The Specter of an Arab Israel

This week’s Israeli election was historic, but not for the reasons most pundits are saying. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party may have won the vote—and the headlines—but the real story was occuring beneath Netanyahu’s feet, where the political ground shifted dramatically.  It was no coincidence that at the eleventh hour Netanyahu warned his right-wing base that “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and that, in the final tally, Palestinian political power inside the Knesset surged to unprecedented levels. If political and demographic trends continue—and there is no separate Palestinian state, another Netanyahu pre-vote pledge—the 2015 election could well come to be seen as the moment that Israel began to confront the stark choice of becoming “either a non-Jewish democracy or Jewish non-democracy,” as Thomas L. Friedman put it on Wednesday.

It was, therefore, an election laden with ironies. At the same time as the vote tally all but ensured that a hard-line Zionist prime minister would continue his record-long tenure, a coalition of Palestinian-oriented parties became the third-largest bloc in Israel’s political landscape, with 14 seats in the new Knesset.

The coalition has been officially dubbed the “Joint List,” in order to emphasize that it is a forum for Jewish-Arab cooperation, rather than simply a vehicle for the political aspirations of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But, in fact, Israel’s Palestinian citizens are the primary constituency of the Joint List. Israel’s voters don’t vote directly for local candidates, as in the British parliamentary system. Instead, Israel employs a system of proportional representation in which the electorate votes for a grouping, usually of a party or set of parties, that has submitted a hierarchical list of members, beginning at number one and proceeding down the line.

Depending on how many votes a list receives, it is entitled to a proportionate number of seats in the Knesset, which are then assigned to the list according to the existing hierarchy. If a party earns nine seats, the first nine members on its list will become MKs, and so forth.

In January, the Hadash, United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al parties, along with the the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, merged their candidates into a single list under the Joint List rubric. Hadash, a far-left-wing grouping that includes Israel’s Communist Party members, goes furthest in representing the ideal of Jewish-Arab cooperation, and its leader, Ayman Odeh, has served as the overall head and chairman of the Joint List. Of the Joint List’s 14 seats, one will go to a Jewish MK: Dov Khenin, the leader of the communist members of Hadash. The rest will all be Palestinian citizens of Israel. In addition to four Arab MKs returned by “Zionist parties,” this means that 17 of the 120-member incoming Israeli Knesset will be Arab citizens of the state.

To be sure, the Joint List is a long way from representing real political power. The coalition attempts to unite leftists, Islamists, nationalists and others who share little in common apart from their ethnicity. The “Islamic Movement,” Israel’s Islamist party, is already divided between the southern branch that joined the List, and the northern branch that denounced the entire project. The incoming government represented by the powerful new right-wing Jewish majority under Netanyahu will undoubtedly have both a negative political and emotional impact on the List’s constituencies.

Still, the List has proven its ability to at least sustain the presence of Palestinians in the Knesset and, if it unites them, could strongly enhance their potential clout. Given the way political power is dispersed in Israel—where no party has ever actually won a majority of the Knesset and governments must always be based on coalitions—if the Arabs stick together and build on what they have already achieved, what has suddenly emerged as the third-largest bloc in Israel’s parliament won’t remain marginal or irrelevant into the future.

By playing their cards right, Israel’s Palestinian citizens can, at the very least, position themselves as potential kingmakers of the future of Israeli politics. This could happen sooner than people think, since the distribution of power in the Knesset has grown only more dispersed in recent elections, when the party or list that ended up forming a governing coalition won an average of only about 30 seats (the exact number that Likud won this time). If so, that makes it even more plausible that a Palestinian-joined coalition, representing a united front of Israel’s 18-percent Arab minority, could gain power and influence.

There was another irony of this election. Israel’s Arab citizens have struggled for decades as a political anomaly and under significant discriminatory and exclusionary measures. But it was precisely one of those recent initiatives from the ascendant Israeli right wing, a “Governance Bill,” passed in March, 2014, that gave rise to the Joint List. The law raised the threshold for Knesset membership from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of votes cast. It was widely perceived as primarily aimed at damaging, or even eliminating, Arab representation in the Knesset because Hadash and Balad would not have qualified under the new system. The response was for the Arab-oriented parties in Israel to band together in an unprecedented manner and actually strengthen their political profile.

All this represents an important reminder to Israelis about the contradictions inherent in a “democratic Jewish” state, given the presence of millions of disenfranchised non-citizens in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. If Israel’s Arab citizens can begin to mobilize political power through the ballot box, the long-term danger posed by an occupation that does not end is clarified. What if the Palestinians of the West Bank, and even Gaza, were to one day join the constituency for another version of a “Joint List”?

Perhaps that’s one reason that Netanyahu, by Thursday, already appeared to be walking back his election-eve pledge—which was plainly a sop to the extreme right wing— telling MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he’s still interested in “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”


Though they constitute about 18 percent of the Israeli public, Palestinian citizens of Israel are to be found throughout the country. They are primarily concentrated in the north, particularly the Galilee. These areas were either far from fighting in the 1947-48 war, or were not targets of concerted attacks by Jewish forces. Therefore, the Arabs in those areas did not flee and were not subjected to uprooting and expulsion.

The large majority of the 950,000 Arabs living in what became Israel in 1948 either fled or were displaced, but at the end of the war about 156,000 remained. They and their descendents are the Arab citizens of Israel. They lived under martial law until 1966, subject to a wide range of discriminatory laws and practices, including heavy travel restrictions, curfews, deportation and administrative detentions without due process. In the mid-60s, political and social space began to ease somewhat for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Martial law was lifted, although significant discrimination remained in certain sectors. Moreover, Israel’s conquest of the occupied territories in 1967 put this community in touch with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Before that, the Arabs of Israel had been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the Arab world. Due to both Israeli and Arab restrictions, not only was travel restricted, but even basic mail between Israel and the Arab world was not available. Wealthier off families were able to meet in Europe and other third-party destinations, but for the most part the Arabs of Israel found themselves completely cut off from their brethren in the rest of the Arab world.

The late 1960s also saw the rise of Palestinian nationalism. The Palestinian community in Israel supplied the national movement with its iconic poet, in the late Mahmoud Darwish, but he had to live in exile in order to fulfill that role, until the Oslo agreements allowed him to return, at least to the West Bank. Much of Darwish’s literary, and all of his political, activity was in contravention of Israel’s laws, which have traditionally suppressed expressions of Palestinian nationalism.

In the 1970s and 80s, however, there were numerous efforts on the part of Israel’s Palestinian citizens to increase their participation in the Israeli political system and empower themselves. These ran parallel to, and often sat uneasily with, a simultaneously complementary and contradictory impulse to be drawn towards the broader Palestinian national movement. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began negotiating with Israel in the early 1990s, Chairman Yasser Arafat explicitly rejected the idea that issues involving Israel’s Palestinian citizens be drawn into the mix. He did not want to add further complications to the already difficult project of winning Palestinian statehood in the occupied territories.

This meant that, from the outset, the Palestinian community in Israel had an ambivalent relationship with the peace process.

On the one hand it represented their best hope for developing entirely new relationship with Jewish Israelis. Because Israel is an ethno-nationalist state dedicated to serving the interests of its Jewish citizens above all others, peace would not resolve all problems of discrimination against non-Jews in Israel. But the most severe problems facing Israel’s Arab citizens had always arisen from the fact that Israelis saw them as a potential fifth column in a conflict with Palestinians and other Arabs. If that conflict were resolved through the creation of a Palestinian state the question of a fifth column would not arise. Indeed, Israel’s Arabs could hope to be the country’s emissaries to the broader Arab world, and an asset to both rather than a liability to either.

