Israel’s baffling policies only encourage a third intifada

Israel’s baffling policies only encourage a third intifada
A Palestinian father and son pray under the gaze of Israeli police in East Jerusalem. Photo: Oliver Weiken / EPA


After several days of violence in occupied East Jerusalem, talk is spreading of a new intifada. We’ve heard this many times since the second intifada petered out. But just because previous pronouncements have proved incorrect that doesn’t mean the current situation will remain manageable.

On the contrary, even if the current spasm of violence ebbs away without producing a sustained uprising against Israeli rule, all that would ensure is that Palestinian frustration and outrage will inevitably give way to another rebellion. Eventually, something’s got to give, and anger might trump judgement.

Jewish settlers continue to aggressively colonise Jerusalem’s flashpoint Silwanneighbourhood. Radical Israeli politicians have toured the area, declaring that these measures underscore the permanence of Israel’s rule in all of Jerusalem, including Muslim and Christian holy sites. Uri Ariel, Israel’s housing minister, apparently wants a piece of this action so badly he’s trying to move to Silwan.

On Wednesday a Hamas member from Silwan deliberately ploughed his car into a crowd of Israelis gathered at a Jerusalem light rail stop, killing a three-month-old baby. Many Palestinians see this rail system as the Jerusalem equivalent of the West Bank wall: a physical embodiment of claims on occupied territory, sending the message: “We are here to stay. And rule.”

On Friday, occupation forces killed a Palestinian teenager they accused of throwing Molotov cocktails. Palestinians and Israeli troops have clashed on numerous occasions at Muslim holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem, particularly the Al Aqsa mosque. Several extremist Israeli political groups said they were planning to march through these Muslim holy places in order to demonstrate and assert the permanency of Israeli control over them. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas vowed to prevent that “by all means”.

Meanwhile, Israel is relentlessly pursuing major settlement projects in and around occupied East Jerusalem in the face of strong American and European opposition.

This summer, the situation often seemed to be teetering on the brink. On the eve of the Laylat Al Qadr Muslim holy night, clashes between occupation forces and protesters threatened to spiral completely out of control. It was the closest thing to a new uprising since the second intifada. Despite widespread outrage at Israel’s conduct in Gaza, the situation remained controlled.

Palestinian Authority security forces intervened on several crucial occasions, giving Palestinians the opportunity to evaluate the relative merits of another uprising against Israel in the cold light of day rather than the heat of the moment. Thus far, it seems, most West Bank Palestinians fear the consequences of another intifadaenough to avoid one.

But neither of those tenuous contingencies can be relied on. At some point, PA security forces may decline, or be simply unable to, take the necessary measures to cool a boiling cauldron. And at some point the Palestinian public may lose their fear, however rational, of the consequences of another uprising. If the people become simply determined to revolt against the appalling injustices of the Israeli occupation, no matter the evident risks and come what may, nobody will be able to stop them.

Should they ever combine, the spark of organised incitement setting fire to the kindling of authentic and irrepressible public outrage represented by thousands of angry young men with no future could be highly combustible. Last August, Israeli security services claimed that Hamas had a plan to destabilise and eventually overthrow the PA in the West Bank, largely through organising a series of attacks against Israelis.

Israeli security officials say most of the unrest is spontaneous. Hamas is indeed still promoting another intifada in the West Bank. But the tensions in Jerusalem – which is almost certainly where another uprising would originate – don’t appear connected with those efforts. Instead they represent the frustration of ordinary Palestinians living under profoundly oppressive Israeli rule with no road map for liberation and no end in sight.

Israel blames Mr Abbas for the attack by the Hamas member and other violent incidents. If Israel was correct last summer in believing that there is a covert Hamas plan to overthrow the PA through a series of destabilising violent incidents, then blaming him for this attack makes no sense.

If there is no such Hamas policy, then Israel lacks a coherent account of West Bank realities and is simply lurching from one method to another of blaming all Palestinians for everything objectionable or indefensible.

Either way, there doesn’t seem to be any systematic Israeli approach to responding to rising tensions in Jerusalem, much less the potential for another uprising.

Israel’s policy towards Hamas in Gaza is certainly very aggressive at the granular, immediate level, but bewilderingly passive regarding the bigger picture. It appears committed to maintaining an unsustainable and dangerous status quo.

Israel’s reaction to rising unrest in Jerusalem, and the prospect of another uprising in the West Bank, evinces a similar strange dichotomy between highly aggressive street-level and day-to-day security concerns but no apparent plan – apart from additional provocative settlement activity – to help shape the long-term future.

This apparent passivity and trust in fate might be politically convenient for certain Israeli leaders. But strategically, and as a matter of national policy, especially for such a powerful and historically aggressive state, it seems utterly inexplicable.

Rick Perlstein’s America

Three lengthy books chronicle the rise of American conservatism and its liberal doppelgängers.



The left-wing American journalist Rick Perlstein has been on a quest to chronicle the rise of the far right in the United States and the division of the country into “red” (conservative and Republican) and “blue” (liberal and Democrat) areas. But in fact what is emerging from Perlstein’s indefatigable labors is a sociopolitical portrait of a society that is not only profoundly divided, but also frequently struggles to understand itself.

This summer, the third installment of his chronicle, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, was released by Simon & Schuster. It follows two earlier volumes, the brilliant 2008 Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and his first effort from 2001, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

All three volumes are putatively tied to the fortunes of three specific bellwether right-wing American politicians — Barrry Goldwater, who was the first iconic symbol of the new right; Richard Nixon, who successfully parlayed the politics of division and resentment of liberal elites into a new ruling coalition; and Ronald Reagan, who turned that coalition into a vehicle for a right-wing American politics that combines a Nixonian resentful and dystopian rage with Reagan’s relentless optimism.

But in Perlstein’s hands, the story of the rise of the American right isn’t simply an evolving political analysis, a compendium of facts, or even (although he does dabble in it) psychobabble about the individual personalities. Instead, Perlstein’s readers are both treated and subjected to exhaustive and exhausting chronicles of what the United States is and how it got that way. The principal protagonists frequently disappear for scores, and occasionally hundreds, of lengthy passages in these books that are all well over 800 dense, intricately packed pages.

Perlstein seems determined to make sure that the reader has a strong grasp of the cultural zeitgeist in which these politics emerged. So what he has ended up producing is, in fact, relatively comprehensive chronicles of not just political developments but also popular culture, economic developments, social trends and a good deal of what frequently looks like minutia. But it’s not.

You won’t find a better popular account of nationally polarizing controversies such as outrage over busing in south Boston or textbooks in West Virginia. Perlstein draws a vivid portrait of how movements such as these, along with that most powerful American right-wing cause célèbre — abortion — both emerged spontaneously out of a genuine cultural conservatism that he takes seriously on its own terms, and how these impulses were organized and marshaled by cutting-edge political techniques such as direct mailing, other appeals that went over the heads and behind the backs of established party leaders, and crucial aspects of what has come to be known as the “ground game” in American politics.

Perlstein doesn’t have any illusions. He understands that Nixon was a bitter and paranoid personality, brilliant but profoundly flawed and astonishingly dangerous to American liberties and constitutional order which barely survived his malfeasance. He appreciates Reagan’s deft manipulative abilities, grace and charm, but he understands that much of what lay at the core of the “great communicator’s” messages was self-contradictory, patently false, or simply meaningless but emotionally appealing jingoism.

Nonetheless, and this is the great strength of these three marvelous books, Perlstein takes the entire American conservative movement seriously on its own terms. He does not dismiss the social, cultural and political right-wingers with whom he is in such profound disagreement as bizarre or ridiculous figures. Rather, he understands, and effectively communicates, that they represent a powerful and very important trend in American culture and society, one that is genuine, authentic and passionately believed in.

