Tag Archives: United States

Five Palestine Futures

24 Jun

 

Background and Foreground      

 

 

For years, perhaps going back as far as the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, influential international debate on the future of Palestine has almost exclusively considered variations on the theme of a two-state solution. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, stampeded the Palestinian Authority and Israel into negotiations that ‘failed’ even before they started a year ago. At least Kerry was prudent enough to warn both sides that this was their do or die moment for resolving the conflict. It was presumed without dissent in high places anywhere that this two-state outcome was the one and only solution that could bring peace. Besides the parties themselves, the EU, the Arab League, the UN all wagered that a resolution of the conflict required the establishment of a Palestinian state. Even Benjamin Netanyahu became a reluctant subscriber to this mantra in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, although always in a halfhearted spirit.

 

The reasoning that underlay this consensus went along these lines: a viable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict could not challenge the Israeli commitment and the essential Zionist Project to create a homeland for Jews worldwide; this meant that self-determination for the Palestinian people would have to be addressed separately, and the only way to do this was by way of a partition of historic Palestine. The British had come to this conclusion as early as 1936 in the Peel Commission Report (a British Royal Commission that concluded that the British mandate as applied to the whole of historic Palestine was unworkable because of the tensions between the two ethnic communities, and proposed that partition be imposed), which became the basis for the solution proposed in 1947 by the UN in General Assembly Resolution 181. It was reaffirmed in Security Council Resolution 242 unanimously adopted after the 1967 War that reduced the portion of Palestine assigned to the Palestinian from 45% to 22%, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territory occupied as a result and reaffirming the principle of international law that territory could not be validly acquired by force of arms.

 

Underneath the partition consensus there is an intriguing puzzle to solve: why has the consensus persisted despite the leadership of neither Israel nor Palestine seeming to have opted for partition except as a second best outcome. The Palestinians made their dislike of partition manifest from the outset of large scale Jewish immigration in the decades after the Balfour Declaration of 1917, believing that imposing a Jewish homeland, much less a Jewish state, was an unacceptable colonial encroachment. In the late 1980s the Palestinians, as represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization, adjusting to the realities of Israel’s presence, accepted the idea of partition in the historic decision in 1988 of the Palestine National Council. In its essence, the Palestinians endorsed the vision embedded in SC Res. 242, envisioning a Palestinian reality based on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-war green line borders, an expectation that, of course, never materialized.

 

More subtly, the Zionist leadership was at best ambivalent about partition, appreciating it initially as a path leading to sovereignty, which exceeded ‘homeland’ as a political outcome, and represented more than they could have hoped for earlier in their movement, yet decisively less than the biblical vision of Israel as encompassing the whole of historic Israel. As the situation evolved since Israeli independence, Israel has continuously revised its sense of a favorable balance of forces making it seem realistic to seek a fuller realization of the Zionist dream. In recent years, the Israeli one-staters have started to gain the upper hand, based partly on what has been happening on the ground, partly by the rightward drift of the governing coalition, and partly from the absence of real incentives to compromise territorially due to the falling away of Palestinian armed resistance and the absence of meaningful pressure from Washington. There is a renewed reliance in Israel on the contention that the ‘Palestinians’ do not really have a distinct ethnicity, and hence are not a ‘people’ entitled to self-determination under international law. Palestinians are and should be viewed as ‘Arabs.’ As such, they have no need for another state as already 22 Arab states exist. In my experience, within Israel, almost no Israelis refer to Palestinians as other than as Arabs, except of course the Palestinians.

  

Of course, what a Palestinian state meant to the Palestinians was different than what it meant to the Israelis. Additionally, what it meant for the Palestinian Authority was also far apart from what the Palestinians overseas dispersed communities and the refugee camps believed to be the necessary components of peace. Almost necessarily, the focus on Palestine as a state rather than Palestine as the communal recipient of rights reduced the conflict to a territorial dispute supposedly susceptible to solution by a ‘land for peace’ formula. This approach marginalized other Palestinian grievances, above all, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, creating tensions between Palestinians living under occupation and Palestinians living in refugee camps and in exile. It also situated issues relating to Jerusalem in some indeterminate zone that was neither territorial nor distinct from territorial claims.

 

On the Israeli side, too, there were big variations. The dominant Israeli position in recent years has been one in which the dimensions of a Palestinian state must be subordinated to the imperatives of Israeli security as defined by the Israeli government. In effect, that would mean confiscating all of Occupied Palestine to the West of the separation wall and the settlement blocs as well as controlling the borders and maintaining for an indefinite period Israeli security forces in the Jordan Valley. In addition, Palestinians must renounce all their claims as part of a final status agreement, which would seem also to imply the end of any assertion of a right of return for 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees. More maximalist versions involve even larger annexationist features and treat the city of Jerusalem as exclusively belonging in perpetuity to Israel. On top of all these demands is the insistence by Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which both relegates the Palestinian minority in Israel to permanent subjugation and effectively renounces any Palestinian right of return.

 

The Israeli government having in recent years become virtually inseparable from the settler movement has long appreciated that the function of endorsing a Palestinian state was little more than a way of appeasing, and thereby neutralizing, world public opinion, given its insistence that a political solution was possible and necessary, and could only happen if the Palestinian got their state, satisfying at the very least, the territorial core of self-determination. Even now the Palestinian Authority continues to sing the same lyrics, although the melody is more solemn. The Palestinian governmental representatives in recent years have lost even the ability to say ‘no’ to international negotiations despite having nothing to gain from the recurrent charade of such American orchestrated gatherings and quite a bit to lose by way of expanding settlements, the altered makeup of Jerusalem, and a gradual shifting international mood in the direction of accepting Israeli maximalism as unassailable, if regrettable. Ironically, Israeli media influence and the supportive voice of the U.S. Government also blames the Palestinians for each round of failed peace talks, although for the first time, the Israel obstructionist role was so evident, Washington blamed both sides.

 

 

There is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. With what appears to be the death throes of a failed peace process is being acknowledged in the form of an eerie silence in high places. There is an absence of conjecture or advocacy as to how the conflict might end abetted by the recent focus on the turmoil in the region, especially the renewed chaos in Iraq and intensifying strife in Syria that has shifted public and media attention away from the Israel-Palestine agenda. This evasive silence has for the present replaced earlier false hopes invested in futile diplomatic negotiations. In retrospect, it is easy to conclude that political preconditions for conflict-resolving negotiations premised on a viable Palestinian sovereign state never truly existed on the Israeli side, assuredly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. This is mainly because the expansionist vision of the right-wing settlers became more and more accepted as official state policy in Tel Aviv, and there was no longer pressures being mounted by Palestinian armed struggle. On the Palestinian governmental side, in contrast, there was an eagerness to end the occupation and attain the status and rituals associated with being a sovereign state. Confusion surrounded the practicalities of what such an arrangement would yield. It always seemed doubtful as to whether a deal like this could be sold to the Palestinian people if it left the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps and overseas out in the cold. This assessment is especially true since the death of Arafat in 2004, which has led to a virtual leadership vacuum on the Palestinian side.

 

The security logic of the Israeli right is that Israel will only be able to maintain its security over time if it continues to control all or most of the West Bank. This image of security reflects the view that real threat to Israel no longer comes from Palestinian armed resistance. It comes from the surrounding Arab world that is moving toward more advanced weaponry, and at some point is almost sure to again turn its guns and missiles in an Israeli direction. Additionally, pushing toward a similar understanding, is the view that the full realization of Zionism involves the incorporation of the West Bank, always referred to in internal Israeli discourse by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

 

Peace through bilateral negotiations presided over by the United States has long seemed moribund to many close observers, but after the recent collapse of the talks this top down diplomatic approach seems discredited even among governments and at the UN, at least for now. Yet it is impossible for most of the world to accept the finality of such a stalemate that favors Israel, in effect, ratifying land grabs and apartheid structures, while consigning the Palestinians to regimes of misery of for the indefinite future, which translates into the rigors of permanent denial of rights, oppression, refugee camps, and involuntary exile. This bleak assessment raises the question ‘What Now?’