On the other hand, as the peace process dragged on without resolving the conflict, not only were Palestinian citizens of Israel disillusioned, like so many others. They were also increasingly troubled that the gains made by Palestinians at the negotiating table would not address any of their long-standing concerns, and primarily addressed the problem of those living under occupation.

They began to seriously embrace Palestinian nationalism, as opposed to a project of communal empowerment within Israel, after an atrocity in October 2000, during the early days of the second intifada, when Israeli police killed 12Palestinian citizens of Israel, along with a Palestinian from Gaza, during a protest in support of the intifada. There had never been a similar incident involving Jewish citizens of Israel, and the experience solidified anger against the Israeli state and identification with the Palestinians living under occupation.

Tellingly, the primary response by the Palestinian citizens of Israel to the killings was a boycott of the 2001 Israeli election that helped Ariel Sharon defeat Ehud Barak and initiate Israel’s ongoing shift to the hawkish right on matters regarding security and the Palestinians.

In many ways, those who are citizens of Israel are a highly privileged segment of the Palestinian people, with much greater rights than those who are stateless people living under occupation or refugees. Yet they still face highly significant, and internationally unusual, levels of discrimination based on their ethnicity.

Most of these discriminatory realities arise from two primary features of Israeli life. First, in Israel, Jews and Arabs tend to live in their own areas. Some of the separation is codified through policies of the Jewish National Fund and other entities that control land and that either formally or informally make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to move into “Jewish” towns or neighborhoods. Given that communities live separately, it has been easy for the state to discriminate in terms of social spending on infrastructure, health, education and so forth.

Second, Israeli law distinguishes between citizenship (“Israeli”) and nationality (“Jewish,” “Arab,” and so forth). Some discrimination is based on designated “nationality,” giving preference to Jewish Israelis. Some of it derives from of the duties reserved to those who have performed National Service, which is true of almost all Jewish Israelis who are required to serve and not true of almost all Arabs who are not required—and in many cases not allowed—to perform such service, such as in the military.

In addition, a whole panoply of discrimination exists in Israel against Palestinian citizens, both formal and informal, that derives from the sense that this community is fundamentally disloyal to the state and sympathetic to its Arab enemies. Restrictions on Palestinian political participation in Israel have been eased over the decades, but in recent years, particularly since the return of. Netanyahu as prime minister, the Jewish right has been attempting to create new obstacles.

The “governance law” was a case in point, but so are proposed measures such as loyalty oaths, laws asserting or defining the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state, restrictions on the funding and activities of liberal or Arab NGOs, attempts to prohibit recognition of the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1947-48 or speech advocating boycotts against Israel or Israeli settlements. Among the most extraordinary restrictions is a law that prohibits Palestinians from the occupied territories or elsewhere who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel from moving to the country to live with their spouses.

All of these realities are manifestations of a deeper conundrum arising from the fact that this is a community of Arabs, most of whom identify as Palestinians, living in a “Jewish state” that has for most of its history been at war with most Palestinians and other Arabs. Israel’s Palestinians have, therefore, been viewed with suspicion by both sides, and not just Israelis. Arabs, too, have had a difficult time processing the reality of the Palestinian community of Israeli citizens.

Complicating the matter further is the growing phenomenon that further separates the question of Palestinian citizens’ rights in Israel from other aspects of the Palestinian cause and question. Some key right-wing figures in Israel, including current President Ruven Rivlin, and longtime right-wing activist Moshe Ahrens, are among the most outspoken Jewish Israeli proponents of equal rights for Palestinians, but are also categorically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Neither man has explained precisely what his vision is for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but both are on record as strong proponents of equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.

In reality, a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is surely essential for the long-term well-being of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nothing else frees them from the stigma and suspicion that otherwise clouds the way in which they are regarded by their Jewish compatriots in Israel. And nothing can make them more useful or dynamic contributors to achieving a two-state solution, which remains the only identifiable means of practically and viably resolving the conflict, than for this community to empower themselves within the Israeli political system. Perhaps their strongest asset is the fact that they can vote in Israel, and therefore have a direct, rather than an indirect (as is the case with most Palestinians), means of impacting Israeli-decision-making.

As things stand there is an inherently self-defeating quality to this new, unified and more powerful political organization. Even when the Zionist Union and Likud were running neck and neck in the polls at 27 each and the Joint List was projected to come in third with 14 or 15 seats, no one had identified them as the logical kingmakers in the aftermath of the balloting. That role was always, and still is, assigned to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party, which has a mere ten seats.

The simple fact is that an Arab political grouping like the Joint List would not be invited to join directly and formally with a ruling Israeli coalition government. Jewish Israelis would fear that the presence of a major Palestinian partner in a coalition government would undermine the credibility of that government. Israelis are simply not ready to accord their Arab citizens that much power. The Palestinian citizens of Israel, meanwhile, would almost certainly decline to join a coalition because of their objection to so much of Israel’s policies, particularly the occupation.

Even so, there have been countless Israeli politicians and parties that have categorically oppose the occupation and have nonetheless served in governments that persisted with it. They objected, but understood that they did not have the power, on their own, to end it. Arab parties in Israel are not yet ready to take that plunge. But if the List can sustain its coalition and continue to hold at least 14 seats or so in any given Knesset, over time its role will be difficult to ignore.

This is a new idea, one that everyone will have to get used to, especially as growth rates among Israeli citizens slightly favor Arab demographics over Jewish ones, 2.2 to 1.7 percent. Yet the deeper question is not the gradual development of a somewhat larger Arab minority within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel. That question is, what of the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule but without the right to vote? If Netanyahu is correct, and Israel cannot and will not allow the creation of a Palestinian state, how long can it continue to forbid those millions from the right to participate in forming the government that rules them? If there is already, as the statistics suggest, a majority of non-Jews in the territories under direct Israeli control, and most of that constituency is disenfranchised and stateless, how long will that remain plausibly viable?

It’s easy enough to argue that the existing de facto “greater Israel” is already neither “Jewish” nor “democratic.” It’s not Jewish because it doesn’t have a Jewish majority already. And it’s not democratic because it denies millions of its permanent residents and de facto citizens the right to vote.

The performance of the Joint List should already be focusing Jewish Israeli attention on these questions. Because it raises the prospect not only of increased political power for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also the long-term potential of political power of those currently denied access to the ballot box. If this is a sobering prospect for Jewish Israelis, and it should be, the emergence of the Joint List itself begins to offer a way out. The List favors a two-state solution. So do the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And so does a majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories. For all of Netanyahu’s ill-conceived bluster, there is still a way out. But Israelis have just had a small preview of what’s possible if that prospect isn’t pursued with seriousness and vigor. Whether it is the gradual accumulation of power by the Palestinian citizens of Israel working together as a determined minority in the de jure Israel—or even the specter of the potential clout of an Arab majority in the de facto Israel—the Joint List is undoubtedly a harbinger of things to come.

Israel’s tragic election

Netanyahu’s victory seems a devastating blow to hopes for peace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures to supporters as reacts to exit poll figures in Israel

Anyone who is surprised by the outcome of yesterday’s Israeli election—a stunning victory, and arguably even mandate, for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—hasn’t been paying attention to political trends in Israel. But anyone who isn’t shocked at the results and their implications almost certainly doesn’t understand what is at stake and what a significant blow has been dealt to hopes for a better future.

