Archive | November, 2012

Observing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in Cairo

29 Nov

(text of my remarks delivered in Cairo at joint UN/Arab League ceremony marking the observance of the 2012 International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, 29 Nov 2012, some 10 hours prior to the historic vote in the UN General Assembly)

 

 

 

Your Excellency, Dr. Nabil Elaraby, Secretary General of the League of Arab States

H.E. Barakat Al Fara

H.E. Amre Dou Al Atta

Dr. Mohammad Gimi’a

Bishop Macos

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

It is an exceptional honor and challenge to speak on such an occasion. We meet at a tense historical moment with heavy potential consequences for the Palestinian people and for the peoples and governments of the region. I along with many others throughout the world share Nelson Mandela’s view that the denial of Palestinian rights remains the “the greatest moral issue of our time.” This 2012 International Day of Solidarity with the People of Palestine possesses a special significance. A ceasefire ending the latest orgy of violence afflicting the two societies, but especially affecting the people of Gaza, has been agreed upon just over a week ago, and appears to be holding.  And in a few hours the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is scheduled to ask the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer State within the UN, a status similar to that of the Vatican. When this initiative is approved later today it means an upgraded status for Palestine within the UN System, including probable access to other organs of the UN.

 

Meeting here in Cairo on this occasion has an added resonance. It was the Egyptian government that played such an instrumental role in producing the ceasefire in Gaza, and it is the democratization of Egypt that has done more to improve Palestinian prospects than any other recent regional or international development. It also raises expectations that Egypt will in the future exert its influence to bring this conflict that has lingered far too long to a just end by working toward a peaceful solution based on the recognition of Palestinian rights under international law. Nothing would better convey to the world that the Arab Spring represents a regional declaration of independence from the dominion of external influence. In doing so it would enlarge upon the earlier historic achievement of unexpectedly bringing about the downfall of a series of dictatorial regimes reigning throughout the Middle East.

 

Those innocent Palestinians who lost their lives and were injured during the latest Israeli military attack upon Gaza should be remembered and mourned on this day as martyred victims of Israel’s latest onslaught. This attack was carried out with ferocity and using the most modern weaponry against an essentially entrapped and acutely vulnerable people. We should be thankful that this latest violent interlude has come to an end, and all of us should resolve to work toward the good faith implementation of the ceasefire agreement not only with respect to the violence, but in its entirety. Such an implementation would uphold what was achieved through the energetic and flexible diplomacy of Egypt, and other regional forces.

 

There are already disquieting signs that Israel is downplaying the conditions set forth in the ceasefire text, especially those pertaining to a prohibition on future targeted assassinations and on establishing the mechanisms mandating the opening of the Gaza crossings. The blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel in mid-2007 is nothing other than the collective punishment of the entire Gazan population, and hence a flagrant violation of Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention. If the ceasefire agreement is faithfully carried out the blockade will finally be brought to an end, after more than five years of punitive closure. Goods and persons will be able to flow in both directions across the borders between Israel and Gaza. This is unlikely to happen without concerted pressure from Israel’s neighbors. Israeli officials are whispering behind the scenes that nothing more was agreed upon, despite the clear language of the brief ceasefire text, beyond the cessation of the violence. The Israeli claim is that everything else was a mere pledge to discuss, without any obligation to act. Such a disappointing of the Palestinian expectations must not be allowed to happen. Without implementation of the full agreement, this ceasefire will evaporate in a cloud of smoke, the rockets soon will again fall on Israel, and Gaza will again become a killing field while the world once more looks on helplessly at this awful spectacle of an ultra-modern war machine killing and maiming at will, and once more terrifying with unforgiveable impunity the entire civilian population of Gaza.

 

Such a situation presents the regional and world community with both a responsibility and an opportunity. As I have suggested, without pressure brought to bear Israel is unlikely to implement the ceasefire. There are levers of influence that can be pulled, and if they are, it will convey a new seriousness on the part of Arab governments, to take concrete measures to enforce the international legal rights of the Palestinian people. States such as Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel that can be suspended due to fundamentally changed circumstances or diplomatic relations downgraded or even drawn into question. The more affluent Arab governments could commit to supplying UN agencies with funds to offset any refusals to pay the normal assessed financial contributions of Israel and its friends. There are many concrete steps that can be taken if the political will to do so is present.

 

Shockingly, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador at the United States, declared a few days ago that in this recent attack, ‘Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.” He added that the attack on Gaza should be understood as ‘a rehearsal’ for militarily engaging Tehran. Such an acknowledgement is tantamount to a public confession by a high Israeli official to commit crimes against humanity, spilling Palestine blood so as to play what amounts to a war game to test how effective the Iron Dome would likely be in dealing with Iranian rockets expected to be released in the aftermath of an Israeli attack, if in fact Israel actually goes ahead with such a military venture at odds with the UN Charter.  

 

This assertion by someone of Ambassador Oren’s stature reinforces the call to the UN Human Rights Council to form a high level fact-finding mission to Gaza that evaluates allegations of war crimes on all sides of the struggle as was done with mixed results after the Gaza War of 2008-09. Such a step has been proposed in a letter of 22 November 2012 to Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, from the highly respected director of the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, Raji Sourani. I believe firmly that it is our responsibility as citizens of the world, and especially those of us associated with the UN, to do whatever necessary to avoid having flagrant violations of international humanitarian law being swept under the diplomatic rug. Further, it my hope that this time, unlike the unfortunate experience with the Goldstone Report four years ago, that whatever recommendations are made to the UN do not get buried beneath the weight of geopolitical influence, but are carried out in a timely and diligent manner. The UN to be credible and relevant to the aspirations of the Palestinian people must at this time move beyond its authoritative and oft repeated affirmation of inalienable Palestinian rights under international law to the undertaking of concrete steps designed to implement those rights.

 

Ambassador Oren’s comments are revealing in another way. They are an extreme example of Israel’s frequent reliance on ‘a politics of deflection’ to divert attention from their highest priority concerns. Such deflection takes various forms. On a simple level it means attacking the messenger to avoid the message, or claiming that the UN is biased so as to avoid discussing the abuses alleged. Such a pattern was epitomized by the recent unlawful and criminal attack on journalists in Gaza, in effect eliminating the messenger to prevent delivery of the message. On a more complex level it means shifting attention away from the real drama of the occupation. Periodic attacks on Gaza totally redirects the attention of the world away from Israel’s expansionist projects. It should be clear to all by now that Israel’s highest priorities in Occupied Palestine are associated with their controversial and unlawful settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel builds an unlawful security wall on occupied Palestinian territory, in the course of which it seizes additional Palestinian land, and when the World Court declares this unlawful wall should be torn down and Palestinians compensated for the harm done, Israel callously attacks the highest judicial body of the UN and carries on with its construction efforts without suffering any adverse effects.

 

Similarly, Israel continuously expands its settlements and has made a recent major move to legalize its approximately 100 ‘outposts,’ smaller settlements that had been previously illegal even under Israeli law. The attention of the world is guided toward Gaza, while settlement building gets a free pass. The passage of time is not neutral. For Israel is allows expansionist policies to move forward uninterrupted, for the Palestinians it diminishes ever further their prospects for realizing their primary goal of sovereign territorial statehood. It is part of the Palestinian tragedy that the international community and the media are so easily manipulated. Responsible action requires vigilance, and it is a positive step in this regard that the HRC authorized a fact-finding mission to assess the settlement phenomenon from the perspective of international law and human rights standards. This is a concrete step that represents an effort to refocus world attention where it belongs. Make no mistake. Every additional settler, every new settlement outpost, is one more nail in the coffin of the two state consensus.

 

In considering the Palestinian situation, it is misleading to become preoccupied, as is the case with the Western media, with pinning the blame on one side or the other for a particular breakdown of the precarious armed truce that exists. More relevant is an appreciation of the broader context. As Sara Roy, a Harvard specialist on Gaza, reminds us, “The current crisis is framed in terms devoid of any real context. The issue goes far beyond which side precipitated the terrible violence that has killed innocents on both sides. The issue—largely forgotten—is one of continued occupation and blockade, a grossly asymmetrical conflict that has deliberately disabled Gaza’s economy and people.” (Boston Globe, Nov. 23, 2012). This defining reality of the occupation applies, of course, to all of occupied Palestine, but the asymmetry of human loss is particularly evident in relation to Gaza, and is partly conveyed by a comparison of the grisly statistics of death: more than 160 Palestinians, and 5 Israelis. According to figures compiled by the Israeli human rights NGO, B’Tselem between the ceasefire established in January 2009 and the outbreak of this recent cycle of violence not a single Israeli had been killed, while Israeli violence was responsible for 271 Gazan deaths.

 

Looking at the overall casualty ratios, the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, writing in Ha’aretz (25 Nov 2012), observes the following: “sometimes numbers do reflect reality, and this reality can no longer be ignored. Since the first Qassam rocket fell on Israel in April 2001, 59 Israelis have been killed –and 4,717 Palestinians. The numbers don’t lie, as they say in less lethal fields, and this proportion is horrifying.” It should help us realize that Israel had an alternative to this turn once more toward mass mechanized violence directed against an occupied people enduring a siege that is crippling its society materially and bringing the mental and physical health of the Gazan population to a point of near collapse.

 

 

In my role as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, I have tried to move in this proposed direction, that is, from rhetoric to action, in my most recent report to the General Assembly. I have recommended a boycott of those corporations that do business with unlawful Israeli settlements, naming several of the prominent corporations making profits in this unacceptable manner. We also voiced support for the ongoing international civil society campaigns of boycott originated by a coalition of Palestinian NGOs in a call that dates back to 2004. These are practical steps taken only after efforts by way of confidential communications with these corporations had failed to persuade them to live up to their legal and moral responsibilities to respect for human rights. This encouragement of civil society also recognizes that other political actors have failed to live up to their responsibility as members of the organized international community. When Israel a member state of the UN fails to cooperate and is guilty of persistent gross violations of international law, then something should be done in reaction. It is notable, and regrettable, that the most direct challenges to the unlawful blockade of Gaza have come, not from the UN or from member states in the region and beyond, but from civil society in the form of the Free Gaza Movement and the Freedom Flotilla. It is equally notable that the most serious challenges to Israel’s archipelago of expanding settlements has been mounted by the BDS Campaign of solidarity with the Palestinian people and not by states or international institutions.

