Monthly Archives: April 2014

The US and Egypt begin to recalculate their relationship

The United States and Egypt have taken significant strides towards repairing their crucial bilateral strategic relationship. But more needs to be done before a deeper rehabilitation of ties and trust is accomplished.

Major General Mohammed El-Tohamy, Egypt’s intelligence chief, recently led the first major delegation of Egyptian officials to visit Washington since the removal of Mohammed Morsi last summer. Mr El-Tohamy’s Washington trip focused heavily on issues the US and Egypt have in common: counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation, fighting extremism, preserving the peace treaty with Israel and maintaining a stable Middle East region. Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s foreign minister, has followed him to Washington this week.

Mr El-Tohamy’s visit appears to have been closely linked to the Obama administration’s certification that Egypt remains in full compliance with its peace treaty with Israel. This led to the resumption of military assistance to Egypt, including 10 Apache helicopters and $650 million in other military aid, about half the annual amount allocated for Egypt.

Washington seems to have been moved by a series of broader realisations. First, it has faced sustained criticism by some of its most important Gulf allies for what they perceive to be a strategic miscalculation. Tensions between Cairo and Washington served to undermine wider strategic relations in the Arab world.

Second, almost a year after the military’s intervention, Washington has had to ask itself whether it cares to be semi-permanently at odds with, or highly critical of, a new order in Egypt that seems popular and may not change dramatically for some time. The United States faced the option of a continued deterioration of relations with Egypt, and by extension some other key Arab allies, or beginning to come to terms with a new reality that is developing in Egypt regardless of what Washington thinks.

Third, the Egyptians had already demonstrated a willingness to look in other directions. A large amount of financial assistance has been pledged to the country from friendly Gulf states. More importantly, in February, Egypt secured a major arms deal from Moscow allegedly worth up to $3 billion, including MiG-29 fighter jets and Mi-35 helicopters. Even more startling are reports that Russia might be prepared to sell high-tech weapons to Egypt that it has not previously sold to any other country.

A strong indication that a strategic calculation is informing this American policy shift is that the symbolically significant $260 million in annual economic aid granted to Egypt is still being withheld, along with some other aspects of cooperation, until the state department certifies that Egypt is “taking steps to secure a transition to democracy”.

To many, this is a confusing hierarchy of values. But after scheduled elections take place, certification of progress towards democracy may prove within reach.

Egypt’s options are also limited. Its military is still heavily centred on US equipment and services. Transitioning to another primary supplier would be very costly and prolonged. It is one thing to demonstrate the existence of options, and quite another to try to actually shift to relying on them.

This is especially underscored by the close military relationship the US maintains, and in many ways is expanding, with Egypt’s Gulf Arab allies. Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine may have additionally prompted the US initiative to move to restore military ties.

While the interim Egyptian government may be making significant headway in winning over the Pentagon and State Department on strategic grounds, the Washington policy community and much of the media remains a largely hostile environment.

Egyptians who are sympathetic to the new government and the dominant national narrative invariably find themselves subjected to harsh criticism of a kind that Islamists have been largely insulated from in the past three years. Indeed, Islamists are still regarded by much of the Washington policy community with a misplaced aura of authenticity and legitimacy.

This is not just an Egyptian public relations problem. It certainly requires more effective outreach, but also has a real policy dimension.

Egypt needs to pursue its war against terrorists with the lightest possible touch. A second round of mass death sentences handed down Monday against 683 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters for the killing of a police officer is not seen as merely a judicial problem in Washington. Instead, such sentences are widely viewed as a symptom of a broader crackdown.

Not even the most critical opponents of the Brotherhood, can defend such verdicts, which have been harshly criticised by the administration. They will cast an avoidable pall over Mr Fahmy’s visit.

Yet Egypt and the United States need each other, as both seem to be starting to recall.

