Bibi’s First War

The best description of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political style is that he is risk-averse. His entire career has been defined by careful calculation, caution, and a steadfast commitment to the status quo. Few in Israel seem to love him, but they do regard him as safe and reliable. And that has been a remarkably effective formula for staying in power in a country whose governments rarely serve out their full term.

Yet suddenly, Netanyahu has found himself well outside of his comfort zone. His government has been sucked into a major conflict with Hamas and other extremists in Gaza, and it has no clear strategic goal or even an obvious exit strategy. Netanyahu is thus in the very position he’s least at ease with: he is at the mercy of events and other actors outside his control. He might hope that when tensions calm he will end up where he wants to be — the familiar status quo that he has always found politically comfortable. But that status quo, characterized by occupation and radical inequality in the Palestinian territories, is unsustainable and exceptionally dangerous for Israel, Palestine, and the region as a whole.

Netanyahu’s remarkable rise to prolonged political power in Israel, particularly in his extended second term, has been based on his impressive ability to position himself between Israel’s two poles: those who want peace with the Palestinians and those who want to consolidate control over the occupied territories. He is a supporter of the settler movement, but not a rabid one. Settlers and their leaders have frequently accused him of “silent” or “de facto” building freezes, and his government has demolished a number of wildcat settlement outposts (although it has also recognized many others).

He professes to be a proponent of a two-state solution, but both his policies and his rhetoric leave grave doubts about his commitment to that outcome. At a recent press conference, Netanyahu undermined any hopes that he is truly open to a real two-state solution. “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Netanyahu said, effectively ruling out the establishment of a truly independent, sovereign, and viable Palestinian state. In other words, his vision of the long-term future between Israel and the Palestinians is the status quo, defined by occupation and the rule over another people deprived of rights and citizenship, extended indefinitely.

Netanyahu seems content to leave things basically as they are, tinkering on the margins with new settlements and other small changes that may have a profound cumulative effect, but only in the long run. Anything else would be too risky. To restrain the settlers would mean a confrontation with the far right. To go in for annexation would provoke a massive diplomatic crisis. Netanyahu prefers, instead, to just allow the possibility of a two-state solution to fade away slowly, but inexorably. Indeed, in spite of widespread psychological speculation about the influence of his late father, a noted anti-Arab extremist, and his wife, whose cantankerous personality has been well documented, Netanyahu seems very much to follow his own counsel, which is apparently driven by a belief that the less done on major issues, the better for him.

Netanyahu does have some history of recklessness, but only when it comes to other people’s fortunes. Supporters of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, bitterly accuse Netanyahu of orchestrating a campaign of public vilification that led to Rabin’s murder. And there is plenty of evidence that he did: Netanyahu appeared at rallies featuring posters of Rabin in Nazi SS uniforms and with crosshairs over his face. Netanyahu fulminated that Rabin’s government was “removed from Jewish tradition … and Jewish values” by seeking peace with the Palestinians. Rabin warned that Netanyahu was promoting a climate of violence, an evaluation that proved apt when Rabin was soon after gunned down by a young Jewish extremist.

Another risky political move was merging his Likud party list with that of the far-right party Yisrael Beytenu in the last elections. It was a personal and ideological mismatch from the outset, and seemed to cost both parties at the polls. The merger recently fell apart, which has probably only reinforced Netanyahu’s risk aversion.

With all his caution, Netanyahu has managed during his time in power to avoid leading the country in a major conflict. He was prime minister during a significant eight-day flare-up with Gaza in November 2012, but that couldn’t be characterized as a fully fledged war in the same way that the current conflagration must be because it was short and contained, and Netanyahu always appeared to be in control of events as they unfolded.

By contrast, the current conflict seems to embody Netanyahu’s deep aversion to unpredictable politics. It began with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank by militants that were associated with Hamas but had quite possibly gone rogue. The Israeli authorities knew all along that that the teenagers had been killed soon after the kidnapping, thanks to a phone call that they made to the police in which their murder could clearly be heard. But the authorities withheld that information from the public in order to carry out a massive crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, disguised as an effort to rescue the boys.

When their bodies were discovered after 18 days, Netanyahu’s government seemed ready to call it a day. He signaled that he wasn’t interested in a major escalation in Gaza; Israelis had been down that road before, twice in a significant way, and had learned that blowing up buildings and killing people doesn’t change Hamas’ behavior or the strategic situation on the ground. But because Netanyahu’s government had deceived the public, the recovery of the boys’ bodies unleashed a fresh wave of anger. When Jewish Israeli fanatics nabbed, tortured, and burned alive a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, and then video emerged of the Israeli border police brutally beating his 15-year-old cousin, events took on a life of their own. Unrest spread throughout the West Bank and in Palestinian areas of Israel. The Israeli crackdown intensified. Rocket attacks from Gaza increased, and Netanyahu ultimately felt politically compelled to act, despite evident misgivings from the military.

And so now, for the first time in his career, Netanyahu finds himself presiding over the chaos of a war that seems very much outside his control. Hamas has launched countless rockets at Israel, including parts of the country previously beyond its range, and Netanyahu has unleashed an enormous barrage against a vast range of targets in the Gaza Strip, including the homes and neighborhoods of Hamas leaders. Israeli airstrikes have left more than 200 Palestinians dead, and the United Nations estimates that 80 percent of them are civilians. An intensified fear hangs over Israel as Hamas and other groups demonstrate the reach of their latest rockets. Although the Hamas rockets have been largely ineffectual, several Israelis have been injured and at least one has been killed.

It would’ve taken real courage, and a willingness to embrace political risk, for Netanyahu to listen to wiser counsel and avoid this pointless exchange of violence. It isn’t clear whether Israel can achieve any major objectives in this war beyond killing people and blowing up civilian property and paramilitary installations, which is unlikely to achieve any major political or strategic goals and could do significant further harm to Israel’s international and regional reputation. And the conundrum is made worse by the fact that Israel actually wants Hamas to stay in power in Gaza, both because Hamas is a known quantity that can be held accountable for its transgressions and because Israel fears the anarchy or the other, more extreme, groups that could rise in its absence. So Israel can go only so far unless it decides to, once again, assume wholesale responsibility for what happens in, and who controls, Gaza.