 

           

Constructing a New Box

 

 

In situations of this sort, where differences seem irreconcilable, the common call is ‘to think outside the box.’ The old box was the consensus associated with the two-state mantra, which appeared to have a solidity that never truly existed. Now appearances are more reliable. At present there is not even a box to think within. Yet silence and despair is not an option while Palestine suffering and denial of rights endures. Future alternatives need to be imagined and appraised. Five seem worth pondering, and each has some plausibility.

(1)  Israeli One-State: Such an end game involves extending Israel’s border to incorporate most of the West Bank, keeping the settlements except, perhaps, relinquishing control over a few isolated outposts. This vision of Palestine’s future takes on heightened political relevance considering that Reuven Rivlin, the newly elected Israeli President, is an open advocate of a supposedly humane version of an Israeli one-state outcome, a position that directly contradicts Netanyahu’s endorsement of an eventual Palesinian state. This benevolent version, spelled out in some detail by an influential settler advocate, Dani Dayan, calls for a radical easing of Palestinian life in relation to day to day humiliations, ranging from the numerous checkpoints, restrictions on mobility, and anticipates and supports the dismantling of the separation wall. [See Dayan, “Peaceful Nonreconciliation Now,” NY Times, June 9, 2014]

 

Dayan proposes that the Israeli government take a series of steps to raise the Palestinian standard of living significantly. He admits that this type of ‘economic peace’ will never satisfy Palestinian political/legal grievances relating to territory, independence, and the right of return. Such a proposal is essentially offering the Palestinians a Faustian Bargain in which Palestinians give up their rights of resistance in waging a political struggle for self-determination in exchange for the tangible psychological and economic advantages of living better lives materially and enjoying some measure of dignity within an Israeli structure of governance. The obstacle here is that the authentic voices representing the Palestinian people seem united in refusing to renounce their political ambitions and their right of resistance. The acceptance of such an arrangement would be widely understood, including among the Palestinian people, as a political surrender to the de facto realities of Israeli settler colonialism carried to its maximalist endpoint. It is relevant to note that the Dayan proposal is coupled with the expectation that the Palestinians would renounce in principle and practice any right of violent resistance, while the Israeli state would be entitled to engage in violence whenever the perceived imperatives of security so demanded.

 

 

(2)  Binational One-State: The more idealistic version of the one-state solution presupposes a secular state that encompasses the whole of historic Palestine, establishes a unified government with democracy and human rights for all, and creates semi-autonomous regions where Jews and Palestinians can exercise self-administration and freely express their separate national and ethnic identities. In effect, the two dominant peoples in Palestine would agree to live together within a single sovereign state on the basis of equality and democracy, but with agreed provisions creating separate national communities preserving culture, tradition, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. There are several obstacles: given the realities on the ground and the attachment of an overwhelming majority of Israelis to the Zionist Project of a Jewish State with its unlimited right of return for Jews worldwide, the proposal seems utopian, lacking political traction. Furthermore, the disparities in wealth and education would likely lead to Israeli hierarchy, if not dominance and continued exploitation, in any process that purported to unify the country on a non-Zionist basis.

 

 

(3)  Israeli Withdrawal from Occupation: In this proposal, there would be no explicit shift in the structures of governance. In a manner similar to the 2005 Sharon Disengagement Plan for Gaza, this new initiative would apply to those portions of Palestine that Israel seeks to incorporate within its final international borders. This arrangement would leave the Palestinian Authority in charge of the remnant of the West Bank, as well as Gaza. It would maintain the actuality of the occupation regime, but without the presence of Israeli security forces and keep the separation wall, imposing rigid border controls and continue repression, effectively depriving Palestinians of the enjoyment of their most basic human rights. This approach                          rests on the assumption that Israeli military control is able to implement such a solution as well as to deal with external threats mounted from hostile forces in the region. The main obstacle is that Palestinians would have no incentive to accept such an outcome, it would be denounced in most international settings, including the United Nations, and it would have the likely political consequence of further isolating Israel in global settings.

 

(4)  Palestinian Self-Determination: There is some new thinking in the Palestinian camp, most articulately formulated by Ali Abunimah in his important book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine. The emphasis is on civil society activism and nonviolent Palestinian resistance as building global support for a solution that is responsive to the Palestinian right of self-determination. What form self-determination eventually assumes is a matter, above all, for Palestinians to decide for themselves. The realization of self-determination presupposes leadership that is accepted by authentic representatives of the whole of the Palestinian people, including those living as a minority within Israel, those living under occupation, and those in refugee camps and involuntary exile. The contours of the territorial division or unity that emerges would be the outcome of negotiations, but its embodiment would address the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people as defined by international law and international human rights and include a formal acknowledgement by Israel of past injustices done to the Palestinian people. The main obstacle here is one of hard power disparities and rigidities, as well as the continuing, although weakening, Jewish worldwide engagement with the Zionist Project. The way around such an obstacle is to gain worldwide support that mounts sufficient pressure on Israel, the United States, and Europe so as to induce a recalculation of interests by Israeli leaders and citizens based on a new realism associated with the increasing leverage of growing Palestinian soft power capabilities.

 

(5)  Peaceful Co-Existence: In recent years, Hamas, strangely seems to be the last holdout for a version of the two-state solution, although in its maximalist form. Israel would need to withdraw to the 1967 borders, end its blockade of Gaza, and give Palestine control over East Jerusalem. The main obstacle here is that Israel would have to abandon its expansionist goals and dismantle the settlements, although it could retain the Zionist Project in its more limited territorial applications to Israel as it existed in 1967. The secondary obstacle is that the Hamas Charter calls for the total removal of the entire Jewish presence from historic Palestine, making the proposal seem tactical and untrustworthy, and at most intended to serve as an interim arrangement, an uneasy truce and unsustainable peace. Hamas officials have indicated a willingness to commit to 50 years of coexistence, a period in which much could change, including even the primacy of the statist framing of political community. It is impossible to imagine Israel accepting such a blurry outcome that rolled back the factual realities of expansion that have been created by Israel over the course of several decades. Besides, whatever its content the very fact that Hamas was the source of such a proposal would alone be sufficient to produce an Israel rejection.

 

A Concluding Comment

 

It is obvious that none of these five approaches seems either attractive enough to challenge the status quo or politically persuasive enough to shift the balance of forces bearing on the conflict. Yet, there are signs indicating both that the Israelis are moving toward a unilaterally imposed option and the Palestinians are becoming more inclined to combine nonviolent resistance with support for militant global solidarity. On the one side, the Israeli settler movement is on the front line, and on the other, the Palestinian BDS campaign is gathering momentum as the leading expression of the Palestine National Movement. In both instances, at this time the relevant governmental entities have been marginalized as political actors in relation to the struggle. This is itself an extraordinary development, but where it will lead remains obscure. Two images of the near future seem most relevant. From an Israeli perspective: the consummation of the Zionist project by the incorporation of all or most of the West Bank, the further ethnic consolidation of control over the whole of Jerusalem, and the rejection of any humanitarian responsibility or political ambition with regard to the Gaza Strip. From a Palestinian perspective: the growth of the global solidarity movement to a point where an increasing number of governments impose sanctions on Israel, reinforced societal initiatives associated with the BDS campaign, giving rise to new thinking in Israel and the United States about how best to engage in damage control. If such a point is reached, the experience of transforming apartheid South Africa into a multi-racial constitutional democracy is almost certain to intrigue the political imagination.

Zombie Ideas and the Presbyterian Divestment Decision

21 Jun

 

 

At this moment it is right to celebrate unreservedly  the outcome of the vote in Presbyterian General Assembly decreeing the divestment of $21 million worth of shares in Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar, companies long and notoriously associated with implementing Israel’s unlawful occupation policies in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. This carries forward the momentum of the BDS Campaign and recent efforts emanating from the UN and the EU to induce governments, as well as corporations and financial institutions to become aware that it is increasingly viewed as problematic under international law to profit from dealings with Israel’s settlements and occupation security mechanisms.

