Tag Archives: Tel Aviv

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.     

 

What is New in the Israel/Palestine Conflict

25 May


 


           Undoubtedly transfixed by the extraordinary developments throughout the Arab world since Mohamed Boazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010: from Tahrir Square to the NATO intervention in Libya to bloody confrontations in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain to the eerie quiet in Algeria to the relative and temporary calm in Morocco, there has been a widespread few have noticed that the Israeli/Palestine conflict has changed its character in fundamental respects during the last couple of years.

           

            For some the first of these transformative developments may have been realized for somewhat longer, but now almost everybody knows, except for those in high places, especially in Washington and Tel Aviv who seem to have a political need not to know. The stark fact is that both Israel and Palestine have no hope that international negotiations between governmental representatives of the two sides has any chance of reaching an agreement that will end the conflict. Israelis, especially those backing the Netanyahu government never desired or believed in the possibility of a diplomatic solution. The ‘peace process’ that started in Oslo back in 1993 has steadily deteriorated the Palestinian prospects while enhancing those of Israel; it has been worse than gridlock for the Palestinians and a smokescreen for Israelis to carry out their expansionist plans while pretending to be pursuing a political compromise based on withdrawing from land occupied in 1967. The sequel to Oslo has been a pathetic enterprise, taking the form of ‘the quartet’ (U.S., European Union, Russia, and the UN) setting forth a roadmap that was supposed to lead the Palestinians to a state of their own drawn along the borders of the green line, but in practice has been a charade that Israel has scoffed at while representatives of the Palestinian Authority seemed to believe that it was worth playing along, although working within the confines of the occupation to establish governmental institutions that could claim statehood by unilateral self-assertion. The PA did seize this option last September when President Mahmoud Abbas made his historic plea to the UN General Assembly, but was stymied by exertion of U.S. geopolitical muscle

 on Israel’s behalf. At this point even the PA seems to have abandoned its effort to challenge a supposed status quo that is more realistically comprehended as a toxic mixture of annexation and apartheid should no longer be called ‘occupation.’

 

            Apparently to please Washington, and to a lesser extent the EU, neither Tel Aviv nor the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah have openly repudiated diplomacy, and continue to give lip service to a readiness to talk yet again, although the PA has at least the dignity to insist that no further negotiations can occur until Israel agrees to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank. To demand that Israel discontinue unlawful activities that impact upon what is being discussed should be regarded as a no brainer, but it is treated by the world media as though the Palestinians were seeking a huge concession from the Israelis, and in a way it is, if we acknowledge that the Netanyahu government is essentially a regime under the control of the settlers.

 

            The second of these under observed developments in the conflict is a definite shift toward nonviolence by the Palestinians. In different sites of struggle the Palestinians have confirmed the declarations of their leaders that resistance no longer primarily refers to armed struggle and suicide bombings, but is based on a range of nonviolent undertakings that challenge the legitimacy of Israeli policies, above all its oppressive policies and structures of abuse and exploitation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

 

            There are several different manifestations of this turn to nonviolence and a global solidarity movement. The following instance are illustrative, and should have been treated as major news, but because Israel refuses to be challenged, even nonviolently, the world media have been silent, and offered very little overall analysis. Among the forms of nonviolent opposition are the following: repeated village demonstrations in the West Bank against the continued building of the separation wall located on occupied Palestinian territory and held to be unlawful in 2004 by a near unanimous International Court of Justice; strong support and some impressive results for a growing worldwide Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions initiative modeled on the Anti-Apartheid global campaign that was so effective in inducing the collapse of the racist regime in South Africa; and the Freedom Flotillas in which humanitarian activists from many countries challenged the Israeli blockade of Gaza that has persisted for five years and led to the ugly confrontation in May 2010 when the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was assaulted in international waters by Israeli naval commandos, killing 8 Turks and one Turkish-American.

 

            Most impressive of these nonviolent challenges by Palestinians civil society has been a dramatic series of hunger strikes in Israeli jails that has reignited the Palestinian moral and political imagination. These strikes were initiated in December 2011 by the bravery of a single individual, Khader Adnan, who was harshly arrested in his home in the middle of the night and placed in ‘administrative detention’ a procedure used to hold suspects without charges, evidence, and trial. Adnan defiantly continued his strike for 66 days, was on the verge of death, and only agreed to resume eating when Israel somewhat relented.

 

            These hunger strikes mobilized widespread support among Palestinians, and an enthusiasm that contrasts with the bitter disillusionment directed at the failed peace talks. The strikes against administrative detention stimulated a related mass hunger strike of more than 1600 prisoners in Israeli prisons protesting conditions of their confinement. This parallel undertaking began on Palestinian Prisoners Day, April 17, and lasted for a full month until settled when Israel agreed to meet several of the demands put forward by the strikers.

 

            Hunger strikes are not grasped by the Western mind in their full significance. Such voluntary actions are an extreme form of nonviolence. The striker sacrificially foregoes violence against the other, seeking to awaken the conscience of those accused, bearing witness to abusive behavior, and appealing for solidarity from the wider affected community. Such extended hunger strikes send a moral message to both the oppressed and the oppressor, although the latter is likely to turn away in cynical disregard as has been the case with respect to the Israeli response.

 

            It should still be shocking, despite not being entirely surprising that the Western media has taken almost no notice of these remarkable hunger strikes and how they illustrate this new face of Palestinian resistance. We have only to take note of the ceaseless coverage given to Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist now enjoying sanctuary in the United States. Must we believe that Palestinian behavior is only of interest to Western media when it can be presented as fanatical and takes the form of violence against civilians? Of course this Chinese dissident deserves our sympathy, but should his story be so captivating as to completely eclipse the more extreme challenges posed by Palestinian hunger strikers that seem ready to make the supreme sacrifice of their own life? Recalling that the death in 1981 of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, helped open a door that led to a kind of peace in Northern Ireland and that Mohamed Boazizi’s death sparked revolution in Tunisia, only time will tell whether these Palestinian hunger strikes, unquestionably heroic, will lead the Palestinian people closer to realizing their right of self-determination and the finality of a just peace.            

 

            The third major development is the shift in the regional balance in favor of the Palestinians. The public opinion among the Arab people is strongly supportive of the Palestinian struggle and deeply alienated by the kind of Egyptian collaboration with Israel typified by the Mubarak regime. Turkey, once a strategic ally of Israel, is now an antagonist, as well as being an avowed backer of Palestinian claims. In light of these changes, I would have supposed that Israeli realists would be devoting their utmost energies to finding ways to reach a sustainable peace agreement that is sensitive to Palestinians rights under international law. Israeli realists may have sought refuge underground to avoid humiliation or worse in an Israel so firmly under the thumb of Netanyahu extremists who refuse to read this ominous writing on the regional wall, a refusal applauded by a U.S. Congress that is ready to jeopardize American security at the alter of Israeli militarism. Such an unnatural geopolitical relationship is currently unchallengeable in the United States, which is itself sad and dangerous.