Americans need to register that Islamists are simply not proving popular in post-dictatorship Arab societies, and that Egypt faces a genuine threat from violent extremists. And Egyptians need to understand that the United States government is not cheering for the Muslim Brotherhood, but has legitimate concerns about democracy and human rights.

In order to continue progress in repairing strained relations, both sides are going to have to adjust their perceptions and their behaviour.

Ruling on Jerusalem

The US Supreme Court must once again uphold the Constitution, international law, and established policy

An Israeli flag flutters in Jerusalem


Once again the United States Supreme Court is preparing to review a case which could reshape one of the most sensitive of American policy issues: the status of Jerusalem. Zivotofsky v Kerry is a lawsuit brought on behalf of an 11-year-old Jewish child born in Jerusalem. Current American law and practice, particularly State Department instructions to consular officials, holds that because of American neutrality on the question of Jerusalem, those born in Jerusalem should simply be identified as having been born in that city. The Zivotofsky family seeks to have their son identified as having been born in “Jerusalem, Israel.”

A lower court has already struck down other parts of a 2002 law allowing for US passports to include the identification of birthplace as “Jerusalem, Israel.” All previous efforts to get courts to force the State Department to take this step have been refused by all administrations and backed up by the judiciary. But the legislative branch continues to attempt, for political reasons, to circumvent this position. It’s imperative that the Court continue to support the administration’s position, which upholds more than 60 years of US policy, international law, and the basic US constitutional principle of separation of powers.

Since 1948, no country has recognized Israel’s control of Jerusalem, which is why all foreign embassies in Israel are based in Tel Aviv or other cities. A few, such as El Salvador and Costa Rica, briefly moved their embassies to Jerusalem, but have since withdrawn. The reason is that Jerusalem’s status under international law is unresolved. The last time the international community addressed the question in a positive manner was in the 1947 partition plan which declared the city a “corpus separatum” – in effect, an independent city-state to be administered by the United Nations.

The 1948 war put paid to that idea, but the status of Jerusalem was not determined by either armistice lines, the entrance of Israel as a member state of the United Nations, or the recognition of Israel and diplomatic relations with it by the majority of international powers. This ambiguity was expressed by the presence of the embassies in Tel Aviv, even though Israel had come into possession of West Jerusalem and established its capital there.

The situation became even more complex following the 1967 war, when East Jerusalem was conquered by Israel and subsequently annexed. This de facto annexation was roundly rejected by the entire international community, including the United States, and particularly expressed through a long series of unambiguous United Nations Security Council resolutions. Most notable of these was the June 1980 Resolution 476, which “[r]eaffirms the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.”

All relevant UN Security Council resolutions since Israel extended its “Basic Law” to the municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem it established, much bigger than the municipal boundaries that existed before, have declared that de facto annexation to be “null and void.” US policy, established by every administration since Harry Truman’s, has been absolutely consistent: the future of Jerusalem is to be determined.

Since 1993, Jerusalem has been a core part of the four agreed-upon final status issues to be resolved through direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The US is the primary third-party broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Therefore it, above all, cannot be seen as prejudicing final status issues.

The American Congress repeatedly tries to circumvent all of this and prejudice the issue of Jerusalem, abandoning traditional US policy and core international law by passing legislation designed to force the administration to move the embassy to Jerusalem, recognize “Jerusalem, Israel” on passports, and similar measures. Such steps violate both the letter and the spirit of the constitutional separation of powers by usurping the executive’s role as the authority that determines American foreign policy. These laws almost always come with a presidential waiver, which is also invariably enforced. This way Members of Congress are able to reassure their constituents that they are doing the best they can, while keeping an important loophole in place that allows foreign policy to be determined by the executive branch as the Constitution mandates.

When he signed the law now being reviewed – again – by the Supreme Court, President George W. Bush was at pains to say “US policy regarding Jerusalem has not changed.”