 

It is much too soon to suggest a cascading effect from recent moves in this direction, but the mainstreaming of the divestment and boycott campaigns in a major achievement of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement that is displacing the moribund ‘peace process’ that in recent months dramatized the extent to which the Israeli Government is not interested in a favorable negotiated solution even as mediated by partisan U.S. mediation mechanisms and in relation to a weak Palestinian Authority that seems readier to offer concessions than to seek compromises that incorporate Palestinian rights under international law.

 

The Presbyterian decision, itself vetted by an elaborate debate and producing a text crafted to narrow the distance between supporters and opponents of divestment did not address issues of context such as Israel’s formal approval of settlement expansion, the Knesset election of a new Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin*, who favors the annexation of the entire West Bank and Jerusalem, and the collapsed negotiations between the parties prompted a year ago by the Kerry diplomatic onslaught. In this regard the Presbyterian decision includes language affirming Israel’s right to exist, encouraging inter-faith dialogue and visits to the Holy Land, distancing the divestment move from BDS, urging a ‘positive investment’ in activities that improves the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis, and endorsing the two-state solution should be understood mainly as expressions of intra-Presbyterian politics, and not be interpreted as serious substantive positions. Such an interpretation of what is significant and what is not about this outcome is reinforced by the reported feverish lobbying of pro-Israeli NGOs against the decision, including by the Anti-Defamation League and taking the form of an open letter to the Assembly signed by 1,700 rabbis from all 50 states that together constitute the United States. The most ardent backers of Israel may now pooh-pooh the decision, but this seems like sour grapes considering their all out effort made to avoid such a pro-divestment result, which is sure to have a variety of ripple effects.

 

  • Mr. Rivlin, a Likud Party member of the Knesset, is a follower of the rightest inspirational figure, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an early Zionist leader who favored a Jewish state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine. At the same time Rivlin is a social and political liberal favoring equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, including giving Palestinians the vote and the chance to govern if they achieve electoral success. Netanyahu, also from Likud and a follower of Jabotinsky, has claimed since 2009 conditionally to support the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state, but acts as if this will never happen under his watch, and in the meantime is totally illiberal in his support for harsh rule in occupied Palestine.

 

 

Because it reflects false consciousness, it may not be too soon to challenge the Presbyterian text for its ‘endorsement’ of the two-state solution. It seems to me to illustrate what Paul Krugman in another context called ‘the Zombie doctrine,’ namely, the retention of an idea, thoroughly discredited by evidence and the realities of the situation, but somehow still affirmed because it serves useful political purposes. Here, it enables the church divestment move to be reconciled with signals that the Prsebyterian Church is not departing from the official consensus among Western governments and the Palestinian Authority as to how the conflict is to be finally resolved. What this overlooks is the utter disdain for such a solution that is evident in Israel’s recent behavior, as well as the situation created by a half million Israeli settlers and over 100 settlements.

 

Some suggest that the Palestinian Authority is equally responsible for the diplomatic breakdown because it acted like a state by signing on to some international conventions angering Israel and then establishing a technocratic interim government as part of a reconciliation agreement with Hamas that angered Israel even more. It seems clear enough that if Israel had been genuinely interested in a grand accommodation with the Palestinians it would welcome such moves as creating the political basis for a more sustainable peace. More significantly, these moves by the PA followed upon overtly provocative announcements by Israeli official sources about approving plans for major settlement expansions and were overtly linked to Israel’s failure to follow through with agreed arrangements for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Despite Kerry’s cajoling and pleading with the Israeli leadership to keep the diplomatic path open, Israel defied Washington. In this political atmosphere, to retain any credibility among the Palestinians, the PA also had to act as if there was nothing to be gained by keeping the negotiations on life support.

 

With all due respect to the Presbyterian drafters of the text, it is not helpful to Palestinians, Israelis, and even Americans to lengthen the half-life of the two-state solution. Zombie ideas block constructive thought and action. Israeli right-wing advocate of an Israeli one-state solution are coming out of the closet in a manner that expresses their new hopes for their preferred solution. Those who favor a just and sustainable peace should abandon the pretension that separate states are any longer feasible, if ever desirable. It has become important to derail two-state discourse, which is at best now diversionary. The only futures worth pondering under current conditions is whether there will emerge from the ruins of the present either a political community of the two peoples that becomes an Israeli governed apartheid state or somehow there arises a secular and democratic bi-national state with human rights for all ethnicities and religious identities each protected on the basis of equality. 

Citizens versus Subjects in a Democratic Society: The American Case

10 May

 

“Have we agreed to so many wars that we can’t

Escape from silence?…”

                        Robert Bly, “Call and Answer”

 

            In my understanding silence is passivity as a way of being. Silence can be much more than the avoidance of speech and utterance, and is most poignantly expressed through evasions of body, heart, and soul. Despite the frustrations and defeats of the period, America was different during the years of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. It was then that alienated gun-wielders assassinated those among us who were sounding the clearest calls for justice and sending messages of hope. In a perverse reaction, Washington’s custodians of our insecurity went to work, and the sad result is this deafening silence!

 

            I have long felt that most American ‘citizens’ increasingly behave as ‘subjects,’ blithely acting as if a love of country is exhibited more by obedience than conscience. In my view the opportunity to be a citizen is a precious reality, a byproduct of past struggles. Genuine citizenship remains possible in the United States, but has become marginal, and is not much in evidence these days. I am identifying the citizen as an ethically sensitive and responsible member of a political community, most significantly of a sovereign state. In contrast, the subject conceives of upright standing in a political community by the willingness to go along with the group and to obey the directives of government and those exercising formal authority.

 

            The moral substance at the core of genuine citizenship only exists if the political structure allows opposition without imposing a severe punishment. If citizenship is possible, then it automatically gives rise to responsibility to act accordingly, that is, by honoring the imperatives of conscience. Unfortunately, considerations of prudence, career, and social propriety make it more attractive these days for most Americans to behave as subjects living within a rigid set of constraints. Citizens are those who not only proclaim the virtues of freedom, but act responsively to the vectors of conscience even if these go against the established public order and prevailing cultural norms.

 

            Thomas Jefferson at the birth of the republic understood that liberty is a process, not an event, which can only flourish if the citizenry as a whole is actively engaged, and above all is vigilant in relation to abuses attributable to the state. Citizenship was better understood in the late 18th century when the struggle against the pretensions of monarchy was vibrant. Today it is irresistibly tempting for ambitious political leaders to encroach upon the liberties of the people by insisting that national ‘unity’ and ‘patriotism’ are practical necessities at times when the country is at war or confronting enemies. And by a convenient Orwellian trope, wartime has become the norm rather than the exception, and peacetime is mainly a memory of ancient times that even the oldest citizen now alive never really experienced. Arguably, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 ended once and for all the illusions of peace as the normal condition of a democratic society. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union did not restore ‘peace’ except in the misleading senses of the absence of war. This enthronement of war in the permanent collective imagination of the country was vividly re-inscribed by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush response of declaring a global war on terror and terrorists. Bush’s instinctive stroke of political ingenuity was to devise a new kind of war that never needs to end. Obama despite some ritual reassurances to the contrary has not broken faith with the militarist mentality and seems comfortable with treating war as the new normal.