 

            My claim is that these three sets of development should lead us to reimagine the Israel/Palestine struggle, and to channel our hopes and resources accordingly. The Israeli government and its strategic think tanks are clear that they are more threatened by this turn town militant nonviolence than by armed resistance. Israel has the weaponry and the skill on the battlefield, but fortunately their formidable propaganda machine has been unable to stem the rising tide of public opinion hostile to Israel and supportive of the Palestinian struggle.  

 

 

 

Stop Warmongering in the Middle East

20 Jan

 

            The public discussion in the West addressing Iran’s nuclear program has mainly relied on threat diplomacy, articulated most clearly by Israeli officials, but enjoying the strong direct and indirect backing of Washington and leading Gulf states.  Israel has also engaged in covert warfare against Iran in recent years, somewhat supported by the United States, that has inflicted violent deaths on civilians in Iran. Many members of the UN Security Council support escalating sanctions against Iran, and have not blinked when Tel Aviv and Washington talk menacingly about leaving all options on the table, which is ‘diplospeak’ for their readiness to launch a military attack. At last, some signs of sanity are beginning to emerge to slow the march over the cliff. For instance, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented harshly on this militarist approach: “I have no doubt that it would pour fuel on a fire which is already smoldering, the hidden smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, and beyond that [it would cause] a chain reaction. I don’t know where it would stop.” And a few days ago even the normally hawkish Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, evidently fearful of international panic and a preemptive response by Tehran, declared that any decision to launch a military attack by Israel is ‘very far off,’ words that can be read in a variety of ways, mostly not genuinely reassuring.

 

            It is not only an American insistence, despite pretending from time to time an interest in a diplomatic solution, that only threats and force are relevant to resolve this long incubating political dispute with Iran, but more tellingly, it is the stubborn refusal by Washington to normalize relations with Iran, openly repudiate the Israeli war drums, and finally accept the verdict of history in Iran adverse to its strategic ambitions. The United States has shown no willingness despite the passage of more than 30 years to accept the outcome of Iran’s popular revolution of 1978-79 that nonviolently overthrew the oppressive regime of the Shah. We need also to remember that the Shah had been returned to power in 1953 thanks to the CIA in a coup against the constitutional and democratically elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, whose main crime was to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. This prolonged unwillingness of Washington to have normal diplomatic contact with Iran has been a sure recipe for international tension and misunderstanding, especially taking into account this historical background of American intervention in Iran, as well as the thinly disguised interest in recovering access to Iran’s high quality oil fields confirmed by its willingness to go along with Israel’s militarist tactics and diplomacy.

 

            This conflict-oriented mentality is so strong in relation to Iran than when others try their best to smooth diplomatic waters, as Brazil and Turkey did in the May 2010, the United States angrily responds that such countries should mind their own business, which is an arrogant reprimand, considering that Turkey is Iran’s next door neighbor, and has the most to lose if a war results from the unresolved dispute involving Iran’s contested nuclear program. It should be recalled that in 2010 Iran formally agreed with leaders from Brazil and Turkey to store half or more of its then stockpile of low enriched uranium in Turkey, materials that would be needed for further enrichment if Iran was truly determined to possess a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. Instead of welcoming this constructive step back from the precipice Washington castigated the agreement as diversionary, contending that it interfered with the mobilization of support in the Security Council for ratcheting up sanctions intended to coerce Iran into giving up its right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Such criticism of Turkey and Brazil for its engagement with peace diplomacy contrasts with its tacit endorsement of Israeli recourse to terrorist tactics in its efforts to destabilize Iran, or possibly to provoke Iran to the point that it retaliates, giving Tel Aviv the pretext it seems to seek to begin open warfare.

 

Iran is being accused of moving toward a ‘breakout’ capability in relation to nuclear weapons, that is, possessing a combination of knowhow and enough properly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks, or at most months. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intention to become a nuclear weapons state, but has insisted all along that it has the same legal rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty as such other non-nuclear states as Germany and Japan, and this includes the right to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which entails enrichment capabilities and does imply a breakout capability. In the background, it should be realized that even the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons contains a provision that allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events..have jeopardized its supreme national interests.’(Article X) Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons, a right that both the United States and Israel in different ways have implicitly exercised for decades with stunning irresponsibility that includes secrecy, a failure to pursue nuclear disarmament that is an obligation of the treaty, and a denial of all forms of international accountability. The real ‘threat’ posed by a hypothetical Iran bomb is to Israel’s regional monopoly over nuclear weapons. As three former Mossad chiefs have stated, even if Iran were to acquire a few nuclear bombs, Israel would still face no significant additional threat to its security or existence, as any attack would be manifestly suicidal, and Iran has shown no such disposition toward recklessness in its foreign policy.

 

            To be objective commentators we must ask ourselves whether Iran’s posture toward its nuclear program is unreasonable under these circumstances. Is not Iran a sovereign state with the same right as other states to uphold its security and political independence when facing threats from its enemies armed with nuclear weapons? When was the last time resorted to force against a hostile neighbor? The surprising answer is over 200 years ago! Can either of Iran’s antagonists claim a comparable record of living within its borders? Why does Iran not have the same right as other states to take full advantage of nuclear technology? And given Israeli hostility, terrorist assaults, and military capabilities that includes sophisticated nuclear warheads, delivery style, and a record of preemptive war making, would it not be reasonable for Iran to seek, and even obtain, a nuclear deterrent? True, the regime in Iran has been oppressive toward its domestic opposition and its president has expressed anti-Israeli views in inflammatory language (although exaggerated in the West), however unlike Israel, without ever threatening or resorting to military action. It should also be appreciated that Iran has consistently denied an intention to develop nuclear weaponry, and claims only an interest in using enriched uranium for medical research and nuclear energy. Even if there are grounds to be somewhat skeptical about such reassurances, given the grounds for suspicion that have been ambiguously and controversially validated by reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, this still does not justify sanctions, much less threats backed up by deployments, war games, projected attack scenarios, and a campaign of terrorist violence.

 

            So far no prominent advocates of confrontation with Iran have been willing to acknowledge the obvious relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Is not the actuality of nuclear weaponry, not only an Iranian breakout potential but a substantial arsenal of Israeli weaponry secretly acquired (200-300 warheads), continuously upgraded, and coupled with the latest long distance delivery capabilities, the most troublesome threat to regional stability and peace? At minimum, are not Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile highly relevant both to bring stability and for an appraisal of Iran’s behavior? The United States and Israel behave in the Middle East as if the golden rule of international politics is totally inapplicable, that you can do unto others, what you are unwilling to have them do unto you!

 

            We need, as well, to remember the lessons of recent history bearing on the counter-proliferation tactics relied upon in recent years by the United States. Iraq was attacked in 2003 partly because it did not have any nuclear weapons, while North Korea has been spared such a comparably horrific fate because it possesses a retaliatory capability that would likely be used if attacked, and has the capability to inflict severe harm on neighboring countries. If this experience relating to nuclear weapons is reasonably interpreted it could incline governments that have hostile relations to the West to opt for a nuclear weapons option as necessary step to discourage attacks and interventions. Surely putting such reasoning into practice would not be good for the region, possibly igniting a devastating war, and almost certainly leading to the spread of nuclear weapons to other Middle Eastern countries. Instead of moving to coerce, punish, and frighten Iran in ways that are almost certain to increase the incentives of Iran and others to possess nuclear weaponry, it would seem prudent and in the mutual interest of all to foster a diplomacy of de-escalation, a path that Iran has always signaled its willingness to pursue. And diplomatic alternatives to confrontation and war exist, but require the sort of political imagination that seems totally absent in the capitals of hard power geopolitics.  