 

We should also remember Rachel Corrie, in this connection, an American peace activist who was brazenly killed by an Israel bulldozer almost ten years ago while trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah. Rachel was an idealistic young woman who pierced the dehumanizing myths surrounding the plight of the Palestinian people. In a letter to her mother back in Olympia, Washington Rachel just days before her death she wrote, “I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside.” It is such brave persons who bear witness to the daily ordeal being experienced by Palestinians, not just for days or months, or even years, but for decades and generations. It should not have been necessary for Rachel Corrie to sacrifice her life in this manner if the world system had done its job of enforcing the rights of the long oppressed Palestinian people. We who have witnessed and documented these realities of oppression must do our best to honor Rachel Corrie’s legacy.

 

 

The time has come for practical measures that back up UN assessments of Israeli unlawfulness.  This unlawfulness is sustaining a cruel and prolonged occupation of Palestine that has over time assumed the character of territorial expansionism coupled with an apartheid structure of control. As many as 600,000 Israeli settlers are fully protected by the Israeli rule of law while Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are held captive decade after decade without rights and without the protection of law. Such conditions are often worsened by prison detentions and lifelong confinement in refugee camps, either within Palestine or in neighboring countries. It is an intolerable status quo, and has been for a period spanning several generations of Palestinians. The international community recently, with much fanfare, avowed ‘the responsibility to protect’ as a new international norm intended to guide the UN in responding to situations of humanitarian catastrophe. Only the maliciousness of geopolitics can explain why the people of Palestine, and especially the residents of Gaza, have not been given the protection that they so desperately need, and deserve. It seems time to challenge this maliciousness in the name of peace and justice, and the

dignity of a people whose inalienable right of self-determination has been too long denied. A starting point might be the deployment of UN peacekeepers to monitor adherence to the ceasefire. The Palestinians are the most glaring example in this post-colonial era of a people who have not managed to gain their independence and national sovereignty despite almost 65 years of struggle, strife, and humiliation.

 

Prolonged occupation is a special condition that deserves a special recognition that it has not yet received. The occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza since 1967 exacts a terrible cost from the captive population. The framework provided by international humanitarian law, while helpful in situations of short term occupation, falls far short of its claims to offer the protection needed when an occupation extends beyond ten years. One aspect of occupation is to silence those who represent the people of such a society. The UN General Assembly is being given an opportunity to take belated account of this situation on this very day by recognizing and acknowledging Palestinian statehood, something 132 governments have already done by establishing diplomatic relations with Palestine. The very least that a people living for more than 45 years under occupation deserve is this right of access to the institutions of the world to present their grievances on a global stage, to have a voice, and if not a full-fledged seat at the tables of decision, at least a stool. Let us hope that the UN General Assembly will give us all something positive to celebrate on this International Day of Solidarity.

 

Let me bring these remarks to a close with several observations:

–I think the most important lesson that can be learned by all sides is that political violence is not the answer. It brings neither security nor liberation. Such learning is particularly important for the militarily superior side that often wrongly associates its future security with a willingness to make use of its military dominance. What recent history has shown, and not only in relation to Israel/Palestine, is that political outcomes are at sharp odds with military outcomes. The United States essentially won every battle in Vietnam yet lost the war. An Afghan saying makes the same point: “you have the watches, we have the time.”

 

What follows from this is obvious: if political violence begets more political violence, then it is time for the stronger side to turn to diplomacy, compromise, respect for law and rights. Until Israel appreciates that its security can only be achieved by turning to peaceful means, there will be insecurity for both Israelis and Palestinians, the dance of death will go on. It was only when the British made this switch that the conflict in Northern Ireland changed from being ‘irreconcilable’ to becoming ‘negotiable,’ and a substantial peace followed.

 

This is a time when the test of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people needs to be expressed by deeds, by walking the walk, no longer being content with talking the talk. It is time for civil society actors throughout the world to lend robust support to the BDS Campaign. It is time for governments to consider the sort of economic sanctions so effectively imposed on the South African apartheid regime. It is time for the UN to accord recognition of statehood to any people that has been occupied for more than ten years starting with the people of Palestine. It is time for the members of the Quartet, which includes the UN, the EU, Russia, and the United States to explain to the world how it imagines a Palestinian state to be possible in light of Israel’s continued settlement expansion and the related determined attempt to give East Jerusalem a distinctly Jewish character. Without such an explanation it is bad faith, and a trap for the Palestinians, to urge a return to another diversionary round of negotiations, a roadmap to nowhere!

 

In other words, it is time for us finally, wherever and whoever we are, to act responsibly toward the Palestinian people. The great Jewish religious teacher, Abraham Heschel, expressed this sentiment with memorable words: “Few are guilty, all are responsible.”

 

I want to give the last words to the extraordinary Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, some lines from his long prophetic poem, “Silence for Gaza,”

written in 2007, but more relevant today than when written. These lines refer to the plight of Gaza, but they apply as well to all Palestinians, whether living under the yoke of occupation, in refugee camps, or consigned to an involuntary diaspora throughout the world:

 

            Enemies might triumph over Gaza (the storming sea might triumph

            Over an island…they might chop down all its trees)

 

            They might break its bones.

            They might implant tanks on the insides of its children and women.

            They might throw it into the sea, sand, or blood

            But it will not repeat the lies and say ‘Yes’ to invaders.

            It will continue to explode

            It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it

            deserves to live. It will continue to explode.

            It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it

            deserves to live.

 

                        [translated by Sinan Antoon from Hayrat al-‘A’id (“The Returnees  Perplexity, Riyad al-Rayyis, 2007]

The Gaza Ceasefire: An Early Assessment

24 Nov

 

The Gaza Ceasefire, unlike a similar ceasefire achieved after Operation Cast Lead four years ago, is an event that has a likely significance far beyond ending the violence after eight days of murderous attacks. It is just possible that it will be looked back upon as a turning point in the long struggle between Israel and Palestine. Many have talked about ‘the fog of war,’ but it pales besides the ‘the fog of truce making,’ and in our media-infected air, the outcomes along with conjectures about the future are already being spun in all possible directions. Supporters of every position give their own spin, and then proclaim ‘victory.’ But as with the violent phases of the conflict, it is clarifying to distinguish the more persuasive contentions and interpretations from those that are less persuasive. What follows is one such attempt at such clarification.

It remains too soon to tell whether the ceasefire will hold for very long, and if it does, whether its central provisions will be implemented in good faith. At this early moment, the prospects are not promising. Israel has already used excessive violence to disperse Palestinian civilians who gathered on the Gaza side of the border, with a few straying across into Israel, to celebrate what they thought was their new freedom now to venture close to the border. This so-called ‘no-go-area’ was decreed by Israel after its 2005 ‘disengagement’ has been a killing field where 213, including 17 children and 154 uninvolved, had lost their lives according to Israeli human rights organizations. Israeli security forces, after firing warning shots, killed one Palestinian civilian and wounded another 20 others with live ammunition. The Israeli explanation was that it had given warnings, and since there had been no agreement on new ground rules implementing the ceasefire, the old regime of control was still in place. It is notable that Hamas protested, but at this point has made no moves to cancel the ceasefire or to retaliate violently, but the situation remains tense, fragile, and subject to change.

Putting aside the precariousness of the current situation and the accompanying uncertainties, it remains useful to look at the process by which the ceasefire was brought about, how this sheds light on the changing dynamics of the conflict itself, as well as discloses some underlying shifts in the regional and global balances of forces.

First of all, the role and outlook of the Arab governments was far more pro-active than in past interludes of intensified Israel/Palestine violence. During attacks several leading foreign ministers from the region visited Gaza and were received by the Hamas governing authorities, thus undermining the Israeli policy of isolating Hamas and excluding it from participation in diplomacy affecting the Palestinian people. Egypt played the critical role in brokering the agreement, and despite the Muslim Brotherhood affiliation of its leaders. Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian President, emerged as the key diplomatic figure in the process and widely praised by the West for his ‘pragmatism.’ This can be understood as recognition of Morsi’s capability as a statesman to address the concerns of both sides without intruding his own pro-Palestinian outlook. Indeed, the auspices of this brokered agreement inverted what Americans have brought to the table in past negotiations, a pretension of balance, a reality of partisanship.

Secondly, the text of the agreement implicitly acknowledged Hamas as the governing authority of Gaza, and thereby gives it, at least temporarily, a greatly enhanced status among Palestinians, regionally, and internationally. Its claim to be a (not the) legitimate representative of the Palestinian people has now become plausible, making Hamas a political actor that has for the moment been brought in from the terrorist cold. While Hamas is almost certain to remain formally ‘a terrorist organization’ in the eyes of Israel, the United States, and Europe, throughout this just concluded feverish effort to establish a ceasefire, Hamas was treated as if ‘a political actor’ with sovereign authority to speak on behalf of the people living in Gaza. Such a move represents a potential sea change, depending on whether there is an effort to build on the momentum achieved or a return to the futile and embittering Israeli/U.S. policy of excluding Hamas from diplomatic channels by insisting that no contact with a terrorist organization is permissible or politically acceptable. Correspondingly, the Palestinian Authority, and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, have been for the moment awkwardly sidelined, overshadowed, and made to appear irrelevant in the midst of this latest terrible ordeal affecting the Palestinian people. It is puzzling why such an impression was fostered by the approach taken by all the diplomatic players.

Thirdly, Israel accepted as integral conditions of the ceasefire two sets of obligations toward the people of Gaza that it would never have agreed to before it launched its Pillar of Defense Operation: (1) agreeing not to engage in “incursions and targeting of individuals” and (2) agreeing to meet so as to arrange for the “opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and the transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents free movement, and targeting residents in border areas.” If implemented in good faith by Israel, this means the end of targeted assassinations and it requires the lifting of the blockade that has tormented Gaza for more than five years. These are major setbacks for the Israeli policy, although Hamas is obligated to stop sending rockets from its territory. The political acceptance by Tel Aviv of a prohibition on targeted assassinations, if respected, renounces a favorite tactic of Israeli governments for many years, which although generally regarded as illegal was still frequently relied upon by Israel with impunity. Indeed, the most dramatic precipitating event in the recent controversial unfolding crisis timeline was the killing of Ahmed al-Jabari on 14 November, a military/political leader of Hamas, who at the very time was negotiating a truce relating to cross-border violence. Unraveling the competing claims of acting defensively should at least acknowledge this complexity that makes polemical the contention that only one side is responsible. The Obama administration, with its usual deference to Tel Aviv, misleading told the story of the sustained violence as if only Israel was entitled to claim a defensive prerogative.

