievable, are more relevant than they may appear at first glance.

Fate of Christians will define the Arab future

The assault by Islamist thugs – with the apparent connivance of Egyptian government security forces – on a funeral at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday may be looked back upon as a grim milestone.


It wasn’t just that two people were killed and 90 hospitalized. This wasn’t just a violation, by hoodlums and police alike, of the revered center of an ancient religious tradition and community. It was rather that the whole idea of a tolerant, pluralistic Egypt – one that can fully include, honor, and respect its Coptic minority – came under a physical, psychological, and, most importantly, political assault of the first magnitude.


As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East. If the Coptic community of Egypt is thus abused, disparaged, and attacked, what kind of societies are emerging in the Arab world? The regional implications are chilling.


Pluralism will be unattainable if long-standing and traditionally well-regarded Christian communities cannot be respected. Forget about skeptics, agnostics, or atheists. Never mind smaller religious groups like Yezidis, Alawites, Baha’is, and Druze. If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.


And it won’t be just the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide that is already evident throughout the region. It will be an endless series of ferocious doctrinal inquisitions between various Sunni Muslim orientations and denominations. States will become, at best, merely the geographical battlegrounds and, at worst, the principal weapons of repression between battling groups of intolerant religious fanatics.


This future is by no means certain. It may indeed be apocalyptic, but it is still entirely avoidable. Yet it is hardly beyond imagining, as Sunday’s tragedy in Cairo so gruesomely reminded us.


For at least the past hundred years, the Christians of the Middle East have been slowly dwindling. Many of them fled the Ottoman Empire, discrimination, war, conscription, and even famine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the New World. It has been both a blessing and a curse for these communities that, for cultural and religious reasons, it was historically easier for them to immigrate to and assimilate in Western societies than their Muslim compatriots.


But this process has been accelerating in recent decades. Much of the Iraqi Christian community fled the country after the US invasion. In Syria, the Christian community is among the most vulnerable in the entire country, spread out and lacking any organized defenses.


Some of these woes are at least partially self-inflicted. In Lebanon, the Christian community – particularly the Maronites – have both over- and under-played their hand in equally disastrous ways.


First they were seized by an impulse to try to impose national hegemony in a country that stubbornly resists any controlling power. Next, their traditional leadership was beset by bloodthirsty vendetti.


More recently, Lebanese Christians have been roughly evenly divided between the March 8 and March 14 factions. This is basically a split between those more fearful of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran versus those terrified by regional Sunni domination and therefore opting for a bizarre “alliance of minorities.” Worse still, this division is driven by megalomaniacs fixated on quixotic and doomed plans to grab the Lebanese presidency for themselves.


The Lebanese Christian community will certainly survive physically. But it is headed for political oblivion, with no one more to blame than itself. The latest example of this self-destructive tendency is the preposterous so-called Orthodox law its own leaders spearheaded which mandates that Lebanese can only vote for candidates of their own officially designated sect. Had anyone else proposed such a law, Lebanese Christians would’ve risen as one in outrage, denouncing it as an anti-Christian plot (which it would have been). Instead, they brought this calamity on themselves for the most misguided reasons.


Meanwhile, Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians can’t do too much sneering at each other about the crisis facing the Christians of the “Holy Land.” Israel discriminates against all Palestinians equally. The Christian flight from the West Bank is mainly a reaction to the intolerable occupation, despite Israeli propaganda that tries to shift the focus to Palestinian Muslim intolerance. However, such bigotry is all-too-real in Hamas-ruled Gaza, where the small and beleaguered Palestinian Christian community struggles to maintain its identity and freedom under an increasingly abusive fundamentalist theocracy.


The bottom line is this: if the Arab world, and the broader Middle East, cannot accommodate Christians and other minorities, it won’t be worth living in for anybody. And if the region emerges from a period of ethnic and sectarian conflict – of mountanish inhumanity when minorities are hounded out of areas in which they have lived for generations and been an integral part of the culture – those societies will one day look back on it as an unprecedented calamity.


But then it will be too late.

Hamas: The Palestinian Fashion Police

Religious fanaticism, by definition, has no limitations in its demands. Its appetite for authority is insatiable. Its quest for purity is endless. Its arbitrary, sadistic codes of conduct and demands for strict obedience can never be satisfied, because, they say, God always wants something more.