 

            It should be obvious to all but the most dogmatic warmongers that the path to peace and greater stability in the region depends on taking two steps long overdue, and if not taken, at least widely debated in public: first, establishing a nuclear free Middle East by a negotiated and monitored agreement that includes all states in the region, including Israel and Iran; secondly, an initiative promoted by the United Nations and backed by a consensus of its leading members to outline a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict that is consistent with Palestinian rights under international law, including the Palestinian right of self-determination, which if not accepted by Israel (and endorsed by the Palestinian people) within twelve months would result in the imposition of severe sanctions. Not only would such initiatives promote peace and prosperity for the Middle East, but this turn to diplomacy and law would serve the cause of justice both by putting an end to the warmongering of recent years and to the intolerable denial of rights to the Palestinian people that goes back to at least 1947, and was later intensified by the oppressive occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza that resulted from the outcome of the 1967 War.

 

            These manifestly beneficial alternatives to sanctions and war is neither selected, nor even considered in the most influential corridors of opinion-making. It is simple to explain why: world order continues to be largely shaped by the rule of power rather than the rule of law, or by recourse to the realm of rights, and no where more so than in the Middle East where the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located, and where an expansionist Israel refuses to make real peace with its neighbors while subjugating the Palestinian people to an unendurable ordeal. Unfortunately, a geopolitical logic prevails in world politics, which means that inequality, hierarchy, and hard power control the thought and action of powerful governments whenever toward strategic interests are at stake. Perhaps, a glance at recent history offers the most convincing demonstration of the validity of this assessment: Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the intimidating threats of attacks on Iran, three states in the region with oil and regimes unfriendly to the West. Egypt and Tunisia, the first-born children of the Arab Spring, were undoubtedly politically advantaged by not being major oil producing states, although Egypt is not as lucky as Tunisia because Israel and the United States worry that a more democratic Egyptian government might abandon the 1978 Peace Treaty and show greater solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and are doing what they can to prevent Cairo from moving in such directions.

 

            Fortunately, there is a growing, although still marginal, recognition that despite all the macho diplomacy of recent years, a military option is not really viable. It would not achieve its objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it would in all likelihood confirm the opinions among Iranian hawkish factions that only the possession of nuclear weapons will keep their country from facing the catastrophe brought on by a military attack. Beyond this, attacking Iran would almost certainly unleash retaliatory responses, possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which carry 20% of the world’s traded oil, and possibly leading to direct missile strikes directed at Israel and some of the Gulf countries. Given this prospect, there is beginning to be some indication that the West is at last beginning to consider alternatives to hot war in responding to Iran.

 

            But so far this realization is leading not to the peaceful initiatives mentioned earlier, but to a reliance on ‘war’ by other means. The long confrontation with Iran has developed its own momentum that makes any fundamental adjustment seem politically unacceptable to the United States and Israel, a sign of weakness and geopolitical defeat. And so as the prospect of a military attacked is temporarily deferred for reasons of prudence, as Barak confirmed, but in its place is put this intensified and escalating campaign of violent disruption, economic coercion, and outright terrorism. Such an ongoing effort to challenge Iran has produced a series of ugly and dangerous incidents that might at some point in the near future provoke a hostile Iranian reaction, generating a sequence of action and reaction that could plunge the region into a disastrous war and bring on a worldwide economic collapse.

 

            The main features of this disturbing pattern of covert warfare are becoming clear, and are even being endorsed in liberal circles because such a course of action is seen as less harmful to Western interests than an overt military attack, proceeding on the assumptions that are no better alternatives than confrontation in some form.  Israel, with apparent American collaboration, assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists, infects Iranian nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium with a disabling Stuxnet virus, and recruits Iranians to join Jundallah, an anti-regime terrorist organization in Iran, to commit acts of violence against civilian targets, such as the 2009 attack on the mosque in Zahedan that killed 25 worshippers and wounded many others. The New York Times in an editorial  (January 13, 2012) describes these tactics dispassionately without ever taking note of their objectionable moral or legal character: “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyber attacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing..[Iran’s nuclear] program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” The editorial observes that “a military strike would be a disaster,” yet this respected, supposedly moderate, editorial voice only questions whether such a pattern of covert warfare will get the necessary job done of preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear option sometime in the future.

 

            It should be obvious that if it was Iran that was engaging in similar tactics to disrupt Israeli military planning or to sabotage Israel’s nuclear establishment liberal opinion makers in the West would be screaming their denunciations of Iran’s barbaric lawlessness. Such violations of Israel sovereignty and international law would be certainly regarded by the West as unacceptable forms of provocation that would fully justify a major Israeli military response, and make the outbreak of war seem inevitable and unavoidable.

 

            And when Iran did recently react to the prospect of new international sanctions making its sale of oil far more difficult by threatening to block passage through the Straights of Hormuz, the United States reacted by sending additional naval vessels to the area and warning Tehran that any interference with international shipping would be ‘a red line’ leading to U.S. military action. It should be incredible to appreciate that assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran is okay with the arbiters of international behavior while interfering with the global oil market crosses a war-provoking red line. These self-serving distinctions illustrate the dirty work of geopolitics in the early 21st century.

 

            There are some lonely voices calling for a nuclear free Middle East and a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, but even with credentials like long service in the CIA or U.S. State Department, these calls are almost totally absent in the mainstream discourse that controls debate in the United States and Israel. When some peaceful alternatives are entertained at all it is always within the framework of preventing Iran doing what it seems entitled to do from the perspectives of law and prudence. I am afraid that only when and if a yet non-existent Global Occupy Movement turns its attention to geopolitics will the peoples of the Middle East have some reason to hope for a peaceful and promising future for their region.    

Turkey, the Region, and the West after the Elections

23 Jun

[This post is co-authored with Hilal Elver]

 


             There has been a dramatic shift in critical international responses to the current Turkish political leadership that has been recently highlighted by reactions to the resounding AKP electoral victory of June 12th. The earlier mantra of concern was expressed as variations on the theme that Turkey was at risk of becoming ‘a second Iran,’ that is, an anti-democratic theocratic state in which sharia law would dominate. Such a discrediting approach has itself been discredited to the extent that it is all but abandoned in serious discussions of the Turkish governing process.

 

            The new mantra of criticism is focused on the alleged authoritarian goals of the Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan. He is widely accused of seeking to shift the whole constitutional order of Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, and coupled with a little disguised scheme to become Turkey’s first president under the new constitution, and then look forward to being reelected the leader of the country for a second five year term. Some of these anxieties have receded since the AKP did not win the needed 2/3s majority in the parliament that would have enabled a new constitution to be adopted without needing to gain the consent of the citizenry through a referendum. In his victory speech on the night of the elections Erdogan went out of his way to reassure Turkish society, including those who voted against the AKP, that he will heed the message of the voters by seeking the widest possible participation in the constitution-making process with the aim of producing a consensus document that will satisfy a wide spectrum of Turks. It might be expected that such a process would likely preclude any shift to a presidential system, and would certainly make politically impossible the adoption of the strong French version, which does give a president extraordinary powers.