In recent days, a number of influential Israeli voices have advocated just that. On Tuesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized Netanyahu’s “hesitation” and declared that the current offensive should end with “a full takeover of the Gaza Strip” by Israel. Netanyahu responded by saying that he would ignore “background noise,” a clear rebuke to Lieberman. And after coming under severe criticism by Likud leader and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, Netanyahu curtly dismissed him. The far right continues to push for a major ground operation in Gaza, but Netanyahu seems determined to stick to aerial bombardments and small-scale ground incursions if he can.

As things stand, this conflict bears all the hallmarks of a classic lose-lose scenario, at least in the short run. Netanyahu might calculate that the price of being sucked into a pointless and bloody attack on Gaza was worth paying to avoid the political harm that would come from doing nothing in the face of enormous public pressure. But the risk-averse and cautious Israeli politician cannot be comfortable this week. The most Netanyahu can hope for is that when the dust settles the new normal in Gaza looks comfortingly like the old normal, something both Netanyahu and the Israeli public believe they can live with, at least for now. But with everything in the region in flux, that expectation may be unrealistic. In a worst-case scenario, Hamas could emerge from this conflict bloodied and battered, but with much greater political and nationalist clout and credibility throughout Palestinian society, including the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has been systematically weakened and looks utterly irrelevant and ineffectual.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel is treading water, both in the Gaza campaign and with regard to the biggest questions it faces about its future. It is postponing the day of reckoning, putting off decisions about the occupied territories and the Palestinians, and pretending everything will somehow be all right. Avoiding the toughest issues, which most Israelis don’t want to deal with and about which they share no consensus, may be an excellent strategy for Netanyahu’s personal political ambitions. But it is a terrible abrogation of his broader national duties: making the hard and necessary decisions, taking prudent and wise risks, and putting the country’s interests above his own political career and fortunes.

Did Netanyahu close the door on peace?

Was the Israeli PM posturing last Friday or is his outlook as bleak as it seems?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the inauguration of the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Medicine in Tsfat, north of Israel, on October 30, 2011 (AFP Photo/Pool/Jack Guez)


As the latest round of violence and attacks between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza was raging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly ruled out any real prospect that he would ever support a two-state solution. As reported by David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, Netanyahu told a press conference last Friday: “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

In effect, this means “no” to any sovereign, viable Palestinian state. It seems to vindicate those who never believed Netanyahu was sincere in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech and subsequent declarations that he now supports peace based on a Palestinian state after years of opposing it. Such critics recall that in a private talk to Israelis in 2001, Netanyahu boasted that in his first term as prime minister he had “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.”

So, is Netanyahu, the consummate political survivor and deal-maker, posturing again? Are his comments from last week, which are so devastating to all Palestinians, Israelis and others committed to a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace, to be read in the light of the passions of the moment, of the conflict that contextualized them?

Or are they, as so many will both fear and with the deepest reluctance finally conclude, a sincere and solid commitment to the Israeli public that, under his watch, Israel will never accept a genuinely independent Palestinian state no matter what Netanyahu has said or hinted in the past?

The deep history of the man himself, his politics, and those of his country at the moment are not encouraging. They all militate towards the second, dark and depressing reading.

But Netanyahu did not offer any vision of the future beyond this statement that Israel would never relinquish security control in the West Bank. Indeed, does he have a vision at all? It seems not, unless it’s simply the indefinite continuation of the status quo.

If that is what he has in mind, at least for the remainder of his own political career, then his statement can be understood in an instrumental sense. The conflict with Hamas has given the Islamist group momentum in Palestinian political life, at least in the present instant, despite the devastation being wrought on the long-suffering and innocent people of Gaza. In this light, Netanyahu’s comments deal yet another body blow to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and indeed to all those committed to peace based on two states.

As such, the logic of those who argue that Netanyahu’s approach is to damage, but not overthrow, Hamas in Gaza; marginalize and emasculate the PA in Ramallah; and bamboozle the United States with false pledges of interest in peace seems to be greatly vindicated by recent events and statements. Indeed, Amir Oren of Haaretz goes as far as to argue that Netanyahu now seeks three states for two peoples: Israel, and two disempowered Palestinian mini-states; one in Gaza and the other in Area A of the West Bank. That’s certainly what is emerging now, and of the three, the PA – which seems to be the only one with a clear commitment to peace – is the most politically weakened, disempowered and vulnerable.

But what does Netanyahu’s statement about security control imply? Only one of two things: either Israel will end up incorporating a vast number of new Palestinian citizens, to the point that it is no longer a Jewish state even in theory; or Israel will take the temporary “separate and unequal” arrangement it oversees in the occupied Palestinian territories and make it permanent. The Statute of Rome provides a clear definition of such a permanent arrangement, as opposed, for example, to a temporary occupation. It’s called the “crime of apartheid.”

So Netanyahu wants security control, which means ruling land, which means no Palestinian state. But neither he nor any other Israeli has been able to propose any formula other than two states that would end the conflict and allow Israel to remain either Jewish or democratic, let alone both. So, his answer is, in the long run, no answer at all.

It’s possible that Netanyahu was either pandering to the public at a time of war, or was staking out a strong position that can be negotiated down. Everyone with any hope for a better future must fervently wish this to be the case, and the door should never be closed to that reading. Calculations and positions, after all, change as circumstances do.

But, unfortunately, it’s also possible that last Friday Netanyahu really did openly announce that he cannot imagine a real peace agreement, at least for now. While neither he nor anyone else has any viable alternative, peace based on two states remains the only solution to further conflict such as currently on gruesome display in Gaza and beyond.