The concept of “false consciousness” hangs heavy in these pages, at least for some of us, but only between the lines. But those manifest lines include a noble effort to try to understand and fairly represent the conservative movement he is struggling to not only chronicle, but also to conceptualize and even empathize with. In order to tap into the profound emotional sentiments that inform this conservative movement, Perlstein keeps a steady hand on the cultural pulse of the country during the various periods he chronicles.

Perlstein’s work has two overwhelming strengths. First, it refuses to idolize, coddle or excuse liberals and leftists for their own amazing excesses, mistakes and absurdities. Second, it does not try to push back against the United States that really exists, and existed at the times he is describing. Rather, he accepts, and tries to describe and even, at times, explain the society and culture that produced the polarization of the present moment between “red” and “blue” America.

“Nixonland” — a nasty neologism Perlstein picks up from Adlai Stevenson and his supporters — was originally intended by its coiners to describe merely the Nixonian side of the politics of division that drove his political career, and which he cultivated with such enormous skill. But in Perlstein’s infinitely more fair-minded approach, liberals and the left, driven by hatred of Nixon, are equally a part of “Nixonland” as are the right-wing, anti-elitist popular constituency the Stevenson crowd was intending to denigrate with that phrase.

The Invisible Bridge, even more than his earlier two books, includes remarkable and extended readings of popular culture that are genuinely illuminating. For example, Perlstein’s extended meditation on the popularity of “The Exorcist” horror film, and his understanding of what anxieties were being mediated through that enormously successful movie (featuring a little girl called Reagan, of all things) is a superb example of the art of illustrating political developments through cultural artifacts that somehow embody the (or at least a) spirit of the times.

Equally outstanding is his reading of “Jaws,” the disaster film about sudden attacks by unseen and unknown predators, and the coming together of three iconic American figures (a hippie-ish scientist, a hard-bitten lawman, and a brooding and alcoholic World War II veteran driven by posttraumatic demons) come together to defeat the unnamable, unimaginable threat.

The Invisible Bridge culminates with the razor thin 1976 Republican nomination victory by President Gerald Ford over Reagan. Quite obviously the story doesn’t end there. We can expect at least one more volume on the rise of the new right and the conservative movement, and the shaping of the presently divided American political and cultural landscape. But probably more than that.

Americans are having their recent political, and to some extent cultural, evolution being chronicled for them by Perlstein’s exhaustive and exhausting volumes. It’s a service that people on both sides of the “red/blue” divide ought to appreciate, particularly given the fairness with which he approaches his subjects. However, for all those outside the United States who wonder how, where, when and why such a sophisticated society has continued to harbor such a large, powerful, extreme and, especially in our era, increasingly obscurantist right, particularly of the religious variety, these books are even more valuable.

Anyone who wants to know where this all came from, and even where it might be going, is being given an extremely detailed, painstaking and precise guidebook.

Slowly but surely, the tide is beginning to turn against ISIL

Slowly but surely, the tide is beginning to turn against ISIL
An ISIL member hoists a flag at a military airport in Raqqa, Syria. AP / Raqqa Media Centre of ISIL

Despite its advances in northern Syria and western Iraq, there is every reason to think ISIL may finally be on the road to defeat. In spite of its technical competence and impressive adaptability, the militant group may have overreached. The range of territory controlled by its fighters involves vulnerable supply lines and large tracts of land that are highly vulnerable to attack and rollback.

This is particularly true in Iraq. ISIL may be apparently on the march, but as Michael Knights has recently noted in Politico, reaching the Sunni areas on the outskirts of Baghdad has probably maximised the limits of ISIL’s potential reach in that country.

Moreover, while the American-led coalition has obviously so far resisted ISIL insufficiently, many of the necessary steps to augment air power, particularly in the Iraqi battleground – including augmenting Iraqi government forces and creating a “Sunni National Guard” – are in the process of development. It may take a year or more, but both should be entirely achievable.

There’s almost no question that, having committed to “degrade, and, ultimately, destroy” the power of ISIL, the Obama administration has put the United States on an inevitable course of unavoidable and continuous mission expansion.

It cannot afford either practically or politically to back away. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recounts that American measures under consideration include: raising the number of air sorties from 10-20 a day to 10 times that number, the transfer of Apache helicopters to the Iraqi government, the creation of a no-fly zone on the Turkish border, the revival of a new moderate Syrian opposition force and the introduction of a limited number of American “ground troops” in the form of “advisers”.

Despite its reticence, Turkey is getting closer to being drawn into the conflict. Ankara’s concern about the Kurdish PKK/PYD forces in northern Syria, and its commitment to overthrowing the Damascus dictatorship are important indications of where the United States and its allies have to accommodate others. But, in the long run, it is virtually impossible that Turkey will openly side with ISIL.

ISIL is thus now surrounded by enemies. These include Westerners who know that they are the ultimate target of these millenarian fanatics; Shiites and other religious minorities who understand that the immediate future for them in any ISIL-controlled area is genocide or slavery; and the existing Sunni Arab powers and religious establishments that understand that ISIL is also a massive existential threat to them.

More even than Mosul, Fallujah is the key to the pushback. Should ISIL lose control of that city, as it simply has to, its foothold in Iraq will be profoundly disrupted, and a pushback into Syria guaranteed. The real battle will probably begin in Mosul, but the end of ISIL in Iraq will come with the liberation of Fallujah. Then will come the far more challenging prospect of expelling ISIL from Syria, or at least neutralising its threat there.

Finally, ISIL’s Arab poll numbers are simply dreadful. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy commissioned a recent poll in several Arab states. ISIL got a mere five per cent approval rating in Saudi Arabia – a most heartening repudiation. Egypt followed with three per cent and Lebanon with one per cent. Such marginal numbers tend to correlate with those fringe types believing in the most absurd conspiracy theories.

ISIL is clearly exceptionally unpopular outside of the areas it controls. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, because it poses as a group that brings order to chaos, and because most people prefer any form of law and order to mere anarchy, ISIL has managed to win hearts and minds in some parts of Syria and Iraq where it has falsely posed as a champion of local Sunni populations and a generalised Islamic universalist and apocalyptic agenda.

And what of the small percentage outside their areas who do favour them? Well, it’s already obvious that ISIL does, in fact, have a coherent narrative that appeals to a small but potent group of people who think that it really is a vanguard for the Muslims of the world.

There are always extremists and fanatics. The challenge, as in so many other instances throughout history and geography, is for mainstream societies to come together – as indeed they are starting to – to make sure that they are not able to destroy the regional system, the global order and balance of power, and, especially, Arab and Islamic civilisation as we know it.

The strongest evidence, reading between the lines is that, slowly but surely, this is very much starting to happen, and ISIL is, thankfully, on a one-way path to eventual and decisive defeat.

The three-way Israeli-Palestinian impasse

Israel, the PA and Hamas are all trapped in their own policies with no idea how to move forward.


Palestinian women, one holding up the national flag, push against a metal gate part of the controversial separation barrier being constructed by Israel. (AFP/Abbas Momani)


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached its most dangerous impasse in many years with all three (yes, unfortunately there are three) of the main actors uncertain of what they can, or even want to, do next. Israel, the Palestinian nationalist movement, and Hamas are all badly divided internally and all appear to lack serious options for moving forward. All three are stuck where they are now, leaving the conflict set to drag on indefinitely toward some kind of implosion or explosion which is the inevitable consequence of stasis.