Fourthly, the role of the United States, while still significant, was considerably downsized by these other factors, especially by the need to allow Egypt to play the main role as arbiter. Such a need was partly, no doubt, a consequence of Washington’s dysfunctional insistence of continuing to avoid any direct contact with Hamas officials. This Egyptian prominence suggests a trend toward the regionalization of Middle East diplomacy that diminishes the importance and seriously erodes the legitimacy of extra-regional interference. This is bad news for the Israelis and for the United States. Turkey, a state with bad relations with Israel, also played a significant role in defusing the escalating crisis.

There exists a revealing gap between the U.S. insistence all along that Israel’s use of force was fully justified because every country has the right to defend itself and the ceasefire text that placed restrictions on future violence as being applicable to both sides. After the ceasefire, the United States needs to make a defining choice: either continue its role as Israel’s unconditional enabler or itself adopt a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to the conflict in the manner of Morsi. If the United States remains primarily an enabler, its diplomatic role is likely to diminish rapidly, but if it decides to adopt a balanced approach, even if quietly, it might still be able to take the lead in establishing a real peace process that is sensitive to the rights of both sides under international law. To make such a shift credible, President Obama would have to make a major speech to the American people at some point explaining why it is necessary to choose between partisanship and diplomacy in reshaping its future relationship to the conflict. However sensible such a shift would be both for American foreign policy and the stability of the Middle East, it is highly unlikely to happen. There is nothing in Obama’s resume that suggests a willingness to go to the people to circumvent the dysfunctional outlook of special interest groups that have dominated the way the U.S. Congress and the media present the conflict.

Fifthly, the United Nations was made to appear almost irrelevant, despite the presence of the Secretary General in the region during the diplomatic endgame. Ban Ki Moon did not help matters by seeming to echo the sentiments coming from Washington, calling attention almost exclusively to Israeli defensive rights. The UN could provide more neutral auspices for future negotiations if it were to disentangle itself from Western geopolitics. To do this would probably require withdrawing from participation in the Quartet, and pledging a commitment to a sustaining and just peace for both peoples. As with United States, it is highly unlikely that the UN will make such a move, at least not without prior authorization from Washington. As with Obama, there is nothing in the performance to date of Ban Ki Moon as Secretary General that suggests either the willingness or the capacity to act independently when the geopolitical stakes are high.

Sixthly, the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire was a call from the Gaza streets for Palestinian unity, symbolized by the presence of Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flags all flying in harmonious co-existence. As the New York Times commented, “a rainbow not visible here in years.” If Palestinian unity holds, and becomes a practical reality by being implemented at governmental levels, it could alter the political landscape in a fundamental manner. To take hold it would require open and free elections throughout Occupied Palestine. If this narrative were to unfold, it might make the ceasefire to be perceived as much more than a temporary tense truce, but as a new beginning in the long march toward Palestinian justice.

All in all, the outcome of Operation Pillar of Defense was a resounding defeat for Israel in at least three respects: despite the incessant pounding of Gaza for eight days and the threat of a ground invasion, Hamas did not give in to Israeli demands for a unilateral ceasefire; the military capabilities of Gaza rockets exhibited a far greater capacity than in the past to inflict damage throughout the whole of Israel including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which suggests that in any future recurrence of major violence the military capabilities at the disposal of Gaza will become even greater; and the Israeli politics of promoting the Palestinian Authority as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people while refusing to deal with Hamas was dealt a heavy, possibly fatal, blow.

There is one chilling slant being given by Israeli officials to this attack on Gaza. It is brazenly being described as ‘a war game’ designed to rehearse for an impending attack on Iran. In the words of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.” Considering that at least 160 Gazans were killed, 1000 wounded, and many more traumatized, this is, or should be, a shocking admission of a declared intent to commit crimes against humanity. It should at least prompt the UN Human Rights Council to appoint a fact-finding mission to assess the allegations of criminal conduct during the military attack. In effect, the situation demands a Goldstone 2 report, but this time with the political will to follow through, assuming that incriminating findings are reported.If the HRC does not initiate such a process, as seems a near certainty at this point, the responsibility and the opportunity is a challenge to civil society organizations committed to peace and justice. Given the tactics and disproportionate levels of violence, it would be a fresh abuse of those who died and were injured, to fail to assess this behavior from the perspective of international criminal law.

These developments will themselves be affected by the pervasive uncertainties that make it likely that the ceasefire will be a short truce rather than a dramatic turn from violence to diplomacy. Will the parties respect the ceasefire? Israel has often in the past made international commitments that are later completely abandoned, as has been the case with dismantling the numerous ‘outposts’ (that is, ‘settlements’ unlawful even under Israeli law) or in relation to the commitment to settle the ‘final status’ issues associated with the Oslo Framework within five years. It is not encouraging that Israeli officials are already cynically whispering to the media that they agreed to nothing “beyond the immediate cessation of hostilities.” The undertakings of the text are thus being minimized as ‘talking points’ rather than agreed commitments that lack only specific mechanisms for their implementation. If Israel refuses to give effect to the agreed stoppage of targeted assassinations and does not move to end the blockade in good faith, it will not be surprising to see the rockets flying again.

The Palestinian Authority is poised to regain some of its lost ground by seeking recognition by the UN General Assembly of its status as ‘a non-member state’ on November 29, 2013, a move being fiercely resisted by Tel Aviv and Washington. It is probably too much to expect a softening of this diplomacy. Any claim of Palestinian statehood, even if only of symbolic significance, seems to threaten deeply Israel’s hypocritical posture of agreeing to the creation of a Palestinian state in the abstract while doing everything in its power to oppose any Palestinian efforts to claim statehood.

Such speculations must be conditioned by the realization that as the clock ticks the international consensus solution to the conflict, an independent sovereign Palestine, is fast slipping out of the realm of the feasible, if it has not already done so. The situation of prolonged occupation has altered the demography of Occupied Palestinian and raised the expectations of most Israelis. With as many 600,000 unlawful settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem no foreseeable Israeli government would survive if it agreed to any conflict-resolving arrangement that required even a small percentage of those settlers to leave. In contrast, on the Palestinian side no arrangement would be sustainable without the substantial reversal of the settlement phenomenon. So long as this 1000 pound gorilla strides freely along the corridors of diplomacy, attaining a genuine peace based on the international consensus of two states for two peoples seems an exercise in wishful thinking.

At the same time, history has shown us over and over again that ‘the impossible’ happens, impossible in the sense that it is an outcome that informed observers rejected as ‘possible’ before it surprised them by happening. It happened when European colonialism was defeated, and again when the Soviet internal and external empire suddenly disintegrated, and then when the apartheid regime was voluntarily dissolved. Sadly, the Palestinian destiny continues to be entrapped in such a foreclosed imaginary, and yet as we have learned from history the struggles of oppressed peoples can on occasion achieve the unforeseeable. It is just barely possible that this latest display of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness) in the face of Pillar of Defense, together with the post-2011 increased responsiveness of the governments of Israel’s neighbors to the wishes of its their own citizenry, will give rise to a sequence of events that alters the equations of regional and global power enough  finally to give a just peace a chance.

The Latest Gaza Catastrophe: Will They Ever Learn?

18 Nov

 

            [This post is an updated version of an article published in the online English edition of Al Jazeera, 17 Nov 2012, taking account of some further developments in the new horrifying unfolding of violence in Gaza.

 

            President Obama, upon his arrival today in Bangkok at the start of a state visit to several Asian countries, reminded the world of just how unconditional U.S. support for Israel remains. Obama was quoted as saying, “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside of its borders. We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself.” Much is missing from such a sentiment, most glaringly, the absence of any balancing statement along the following line: “and no country would tolerate the periodic assassination of its leaders by missiles fired by a neighboring country, especially during a lull achieved by a mutually agreed truce. It is time for both sides to end the violence, and establish an immediate ceasefire.”

 

            But instead of such statesmanship from this newly elected leader what we hear from Ben Rhodes, his Deputy National Security Advisor, who is traveling with the president in Asia is the following: that the rockets from Gaza are “the precipitating factor for the conflict. We believe Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics they use in that regard.” Of course, these tactics up to this point have involved attacking a densely urbanized population with advanced weaponry from air and sea, targeting media outlets, striking residential structures, and killing and wounding many civilians, including numerous children. Since when does ‘the right to defend oneself’ amount to a license to kill and wound without limit, without some clear demonstration that the means of violence are connected with the goals being sought, without a requirement that force be exclusively directed against military targets, without at least an expression of concern about the proportionality of the military response? To overlooks such caveats in the present context in which Gaza has no means whatsoever defend itself indicates just how unconditional is the moral/legal blindfold that impairs the political wisdom and the elemental human empathy of the American political establishment.

 

            The statement by Rhodes signals a bright green light to the Netanyahu government to do whatever it wishes as far as Washington is concerned, and omits even a perfunctory mention of the relevance of international law. It presumes American exceptionalism, now generously shared with Israel, that doesn’t even have to bother justifying its behavior, conveying to the world an imperial directive that what would be treated as unspeakable crimes if committed by others are matters of discretion for the United States and its closest governmental associates.

 

            And what Netanyahu proposes is as chilling as it is criminal: to “significantly expand” what he calls Israel’s “Gaza operation” and what I call “the killing fields of Gaza.” This idea that a state defends itself by such an all out attack on an undefended society is humanly unacceptable, as well as being a mandate for future retaliation and festering hatred. Operation Cast Lead was launched in December 2008 to contribute to Israeli security, but instead led Hamas to acquire the kind of longer range rockets that are now posing genuine threats to Israel’s major cities. The unfolding logic of the conflict is that in a few years, Israel will be confronted by more sophisticated rockets capable of eluding the Iron Dome and accurately pinpointing their intended targets. This deadly logic of the war system continues to guide strategists and military planners in Washington and Tel Aviv, and ignores the string of political failures that marks recent American history from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The world has changed since the good old colonial days of gunboat diplomacy, and the history-making reality of military superiority. Will they ever learn?

 

            What should have been clear long ago is that Israeli security is not achieved by guns and missiles, nor incidentally are Hamas’ goals reached by rockets. The only clear path to security is to follow a ceasefire with some mutual assurances of nonviolent coexistence, a lifting of the blockade of Gaza, an acceptance by Israel (and the United States) of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as political actors, freezing all settlement construction, and a revival of negotiations on the basis of a commitment to produce a sustainable and just peace in accordance with Palestinian and Israeli rights under international law, above all the Palestinian right of self-determination. Depicting such a moderate approach to security for these two peoples highlights just how pathological present patterns of ‘acceptable’ behavior have become.

