Monthly Archives: March 2014

Obama puts Israel on notice

Israel’s “PR problem” is actually a reaction to its indefensible policies, and the US has just issued a blunt warning

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the oval office.


Many Israelis and their friends are well aware they have an “image problem.” But what far too many of them fail to appreciate is that their country’s policies and conduct are primarily responsible for Israel’s worsening reputation. What is perceived to be a PR problem is actually a “reality problem.” And realities have consequences.

Many Israelis feel they are being singled out, particularly in a turbulent and oppressive Middle East, by unfair double standards. After all, they note, 130,000 people have been killed in Syria in the past three years. But this is a bubble of delusion. There’s almost never been a society that wasn’t able to point to another state with worse behavior, or at least as bad, to try to argue there is something unfair about the criticism they face. Apartheid-era South Africa pointed to a plethora of genuinely reprehensible and bloodthirsty African dictators to try to argue they looked mild in comparison. That didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.

Israel and its friends need to wake up. The rising tide of criticism against the country’s policies isn’t being driven by anti-Semitism, which is a fringe factor. And it’s not a campaign of “delegitimization” either, because most of this growing criticism in mainstream Western discourse doesn’t question the fundamental legitimacy of the Israeli state. The occupation that began in 1967 coupled with how Israel is conducting itself today as an occupying power is the reality that Israelis and many of their friends in the West are refusing to face.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has just reported that settlement construction, which is strictly prohibited under international law (most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49, paragraph 6), increased by an astonishing 123% during 2013 as opposed to the previous year. And there’s every indication that settlement expansion is continuing to surge in 2014.

Settlement activity, for many Israelis, simply means building houses for Jews. But the reason it’s banned by the Geneva Convention is that it is a human rights abuse against any civilian population living under foreign military occupation, who have a right not to be colonized.

Israelis seem genuinely surprised that a surge in international criticism, and a growing refusal in Europe to fund or cooperate with any Israeli activity in the occupied territories, should accompany this surge in settlement activity. But it was inevitable.

And it’s not just the taking of land from Palestinians, or the fact that Israel rules over millions of disenfranchised non-citizens with no end in sight, or even the fact that Israelis and Palestinians living in the occupied territories operate under completely separate and extremely unequal systems of law, rights, and responsibilities.

Amnesty International has just issued a new report accusing Israeli occupation forces of “a harrowing pattern of unlawful killings and unwarranted injuries of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces in the West Bank.” The report says many of the killings appeared to be willful and unnecessary, and could very well constitute “war crimes.”

Israel, of course, dismisses all this criticism. And many Israelis see it as at least grotesquely unfair if not downright anti-Semitic. But this is delusional. No state behaving like this, particularly one that is deeply intertwined with the West and the global system and marketplace, can or should expect to be immune from criticism and consequences.

And so Israelis and their friends should take careful note of what US President Barack Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview timed perfectly to coincide with this year’s annual AIPAC convention. Obama pledged the United States would staunchly support Israel, but bluntly warned, “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.

Indeed, it’s unlikely that Europeans would be pursuing their de facto settlement boycott campaign if they felt the United States either planned to, or was capable of, restraining them. So it’s not just a question of the American “ability” to protect Israel from the consequences of indefensible policies that are so damaging to the prospects of the two-state solution. There is even a question about the American will to do so.

What Obama, and many other friends of Israel including prominent Jewish Americans, are trying to tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli society is that they don’t have an “image problem.” They have a reality problem. Israel’s occupation, and its policies toward the Palestinians, are realities that cannot be defended internationally.

If Israel wants to continue to entrench the occupation, expand settlements, and oppress the disenfranchised Palestinians while pretending that it really isn’t a big deal or a priority, or that the status quo is sustainable, no one can stop them. But, Obama and others are bluntly saying, no one can save them from the consequences either.

Nationalism is the real reason Islamists are loosing in North Africa and beyond

When Arab dictatorships fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the conventional wisdom – particularly in the West – held that because most Arabs are devout Muslims, once they were given a chance to freely choose their leaders, power would rapidly be gained by Islamist parties. This facile expectation was always built on terribly weak assumptions. And given the current condition of Islamist parties in North Africa, it’s fair to call it thoroughly debunked.