Of the three, Israel would seem to have the most options because it holds the most cards. The problem is that Israel is badly divided on Palestinian questions. Israelis used to be divided neatly between those who wanted urgently to make a deal with the Palestinians and those who were very skeptical about whether that was achievable or desirable. However, in recent years Israel has shifted significantly to the right on all of these questions, leaving the country still divided.


Now, however, the split is between those who don’t wish to make a peace agreement in the foreseeable future and want to preserve the status quo indefinitely (led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and a growing body of expansionist and annexationist Israelis who want to unilaterally redefine the country’s borders. Any such redefinition would almost certainly be the final blow to even the theoretical prospect of a two-state solution, because Israel would certainly leave insufficient territory for a politically and economically viable Palestinian state.


However, the unilateralists are, for now, being held at bay by the status quo forces. Israel’s policies, therefore, towards the Palestinians boil down to exactly that: preserving the status quo, with minor adjustments, in both the West Bank and Gaza. One could detect a creeping annexationism in recent settlement announcements regarding areas adjacent to occupied East Jerusalem, but these plans have not been fulfilled, and may not be. Even if they are, it falls far short of the desire to formally redraw the boundaries, as advocated by the expansionist camp.


So, Israel is effectively stuck. It doesn’t want the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself, as is sometimes threatened. It doesn’t want Hamas to fall from power in Gaza, for fear of a more volatile alternative anarchy or a more extreme group in charge there. But it doesn’t want to create new and more positive arrangements with the PA, or to ease the blockade of Gaza and make new arrangements with Hamas there either. Its policy, in both cases, boils down to no policy at all. Just going forward with things as they are is no policy whatsoever and, as US President Barack Obama recently pointed out, totally unsustainable.


The Palestinian groups are, if anything, even more bogged down in their own policy contradictions. Hamas has been trumpeting a great victory against Israel, but as the dust continues to settle, the shine seems to be quickly wearing off with public opinion. The reality is that, with winter approaching quickly, the amount of devastation and lack of housing in Gaza as a consequence of the war is going to become a very serious humanitarian issue. Because there has been no agreement on border crossings, or almost anything else, in the aftermath of the cease-fire, there hasn’t been any reconstruction yet either.


Donor nations have committed hundreds of millions of dollars, indeed by many counts billions, to Gaza reconstruction at a recent meeting. But it’s clear that as long as there is no formula for transferring material and managing crossings, few reconstruction projects will actually be undertaken. And for all of the talk of PA security forces replacing Hamas militia at the Palestinian side of the crossings, there is no sign of any Palestinian agreement whereby that could happen. Indeed, the prospect was just dismissed by the Hamas official currently in charge of the crossings.


Hamas desperately needs a new strategy, unless it wants to fall back on further conflict with Israel and risk even greater devastation. Politically it probably cannot afford to do that. But it doesn’t have any leverage with Israel, Egypt, or the PA to force advantageous changes to the closure regime. Some of its factions want a rapprochement with Iran. But that would cost the organization dearly in Arab support. Indeed, it may not be possible.


Hamas clearly continues to hope to gain a greater foothold in the West Bank on the basis of the ongoing “unity” government, and also transfer significant responsibility for political administration and the costs of governance onto the PA through this arrangement. The PA, however, appears profoundly reluctant to take on those responsibilities as long as Hamas maintains an independent militia, and therefore an independent foreign and military policy. President Mahmoud Abbas recently resuscitated concerns about “one gun,” meaning strong PA objections to Hamas maintaining an independent militia while claiming to have entered into a “unity” arrangement with a new PA government.


If Hamas seems stuck and out of options, except maybe a quixotic return to additional armed struggle with Israel (who knows at what price), the PA is also an exceptionally dire straits. It has staked everything on achieving a negotiated peace agreement with Israel, but no negotiations are currently underway, and there is no basis for thinking that under the current situation negotiations could be resumed or could be successful.


Alternatives to negotiations are all unpalatable. Abbas has strictly ruled out a third intifada, and the public as well seems to view that prospect with considerable, and well warranted, alarm. The internationalization route has been toyed with for a long time, but in truth, it’s another dead end. The international community is not going to be able to pressure Israel, particularly not without the cooperation of the United States. Getting the United Nations Security Council to impose a deadline for the end of the occupation isn’t going to be possible given a US veto, and if the General Assembly did so it would be meaningless. Even if the Security Council did impose such a deadline, Israel could, and certainly would, ignore that too.


Joining the International Criminal Court and attempting to bring war crimes charges against Israeli officers and officials is a lengthy and complicated matter. There are numerous hurdles at which such an effort might fail, most notably getting the court to recognize that the PA, or the State of Palestine as a nonmember observer state of the United Nations, has practical sovereign control of Gaza, which would probably be necessary for any prosecution to go forward. Many Palestinians and their allies tend to think of the ICC as some kind of small claims court, in which a complaint is filed and, sooner or later, the parties end up in front of a judge which rules on the facts. That’s not how it works at all.


And while there are many grounds to doubt how successful such an effort might be, the costs imposed by Israel and the United States would be enormous. In other words, the benefits are doubtful, far off and contingent on many variables, whereas the costs are immediate, significant and daunting. The cost-benefit ratio isn’t very appealing, which is why so much of the internationalization agenda, including ICC membership, has been discussed but not implemented by the Ramallah leadership.


Both Hamas and the PA looked to the unity agreement they signed as a way forward, at least of temporary legitimization in the eyes of the Palestinian public. The new government, which looks a great deal like the old PA government, is actually meeting, but it hasn’t taken over responsibility for the administration of Gaza, or the crossings, or anything new. And there’s no suggestion of when it might. And if it did, the change would either be cosmetic or would quickly deteriorate into renewed confrontation between Hamas militiamen and PA security forces.


The Palestinian groups are simply too divided to meaningfully reunify under current circumstances. Each of them faces a dead-end for their policies, and no notion of what a good alternative would be. Yet Israel, too, is in a dead end of its own. It’s addicted to the status quo, which is unsustainable and, eventually, will almost certainly lead to another brutal confrontation. Israel has no idea what to do with the millions of Palestinians that live under its rule. And those Palestinians don’t know what to do to get rid of Israel’s rule. The three-way standoff is unprecedented and exceptionally dangerous.


It may be the broader regional changes are required to resolve the conflict. But that really means that Israelis and Palestinians have proven utterly incapable of resolving it themselves, including with the help of the United States. What those regional changes might be, moreover, is itself a source of potential alarm. With all three of the principal actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stuck in their own traps and unable to see a way forward, they have essentially lost agency and left themselves at the mercy of events they do not, and cannot, control.

Hisham, Hope and Despair

Hisham Melhem is correct about the collapse of “Arab civilization,” but hope remains

A general view taken on Octover 6, 2014, shows the Dakhaniyeh neighberhood, southeast of the capital Damascus, after Syrian government forces seized control of area (AFP Photo/STR)


On 18 September, Hisham Melhem – the distinguished Arab journalist and de facto “dean” of the Arabic-language press corps in Washington – published a brilliant, ringing and profoundly significant cri de coeur in the American news magazine Politico. Its impact has reverberated powerfully throughout the Middle East-related commentariat, particularly in the United States. Surveying the wreckage of Arab culture and civilization as normatively understood over most of the past 100 years or so – in other words, what most Arabs thought we knew about ourselves, and which now lies largely in ruins – he conducts an unflinching, overdue and merciless autopsy of what he declares to be, at least for the rest of his own lifetime, a social, economic and political corpse.