 

           This vulnerability of democracy to the siren song of security has been effectively exploited by power-wielders for decades in the United States. Not only do politicians and militarists sing this song, but also private sector moguls whose primary amoral motivation seems to be the maximization of profits. This weakening of the substance, structures, and spirit of American democracy partly reflected the militarizing impacts of World War II and its Cold War sequel, but also the related extension of the American sphere of direct concern and involvement to all corners of the earth. This unprecedented global force projection coincided with the collapse of European colonialism, the ideological consensus affirming neoliberalism, and the backdrop of a globalizing world in which critical resources, sea lanes, and markets needed to be protected if the world economy was to flourish. This American transformation from being ‘a hemispheric state’ to becoming ‘a global state’ has had an extraordinary impact on national identity, especially giving rise to a self-anointing mission of global leadership that depends on military dominance. Such a mission has also witnessed a promiscuous reliance on ‘American exceptionalism,’ often at the expense of respect for the authority of the United Nations and international law. The claim is that America can set aside rules of behavior at will to meet the challenges confronting the country and the world, but that antagonistic others cannot.

 

            It is true that early in the American experience the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) signaled a national ambition to reign supreme in the Western Hemisphere (except for Canada), which expressed an early refusal by the U.S. Government to confine its definition of national interests to the territorial boundaries associated with being a normal sovereign state. But the strains of extra-territoriality were minimal compared what they became in the 20th century, especially with the onset of World War II. For one thing, the challenge of imposing control was far simpler and cheaper in the era of ‘gunboat diplomacy,’ which enabled a small input of military power to achieve the political objectives of intervention under most circumstances. Since 1945 the mobilization of national resistance around the world has been very effective in raising the costs and risks of intervention, and neutralizing many of the advantages that had made it so easy to translate military superiority into desired political results during the colonial era.

 

            Also relevant for a discussion of the deteriorating quality of democratic life in the United States are expansions of scale and surveillance as byproducts of becoming a global state. To project power globally requires a global network of military bases numbering in the hundreds, a navy that patrols every ocean, missiles that can strike the most distant targets, attack drones that can be programmed to kill anyone anywhere on the planet, and the most extensive information-gathering capability that technology can provide and money can buy. This raises to astronomic levels the investment of energy and resources in sustaining such a global role. Unsurprisingly there are byproducts, including a militarized state at home and the assumption of associated custodial duties related to the protection of the American people against real and imagined enemies and the pursuit of national interests relating to wealth, influence, and prestige. To enhance security in this global setting pushes surveillance toward totalization as the Snowden disclosures began to reveal. It also creates a logic that views domestic opposition with grave suspicion, and leads to finding and destroying ‘the enemy within’ before it gains the leverage to unleash its assault of the established order.

 

            The American global state is different than past empires, which were explicit in projecting their hard power, and insisting upon overt allegiance of those whom they rule. As Rumsfeld succinctly remarked some years ago, “we do not do empire.” What do we do? It is to manage a global state that seeks to meet hostile challenges wherever they emerge, and give a high priority to the maintenance of a trade, investment, and navigational framework that reflects the guiding assumptions of neoliberalism in the networked digital age. And because the most threatening hostile challenges seem currently mounted by non-state actors that have no particular territorial base of operations, the battlefield has been quietly globalized to encompass the economy, the surveillance panopticon, and the counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation sites of intervention and resistance.

 

            What then does American citizenship mean under these altered domestic and global conditions? It should be acknowledged that not all recent developments are negative with respect to the quality of democratic life in America: slavery was overcome, racism diminished, women’s rights strengthened, sexual preferences increasingly respected. Taking these concerns into account has meant that there many avenues that remain open for the expression of conscience in the United States, which entails the non-acceptance of various facets of the status quo: struggles against militarism, surveillance, plutocracy, global warming, poverty, inequality, human insecurity, class warfare, as well as the residues of racism and patriarchy.   Citizens should be selectively active in response to these challenges, while the subject is passive or a regressive champion of the status quo, and at best an advocate of incremental change (as Yeats reminded the world almost a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The most effective forms of citizen action depend on popular mobilization and the adoption of nonviolent forms of collective action. The subject stands by sullenly, applauding the suppression of dissent and resistance by security forces.

 

            The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, referred to ‘the democracy to come’ as achieving a far higher degree of social justice than has ever existed in any country. In my view, fulfilling this potentiality would mean the enlargement of the role of the citizen, the decline of the subject, and a much more critical interplay between society and the state, making democracy a participatory process that did not consider itself fulfilled by periodic free elections and functioning representative institutions. Such practices associated with procedural democracy have recently lost most of their charm due to deforming impacts of money, lobbying by special interests, and the virtual disappearance from the political landscape of a progressive option. In effect, the future of American democracy will necessarily now depend on the activity of people of conscience, and the rebirth of a progressive vision that is made attractive across class, race, and geographic lines.

 

            Such a prescription for hope has its own shortcomings and difficulties. Are not the members of the Tea Party composed of those whose conscience leads them to defy the state? Are they not fulfilling the role of citizen, shunning the passivity of the subject? There exists an inevitable clash of values between those who seek a compassionate government that is inclusive as to its nonviolent ethos of hospitality and those who seek an ethnically delimited social order that is xenophobic, exclusivist, and militia-minded in its orientation. In the end such a clash involves sorting out the balance of passions that shape the political culture at a given point in an unfolding national narrative. And this balance may not turn out very well for progressive citizens of conscience, depending on the mix of attitudes and fears that animate the masses at a given historical time.

 

            There is one further consideration bearing on the democracy to come. It must not only be spatially minded about the world, it must also be temporally oriented about past and future. It must learn from the glorious and inglorious episodes of the past, but even more importantly, be alert to the need to live beyond the present, to take responsibility for ensuring that the future is not being diminished in serious and irreversible ways by current policies and practices. Such temporal urgency is currently especially compelling in relation to the environment, the treatment of animals, and above all, the multiple challenges of climate change. Humanity is faced at this juncture with a choice of heeding the scientific consensus on the need to reduce sharply the emission of greenhouse gasses or to live in the false consciousness of pretending that the future can be safely secured by either a technological fix (often described as geo-engineering) or by a guardian god or gods that will not permit an apocalyptic catastrophe to doom the human species. In other words, the conscience of the progressive citizen in our time must not only be globalized in the form of being a ‘world citizen;’ it must also be projected through time, adopting futurist modes of feeling, thinking, and acting,

 

            It is against this background that I have previously suggested an identity shaped through an appreciative reference to ‘the citizen pilgrim,’ that is, to the citizen whose conscience is directed at others without heeding boundaries of space or time, or such contingent features of identity as nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, class. The citizen pilgrim is embarked upon what is essentially a spiritual journey or pilgrimage, seeking an inspirational future that seems neither feasible nor impossible. Such an inspirational dedication also minimizes the imaginative foreclosures of mortality, making the certainty of death a part of life, and accepting this destiny without seeking the comfort of metaphysical fictions, and thus not deeply disconcerted by ‘the dying of the light.’

2014: International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People

31 Dec

  

In a little noted initiative the General Assembly on November 26, 2013 voted to proclaim 2014 the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was requested to organize relevant activities in cooperation with governments, the UN system, intergovernmental organizations, and significantly, civil society. The vote was 110-7, with 56 abstentions, which is more or less reflective of the sentiments now present in international society.  Among the seven opponents of the initiative, in addition to Israel, were unsurprisingly its three staunchest supporters, each once a British colony: the United States, Canada, Australia, with the addition of such international heavyweight states as Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Europe and assorted states around the world were among the 56 abstentions, with virtually the entire non-West solidly behind the idea of highlighting solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for peace with justice based on rights under international law.

 

Three initial observations: those governments that are willing to stand unabashedly with Israel in opposition to the tide of world public opinion are increasingly isolated, and these governments are under mounting public pressure from their own civil societies that seeks a balanced approach that is rights based rather than power dominated; the West, in general, is dominated by the abstaining governments that seek the lowest possible profile of being seen as neither for or against, and in those countries where civil society should now be capable of mobilizing more support for the Palestinian struggle; and the non-West that is, as has long been the case, rhetorically in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but have yet to match their words with deeds, and seem ready to be pushed.  