 

            From outside of Turkey the new line of criticism seems to reflect American and Israeli priorities and perspectives, and is not too closely related to Turkish realities. The tone and substance of this line was epitomized by a lead NY Times editorial published the day after the Turkish elections. After acknowledging some AKP achievements, including giving it credit for the flourishing Turkish economy and a successful reining in of the deep state, the editorial moved on to criticize “Mr. Edgogan’s increasingly confrontational foreign policies, which may play well at the polls, but they have proved costly for the country’s interests.” Such a comment by the supposedly authoritative and balanced NY Times is quite extraordinary for its display of ignorance and slyly disguised bias. After all, the hallmark of Turkish foreign policy during the Erdogan years, as developed under the inspired diplomatic leadership of the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been ‘zero problems with neighbors’ as manifest in a series of conflict-resolving and reconciling diplomatic initiatives, and a broad conception of neighbor to include the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Caucuses, as well as the entire Arab world. It is possible to argue that this direction of non-confrontational foreign policy went too far in some instances, most notably Syria, and possibly Libya, and as a result have generated some serious challenges for Turkey.

 

            The only exception to this pattern of zero problems has been Israel, but here the NY Times once again displays an uniformed and opinionated outlook when it writes “Once-constructive relations with Israel have yielded to tit-for-tat  provocations and, if they continue, could threaten Turkey’s substantial trade with Israel.” It would be hard to compose a more misleading description of the deterioration of Turkish/Israeli relations. It should be remembered that prior to the Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, Turkey was doing its best to promote peace between Israel and Syria by acting as an intermediary, a role at the time appreciated by both parties. It is also quite outrageous to speak of “tit-for-tat provocations” when it was Israeli commandos that boarded in international waters a Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, carrying humanitarian goods for the long blockaded people of Gaza, and killed in cold blood nine Turkish citizens. Even here in responding to Israeli unlawfulness in this Flotilla Incident of May 31, 2010, Turkey has subsequently tried its best to calm the waters, asking Tel Aviv only for an apology and compensation paid to the families of the victims, as preconditions for the restoration of normal relations with Israel. It has been Israel that has up to now defiantly refused to make even these minimal gestures in the interest of reconciliation.  And recently Davutoglu has gone further, perhaps too far, in his dedication to peaceful relations by openly discouraging Turkish participation in plans for a second Freedom Flotilla at the end of June, asking activists to wait to see if the blockade is broken due to changes in the Egyptian approach at the Rafah Crossing. The latest indications are that the Mavi Marmara will join the second freedom flotilla.

 

            The NY Times goes even further in its Orientalist approach to Turkey, writing that “Ankara must discourage private Turkish groups from initiating a second blockade-running Gaza flotilla..” Why must it? Is it not the blockade, approaching its fourth anniversary, that is widely condemned as cruel and unlawful, a flagrant violation of the legal prohibition on collective punishment set forth in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention? Should not putting such a demand to Turkey at least be balanced by a call on Israel to end the blockade? Given the failure of the UN or neighboring governments to protect the people of Gaza, should not members of civil society feel a duty to do so, and in democratic societies should not be hampered by their governments?

 

            The other foreign policy complaint in the Times’s editorial on Turkey deals with Iran. Here, of course echoing complaints from Washington as well as Tel Aviv, Turkey is blamed for playing “cozy games with Iran” that have “only encouraged Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” Perhaps wrongheaded, but hardly an example of Erdogan’s allegedly confrontational style! What NY Times obviously favors, not surprisingly, is confrontation, urging the Turkish government to “press Turkish companies and banks to enforce international sanctions against Iran.” What is at stake here is the foreign policy independence of Turkey. Its efforts to find a peaceful resolution of the dispute surrounding Iran’s nuclear program are clearly designed to lessen the tensions surrounding the present coercive diplomacy of the U.S. led coalition, and backed by the UN, that is based on sanctions and military threats. It is in Turkey’s clear national interest to avoid a military encounter that could eventuate in a damaging regional war that would be disastrous for Turkey, as well as dashing the hopes raised by the Arab Spring, while also using its diplomatic leverage to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, thereby producing an exceedingly dangerous situation for itself and others.

 

            Another Western criticism of the Erdogan’s approach is to blame Turkey for a diminishing prospect of accession to membership in the European Union. The Financial Times in their far more reasonable post-election editorial nevertheless appears to blame Turkey for “strained relations with the EU.” On what basis is not disclosed. What was not even discussed, but should be mentioned as the main explanation of the strained relations, is the rise of Islamophobia throughout Europe and reflected in public attitudes of governmental skepticism in Paris and Berlin, as well as elsewhere on the continent, about whether Turkey is a suitable candidate for membership, given its large Muslim population. It needs to be appreciated that Islamophobia in Europe while resurgent is not new. Recently, it had been associated with Turkophobia, in reaction to the Turkish guest workers that stayed on, and became a strong presence, often unwanted, in Germany. In the two earlier centuries prior to the 20th there existed European fear and loathing of an invading Ottoman Empire, and even earlier, of course, The Crusades with their marauding militarism.

 

            What emerges overall is this American led reluctance to accept Turkey as an independent regional force in the Middle East that has achieved enormous influence in recent years by relying on its own brand of soft power diplomacy. A dramatic indicator of this influence is the great popularity of Erdogan throughout the region, including among the youth who brought about the uprisings against authoritarian rule throughout the Arab world. It is an encouraging sign of the times that these new Arab champions of democracy are coming to Ankara and Istanbul, not Washington, Tel Aviv, or Paris, for guidance and inspiration.  Whether through the NATO intervention in Libya or the crude efforts to intimidate Iran, the West under faltering American leadership remains addicted to hard power statecraft, which no longer achieves its goals, although it continues to cause great suffering on the ground. It is time that the West stops lecturing Turkey, and starts to learn better what succeeds and what fails in 21st century foreign policy. A good place to start learning and listening might be Ankara!

Interpreting the AKP Victory in Turkey

13 Jun forumdasnetturkiyesecim


            The following post was written jointly with Hilal Elver, who is a Turkish scholar and public intellectual. It offers commentary on the recent AKP victory, which is viewed as a significant and hopeful development in Turkish, and regional, politics. The map above shows the electoral results by reference to party affiliation and place. Orange on the map indicates areas won by the AKP, red by the CHP, White designates areas where independent candidates representing Kurdish minorities were victorious.

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            It is the first time since the founding of the republic by Kemal Ataturk that such widespread international interest was aroused by Turkey’s June 12th elections. Naturally it is a time for celebration by the AKP in view of its landslide victory, a vindication of its overall economic and political approach over the past nine years. It is also an endorsement of its creative foreign policy that had given Turkey such a prominent place on regional and global diplomatic maps for the first time in its republican history.