 

            Israel’s policies seemed almost calculated to increase future ‘insecurity’ for its people and the region. There is a slow ongoing mobilization of the region in support of Palestinian claims well expressed by the diplomatic re-positioning of Egypt and Turkey.  It will be become much more difficult for the United States to insulate Israel from the consequences of its future aggressions against the Palestinians. This is partly because it is likely that the next time, militants hostile to Israel will be better armed, as was true for Hezbollah after the 2006 Lebanon War and for Hamas since the 2008-09 Gaza attacks, and partly because the balance of regional forces is tilting quickly against Israel.

 

            These speculations make such obvious points that most Israeli strategists must be assumed to have appreciated them. It makes one wonder whether it is wrong to think of this latest surge of Israeli violence as primarily motivated by security considerations. Perhaps other motivations have greater weight: diverting attention from annexationist moves in the West Bank; reinforcing the Netanyahu claims to be the gallant protector of the nation; removing any pressure on Israel to uphold Palestinian rights; reminding Iran yet again of the militarized fury of an antagonized Israel assured of U.S. support.]

 

**************the text of the AJ article is reproduced below—————————

 

            The media double standards in the West on the new and tragic Israeli escalation of violence directed at Gaza were epitomized by an absurdly partisan New York Times front page headline: “Rockets Target Jerusalem; Israel girds for Gaza Invasion.” (NYT,  16 Nov 2012) Decoded somewhat, the message is this: Hamas is the aggressor, and Israel when and if it launches a ground attack on Gaza must expect itself to be further attacked by rockets. This is a stunningly Orwellian re-phrasing of reality. The true situation is, of course, quite the opposite: namely, that the defenseless population of Gaza can be assumed now to be acutely fearful of an all out imminent Israeli assault, while it is also true, without minimizing the reality of a threat, that some rockets fired from Gaza fell harmlessly (although with admittedly menacing implications) on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There is such a gross disproportion in the capacity of the two sides to inflict damage and suffering due to Israeli total military dominance as to make perverse this reversal of  concerns to what might befall Israeli society if the attack on Gaza further intensifies.

 

            The reliance by Hamas and the various Gaza militias on indiscriminate, even if wildly inaccurate and generally harmless, rockets is a criminal violation of international humanitarian law, but the low number of casualties caused and the minor damage caused, needs to be assessed in the overall context of massive violence inflicted on the Palestinians. The widespread non-Western perception of the new cycle of violence involving Gaza is that it looks like a repetition of Israeli aggression against Gaza in late 2008, early 2009, that similarly fell between the end of American presidential elections and scheduled Israeli parliamentary elections.

 

            There is the usual discussion over where to locate responsibility for the initial act in this renewed upsurge violence. Is it some shots fired from Gaza across the border and aimed at an armored Israeli jeep or was it the targeted killing by an Israeli missile of Ahmed al-Jabani, leader of the military wing of Hamas, a few days later? Or some other act by one side or the other? Or is it the continuous violence against the people of Gaza arising from the blockade that has been imposed since mid-2007? The assassination of al-Jabani came a few days after an informal truce that had been negotiated through the good offices of Egypt, and quite ironically agreed to by none other than al-Jabani acting on behalf of Hamas. Killing him was clearly intended as a major provocation, disrupting a carefully negotiated effort to avoid another tit-for-tat sequence of violence of the sort that has periodically taken place during the last several years. An assassination of such a high profile Palestinian political figure as al-Jahani is not a spontaneous act. It is based on elaborate surveillance over a long period, and is obviously planned well in advance partly with the hope of avoiding collateral damage, and thus limiting unfavorable publicity. Such an extra-judicial killing, although also part and parcel of the new American ethos of drone warfare, remains an unlawful tactic of conflict, denying adversary political leaders separated from combat any opportunity to defend themselves against accusations, and implies a rejection of any disposition to seek a peaceful resolution of a political conflict. It amounts to the imposition of capital punishment without due process, a denial of elementary rights to confront an accuser.

 

            Putting aside the niceties of law, the Israeli leadership knew exactly what it was doing when it broke the truce and assassinated such a prominent Hamas leader, someone generally thought to be second only to the Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniya. There have been rumors, and veiled threats, for months that the Netanyahu government plans a major assault of Gaza, and the timing of the ongoing attacks seems to coincide with the dynamics of Israeli internal politics, especially the traditional Israeli practice of shoring up the image of toughness of the existing leadership in Tel Aviv as a way of inducing Israeli citizens to feel fearful, yet protected, before casting their ballots.

 

            Beneath the horrific violence, which exposes the utter vulnerability, of all those living as captives in Gaza, which is one of the most crowded and impoverished communities on the planet, is a frightful structure of human abuse that the international community continues to turn its back upon, while preaching elsewhere adherence to the norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ whenever it suits NATO. More than half of the 1.6 million Gazans are refugees living in a total area of just over twice the size of the city of Washington, D.C.. The population has endured a punitive blockade since mid-2007 that makes daily life intolerable, and Gaza has been harshly occupied ever since 1967.

 

            Israel has tried to fool the world by setting forth its narrative of a good faith withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which was exploited by Palestinian militants as the time as an opportunity to launch deadly rocket attacks. The counter-narrative, accepted by most independent observers, is that the Israeli removal of troops and settlements was little more than a mere redeployment to the borders of Gaza, with absolute control over what goes in and what leaves, maintaining an open season of a license to kill at will, with no accountability and no adverse consequences, backed without question by the U.S. Government. From an international law point of view, Israel’s purported ‘disengagement’ from Gaza didn’t end its responsibility as an Occupying Power under the Geneva Conventions, and thus its master plan of subjecting the entire population of Gaza to severe forms of collective punishment amounts to a continuing crime against humanity, as well as a flagrant violation of Article 33 of Geneva IV. It is not surprising that so many who have observed the plight of Gaza at close range have described it as ‘the largest open air prison in the world.’

 

            The Netanyahu government pursues a policy that is best understood from the perspective of settler colonialism. What distinguishes settler colonialism from other forms of colonialism is the resolve of the colonialists not only to exploit and dominate, but to make the land their own and superimpose their own culture on that of indigenous population. In this respect, Israel is well served by the Hamas/Fatah split, and seeks to induce the oppressed Palestinian to give up their identity along with their resistance struggle even to the extent of asking Palestinians in Israel to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as ‘a Jewish state.’ Actually, unlike the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel has no long-term territorial ambitions in Gaza. Israel’s short-term solution to its so-called ‘demographic problem’ (that is, worries about the increase in the population of Palestinians relative to Jews) could be greatly eased if Egypt would absorb Gaza, or if Gaza would become a permanently separate entity, provided it could be reliably demilitarized. What makes Gaza presently useful to the Israelis is their capacity to manage the level of violence, both as a distraction from other concerns (e.g. backing down in relation to Iran; accelerated expansion of the settlements) and as a way of convincing their own people that dangerous enemies remain and must be dealt with by the iron fist of Israeli militarism.

 

            In the background, but not very far removed from the understanding of observers, are two closely related developments. The first is the degree to which the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements has made it unrealistic to suppose that a viable Palestinian state will ever emerge from direct negotiations. The second, underscored by the recent merger of Netanyahu and Lieberman forces, is the extent to which the Israeli governing process has indirectly itself irreversibly embraced the vision of Greater Israel encompassing all of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. The fact that world leaders in the West keep repeating the mantra of peace through direct negotiations is either an expression of the grossest incompetence or totally bad faith. At minimum, Washington and the others calling for the resumption of direct negotiations owe it to all of us to explain how it will be possible to establish a Palestinian state within 1967 borders when it means the displacement of most of the 600,000 armed settlers now defended by the Israeli Defense Forces, and spread throughout occupied Palestine. Such an explanation would also have to show why Israel is being allowed to quietly legalize the 100 or so ‘outposts,’ settlements spread around the West Bank that had been previously unlawful even under Israeli law. Such moves toward legalization deserve the urgent attention of all those who continue to proclaim their faith in a two-state solution, but instead are ignored.

 

            This brings us back to Gaza and Hamas. The top Hamas leaders have made it abundantly clear over and over again that they are open to permanent peace with Israel if there is a total withdrawal to the 1967 borders (22% of historic Palestine) and the arrangement is supported by a referendum of all Palestinians living under occupation. Israel, with the backing of Washington, takes the position that Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ that must be permanently excluded from the procedures of diplomacy, except of course when it is serves Israel’s purposes to negotiate with Hamas. It did this in 2011 when it negotiated the prisoner exchange in which several hundred Palestinians were released from Israeli prisons in exchange for the release of the Israel soldier captive, Gilad Shalit, or when it seems convenient to take advantage of Egyptian mediation to establish temporary ceasefires. As the celebrated Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery, reminds us a cease-fire in Arab culture, hudna in Arabic, is considered to be sanctified by Allah, has tended to be in use and faithfully observed ever since the time of the Crusades. Avnery also reports that up to the time be was assassinated al-Jabari was in contact with Gershon Baskin of Israel, seeking to explore prospects for a long-term ceasefire that was reported to Israeli leaders, who unsurprisingly showed no interest.

 

            There is a further feature of this renewal of conflict involving attacks on Gaza. Israel sometimes insists that since it is no longer, according to its claims, an occupying power, it is in a state of war with a Hamas governed Gaza. But if this were to be taken as the proper legal description of the relationship between the two sides, then Gaza would have the rights of a combatant, including the option to use proportionate force against Israeli military targets. As earlier argued, such a legal description of the relationship between Israel and Gaza is unacceptable. Gaza remains occupied and essentially helpless, and Israel as occupier has no legal or ethical right to engage in war against the people and government of Gaza, which incidentally was elected in internationally monitored free elections in early 2006. On the contrary, its overriding obligation as Occupier is to protect the civilian population of Gaza. Even if casualty figures in the present violence are so far low as compared with Operation Cast Lead, the intensity of air and sea strikes against the helpless people of Gaza strikes terror in the hearts and minds of every person living in the strip, a form of indiscriminate violence against the spirit and mental health of an entire people that cannot be measured in blood and flesh, but by reference to the traumatizing fear that has been generated.