 

What is also revealing is the argumentation of UN Watch, and others, that denounce this latest UN initiative because it unfairly singles out Israel and ignores those countries that have worse human rights records.  Always forgotten here are two elements of the Israel/Palestine conflict that justify singling it out among others: Israel owes its existence, to a significant degree, to the organized international community, starting with the League of Nations, continuing throughout the British Mandate, and culminating with the Partition Plan of 1947, as set forth in GA Res. 181. The latter overrode the decolonizing principle of self-determination with a solution devised and imposed from without; such antecedents to the current Israel/Palestine situation also expose the colonialist foundations of the current struggle as well as call attention to the settler colonial elements that are associated with Israel’s continuous expansion of territorial, resource, and ethnocratic claims far beyond what the Western dominated international community had proposed, and then approved of,  after the end of World War II.

 

To be sure there were delicate and complex issues all along that make this problematic role of the international community somewhat more understandable. Up to 1945 there was a generalized acceptance of European colonial administration, although in the Middle East, colonial legitimacy was balanced for the first time against an obligation by the colonial powers to prepare a dependent people to stand eventually on its own, an ambivalent acknowledgement of the ethos of self-determination if not yet in the form of a legal norm. This affirmation of self-determination, as an alternative to colonial rule, was the special project of the American president, Woodrow Wilson, who insisted that such an approach was a moral imperative, especially in dealing with the regional aftermath of the Ottoman Empire that had long ruled over many diverse ethnicities.

 

Beyond this, the Jewish experience during the reign of fascist regimes throughout Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, created a strong empathetic urge in Europe to endorse the Zionist project for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.  As is known, this empathy although genuine in many quarters,  also exhibited a deferred sense of guilt on the part of the Western liberal democracies that had done so little to challenge the genocidal policies of Hitler and the Nazis, refusing to act at all until their national interests were directly engaged by German aggression. European support was also forthcoming because the Zionist proposed solution for the Jewish Problem, which has long been present in Europe, could be enacted elsewhere, that is, at the expense of non-Europeans. This elsewhere was far from empty and was coveted by others for various reasons. Palestine was a land long lived in mainly by Arabs, but also by some Jews and Christians, and associated centrally with the sacred traditions of all three monotheistic religions. Normally in the modern world, the demographics of residence trump biblical or other claims based on claims of national tradition, ethnic identity, and ancient historical presence. Yet despite these factors, there were ethical reasons in the aftermath of such extreme victimization of the Jewish people to lend support to a reasonable version of the Zionist project as it had evolved in the years since the Balfour Declaration, even if from a variety of other perspectives it was deeply unfair to others and disruptive of peaceful relations, and throughout its implementation, produced an unfolding catastrophe for most non-Jewish Palestinians.

 

Taking account of this historical and moral complexity what seems evident is the failure of the UN to carry out its responsibility in a manner that was effective and responsive to the human circumstances prevailing in Palestine. The UN overall record is quite disappointing if considered from the perspective of accommodating these contradictory clusters of consideration in a manner that was reflective of international law and global justice. The military prowess of Zionist forces in Israel inflicted a major defeat on the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab governments, and in the process expanded the territorial dominion of Israel from the 55% decreed by the UN in its partition plan to 78% where the green line established an armistice arrangement in 1948. Such an outcome was gradually endorsed by a geopolitical consensus, exhibited through the admission of Israel to the UN without any solution to the underlying conflict, leaving the Palestinians out in the cold and allowing Israel to constitute itself within borders much larger than what the UN had a mere year earlier decreed as fair.

 

This situation was further aggravated by the 1967 War in which Israel occupied all of the remaining territory of historic Palestine, purporting even to annex East Jerusalem while greatly enlarging the area of municipal Jerusalem by incorporating land belonging to the West Bank. Since 1967 this Palestinian territorial remnant has been further decreased by the massive settlement phenomenon, including its network of settler only roads, carried out in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, by the separation wall constructed and maintained in defiance of the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, and by a variety of moves to change the demography of East Jerusalem. In other words, Israeli forces on the ground in what had been Palestine have undermined the vision set forth in the partition plan which was itself a controversial UN solution to the conflict that was rejected by Palestinians and by neighboring countries.

 

Despite much propaganda to the contrary, the Palestinian leadership has over most of the period of their struggle, shown an unusual readiness to abandon maximal goals, and put forward forthcoming proposals in recognition of the realities of a situation that had become unfavorable for the realization of their earlier hopes. Palestinian willingness, expressed formally since 1988, to accept Israel as a legitimate state within the green line borders of 1967 remains more than twenty-five years after its articulation an unacknowledged and unreciprocated major initiative for peace. That such a proposal has been ignored and continuously undermined by Israel with de facto Western acquiescence, and in the face of feeble UN rhetorical objections, displays the inability of the UN to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of Palestine.

 

As might be expected, Palestinians have long become disillusioned about the benefits of having UN authority and international law on their side. Over the years the backing of international authority has failed to bring about an improvement in the life circumstances and political position of the Palestinian people. The UN is helpless, and designed to be helpless, whenever a UN position is effectively resisted by a combination of military force and geopolitical alignment. Israel’s military capabilities and American geopolitical leverage have completely nullified the expressed will of the United Nations, but have not overcome the sense of frustration or excused the Organization from its failure to act responsibly toward the Palestinian people.

 

In light of this background, the wonder is that the UN has done so little to repair the damage, not that it has done so much, or more than it should in relation to Israel/Palestine. Arguably, yes, there are a variety of other situations in which the abuse of human rights has been worse than what is being attributed to Israel, but the rationale for focusing on Palestine is not only a question of the denial of rights, it is also an issue of fundamental justice, of the seemingly permanent subjugation of a people, partly due to arrangements that were devised and endorsed over a long period of time by the organized international community.  Yet, witnessing the dire current emergency plight of the people of Gaza, makes it perverse to contend that the human rights challenges facing this large and vulnerable Palestinian community is not among the worst human rights abuses in the entire world, and makes us wonder anew why the UN seems unwilling and unable to do more!

 

We can hope at the dawn of 2014 that the UN will be vigorous in giving the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People a political meaning that goes beyond words of empathy and support. There is an opportunity to do more. The UN resolution calls for working with civil society. Recent moves in America to join boycotts of Israeli academic institutions and in Europe to hold corporations responsible under international law for dealing commercially with Israeli settlements are major successes of civil society activism, being led by the BDS Campaign that has the important legitimating virtue of Palestinian leadership and backing. The UN can help build a momentum in the global solidarity movement that encourages nonviolent militant forms of coercive action that alone will give ‘solidarity’ a good name.

 

Palestinians are starting to win the Legitimacy War that is being waged against unlawful Israeli policies and on behalf of the attainment of Palestinian rights. The turning point in world public opinion can probably be traced back to the way Israel waged the Lebanon War of 2006, especially the avowed reliance on disproportionate force directed at residential neighborhoods, especially in south Beirut, a tactic that became known as the Dahiya Doctrine. The tipping point in shifting the Israeli collective identity from that of victims and heroic underdogs to that lawless perpetrators of oppressive warfare against a totally vulnerable people came in Operation Cast Lead, the sustained assault with high technology weaponry on the people of Gaza for three weeks at the end of 2008. After these developments, the Palestinians were understood more widely to be a victimized people, engaged in a just struggle to gain their rights under international law, and needing and deserving an international movement of support to offset the Israeli hard power and geopolitical dominance.

 

Israeli leaders and think tanks try their hardest to discredit this Palestinian Legitimacy War by falsely claiming that it is directed against the legitimacy of Israel as a state rather than is the case, against the unlawful policies of the Israeli state. This is a crucial difference, and the distinction seems deliberately obscured by Israeli propaganda that inflated what Palestinians are seeking so as to make their activism appear hyperbolic, with unreasonable and unacceptable demands, which makes it easier to dismiss than by addressing critically the Palestinian grievances in their actual form. It is to be hoped that the International Year of Solidarity in its work clarifies this distinction between Israel as a state and Israeli policies. Within such a framework the UN will deserve credit for contributing to victories throughout the world that advance the agenda of the Legitimacy War being waged by and on behalf of the Palestinian people, and by so doing, move the debate somewhat closer to the realization of a just and sustainable peace for both peoples.