 

            This afterglow of electoral victory should not obscure the challenges that lie ahead for the AKP. The most important of these involve finally providing the large Kurdish minority with secure cultural and political rights that to be trusted, would need to be vested in a new constitution. There is wide agreement in Turkey that the existing 1982 constitution, reflecting the approach taken by oppressive leaders of a military coup, needs to be replaced, but there are serious divisions among Turks with respect to the substantive content of such a new constitution. The secular opposition, as represented by the CHP, remains particularly worried about an alleged danger of the Putinization of the Turkish government if a switch is made from a parliamentary to a presidential system. More concretely, the AKP opposition believes that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harbors authoritarian dreams that could be fulfilled if Turkey were to follow the French presidential model.

 

Yet there should be less worry for two main reasons. Firstly, the AKP while winning 325 seats in parliament fell well short of securing the 367 seats needed for the parliamentary supermajorities that would have allowed it to decide on its own the contents of a new constitution or even of the 330 seats necessary for it to be able to write a constitution that would become the law of the land after it received approval in a national referendum. Without this degree of parliamentary control, the AKP will not be able to produce a constitution without the cooperation of the other parties represented in the parliament, especially the CHP, and that bodes well, particularly if the opposition acts responsibly by offering constructive cooperation.

 

And secondly, Erdogan in his victory speech went out of his way to reassure the country that constitutional reform would be a consensual process protective of diverse life styles and framed so as to achieve acceptance and justice for the entire society. At the moment of victory Erdogan seemed unexpectedly sensitive to criticism of his supposedly arrogant political style, and took the high road of moderation and humility. He seemed intent on convincing the Turkish public as a whole that he respected the secular principles that had dominated political life since the time of Ataturk, and that the country would become more pluralistic than ever in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

 

            It is not just Turks who should welcome this AKP victory. The electoral outcome provides the Middle East with an extremely positive example of dynamic democracy at a time of unresolved internal struggles throughout the region. The steady and helpful diplomatic hand of Turkey offers an attractive alternative to anxieties and memories associated with American and European interventions and alignments in the region. Turkey is a vibrant society with a flourishing economy that has managed to follow a democratic path to political stability and an independent course in foreign policy, and that offers an inspiring example for others to follow according to their various national circumstances.

 

            There are many uncertainties that cloud prospects for the future. Turkey faces the consequences of an unresolved bloody conflict in neighboring Syria, including the challenge of managing a massive inflow of refugees fleeing the killing fields. There are also the risks of an escalated confrontation with Iran arising from the Israel/United States hard power response to Iran’s nuclear program. This could ignite a war that engulfs the entire region with a variety of disastrous effects. In addition, the tense relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv are likely to be further stressed in coming weeks as preparation for a Second Freedom Flotilla go forward.

 

            Yet the sun shines brighter on the morning after these Turkish elections. Voters have affirmed an approach to Turkey’s internal and international policies premised on an inclusive approach to peace, justice, and rights. To build on this mandate, and to do so in a manner that is convincing to the majority of Turkish citizens, will create progress in the country and hope for the region. There will be mistakes and setbacks, but the orientation and vision of the AKP leadership is one of the most encouraging political developments of this still young 21st century. 

 

            The Prime Minister’s victory address from the balcony of AKP headquarters, what he calls a “mentorship speech” was the culmination of the long and steady rise of the AKP over the past decade– from 34% of the vote in 2002 to 47% in 2007, and now almost 50% in 2011. With some irony, this latest result did not give the AKP more seats in the Parliament due to recent changes in the electoral system of representation that had been decreed by the Higher Election Board, a part of the state bureaucracy known to be hostile to the AKP. While this restructuring that had hardly been noticed when it took place, hurt the AKP (326 rather than 341), while it helped to the CHP (rising from 112 to 135), and the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) that helped elect Kurdish independent candidates. As well, the rightest party, National Movement Party (MHP), cleared the 10% threshold, winning 13% of the vote, which produces 53 seats in the new parliament.

 

            The Prime Minister interpreted these results sympathetically, telling the public that he heard the voice of people as demanding consensus rather than a bestowal of unitary power on one party. In his words: “Our nation assigned us to draft a new constitution. They gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation..We will seek the broadest consensus.” The word ‘compromise’ was mentioned three times in the speech.

 

 Erdogan also tried to calm the political waters roiled by inflamed campaign rhetoric when he declared that “[i]ncendiary speeches given during the campaign should be forgotten.” This is an encouraging start for the next phase in the process of constructing a democracy that responds to the realities of the dive rse peoples living in Turkey. At one point he promised that the constitution “will address everybody’s demands for freedom, democracy, peace and justice, and each identity and each value.” It is the last phrase that is most relevant as an indication of a resolve to move beyond the unitary ideas of Kemalist Turkey that still animate the ultra-nationalist MHP that during the election campaign reaffirmed its unshakeable belief in “one identity (Turk), one state (Turkey), and one language (Turkish).” Such a rigid position seems impossible to reconcile with the Erdogan consensus approach that was explicitly directed at the quest for distinct cultural and political rights by a series of Turkish minorities, most significantly, the Kurds. Also mentioned by Erdogan were Arabs, Circassians, Georgians, Roma, Alevis, and Laz. The Prime Minister insisted that hereafter “all citizens will be first class,” which seemed to be making an historic commitment to equality between Turks and non-Turks in all phases of national life.

 

There are additional hopeful signs for Turkey’s future. 78 women were elected to the parliament, significantly more than ever before. Perhaps, finally, the headscarf issue will be resolved in the direction of freedom of religion and the rights of women. Turkish religiously observant Muslim women have suffered the punitive effects of the headscarf ban in public sector activities, including institutions of higher learning, for far too long. The discriminatory nature of the current policy is dramatized by the unassailed freedom of the AKP men who lead the government despite being as religiously observant as their wives.

 

Moreover, this parliament will be robustly diverse because of the many new faces, including the former left student leader who spent many years in jail( Ertugrul Kurkcu), several CHP members who are in prison, being accused of anti-state activity in the Ergenekon case, and Leyla Zana, the internationally known Kurdish parliamentarian who was originally elected in 1991 and arrived in Parliament wearing a Kurdish flag bandana and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Turkish state. After many years, some of them in jail, Zana is again in parliament. A few days ago on TV she joked: “Perhaps this time I will come with a headscarf,” implying that the individual rights of everyone should be protected, and those who wear headscarves should not be excluded.

 

As the most popular and admired leader in the region, Erdogan did not forget to send a message to peoples of the Middle East, mentioning several cities and countries by name, including places in occupied Palestine, suggesting rather dramatically that these places will be considered under the same banner of concern as Turkish cities. In a rhetorical flourish Erdogan insisted that the outcome of the elections in Turkey was a victory “for Bosnia as much as Istanbul, Beirut as much as Izmir, Damascus as much as Ankara.” While somewhat hyperbolic, such a display of internationalism was new in Turkish politics, and signifies the rise of Turkey as a diplomatic force beyond its borders.

 

            Erdogan somewhat unexpectedly also recalled a dark episode in Turkey’s past, specifically what happened in 1960 when a military coup not only ousted a democratically elected government headed by the Democratic Party, but executed three of its political leaders, including the Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, because it dared to challenge the supremacy of the military by reducing its budget.  As with the AKP, the Menderes leadership had governed Turkey for three consecutive terms, winning elections by overwhelming majorities. Erdogan was conveying his sense that the struggle to achieve Turkish democracy was long and painful.  He was also indirectly reminding his audience that the ‘deep state’ was no longer in a position to frustrate the will of the people. All in all, the message was upbeat as befits an electoral victory of this magnitude.