All serious observers who care about the Arabs and the Arab world must either immediately acknowledge an instinctive and heartbroken identification with Melhem’s anguish, or continue kidding themselves. Denial is not only pointless; it’s no longer possible without becoming downright delusional. The profound crisis in the contemporary Arab social order and political culture is simply a fact. It can, and must, be analyzed and interrogated. But it cannot be dismissed or even downplayed.


Details aside, it’s just impossible for any serious or honest person to take issue with the essence of Melhem’s grim analysis. Many once-promising Arab societies have been hollowed out during the postcolonial era by grotesquely irresponsible ruling elites. These rulers often appeared, at a manifest level, to be very different from, and sometimes found themselves at odds with, each other. But on closer inspection it should have always been obvious that they actually engaged in similar forms of misrule with analogous consequences.


The typical, although not universal, outcome across the region has been the development of profoundly dysfunctional societies, economic malaise, sectarian mistrust, political extremism and religious fanaticism. The Arab world in general, Melhem concludes, is caught between “the Scylla of the national security state and the Charybdis of political Islam.” At least in the immediate here and now, that’s just undeniable.


Western colonialism, too, played its role by saddling the region with bizarre and artificial borders for jerry-rigged states that never developed sufficient national cohesion and consciousness to survive serious challenges. The West also bequeathed to the Arabs various, and often highly-insidious and cynical strategies of divide and rule, many of which continue to bedevil the Middle East.


The result of this convergence of internal and external poisons is a set of ailing bodies politic, in many cases bereft of social or political legitimacy, and, increasingly and at their worst, attempting to function without order or even structure.


Only parts of the Arab world have thus far totally imploded, but they are hardly irrelevant backwaters: Syria, Iraq, Libya, and to some extent Yemen and Lebanon. It’s far easier to imagine this chaos continuing to expand rather than retreating. Hence, his readers join Melhem on the edge of a precipice, staring into an abyss – producing a kind of highly-unsettling socio-political vertigo.


Melhem correctly notes that the Islamic State (ISIS) did not emerge in a vacuum, but rather lumbered into being out of the detritus of Arab societies shorn of their traditional normative values and in the grip of sub-national identitarian rage and/or existential terror. In Syria, at least 100,000 people were killed by the Assad dictatorship before ISIS really started getting a foothold in its hinterlands. The barbarism and savagery of ISIS is a Hobbesian response to a Hobbesian reality. Much of the contemporary Arab world increasingly looks like a war of all against all.


The grimmest truth about ISIS and other ultra-radical extremist groups is that, in addition to their extreme brutality, they have coherent, albeit despicable, narratives, ideologies and agendas. They appeal to those angry young men of every era who are instinctively drawn to the international extremism du jour. But ISIS is also drawing in a rather different group: a cohort of bored, hopeless, lost Arabs seeking adventure and a kind of twisted purpose to their lives.


ISIS’s fighters could certainly tell you what, exactly, they think they are fighting for and why. ISIS and other violent extremist groups, Sunni and Shiite alike, are actually offering a warped and grotesque caricature of what mainstream Arab societies ought to be able to, but, apparently in some cases, cannot foster: a supposedly “higher purpose” to life through serving the interests of a ferociously puritanical group and mission, together with a coherent worldview and sense of identity and agency. Do these evil people actually believe they are repairing the world, and preparing for the end of days, through blood and fire? It seems likely that, at the very least, that is precisely what they tell themselves and each other.


Worse still, the social vision articulated by ISIS is essentially an extreme – and even absurd, but alas logical – conclusion of certain strands of fundamentalist Sunni Islam that have been promoted over many decades by some wealthy states and individuals. Of course, no one other than the state was ever supposed to act on such ideas. Ordinary people were just supposed to imbibe this religious dogmatism, or at least acknowledge the authority of their tenets, and do nothing.


But now these religious, social and political ideas have been hijacked, stretched to their ideological limits (and, indeed, well beyond), and put into violent practice by gangsters who combine sophisticated criminality with hard-core doctrinal zealotry. With God, all things are possible. And permissible.


And it’s not just ISIS and their repulsive ilk: Shiite and other sectarian fanatics are simultaneously deploying their own version of the dark arts of pseudo-metaphysical propaganda manipulation. They, too, harvest the credulous and desperate, the rudderless, adrift, disoriented and lost, all to feed the insatiable machine of homicide and suicide. It is a ghastly concoction of the most extreme political and spiritual fanaticism, pecuniary profit, sadism and masochism.


Mainstream Arab societies look on in horror but have few compelling narratives to counter ISIS’s propaganda. As Melhem notes, ISIS’s “roots run deep in the badlands of a tormented Arab world that seems to be slouching aimlessly through the darkness.”


It’s not true that there are no other social, political or religious visions in the Arab world. Indeed, predictions that post-dictatorship Arab societies would inevitably produce elected Islamist governments proved wrong, because even though most Arabs are devout Muslims, they are not Islamists. They might well be willing to accept Islamists in government if they are responsible, effective and accountable. But those Islamists who got the chance in government to show what they are truly made of – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – proved nothing of the kind.


The alternative Arab visions, however, to atrophied, stale and failed state authority on the one hand and Islamism of varying degrees of radicalism and violence on the other, remain largely repressed, scattered, unorganized, marginal and hence ineffective. Under such circumstances, Melhem reaches the following, entirely understandable but despairing, conclusion: “It took the Arabs decades and generations to reach this nadir. It will take us a long time to recover – it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime.”


Here it’s important to stop and take stock. I, for one, have found the past six months or so to have been particularly trying, and I know I’m hardly alone. The rise of ISIS, the virtual collapse of the Libyan state, the awful war in Gaza, and so many additional horrors seemed to pile up such that, for the first time in over 15 years of professionally working on and writing about Arab affairs, I could suddenly regard an insurance salesman with some envy. But one cannot give in to such impulses.


At a certain level, there’s no question that Melhem is basically right. A real Arab “recovery” won’t happen in his lifetime, or in mine. Some of the issues are so deep-rooted and structural that they really will take “decades and generations” to completely transform. But hope need not, indeed cannot, be vested only in such a thoroughgoing transformation. Much can, and must, develop quickly to begin to calm the maelstrom Melhem and the rest of us can scarcely believe we are actually living through.


The first thing to bear in mind is how radically different things looked, even for what amounts to a fleeting political moment, at the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring.” It was not a mirage. Millions of Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere really did take to the streets demanding reform, accountability and good governance. It was a genuine and spontaneous expression of “people power” and revealed a real appetite for greater openness and at least some version of democracy.


The reasons why the moment passed without realizing its most important goals, and indeed now seems to have ushered in this present period of chaos and unprecedented instability, are less important than the fact that it existed in the first place. There is, we can say with absolute confidence, indeed a mass Arab constituency for pluralism, tolerance, good governance and accountability. It may be inchoate, inconsistent, unorganized and haphazard, but that it exists is undeniable if one simply remembers Tahrir Square.


Second, let us recall that when societies transform, they frequently do so with stunning rapidity. Particularly in the modern era, change can be, and often is, sudden, dramatic and swift. If three-and-a-half years ago was a period of brief but irrational exuberance about the rise of an empowered Arab citizenry demanding its rights and asserting its responsibilities, we should be open to the possibility that the present impulse towards despair might also prove to be exaggerated.


It’s not possible that Arab societies a mere three years ago were on the brink of unprecedented maturation, but then suddenly slumped back into a greater level of immaturity and dysfunctionality than ever. At least one of these impressions is certainly incorrect, as they are mutually exclusive. But it’s also entirely possible that both are false impressions, produced by competing but equally exaggerated utopian and dystopian impulses.