The most important fact about the election outcome is that Israeli voters knew exactly what they were endorsing and had a real alternative, which they rejected. The campaign gave us Netanyahu at his most raw. He was explicitly anti-peace. He was overtly racist. And he used Israel’s position in American politics to cynically campaign for himself by exploiting the high honor of a speech before a joint session of Congress to insultingly confront an American president who is unpopular among Jewish Israelis.

It wasn’t in spite of these obnoxious positions that he won yesterday—it was because of them. There is no use in pretending otherwise. It’s probably unfair to assume that the majority of Israelis like all of these disturbing stances, or even any of them individually. It’s possible that the same majority that has given him this dramatic victory would have objected to each of them had there been a referendum on the questions.

Rather, it is the overall Netanyahu package that Israelis have embraced, and that includes a very dark side that was not only not hidden, but was actually highlighted, during the campaign. As the campaign became more desperate, indeed, Netanyahu’s voice became shriller and his profile darkened considerably. Given the disparity between polling results and the final outcome, and the fact that Israel imposes a polling blackout before voting begins, it’s hard not to think that a large group of Jewish Israelis decided at the last minute to continue with Netanyahu. If so, the Netanyahu that won their late affection was specifically one whose profile was crafted precisely to appeal to the worst instincts of the Israeli voters.

It was during this campaign that Netanyahu finally and forthrightly repudiated his 2009 Bar Ilan University speech in which he claimed to be endorsing a two-state solution. Netanyahu has now bluntly stated that he will not permit the creation of a Palestinian state under his premiership. This does not appear to have damaged his political viability in Israel. Indeed, quite to the contrary.

What will the United States do now that Netanyahu is so firmly on record opposing the bipartisan consensus American policy goal of a two-state solution? Any Palestinian leadership that rejects the goal of two states would undoubtedly be held to be out of compliance with the Quartet conditions, and would almost certainly face dramatic, if not drastic, retaliatory measures.

Given the double standards that are hardwired into the international mechanisms on Israeli and Palestinian issues, no one seriously expects the same standards to be applied to Israel, which is a sovereign state (among other major factors that inform such unfair disparities). But unless Netanyahu performs some kind of remarkable reversal on the issue that appears credible—a scenario that is very difficult to imagine even in theory—we will be faced with a new and dangerous complication in the US-Israel relationship. The next Israeli government will be led by a prime minister, Netanyahu, who overtly opposes the realization of the core American policy goal of a two-state solution.

It’s likely that American and Israeli leaders will try to finesse this disparity as much as possible, and even to pretend that it does not exist. But that’s going to be very difficult. Neither side is going to want to confront the other over this, but it’s likely that one of the two parties is going to have to shift on the question. It is, sadly, not impossible to imagine that the biggest change will eventually come on the American side, with the development of a policy attitude towards a two-state solution that deemphasizes its significance and seeks to change the subject as much as possible.

The only alternative is a confrontation between Israel and the United States over Palestinian statehood. For a very complex set of reasons—not the caricature “wag the dog” scenario posited by some cynics—this is unlikely to happen. Netanyahu has already demonstrated that he can “get away with” trashing US foreign policy before a joint session of Congress. It doesn’t appear that he paid any price at all for that monumental effrontery, or that he is likely to now, particularly given that it helped him get rather spectacularly reelected. Under such circumstances, he is also unlikely to face much of an American backlash over his repudiation of a two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s ugly and overtly racist appeal to Jewish Israeli voters on the grounds that “hordes” of Arabs were “descending” on polling booths, won’t gain much attention outside of Israel. And within the country, it certainly didn’t hurt him. It may actually have helped.

Those who see the performance of the United Arab List, or even the center-left Zionist Union coalition, as silver linings on dark clouds because they were better than might have been anticipated a few months ago are not wrong. These are both good things. But, given the enormous victory of Netanyahu, and the platform that he campaigned on—in other words, the persona and the politics that have just been roundly endorsed by the Israeli electorate—they are focusing on what amount to minor details.

The real story is not the reelection of the “bad, old Netanyahu,” but rather, it would certainly seem, the election of a far worse “new Netanyahu.” The Palestinians, the Americans and others will have to deal with the Israeli government this election has produced. Given the tone and tenor of the Netanyahu campaign, and the kind of politics that have triumphed in Israel, even simply a return to business as usual may prove a monumental challenge.

The status quo will live on, whichever way Israel votes

The status quo will live on, whichever way Israel votes


The unfolding Israeli election campaign has produced a series of unexpected developments. But these new forces and factors aren’t likely to produce any major transformations, at least in the short run.

Perhaps most dramatic is the development of the United Arab List. This umbrella grouping joins together a range of different Palestinian-orientated parties in Israel. It should provide the first platform allowing for a major turnout of Palestinian citizens of Israel at the polls.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens constitute about 18 per cent of the enfranchised public. Yet, for a range of reasons, this community has never mobilised to take advantage of the significant clout it could exercise through united voting. Last year, the Knesset passed a law significantly increasing the minimum votes required for a party to win a seat in parliament. This was widely viewed at the time as being aimed at reducing the political power of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

Ironically, by prompting greater unity, the law may actually prove a turning point in helping Palestinian citizens of Israel focus on their political potential as an organised voting bloc. Still, there are major psychological, cultural and ethnic barriers to overcome, even if an unprecedented number of Palestinians vote for the List.

There’s no rational reason such a bloc should not be part of an Israeli governing coalition, at least in theory. Opposition to the occupation, even categorical opposition, has historically not prevented Jewish Israeli parties and politicians from joining governments. But we can be quite certain that, at least for now, the List will not be invited to join a new government after the March 17 election, and that it would decline if it were.

Nonetheless, the larger the turnout for the List, the more positive the experience for its voters is likely to be. The more seats it can muster, the more clout it will have. And, by propping up a centre-left Israeli government from outside its ranks, as was done during the era of Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinian citizens could play a crucial role in engineering a change of government in Israel.

The second major surprise during this Israeli election cycle is the resurgence of the Israeli centre-left, and especially the “Zionist Union” coalition headed by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog.

No one seems to be more surprised at the apparent vulnerability of Benjamin Netanyahu than the prime minister himself. As things stand, he appears set to suffer a three or four seat deficit to the Zionist Union.

It was never clear why he moved to call early elections in November, only two years after the last election and without any evident necessity for doing so. What seemed puzzling at the time now increasingly looks like an inexplicable blunder.

Yet all is not lost for Mr Netanyahu and other defenders of the status quo. While these developments are unquestionably positive, they are also probably not sufficient to produce anything truly transformative in Israeli politics or policies, at least for the moment.

Even if Mr Netanyahu ends up with three or even four seats fewer than Mr Herzog, he could still retain the premiership. In 2009, Kadima had one seat more than Likud, but Mr Netanyahu was able to form a governing coalition while Kadima leader Tzipi Livni could not. Even the current arithmetic still might favour Mr Netanyahu’s chances of compiling a majority over Mr Herzog’s.

Alternatively, a close result might allow Israeli president Reuven Rivlin to try to push Mr Herzog into a broad-based “national unity” government with Mr Netanyahu. Reports suggest that Mr Netanyahu would welcome such a development, which would greatly favour his beloved status quo policies. And keep him close to the heart of power.