 

            We hear many claims in the West as to a supposed decline in international warfare since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Such claims are This is to some extent a welcome development, but the people of the Middle East have yet to benefit from this trend, least of all the people of Occupied Palestine, and of these, the people of Gaza are suffering the most acutely. This spectacle of one-sided war in which Israel decides how much violence to unleash, and Gaza waits to be struck, firing off militarily meaningless salvos of rockets as a gesture of resistance, represents a shameful breakdown of civilization values. These rockets do spread fear and cause trauma among Israeli civilians even when no targets are struck, and represent an unacceptable tactic. Yet such unacceptability must be weighed against the unacceptable tactics of Israel that holds all the cards in the conflict. It is truly alarming that now even the holiest of cities, Jerusalem, is threatened with attacks, but the continuation of oppressive conditions for the people of Gaza, inevitably leads to increasing levels of frustration, in effect, cries of help that world has ignored at its peril for decades. These are survival screams! To realize this is not to exaggerate! To gain perspective, it is only necessary to read a recent UN Report that concludes that the deterioration of services and conditions will make Gaza uninhabitable by 2020. 

 

           That is, completely aside from the merits of the grievances on the two sides, for one side to be militarily omnipotent and the other side to be crouching helplessly in fear. Such a grotesque reality passes under the radar screens of world conscience because of the geopolitical shield behind which Israel is given a free pass to do whatever it wishes. Such a circumstance is morally unendurable, and should be politically unacceptable. It needs to be actively opposed globally by every person, government, and institution of good will.     

 

An Open Letter on my 82nd Birthday

13 Nov

 

            Exactly two years ago I wrote my first blog. Throughout this period it has been a bittersweet experience consisting of work, play, challenge, and occasional consternation. Many warm and generous responses have given me an appreciation of the distinctive satisfactions of cyber connectivity. Such pleasures have been somewhat offset by hostile commentary and related monitoring, not mainly for disagreements as to substance, but to find discrediting material, usually torn from context, that might induce me to resign or be dismissed from my unpaid UN position as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council. What is most distressing is not the attacks that are well known to come with this territory, but the degree to which important government officials in the United States and at the UN so easily become willing accomplices in such malicious campaigns of defamation, and do so without ‘due diligence.’

 

            Of course, someone more prudent than I, would have long ago abandoned the blogosphere, and more fully enjoyed the many serene satisfactions of southern California and the stimulating challenges of summers in Turkey. The magnetic appeal of this risky, still uncertain, medium of communication that was born in this century is both to reach others everywhere on the planet and to engage in a form of self-exploration and self-discovery that demonstrates almost daily that one is never too old to learn anew. These posts of mine have been mostly reflections of my experience around the world, interpretations of current global issues, and suggestions for a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

 

            I have deeply appreciated the support and most of the reactions I have received from known and unknown persons throughout the planet. At the deepest level, it makes me realize that there exists a large invisible and informal community of shared faith in the healing power of love, and less grandly, of the gratifications of dialogue. It is as a charter member of this community that makes me feel that it is valuable to remain an active participant so long as my muse permits, perhaps at a reduced rate.

 

            At the start of this experience I felt that it was best to allow all comments to appear, including the most unsavory. Yet as the months went by I realized that there is a cyber analogue to Gresham’s Law: ‘bad comments drive out good!’ I received many personal messages outside the blogosphere decrying the toxic atmosphere. This prompted me to try my best to monitor comments, excluding those that were uncivil in tone, as well as those that consisted of personal. It was not easy. It is a fine line. I was criticized for straying across it, or using my discretion in a biased manner. I listened, and have tried to be sensitive to diverse viewpoints without denying my own passions.

 

            I realize that many online media outlets allow comments to appear with only minimal filtering, but I have come to feel that this diminishes the quality and benefits of the dialogic potential of a blog, especially one devoted often to issues being debated in public space. It has taught me that while freedom of expression is a vital human right, and integral to democracy, it must be limited by context. The world is now a crowded theater. Koran burning and bible burning are the 21st century equivalent of shouting ‘fire!’ and inducing panic and causing mayhem in distant places. The problem of a blog is, of course, different. The justification for limiting expression to establish the kind of decorum that facilitates dialogue and conversation.

 

            Among the side effects of my blog has been an opportunity to publish more widely. It was encouraging to be invited to become a regular contributor to Al Jazeera’s English online opinion section. I find this brilliantly edited source of news and commentary to be far more cosmopolitan in its orientation toward events of the day than the most authoritative mainstream Western media outlets. This post-colonial de-Westernization of information and interpretative assessment is integral to building a multi-civilizational world community dedicated to the principles of humane and sustainable governance at all levels of social interaction.

 

            As time passes, the political circumstances of the peoples of the world are undergoing a variety of severe stresses, some local, others global, some presently experienced, others threatened in the near and medium future. There are extremely dangerous underlying patterns of behavior emerging: Among the most disturbing is the deterritorialization of conflict epitomized by kill lists and drone technology that ignores the sovereignty of others and defies the moral and legal limits embodied in international humanitarian law.

 

            There are also some latent opportunities that will come as surprises if acted upon. Perhaps, the reelected Barack Obama might surprise us by being willing to take steps to convince the world that he deserved the Nobel Peace Price that had been prematurely, and somewhat perversely, awarded to him in 2009. One sure way to do this would be to revive his Prague vision of a world without nuclear weapons. There will never be a better time in world politics to convene the nine governments whose states possess nuclear weapons. There is no raging geopolitical conflict, a mounting risk of a dangerous surge in the proliferation, and the many countries beset by financial crisis would welcome uplifting moves toward denuclearization. Nothing would more quickly restore America’s tarnished reputation as a benevolent force in the world than tabling a detailed proposal for phased and verified nuclear disarmament to be implemented within a decade. It is commonplace to applaud the vision but then immediately defer its realization to the distant future, which is to take back with one hand what was given with the other, raising expectations of those who are dedicated to abolishing the weaponry, and then reassuring nuclearists that they have nothing to worry about as nothing will actually happen. Now is the time for a genuine presidential initiative that is launched in Washington but negotiated under UN auspices to rid the world of the menace of nuclear weaponry, and to belatedly clear the conscience of humanity for its reliance on ‘security’ ever since1945 that rests on a genocidal doctrine of deterrence. Of course, the main responsibility for this reliance is not that of humanity, but of the governments that possess the weaponry and their supportive bureaucratic and economicmilitarized infrastructures. Even if the initiative should not succeed in achieving agreement, the effort would assure the Obama presidency of a memorable legacy.

 

            The other global challenge that presents the White House with an extraordinary opportunity for action is climate change. The world, including the United States, has ignored a multitude of wakeup calls, most recently super storm Sandy. It has also refused to take seriously the scientific consensus warning the world of the dire consequences of failing to curtail carbon emissions. Further delay is not neutral, causing a variety of effects that cumulatively disrupt the ecological balances that moderate weather, rainfall, and ocean levels to accommodate humans, plants, and animals. Inaction and denial is lavishly funded by the fossil fuel industries that have made climate skepticism so influential in the United States, and elsewhere. Nothing could do more to build the legacy of Obama’s second term than to tear down the high wall of silence that has been built to keep the dangers of global warming out of sight.

 

            It is in this spirit of concern, struggle, hope, and love that I commit myself to carry on with this journey of a still aspiring citizen pilgrim journeying ever so slowly toward that unseen yet real promised land.        

Obama’s Victory, Romney’s Defeat

8 Nov

 

            Around the world even more than in the United States there is an audible sigh of relief the day after Obama won a clear mandate for a second term as president. Deconstructed it mainly meant that many more were relieved that Romney lost, rather than excited that Obama won. Yet there were some, with whom I partly agree, whose gaze carries beyond the narrow victory in popular vote (as distinct from the decisive victory in the electoral college vote), to appreciate a positive fundamental change in American demographics. The white majority coalition that Reagan fashioned so skillfully in the 1980s, achieving incredibly regressive societal results, seems to be losing out to the rising proportion of the electorate that is African-American and Latino, reinforced by the political outlook of youth and the liberal outlook of many women when it comes to reproductive rights. Perhaps, as indicative of a changing social climate were the successful referenda on state ballots in Maine, Maryland, and Washington to legalize same sex marriage and separate initiatives calling for legalizing the medical use of marijuana. Only a decade ago putting such measures on the ballot in several battleground states was understood as a brilliant tactical move by Karl Rove to mobilize the Republican base that was passionately dedicated to defeating such liberalizing initiatives, widely regarded by conservatives as signs of societal degeneracy.

 

            What makes the Obama victory surprising is that his four years in the White House had definitely demobilized his base that had been so ardent in 2008, and seemed only lukewarm in 2012. Toward the end of the recent campaign, antagonism to Romney and fears about a Republican victory, partially remobilized this base, which the Obama people effectively used to carry on their so-called ‘ground game’ that brought out the minority vote in the key states that were expected to decide the election.

 

            In this sense, the 2012 electoral result is bound to provoke some long looks in the mirror by the Republican faithful. Unless some kind of economic collapse occurs in the years ahead, it is hard to imagine that a similar kind of campaign and candidate that was offered to the American people will be any more successful in 2016, and is quite likely to be less so. After all, Romney turned out to be a great fundraiser, especially after he chose arch-conservative Paul Ryan to stand by his side, and an energetic performer on the campaign trail and a surprisingly good debater. Of course, Romney was unexpectedly assisted by a shift of momentum in his favor after the first presidential debate, a result greatly facilitated by the uncharacteristic gross under-performance by Barack Obama.

 

            What makes the Obama victory more impressive is the degree to which his first term was so disappointing to many of us who had hoped for something more. The escalation in Afghanistan was a costly failure, and the refusal to acknowledge this outcome means that the policy community will remain unencumbered by its past experience of counter-insurgency defeat. The Pentagon will be ready to go forward with yet another military intervention in a non-Western country when so instructed by civilian enthusiasts for hard power diplomacy. Worse than this persisting disposition toward military solutions for international conflicts is the expansion of drone warfare under Obama’s watch. Drone attacks are a chilling reminder that state terrorism remains an officially endorsed feature of American foreign policy, including the claim to kill American citizens wherever they may be on the planet without even the pretense of an indictment and due process. Drones let loose a new menacing technology that kills without accountability, and has been the ability to disregard the territorial sovereignty of states as well as to ignore the innocence of those who are made to live under the threat of such weaponry.