Palestinians die in the most cynical of all military games

Lost amid the carnage, the key fact about the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration remains largely unrecognised: Egypt’s new and pivotal role. Egypt has always been the default broker between Israel and Hamas, since it is able to deal with Hamas without according it any greater international and diplomatic legitimacy.

But this time it’s different. It’s no longer about Egypt playing a crucial mediating role. Instead, Hamas is mainly seeking to extract concessions not from Tel Aviv or Ramallah, but from Cairo.

Hamas, or more likely loosely affiliated rogue elements based in Hebron, deliberately lit a fire by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers. This unleashed a brutal series of tit-for-tat attacks between Israelis and Palestinians that spiralled out of control.

Certainly, the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah had no control over what was going on in occupied East Jerusalem, let alone unrest among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The Israeli government, too, clearly lost control of the situation when fanatics grabbed an innocent teenager and tortured and burnt him to death. Even Israel’s security forces seemed to be acting beyond any bounds of restraint as they brutally beat a 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin of the murder victim.

Passions ruled the day. Years of incitement and frustration on both sides boiled over.

As rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza increased, it also seemed that Hamas leaders perhaps didn’t control their own military, and certainly not that of other, more extreme groups like Islamic Jihad.

Yet Hamas sought some kind of benefit in the chaos.

As Israeli forces carried out a brutal crackdown in the West Bank aimed at severely degrading the Hamas presence there, rounding up hundreds of captives and terrifying villagers across the area, Hamas attempted to whip up a third intifada in order to gain a greater foothold beyond Gaza. This failed, largely because most Palestinians didn’t want another uprising because they still recall the consequences of the last one.

So Hamas was dealt a serious blow in the West Bank but remained in the parlous condition in which it had begun. It was broke. It was isolated. It had instituted an agreement with Fatah, but gained nothing. It was smarting under a major and unrelenting crackdown from Egypt. It was experiencing “an identity crisis”, and a tactical and strategic dead-end. Hamas had to do something.

So it fell back on its most familiar territory: rocket attacks against Israel designed to provoke an overreaction. The Israeli military knew better. They recalled previous violent exchanges with Hamas as strategically useless, and indeed highly counterproductive for Israel’s international image and strategic posture. But prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed himself to be sucked into a brutal bombardment campaign with no clear endgame.

Now ordinary people in Gaza are dying again in large numbers. More than 160 have been killed, mostly civilians and many of them children. And significant apparent atrocities sear the conscience.

Some argue that the innocent people of Gaza are all Hamas’s “human shields”. But 1.7 million people living in wretched poverty in one of the most overpopulated places on earth cannot be reduced to that kind of instrumental dehumanisation.

Hamas has three public demands, and if it doesn’t achieve any of them when a ceasefire is finally secured, it will have suffered a massive political and military defeat, although Israel, too, will not benefit. It’s a perfect example of a lose-lose scenario.

Hamas seeks the release of “security prisoners” rearrested by Israel. But more importantly, Hamas has demands on Egypt. It wants the permanent reopening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. And it wants Egypt to facilitate the transfer of badly needed funds from Qatar and other sponsors. Simply, it wants to force Egypt to change its policies.

But why would Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the new Egyptian president, charge to the rescue of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine?

The Egyptian authorities, and much of the population, view Hamas as co-conspirators in the terrorist campaign in their own country. The Egyptian military has virtually shut down Gaza smuggling tunnels. They reportedly killed some two dozen Hamas operatives in northern Sinai who were allegedly acting in cahoots with the terrorists there.

So Mr El Sisi and company are showing no interest in Hamas’s demands on them. Egypt is very slowly inching toward its familiar role of mediator and ceasefire broker due to humanitarian impulses, public pressure and a prudent concern about containing the growing chaos in Gaza.

Mr El Sisi met the Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair recently to begin to explore the prospects. But Cairo certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing to bail out Hamas, or Mr Netanyahu for that matter, for now.

Mr Netanyahu and Israel are probably as interested in a rapid ceasefire as is Hamas, since they achieved what they wanted to strategically in the West Bank before they found the bodies of the teenagers (who they knew all along were dead).

But Israel, like Hamas, is trapped in a conflict neither probably wanted and neither seem likely to gain anything from. Meanwhile, the price is paid in blood, misery and suffering by the innocent Palestinians of Gaza, playthings in the most cynical of vicious games.

Mainstream Arabs must push against the Islamic State

It was bound to happen. Since the Salafist-Jihadist ideology emerged during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, its adherents have typically maintained a radical disconnect between their strategic aims and practical tactics.

Whether the wild frenzy of the Algerian civil war, the megalomaniacal global terrorism of Osama bin Laden or the savage butchery of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the takfiris could always be relied upon to sabo­tage themselves. Dysfunctional levels of extremism and overreach defined behaviour that consistently backfired.

Yet, since the emergence of the “Arab Afghans” following the Soviet defeat, close observers of the Middle East have been asking when a less irrational – and therefore infinitely more dangerous – Salafist-­Jihadist entity would arise to menace the region.

The newly designated Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), may be just such a phenomenon.

Rash, self-defeating behaviour is hardly absent from the Islamic State’s conduct, to be sure. But in both Syria and Iraq its firestorm of seizing territory – including strategic and symbolic locations – evinces some rational calculation. Rather than being merely a terrorist group focused on destruction, the Islamic State seeks – and is acquiring – territory to rule.

In Syria, both the Islamic State and the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship have cynically and intelligently gone to considerable lengths to avoid directly confronting each other. Instead, the Islamic State has focused on seizing territory already outside of the government’s control and asserting its power over other opposition groups and, of course, the hapless population. Meanwhile they happily sell oil from the reserves they have seized back to Damascus.

Undoubtedly, good luck and timing have strengthened the Islamic State’s hand. In addition to its unspoken partnership with the Syrian regime, it is serving as a vanguard for a much broader set of Iraqi Sunni militias and constituencies. Alone, they could not have achieved their recent territorial gains.