So when religious fanatics attain power, restrictions multiply exponentially. Requirements pile up without respite, especially since those who act in the name of God will always try to outdo each other in the enforcement of virtue and the prohibition of vice.

With God, not only are “all things possible.” All things are also equally plausibly required or forbidden. And the best part for the enforcers of righteousness is that their dictates never have to be explained in any meaningful sense. They are simply proclaimed by those with the alleged authority and practical power to enforce decorous conduct and prohibit wickedness.

Palestinian artist Salwa Sbakhi paints using coffee at her studio in Gaza City on January 13, 2013. Salwa, who lives in the southern Gaza Strip, has studied fine arts at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, and participated in numerous local exhibitions in an attempt to market her art. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images)

For a contemporary manifestation of this moth-eaten brand of tyranny, look no further than Hamas-ruled Gaza. There, Hamas officials clearly devote impressive quantities of time and effort to deciding what new things the unfortunate population—who are already naturally pious and conservative, but, apparently, not sufficiently—living under their increasingly theocratic tyranny mustn’t be allowed to do, all for their own good of course. “Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; Pardon is still the nurse of second woe,” after all.

It always begins with the women, since religious fanaticism and misogyny are virtually synonymous.

Hamas first forbade women from riding on the back of motorcycles, and then from riding on them at all. It prohibited women from smoking water pipes in public, apparently because they considered this to be suggestive. It is a distinguishing characteristic of the breed that religious fanatics have a particularly lurid sexual imagination.

Hamas appears obsessed with the issue of what women must and cannot wear in various circumstances. Men are no longer allowed to cut women’s hair, because, well, who doesn’t understand how indecent that is? A few weeks ago they decided that it was “un-Islamic” for women to run in a marathon, no matter how they were dressed. Somehow I haven’t been able to locate that dictum in the Quran, ahadithor sunan, but it must be there somewhere. And last week they decided that all schools, by law, must be gender-segregated over the age of nine, and no men may teach girls under any circumstances.

But Hamas’s religious authoritarianism was never restricted purely to male hysteria. They’ve also cracked down on every art form imaginable (one singer noted, “Gaza is the place where art goes to die”) since they are mostly a surefire shortcut to eternal damnation. And they’ve banned men from various commonplace but loathsome and corrupting practices.

This week Hamas officials—clearly not having anything better to do since their people are so well off, well cared for and happy—decided to take decisive action on one of the most pressing crises the people of Gaza have faced in recent times: despicable male ruffians with long or gelled hair and the wrong kind of pants.

Hamas police rounded up several groups of young infidels sporting clear evidence of degeneracy: longish, or gelled and spiky, hair. These dissolute miscreants were hauled off to police stations where they were crudely shaved, told to go to a local barber to finish the job, and kicked out. If they complained, they received a no doubt well-deserved and pitiless beating. Similar treatment was meted out to young malefactors depraved enough to wear trousers deemed too narrow or low-hanging!

Where would the Palestinian people or cause be without such staunch defenders and steadfast liberation movement?

There is no telling what will be banned in Gaza next. No doubt Hamas’s well-staffed Department of Public Absurdity is hard at work dreaming up something particularly ridiculous. But whatever it is, you will be reassured to know that it will please God, if nobody else. By the way, this article is not only impious and damnable, it’s also almost certainly illegal to read or publish it in Gaza.

The point is, nobody knows what’s next on the Hamas no-no list, which is almost always enforced before it is pronounced. It could be anything. And, indeed, that’s the message: conformity to a narrow, rigid and mysterious set of both retrograde and heretofore unheard-of social standards will be rigidly enforced, on pain of pain.

Hamas often complain they are not a terrorist group. Well, as of this week they certainly couldn’t deny aspiring to be the Palestinian fashion police.

Meanwhile, other Hamas officials were busy with the equally important liberation movement imperative of destroying Palestinian homes they claim were “illegally constructed.”

Now, where have we heard that before? If you ask that question openly in Gaza, you’ll probably be arrested.

Shifting regional alliances put Hamas ‘up for grabs’

In recent decades, Palestinian politics have existed – or at least been treated – as relatively independent of the regional developments surrounding them. This is no longer possible. Since the split between the West Bank and Gaza in 2007, and especially since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, internal Palestinian politics have become a proxy battlefield for regional rivalries and competing agendas.