As for the United Arab List, the formation of the bloc is merely the first step in a long series of necessary measures to actualise the political potential of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. The List will not only have to perform well, it will have to remain united after the election and not sink back into familiar rivalries and divisions.

Over the medium term, List leaders will have to convince the Palestinians in Israel of the indispensability of engagement in a political order that is still usually seen as inaccessible at best and hostile at worst, and that it is neither pointless nor treasonous to seek empowerment in the Israeli system.

But even if a centre-left coalition, with Palestinian support, were to establish the next Israeli government, would that signal a major change in Israeli policies? Some improvements are plausible. More restraint on settlement activity. A greater commitment to a two-state solution. More serious engagement with the Palestinian Authority. All of these are possible.

But the essential elements of Israeli policy are unlikely to change, because there is no consensus in Israel on what to do about the Palestinians and the occupation. Moreover, the resurgence of the centre-left in this election has been based on social and economic policies, not security or relations with the Palestinians.

This Israeli election campaign has unleashed some promising new factors in that country’s political scene. But they are going to have to develop their clout over time before they can truly begin transforming Israeli policies as well as politics.

What’s at stake in Tikrit?

Can an unlikely coalition defeat ISIS and create a new model?

Iraqi fighters of the government-controlled Popular Mobilization units flash the sign of victory as they take part in a military operation to take control of Tikrit, 160 kms north of Baghdad, from jihadists from ISIS on 11 March 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

The unfolding battle over the strategically and symbolically crucial Iraqi city of Tikrit, most famous as the birthplace of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, should provide some tentative answers to a number of key questions regarding the future of Iraq and the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).This week, a coalition of Iraqi government forces, Shiite militias, and reportedly even some members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, entered the city in a major effort to oust ISIS forces. They have been joined by an unspecified number of local Sunni tribesmen in an unusual and uneasy alliance against ISIS—but one that makes it a potential model for future offensives. If, that is, the alliance can hold.

This is at least the third or fourth major effort to drive ISIS terrorists out of the city since they seized it in June of 2014. All previous attempts have been disastrous, and profoundly politically embarrassing and damaging, failures for Baghdad. But the current campaign looks much more serious, and consequently its outcome should help to begin to clarify several crucial issues.

First, what are the relative strengths of ISIS and pro-Iraqi government forces?

There’s no question that in the past efforts to rid Tikrit of IS, Iraqi troops were ill-prepared and simply not ready for the fight. And, again, some question whether the current initiative is also premature. But at the very least Iraqi forces ought to be in a position to perform much better than they have in the past. This is a real test for them, and one they absolutely cannot afford to fail. If the Iraqi troops do fail, or even struggle enormously, hopes that they can be developed into a potent and effective fighting force will be greatly undermined. Obviously, the most crucial question will be the ability of the alliance with Sunni fighters to survive well into the period after ISIS is ousted from the area.

Another important indicator will be the performance of ISIS fighters. Recent reports suggest that the organization has been fraying at several registers. They are allegedly short of money. Morale is suggested to be on the decline. Internal tensions are reportedly increasing. Whether, or to what extent, any of that is true, and, more importantly, whether it has any impact on battlefield performance, is about to be significantly tested.

If ISIS terrorists can subject attacking Iraqi forces to the kind of sustained resistance that confronted Kurdish fighters in the northern Syrian town of Kobane, it will strongly suggest that ISIS’s major strength is indeed its fanaticism. That would raise real question marks about the potential of ousting the extremists from larger Iraqi Sunni cities, Mosul in particular.

Indeed, the battle for Tikrit is almost universally acknowledged to be a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming struggle over Mosul. If ISIS can drag the offensive forces into an urban quagmire, or ensure that the campaign is in some way or another decidedly protracted, painful and bloody, confidence and enthusiasm about an offensive to retake Mosul—about which there are already significant public disputes—will be further eroded.

Second, what is the role of extremist Iraqi Shiite militias?

Many disturbing reports suggest that among the Iraqi forces is a large contingent of extremist Shiite militia members, particularly from the notorious Badr Brigade. These and other Iraqi Shiite militia forces have conducted a number of horrifying massacres of unarmed Sunni villagers in recent weeks. If they play a significant role in the current offensive, and particularly if the Sunni participation on the Iraqi government side is limited or nominal (the relative strength of such forces is the subject of competing rumors at present), it’s going to be difficult for the local Sunni Arab population in Tikrit not to regard the operation as more of a threat than a liberation. Again, the aftermath following the ouster of ISIS—assuming that it can be dispatched, that is—would be crucial in shaping these perceptions.

Indeed, some scenarios could potentially allow ISIS to yet again falsely pose as the champions and protectors of the local Sunni population against vicious sectarian rivals. Even if ISIS doesn’t succeed in making that case, and Tikrit falls to these pro-Baghdad forces, if they include a heavy presence of extremist Shiite militias, it may well prove difficult to prevent the aftermath of the liberation of the city from ISIS devolving into a series of confessional clashes.

Third, what is the role of Iran?

No one really disputes that Revolutionary Guards are present in Iraq and participating in the current offensive. Major General Qassem Soleimani, a senior Quds Force commander and, in effect, the coordinator of Iran’s major armed proxies outside of its borders, is also apparently not only in the area but also almost certainly giving orders. The question is not so much whether he is involved, but to what extent he is in control. Not only are the aforementioned pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia fighters more likely to defer to his instructions, or his subordinates’, than anybody else’s, as military analyst Rick Francona has pointed out, when it comes to the airpower involved in this offensive: “The flag on the tail may now be Iraqi, but the aircraft—and pilots—are Iranian.”

American Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says he’s “very concerned” at the heavy representation of not only Shiite militias, but also Iranian fighters, in the battle for Tikrit. Gen. Martin Dempsey went further, saying that “…if what follows the Tikrit operation is not that, if there’s no reconstruction that follows it, if there’s no inclusivity that follows it, if there’s the movement of populations out of their homeland that follows it, then I think we’ve got a challenge in the campaign.” But Dempsey has also said that, under the right circumstances, an increasing Iranian role in Iraq “may be positive.”

Fourth, what is the role of the United States?

US allies in the region, particularly Arab Gulf states, warn that current American policies seem torn between two competing and incompatible impulses.

On the one hand, there is a recognition that, at heart, Iran’s interests are fundamentally inimical to those of the United States and its allies. This understanding recognizes that Iran is a hegemonic power using sectarian tensions, extremist proxies, the cultivation of chaos, and the promotion of terrorism to advance its interests.

On the other hand lies the desire within the Obama administration to develop a rapprochement with Iran to further a number of goals. Most obvious is the question of resolving disputes over Iran’s nuclear program. But it also extends to a potentially broader new Washington-Tehran understanding on issues such as Gulf security, especially regarding petroleum and securing the Straits of Hormuz. In theory, a new relationship could even potentially extend to the United States and Iran trying to establish a new Sunni-Shiite balance of power in the region that would be the basis for political resolutions of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Even if a nuclear agreement were reached, it’s extremely unlikely that a broader rapprochement involving a new balance of power in the region, recognizing new and expanded Iranian spheres of influence and hegemony, would follow. But the fear among traditional American allies in the region is that merely the pursuit of this quixotic fantasy is already causing the United States to give Iran far too much leeway in Iraq and is the primary explanation for the American refusal to take a stronger stance insisting on regime change in Damascus.