If the American judiciary allows the legislative branch of the government to force the executive to change an extremely sensitive and important policy that has stood for over 60 years, it will be a constitutional travesty. It will also be a serious blow to the US viability as a third-party broker that urges both sides not to prejudice final status issues. We will have done just that ourselves, in a capricious and indefensible manner. The Supreme Court must rule to uphold international law, long-established US policy, and the separation of powers. Any other decision will do grievous harm to all three.

The heresy of equivalency

Israelis and Palestinians, and their friends, take unique umbrage at anything that suggests equivalency between them

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas.

If there’s one kind of argument that’s guaranteed to lose friends and annoy people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, it is anything that attacks binary notions of difference and points out areas in which the two sides and their partisans think and act in very similar ways. In recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly attracted to frameworks that invariably end up highlighting what the parties have in common rather than what separates them. And in the process, I’ve discovered that while there is little that is more revealing about the underlying structures of the conflict – which are not so much binary as mutually reinforcing – there’s  also nothing more provocative than pointing this out.

It’s the ultimate heresy, because it cuts through the fog of ideology and into the underlying realities in a way that disrupts the easy assumptions that ensure the conflict continues no matter what.

First, it’s counterintuitive. These are, after all, supposed to be two radically different peoples and cultures, at loggerheads because of these same differences. Pointing out how their attitudes, policies, narratives, rhetoric, and behavior can often mirror each other and – more than just re-inscribing a self-reinforcing binary – often seem entirely analogous, profoundly challenges that sense of radical alterity. It suggests that beneath the surface there is a deep similarity in attitudes and behaviors at work, and this seems the ultimate in intolerable speech to partisans on both sides.

I find that whenever this gesture is deployed, partisans sputter with anger that anyone could compare the two at any level. They typically resort to arguments about what one hasn’t mentioned, and all the important things that actually define the fundamental, irreconcilable differences. In order to re-establish the binary, they seem to feel it is crucial to reassert the truth-value of their own narrative in stark contrast to that of the other. And if you have challenged this, you must be up to no good.

Second, it threatens the sense of moral superiority that pervades attitudes on both sides. This means it’s not just extremists who become annoyed with such arguments. It can often be people well within the mainstream of pro-Israel and pro-Palestine discourse who take umbrage at any sense of “equivalency,” especially “moral equivalency.”

It appears to be vital to believing in their causes to rest on an unshakable foundation that there is something inherently morally superior to the Palestinian or Israeli position. And any suggestion that these positions can often actually look very similar, and mutually self-reinforcing, when closely examined is the ultimate heresy. Any argument that begins to look like it’s proposing a kind of “moral equivalency” can be guaranteed to draw equally passionate condemnations from partisans on both sides, and not just extremists either.

“Moral equivalency” is rejected by both sides in the same way they both assert “double standards.” At many levels there may not be moral equivalency in any given aspect of the situation, and there are always double standards. But when moral, behavioral, or intellectual equivalency can be found as, on close examination, it very often can, it’s highly revealing about the political trap in which Israelis and Palestinians find themselves caught together.

The howls of outrage are entirely predictable, and they are not just based on mythology but real differences. The parties are not, in fact, the same. Israel is a powerful and well-functioning state with highly-developed bureaucratic systems, laws, and structures. Palestinians are a disempowered and occupied people, fragmented into many parts, and they lack all of those system. Israelis and their friends therefore recoil at being compared at a fundamental level to Palestinians who they see as intolerant, violent, and impossibly recalcitrant. Meanwhile, Palestinians and their friends reject any notion of symmetry with Israel, which they see as racist, colonialist, and impossibly irredentist.

“How can you compare us to those people?” “How can you compare democratic, responsible Israel to the Palestinians with their ‘culture of hate’ and ‘traditions of terrorism?'” “Really,” the other side says? “Here we are, colonized, abused, discriminated against, dispossessed and under constant attack, and you want to compare us to them?” “How can you compare a tolerant democracy to a group of angry and probably anti-Semitic people with the terrorist mentality?” “How can you compare the occupiers with the occupied, the victimizers with the victims?”