 

            A final observation takes note that June 12 was also the day on which Iranian elections were held two years ago. What is so startling is the contrast between the joyful expectations of the majority of the Turkish people after the electoral results were announced as compared to the anger and despair of the Iranian majority who believed for good reason that the regime in Tehran had fraudulently deprived them of an electoral victory. This difference between a governing process that periodically legitimates itself through free and fair multi-party elections and a governing process that lacks the consent of the public and must rule by fear and force may be the most basic fault line in domestic politics, and serves as the litmus test of the Arab Spring in the near future.

Revolutionary Prospects After Mubarak

15 Feb

The Egyptian Revolution has already achieved extraordinary results: after only eighteen intense days of dramatic protests. It brought to an abrupt end Mubarak’s cruelly dictatorial and obscenely corrupt regime that had ruled the country for more than thirty years. It also gained a promise from Egyptian military leaders to run the country for no more than six months of transition, the minimum period needed for the establishment of independent political parties, free elections, and some degree of economic restabilization. It is hoped that this transition would serve as the prelude to and first institutional expression of genuine democracy. Some informed observers, most notably Mohamed ElBaradei worry that this may be too short a time to fill the political vacuum that exists in Egypt after the collapse of the authoritarian structures that had used its suppressive energies to keep civil society weak and to disallow governmental institutions, especially parliament and the judiciary, to function with any degree of independence. It is often overlooked that the flip side of authoritarianism is nominal constitutionalism.

In contrast, some of the activist leaders that found their voice in Tahrir Square are concerned that even six months may be too long, giving the military and outside forces sufficient time to restore the essence of the old order, while giving it enough of a new look to satisfy the majority of Egyptians. Such a dismal prospect seems to be reinforced by reported American efforts to offer emergency economic assistance apparently designed to mollify the protesters, encourage popular belief that a rapid return to normalcy will provide this impoverished people (40% living on less than $2 per day; rising food price; high youth unemployment) with material gains.

The bravery, discipline, and creativity of the Egyptian revolutionary movement is nothing short of a political miracle, deserving to be regarded as one of the seven political wonders of the modern world! To have achieved these results without violence, despite a series of bloody provocations, and persisting without an iconic leader, without even the clarifying benefit of a revolutionary manifesto, epitomizes the originality and grandeur of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Such accomplishments shall always remain glories of the highest order that can never be taken away from the Egyptian people, regardless of what the future brings. And these glorious moments belong not just to those who gathered at Tahrir Square and at the other protest sites in Cairo, but belong to all those ignored by the world media who demonstrated at risk and often at the cost of their life or physical wellbeing day after day throughout the entire country in every major city. Both the magnitude and intensity of this spontaneous national mobilization was truly remarkable. The flames of an aroused opposition were fanned by brilliantly innovative, yet somewhat obscure, uses of social networking, while the fires were lit by the acutely discontented youth of Egypt and kept ablaze by people of all class and educational backgrounds coming out into the street. The inspirational spark for all that followed in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, let us not forget, was provided by the Tunisian Revolution. What happened in Tunisia was equally astonishing to the amazing happenings in Egypt, not only for being the initiating tremor, but also for reliance on nonviolent militancy to confront a ruthlessly oppressive regime so effectively that the supposed invincible dictator, Ben Ali, escaped quickly to Saudi Arabia for cover.  The significance of the Tunisian unfolding and its further development should not be neglected or eclipsed during the months ahead. Without the Tunisian spark we might still be awaiting the Egyptian blaze!

As is widely understood, after the fireworks and the impressive cleanup of the piles of debris and garbage by the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, itself a brilliantly creative footnote to their main revolutionary message, there remains the extraordinarily difficult task of generating ex nihil a new governing process based on human rights, the will of the Egyptian people, and a mighty resolve to guard sovereign rights against the undoubted plots of canny external actors scared by and unhappy with the revolution, seeking to rollback the outcome, and seeking above all by any means the restoration of Mubarakism without Mubarak.  The plight of the Egyptian poor must also be placed on the top of the new political agenda, which will require not only control of food and fuel prices, but the construction of an equitable economy that gives as much attention to the distribution of the benefits of growth as to GNP aggregate figures. Unless the people benefit, economic growth is a subsidy for the rich, whether Egyptian or foreign.

Short of catastrophic imaginings, if interpreted as warnings may forestall their actual occurrence, there are immediate concerns: it seemed necessary to accept the primacy of the Egyptian military with the crucial task of overseeing the transition, but is it a trustworthy custodian of the hopes and aspirations of the revolution? Its leadership was deeply implicated in the corruption and the brutality of the Mubarak regime, kept in line over the decades by being willing accomplices of oppressive rule and major beneficiaries of its corrupting largess. How much of this privileged role is the military elite ready to renounce voluntarily out of its claimed respect for and deference to the popular demand for an end to exploitative governance in a society languishing in mass poverty? Will the Egyptian military act responsibly to avoid the destructive effects of a second uprising against the established order? It should also not be forgotten that the Egyptian officer corps was mainly trained in the United States, and that coordination at the highest level between American military commanders and their Egyptian counterparts has already been resumed at the highest levels, especially with an eye toward maintaining ‘the cold peace’ with Israel.  These nefarious connections help explain why Mubarak was viewed for so long as a loyal ally and friend in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh, and why the inner counsels of these governments are reacting with concealed panic at the outburst of emancipatory politics throughout the region. I would suppose that these old relationships are being approached with emergency zeal to ensure that however goes the transition to Egyptian democracy it somehow exempts wider controversial regional issues from review and change that would reflect the values that animated the revolutionary risings in Tunisia and Egypt. These values would suggest solidarity with movements throughout the Middle East to end autocratic governance, oppose interventions and the military presence of the United States, solve the Israel/Palestine conflict in accordance with international law rather than ‘facts on the ground,’ and seek to make the region a nuclear free zone (including Israel) reinforced by a treaty framework establishing peaceful relations and procedures of mutual security.  It does not require an expert to realize that such changes consistent with the revolutionary perspectives that prevailed in Egypt and Tunisia would send shivers down the collective spines of autocratic leaderships throughout the region, as well as being deeply threatening to Israel and to the grand strategy of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, that has been determined to safeguard vital economic and political interests in the region by reliance on the military and paramilitary instruments of hard power.