Yet American deference to Iran regarding aspects of Iraq and Syria isn’t only explicable in terms of the fantasy of a broad new understanding between Washington and Tehran. In some cases at least, it could be attributed simply to a willingness on the part of the Obama administration to allow others to “lead from the front” as it pursues its hyper-cautious and risk-averse foreign policy.

As The New York Times recently noted, the lack of options and resources being committed to the campaign by the Obama administration has left the United States increasingly reliant on Iran and its allies for success in Iraq against ISIS. Under such circumstances, there might be no need for ISIS’s much-ballyhooed propaganda machine. The mere identity, and possibly the behavior, of the forces taking the field against it will be more than sufficient to do its recruiting for it. Yet to move beyond this equation would require the commitment of significant levels of resources, firepower, credibility and even manpower, apparently beyond anything this administration is presently willing to contemplate.

The new offensive in Tikrit is actually a very good case in point. The United States is not providing air cover, because it was not consulted about, and is not participating in, the offensive. If it fails, that would be a huge boon to ISIS, and clearly a blow to American interests. But if it succeeds in removing ISIS from the city, no matter what follows, the United States might be tempted to view the affair as essentially successful, and even potentially a model to be at least further winked and nodded at in the future. Unless there is a heartening containment of sectarian tensions in Tikrit in the aftermath of a liberation from ISIS, it can hardly be such a model.

When the dust settles in Tikrit, we ought to have a much clearer picture of all of these factors. It will tell us much about what to expect, and what not to expect, in the battle against ISIS in the coming months.

Israel’s new indifference to the occupation is toxic

Israel’s new indifference to the occupation is toxic


The most important thing about the Israeli prime minister’s speech before a joint session of the US Congress was what he didn’t say. Benjamin Netanyahu never uttered a word about the Palestinians.

This astonishing evasion has become the standard Jewish Israeli response to the existence of the Palestinian people and of their national movement. Palestinians have simply been written out of the equation in most facets of official and unofficial mainstream Jewish Israeli discourse. A number of leading Palestinians have complained that Israelis have become “blind” to them. It’s an apt metaphor. Israelis increasingly speak and, presumably, think about their national, strategic and security challenges as if there were not 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 200,000 more in East Jerusalem and another 1.6 million in Gaza.

It’s a striking change because in the past, Israelis spoke openly, and almost obsessively, about the “Palestinian problem”. Those were times when the dimensions of the “problem” were, in every respect, much less challenging than they are now. Even when their discourse was characterised by rage, Israelis in the 1980s, 1990s and even the 2000s generally recognised that the Palestinians and the occupation were vital national security issues, and indeed existential ones.

In those decades, the Palestinian population was smaller, less well-organised, had fewer arms, and was more moderate and politically unified than today. The region was more stable and better integrated into the global system of order. All of these factors have deteriorated from any rational Israeli perspective. Yet the prevailing Israeli impulse is to simply refuse to acknowledge the Palestinian issue.

On January 7, I attended a lecture at the National Defense University in Washington, DC by the then-outgoing Israeli military chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz. He spoke for just over 25 minutes about Israel’s national security concerns. Like Mr Netanyahu, he did not mention Palestine, the Palestinians or the occupation at all. He referred to Gaza once or twice, and only in passing, simply as a zone of military operations. He devoted no time or thought whatsoever to Gaza or to any aspect of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

And this wilful, almost neurotic blindness isn’t restricted to Israeli political and military leaders. In January 2013, Israel held its last parliamentary elections, which saw the resurgence of the political centre and of the left, but which almost entirely excluded any serious debate or discussion about the Palestinians or the occupation.

Instead, the election focused on national service for religious Jews, economic indicators, crime rates, housing prices, and other social and economic issues. The current Israeli election campaign seems similarly oblivious.

Israeli society enjoys a luxury that should never be afforded to an occupying and colonial power ruling over a captive and disenfranchised people. They held an election as if the Palestinians and the occupation did not exist. And they did so primarily for two reasons. First, nobody had any new ideas. And, second and far more disturbingly, they simply could.

Israel’s dominance over the Palestinians has reached a stage where, when they want to, Israelis can actually completely ignore the reality of the Palestinian people and get away with it. And because there is no consensus at all among Jewish Israelis, and none of their parties has any serious new ideas about what to do about the Palestinians and the occupied territories, it’s easier to just ignore the question entirely.

This is why and how it was possible for Mr Netanyahu and Gen Gantz to come to Washington without mentioning the Palestinians or the occupation. But any Jewish Israeli who thinks about this reality seriously, with even the slightest hint of imagination, let alone empathy, will realise how dangerous such an attitude is.

I asked Gen Gantz how he would feel if he were Palestinian and listening to the head of the Israeli military talk about Israel’s strategic concerns without even mentioning Palestinians or the occupation. He responded with some rote recitation about the virtues of peace and the need for security. Frankly, what he said was no improvement on his silence.

But how do Israelis expect millions of Palestinians, in the long run, to react to living under occupation and/or siege while it is apparently regarded as so trivial it is not worth mentioning by the occupying society? Isn’t that a sure-fire formula for an explosion of frustration and outrage?

It’s apparent that Jewish Israeli society has come to regard the Palestinians as fundamentally irrelevant to their core concerns. But no people are likely to acquiesce in their own irrelevance. If this continues, the only real questions are how and when Palestinians will decide to reassert themselves in the Israeli consciousness.

Palestinians seem more angry and embittered than at any time since at least the second intifada. Any Israeli who might be wondering why need look no further for an explanation than their own leaders and society’s toxic indifference to the simple reality of the Palestinian people.

We must tackle extremist ideas on multiple fronts


We must tackle extremist ideas on multiple fronts


An increasing number of prominent political and religious leaders have been calling for the development of new Arab narratives to counteract the growth of violent extremism. It’s almost a new consensus, but there is little sign of any real movement.

Calling for the development of new discourses is, in effect, just talking about talking. So, concrete action – in the form of resource allocation – is essential if things are actually going to start to change. Voices that can reach a variety of key constituencies must be given the resources they need to thrive and develop.

A wide range of individuals and small institutions already active in the Middle East and the West constitute the essential building blocks of such a development. Yet in many cases they are neglected and starved of funds at best, and harassed and discouraged at worst.

The net effect is that extremists enjoy a huge advantage in strategic communications. They are drawn together by a clearly defined and precise set of narratives. Their backers are almost always focused and often supportive of each other. Even rival groups engaging in bitter mutual recriminations invariably end up reiterating their common basic assumptions, which has the effect of reinforcing each other in spite of themselves.

Opponents of violent extremism among Arabs and Muslims cannot be defined effectively in terms of what they are against. It is practically meaningless to simply be “anti-extremist”. Rather one must be for something. Of course that has to be moderation.

The problem is that “moderation” comes in many forms. It is probably pointless to seek a single, unified social and political agenda to counteract radicalisation and extremism.

Instead, surely there will have to be a wide range of different agendas and perspectives that push back effectively against the rising tide of extremism. This is a practical necessity given the lack of a dominant narrative that can bring together secularists, nationalists, modernisers, traditionalists, monarchists, social conservatives, social liberals and so forth.

Supporting a wide range of perspectives would also represent a practical manifestation of one of the core values common to any genuine form of moderation: diversity.

So, rather than streamlining the messages of counter-radicalisation, it might well be preferable to opt for breadth as well as depth.