Perhaps the biggest factor in this transformation is the extent to which Hamas came “up for grabs” after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, which forced the organisation to break its long-standing relationship with the Assad regime. This meant that Hamas, particularly its paramount political leadership outside of Gaza, needed to find new patrons quickly. Governments around the region suddenly had an opportunity to gain real influence over the most powerful and enduring political symbols in the Arab world: Palestine and Jerusalem.


A new axis of support for Hamas has emerged from a Sunni Islamist or Islamist-supporting set of governments in the region, especially Qatar, Turkey and Egypt.


Thus far, the biggest winner in the battle for influence with Hamas is probably Qatar. This was reflected in the recently concluded Hamas political leadership election, won by incumbent Khaled Meshaal, who is seen as close to Doha. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, last year took the lead in breaking Gaza’s diplomatic isolation with a formal visit, and pledged at least $400 million (Dh1.47 billion) in aid.


Indeed, Qatar’s sudden acquisition of power and influence over a major Palestinian faction might be its single most important breakthrough yet in using its soft power to extend its influence and Muslim Brotherhood-supporting agenda throughout the region.


But Egypt’s hard power – particularly its military control of Gaza’s southern border, the only means of access not directly dependent on Israel – remains inescapable. After their falling out with Syria and, consequently to some extent Iran, many in Hamas had hoped and expected that the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohammed Morsi would become their most important new ally.


To Hamas’s vocal chagrin, Egypt remains primarily guided by its national interests, not the ideology of its new president. The Egypt-Gaza border has never been more tightly controlled, Egyptian-Israeli security coordination is strong, and Egypt’s military has been flooding Gaza smuggling tunnels with raw sewage.


Even before the so-called Arab Spring, Egypt was the party designated by the international community to deal directly with Hamas effectively but without providing it undue added diplomatic legitimacy. Now in Cairo, Hamas leaders receive the same requisite cups of tea they got from former President Hosni Mubarak, along with a few more spoonfuls of sympathy. There’s plenty of rhetorical support for Hamas from the Egyptians, but little more. To the contrary, actual Egyptian policies on most Gaza-related issues have hardened compared to those of the Mubarak era.


Had Egyptians felt able or inclined to come to the rescue of Hamas and Gaza, which they manifestly have not done, their own favoured candidate, Mousa Abu Marzouk, might have emerged as the new Hamas political bureau leader. He certainly spent the past year campaigning hard for the post.


But not only did he lose the leadership battle to Mr. Meshaal, he did not even retain his post as deputy leader. Yet it is significant that the decisive politburo meeting was held in Cairo: Hamas is clearly counting, in the long run, on a transformation of Egyptian policies, because practically it is the only country other than Israel that can actually determine what does and does not happen in Gaza.


Last year Turkey, with its Islamist Justice and Development Party government, emerged as yet another suitor for Hamas’s affections. It had already taken a major step in trying to establish its credibility in the Arab world with the 2010 flotilla confrontation with Israel. The country reportedly provided Hamas with $300 million in aid as its leadership fled Syria and scattered around various Arab capitals.


And Turkey remains interested in at least the symbolism of the Palestinian issue: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly considering a visit to Gaza soon. However, Turkey’s attention is focused at present on the war in Syria, relations with Iran and Iraq and an attempted rapprochement with Kurdish factions both inside Turkey and on its frontiers.


Crucially, a powerful faction that politically, diplomatically and financially supports the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, including Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among others, stands counter to the other Hamas-supporting bloc.


For example, Qatar recently launched a $1 billion fund, supposedly to preserve “Islamic sites” in Jerusalem. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan publicly reiterated Jordan’s long-established but recently downplayed role as “a custodian” of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and its role “in preserving them”.


Most ominously, the contest over influence among Palestinians isn’t restricted to the Sunni Middle East, as seemed possible after the Syrian uprising started. Iran has been able to retain strong military ties – as evidenced in last year’s exchange of rocket fire between Gaza factions and Israel – with Hamas’s military wing and, even more closely, with Palestinian Islamic Jihad.


For Palestinians, all of this raises two crucial questions. First, what kind of independent state are they trying to build: an exclusivist Islamist autocracy, or a pluralistic nationalist polity? And, second, how can Palestinians navigate a new political landscape in which regional forces are once again able to exercise a degree of influence in their internal political affairs – a situation they once hoped was a thing of the past?

John Kerry’s Mission Impossible?