Herein lies the deepest challenge the Islamic State poses to Sunni-majority states in the Arab world: it claims to represent all of the Muslims of the world. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous such pretensions patently are; identifiable constituencies will be tempted to admire, and possibly eventually support, such grandiose bombast precisely because it is so extravagant.

If what has to this point been merely a wild-eyed and bloodthirsty ideology at last has an organisation capable of seizing and maintaining power in specific strategically and politically significant areas in the heart of the Arab world, then the threat defines itself.

The Islamic State is at least as disastrous for the regional strategic landscape as for individual states. Its rise has been the key to Mr Al Assad’s survival in office. For Iran, the Islamic State is creating a situation that seems almost certain to produce major and sustained strategic gains.

Mainstream Arab societies and states would be well advised to move urgently and forcefully to defang this monstrosity. The Islamic State has created a reality – and, even more dramatically perhaps, also an illusion – of sudden and unexpected success. The reality on the ground must be changed and the illusion (that the Islamic State leads and represents most Sunnis in Iraq, northern Syria and beyond) must be broken.

That means backing their most reasonable Sunni rivals. In Iraq, especially, an eventual power struggle with other Sunni groups that are presently allies of convenience, and mutual outrage over the political marginalisation of the community, is probably inevitable. Although a repetition of the Sahwa (“Awakening”) against Al Qaeda in Iraq a few years ago is unlikely, especially if Nouri Al Maliki remains prime minister, a struggle in which the Islamic State finds itself targeted and seriously degraded is plausible.

Overreach and miscalculation are evident in the Islamic State’s recent moves, including its statehood declaration and preposterous designation of its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, as “Caliph Ibrahim ibn Awwad”, complete with the demand of obedience from all Muslims.

The October 2006 announcement of an “Islamic State of Iraq” was probably the last straw that made the Sahwa possible. Therefore, it ought to be possible to encourage Iraqi Sunnis to view these latest announcements in a similar light.

The new Caliph’s scandalous proclamation that “Syria does not belong to the Syrians and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis” certainly ought to provide a basis for pitting national and local identities against this virulent jihadist internationalism. Rage against Mr Al Maliki and other Shiite leaders shouldn’t, and indeed mustn’t, be enough to reconcile most Iraqi Sunnis to outrageous pronouncements that harm their interests.

The childish extremism and childlike ambition of the Islamic State will undoubtedly hold a certain romantic appeal for some Muslim constituencies. However, in both Syria and Iraq, ample opportunities are already evident to undermine the Islamic State, expose its hollow fanaticism, demonstrate that it is an endless boon to Mr Al Assad and Iran, and roll back its recent successes. More opportunities will emerge shortly.

These existing and unfolding vulnerabilities for the Islamic State must be immediately targeted, and new ones created, by the judicious application of incentives and disincentives. The Islamic State organisation may be around for many years, but Arabs can and should work together to ensure it returns to the fringes.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are a danger to Iraq and Syria

With both Iraq and Syria in the throes of seemingly total meltdown, and much of the Middle East apparently on the brink of a potential broad regional conflagration, the temptation to think in sweeping but simplistic terms becomes greater than ever. This is because the situation is so difficult to read, and even the parties involved in each manifestation of chaos are often not completely clear or entirely settled. But this is an impulse that needs to be resisted if a proper evaluation is to be made and an appropriate policy response formulated.

It would be too easy under such dramatic and unreadable conditions to view the situation as a kind of binary of neat polar opposites that are contending for mastery. But such thinking is dangerous, because the power of narratives and self-fulfilling prophecies is such that embracing the idea of a binary division could contribute to producing one at the political level.

In politics, there is no clear distinction between perception and reality. The constant repetition of an idea can often imbue that perspective with undue power. Sometimes the ardently-stated belief in them is sufficient to give monsters of the imagination a foothold in reality.

Two binaries currently in vogue illustrate the point painfully clearly.

Hanin Ghaddar, the outstanding managing editor of the Beirut-based website NOW (to which I am also a regular contributor), has proffered one of the most compelling explanations yet for the horrifying phenomenon of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). From years of close observation of Hizbollah, Ghaddar draws a strong comparison between the two organisations.

“Today,” she writes, ISIL “has become empowered by a similar feeling of injustice [to that which gave rise to Hizbollah] within the Sunni community, and what we are seeing is the emergence of what can be described as a Sunni Hizbollah”. This clear and simple analysis cuts to the core of the appalling rise in Syria and Iraq of ISIL, and its close political affinity to the origin and modus operandi of Hizbollah.

What gets lost for many people, however, is that there is nothing inevitable about an open-ended sectarian confrontation throughout much of the Arab Middle East, pitting a “Sunni” Hizbollah against a “Shiite” Hizbollah.

Since the downfall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, few observers have been more quick to point to sectarian tensions and ring alarm bells than this writer. However, in recent weeks, the undeniable rise of sectarian forces is being mistaken for the total domination of all regional strategic relations by sectarianism. There is, of course, a clear and important distinction.

It’s possible that regional powers might be headed for a grand and protracted confrontation between sectarian forces, whether Sunni versus Shiite, or Sunni versus everybody else, depending on your point of view. But this is by no means a fait accompli – and assuming that it is inevitable constitutes an unethical moral and intellectual surrender.

Since such a conflagration is not in the interests of any major party, it’s also eminently avoidable. And it probably will be avoided, assuming that the key players remain open for other approaches.

Another binary that’s enjoying unwelcome prominence originates with the Israeli analyst Orit Perlov and has been recently popularised by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It pits two Arab dynamics: ISIL versus SISI – the latter standing for the new Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi – as opposing models.

ISIL is supposed to stand for those who elevate God to the centre of all political dynamics, and SISI is meant to represent the trend of relying entirely on (implicitly failed) nation-state governance. This polar model is even weaker than the first because, in this case, SISI doesn’t represent what it’s meant to. In other words, the new Egyptian government can’t be characterised in such a reductive and simplistic manner.