Some projects obviously ought to be highly targeted, particularly those seeking to deradicalise, insofar as possible, those already in the clutches of an extremist mindset. But in other cases, the widespread funding and support for lots of small, independent Arab and Muslim organisations that represent a wide variety of variations on the theme of moderation and anti-extremism is urgently required.

The cost of one bombing sortie alone could underwrite several small groups. The aim should not be to find ideological proxies or dutiful clients. Rather, the approach should be to set a wide variety of ideas in motion in order to achieve two ends. First, so that extremism can be attacked on multiple fronts simultaneously. And second, because it is very hard to know in advance what type of message will resonate most effectively, and therefore will both grow organically and independently, and also thereby earn more support from funders.

One approach was demonstrated by Sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University, at a recent counterterrorism conference in Saudi Arabia. He called for educational reform to combat the spread of religious extremism, but warned against “the new world colonialism that is allied with world Zionism”.

However, real educational reform surely should be open to, rather than suspicious of, the international community and global culture.

Such an approach is being attempted by a number of neglected small institutions, including Al Wasatia, a Palestinian organisation founded by the academic Mohammed Dajani.

Al Wasatia is dedicated to promoting moderate and traditional interpretations of Islam and building bridges within Palestinian society and with western educational institutions. Along with his organisation’s moderate religious agenda, Mr Dajani has pioneered Holocaust education among Palestinians on the grounds that they need to understand the mentality of their occupiers and have nothing to fear from historical truth.

The battle against extremism can’t be really joined, let alone won, until the key societies, especially the United States and its key Arab allies, begin to seriously fund, support and promote the moderates in the trenches.

Wealthy extremists have been very generous to their allies, which has been a major factor in the growth of terrorism in the Middle East. The mainstream has been a lot less forthcoming.

Countless Arab and Muslim organisations around the world are struggling to promote one aspect or another of moderate politics or religiosity, but find themselves unable to secure even the most modest funding.

Until that changes, we’re likely to hear more talk about the need for new narratives, but very little movement in that direction.

South’s secession may be least-worst way out of Yemen crisis

South’s secession may be least-worst way out of Yemen crisis


It’s finally time to start drafting the political obituary of the modern Yemeni state. The country now faces a perfect trifecta of fatal maladies – civil war, terrorism and secession.

A civil war is starting to look inevitable. The announcement by the Houthi militia, a Zaidi Shiite rebel group, that it has dissolved parliament and taken over the government will probably eventually provoke an armed backlash from Sunni groups. The Houthis began the process in September by storming the capital Sanaa. And they have now all but completed their takeover.

The alliance and a reported recent agreement between the Houthi militia and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh give some observers hope that an understanding of sorts can be reached. But it’s increasingly difficult to see how Mr Saleh could play a role in brokering a stable new governing arrangement.

Instead, it looks as if his attempt to use the Houthis as a way to return to power is backfiring because his allies lack any clear incentive to defer to him on major issues. Friday’s announcement seems calculated to emphasise that, whoever they are dealing with, the Houthis see themselves alone as the decision-makers. And for now at least, they seem to be exercising virtually uncontested power in the capital.

Judging by the recent history of other failed states in the Middle East, this is highly alarming. Once sectarianism strongly takes hold in a country that is experiencing broad-based power struggles between groups defined by their religious identity, it is extremely difficult to contain. Whatever Mr Saleh may have been hoping to achieve, it’s much more likely that Sunni forces loyal to him in the military and elsewhere will eventually get drawn into a broad-based sectarian confrontation with the Houthis.

A power struggle based on confessional divisions appears to be already brewing. Friday’s “coup” announcement prompted the widespread expression of outrage by demonstrators in urban centres as well as in rural and tribal areas. It may well be that Mr Saleh believes that he has manipulated the formation of the new “national council”, which will operate in place of the presidency. But there is so much opposition that such an arrangement is unlikely to prove viable.

And even if Mr Saleh were to be somehow returned to a nominal position of power in a new Houthi-dominated system, he would almost certainly discover that he is either just a figurehead or that his alliance with the Shiite group cannot be sustained in the long run.

These tensions, and a brewing civil conflict, play perfectly into the hands of violent extremist and terrorist groups. Al Qaeda in Yemen is widely regarded as the most potent and dangerous Al Qaeda franchise currently in operation. It is one of the few that is regarded as having the ability and the willingness to attempt major terrorist acts throughout the region and in the West. Most recently, for example, Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The ability of Al Qaeda in Yemen and other extremist terrorist organisations to claim to be the champions of the Sunni community against a “Shiite onslaught” will be greatly strengthened by the Houthi takeover. And it’s impossible to imagine that ISIL too, does not regard the developing situation in Yemen as perfectly suited to its own twisted modus operandi.

This, in turn, raises the highly disturbing prospect that the United States – following the logic of the current Obama administration’s policies – could find itself drawn into a strategic alliance with a Houthi-dominated government in Sanaa, or even the Houthi militia directly. There is already alarming evidence of an intelligence relationship, and maybe more, developing under the rubric of fighting common enemies such as Al Qaeda.

But the greatest threat of all to the survival of the contemporary Yemeni state is Al Hirak, the powerful southern movement. It is an umbrella group that is seeking to restore independence to South Yemen, which existed as a separate country, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, for a few decades from the mid-1960s. Southerners were never fully reconciled to the national unity arrangement that, many of them feel, was effectively imposed on them in 1990. Even with noteworthy southerners having served in key positions, the south perennially felt marginalised and disenfranchised.

Most southern groups have been blunt about their redoubled determination to secede because of the rise of the Houthis and the strengthening of Al Qaeda. And, as Amal Mudallali, a senior scholar at the Wilson Centre’s Middle East programme, has pointed out, some of Yemen’s neighbours, including the Arab Gulf states, may reluctantly conclude that they have little choice but to support the breakaway of the south.

Most of Yemen’s neighbours would like to see the country remain intact. But if southern secession means that at least a part of Yemen could be saved from Iranian hegemony, civil war and an expanding fertile ground for terrorist fanatics, it might be viewed as a necessary evil. External support, of course, would greatly enhance the prospects of success for secessionists, which would mean the break-up of the country.

What will take its place very much remains to be seen. But the Yemeni state as we have known it almost certainly can’t survive the emerging triple threat of civil war, terrorism and secession.

How “Islamic” is the “Islamic State?”

Recent controversies have revived a pointless debate from the Bush era

Volunteer Shiite fighters who supports the Iraqi government forces in the combat against the Islamic State (IS) group, hold a black Islamist flag allegedly belonging to ISIS militants in the village of Fadhiliyah on 24 February 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

The international conversation that forms the backdrop for the campaign against the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS or ISIL) terrorist group has suddenly found itself drawn into a rabbit hole. Politicians, pundits, preachers and pontificators of all sorts are presently tearing their hair out over how to navigate the relationship between the Islamic State and Islam. But this is a dreadful waste of time, a dead-end and a matter that is easily resolved.

The handwringing over this issue dates back to the immediate post-9/11 era, when President George W. Bush went to great lengths to distinguish the ideology and agenda of the Al-Qaeda terrorists that attacked the United States from Islam and Muslims in general. It is likely that Bush’s early rhetoric had a positive impact on the wave of backlash violence and discrimination facing American Muslims (and others mistaken for them, especially Sikh men). It’s even likely that lives were saved.