  

Escaping The Abusive State: After Snowden

5 Dec

 

 

            The more contact one has with the modern state, even in those societies that have long constitutional traditions entrenching civil liberties, the more grounds there are for deep and growing concern. I suppose that the most dramatic exhibition of the dangers being posed as 2014 approaches, and we are reminded that this will be 30 years after 1984, are associated with Edward Snowden’s extraordinary disclosures of the global network of surveillance being operated by the National Security Agency in the United States (NSA).  Such a network presupposes that we are all, that is, every inhabitant on the planet to be regarded as worth investigating as potential terrorist threats, and along the way establishing a huge data bank of information that can be used for nefarious purposes at any point to disempower and subvert protest movements or even blackmail anyone seen to be obstructing projects dear to the government or any special interest group that has the government’s ear on matters it cares about.

 

            In important respects more disturbing than the Snowden revelations was the rabid response of the supposedly liberal government presided over by Barack Obama. No stone was left unturned, other than assassination or kidnapping, in the effort to gain physical custody over Snowden evidently with the intention of prosecuting him to the full extent of the law as an odious criminal offender. Foreign governments were badgered to cooperate in the pursuit, a plane carrying the Bolivian president was improperly denied access to the airspace of several European countries and forced to land in Vienna, because it was suspected of carrying Snowden. Such an enforcement dynamic completely overlooked the political nature of Snowden’s crimes, which have been uniformly regarded as placing an accused individual beyond the reach of extradition if outside of sovereign territory, which was definitely the case here, making Snowden legally unreachable even in the event that countries involved had extradition treaty arrangements for cooperative criminal law enforcement. Such treaties did not exist in relation to China and Russia, the countries where Snowden was physically present, and yet the United States persisted in its demands, and treated the Chinese and Russian governments as behaving in a hostile fashion of diplomatic relevance when they rejected the demands of the U.S. State Department to treat Snowden as a routine fugitive from criminal justice. Not so incidentally, the United States government has long shielded those accused of even violent crimes by foreign governments through reliance on this exception to extradition based on the political nature of the crime.

 

            Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of this still festering situation is the energy devoted to Snowden as the whistleblower, more derisively referred to as ‘a leaker,’ while ignoring implications for a humane and democratic future by treating everyone, everywhere as a potential enemy who would be spied upon to the extent technology allowed. There was some mild pushback by Congress, seeking clearer guidelines on the mandate of the NSA, and searching for the outer limits of the permissible encroachment on the privacy of individuals, governments, and economic entities. In the background is a well-grounded suspicion that part of the motivation for global surveillance is to assure a competitive edge for American property, trade, and investment interests, and to gain dirt on foreign diplomats and political leaders.

 

            Overlapping with the official fury directed at Snowden was the broader anger directed at whistleblowers whose disclosures sought to set off alarm bell. Those who had the temerity to disclose governmental criminal wrongdoing were themselves criminalized by a focus on their breach of  excessive classification restrictions. It should be clear, as highlighted by Daniel Ellsberg’s notable reflections on the release of the Pentagon Papers gathered in his book appropriately titled Secrets, that the excesses of governmental secrecy are joined at the hip to extravagant surveillance in what amounts to a perverse twinning relationship. The very government that refuses to accept restrictions on its invasions of the privacy of its citizens and people around the world, mounts unprecedented and simultaneous claims that it needs to operate without any accountability behind several high walls of secrecy.

 

            The experiences of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are of a piece with that of Edward Snowden: vindictive backlash, exaggerated security claims, and an arrogant refusal to gaze in the mirror. The Wikileaks/Manning disclosures revealed serious war crimes and governmental cover ups,  the existence of which make a strong case for violating pledges of secrecy that are relied upon to hide the ugly dimensions of what is involved in foreign policy, especially in relation military interventions carried out in such distant countries as Afghanistan and Iraq. Should not the American people have a write to know about state crimes committed in their name? Should not the peoples living in foreign countries have the right to know about such crimes that produce suffering and victimization in their supposedly sovereign countries? And when such disclosures do occur, should not the government have the decency to acknowledge its own wrongdoing, and thank the whistleblower and apologize to those who were victimized?

 

            My motivation in writing this piece was prompted by seemingly different more personal outrages associated with the behavior of the liberal state. In the first instance, I have been deeply moved by the continuing tragic saga of Lynne Stewart, a courageous American lawyer who has a long record of defending unpopular political and indigent clients, who has been allowed to languish for months in a Texas jail despite suffering from an acute form of terminal cancer. Her apparent crime that landed her in prison was to pass on information and private messages to the family of ‘the blind Sheik’ (Omar Abdel-Rahman) whom she was representing (alongside Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General) in the terrorist conspiracy trial arising out of the earlier 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. What has been most shocking is that despite numerous recommendations from medical and prison officials to the effect that Stewart easily qualifies for ‘compassionate release’ from prison, a position even endorsed by judicial officials, she remains to this day cruelly confined because Charles Samuels,  Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  has refused to sign off on her plea. This incarceration of Lynne Stewart is such an extreme instance of vicious and sadistic state behavior toward an honorable citizen that its full horror cannot be fully comprehended by a mere description of her experience. For Lynne Stewart’s story to be credibly portrayed will likely depend on some future artistic enactment as by film or fiction. As so often is true, such a descent into the domain of unspeakable evil can only be grasped if expressed through film or fiction.

 

            My immediate reason for writing in this manner has been an unfolding tale of apparently well-intentioned cruelty by the state that occurred recently in Great Britain. A 35 year old pregnant Italian woman, whose name cannot be disclosed under British criminal law, was visiting the UK a few months ago for the sake of job training course at Stansted Airport in Essex, not far from London. While there she apparently stopped taking medication for a preexisting bipolar condition, resulting in what has been described in the media as ‘a panic attack.’

 

Only then did a perfect storm engulf her life. Her disturbed condition was reported to British authorities under the Mental Health Act whose personnel stepped in and took over the case. In disputed testimony the woman was alleged to need to be constrained. Accordingly, she was transferred to a mental hospital where she was heavily sedated, during which time her baby was delivered by C-Section surgery without her consent, and even her knowledge as she was unconscious. Her lawyer contends that she at all times, including when suffering from mental distress, retained the capacity to give or withhold her consent from the procedure undertaken. If correct, a state-ordered invasive approach to her pregnancy was certainly improper, a violation of the most basic of reproductive rights. Even if she was not sufficiently stable to make an informed decision, it seemed at least necessary to refer such a question to a responsible process of assessment, which was not done as far as is known, or consult with a family member.

 

But the abusive behavior did not stop after the child was born. Quite incredibly, some reports contend that she was not even allowed to see her own baby, while others say she was allowed for two days to have her baby in the hospital room, but it was then summarily removed with the intent to sever her connection permanently. She returned to Italy where her health and mental stability were fully restored by resuming medication at which point she appealed to British courts to acquire custody of the child who had by this time been turned over to foster care. Her appeal was denied despite her Italian nationality, place of residence, and the evidence that she was a competent mother to children growing up under her parental supervision. She didn’t owe the slightest allegiance to Britain and yet her desire and capacity to handle the upbringing of her biological child was rejected by judicial fiat. In a secondary development, her former husband, the father of the child, who was living in America appealed to a British court to have the child brought up by his sister, the aunt of the child, who was certified to be a highly responsible person with excellent parental qualifications and a readiness to undertake the task. The request was denied by the British judge on the ground that there was no ‘blood’ link with the American relative, and that kinship was not sufficient. The result, to date, is the assignment of the baby to a foster home that has no familial connection whatsoever, denying the mother even visitation rights. I doubt that even the most absolutist monarchy would be as contemptuous of humane treatment as has been the behavior of this British welfare/judicial bureaucratic nightmare, an unfolding post-Kafka horror story.