Moreover, there is no basis for seeing the Arab world dividing along these lines. There is a threat of sectarian confrontation, to be sure, but non-state actors only threaten states that are imploding as a result of long-evident structural and identity crises that were probably irresolvable from the time of their foundation.

That doesn’t apply to many, or maybe even most, of the Arab states, although nonstate forces are finding ample stamping grounds in the ruins of the apparently unworkable Sykes-Picot boundaries, which were outlined in 1916 and formalised in the 1920s.

Such binary positions are always appealing at a time of confusion, seeming to offer clarity and structure where there is only opacity and disintegration. But they should be avoided, because this is a false premise.

The Middle East is not divided between government and mosque, failed national states and implausible nonstate parties. Nor is it in the grip of a broader sectarian confrontation. And for everyone’s sake, it had better stay that way. Let’s not wish ourselves into cataclysm before it’s too late.

The Second World War record of Arabs and Muslims is worth marking

The 70th anniversary of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy this month provides a welcome opportunity to recall and re-evaluate the often ignored or misrepresented Arab and Muslim role in the Second World War.

Islamophobic and other hostile voices in the West often mis­characterise the Arab and Muslim participation in the war as largely or entirely pro-Nazi, while Arab and Muslim societies tend to focus on anti-colonial struggles at the expense of the Second World War.

The record is a complex, mixed and nuanced one, but the overarching fact is that Arab and Muslim involvement in the war was overwhelmingly on the Allied side, and was a significant factor in fighting on the ground. The overwhelming majority joined the cause voluntarily, despite British and French colonialism.

Moroccans estimate that 1,700 of their countrymen participated in the D-Day invasion as part of the Free French Army. This only hints at the scale of North African participation in Allied fighting.

The majority of the French army in North Africa in 1939 and 1940 were Arabs. In the French defeat of June 1940, about 5,400 Arab soldiers were killed fighting on the Allied side, and an estimated 60,000 Algerians, 18,000 Moroccans, 12,000 Tunisians and 90,000 other Muslims were captured by the Germans. It has been estimated that 233,000 North African Muslims were serving in the Free French Army in 1944, and that about 52 per cent of all its troops killed during the final year of the war were Muslims, mostly from North Africa. Some 40,000 North Africans are estimated to have given their lives in fighting for the liberation of Europe in 1944-45.

Not all incidents involving North African troops were glorious, of course. Atrocities in the war took place on all sides and all fronts, and it’s true that Moroccan forces played a major role in mass rapes of Italian women and killing of Italian men following the bitter Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. The atrocity is still remembered as the “Marocchinate”.

The Allied Muslim contingent from South Asia was even larger. At least half a million Indian Muslims enlisted in the British military during the conflict. At least one-third, if not more, of the British “Indian Army” that fought during the war on many fronts were Indian Muslims – a disproportionately high percentage.

Additional untold numbers were recruited from various Arab states, or among Muslims fighting in the Soviet, Chinese and other Allied armies. Exceptionally few took up arms on the Axis side. About 9,000 Palestinians, for example, joined the British Army during the war.

On the other hand, there were significant groupings with sympathy for Nazi Germany in Arab and Muslim societies. Some of this was clearly driven by anti-colonial sentiment. But at times it clearly crossed the line into outright ideological support, such as by the short-lived Rashid Ali government in Iraq.

The most notorious Arab collaborator with the Nazi regime during the war was the former Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al Husseini. Having been plucked from relative obscurity by the British and installed in his clerical post, and then exiled by them from Palestine, he became an avid supporter of Hitler and his murderous anti-Semitism.

However, following the war, after receiving a hero’s welcome in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Husseini quickly slipped into obscurity and played no further role in Palestinian politics until his death. He remains a largely forgotten figure, with even Hamas according him no real historical significance (unlike his still-lionised contemporary Izzedin Al Qassam).

One of the most frequently cited condemnations of Al Husseini was his role in the formation of a Bosnian Muslim SS division. However, as Marko Attila Hoare has demonstrated, the support of large segments of the Bosnian Muslim population and elite was crucial in the victory of the Yugoslav partisans over Nazi puppet regimes.

Moreover, in one of the most startling and underappreciated facts about the war, the only state that came under direct German occupation that had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than the beginning was also the only Muslim-majority one: ­Albania. Albanian Jews were ­almost entirely saved from the Holocaust because the entire ­society, from the top down, systematically conspired to prevent the Germans from discovering who was Jewish.

The record in German-occupied North Africa was more mixed and less edifying, as Robert Satloff’s research shows. As in most of Nazi-occupied Europe, many North Africans collaborated with the Nazis, or else did nothing, or too little, to resist them or to protect their Jewish neighbours. But others went to great lengths to protect as many Jews as possible. And, as we’ve seen, hundreds of thousands joined the Free French Army to fight the Nazis despite the underlying reality of French colonialism.

Arab and Muslim responses to the Second World War, and their role in the conflict, were enormously varied and include significant instances of glory, shame and ordinary survival. But, it is essential to remember and recognise that huge numbers of Arabs and Muslims fought in the war, and that – in spite of the constant misrepresentation, distortion or downplaying of this reality – they did so almost entirely on the ­Allied side and against Nazi Germany.

The Arab knowledge constituency vs. the ignorance lobby

The saga of Prof. Dajani is a subset of a broader Arab struggle between the forces of intelligence and stupidity

Professor Mohammed Dajani has resigned from his post at Al-Quds University following controversy over his leading of a Palestinian student delegation to Auschwitz


Chalk up another victory to the mighty Arab ignorance and stupidity brigade. Or should we?

Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, who runs the Al-Quds University Department of American Studies and University Library has been allowed to resign his position following the uproar over a trip he led of Palestinian university students to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some Palestinians, including some of his own university colleagues, attacked Prof. Dajani with a mishmash of incoherent and utterly irrational condemnations.