 

            On the home front, there is little to applaud in the Obama presidency to day, and quite a bit to lament. There was no attempt to explore whether crimes had been committed during the Bush presidency despite the promise to govern with a scrupulous respect for the rule of law. The treatment of the Wikileaks disclosures, and especially the abuse of the young soldier, Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking the documents, sends a chilling signal in relation to conscience and criminality. The U.S. Government crimes disclosed in the documents, pertaining to actions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were totally overlooked while the entire focus of governmental concern was placed on the breach of secrecy. When state secrets are guarded so zealously and crimes against humanity are granted impunity, it is a sure sign that the republic is not morally flourishing. It reinforces the impression that America is still reeling from the combination of trauma and belligerency brought about by the 9/11 attacks. There is no reason to suppose that Obama will take steps to vindicate retroactively in his second term the premature award in 2009 of a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, among the more disturbing sentiments expressed in his victory speech was to twice boast about the United States having the most dominant military force ever possessed throughout the whole of human history. In Obama’s extravagant words, “We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this world has ever known.” It is seems almost unnecessary to point out that the wishes expressed in the first part of the sentence are perceived to be directly contradicted by the militarist claim in the second part.

 

 

            Perhaps, we can hope for something slightly better when it comes to the economy. Obama could have been far worse, and he not only inherited a mess from the Bush era, but was faced with a Republican controlled House of Representatives that was consistently obstructionist, and did little to conceal its priority of making the Obama leadership fail. His programs of stimulus and bailouts did probably prevent a slide into a deep national depression. It remains disturbing, however, that he relied exclusively on economists friendly to Wall Street throughout the process, avoiding any reliance even on such moderate critics as Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz. Nevertheless, there were some moves by the Obama administration to put a lid on the most irresponsible practices of the financial world that had generated the mortgage/foreclosure fiasco in the real estate market and its related crises affecting the leading brokerage and banking outfits.

 

            Romney was reported to have told a private fundraising gathering that the Israel/Palestine problem was not going to be resolved in the near future, and that this was okay. Obama seems to have avoided any commentary, although it became well known that Israel was the only country in the world, including it turned out, the United States, in which Romney would have been the electoral choice of the citizenry. In the United States, Jewish support for Obama declined somewhat, but was still maintained a robust 70% level.  We can expect two kinds of tests in the months ahead as to whether Obama’s approach to the conflict will change:

            –diplomacy toward Iran’s nuclear program, especially with respect to the threat of an attack launched by Israel;

            –degree of Washington’s opposition to the effort by the Palestinian Authority to obtain an upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations.

 

            Another inexcusable failure of the Obama presidency and the presidential campaign was the widely noticed silence on the challenge of climate change. It might as time passes be noted as the clearest signal that democratic politics, deformed by special interests dispersing bundles of cash, could succeed in keeping issues vital to the wellbeing of the citizenry completely off the agenda. Such a result was aided and abetted by the media that never called attention to the concern despite record-setting heat in the summer of 2012. Fortunately, for Obama, Hurricane Sandy managed what none of the media pundits dared, forcing the recognition that extreme

events could no longer be explained away by reference to natural weather cycles. And it was notable that finally in his victory speech Obama made a fleeting reference to doing something about halting the warming trends that so dangerously imperils human health, food security, and overall wellbeing. [“We want our children to live in an America..that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”] We must watch carefully to see whether this revived concern about climate change translates into high profile national policy, including global leadership, which has been entirely absent during Obama’s time as president, despite his original recognition as a candidate in 2008 of what an important challenge climate change posed for the future welfare of the country.

 

            There are two basic interpretations of the Obama victory among those who were hostile to Romney’s candidacy:

            –the dominant view is that Obama offers the American people and the world a set of expectations that were decidedly preferable to what Romney and the Republicans were offering: more people-oriented; fairer taxation, government regulation of business, and stronger commitments to a government safety net for health, housing, poverty, and education; better appointments to the courts and to government, with greater representation for women and minorities; a more positive approach to the United Nations and foreign policy; and somewhat more forthcoming on environmental issues, including climate change.

            –the minority view that when it comes to plutocracy, militarism, and the general structures of global capitalism there is no significant difference between the two parties, and that the election is in this deeper sense, irrelevant. Those adhering to such an outlook were inclined to support the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, who articulated a genuinely progressive agenda that refused to be swayed by liberal appeals to the differences between Republicans and Democrats. The mainstream media completely ignored the existence of the Green Party perspective, which revealingly contrasted with the great attention accorded the Tea Party from its first irreverent stirrings.

 

            I felt drawn to both of these somewhat inconsistent interpretations, and because I was living in California, which was deemed super-safe for Obama, I felt that I could vote structurally, that is, for the Green Party, rather than tactically, that is, for Obama. When it came to secondary candidates and state and local issues, I cast my votes in a pattern that was the same as that of my liberal democratic friends. Of course, the question that I find more difficult to answer is whether if I had lived in Florida or Ohio, I would have risked the structural choice. There is the memory that George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the 2000 election because 90,000 votes were cast on behalf of a Third Party candidate, Ralph Nader. The question comes down to this: is it more important to show symbolic support for a party and candidate that diagnoses the issues in a sufficiently radical manner to offer some promise of a transformative agenda, or is it better to go with the lesser of evils?

 

             I admit that in the excitement occasioned by the Obama victory last night I was prepared to admit to myself that somehow Obama and the constituencies that supported him could be harbingers of a better future for the country. This sentiment was shared, in reverse, by the pro-business community, which registered their displeasure with the electoral outcome by a major stock market selloff that drove the Dow Jones index down by more than 312 points.

 

            There was something I found inspiring and hopeful about the ethnic and racial diversity of the Obama inner core waiting in Chicago for his victory speech as compared to the stiff and formal whiteness of the Romney crowd despondently gathered in Boston for their leader’s concession speech.  At this point, my hopeful side is ready for Obama’s new mandate to outdo my modest expectations, just as in 2008 he disappointed me beyond my apprehensions. Among Obama supporters there is the belief that in this second term he will take risks in an effort to elevate his presidency to the ranks of greatness.

 

            Regardless of whether Obama pleases more than he disappoints, sending the Republicans to the sidelines is something to cheer about! And beyond this, the Green Party effort did remind me and a few others that a progressive alternative to predatory capitalism can be put forward in a coherent and compelling manner by a candidate with talent and impeccable credentials. Perhaps, we can look forward to a period when Jill Stein does for the Obama presidency what Norman Thomas, and the Socialist Party, did for the New Deal presidency of FDR, that is, be both a thorn in the side, and an inducement to stop the bleeding of disaffected party members by adopting important parts of the Socialist agenda.

   

Further Reflections on Istanbul as Global Capital

7 Nov

 

My proposal that we consider the possibility of treating Istanbul as the world capital attracted a broad range of responses. I tried to make clear in my revised text that Istanbul could not hope to have this kind of recognition until Turkey had addressed some serious issues, especially the Kurdish grievances that have induced a massive hunger strike in Turkish jails (with over 600 prisoners now taking part, and more threatening to do so), as well as serious concerns about the human rights implications of the imprisonment of many students and journalists. Several other kinds of objections were also raised. For instance, Istanbul is inappropriate as a choice because it is situated at the interface of colliding tectonic plates that makes it vulnerable to devastating earthquakes. Others respondents contended that if recreational appeal is part of Istanbul’s charm, then why not Las Vegas. It supposedly has a better claim than Istanbul as ‘it has something for everybody.’ My initial very tentative proposal of Istanbul was based on its extraordinary combination of qualifying features, especially its strategic inter-civilization geography, its capacity to be of the West and at the same apart from the West, and its cultural/religious/historical resources that seem unmatched in cumulative effect elsewhere, and give the city a cosmopolitan identity that recalls its days of multi-ethnic Ottoman imperial glory. Additionally, more than elsewhere, the Turkish political leadership has been alive to providing Istanbul with a world class infrastructure as it wishes to take advantage of its unique character.

 

Other objections to the proposal were more substantial, yet unconvincing to me. For instance, some pointed out that Turkey as a country of 80 million Muslims and Istanbul as a city estimated to have 15 million Muslims is not capable of representing the world, and that somehow a great European city would serve the peoples of world less controversially. There is of course an inherent problem arising because any urban space will partake of a particular religious, national, and ethnic identity, but if such a qualification were to be uniformly applied it would mean that there was no city on the planet that could ever serve as the world capital. The idea of having a capital city is a strictly soft power proposal, creating a symbolic meeting place for diverse cultures, religions, and political systems, and is offered as a building block for a global imaginary that befits the imperatives of moral and spiritual globalization. It is my opinion that the Turkish government over the course of the last decade has done better than any other country in relation to cities within its borders in creating at atmosphere of cosmopolitan hospitality and stature for the city of Istanbul.

 

A quite different objection is associated with Turkish membership in NATO and what that entails in relation to non-defensive military operations such as in Afghanistan ever since 2001, the regime-changing 2011 intervention in Libya, and the interference with the Syrian internal struggle over the course of the last two years. Such Turkish undertakings do seem to cast a shadow over any present undertaking to propose Istanbul as a global capital, and should probably be treated as a serious obstacle. If Turkey seeks to make Istanbul play its potential global role then it would need to rethink its geopolitical ties. Perhaps, there exists a decisive contradiction between such a Western oriented geopolitics and the kind of world identity that a global capital should aspire to achieve. Turkey has been up to now pursuing an equi-distance diplomacy, balancing its Western ties against its post-Cold War independence, as well as promoting a new geopolitics of soft power without relinquishing the residual role of the old geopolitics of hard power. The Arab upheavals since 2011 have seemed to make the transition to a soft power matrix more elusive for Turkey, and thus weaken arguments for Istanbul’s ascension to a status that overlooks its reality of being embedded in Turkish national sovereignty.

 

In summary, Istanbul is marvelously qualified from many perspectives to serve as the capital of the world, but cities cannot avoid being identified with the country in which they are physically located. The Turkish government in the last decade has done many things to enhance the role of Istanbul, but its own persisting problems are part of Istanbul’s reality, and to the extent these difficulties are not overcome it is hard to imagine any proposal of Istanbul as global capital getting very far in world public opinion. In effect, there is a Gordian Knot at the core of world order that ties the fate of the city to that of the nation, and most of the citizenry of particular countries would not have it any other way. To this extent, the modest

proposal of Istanbul as global capital, while tantalizing, does not seem capable of realization without the deterritorialization of the relationship between global cities and sovereign states, and if this ever happens, it will not be anytime soon.

 

This commentary on Istanbul arises from my own romance with the city during the past twenty years, entranced by its beauty, vitality, exotic features, the warmth and tenderness of its people, and the transcendent vision of the Turkishpolitical destiny set forth by its principal leaders. This kind of love affair has persisted despite the horrors of Istanbul’s traffic and the unpleasantness of its unhealthy air.