That urgently raises the question of, what, exactly, informs the forces that have rallied to thwart or defeat the Islamists, particularly in North Africa? The answer is simultaneously blindingly obvious and bizarrely mysterious, as so few have been able to identify it: nationalism.

The most solid ground for expecting Islamists to quickly rise to power in post-dictatorship Arab societies was the real competitive advantage they enjoyed over all other groups not associated with the former regimes. They had an established brand and ideology. They had a history, and were not tainted by association with the former regimes. They had social service and political networks, and strong ground-game structures. And they had a regional network.

It was assumed that none of their opponents had any of these advantages and that Islamists would therefore be virtually invincible, at least during the initial phases after the opening of political space. None of these claims were false. Yet they did not add up, as expected, into a wave of solid, popular Islamist governments in the place of former dictatorships. Why not?

First, while it’s true that Islamist parties enjoyed these competitive advantages against most of their potential rivals, they were at their apex on the first day after regime change. Over an astonishingly short period of time, two crucial things changed this. In some places, such as Tunisia, non-Islamist parties have been rapidly gaining ground and consolidating. But more importantly, Islamists were quickly revealed to have no real policies for dealing with the most important concerns of the general public, particularly jobs, economic growth and security.

Second, in some cases the advantage was either greatly exaggerated or extremely fleeting. In Libya, Islamists have, from the outset of the new system, suffered a continuous series of defeats. In Tunisia, Islamists won a plurality that forced them to compromise and form a coalition government. But it has now resigned under massive pressure. In Egypt, Islamists were most successful, but their abusive and arbitrary style of rule and outrageous behaviour in government quickly led to their ouster to great public acclaim.

Even the most diehard supporters of the “Islamic awakening” narrative have finally had to admit that a massive “countertrend” is sweeping the region. But it’s not enough to observe that Islamists have confronted more popular non-Islamist social forces that have defeated them across the board. It is crucial to identify the primary animating and defining sentiment that has led to this defeat, and what unifies and legitimates the “non-Islamist” victorious forces.

What the Islamists have confronted, in fact, is nationalism. In every case in which they have suffered defeat, it is a nationalist discourse that has turned the public against them. From the Libyan parliamentary elections to the ouster of the Brotherhood in Egypt, and, even the resignation of Ennahda in Tunisia, social and political forces that confronted the Islamists by questioning their nationalist sentiments and credentials have prevailed.

What many in the West have, even now, not understood is that nationalism – not the pan-Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s, but state-specific nationalism of North African countries, for example – is still the most potent political sentiment in most of the Arab world. And this is the Achilles heel of Islamists, since the bases for questioning their nationalist sentiments are extensive: they place religion before country, their regional allies before the national interest, and a broader agenda above their own society’s immediate needs. And these are typically not false accusations.

The hyper-nationalism, bordering on chauvinism, that has taken hold in Egypt is a prime example of this phenomenon. And it is a reaction to the real and perceived way in which Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood clearly placed other values ahead of specifically Egyptian national interests. Egypt is now torn between the large majority who still identify the country according to its traditional, national self-image versus those who see it as just another Muslim society in need of greater piety in the public sphere.

In the splintering Arab states of the Levant and Iraq, nationalism clearly never trumped sectarian and ethnic subnational identities. But in many Arab states, including in North Africa, nationalism remains potent enough that it is the positive, dynamic and specific content that actually informs what is frequently referred to in the negative as non- or anti-Islamism.

These popular majorities are not just sceptical about Islamists. Much more to the point, they are deeply patriotic. And, in many cases, they have concluded, with every justification, that Islamists are at least insufficiently loyal to the country, if not downright subversive.

So it’s not the “deep state”, the “old order” or some foreign-driven “counter-revolution” that is keeping or driving the Islamists from power where many assumed they would naturally inherit it. Instead, it’s a very familiar, real and enduring sentiment – good old-fashioned Arab nationalism – which has proven to be the brick wall Islamism has crashed into headlong.