If developments have really taken a dramatically negative turn in much of the Arab world over the past year or two – and they certainly have – it is, surely, equally possible for a sudden and dramatically positive set of developments to emerge (by definition unexpectedly) in the coming months and years.


But, it will be asked, on what would such sudden improvements be based, given the analysis outlined by Melhem and others, and repeated and endorsed above? Well, that it was these same Arab societies and contemporary political culture that gave rise to the “Arab Spring” moment in the first place. And since that was a real and entirely positive, albeit unsuccessful, mass movement, it clearly constitutes a solid basis for genuine hope in a progressive and forward-thinking Arab constituency, and social and political impulse, that now appears dormant but could not have simply evaporated.


In the eyes of their disillusioned and jaded (usually elite and alienated) constituents, struggling postcolonial societies have a particular way of inducing such grim “decades and generations” prognoses. Countless leading Latin American intellectuals, from both the left and right and among the apolitical, as late as the 1980s, expressed very serious doubts that their societies could ever find their way out of war and dictatorship “in their lifetimes.”  Even now, many of these societies’ reform efforts remain works in progress. But the end of decades of wars and civil conflicts, brutal dictatorships and social decay and malaise in Latin America over the past 25 years or so demonstrates what can quickly happen once a corner is turned.


Under such circumstances, it is an intellectual and political moral duty to look for (but not invent) real evidence that allows one to retain a sense of decency and openness to a better future. And such evidence genuinely does exist in the Arab world today, despite a “big picture” that is, or at least currently seems, so unremittingly appalling.


Since I have focused on ISIS as a key indicator of how negative current Arab trends have been, it’s only fitting that we look there for evidence of the positive. Let’s not change the subject; let’s look at it more closely. The backlash against ISIS does indeed provide some rays of hope. They range from something as simple, personal and in many ways marginal as the fact that the UAE’s woman fighter pilot Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri led one of the first major Arab allied airstrikes against ISIS. In itself, this is a mere detail and historical footnote. But in a region plagued with unconscionable patriarchy and sexism – and with women not even allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, or do just about anything without the permission of their legal male “guardian” – this tidbit ought to afford all reasonable people at least a fleeting smile of satisfaction.


On the more substantive register, ISIS has become such a terrifying and destabilizing phenomenon that it is undermining the severe sectarian divide that gave rise to it in the first place, and that began defining the Middle Eastern strategic landscape in recent years. Sunni-majority Arab states have openly recognized, in word and deed, the centrality of the Shiite-led Iraqi government in combating the terrorists.

Last week, militiamen from the central Iraqi town of Dhuluiyah – which is sometimes seen as a bellwether of Iraqi Sunni Arab sentiments – came to the aid of their Shiite neighbors in Al Saud village, which was under attack by ISIS. How significant this is, and whether it proves to be a harbinger of things to come remains to be seen. This Sunni Arab pushback again ISIS might be basically tribal and self-protective. The Jubur tribe predominant in Dhuluiyah was a key player in the “Awakening” against ISIS’s progenitor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and hence they have every reason to fear retribution, even after so many years. But the motivation is secondary at best. The fact is, this is a rare instance in recent months in which ISIS has met with stiff Iraqi Sunni Arab resistance, and perhaps the first place where Iraqi Arab Sunnis and Shiites have fought together against ISIS in its current incarnation.
Meanwhile, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia declared such organizations, and he specifically singled out ISIS, the “number one enemy” of Islam. The UAE and others have repeatedly made the crucial point that the problem is not simply ISIS, but a whole host of extremist organizations driven by the same kind of fanaticism. The makings of a broad regional coalition of states trying to contain precisely that threat appears to be coming together, albeit in fits and starts, formally and informally. It remains shaky, but it’s happening. It’s about time, and it’s a good thing.


It is one thing for powerful Middle Eastern states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to harass each other via proxies. But it is quite another to find themselves at risk of a more direct confrontation, and, ironically in the case of ISIS, threatened by the self-same gang of fanatics. Either way, the choice facing numerous countries in the region is between finding a more constructive approach to dealing with their differences or risk consuming each other, and themselves, like ravenous fish in the murky deeps.


Some cynics claim that Arab governments they characterize as “counterrevolutionary” because they are staunch defenders of the status quo are seizing on the threat of extreme terrorist organizations like ISIS in order to legitimate themselves and create a gigantic distraction from “revolution” to counterterrorism.


Not only does this argument fail to acknowledge that the threat from ISIS and similar groups is so severe that other considerations that have nothing to do with “counterrevolution” – such as the crossing of sectarian divides – are starting to characterize the response (which strongly suggests it is bonafide and genuine), it also doesn’t acknowledge that the analyses and prescriptions being offered by officials and representatives of these states, or in some cases by some of their leading citizens, increasingly recognizes that social, educational and even political changes will be required to defeat the threat of fanaticism in the long run. So even if the “counterrevolution” narrative had some merit (although it doesn’t square with these governments’ support for the uprising in Syria, among numerous other obvious anomalies), it would still actually do little to explain the increasingly unified response to ISIS or the likely long-term implications of that response.


Therefore, even looking at the most disturbing contemporary Arab phenomenon – the Islamic State – it’s possible to identify many different bases for a more hopeful attitude without being dreadfully naïve or inventing an alternate reality.


All across the region, from courageous individuals to small groups that are doing good in their own small spheres of activity and influence, to strategic realignments at the state and regional level (such as the important new international coalition to combat ISIS), the basis for hope for a better Arab future can indeed be identified if you start looking for it. Indeed, in various different guises, positive signs are everywhere, even though negativity is by far the dominant trend at present.


Unfortunately, there’s no real basis for suggesting that social and political realities in the Arab world are going to start dramatically improving in the immediate future. They may well continue to get worse, as they have been of late. We just don’t know what is going to happen.


The crucial point is that the one thing that is certain is that the choices that we make individually and collectively will have a direct and profound impact on the short, medium and long-term outcomes. And, therefore, our choices must be carefully considered, deliberate and purposive, while apathy and inaction are not options.


The first step in coming to grips with where we Arabs find ourselves today is precisely the sort of unflinching, resolutely principled and searingly honest evaluation provided last month by Hisham Melhem in Politico. But the second step has to be a serious investigation of what, exactly, there is to work with to make our ever-changing reality better rather than worse (or more of the same), and to consciously and proactively look for positive trends that buck the general recent pattern of alarming deterioration.


Retaining agency requires retaining hope. Not pie in the sky, Pollyanna hope; but real hope based on existing realities and plausible outcomes. As bad as things are in the Arab world today, the grounds for such hope are genuine. The task is to first identify the bases for improvement, and then to act on them.

US has a responsibility to rein in Israeli settlements

US has a responsibility to rein in Israeli settlements
A staircase leading down a slope where several old caravans stand on the area of East Jerusalem called Givat Hamatos, overlooking Jerusalem. Jim Hollander / EPA


Israeli leaders and others were livid at Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s recent United Nations speech, which included the hyperbolic claim that Israel is guilty of “genocide” in Gaza. This unusually strong language from Mr Abbas was undoubtedly aimed at a domestic audience and designed to express the anger and frustration of Palestinians who seemingly have no viable strategy for moving forward towards national liberation.

Even though such remarks – including Israel’s own hyperbolic claims on social media recently that that “Hamas = ISIL” – aren’t helpful, they don’t actually change the strategic equation on the ground. They are, in both cases, snapshots of a political moment, and crucially one that can pass quickly without leaving a deep scar.

The same cannot be said for ­Israel’s latest announcement of impending settlement activity in occupied East Jerusalem. Plans for 2,610 new settler housing units were revealed last week in the so-called Givat Hamatos settlement, to the south of Jerusalem.