At stake if the revolutionary process continues, is Western access to Gulf oil reserves at prices and amounts that will not roil global markets, as well as the loss of lucrative markets for arms sales. Also at risk is the security of Israel so long as its government refuses to allow the Palestinians to have an independent and viable state within 1967 borders that accords with the two state solution long favored by the international community, and long opposed by Israel. Such a Palestinian state existing with full sovereign rights on all territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 War would mean an immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade, withdrawal of occupying Israeli forces from the West Bank, dismantling of the settlements (including in East Jerusalem), allowing Palestinian refugees to exercise some right of return, and agreeing to either the joint administration of Jerusalem or a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. It should be understood that such a peace was already implicit in Security Council Resolution 242 that was unanimously adopted in 1967, proposed again by Arab governments in 2002 with a side offer to normalize relations with Israel, and already accepted by the Palestinian National Council back in 1988 and reaffirmed a few years ago by Hamas as the basis for long-term peaceful coexistence. It should be understood that this Palestinian state claims only 22% of historic Palestine, and is a minimal redress of justice for an occupation that has lasted almost 44 years (recall that the UN partition plan gave the Palestinians 45% in 1947, and that seemed unfair at the time), and an expulsion that has resulted in an outrageously prolonged refugee status for millions of Palestinians that derives from the nakba of 1948. But until now, even this minimal recognition of the Palestinian right of self-determination has been unacceptable to Israel as most recently evidenced in the Palestine Papers that provide evidence that even when the Palestine Authority agreed to extravagant Israeli demands for retention of most settlements, including in East Jerusalem, and abandonment of any provision for the return of Palestinian refugees, the Israelis were not interested, and walked away. The question now is whether the revolutionary challenges posed by the outcome in Egypt will lead to a new realism in Tel Aviv, or more of the same, which would mean a maximal effort to rollback the revolutionary gains of the Egyptian people, or if that proves impossible, then at least do whatever possible to contain the regional enactment of revolutionary values.

Does this seemingly amateur (in the best sense of the word) movement in Egypt have the sustaining energy, historical knowledge, and political sophistication to ensure that the transition process fulfills revolutionary expectations? So many past revolutions, fulsome with promise, have faltered precisely at this moment of apparent victory. Will the political and moral imagination of Egyptian militancy retain enough energy, perseverance, and vision to fulfill these requirements of exceptional vigilance to keep the circling vultures at bay? In one sense, these revolutions must spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt or these countries will be surrounded and existing in a hostile political neighborhood. Some have spoken of the Turkish domestic model as helpfully providing an image of a democratizing Egypt and Tunisia, but its foreign policy under AKP leadership is equally, if not more so, suggestive of a foreign policy worthy of these revolutions and their aftermath, and essential for a post-colonial Middle East that finally achieves its ‘second liberation.’  The first liberation was to end colonial rule. The second liberation, initiated by the Iranian Revolution in its first phase, seeks the end of geopolitical hegemony, and this struggle has barely begun.

How dangerous is the prospect of intervention by the United States, Gulf countries, and Israel, probably not in visible forms, but in all likelihood in the form of maneuvers carried out from beneath the surface? The foreign policy interests of these governments and allied corporate and financial forces are definitely at serious risk. If the Egyptian revolutionary process unfolds successfully in Egypt during the months ahead it will have profound regional effects that will certainly shake the foundations of the old post-colonial regional setup, not necessarily producing revolutions elsewhere but changing the balance in ways that enhance the wellbeing of the peoples and diminish the role of outsiders. These effects are foreseeable by the adversely affected old elites, creating a strong, if not desperate, array of external incentives to derail the Egyptian Revolution by relying on many varieties of counterrevolutionary obstructionism. It is already evident that these elites with help from their many friends in the mainstream media are already spreading falsehoods about the supposed extremism and ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood that seem intended to distract public attention, discredit the revolution, and build the basis for future interventionary moves, undertaken in the name of combating extremism, if not  justified as counter-terrorism.

It is correct that historically revolutions have swerved off course by succumbing to extremist takeovers. In different ways this happened to both the French and Russian Revolutions, and more recently to the Iranian Revolution. Extremism won out, disappointing the democratic hopes of the people, leading to either the restoration of the old elites or to new forms of violence, oppression, and exploitation. Why? Each situation is unique and original, but there are recurrent patterns. During the revolutionary struggle opposition to the old regime is deceptively unifying, obscuring real and hidden tensions that emerge later to fracture the spirit and substance of solidarity. Soon after the old order collapses, or as here partially collapses, the spirit of unity is increasingly difficult to maintain. Some fear a betrayal of revolutionary goals by the untrustworthy managers of transition. Others fear that reactionary and unscrupulous elements from within the ranks of the revolution will come to dominate the democratizing process. Still others fear that all will be lost unless an all out struggle against internal and external counterrevolutionary plots, real and imagined, is launched immediately. And often in the confusing and contradictory aftermath of revolution, some or all of these concerns have a foundation in fact.

The revolution does need to be defended against its real enemies, which as here, definitely exist, as well to avoid imagined enemies that produce tragic implosions of revolutionary processes. It is in this atmosphere of seeking to consolidate revolutionary gains that the purity of the movement is at risk, and is tested in a different manner than when masses of people were in the streets defying a violent crackdown. The danger in Egypt is that the inspirational nonviolence that mobilized the opposition can in the months ahead either be superseded by a violent mentality or succumb to outside and inside pressures by being too passive or overly trusting in misleading reassurances. Perhaps, this post-revolutionary interval between collapse of the old and consolidation of the new poses the greatest challenge that has yet faced this exciting movement led by young leaders who are just now beginning to emerge from the shadows of anonymity. All persons of good will should bless their efforts to safeguard all that has been so far gained, and to move forward in solidarity toward a sustainably humane and just future for their society, their region, and their world.

 

The Toxic Residue of Colonialism: Protecting Interests, Disregarding Rights

8 Feb


At least, overtly, there has been no talk from either Washington or Tel Aviv, the governments with most to lose as the Egyptian Revolution unfolds, of military intervention. Such restraint is more expressive of geopolitical sanity than postcolonial morality, but still it enables some measure of change to take place that unsettles, temporarily at least, the established political order. And yet, by means seen and unseen, external actors, especially the United States, with a distinct American blend of presumed imperial and paternal prerogatives are seeking to shape and limits the outcome of this extraordinary uprising  of the Egyptian people long held in subsidized bondage by the cruel and corrupt Mubarak dictatorship. What is the most defining feature of this American-led diplomacy-from-without is the seeming propriety of managing the turmoil so that the regime survives and the demonstrators return to what is perversely being called ‘normalcy.’ I find most astonishing that President Obama so openly claims the authority to instruct the Mubarak regime about how it is supposed to respond to the revolutionary uprising. I am not surprised at the effort, and would be surprised by its absence, but merely by the lack of any signs of imperial shyness in a world order that is supposedly built around the legitimacy of self-determination, national sovereignty, and democracy. And almost as surprising, is the failure of Mubarak to pretend in public that such interference in the guise of guidance is unacceptable, even if behind closed doors he listens submissively and acts accordingly. This geopolitical theater performance of master and servant suggests the persistence of the colonial mentality on the part of both colonizer and their national collaborators.