 

 

Istanbul: A Modest Proposal

2 Nov

 

            An earlier version of this short essay was published a few days ago in Al Jazeera English online as an opinion piece. My most trusted Turkish friends felt that it grossly exaggerated Istanbul’s credentials as a possible future world capital, and in deference, I will tone down some of the language, and call attention to some problematic features of the Turkish political landscape that should not be ignored in proposing such a status for Istanbul. At the same time in the Swiftian nature of ‘modest proposals’ to be immodest! I think it was an American comedian who said “if you haven’t gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough.” Or when Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of his life was asked about what he regretted most about his overall public role, he responded, to the effect that he had sometimes been too cautious, not sufficiently extreme. Norman O. Brown, who did much in the 1960s to inspire the study of human consciousness, once said in the course of a lecture that in psychoanalysis “only the exaggerations are valuable.” It is in this spirit that I continue to believe that Istanbul has the most to offer the peoples of the world as a global capital, but I would welcome a debate on whether the idea of a global capital is a sensible idea given the nature of globalization and if it is, whether there are preferable alternatives to Istanbul. Of course, one idea would be to neuter the idea of a global capital by choosing an uninhabited island mid-ocean, but I would imagine that almost no one would feel connected to such a place, any more than they do to such existing sterile national capital startups as Brasilia and Canberra.            

 

            The idea of a global city has a long lineage with deep roots in the pre-modern world. Indeed it seems correct to observe that global cities existed before national cities, preceding the formation of the modern state. A global city is most often associated with being a center of world trade and finance, but usually such a city also possesses strong cultural and touristic resources that attract visitors. Thinking in this manner explains the persisting tendencies is to view the hierarchy of global cities from a West-centric perspective: London, New York, and Paris placed in the first rank, with cities such as Tokyo, Geneva, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Rome, Shanghai, Istanbul, and Los Angeles treated as forming a second tier. Of course, such rankings are quite arbitrary, shift over time, reflecting new patterns of economic and political relationships that exhibit the ebb and flow of world history. Such urban centers as Rome, London, Alexandria, Baghdad, Vienna, Venice, and Athens were definitely primary global cities during their respective heydays.

 

            But there is a new phenomenon that is especially associated with economic globalization and the main technological innovations of the past century that has given rise to such designations as ‘the digital age’ or ‘the networked society.’ This radical compression of space and time in the world creates a natural inclination to find, designate, and establish someplace as ‘the center of the world,’ as the ‘world capital.’ Of course, the claim and perception of being ‘the world capital’ is both a social and political construction that is connected with the realities of global leadership, sometimes reinforced by cultural preeminence, and normally narrated in an inherently subjective and self-centered interpretation of the flow of history, however the self is defined. In the end such a designation is bound to be controversial, and likely contested.

 

            Of course, from a mainstream realist international relations perspective we can think geopolitically of the world capital as a reflection of the prevailing distribution of hard power at a give time. Thus in the bipolar world of the Cold War it was Washington and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became Washington alone. Some are now insisting that a new bipolarity is or will shortly be upon us, and even anticipate a new cold war, designating Beijing to be a world capital more or less equivalent in status to Washington. And for those who believe, and hope, that a more polycentric world is emerging, and would be desirable, then perhaps, in addition to Washington and Beijing, one might add Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and even Jakarta, if the European Union moves forward, maybe Brussels, and possibly Cairo as well but only if Egypt is able to find stability and regain its former regional stature.

 

            Of course, all existing cities in the 21st century are contained within a particular state, and are subject to its authority, and share its destiny. In the past there have been some ‘international cities’ without any national affiliation, and there are today in our world several successful city-states, and many states smaller in population and area than the largest cities. Proposals have been made in recent decades to establish Jerusalem as an international city, not only because such a step would contribute to a sustainable and just peace between Israel and Palestine, but because of its sacred and historical belonging to all three of the Abrahamic religions.

 

Most globally ambitious cities in the modern world, then, have this dual identity, as situated within a territorial state and yet striving for a measure of internal autonomy. As a result, cities often develop a split national personality that combines loyalty and antagonism, the latter often fueled by the deep-seated tensions between cosmopolitan urban space and the more provincial hinterland, as well as by national politicians who shift resources from the city to the countryside in their quest for votes, or sometimes, to reduce gaps in standards of living. These tensions on occasion give rise to frivolous suggestions of secession for cities that seem at odds with the ethos of the country as seems to many to be the case for New York City. It is called by its fiercest critics ‘Sodom-and-Gomorrah-on-Hudson’ and by its most loving devotees as simply ‘The Big Apple.’ Some New Yorkers have daydreams of being a city-state, and many Midwesterners would be happy if the dream came true. It is much more common for secessionist movements to become serious political projects for territorial communities comprising a minority ethnicity or religion that claims a political and legal right of self-determination. Restive urban minorities may riot on occasion and vent their dissatisfaction, but their imaginary rarely includes a scenario of formal disaffiliation. Singapore is a rare exception to this pattern, split off from the British colony of Malaya at the moment of independence. More common is the experience of Hong Kong, being reabsorbed by its powerful Chinese neighbor.

 

            A focus on cities is one way of circumventing the tendency to view sovereign states as the only political actors worth theorizing about in international life. It is true that states have an identity based on governance over a defined space that is recognized in diplomatic circles, as well as enjoying the prerogative of granting or withholding citizenship. The primacy of states as international actors is reinforced by membership rules and procedures for international institutions, especially the United Nations, that confer special and often exclusive status on a political community that qualifies as a sovereign state. In contrast, the terminology of ‘global cities’ is assigned without any agreed criteria or conferred status, lacks diplomatic relevance from the perspective of international law, and the idea that there exists one or more ‘global capital’ is no where referenced on standard world maps and remains a completely constructed category of status, identity, and desire. No government would be foolish enough to proclaim its main city as the capital of the world, although the United States came close to doing so during the springtime grandiosity of George W. Bush’s presidency. Proponents of a certain leadership role for a given state may for a variety of reasons be tempted to put forward the claim of providing the world with a capital city. It would follow from the very real geopolitical ambition to be at the ‘center’ of global policy formation and implementation, to have control over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and to boast of offering visitors the most exciting cultural and touristic experiences.

 

            Part of the appeal of the global capital is precisely this separation of status from statehood, and more specifically from the calculus of hard power. Cities, unlike states, have police forces but no armies, although some cities have local guard or militia units, none in modern times possess or aspire to possess force capabilities to project hard power beyond city limits. Cities generally lack an arsenal of heavy weapons, do not have foreign policies, and enjoy only secondary diplomatic representation. Embassies are in capital cities however remote and small, while consulates are in cities no matter how large and influential. In Brazil, for instance, foreign ambassadors resent being posted to Brasilia, the planned and somewhat isolated and artificial capital city, and greatly prefer living in such stimulating urban environments as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Cities are simply places where lots of people live, work, enjoy nightlife, have access to extensive financial services, and engage in a range of cultural and economic activities. What, then, motivates a city to be treated, even symbolically, as a political actor, and more grandly, to put forward the claim to be the potential or actual global capital?

 

Some assertions along these lines are deliberately extravagant or are merely intended to call attention to past glories, without any serious political intention to project power. The interior Chinese secondary city of Dengfeng, for instance, claims not only to be the center of the world but the center of heaven, as well, and indeed in past times it has served as the national capital for nine Chinese dynasties. Dengfeng’s self-assertion as a city whose provenance extends beyond China and beyond any given time period, is part of its charm, and lends traditional and spiritual significance to the very metaphorical idea of there being such a reality as the center of the world, much less heaven. Such an idea resembles in certain respects the geographical seats of the great world religions that do indeed possess a centrality for the more devout among the faithful as illustrated by the great pilgrimages to Rome to visit the Vatican or the haj as the obligatory journey taken by devout Muslims to their most holy site of worship.

 

            In my view, such a claim on behalf of cities should be understood as partly a site of struggle between two types of adherents. On one side, those who adhere to the old geopolitics that continues to believe, always somewhat misleadingly, but recently more grotesquely so, that history is principally made by those who prevail in warfare, and little else. Such a belief is usually coupled with the Weberian insistence that it is the sovereign state that establishes its identity by its possession over a monopoly of legitimate force. On the other side, are those who view history through a soft power rainbow optic in which culture, political vitality, religious identity, and ethics shapes and forms what unfolds, and eventually yields a cosmopolitan urban outcome despite being out gunned on the battlefield, or succumbs and endures the tragedy of alien domination. Cities, more than countries, can be analogized to magnets or force fields where people go to strike deals, to be entertained and well fed, to add pleasure, cultural enjoyment, and to enjoy greater privacy in their lives, to discuss their problems and receive guidance, chase dreams, and entertain hopes about the future, to be educated, to be inspired by art and artists, and of course, to be protected by municipal government against violent crime and natural disasters.

 

            There was a period not many years ago where there was a notable interest in cities as independent political actors on the global stage. There were many conferences organized around the theme ‘x city and the world.’ I attended a series of annual gatherings bearing the title ‘Yokohama and the World’ that brought together thinkers and civil society actors from many foreign countries and regions. These meetings were a pet project of the governor of the Japanese prefecture, and the discussions were vibrant and suggestive, blending wishful thinking, advocacy, and an assessment of trends. The underlying perspective was one in which it was presupposed that what was good for Japan was not necessarily good for Yokohama, that cities might have separate interests and different priorities from those of national political leaders, and that especially the national capital was subject to many distorting pressures divorced from service to the human interest or the wellbeing of Yokohama’s citizenry. The global city as distinct actor, complicated by its formal subjugation to the territorial order of sovereign states, suggests that people living in a particular city might not share the postulates of territorial nationalism, and were not nearly as inclined to include hard power in their political imaginary. The idea of a world order that was basically constituted by the principal cities of the world depicts an alternate pathway to peace, sustainability, justice, and world order that is at fundamental variance from the preoccupation of sovereign states with national security. In the Yokohama setting, for instance, there was a much greater willingness to engage positively with China than was then the case for the Japanese government located in Tokyo, reflecting a web of national and international considerations. Should we not favor a network of global cities as creating a non-territorial approach to global policy that might be much more attuned to global needs and desires, especially if cities could gain wealth and prestige while contributing to the further intermingling of civilizations and thereby laying the foundations for a more peaceful and sustainable human future.