 

            Even granting the well-intentioned innocence of government in relation to these problematic undertakings affecting this mother and child, it is one more distressing example of what happens to people when the government insists that it knows best what to do in situations of admitted social and ethical complexity.  In this instance, it is not acting beyond the law or above the law, but within the law. What took the place was decreed from start to finish by official institutions and administered by bureaucrats probably thinking that they were doing their job in a responsible fashion. As has been observed in some critical writing in the British print media, this story has come to light in part because the victim mother had the resources and composure to seek help from lawyers and friends, as well as the Italian government, and was perceived as a ‘European.’ If instead she was an unlawful immigrant or, worse, a Roma, it is likely that the public would never even have heard of these events, and the whole episode would have been kept within the black box of standard operating procedures when it came to handling the grievances of those among us who are unwanted and marginalized.

 

            In my view, these seemingly disparate occurrences are all expressions of the moral arrogance of the modern liberal state, and its failure to strike a decent balance between freedom and security.  There is no doubt that the recent challenges posed by extremist non-state actors do require adjustments in how government protects those resident within its borders, but the tendency to exaggerate the threat so as to instill sufficient fear in the population to justify the wide spectrum of responses that feature high defense spending, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at one end and Snowden and Manning at the other end is what should be an occasion for an entirely rational collective panic attack in democratic societies, showing healthy signs of deep attachment to the values and practices of freedom, and when there is instead relative quiet, it adds to concerns about a general mood of passivity, resignation, and even acquiescence in ‘the new authoritarianism,’ encouraging more of the same. Such patterns in the domain of national security is  reinforced by such gratuitous abuses as when harmless prisoners are deprived of contact with their loved ones when at death’s doorstep and a newborn child is removed forever from the love and care of a desiring mother for the sake of some misguided ideas of petty bureaucrats engaged in  ‘social services’ and ‘welfare.’ 

 

            We can and must do better, above all as citizens engaged in the protection of the sort of society we wish to live in; without civic activism of a militant character we can wave goodbye to the promise of genuine democracy.  

Clashing Views of Political Reality: Chomsky versus Dershowitz

2 Dec

 

 

            My friend and former collaborator, Howard Friel, has written an intriguing book contrasting the worldviews and polemical styles of two Jewish American intellectuals with world class reputations, Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz (Friel, Chomsky and Dershowitz: On Endless War and the End of Civil Liberties, Olive Branch Press, 2014). The book is much more than a comparison of two influential voices, one critical the other apologetic, with respect to the Israel/Palestine struggle and the subordination of private liberties to the purveyors of state-led security at home and abroad . Friel convincingly favors Chomsky’s approach both with respect to the substance of their fundamental disagreements and in relation to sharply contrasting styles of argument.

 

            Chomsky is depicted, accurately I believe, as someone consistently dedicated to evidenced based reasoning reinforced by an abiding respect for the relevance and authority of international law and morality. Chomsky has also been a tireless opponent of American imperialism and military intervention, and of oppressive regimes anywhere on the planet. He is also shown by Friel to be strongly supportive of endowing individuals whether citizens or not with maximal freedom from interference by the state. From such perspectives, the behavior of Israel and the United States are assessed by Chomsky to be betrayals of humane values and of the virtues of a constitutional democracy.

 

            In contrast, Dershowitz is presented, again accurately and on the basis of abundant documentation, as a dirty fighter with a readiness to twist the truth to serve his Zionist predilections, which include support for the post-9/11 drift toward authoritarian governance, and an outrageous willingness to play the anti-Semitic card even against someone of Chomsky’s extraordinary academic achievements in the field of linguistics and of global stature as the world’s leading public intellectual, who has an impeccable lifelong record of moral courage and fidelity to the truth. Dershowitz has devoted his destructive energies to derailing tenure appointments for critics of Israel and for using his leverage to badger publishers to refrain from taking on books, however meritorious, if they present either himself or Israel in what he views to be a negative light. 

 

            Friel illustrates the contrast between these talented and titanic antagonists by reference to the much publicized debate about Robert Faurisson, the French Holocaust denier. Chomsky signed a petition in 1979 that defended Faurisson’s freedom of expression, an act consistent with his overall long record of support for unrestricted academic freedom. Dershowitz abandons his own earlier allegiance to a similar approach, not only refusing to allow free speech to protect Faurisson, but lashing out to condemn Chomsky for his supposed show of support for Holocaust denial because he had the temerity to defend Faurisson’s right to say what he said. This is a typical tactic employed by Dershowitz, deliberately confusing a principled support for the right to hold and espouse ethically unacceptable views with an alleged identification and sympathy with the substance of the views being expressed. To contend that Chomsky is tacitly embracing Holocaust denial by supporting Faurisson was, as Friel conclusively shows, clearly defamatory, ignoring numerous occasions on which Chomsky has denounced the Nazi experience culminating in the Holocaust as a predominant historical instance of pure evil.  For Dershowitz to overlook such plain facts in relation to Chomsky on such an inflammatory matter is to show his true colors as a dirty fighter who has no inhibitions about smearing his opponents, however distinguished and honorable they happen to be, and no matter how clearly he must know better. Dershowitz must be assumed to realize that Chomsky’s entire life displays an abiding concern for the ethical treatment of ‘the other,’ and to allege that somehow Chomsky is himself flirting with Holocaust denial is the most irresponsible slander and ironically, an unforgiveable abuse by Dershowitz of the freedom of expression, which transgresses civility if not the law. Civil discourse and public reason in a democratic society depend on the overall willingness of individuals to show self-discipline, and avoid exploiting the opportunities for defamation that the law allows in commentary on so-called public figures.

 

            Dershowitz is primarily known, aside from his controversial notoriety as a trial lawyer in high profile criminal cases, as an unconditional defender of Israel against a wide range of responsible critics. He wrote a number of books and numerous articles with vicious attacks on such moral authority figures as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, including his notorious tract The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace (2008). Even such mainstream and widely respected experts on world affairs as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer become targets of Dershowitz’s calumny because of their daring to write critically and persuasively about the destructive influence of the Israeli Lobby in relation to the prudent and rational pursuit of American national interests in the conduct of foreign policy in their book, The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007).

 

            At this point, I should acknowledge that I am far from being a neutral observer. I have been accused on several occasions of being an ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘bigot’ by Dershowitz, primarily in relation to my role as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, but even in response to my endorsing blurb of Gilad Atzmon’s seminal challenge directed at liberal Zionist and Jewish thought in The Wandering Who? (2011). Similar insults were directed by Dershowitz at my predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, a distinguished jurist from South Africa and as unbiased and balanced a champion of human rights and international law as I have ever known. Attacking the critics of Israel, especially those possessing strong academic and ethical credentials, is a nasty illustration of what I have called ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, avoiding the substance of criticisms by denouncing the critics and their auspices with the intention of shifting the conversation. Such attacks are clearly intended to shut down criticism of Israel by subjecting to withering abuse anyone who dares to violate the Zionist taboo.

 

            Perhaps, the most important part of Friel’s engaging book is his depiction of Dershowitz’s advocacy of the ‘preventive state’ as overcoming an earlier essential postulate of liberal democracy, the presumption of innocence. In the preventive state that Dershowitz posits as necessary and hence desirable, we all become for the government legitimate objects of suspicion, and the higher goals of counter-terrorism. Such a line of analysis mandates the state to act preventively rather than reactively, and hence to employ the full coercive apparatus of the state to identify potential enemies of the state before they have the opportunity to act. For a more challenging rendition of this argument than offered by Dershowitz I strongly recommend reading Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008). This reinterpretation of the balance between security and freedom reverses the traditional emphasis of the rule of law upon reactive forms of security, its logic being used to rationalize torture, as well as preventive detention of individuals and preventive warfare against states, non-state actors, and even individuals, perceived to pose future threats. Such rationalizations undermine the unconditional criminalization of torture and completely upend the UN Charter effort to confine the role of force in international relations by limiting its legal invocation to situations of self-defense against a prior armed attack by a state. The launching of the disastrous war against Iraq in 2003 was a clear international example of the preventive state in action as are the kill lists compiled weekly for drone attacks on individuals resident in foreign countries. Another facet of such a posture is embodied in the indefinite detention of numerous individuals in Guantanamo for years without charges and absent credible incriminating evidence.