The whole saga has been most impressively chronicled by the redoubtable Matthew Kalman of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, whose latest report suggests that Prof. Dajani sought and received promises of support from the university leadership, only to have his resignation letter accepted rather than rejected. Presumably Al-Quds University just doesn’t want to hear any more criticism and prefers to turn its back on the entire “controversy” rather than uphold academic freedom in its own institution.

Prof. Dajani told Mr. Kalman that he saw his letter of resignation as “a kind of litmus test to see whether the university administration supports academic freedom and freedom of action and of expression as they claim or not.” If this was indeed a test, they just got a resounding F.

But the whole squalid affair is redolent with Palestinian, and broader Arab, collective neurotic symptoms about others. What, after all, do Palestinians have to gain by insisting their students remain ignorant of the Holocaust? Prof. Dajani argued from the outset that it is essential to understand the Israeli mentality and the Jewish experiences, especially in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, that inform it. It’s an unassailable argument.

Nonetheless, there are those, including professors, who, with a straight face, argue that Palestinians should only be taught, and by implication think, about their own Nakba.

Others tried to argue that the problem was not with the trip to Nazi death camps itself, but rather that Prof. Dajani’s trip was coordinated with an Israeli university that took Jewish students to a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank.

Shock! Horror! Normalization! It’s laughable.

There’s little hope of Israelis and Palestinians improving their dreadful relationship without, among many other things, trying to understand each other’s histories and narratives. That’s hardly a panacea. Real coexistence can only emerge in the absence of occupation, and the structural relationship of dominance and subordination built into that profoundly unhealthy and abusive structure. But better mutual understanding may be an essential component of helping to end the occupation and the conflict.

Even if none of that’s true, knowledge is, nonetheless, power. The constituency for keeping Palestinian students ignorant of certain facts, presumably because they present the truth about Jewish suffering in Europe during the 20th century and that this complicates the understanding of Jewish Israelis simply as oppressors in the occupied Palestinian territories, is a perfect example of the “stupidity lobby.”

And it’s not just restricted to Palestinians and their relationship to Jewish history and the Holocaust. There is a broader conflict throughout Arab culture between those who want to embrace the world, in all its complexity and challenges, versus those who want to crawl inside a warm cocoon of insularity. Relying on nostalgic fantasies about former periods of greatness, the broad Arab ignorance constituency is very powerful.

It includes not only Islamists and other religious dogmatists, including apolitical clerics, but also strident nationalists, leftists, fascists, and chauvinists of every possible variety. Among all of these groupings, as well as the important open-minded and globally-conscious constituencies that are most in favor of engaging the world, there are people who push back against insularity. But for the past century at least, the majority trend in the Arab world has been to try, insofar as possible, to shut out knowledge of and engagement with outsiders, except for commercial purposes.

Many Arabs seem to be suspicious of and hostile towards real knowledge of others (as opposed to myths and stereotypes, of course), and even more engagement with them. Too many of us just don’t want to hear it. Those, like Prof. Dajani, who try to break through this curtain of insularity are frequently punished, or at least criticized, for their embrace of broader realities, some of which are uncomfortable and destabilize reassuring mythologies.

Prof. Dajani says he doesn’t regret the turn of events. Why should he? He’s done something noble and constructive, and he will continue to do so without the support of his former university, through many other venues such as his Wasatia movement. But he, and all those like him throughout the region who want to smash the shackles of decades of carefully cultivated ignorance and embrace history and reality in all its troublesome complexity, are pointing the way.

The whole Arab world is at a turning point. If it continues to allow the stupidity and ignorance lobby, in all its myriad forms, to insist on cultural insularity, chauvinism, and deafness to the outside world, it will remain utterly stuck and unable to successfully join and compete in a globalizing world. But if the intelligence and knowledge constituency, as embodied by Prof. Dajani and so many other important leading Arabs, succeed in turning their societies away from decades of enforced parochialism, they will be among the most important groups in building a better future for the Middle East.

The saga of Prof. Dajani, and the whole battle between the Arab ignorance versus knowledge constituencies, is far from over. My money is on the intelligence community ultimately defeating the stupidity brigade, but it’s going to be an uphill struggle.

Australia’s decision to no longer call East Jerusalem occupied is an attack on international law and order

Australia’s foreign minister and attorney general announced last Thursday that their country would no longer be referring to East Jerusalem as a territory under occupation. They argue that “Occupied East Jerusalem” is “a term freighted with pejorative implications”, which is “neither appropriate nor useful”. Even more preposterously, they deemed it inappropriate “to describe areas of negotiation in such judgemental language”.

It’s hard to know where to begin in picking apart the absurdity of these declarations. The occupation of East Jerusalem is neither “pejorative” nor a “judgement”.

It is a legal and political fact established in countless UN Security Council resolutions beginning with 242 in 1967 and continuing to the present day.

Australia voted for many of these resolutions. And withdrawing recognition of that fact could hardly be more prejudicial to the outcome of talks.

Most significantly, UNSC Resolution 476, passed on June 30, 1980, reaffirmed “the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.”

The reason for this unanimous international consensus, as explained in the preamble to 242, is the absolute prohibition in the UN Charter against the acquisition of territory by war.

Australia should be required to explain what it thinks East Jerusalem’s legal status is, if it’s not occupied. Becoming the first country in the world other than Israel to reject the judgement of the Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and other definitive bodies – as well as an otherwise unanimous international consensus – that East Jerusalem is under occupation, is tantamount to an act of violence against the occupied Arab population of that city.

It strips them of their rights and protections, as people living under occupation, guaranteed by binding international documents, most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention.

And why stop at East Jerusalem? Why not apply this same twisted “logic” to the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territories, including Gaza? They are all subject to negotiations, and by the sophistry of the Australian government, isn’t it also pejorative and prejudicial to describe any of it as occupied?

Earlier this year, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop said: “I would like to see which international law has declared [the settlements] illegal.” Let me help her out.

The Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to provide protection to civilians living under occupation. Article 49, paragraph 6, strictly prohibits any transfer of its civilians by the occupying power into areas under occupation. Israel’s settlement activities are hence manifestly illegal under international law.

The convening body for the Convention, the International Red Cross, compiled explanatory notes to the drafting process. These notes explain that paragraph 6 “is intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonise those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race”.

Therefore, the prohibition against settlement activity is a human rights protection for those living under occupation who have a right not to be colonised.

Since 1967, Israel has been playing a disingenuous double game over whether, in its view, these territories are occupied or not, because both positions raise profound difficulties for them.

Here’s Israel’s conundrum: if territories seized in 1967 are, in fact and under the law, occupied, (as the whole world, with the sole and sudden exception of Australia, believes) then much of its military activity there may be lawful. But its settlement project is definitely not.

Much of what the Israeli military has done is arguably permissible. Establishing military bases, checkpoints and other security measures, in some cases expropriating land for these purposes, and even creating a military government, are potentially within the legal purview of an occupying force. So, when it comes to military matters, the Israelis have based much of their conduct on the legal and political fact that they are conducting an occupation which is, by definition, temporary.

But if the territories are merely “disputed”, in the factually incorrect jargon of some Israelis, then settlement activity might not be unlawful, but much of its military activity must be. Israel would have to immediately dismantle most of its military installations, return the land to its owners with compensation, stop subjecting the population to martial law, and effectively abandon its system of discipline and control over the occupied Palestinian people.

So Israel likes to have it both ways. When it comes to the military, there’s an occupation. When it comes to the settlements, there is no occupation. But the uncontestable truth is these areas are occupied, as all global arbiters have established for almost half a century.

Australia’s sudden refusal to recognise this when it comes to East Jerusalem is not only morally, legally and politically indefensible. It’s an attack on international law and order, and an assault on the basic human rights of the Palestinian people living under occupation in East Jerusalem.

Sisi will be judged on performance, not election numbers

For all the brouhaha over voter turnout, Egypt’s new president will be judged on his conduct in office



After an election that focused on a bizarre tug-of-war over voter turnout, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been sworn in as the new president of Egypt. Yet he and his new government will not be judged by the minutia of turnout percentages or the size of his mandate, but rather by their performance in office. They face a daunting set of challenges.

In the first, officially scheduled, two days of the voting, Mr. Sisi’s critics made much of what appeared to be a very low turnout. In a move that suggested undue insecurity about these numbers, the election was extended under dubious legal circumstances for a third day, which was also made a national holiday. In the end, turnout was officially tallied at 44%, with over 90% voting for Sisi.

Despite the extra day of voting, this is not a low turnout, particularly given the number of elections Egyptians have had to vote in over the past few years and the overwhelming likelihood of a massive Sisi victory. And it is a gigantic mandate. Yet in the aftermath of the voting, bickering over the question of turnout continued, as if it were actually a major issue.

It’s not.

Mr. Sisi will undoubtedly be judged based on performance in office, and both the turnout and the size of his mandate won’t assuage the Egyptian public if they feel let down again. He faces three major challenges that will be daunting: security, the economy, and a presidency whose powers are greatly curtailed by the new constitution passed after the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi.

As both his campaign and that of his rival, Hamdeen Sabahi, emphasized, security is a paramount issue in Egypt, given the undoubted terrorist threat the country faces from armed extremists. But the security and economic questions are deeply interconnected. Foreign investment and the Egyptian stock market have been on the rise since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, but investor confidence will depend on multiple factors, including a sense that security and stability are steadily being restored. Without such confidence, it will be harder to attract sustained foreign direct investment.

In addition, Mr. Sisi’s new government faces myriad structural economic difficulties, some of them deeply fraught politically. Egypt’s currency has been steadily losing value, which could deter additional investment. Unemployment has increased to 13% of the labor force, an unsustainable figure. The generation of jobs will have to be a major priority. Egypt also faces a substantial fiscal deficit, and has yet to fully rebuild ties to the International Monetary Fund, which may be key in reducing that deficit on favorable terms.

The country’s ongoing energy crisis is a crucial indicator of how difficult reconciling necessary economic measures with politically unpopular steps is going to be. The country owes almost six billion dollars to international energy companies, and the inability to pay for needed energy has resulted in power shortages across the country.

Eliminating subsidies and electricity tariffs is an obvious measure to reverse this trend. But one can hardly think of a more politically unpopular move. This tension between what may be economically necessary for a major recovery in the long run, and what will prove politically unpalatable in the short run, is a consistent theme throughout Egypt’s economic puzzle. The conundrum, simply, is that a new government cannot maintain credibility and popularity without achieving significant economic progress, but at the same time, the measures required for such progress may often be deeply unpopular.

Mr. Sisi, whose overall economic approach is still unclear, has spoken of massive building projects that he calculated would cost approximately $140 billion. That’s well over half the country’s gross national income, so how even those job-creating measures would be paid for remains unexplained.

The backdrop to these profound challenges is that Mr. Sisi inherits a presidency whose powers have been enormously curtailed by the new constitution. Once a parliament is in place, the president will be able to do little without its cooperation and approval. This is a major change in Egypt’s traditionally presidential-centric system, and how these new theoretically impressive checks and balances will work in practice to get things done quickly, especially if they anger important constituencies, isn’t clear. The ability of public groupings and entrenched interests to use parliament to block executive action – on paper – would be significant. Mr. Sisi is used to running a military. The new Egyptian political system, as laid out in the new constitution, will be a profoundly different matter.

The overall atmosphere in Egypt isn’t particularly reassuring. In addition to profound and deeply interconnected security and economic challenges, the country has suffered yet another blow to political openness: Bassem Youssef’s irreverent and profoundly healthy “Al Bernameg” television satire program, based on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” has been canceled. The host cited fears for his “personal safety and the safety of [his] family,” although he did not say anything to suggest that Mr. Sisi was directly or indirectly involved in making it impossible for his program to continue.