Building up this area would serve as another major feature of the strategic and demographic landscape, cutting key areas of Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank, particularly Bethlehem. It is closely linked with other highly controversial settlements known as Har Homa, which serve the same function, and will be the first entirely new Israeli settlement created in East Jerusalemsince the development of Har Homa itself in the 1990s.

The new settlement, if completed, would be a major strategic blow to the potential for a two-state solution. It would make a reasonable compromise on Jerusalem, which is essential to any real peace agreement, more difficult to achieve. Moreover, like any major settlement expansion, it increases the Israeli constituency and vested interest against territorial compromise. Indeed, because it goes directly to the question of the future of Jerusalem, this new settlement is particularly provocative and damaging.

It sends the message that Israel is determined to keep hold of occupied East Jerusalem, and the areas around it. The timing is particularly bad because, following the war in Gaza, it was essential that the Palestinian Authority find a means of demonstrating that its approach of seeking a peaceful, negotiated, solution with Israel delivers results. Hamas is now claiming that its policy of armed struggle has been somehow vindicated by the recent conflict, even though comparatively little was gained for Palestinians or Gaza amid colossal destruction.

Yet Hamas at least can claim to have established agency, initiative and momentum. Israel’s latest settlement activity seems almost calculated to play into their hands. It certainly delivers another brutal blow to Mr Abbas and all those who seek a negotiated agreement. It undermines the credibility of potential negotiations, and of the negotiators themselves.

Hagit Ofran, the spokeswoman for the Israeli group Peace Now, correctly observed that “Givat Hamatos is destructive to the two-state solution. It divides the potential Palestinian state [and through it, prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu continues his policy of destroying the possibility of a two-state solution”. If this is the reaction on the Israeli left, imagine how the move isplaying among Palestinians.

The good news is it has met with a sharp rebuke from Washington as well. Following a meeting late last week between president Barack Obama and Mr Netanyahu, White House spokesman Josh Earnest launched an unusually harsh critique of Israel’s decision. “The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Israeli government has moved forward with the planning process in a sensitive area of East Jerusalem,” he said.

Mr Earnest continued: “This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which prime minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations.”

His devastating conclusion was that “it would also call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians”.

Mr Earnest also strongly criticised moves by Israeli settlers to take over Palestinian buildings in the heavily contested Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, which is reportedly the subject of a long-term plan of takeover by hundreds of Israeli extremists.

The criticism is welcome, but on its own it is insufficient. The United States and other key allies of Israel instead must move quickly to ensure that Israel does not, in fact, follow through on the plans for the new settlement. Numerous other highly damaging settlement plans have been put on hold in recent years because of American objections, which have proven their effectiveness when they are strong and consistent enough.

Sweden’s announcement of its upcoming recognition of the State of Palestine is significant, but not nearly as significant as blocking the new settlement activity. In the long run, Israel’s own future and security require a peace agreement with the Palestinians. So stopping Israeli fanatics from greatly deepening the hole in which they find themselves will actually be doing Israel a favour.

But even if many Israelis don’t see it that way, the international community is committed to a two-state solution. They must know that redrawing theinfrastructural and demographic map, especially around the important area of East Jerusalem, is the gravest possible long-term threat to realising peace. It therefore has a responsibility, and the ability, to restrain Israel from its latest folly.

Abbas’ Conundrum is Also an American Problem

Abbas claims the initiative and forces the US to step up
Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 26. Richard Drew / AP Photo

In the very first sentence of his address to the United Nations General Assembly last Friday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of launching “a new war of genocide perpetrated against the Palestinian people”, referring to the conflict this summer in Gaza. He proceeded to level virtually every charge in the Palestinian bill of particulars against Israel.

This was a highly significant departure from Mr Abbas’s usual tone, which typically stresses the Palestinian commitment to peace, contrasted with indefensible Israeli policies. But now he refers to the “impossibility” that the existing process can produce a meaningful breakthrough.

Mr Abbas was certainly addressing his domestic constituency, not trying to reach out to an Israeli audience as he has done on numerous previous occasions.

By the end of last year, his domestic political credibility was already greatly weakened by many factors including the lack of a clear popular mandate (which he shares with all other elected Palestinian officials), stagnation in the visionary Palestinian Authority (PA) reform and institution-building process pioneered by former prime minister Salam Fayyad, and economic and social malaise. Earlier this year, his standing was dealt another severe blow with the collapse of American-led peace negotiations.

The crisis for Mr Abbas reached a critical stage this summer with the Gaza war, during which he often appeared to be an afterthought or secondary figure, at least compared with the principal actors: Hamas and Israel. Effective diplomacy by Egypt, and some other Arab and western states, ensured that Hamas was not able to achieve its goal of asserting that it, rather than the PLO and PA, is the principal diplomatic representative for at least the Palestinians in Gaza. On the issue of the crossings and other key questions, it was clear that without the PA, Palestinians could not achieve any major breakthrough on easing the blockade, let alone broader imperatives.

Yet Mr Abbas, while remaining diplomatically indispensable, seemed politically to be almost a passive, if not impotent, observer of events that were driven by others. On the Palestinian side, Hamas, for all its recklessness and willingness to gamble with the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, at least seemed to have agency and an ability to drive events. This contrast is potentially disastrous.

For now, it appears to have given Hamas a considerable boost in popularity, particularly in the West Bank. As the dust settles, more Palestinians may start to realise that nothing has been gained, and a tremendous amount lost, by a conflict that could have been ended in mid-July on essentially the same terms as it was at the end of August. Indeed, with the rain and cold of autumn and winter hard upon us, and an enormous crisis of shelter and fuel looming, public perceptions of the war and its political fallout may look very different three or four months after its conclusion than it does now, a mere month on. The medium-term political impact of the conflict on domestic Palestinian politics will depend on a huge range of factors and still remains almost entirely unreadable.

Mr Abbas cannot politically afford to serenely await changes in public opinion. He must take the initiative. Yet this risk-averse leader isn’t embracing bold moves either.

His UN speech was long on accusatory adjectives and short on programmatic nouns. He did not lay out any clear trajectory for a multilateral diplomatic strategy or in some other way “internationalise” the process. Nor did he explain what, exactly, he intends to do to move away from the existing negotiating framework that he unequivocally dismissed.

And, despite last week’s “agreement to agree” with Hamas, neither side really seems to be preparing to implement the “national unity” agreement signed in April. Administering Gaza may well be a fraught and troublesome prospect, but it’s instructive that, as Hamas appears willing, and perhaps even eager, to pass those responsibilities and expenses on to another party, the PA seems increasingly reluctant to assume them.

Passionate speeches aren’t a substitute for an actual strategy. But, Mr Abbas might ask: what, precisely, would you have me do, given our meagre resources compared with the enormous challenges and obstacles we face. That question is most pointedly aimed at the United States.

Mr Abbas called for a new UN Security Council resolution laying out a timetable for Palestinian independence. But, as always, a potential American veto renders Palestinian initiatives at the Security Council almost pointless.

However much both may presently want to, neither Americans nor Palestinians can afford to walk away from each other.

For Palestinians, international initiatives invariably lead back to Washington because only an agreement with Israel can secure their freedom and independence, and the United States remains the only viable third-party that can broker such a deal.

Palestinians could improve important aspects of their strategic and political position, especially by emphasising their role as a constructive international player and partner. But there is no alternate political or diplomatic reality.

For all interested parties, including the United States – as Barack Obama noted in his own General Assembly address: “The status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable”.”