Secretary of State John Kerry is heading back to the Middle East this weekend foryet another round of meetings. Following on the heels of President Barack Obama’s trip to the region, Kerry has embarked on a campaign of intensive shuttle diplomacy. But the State Department is at pains to stress that he is not yet presenting any new American peace initiative.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in 2010 in Jerusalem. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in 2010 in Jerusalem. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)

Kerry, who has embraced this issue with a heartening degree of enthusiasm, will undoubtedly try to elicit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas what inducements would get them to consider a return to the negotiating table.

Apart from the fact that he’s walking into a situation on the ground that is increasingly volatile—with two Palestinian teenagers recently shot and killed inviolent clashes with Israeli occupation forces—there are two structural obstacles facing Kerry in talking about talks with both leaders.

First, neither has a direct political incentive to take risks regarding peace. Both have no confidence in the other side. And both would face significant harassment from their respective political right-wings. It would be politically safer for both Netanyahu and Abbas not to take even modest risks to move the process forward, especially when they don’t believe the other side is sincere, and they’re not yet convinced of American determination.

Second, it’s going to be very difficult to get the sides to agree about what it is they are discussing. The two parties are so far apart that creating a framework for working negotiations seems ambitious.

Netanyahu is probably comfortable with any relatively unstructured negotiations, so long as they are all process and no substance. The status quo suits him well, and the difficulty will be creating a structure that incentivizes and/or coerces him to move forward, even slightly, in spite of the political risks.

Another problem Kerry faces is how to find a way to convince Abbas to reenter negotiations without the long-standing Palestinian demand—that was originally launched by the first-term Obama administration—of an Israeli settlement freeze. Feeling that it is not only a dead-end, but also believing they were burned by both sides on the issue during their first term, the new administration is unlikely to re-engage in any public discussion of a settlement freeze.

But several planned Israeli expansions, “E-1” and, even more ominously, “Giv’at HaMatos,” if constructed would cut occupied East Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank. Other expansions threaten to pull Israeli settlements further and deeper across major arteries, especially Routes 60 and 443, making Palestinian contiguity in an independent state far more difficult.

Abbas has reportedly hinted he might be satisfied with a private understanding between the United States and Israel that settlement expansion would not include construction that changes the basic strategic equation and makes the border of a Palestinian state far more difficult to draw.

Yet a real inducement must still be found to give Abbas both genuine diplomatic reasons and political cover for the resumption of even indirect negotiations. One possibility is the prisoners’ issue, which has become a major concern of the Palestinian public given several well-publicized hunger strikes, the controversial death of a Palestinian allegedly following torture in Israeli custody, and another following allegedly untreated cancer.

The issue strikes home very directly. Almost every Palestinian family has a close relative who either is now, or has been, in Israeli detention. Some prisoner release, or other agreement on prisoners, an issue now being strongly stressed by Abbas, could set the stage for talking more seriously about resuming negotiations.

Another interesting development that Kerry might be able to explore is the new Palestinian-Jordanian agreement that resurrects Jordan’s role as “a custodian of the [Muslim and Christian] holy sites in Jerusalem.” This idea dates back to the 1920s, and is also codified in the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. By formally reiterating Jordan’s role in the all-important Muslim and Christian sacred sites in occupied East Jerusalem, the Palestinians may have strengthened the Arab (and American) hand in insisting that Israel must compromise on its untenable claims of eternal, undivided sovereignty over the entirety of Jerusalem, including the Muslim and Christian holy places.

This move clearly reflects a growing Palestinian anxiety that, on their own, Jerusalem, and especially its holy sites, may be slipping away from their ability to successfully negotiate a compromise with Israel. And both the Palestinians and Jordanians are undoubtedly combining to counter to a recent call by Qatar to create $1 billion fund for Islamic sites in Jerusalem—money, and an imperative, which, if developed, would undoubtedly be delivered by Doha into the hands of Islamists.

This agreement could give Kerry another option to pursue as the regional dimension in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes increasingly indispensable.

But probably all that Kerry can do at the present time is discuss seriously with both parties what they need from the United States—and indirectly from each other—to to seriously considering resuming negotiations. This brings us back to the most shopworn cliché in the Middle East peace process bag: confidence-building measures.

Eyes will roll. Heads will shake. Arms will be flung up into the air in despair. But under the current circumstances—given the political pressure on both sets of leaders and the unprecedented distance between the parties on the final status issues, what would otherwise sound de minimis—talking about talks, and relatively modest unilateral or coordinated positive changes on the ground—are probably the most that Kerry has to work with for now.