Unfortunately, Bush did not maintain this rhetoric as carefully as he had done at first during the subsequent years of his presidency. And, indeed, elements of the “war on terror,” especially regarding national security measures taken against various categories of noncitizens, and the invasion of Iraq helped to contribute to a very different atmosphere in the United States, in which the government appeared to be reserving to itself the right to discriminate while strictly enforcing the law against individuals and non-governmental institutions.

But Bush always, and correctly, maintained that the “war on terror” was not, in any sense, a war against Islam. People on the political right, as well as some leftists and others, were harshly critical of Bush’s rhetoric in this regard. They claimed that it was a lack of nerve, and a refusal to be honest about the nature of the threat facing the United States and its identity, that informed his refusal to speak in terms of “Islamic terrorism,” or some similar phraseology.

Bush’s supporters countered that it was only sensible diplomatically to respect the sensitivities of key American allies in the Muslim world who would be offended by such language. They added that it would have been foolish to grant Al-Qaeda and similar groups the legitimacy that would go along with acknowledging any sort of authentic religious element to their agenda. This logic invariably won the day in governmental and most serious policy circles regarding counterterrorism and national security.

I recall the Bush era because this tired old argument has suddenly flared up again well into the second term of his successor, Barack Obama. Now, in the context of the Islamic State, Obama is accused of everything that used to be hurled in the direction of Bush, but with the additional implication that Obama is insufficiently patriotic (or worse).

The issue has been lately further exacerbated by controversies swirling around a recent article by Graham Wood in The Atlantic which tried to explain elements of Islamic State ideology to the American public. In particular, Wood revived the debate by declaring: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”

So now, rather than debating how best to counter these fanatics, particularly in terms of developing effective counter-narratives and messaging designed to defeat their propaganda, we find ourselves once again dragged into the quagmire of “how Islamic is the Islamic State?” Wood’s thoughtful and serious article is long, complex, and, generally speaking, very sound. It’s a welcome contribution to one of the most important debates in contemporary international relations. But there are several places in which Wood seems to lose the plot, become tangled in contradictions or, as with the strange ending about the potential virtues of quietest Salafism, charge headlong in false directions.

One of the most obvious of Wood’s mistakes is the concept that the Islamic State is, or could possibly be, “very Islamic.” After all, either it is or it isn’t. There is no question of “very” in this context. And, unfortunately, it is. There can be no doubt that ISIS is composed of fanatical Muslims who justify everything they do through a bizarre and vicious interpretation of Islam. They are fortunate in that Islamic history is so rich, dense, diverse and multifarious that they can readily justify almost anything in terms of some aspect of Islamic history, doctrine, dogma, culture or practices.

There is no reason to doubt their sincerity, either. It’s impossible to know what aspect of cynicism intrudes on the purity of their religious and political fanaticism, and it doesn’t matter. Their public face is that of a Muslim extremist organization that rationalizes all of its behavior in terms of a peculiar and particular reading of Islamic traditions, culture and history. But it’s as meaningless to deem them “very Islamic,” as it would be to deem them “un-Islamic.”

And there are plenty of people, including some of the most important governments presently arrayed against them, who passionately insist that the “Islamic State” is precisely that: “un-Islamic.” But this is essentially to try to argue that because an organization’s beliefs and practices are manifestly evil, they cannot be “Islamic” because Islam is good. Again, one can understand the political and diplomatic impulse to make such a claim. But it is intellectually indefensible.

Like all of the other great faith and civilizational traditions of humanity, Islam, writ large as a series of very diverse and heterogeneous social texts, contains virtually every aspect of the human experience in some form or another. The old slogan popular during the Bush era — that Islam is a “religion of peace” — is perfectly meaningless. After all, the primary social function of religion, as with other aspects of culture, is to legitimize the conduct of power. It is therefore infinitely malleable, and can be successfully deployed to rationalize virtually any social or political agenda.

In the United States, for example, for almost 100 years, the battle for and against slavery was framed almost entirely in terms of competing religious interpretations among the same small set of Protestant Christian denominations. Supporters of slavery justified the institution on religious grounds, and abolitionists attacked it using the same texts. Christianity did not have a default position on the issue. It could be, and was, used with equal effectiveness by both sides in a Civil War fought almost entirely over the issue of slavery, as Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address, which he delivered in the midst of that conflict. “Both [sides in the American Civil War] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln noted.

There are two obvious errors to be made, traps to be fallen into, in this not-terribly-complex problem.

First, it really cannot be maintained that ISIS is not Muslim in some sense or another. Indeed, it is a terrorist organization made up entirely of Muslim fanatics who use the religion to justify their transgressions and crimes. Just think in terms of the need for counter-messaging. Does anyone believe for a moment that counter-narratives that do not stress and emphasize religious arguments against Islamic State barbarism would be effective? Obviously not. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that there is a strong Islamic component, however twisted, to the narratives, ideology and agenda propagated by the Islamic State. An additional irony, of course, is that to call Islamic State fighters “un-Islamic” is to at least flirt with the takfiri practices that make them so extreme in the first place.

Second, it would be equally erroneous to conclude that the group comprises, therefore, “the Muslims,” or that it is authentically Islamic, or, in Wood’s unfortunate phrase, “very Islamic.” It is obviously none of those things. Its ideology is contemporary, novel, bizarre and profoundly out of sync with mainstream Islam, both now and historically. There is nothing “authentic” or representative about it. Quite to the contrary, in fact.

It ought to be a fairly simple, straightforward issue. But it is complicated by the genuine diplomatic and political need of some governments and leaders, including American ones, to play the game of denying that there is anything “Islamic” about an organization of fanatical and extremist Muslims. Clearly there is more to be gained through this strategic dissimulation than is lost, and everyone who can understand the reasons for it should nod and move on. Those who don’t understand it just need to think a little bit more clearly about the problem.

As for the rest of us, it’s high time to get back to the real issues such as how best to defeat the “Islamic State” both on the battlefield and politically, particularly in terms of developing effective counter-messaging. There couldn’t be a bigger waste of time than this overwrought fretting about how “Islamic” the “Islamic state” is.

Netanyahu’s US trip won’t prompt any backlash … yet

Netanyahu’s US trip won’t prompt any backlash ... yet


Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3 is almost certain to go ahead as scheduled, and, after a period of recrimination, fade quickly into memory with no practical repercussions.

Mr Netanyahu is going to Washington to complain about US policies, particularly regarding Iran. He was invited by the Republicans who control Congress, behind the back of Barack Obama. This is much more than a breach of protocol. It’s a direct affront. In terms of the bilateral relationship, it could hardly be more inappropriate.

It is, in effect, another intervention by Mr Netanyahu in the American political process. He is once again publicly siding with partisan Republicans against equally partisan Democrats. And, of course, he is seeking the support of American politicians in his own campaign to retain the premier’s office for another term following Israeli elections shortly after his congressional address.

Most members of Congress will attend his speech. He will get an enthusiastic reception, and applause from many, if not most, attendees during his punch lines. Criticism will be muted and restricted to observations about the improper process by which he was invited by Republican legislators, not his inevitable attack on US foreign policy or other implicit and explicit criticisms of the United States.

The Obama administration will, no doubt, continue to make its displeasure widely known. And there will be additional complaints from the administration that Mr Netanyahu has unfairly characterised US policies, which will be defended.