In unison, both sides rise to simultaneously reject any notion that there might be a fundamental symmetry between them at a certain register, at least in terms of attitudes and behaviors that reinforce conflict and undermine peace. And they’re all correct, of course. Israel and Palestinians are not the same people and there are major differences between them. This is understood by everybody from the outset.

The point is not to suggest that there aren’t any differences. That would be ridiculous. It’s to deliberately notice the numerous instances of echoing and mutual-reinforcement that seems to pervade and almost define the conflict just below the surface. It’s to challenge the partisans on both sides to recognize that beneath their differences, they have often adopted analogous mentalities that reinforce rather than undermine conflict and make peace far more difficult.

Of course Israelis and Palestinians are not in the same position at any real register. But when two peoples in such different manifest circumstances seem so often to mimic each other at a latent level, when they seem to collaborate in, if nothing else, analogous behaviors and attitudes that perpetually reinforce each other and re-inscribe the basics of the conflict, pointing this out appears to be uniquely provocative to both simultaneously. But there is nothing they need to hear more than to try to pierce the echo chambers that tell them daily that the other side is uniquely wrong and pathological, while they are uniquely right and good.

Palestinians and Israelis must be taught the truth

It is a universal human impulse to shrink from uncomfortable truths. People instinctively only want to hear what reinforces their existing world views and their collective identities, which can be unbearably fragile. Therefore many deliberately prefer myth over reality, ignorance to knowledge, and the warm cocoon of self-satisfaction – especially the supposed moral authority that attaches to victimhood – instead of empathy and understanding.

Cultural leadership requires disrupting such impulses. Political power is more easily gained and maintained by pandering to the lowest common denominator. But no compatriots are more valuable than those who decline to tell their society what they want to hear, and insist instead on telling them what they need to hear.

Mohammed S Dajani Daoudi, a professor at Al-Quds University in occupied East Jerusalem, is the latest groundbreaking figure to champion the virtue of historical truth over the seductive allure of national dogma. As so often befalls those who challenge easy and convenient attitudes, Prof Dajani is facing an angry backlash when he deserves thanks and respect.

His “transgression” was to take 30 Palestinian students to Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau to learn about the history of Jews in Europe and especially the Holocaust, while an Israeli professor took a similar number of Jewish students to Dheishe refugee camp in occupied Bethlehem to learn about the Palestinian experience, particularly the Nakba and the dispossession and exile of the refugees.

As word of this project, which took place in March, spread in Palestinian society, Prof Dajani has faced a wave of angry denunciations. He’s been threatened and called a “traitor,” a “normaliser,” and similar epithets, as noted by Matthew Kalman in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Al-Quds University distanced itself by saying he was acting in his private capacity. He has received some Palestinian support, but not enough.

Prof Dajani, who has a deep history of Palestinian nationalist activism, has long advocated the necessity of teaching about the Holocaust and its “universal truths” in Palestine. His points are unassailable. Historical truth has merit simply as truth. Palestinians deserve to know the truth. Palestinian students, in particular, have a right to be taught the truth.

Moreover, Palestinians have an urgent need to understand the Jewish Israelis who occupy their land and control so much of their daily lives. Palestinians could justifiably claim to understand Israelis all too well at a certain register, through the inescapable lived experience of the occupation.

What’s often missing is a clear sense of the historical experiences that inform Jewish Israeli attitudes about the world, their apparently bewildering sense of constant insecurity when they both seem, and are, overwhelmingly powerful compared to the Palestinians, and their consequent obsession with security – a motif that is effectively deployed in Israel to rationalise many illegal or indefensible practices, typically at the expense of Palestinian human rights.