This remark may have been manifestly aimed at Israelis, but it also serves as a pointed reminder to Americans that present realities threaten their own national interests. American leadership requires a compelling answer to Mr Abbas’s pointed question last Friday, “Where do we go from here?”

Implausible as it sounds, ISIL has plundered Mao’s playbook

Implausible as it sounds, ISIL has plundered Mao’s playbook
There is a great deal in common between Mao’s revolutionary strategies and Abu Bakr Naji’s concept of “the management of savagery”. Mark Ralston / AFP


Islamists in the Arab world have always consciously or unconsciously attempted to replicate leftist models of revolution and insurgency, but without importing ideological content. With the rise of ISIL, this pattern is continuing in surprising and disturbing ways.

The Muslim Brotherhood has long been strikingly reminiscent of Leninist movements. They organised along cellular lines, established sister parties abroad, were cautious about violence, emphasised services to the public and grounded themselves in the urban middle classes. When the Arab left was robust, it dismissed the Brotherhood as reactionary and retrograde. But as the left has atrophied, it has developed a bizarre crush on Brotherhood parties. Some Arab leftists are attracted precisely by these structural characteristics – despite having irreconcilably opposed ideological content and values – that mirror a Leninist ideal.

Most Salafist-Jihadist groups, by contrast, have typically behaved in a manner reminiscent of ultra-left groups prominent in the 1960s and 1970s such as the Red Army Faction. Both focused on urban terrorism and attacks aimed at highly symbolic targets. They share a deep attachment to theatrical, spectacular and carefully staged political mayhem, wherein violence comes to virtually constitute an end in itself.

But now, with the rise of ISIL, a new generation of radical Islamists are evoking an entirely different historical analogue. In some crucial ways their strategic modus operandi looks strikingly similar to that of the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Mao Zedong, in the late 1930s through to the late 1940s.

In contrast to more typical Salafist-Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda, ISIL concentrates on using both conventional military and guerrilla tactics to seize and control territory and assets in order to establish secured areas of governance.

There is a great deal in common between Mao’s revolutionary strategies and Abu Bakr Naji’s concept of “the management of savagery”, in which jihadist groups seek to frustrate and exhaust their opponents. The key idea inspiring ISIL is to first create and “manage” chaos, and then to offer a form of order, thereby imposing their control in a given area.

Having been driven out of China’s urban centres, the CPC established its first rural stronghold “Soviet” in Jiangxi in the early 1930s. The experiment was a failure, but the subsequent establishment, directly under Mao, of a second rural base headquartered in the remote city of Yan’an, proved the key to eventual victory.

In Yan’an, Mao secured a stronghold from where his forces could fan out to continually expand the areas under his control. ISIL is using essentially the same model from Raqqa, the de facto capital of its “caliphate”, to spread its tentacles further in Syria and Iraq.

ISIL is also beginning to migrate its governance model. For example, its “educational curriculum” first developed in Raqqa, is now being introduced in schools in recently acquired territories such as Mosul.

In both cases, the quest for state power was based in these remote redoubts. CPC rule in Yan’an was harsh, puritanical, uncompromising, but also highly idealistic and disciplined.

For some, it held a certain romantic appeal, as does ISIL’s new “caliphate”. The call is essentially the same: come join us, migrate and be part of the new “Soviet”, or “State”. Yet in both cases there is also evident anxiety about newcomers, meaning long-standing affiliations are incongruously prioritised.

A further uncanny echo is an ability to dominate perceptions of a popular liberation struggle without actually being a major part of it. Despite their intensive propaganda to the contrary, both the CPC and its nationalist rivals preferred to fight each other rather than the Japanese invaders. Similarly, ISIL – which absurdly poses as the champion of the Syrian rebellion – and the Al Assad regime avoid direct confrontation whenever possible.

Both Mao and ISIL skillfully manipulate the mystique of narratives framed in a mythical space and time. Both claim to be operating in the service of an all-powerful authority that determines outcomes: history and God respectively. Both frame society in stark binaries, preaching the absolute necessity of ruthless violence combined with endless patience.

There are infinitely more differences between Mao and ISIL than similarities, and no moral equivalency or ideological affinity whatsoever. ISIL is obsessed with tawhid (the oneness of God) which suggests a fundamental unity of all creation under divine sovereignty. The central tenets of Mao’s dialectics insist everything can, should and always will be endlessly divided. Mao despised tradition. ISIL romanticises the past. Mao cultivated an affable image. ISIL projects a calculatedly terrifying one. At most registers, the two have absolutely nothing in common.

Yet the clearly recognisable ways in which ISIL is indeed replicating key elements of Mao’s revolutionary methodology are unmistakable precisely because any such comparison is so incongruous. The analogy at first seems far-fetched, but proves actually compelling and alarming.

The current generation of jihadists is not only more extreme than ever. It’s also either reading from, or channelling, the most effective playbook for insurgency in developing societies.

Arab states can’t afford to be tepid in their response to ISIL

Arab states can’t afford to be tepid in their response to ISIL
The US secretary of state John Kerry, centre, with Joseph W Westphal, the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Mr Kerry’s visit was aimed at pinning down how much support regional allies are willing to give to the US plan to beat back ISIL. Brendan Smialowski / AP Photo


President Barack Obama and his administration may have found themselves caught in a tangle of mixed messaging, but American power is now clearly directed at ISIL.

Mr Obama maintains that ISIL will be “degraded and destroyed”, two fundamentally different objectives. The White House says the US is at “war” with ISIL in the same way it has been at war with Al Qaeda, while the state department insists there is no “war”.

And there’s unmistakable tension between categorical assurances that ISIL will be defeated and strong commitments to the American public that no major undertaking is underway.

But such quibbles aside, this is indeed a necessary, unavoidable and morally unimpeachable war.

In their own interests, key US Arab allies can and must play central roles to ensure success. Since this is almost equally important to all the relevant parties, the burden should be similarly shared: from each according to their ability and to each according to their need.

Those Arabs dissatisfied with present levels of American commitment need to recognise several key realities.

First, the US is the only major outside player to have taken significant, concrete and direct action against these fanatics.

Second, it’s taking the initiative in building a much-needed international and regional coalition to address this cancerous menace. Third, the US is doing this reluctantly.

Fourth, sustaining and developing this American leadership commitment will depend, in part, on the US government and public believing that it has the appropriate level of regional and Arab support.

Mr Obama has already engaged in, and described to the American public, what amounts to an organically developing campaign.

US air strikes were initially said to be limited to protecting Erbil and relieving stranded Yazidi refugees. Then came the reconquest of the strategically vital Mosul Dam.

Later still, American air strikes supported various local forces combating ISIL in disparate places and for different purposes.

Now, Mr Obama says he’s authorising air strikes in Syria, a contingency virtually ruled out only a matter of a few weeks ago.

Moreover, the Obama administration has been moving quickly to frame the campaign against ISIL for the American public in widely acceptable counterterrorism and “war on terror” terms, and disassociate it from the highly unpopular war in Iraq.

Since ISIL is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Mr Obama has previously campaigned heavily in support of a “war” against Al Qaeda, this argument resonates with the American public, who now overwhelmingly support the air campaign.

Some Arabs doubt that such an international coalition is required to defeat ISIL, saying instead that such a broad partnership should target a wide range of violent extremists.

But the battle against ISIL alone will indeed be challenging and complex, particularly dislodging it from its strongholds in Syria, and arranging the ground forces required to defeat them. The CIA now estimates there are more than 30,000 ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq. This won’t be quite so quick or easy.

To be effective against ISIL, local ground forces cannot be perceived as sectarian, or sectarian-led. Sunni-majority Arab states have an essential role in developing effective anti-ISIL troops, and training and arming them.