But that’s all that’s going to happen. There aren’t going to be any major repercussions for Mr Netanyahu or Israel. Indeed, the affair is likely to help Mr Netanyahu in his own election campaign.

Normally Israeli prime ministers who are perceived as disturbing relations with the United States find themselves at considerable political risk. In this case Mr Netanyahu’s position is different because of two factors.

First, Mr Obama is greatly disliked and mistrusted by a large number of Israeli Jews. Being seen as “standing up” to him is unlikely to offend this large group, most of whom are on the political centre and right.

Second, the widespread unrest in the Middle East has provided a vivid backdrop for Mr Netanyahu’s appeal to Israelis that he is a safe and trustworthy “security-first” leader who will protect them in an uncertain and potentially dangerous environment.

In recent years, Mr Netanyahu has been cultivating a “fortress Israel” mentality which views Israeli security as best defended by hunkering down, turning inward and preserving the status quo while waiting for the storm to pass.

Any Israeli who buys into this fundamental analysis is unlikely to be overly perturbed about minor disruptions in relations with the United States.

Moreover, Mr Netanyahu’s forthcoming affront is very unlikely to harm either him or Israel in the United States. He could hardly be more disliked by the Obama administration, so he has very little to lose on that score. But personalities are so incidental to the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States that is not the subject of active debate or consideration in the American political conversation. It is a settled issue, accepted by the entire mainstream and resting on a rock-solid bipartisan consensus. For now, that is.

Therefore, as long as Mr Netanyahu can remain Israel’s prime minister, he will continue to be welcomed in Washington and treated with respect, and possibly even forced and phoney affection. The administration will continue to pursue its policies no matter how much he complains. They will ignore him. But they will not retaliate in any meaningful sense, because it’s just not worth the headache.

But it is all a very useful index of a growing dysfunctionality in the US-Israel relationship.

Those outside the United States who believe that Israel somehow controls American politics or policies, or that Israel is the dominant partner in the relationship, are clearly wrong. It’s a silly conspiracy theory that only reflects a profound ignorance about the actual mechanics of American policymaking.

However, those inside the United States who think that the Israeli-American relationship is rational or reasonable, and who do not recognise when and how it frequently drifts into the indefensible, are also misguided. It’s an absurdity that the leader of a small and dependent state would be welcomed in Congress, and honoured by a joint session no less, with the express purpose of bashing US foreign policy.

There is no need to indulge in clichéd hyperbole such as citing George Washington’s warnings about “excessive partiality” to foreign powers to recognise that this embarrassing dynamic is completely inappropriate for the United States. And, while there won’t be any direct fallout this time, the controversy moves Israel ever closer to becoming a partisan issue and a political football in the United States.

Clearly, aspects of the US-Israel relationship are developing in a direction that isn’t doing either country any favours.

The ISIS Theater of Cruelty

WASHINGTON — The waves lap languidly against the coastline as flickering, spectral images crackle back and forth across the screen. A seemingly endless parade of black-clad assassins, each leading his own sacrificial victim, files across the beachfront in a skillful montage with multiple angles, overhead shots and MTV-style rapid editing.

The camera lingers on the terror on the victims’ faces as one of the killers, singled out by his camouflage outfit, issues dire threats in distinctly American English with a light Arabic accent. The victims are then pushed facedown onto the sand and gruesomely decapitated, each man’s severed head being placed on top of his torso. The sea is seen as running red with blood.

So goes the latest snuff video by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, apparently showing the murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages in Libya. Yet again, the jihadist propaganda shocked friend and foe alike with its signature combination of high production values and stunning brutality.

This new video followed hard on the heels of another in February showing a captured Jordanian fighter pilot, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, being burned alive. The agony of his immolation was ended only when a loader dumped concrete rubble on the site — a macabre dramatization of the jihadists’ claim of a moral equivalence between Jordan’s bombing raids against the Islamic State and their execution of a prisoner.

The Islamic State’s victims are typically made to wear orange jumpsuits, an obvious reference to detainees at the American military base in Guantánamo, Cuba. In the new video, the setting on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea is explained by its proximity to Europe (the spokesman repeats the Islamic State’s ambition to “conquer Rome”) and because the United States had “hidden” the killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden beneath the waves (he was buried at sea).

This symbolism is deliberate and typical: Built into the group’s elaborate scenarios is a sophisticated communications strategy intended to convey multiple messages to several audiences.

Both videos prompted outrage throughout the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, with both countries launching bombing raids against Islamic State positions. The group appears unconcerned. A resolutely vanguardist organization, it seeks to violently impose a new reality on the populace, not to win the hearts and minds of a majority.

As for its adversaries, the Islamic State’s most obvious purpose is to sow fear. During its campaigns in Syria and Iraq, the group has demonstrated an alarming degree of success in terrorizing opponents. This imperative accounts for the videos’ escalating viciousness. Each new release must trump the last in spectacular sadism to keep potential enemies worrying about what unspeakable torments might be visited upon their tender flesh.

But the primary audience for Islamic State propaganda is not foreign governments. The group is recruiting Sunni tribesmen and foreign fighters faster than coalition airstrikes can deplete its forces. We are witnessing perhaps the greatest international volunteer force drive since the Spanish Civil War. And, as its new video demonstrates, the Islamic State, along with its slick propaganda, has now spread to Libya. Clearly, the jihadist message is getting through, but how?

The most obvious statement is strength and defiance: the empowerment that comes from the harshest possible retaliation against societies attacking the Islamic State. Hence the crude moral economy of reciprocity.

Millenarian buzzwords suffuse Islamic State rhetoric, which promises Muslim redemption from a history of humiliation. With soft focus, slow fades, color saturation, superimpositions and carefully layered soundtracks, the group’s most effective videos are haunting. Its fighters seem to hover, spectral and numinous, as if holy or angelic. They offer to transport the audience into an imaginary prophetic space in which “end times” approach: The return of the caliphate will burn “the crusader army in Dabiq” (a Syrian town which, in some traditions, is a Muslim equivalent of Armageddon).

The Islamic State’s messaging thus posits the group as a radical alternative to Western-inflected, modern global culture, as well as to the prevailing regional order in the Middle East. It mines the reservoir of collective Muslim cultural memory when it declares its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new caliph.

The Islamic State’s atavistic aesthetic draws on the widespread notion that the earliest generations of Muslims practiced the purest form of Islam because they were nearer the time of revelation. Closeness to them means proximity to the divine will.

The paradox is that despite these foundational claims, the Islamic State project is quintessentially a movement grounded in modernity, a regressive political reaction to 21st-century grievances. Most Muslims are appalled by the Islamic State’s savagery and spectacles of glorified sadism. But its conflation of millenarian yearning and contemporary grievance, of a mystical desire to redeem history with more profane appeals such as Yazidi sex slaves or child brides as young as 9, is proving potent with a disturbingly large constituency of angry, alienated young men. However appalling it may be, the Islamic State has a clear, simple and internally consistent narrative.

There are few, if any, counter-narratives or alternatives with which it has to compete among its target audience of young recruits. Now drawn in to military action against the Islamic State, the coalition has neglected the ideological power of its propaganda. The hosting this week of an international White House summit on countering violent extremism, and plans to beef up the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, are welcome but insufficient measures.

One cannot fight something with nothing. The administration is going to have to spend a great deal more time, effort and resources, and work closely with its regional allies, to develop a set of messages that can push back effectively against the prophetic, mystical appeal of the Islamic State’s theater of cruelty.