Palestinians have nothing to fear from any aspect of the historical truth, particularly events in Europe that were a culmination of centuries of European anti-Semitism that do not have any traditional or deep-seated analogue in either Arab culture or Islamic theology. Palestinians cannot be implicated in any meaningful way in Nazi genocide, so objectively they only stand to benefit from its lessons. But it still can be an unwelcome intrusion on otherwise reassuringly simple assumptions about victims and victimisers.

For some, acknowledging that Jews in Europe were the victims of a monstrous crime is experienced as an evasion or an inversion of moral perceptions moulded by the occupation. It requires those who are oppressive to be nonetheless understood as belonging to a people who have been horribly victimised. It can seem an objectionable distraction, truth notwithstanding.

Prof Dajani challenges Palestinians to recognise the complexities of the Jewish experience, while his colleagues who went to refugee camps ask Israelis to open their eyes to the reality of Palestinian suffering. Angry resistance to such projects is not merely the championing of ignorance. It is a wilful withholding of empathy, and insistence on an imagined binary reality neatly divided between essentially “good” and “bad” people.

Refusal of empathy is distressingly widespread and can be disturbingly casual. On April 9, the prominent Jewish-American writer Norman Podhoretz averred with a twisted nonchalance in The Wall Street Journal, “I have no sympathy – none – for the Palestinians,” because they don’t “deserve any”. He describes Palestinians as harbouring “evil intents” and bizarrely insists they will never recognise Israel, even though the Palestine Liberation Organisation did in 1993.

Mr Podhoretz churlishly spurns the complexities of truth, instead cuddling the comforting fiction of a caricature alternate universe in which – most conveniently – anything Palestinians suffer under occupation by his fellow Jews is unobjectionable because these uniquely wicked people “deserve” absolutely no sympathy. His twisted mentality perfectly echoes that of those Palestinians who are angry with Prof Dajani for insisting Palestinians need to learn about the Holocaust in their schools, just as Israelis need to learn about the Nakba.

By stark contrast, in response to the threats, Prof Dajani declared: “I will not remain a bystander even if the victims of the suffering I show empathy for are my occupiers.”

That is real cultural and educational leadership and integrity. It is principled, brave, intelligent and unflinching. It deserves only support, applause and emulation.


Athletes and artists show Gaza still occupied

Recent cases involving athletes and musicians show how much Gaza is still under Israeli occupation

Not free to travel.


I recently participated in a debate in New York City where two noted American pro-Israel advocates, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach and Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, both kept insisting that there is no Israeli occupation in Gaza. Tell that to the 30 runners who applied for Israeli permission recently to participate in the upcoming Second International Bethlehem Marathon in the occupied West Bank.

They were arbitrarily denied permission by Israeli military officials who said the event “does not meet the rules for exceptions for sports events,” because the Marathon “has political overtones.” Presumably this means that it’s a Palestinian event being held under occupation, which implies that Palestinians can do things without Israeli permission in their own land, and that – horror of horrors – they may be preparing for the eventual independence both they and the rest of the world expect and demand.

Under Israel’s own rules, exceptions to the blanket travel ban for Palestinians in Gaza are to be made for, among a small group of others, members of the Palestinian Olympic team and the Palestinian national soccer selection. One of the runners who applied was Nader Masri, who actually ran in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. No dice.

The Israeli rights group, Gisha, appealed on behalf of Masri to Israel’s Supreme Court, which turned them down flat. It’s easy, in their own comfort and freedom in the United States, for people like Boteach and Stephens to delude themselves by insisting there is no occupation in Gaza because the settlements have been removed. But try squaring that with this arbitrary, and cruel, denial of the right of a qualified and apolitical Palestinian runner from Gaza to participate in a Palestinian marathon in the occupied West Bank. Or the 29 others who simply wanted to run.

There’s no question under international law that Gaza remains occupied by Israel. But supporters of Israel wave away international law and UN Security Council resolutions. They cite an absence of Israeli forces in the heart of Gaza or settlers on its periphery. What they don’t recognize is that Israel nonetheless controls the ability of ordinary people in Gaza like these runners to deal with their brethren in the West Bank, and that its policy default is to deny this.