They must be credible in the eyes of the deeply aggrieved Sunni populations that ISIL rules and claims to represent. Hassan Hassan, a columnist for this newspaper, describes these forces as a potential “Sunni peshmerga”, an equivalent to Kurdish militias that have, at times, successfully combated ISIL.

Arab states should also help shape public opinion so this campaign both isn’t, and isn’t seen as, bolstering sectarian anti-Sunni interests or benefiting the Assad dictatorship in Syria.

The Jeddah Communique of September 11 was a positive development that challenged sectarian divisions. The new Iraqi government, which was recognised as essential, joined the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon in jointly endorsing the American-led coalition. Saudi Arabia may finally reestablish a Baghdad embassy, amid other signs of a crucial thaw in regional tensions.

Some Arab states will have political, social, intelligence and air power capabilities that can be crucial in creating an effective and broad-based coalition against ISIL.

Other forms of cooperation such as enhanced ground support, fly-over arrangements and various forms of covert activity will also certainly be required, as will cracking down against fund-raising and recruiting. So the key Arab states have indispensable symbolic and practical roles in the struggle to crush ISIL.

But, in order to maintain the American momentum, Arab support must be enthusiastic and concrete and not vague or non-committal. While there are many other American perceptions, the New York Times’ immediate response to the Jeddah Communique was a story with the headline: Arabs Give Tepid Support to US Fight Against ISIS.

The mere presence of such an impression in the American conversation ought to be enough to urgently prompt Arab states and societies to ensure their support for the campaign against ISIL is never again mistaken in Washington as “tepid.”

ISIS has sealed its own fate

By its recklessness and miscalculations, ISIS has created a huge coalition against itself

Demonstrators hold placards as they protest against the actions of Islamic State in Iraq outside Downing Street in central London on September 7, 2014 (AFP Photo/Leon Neal)


At last the essential building blocks of a coalition against the ultra-violent criminal conspiracy that used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS) are falling into place. Everyone was caught off guard by their surge out of fairly remote areas of north and eastern Syria into western Iraq, and slow off the mark in responding. But with the United States having initiated airstrikes against the organization in Iraq – and having declared, in effect, a long-term war to destroy the organization’s capability to be a menace regionally and globally – the long-overdue effort to destroy these extremists is finally underway.

One of the most important recent developments is a massive shift in American public opinion, largely engineered by ISIS itself. By beheading two American journalists it was holding as hostages for ransom – James Foley and Steven Sotloff – and threatening to murder more Westerners in the event of additional American airstrikes, and, even more foolishly, by depicting these gruesome killings in Internet videos, the fanatics have roused the American public out of its war-weary risk-aversion.

The shift is nothing less than extraordinary. A Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that 71% of Americans now favor air attacks against ISIS positions in Iraq, an increase of 17% over three weeks and 26% since mid-June. A majority still does not favor a ground intervention, but “boots on the ground” in any significant numbers are not required at this stage. Other opinion polls and surveys show a similarly dramatic shift in public opinion on the need for force against ISIS and the extent to which it’s recognized by the public as a significant threat to American interests.

Some observers have misinterpreted the ghastly ISIS beheading videos as a kind of provocation to the United States, hoping to elicit further airstrikes for reasons that are convoluted and difficult to explain. This is obviously incorrect. It’s quite clear, on the contrary, that ISIS fanatics were actually trying to use murder as leverage over Americans and their allies to dissuade them from further engagement.

It’s backfired spectacularly, of course, but it’s understandable how ISIS so badly misread the American mindset. For the past six years, dating back to a period in which ISIS itself did not exist except in the form of its precursor organization of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), these fanatics have watched the United States draw down from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and resist other provocations. They are used to the idea of an America that is backing, and perhaps in their own twisted thinking, running, away from Middle Eastern conflict.

What they failed to understand, it seems, is that what most Americans objected to was a war in Iraq that had no clear purpose and was a gigantic strategic miscalculation that cost their country enormously in terms of blood and treasure (not to mention international prestige) without yielding any clear gains. Indeed, many Americans now see the invasion of Iraq as a virtually unprecedented blunder, rivaled only by the extraordinary mistake of trying to seize control of Canada in 1812, only to have the British burn down most official buildings in Washington DC, including the White House.

But Americans don’t object to, and will support, a necessary campaign to break an extremist organization that is directly threatening their interests, murdering their compatriots and wreaking havoc in a region that is still essential to the United States. The much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” was always also implicitly a pivot away from the Middle East. Such a “pivot” never even began, and it isn’t going to in the foreseeable future, because, no matter how fed up and frustrated Americans have become with Middle Eastern conflicts given the Iraq fiasco, the Middle East remains essential to American national interests and a broad-based disengagement is simply not realistic.

International support for such a campaign is also clearly growing. British and American appeals to NATO allies last week reportedly met with a generally positive response. And support in the Middle East, particularly from the Arab allies of the United States, is obviously growing. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, recently declared: “The ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism … have nothing to do with Islam and (their proponents) are the enemy number one of Islam.” He specifically singled out ISIS as the primary example of this paramount enemy.

And in an extraordinary commentary article in the The Wall Street Journal, Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, issued what amounted to a declaration of war not only against ISIS, but against “radical Islam” in general. “Now is the time to act,” he wrote. “The international community needs an urgent, coordinated and sustained international effort to confront a threat that will, if unchecked, have global ramifications for decades to come.”

“The Islamic State may be the most obvious and dominant threat at present, but it is far from the only one,” Otaiba pointed out. He maintains that “an international response must confront dangerous Islamist extremists of all stripes across the region,” and called for a wide-ranging campaign of “direct intervention” to combat an “existential threat” from “the entire militant ideological and financial complex that is the lifeblood of extremism.”

This is by far the strongest, boldest and most far-reaching statement from a representative of any Arab government about what is at stake in the battle against ISIS and similar terrorists and extremists. There’s no doubt that the Ambassador is speaking on behalf of his government and, moreover, that although the UAE is taking a very public leadership role through such statements, its essential assessment is shared by a broader group of key Arab states that increasingly see an urgent need to combat violent extremism.

Meanwhile, the battle against ISIS will almost certainly continue to gain momentum. Tonight, US President Barack Obama will explain his strategy for dealing with these fanatics to the American public. While he’s likely to reassure them about “boots on the ground,” he’s also likely to stake out a strong position that ISIS must be destroyed, at least in the sense that it is rendered largely irrelevant.

Obama was elected president in the first place partly on the basis of his strong opposition to the Iraq war. He was right in this assessment, and also in his criticism of the prolonged nation-building folly in Afghanistan. And there was broad public support for his promise to end both campaigns, which he has indeed done. Some critics on the far left and right will no doubt claim that he is now leading the United States back into Iraq and resuming the conflict he promised, and was elected, to resolve.

Such critics can and should be prevented from making this specious claim, because while Obama was opposed to the war in Iraq, he was strongly supportive of the “war on terror,” which he specified as a war against Al Qaeda. And this is a war (of sorts) that his administration has pursued vigorously, most notably through covert actions and controversial drone strikes that have succeeded in killing terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Obama and his Administration can and should present the battle against ISIS not only as necessary and unavoidable, but also as a continuation of the war against Al Qaeda, since the group is a direct spinoff of the AQI. The battle against Al Qaeda was always Obama’s war, and it has now evolved into the struggle to defeat ISIS. Even with strong US public, international, and regional support, it may take time (the Obama administration is speaking in terms of three years or so) and require an intricate series of deft political and strategic maneuvers. But prevailing against the most dangerous group of extremists to have arisen in the Arab world in living memory is now both necessary and achievable.