 

            In the pre-modern world cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, bounded territoriality, and statehood organized political life. Socrates felt that death was preferable to being exiled from Athens the city that he loved, and exile was often seen as the worst punishment that could be inflicted. Even Machiavelli centuries later, rarely celebrated for his tenderness, expressed a romantic attachment to his native Florence: “I love my city more than myself.” In the course of the transition to modernity there were many instances of resistance on the part of cities that did not want to get swallowed by these larger political communities established in every instance by conquest. Most of us remain unaware of the deep connections in the past between political violence and the constituting of larger ‘legitimate’ political communities. The relationship between state-building and war that is so fundamental to the securitization of world politics is, in other words, neither new nor without deep roots in the histories of every sovereign state and all major cities.

 

            But with the revival of city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the success of several micro states, we can observe a far weaker linkage between security and hard power, as well as the rebirth of the medieval idea of community viability. These political entities become secure by being useful to others, viable and vibrant for themselves, and generally enjoying ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but not by being able to extend territory and control of resources by conquest. Although this portrayal must be expanded to admit that most modern states did originate with cities that did expand for the sake of food security and wealth or to provide their city with security against marauding neighbors or the vagaries of weather. Nevertheless, this experience of the past is suggestive of how it might be possible to transform the political imaginary of states with respect to their most fundamental reason for existence, inducing more dedication to the security of people (‘human security’) less to the security of governments (‘national security’).

 

 

            I believe that the idea of proposing a global capital is a defensible endeavor, even if seen only as laying the groundwork for the future, if we take into account the degree of integration that has been achieved by markets, by globally constituted battlefields, by changing geopolitical patterns, by struggles to generate global policy that is commensurate with such collective goods problems as climate change and nuclear weaponry, by global travel and globalization of political identity and the dispersion of families throughout the planet by migration and forced displacement.  Of course the choice of this city rather than that one is political, economic, ethical, and even aesthetic and hedonistic.

 

 

            My initial sense of which candidate cities offer the most plausible site of the global capital is rather pluralist. For instance, if our outlook is  geopolitically oriented according to the logic of hard power realists, then the argument for choosing Washington to play that role seems rather obvious despite its recent experiences of relative decline. Yet if the speculation is more normative, connected with human values, then we would probably pick New York, especially because aside from the being the headquarters of the United Nations, it is a most notable global city from the perspective of ethnic diversity, finance, and cosmopolitan culture, although its short lifespan, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and Westcentric orientation limits the quality of its candidacy given 21st century post-colonial realities. New York and Washington also suffer from the role of the United States as the gatekeeper for access, which in the post-9/11 world has made entry problematic for many of those invited to perform culturally or participatein political or academic conferences.

 

            London also could be considered, having the advantage of a long lineage, rich tradition, as well as finance and culture, and the birthplace of the English language. Until very recently a case could be made for Brussels as the hub city for the European Union, as well as NATO, and giving expression to the idea that the world we live in is mainly responsive to economic and military power (an inversion of the 9/11 attacks that targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the two pillars of the American world role). Brussels could also be championed as a precursor of a post-statist world order that is constituted by regional groupings, but its Western identity and association with the extensive European overseas empires and colonial crimes are fatal handicaps in our post-colonial world that bases notions of legitimacy more and more on de-Westernizing claims of civilizational identity.

 

            I find none of these candidate cities as sufficiently endowed with the combination of features that might justify christening its as the capital of the world. But I do have a promising candidate provided it can overcome some present obstacles: Istanbul. This may seem surprising, because although achieving a much higher profile in the last decade, Turkey as a state is not viewed as belonging to the top tier of countries in the world, including among emerging states, its currency is not much valued beyond its borders, and its language spoken only in its own country, among a few nearby Turcoman minorities, and some central Asian countries that gained independence a couple of decades ago when the Soviet Union fell apart. As well, Turkey has some severely troublesome domestic problems for which no near-term solution seems forthcoming, especially its inability to accommodate the grievances of 12-15 million Kurdish minority, important international unresolved issues such as its relationship to the Armenian diaspora, its various tensions with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iran, and its dysfunctional, yet abiding and severe, internal polarization between those who governed during the Republican Era, and those who have run the country since 2002.

 

            There are more serious issues as well that make Istanbul’s candidacy problematic in many quarters precisely because it is such an integral part of the Turkish state. The central question is raised: ‘Should the sins of the state be visited upon the city?’ It is not an easy question. And what of the sins of the city? Istanbul has had a spectacular building boom in recent years, with shopping malls and upper income restaurants and hotels, and an overall atmosphere that may not be conducive to a fulfilled life for the majority of inhabitants that must struggle with the ordeals of living and working in a city of rising living costs, unhealthy air, and limited resources for human satisfaction unless one is the recipient of a large salary.

 

            How then can Istanbul be seriously considered in our search for a global capital? I would point to several factors. Increasingly, Istanbul is a city of choice for those international travelers in search of touristic fulfillment, and it rarely disappoints visitors despite its awesome traffic that clogs streets well past midnight and its polluted air. It has also become a secure and acceptable place to hold the most delicate diplomatic discussions, whether involving such regional issues as Syria and Iran, or wider concerns about Afghanistan and Africa. Istanbul has without fanfare also taken steps to emphasize its rising importance: with Spain it jointly administers the UN project on ‘Alliance of Civilizations’; it held recently a very high profile inaugural session of the World Economic Forum; and it also has become a favorite non-European meeting ground for a variety of UN sponsored events.

            Istanbul is convenient to reach for global gatherings, Turkey is a permissive gatekeeper with respect to visitor access automatically issuing visas for a small charge, and Turkish Airlines was recently selected as the best in Europe. Important, also, is the fact that Turkey is not Europe psychologically, even if a small part of its territory is treated as being in Europe. Turkey’s Asian identity is not just a geographic description, but is far more a cultural and religious imprimatur. It has been given greater recent authority by the European Union’s rejectionist response to the Turkish application for membership. Many comment that Turkey has been fortunate to remain outside the EU during the current Euro-crisis, but more than this, if Turkey had become a member it would no long be perceived as favorably by many non-Western constituencies. Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time when so many important states have either been treading water so as to remain afloat. It has also pioneered in achieving a stable interface between secular principles and religious freedom, moving away from the ‘over-secularization’, to borrow the designation from Ibrahim Kalin. This rigid version of being secular dominated the Turkish political scene during the long period of Kemalist ascendancy that ended in 2002 with the control of the Turkish government shifting to the AKP as a result of electoral victories. It is necessary to account of such factors as Istanbul can not be separated from its embeddedness in the Turkish reality.

 

            But is not such acclaim for Turkey irrelevant to the advancement of Istanbul as global capital? One of the distinguishing features of the Erdogan leadership has been to shift the attention of the country and the world to Istanbul, just as Ataturk had strongly believed that a truly modern Turkey would need to repudiate its Ottoman past and so deliberately moved the capital city to Ankara as part of a fresh break with history for the young republic. For the AKP the re-glorification of Istanbul is a way of reviving pride and the traditions associated with the pre-republican era. This is not a crude form of neo-Ottomanism, but a realization that Istanbul was a treasure trove of cultural and religious eminence unmatched elsewhere, and a subtle reminder, through its extraordinary mosque architecture, of its former stature as the home of the Islamic Caliphate. As well, Turkey geopolitically and geographically provides a unique set of linkages between Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and offers the world a more cosmopolitan understanding of the Mediterranean world. I would also mention the degree to which Turkey’s most celebrated author, the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, has been inspired by the imaginative excesses of Istanbul as a city. Pamuk is sometimes referred to as ‘the biographer of Istanbul’ because his great The Black Book and his memoir of growing up in the city so brilliantly capture the magic and mysteries of Istanbul, which has attracted millions of hearts and minds around the world, endowing the city with an almost mystical identity for many of us. Tell me a city other than Istanbul that has exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations? Some might answer feebly ‘Venice,’ recalling Thomas Mann’s great story ‘Death in Venice’ as well as the haunting novel, The Comfort of Strangers, set in Venice by Ian McEwan, but the charisma of Venice is as a place of menace and degeneracy, although its exotic beauty is unquestionably one of the urban wonders of the world.

 

            What enhances Istanbul’s candidacy, in my judgment, is the degree to which this Turkish worldview has been recently articulated in a clear manner. More than any other current political leaders, those who have spoken for Turkey during the last several years have understood and expressed the need to bring a change about the way in which security and power have been achieved in modern international relations, while at the same time not losing an appreciation of the resilience of the old ways, however anachronistic, during this agonizing period of global transition. This innovative renewal of Turkish influence has been rooted, to an unparalleled extent, in soft power geopolitics stressing the mutual benefits of peace, trade, cultural achievement, ciilizational pride, and dialogue.

 

            True, Turkey’s preferred orientation has recently been significantly readjusted to take account of a series of unexpected developments arising from the aftermath of the Arab upheavals, especially in neighboring Syria.  Despite Turkish foreign policy being confronted by hard power challenges within its borders and region, Ankara’s underlying commitment to a new paradigm of world order has not been abandoned. The Kurdish challenge, the Syrian internal struggle, tensions with Iran have led to a dramatic modification of the earlier flagship promise of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but even this seemingly unrealistic goal, if sensitively and contextually considered, retains its essential wisdom, which combines principle associated with maximizing peaceful relations with states and their peoples and promoting mutually beneficial interests. As Foreign Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly stressed, when a neighboring government commits atrocities against its own people, then Turkey sides with the people, not the government that has discredited itself. When the zero problems approach was first proclaimed, it might have prevented future confusion, if this qualification had been made explicit.

 

AKP detractors, whether Kemalists within or Israelis without, have done their best to discredit the Turkish approach to foreign policy. Undoubtedly the new challenge is complex and difficult: How to strike a new balance amid the turmoil of the region that has so far made fools of us all! Yet I am convinced that Turkey continues to do its best to increase the prospects for soft power geopolitics while undertaking the necessary prudent steps to avoid dangerous vulnerability to those political forces that continue to rely on hard power solutions for conflict, including the perpetration of mass violence against their own people.

 

            Considering Istanbul as a possible future capital of the world can be interpreted as a side-effect of the advocacy of soft power geopolitics. It also responds to the receptivity of Turkey as a state willing to provide the peoples of the world with a safe haven for dialogue, negotiation, empathy, and the satisfactions of a post-Western world civilization. We are also recognizing the geographical and geopolitical location of Istanbul as a crossroads connecting several civilizations and religious traditions. Such a proposal can be dismissed as a wild exaggeration of the Turkish role in the world or as a perverse instance of wishful thinking, but it is put forward partly in response to an interpretation of integrative trends in our globalizing world, and also as an expression of the kind of flourishing future that will most likely be of most benefit the peoples of the world.

 

   

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