If they had to apply for permission to travel within their own country to a foreign army of occupation, only to be turned down on spurious pretexts that reflect mass punishment rather than anything to do with security, they’d know they are very much still living under foreign military occupation.

It’s true that there is one potential crossing for people to get out of Gaza that is controlled by Egypt, but Hamas’ reckless policies in and toward the Sinai Peninsula have made the Egyptian government, whether under the Muslim Brotherhood or the new interim authorities, very reluctant to keep that border open on a regular basis.

But all the main channels of ingress and egress out of Gaza, including the seaport, any air route and the only real commercial crossing with industrial equipment, are all controlled, and closed, by Israel. And even if Masri and the others had been able to cross into Egypt, to get into the occupied West Bank and to the marathon in Bethlehem, they would have still needed to enter Palestine with the permission of Israeli soldiers, which they would be denied.

In another example of what Palestinian residents of Gaza face in trying to access the other part of their country and their brethren in the West Bank, 39 Gaza-based musicians asked for permission to travel to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem to participate in a festival of music and culture. You guessed it: request denied.

Israeli military authorities have not explained the logic of refusing to allow musicians to travel from Gaza to the rest of Palestine for an artistic program, and they say that a final decision hasn’t been made, but such denials are rarely reversed. All these restrictions are almost certainly part of a policy of collective punishment directed at the Palestinians of Gaza by Israel because they also have to suffer under the misrule of Hamas.

These policies are not only inhumane, arbitrary, cruel, and simply bewildering, they are also entirely self-defeating for Israel. They don’t enhance Israeli security, they fuel Palestinian resentment. They don’t undermine Hamas’ rule in Gaza, they make the Palestinians of Gaza more dependent on Hamas and less independent, and more cut off from the outside world. Like most blockades, they accrue directly to the benefit of the governing entities, in this case Hamas, at the expense of ordinary people.

And these stories are not the exception but the norm, even when the rules technically shouldn’t apply. Gaza is still under Israeli occupation, because if you live there, you can’t play sports or music, except in your own neighborhood, without the permission of the Israeli army. You are in prison and the guards at the gates are Israeli soldiers.

Lebanon is unfit and unable to cope with its refugee crisis

Most of the concern about “spillover” from the Syrian conflict in Lebanon has tended to focus on political destabilisation, sectarian conflict in the north and the impact of both violence and its own political viability from Hizbollah’s reckless intervention on behalf of the Damascus dictatorship. But this week Lebanon reached a sobering milestone: when a 19-year-old known only as Yahya signed up for UN aid as a Syrian refugee, the official number in Lebanon hit the one million mark.

This is the highest per capita concentration of refugees recorded anywhere in the world in recent history. Simply put, the population of Lebanon has increased by at least 25 per cent, and probably more, in the past three years.

Lebanon is a country of only about four million citizens, with a long-standing refugee population of more than 300,000 Palestinians as well. Political relations between those four million Lebanese have always been balanced in an uneasy accommodation between sectarian and ideological forces that often agree on very little. Indeed, one of the few things most Lebanese factions really seem to agree on is the systematic and shameful exclusion from most elements of public life of the Palestinian refugees, who are officially seen as temporary guests but are understood as a semi-permanent presence that nonetheless cannot be incorporated into the country’s socio-political mix.

When the first waves of Syrian refugees began to hit Lebanon, alarm was not immediate. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been going back and forth between Syria and Lebanon for decades. It was assumed that these Syrian refugees, too, were genuinely temporary guests, and that, whatever the outcome, the war would end fairly quickly and they would return home.

It’s only in the past year or so that the Lebanese have begun to realise that the reality is entirely different. The war in Syria shows no sign of ending, and may well drag on longer than Lebanon’s own 15-year civil conflict. So it’s now very difficult to avoid concluding that these refugees, plus many other Syrians in Lebanon who have not registered with anyone but who also aren’t going anywhere, any time soon, have drastically altered the demographic make-up of the country for the foreseeable future, if not permanently.