The only genuine post-colonial message would be one of deference: ‘stand aside, and applaud.’ The great transformative struggles of the last century involved a series of challenges throughout the global south to get rid of the European colonial empires. But political independence did not bring an end to the more indirect, but still insidious, methods of indirect control designed to protect economic and strategic interests. Such a dynamic meant reliance on political leaders that would sacrifice the wellbeing of their own people to serve the wishes of their unacknowledged former colonial masters, or their Western successors (the United States largely displacing France and the United Kingdom in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis of 1956). And these post-colonial servants of the West would be well-paid autocrats vested with virtual ownership rights in relation to the indigenous wealth of their country provided they remained receptive to foreign capital.  In this regard the Mubarak regime was (and remains) a poster child of post-colonial success. Western liberal eyes were long accustomed not to notice the internal patterns of abuse that were integral to this foreign policy success, and if occasionally noticed by some intrepid journalist, who would then be ignored or if necessary discredited as some sort of ‘leftist,’ and if this failed to deflect criticism than point out, usually with an accompanying condescending smile, that torture and the like came with Arab cultural territory, a reality that savvy outsiders adapted to without any discomfort. Actually, in this instance, such practices were quite convenient, Egypt serving as one of the interrogation sites for the insidious practice of ‘extreme rendition,’ by which the CIA transports terrorist suspects to accommodating foreign countries that willingly provide torture tools and facilities. Is this what is meant by ‘a human rights presidency’? The irony should not be overlooked that President Obama’s special envoy to the Mubarak government in the crisis was none other than Frank Wisner, an American with a most notable CIA lineage.

There should be clarity about the relationship between this kind of post-colonial state, serving American regional interests (oil, Israel, containment of Islam, avoidance of unwanted proliferation of nuclear weapons) in exchange for power, privilege, and wealth vested in a tiny corrupt national elite that sacrifices the wellbeing and dignity of the national populace in the process. Such a structure in the post-colonial era where national sovereignty and human rights infuse popular consciousness can only be maintained by erecting high barriers of fear reinforced by state terror that are designed to intimidate the populace from pursuing their goals and values. When these barriers are breached, as recently in Tunisia and Egypt, then the fragility of the oppressive regime glows in the dark. The dictator either runs for the nearest exit, as did Tunisia’s Ben Ali, or is dumped by his entourage and foreign friends so that the revolutionary challenge can be tricked into a premature accommodation. This latter process seems to represent the latest maneuvering of the palace elite in Cairo and their backers in the White House. Only time will tell whether the furies of counterrevolution will win the day, possibly by gunfire and whip, and possibly through mollifying gestures of reform that become unfulfillable promises in due course if the old regime is not totally reconstructed. Unfulfillable because corruption and gross disparities of wealth amid mass impoverishment can only be sustained, post-Tahrir Square, through the reimposition of oppressive rule. And if it is not oppressive, then it will not be able for very long to withstand demands for rights, for social and economic justice, and due course for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Here is the crux of the ethical irony. Washington is respectful of the logic of self-determination so long as it converges with American grand strategy, and oblivious to the will of the people whenever its expression is seen as posing a threat to the neoliberal overlords of the globalized world economy or to strategic alignments that seem so dear to State Department or Pentagon planners. As a result there is an inevitable to-ing and fro-ing as the United States tries to bob and weave, celebrating the advent of democracy in Egypt, complaining about the violence and torture of the tottering regime, while doing what it can to manage the process from outside, which means preventing genuine change, much less a democratic transformation of the Egyptian state. Anointing the main CIA contact person and a Mubarak loyalist, Omar Suleiman, to preside over the transition process on behalf of Egypt seems a thinly disguised plan to throw Mubarak to the crowd while stabilizing the regime he presided over for more than 30 years.  I would expected more subtlety on the part of the geopolitical managers, but perhaps its absence is one more sign of imperial myopia that so often accompanies the decline of great empires.

It is notable that most protesters when asked by the media about their reasons for risking death and violence by being in the Egyptian streets respond with variations on the phrases “We want our rights” or “We want freedom and dignity.”  Of course, joblessness, poverty, food security, anger at the corruption, abuses, and dynastic pretensions of the Mubarak regime offer an understandable infrastructure of rage that undoubtedly fuels the revolutionary fires, but it is rights and dignity that seems to float on the surface of this awakened political consciousness. These ideas, to a large extent nurtured in the hothouse of Western consciousness and then innocently exported as a sign of good will, like ‘nationalism’ a century earlier, might originally be intended only as public relations moves, but over time such ideas gave rise to the dreams of the oppressed and victimized, and when the unexpected historical moment finally arrived, burst into flame. I remember talking a decade or so ago to Indonesian radicals in Jakarta who talked of the extent to which their initial involvement in anti-colonial struggle was stimulated to what they had learned from their Dutch colonial teachers about the rise of nationalism as a political ideology in the West.

Ideas may be disseminated with conservative intent, but if they later become appropriated on behalf of the struggles of oppressed peoples such ideas are reborn, and serve as the underpinnings of a new emancipatory politics. Nothing better illustrates this Hegelian journey than the idea of ‘self-determination,’ initially proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson after World War I. Wilson was a leader who sought above all to maintain order, believed in satisfying the aims of foreign investors and corporations,  and had no complaints about the European colonial empires. For him, self-determination was merely a convenient means to arrange the permanent breakup of the Ottoman Empire through the formation of a series of ethnic states. Little did Wilson imagine, despite warnings from his Secretary of State, that self-determination could serve other gods, and become a powerful mobilizing tool to overthrow colonial rule. In our time, human rights has followed a similarly winding path, sometimes being no more than a propaganda banner used to taunt enemies during the Cold War, sometimes as a convenient hedge against imperial identity, and sometimes as the foundations of revolutionary zeal as seems to be the case in the unfinished and ongoing struggles for rights and dignity taking place throughout the Arab world in a variety of forms.

It is impossible to predict how this future will play out. There are too many forces at play in circumstances of radical uncertainty. In Egypt, for instance, it is widely believed that the army holds most of the cards, and that where it finally decides to put its weight will determine the outcome. But is such conventional wisdom not just one more sign that hard power realism dominates our imagination, and that historical agency belongs in the end to the generals and their weapons, and not to the people in the streets. Of course, there is blurring of pressures as the army could be merely trying to go with the flow, siding with the winner once the outcome seems clear. Is there any reason to rely on the wisdom, judgment, and good will of armies, not just in Egypt whose commanders owe their positions to Mubarak, but throughout the world? In Iran the army did stand aside, and a revolutionary process transformed the Shah’s edifice of corrupt and brutal governance, the people momentarily prevailed, only to have their extraordinary nonviolent victory snatch away in a subsequent counterrevolutionary move that substituted theocracy for democracy.  There are few instances of revolutionary victory, and in those few instances, it is rarer still to carry forward the revolutionary mission without disruption. The challenge is to sustain the revolution in the face of almost inevitable counterrevolutionary projects, some launched by those who were part of the earlier movement unified against the old order but now determined to hijack the victory for its own ends. The complexities of the revolutionary moment require utmost vigilance on the part of those who view emancipation, justice, and democracy as their animating ideals because there will be enemies who seek to seize power at the expense of humane politics. One of the most impressive features of the Egyptian Revolution up to this point has been the extraordinary ethos of nonviolence and solidarity exhibited by the massed demonstrators even in the face of repeated bloody provocations of the baltagiyya dispatched by the regime. This ethos has so far refused to be diverted by these provocations, and we can only hope against hope that the provocations will cease, and that counterrevolutionary tides will subside, sensing either the futility of assaulting history or imploding at long last from the build up of corrosive effects from a long embrace of an encompassing illegitimacy.

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