And these consider that these very on-the-ground improvements, even if they do not yield immediate diplomatic results, can and should be seen as useful and beneficial measures for both parties in and of themselves. They need not only serve as the means to a border end. In the short run, many if not all of them can serve as ends in themselves, since they will all improve lived realities for both peoples.

Here’s real the question: does anybody else have any better ideas? I thought not.

Hamas again avoids change

Reports are coming thick and fast that Hamas is preparing to reconfirm Khaled Mishaal as the head of its Politburo. He will, apparently, have the Gaza-based leader Ismail Hanniyeh as his deputy.

It’s taken Hamas well over a year to conclude this leadership tussle, with advantages shifting back and forth over time. But the emerging arrangement, assuming it’s confirmed, reflects the present power dynamic within the organization and suits most parties directly involved.

Qatar, which has emerged as Hamas’ main bankroller, will be satisfied that its preferred candidate remains the paramount leader of the organization. There is a sense of stability in keeping Mishaal in place that is likely to come across as reassuring to many of the group’s friends.

Egypt, too, is likely to be comfortable with the choice. This is extremely important, because for all of Qatar’s considerable financial soft power, Egypt’s hard power – its military presence and control of the border area to Gaza’s south, which is the only means of access not directly dependent on Israel – remains paramount. However financially troubled and domestically chaotic it might be, Egypt is still, and will remain, the primary Arab mover with regard to what does and doesn’t happen in Gaza.

The Gaza-based leaders have apparently gotten a significant boost within the structure of the organization with Hanniyeh’s elevation to deputy.

Turkey, which had emerged as a major player in Hamas’ politics over the past few years, seems to have withdrawn from the current dynamics somewhat. This is probably a temporary development, but it’s an understandable one. Turkey, after all, faces significant challenges from its bordering states, particularly Syria but also Iran and Iraq. And, it is trying to reach a modus vivendi with the Kurds both in Turkey and on its borders. So, just at the moment, it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of time for Hamas. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be planning to visit Gaza in the near future, but this looks more like a campaign stop than a serious intervention in the politics of the territory.

Other Palestinian groups will also be somewhat reassured by the reconfirmation of Mishaal as the paramount political leader of Hamas, not so much because they like him but more because they know him. The same even may apply to Israel’s attitude – even though they once tried to assassinate Mishaal in Jordan – insofar as he is a known quantity who is considered relatively predictable if not reliable.

Mishaal’s ambitions may not stop with leading Hamas. He seems, in the long run, to have his eyes set on eventual leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. As long as Hamas retains its current policies, and he remains a leader of that group, this is not possible without destroying the diplomatic and political achievements of the PLO, and its international standing. But one can certainly sense him trying to fudge those issues and maneuver his way into a more centralized national leadership role.

But it’s important not to underestimate the harm this could cause to the Palestinian national movement. Hamas’ policies are strictly inconsistent with those of the PLO, and contradict its treaty obligations. If Hamas joined the PLO with its current policies unchanged, let alone usurped it, the international standing of the PLO – one of the most important achievements of the Palestinian national movement, the value of which no one really questions – would be placed in dire jeopardy.

Palestinians want and need national unity. But the terms are crucial. If such unity in effect means abandoning the positions that underscore the PLO’s standing at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, and diplomatic relations with well over 100 countries, the price will be exorbitant and disproportionate.

Hamas, led by Mishaal or anybody else, cannot maintain its present policies – towards Israel, the two-state solution, violence, and other key questions that are clearly defined by international law – and simultaneously serve as part of the Palestinian national leadership. The cost of unity on those terms is prohibitive, and Palestinians just cannot afford it.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas continues to rule in the Islamist manner. That means that most of its policies are not only socially reactionary and oppressive, but flagrantly misogynistic as well. The latest outrage is a new law that will enforce gender segregation in schools for children over the age of nine, and bar men from teaching in girls’ schools. This is merely the latest instance of Hamas’ dual-gesture of pandering to its Islamist base and trying to impose its socially reactionary ‘values’ on the beleaguered Palestinians living under their rule.

So the reappointment of Mishaal may make sense in terms of Hamas’ current power dynamics. But it does absolutely nothing to help the Palestinian people or cause.