Several neighbouring states have major refugee populations from the Syrian conflict, including Jordan. But Lebanon is particularly ill-equipped to deal with this scale of sudden influx, both socially and politically.

Many Syrians in Lebanon cannot afford to pay the $250 (Dh918) per head required for every year of lawful residency, and therefore many are becoming “illegal.” Without this residency, refugees are faced with the constant threat of arrest, and are ineligible for health and other social services, or legal processes such as marriage and divorce or the registering of newborns. So they live in a shadow world, hiding beneath the surface of the law.

Their desperation was recently highlighted when, on April 2, Mariam Al Khawli immolated herself in protest at the cut in aid she was receiving from refugee agencies. It should be a wake-up call to all parties, but there’s little sign of any action. Many refugees continue to live on approximately $1 a day, and more than half are estimated to be children. The refugees are also facing a rising tide of anger and discrimination, with numerous reports of intolerance and even “racism” against them growing in some segments of the Lebanese population.

Lebanon’s already beleaguered and fractious governance system is struggling to provide everyone with social services, especially education. Many Lebanese, including government officials, openly and bitterly complain that in numerous public schools Syrian students now outnumber Lebanese ones. Water and electricity services, which were already barely adequate, are now on the verge of collapse. The World Bank has estimated the financial costs of the refugee crisis to Lebanon at $2.5 billion in 2013, and that number can only grow this year and beyond.

Over time, the question of the political status and impact of the Syrian refugees, who appear to be mostly Sunnis, on Lebanon’s delicate social and sectarian equilibrium may be even more damaging. There is no doubt most of the Syrians want to go home, and they would if they could. But they can’t, and there’s no indication that they will in the foreseeable future either. If anything, there will be more refugees coming into Lebanon rather than returning to Syria.

This sudden and unexpected population explosion has brought new competition over jobs and services, new social tensions and, perhaps even more worryingly, a new political demographic, for which Lebanon is entirely unprepared.

So in addition to the spillover of fighting in the north, and the war that is trailing Hizbollah back into Lebanon following their major intervention in Syria, Lebanon now has a vast new population that is not accounted for by its social and political systems. This reality is untenable. Such a huge number can neither be fully incorporated nor excluded by Lebanon.

Neither the international community nor Lebanon have any credible answer or plausible plan on what is to be done about the calamity that has befallen each individual refugee and the entire country of Lebanon, all of which are reeling after an unparalleled human tsunami that’s far from over.

Surrounded by fanatics

Israeli and Palestinian rhetorical extremism is old hat, but it seems to be nearing a new crescendo

Words matter. Sensible people know that. But fanatics know it too.

Those who strive for peace between Israel and the Palestinians are keenly aware of their encirclement by radical propaganda. This has been true for decades, but the intensity of mania on the fringes isn’t abating: if anything, it’s only getting worse.

The phenomenon affects all who dare to advocate for Middle East peace, and therefore come under constant attack from a bizarre menagerie of extremists. What I had already perceived to be a generalized intensification of strident polemics was recently brought home to me directly as I found myself under unusually harsh attacks simultaneously from a twin set of zealots.

Last week, in an article on the right-wing pro-Israel website, Ben Cohen described me as “a faux moderate” because of articles I’ve written about Israel’s “Jewish state” demand. In a subsequent Twitter exchange, I pointed out that this can only mean that he’s calling me an extremist, an obvious truth he would neither admit nor deny.

Cohen’s imagination has constructed a binary world in which there are only two kinds of people: Zionists and extremists. It’s not enough that I seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and do not oppose Israel although I categorically oppose the occupation. Cohen can see that I obviously do not adhere to the ideological tenets or narrative of Zionism. And, for him, by definition that makes me an extremist.