Whatever the source of these intolerable pressures, Egypt has lost an invaluable and highly positive contribution to culture and discourse. Even when facing serious security and economic woes, a healthy society must be able to tolerate, and indeed should celebrate, satire and irreverence. Whoever were exactly the forces that made Mr. Youssef finally throw in the towel, it’s unlikely they did themselves a favor in the long run.

Even in the context of serious security threats, it’s vital that the new government move quickly to improve the political atmosphere in the country, begin to scale back a crackdown that has been far too indiscriminate and heavy-handed, and open, rather than restrict, the free expression of ideas, including critical ones.

Mr. Sisi now has a clear mandate, significant popularity, and will enjoy a political honeymoon – or at least a grace period – from the general public. But without significant indications of an improving security and economic climate, that honeymoon certainly won’t be open-ended, and may not last all that long. When former President Hosni Mubarak fell, so did the era in which Egyptians would tolerate decades of misrule with patience.

Mr. Morsi managed to exhaust his welcome in less than a year through intolerably arrogant and dictatorial conduct. Mr. Sisi is highly unlikely to repeat such a dismal performance, but his presidential authority is much more limited than that enjoyed by either of his two immediate predecessors. And yet the Egyptian public will undoubtedly still be judging him on a performance basis. They have shown their willingness to withdraw consent from unsatisfactory presidents twice in recent years. Anyone, Mr. Sisi included, is potentially subject to some form of popular expression of no-confidence if they don’t meet minimum expectations.

But it’s in the interests of all responsible parties, and especially Egypt and its people, for Mr. Sisi’s new government to succeed with constructive policies. Therefore he’ll need, and should get, substantial foreign support to meet the daunting problems he faces, in addition to as much patience as the Egyptian public can muster given the depth of these shared national challenges, and, once it’s in place, as much cooperation and as little obstruction from the next parliament on reasonable, constructive policies as possible.

An “Obama doctrine” could have far-reaching consequences

Barack Obama’s graduation speech at West Point Academy last week said much about the way the US may intend to proceed in the Middle East.

Mr Obama’s vision of force as a last resort, terrorism as the primary threat and a strikingly narrow definition of American interests does seem to sound a new tone, albeit one that elaborates on his long-standing foreign policy approach. Those most persuaded by the speech note that it’s strongly in line with American public opinion and commensurate with the US role in a world that is no longer strictly or simply monopolar.

Perhaps Richard Nixon’s landmark Lakeside Speech at the Bohemian Grove in July 1967 is an apt analogue. At this confidential meeting, Nixon first floated the logic that became the “Nixon doctrine”: that both economically and strategically the US could no longer “fight others’ wars for them.” It would provide support, funding and weapons to allies and clients, but there would be no repetition of Korea or, once it was concluded, Vietnam.

This vision held for decades. Even the First Gulf War was more of an anomaly than a repudiation of it. It was only the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that fully broke with Nixon’s Lakeside logic. And it is precisely the folly of the Iraq war, and the mishandling of the Afghan one, that most fully informed Mr Obama’s new conceptualisation, summed up in an analogy about the dangers of people with hammers seeing nails everywhere. Mr Obama, though, seemed to go even further than Nixon had in rethinking the American worldviewArguably this is because the US is now operating even more among economic and political, if not military, equals than it was several decades ago. But his approach has significant implications for US policy in the Middle East, for its regional allies and for the area’s most volatile issues.

Mr Obama did not mention the problem of Palestine at all. This might be seen as curious, given that even a few months ago it continued to rank among his administration’s top foreign policy priorities. Nonetheless, the president has expressed scepticism in interviews with David Remnick of the New Yorker and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg about the prospects for diplomatic progress between Israel and the Palestinians. And this is hardly the first significant recent speech in which Mr Obama has avoided the topic altogether.

Still, that a major US presidential foreign policy address could go forward without even an implicit reference to the conflict and the occupation can only be alarming for Palestinians. And it should worry Israelis as well.

Palestinians have seen their issue receding from not only the world stage, but the regional agenda. Former prime minister Salam Fayyad was, perhaps, most forthright in ringing alarm bells about this towards the end of his term in office. It seems that secretary of state John Kerry, who has been courageous and resolute in pursuing the issue, may not have given up entirely. But when, and how, he intends to revisit it, is not clear. For the meanwhile, the policy appears to be to allow the parties to “stew in their own juices.”

The problem is that such a recipe will not have its desired effect if the experience feels more like a gentle candying than boiling in oil. And political leaders on both sides, particularly in Israel, may find the hiatus a relief. Palestinians have found an alternative in the national reunification project, which so far has not resulted in a profoundly negative response, even from Israel. Yet, the price that will ultimately be paid has yet to be reckoned.

The Israeli government and right-wing are probably very comfortable with the current hiatus. But if they were listening carefully to Mr Obama’s address, they should think twice. Not only does “benign neglect” of Palestine almost always end badly for everyone involved, reduced American interest in the Middle East in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, does not suggest a bright future for Israel’s strategic position.

Indeed, the one Middle Eastern issue that seems to have genuinely captured the president’s sustained attention from the outset of his second term is Iran. Looking for some accommodation with Tehran is perfectly consistent with the rest of his stated worldview. A limited understanding preventing a confrontation over nuclear issues may indeed be achievable. But a broader rapprochement is unlikely to be attempted, and, if it were, almost certainly would create more problems than it would resolve.

Mr Obama had been expected to announce a much more robust engagement with Syrian rebels, including US training. He didn’t. That, too, may reflect both an Iran-centric agenda – with Syria policy seen as essentially a subset of that – and the generalised reduction in American power projection he described.

Syria may indicate where Mr Obama is going well beyond where Nixon had. Not only will the United States not fight others’ wars for them. Now, perhaps it might be increasingly less inclined to offer them as much support either. Everyone in the Middle East, Israelis included, should think seriously about the long-term implications of that, if this is indeed what Mr Obama was implying and if, in fact, it presages a sustained new era in American foreign policy.