At roughly the same time, the anonymous abusive and spamming Twitter feed that calls itself “@Ikhras” – though one can certainly make an educated guess as to at least some of the people involved – decided I was not simply a “right-wing Zionist,” which already they call me almost daily: they declared I was actually “the most right-wing of all these Zionists,” in reference to a debate I am having later today with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the decidedly right-wing Wall Street Journal Foreign Affairs columnist Bret Stephens, and noted liberal commentator Peter Beinart.

It’s laughable. For the likes of Cohen, because I’m not a Zionist but rather an Arab who wants peace with Israel, I’m a “faux moderate.” For @Ikhras, whoever is cowering behind its craven anonymity, because I want peace with Israel, even though I’m not a Zionist, I’m more “Zionist” than three self-avowed Jewish Zionists, and more “right-wing” than one of America’s most prominent conservative columnists.

Indeed, over the past few months I’ve been inexplicably described by the far left as an “Arab neoconservative,” simply as an empty pejorative since I can’t think of any policy view I hold, on either domestic or international affairs, that can honestly be described as right-of-center.

For the extremes, though, there is no center ground. There is no way to agree to disagree, or even partly agree. Their narratives are hewn in marble; any disagreement can only be a manifestation of willful wickedness, a vile betrayal of self-evident Truth and Justice. If you don’t agree with them completely on everything, you’re not only ipso facto a bad person: more importantly – because there is no room for genuine moderation – you must also be a fanatic on the other side. Thus it was that in the past few days on Twitter I could be simultaneously described as both “a faux moderate” and “the most right-wing Zionist.”

I recently received copies of two new books that illustrate exactly the same phenomenon. Coming from what appear to be radically different positions, they actually agree on a vast number of issues and echo each other’s mentalities perfectly. Both derisively and angrily dismiss the international consensus in favor of a two-state solution and advocate a one-state “solution.” And they share far more in common than just that.

Caroline Glick’s The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East and Ali Abunimah’s The Battle for Justice in Palestine clearly stake out the same position, but in mirror image to each other. Both insist that only Jews or Palestinians, respectively, have national rights and rights to self-determination in the land between the river and the sea. Both insist that a single state is achievable and necessary, and will be a happy and peaceful polity as long as it is under the majority rule of their own community. Sure, the other side may have to endure some sacrifices. But ultimately they might well, or at least should, be happy with the outcome. And if not, tough: Justice demands it.

There is no room in either book for the ideas that compromise is essential, that peace is an important value, that the other side has any respectable case or legitimacy whatsoever, or that their own side has any difficult choices to make other than simply asserting the indisputable moral authority of its own maximalist cause. For all of their manifest differences, the two books are indistinguishable at the latent level. They are, in effect, exactly the same book.

You’d think this might make Glick and Abunimah, or at least some of their fans, think twice. But righteous zeal may prevent many of them from seeing past the tissue-thin, surface level, polar opposite appearances and recognizing the underlying interchangeability and complementarity of their arguments and mentalities, which aren’t just barely concealed but are actually strikingly obvious.

Anyone who follows the news will know certain high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials have recently been making statements that strongly encourage maximalism and discourage compromise and moderation. This isn’t new, of course, but it appears to be approaching a piercingly shrill crescendo as US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative comes to a head.

Highly counterproductive statements by senior officials are more damaging than books by demagogues, which in turn are more harmful than blog postings and tweets by fanatics. But all of this angry bombast should remind those of us who are committed to a future of peace and dignity for both Palestinians and Israelis, based on an end to the occupation, that we are surrounded on all sides by cynical manipulators and wild-eyed zealots.

To overcome this widespread rhetorical offensive against ending both the occupation and the conflict, we will all have to work together more closely than ever to marginalize extremism and empower moderation, while remaining cognizant of our differences and not pretending they don’t exist. Our words – the words of peace – must prevail.