 

            Of course, rigid legalism is not the alternative to a rejection of the preventive state, but an exaggeration of the terrorist threat is tantamount to willing the end of political democracy as it has evolved over the centuries. We have seen that even a supposedly liberal president, Barack Obama, has endorsed an authoritarian approach in numerous areas of governance including reliance on drone warfare and support for virtually limitless global networks of surveillance. The treatment of such whistleblowers as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is also emblematic of the preventive state, directing public attention to the unlawful release of information while declining to acknowledge or remedy the crimes of state being exposed. Needless to say, Chomsky is acutely alert to these dangers, and has long stood for the maintenance, even the enhancement, of traditional liberties of the individual despite alleged security claims to the contrary.

 

            Friel has given us a brilliantly analyzed comparison of two vivid engaged and intelligent activists who personify the alternative scenarios available to the United States, the choice of which is of great consequence for the rest of the world. Only a determined advocate of unfreedom and injustice could fail to side with Chomsky in this debate about the political future of the planet. In this larger view, the Dershowitz defense of Israel against the most responsible of critics, is but an illustration of his broader alignment with repressive tendencies at home and abroad despite his feeble pretensions to the contrary.  Clearly Chomsky is the winner in this contest if fairly umpired, both in terms of coherence and acceptability of worldview, as well as the ethics of public discourse. Dershowitz, apparently propelled by the awkwardness of his convictions, seems always ready to adopt the Darth Vader tactics that Dick Cheney unabashedly favored, coyly acknowledging that it meant going to ‘the dark side.’

 

            Let me observe finally, and with due allowance made for my own stake in this effort to assess the comparative merits of style and substance on the part of these antagonistic titans, that Howard Friel has once again contributed a necessary book for all those dedicated to the pursuit of justice in relation to Israel/Palestine and more generally in international life.* A cardinal virtue of Friel’s approach is to recognize and explain the role of international law with respect to sustaining world peace and attaining global justice.  

 

* In this spirit I highly recommend Friel’s earlier expose of the Danish climate skeptic, Bjorn Lomborg, in his book The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (2010) and of the mighty New York Times in The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misrepresents U.S. Foreign Policy (2004), of which I was the proud co-author.

Invisible Horizons of a Just Palestine/Israel Future

4 Nov

I spent last week at the United Nations, meeting with ambassadors of countries in the Middle East and presenting my final report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly as my term as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine comes to an end. My report emphasized issues relating to corporate responsibility of those companies and banks that are engaged in business relationships with the settlements. Such an emphasis seemed to strike a responsive note with many delegations as a tangible way of expressing displeasure with Israel’s continuing defiance of its international law obligations, especially in relation to the unlawful settlements being provocatively expanded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at the very moment that the resumption of direct negotiations between the Palestine Authority and the Government of Israel is being heralded as a promising development.

There are two reasons why the corporate responsibility issue seems to be an important tactic of consciousness raising and norm implementation at this stage: (1) it is a start down the slippery slope of enforcement after decades of UN initiatives confined to seemingly futile rhetorical affirmations of Israeli obligations under international law, accompanied by the hope that an enforcement momentum with UN backing is underway; (2) it is an expression of tacit support for the growing global movement of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people for a just and sustainable peace agreement, and specifically, it reinforces the claims of the robust BDS Campaign that has itself scored several notable victories in recent months.

My intention in this post is to put aside these issues and report upon my sense of the diplomatic mood at the UN in relation to the future of Israel/Palestine relations. There is a sharp disconnect between the public profession of support for the resumed peace negotiations as a positive development with a privately acknowledged skepticism as to what to expect. In this regard, there is a widespread realization that conditions are not ripe for productive diplomacy for the following reasons: the apparent refusal of Israel’s political leadership to endorse a political outcome that is capable of satisfying even minimal Palestinian aspirations; the settlement phenomenon as dooming any viable form of a ‘two-state’ solution; the lack of Palestinian unity as between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas undermining its representational and legitimacy status.

The most serious concern on the Palestinian side is whether protecting the interests and rights of the totality of the Palestinian people in a peace process can be achieved within the present diplomatic framework. We need to be constantly reminded that ‘the Palestinian people’ cannot be confined to those Palestinian living under Israeli occupation: refugees in neighboring countries; refugees confined within occupied Palestine, but demanding a right of return to their residence at the time of dispossession; the Palestinian minority living in Israel; and 4-5 million Palestinians who constitute the Palestinian diaspora and its underlying reality of enforced exile.

It was also clear that the Palestinian Authority is confronted by a severe dilemma: either to accept the inadequate proposals put forward by Israel and the United States or reject these proposals and be blamed once again by Tel Aviv and Washington for rejecting a peace offer. Only some Israeli anxiety that the Palestinians might actually accept the U.S. proposals might induce Israel to refuse, on its side, to accept what Washington proposes, and spare the Palestinians the embarrassment posed by the dilemma of swallowing or spitting. That is, Israel when forced to show its hand may actually be unwilling to allow any solution to the conflict based on Palestinian self-determination, even if heavily weighted in Israel’s facvor. In effect, within the diplomatic setting there strong doubts exist as to whether the present Israeli leadership would accept even a Palestinian statelet even if it were endowed with only nominal sovereignty. In effect, from a Palestinian perspective it seems inconceivable that anything positive could emerge from the present direct negotiations, and it is widely appreciated that the PA agreed take part only after being subjected to severe pressure from the White House and Secretary Kerry. In this sense, the best that Ramallah can hope for is damage control.

There were three attitudes present among the more thoughtful diplomats at the UN who have been dealing with the Palestinian situation for years, if not decades: the first attitude was to believe somehow that ‘miracles’ happen in politics, and that a two state solution was still possible; usually this outlook avoided the home of the devil, that is the place where details reside, and if pressed could not offer a scenario that explained how the settlements could be shrunk sufficiently to enable a genuine two-state solution to emerge from the current round of talks; the second attitude again opted to support the resumption of the direct talks because it was ‘doing something,’ which seemed preferable to ‘doing nothing,’ bolstering this rather vapid view with the sentiment ‘at least they are doing something’; the third attitude, more privately and confidentially conveyed, fancies itself to be the voice of realism in world politics, which is contemptuous of the advocacy of rights and justice in relation to Palestine; this view has concluded that Israel has prevailed, it has won, and all that the Palestinians can do is to accommodate an adverse outcome, acknowledging defeat, and hope that the Israelis will not push their advantage toward a third cycle of dispossession (the first two being 1948, 1967) in the form of ‘population transfer’ so as to address their one remaining serious anxiety—the fertility gap leading to a feared tension between professing democracy and retaining the primary Zionist claim of being a Jewish state, the so-called ‘demographic bomb.’

As I reject all three of these postures, I will not leave my position as Special Rapporteur with a sense that inter-governmental diplomacy and its imaginative horizons have much to offer the Palestinian people even by way of understanding evolving trends in the conflict, much less realizing their rights, above all, the right of self-determination. At the same time, despite this, I have increased my belief that the UN has a crucial role to play in relation to a positive future for the Palestinian people—reinforcing the legitimacy of seeking a rights based solution rather than settling for a power based outcome that is called peace in an elaborate international ceremony of deception, in all likelihood on the lawn of the White House. In this period the UN has been playing an important part in legitimating Palestinian grievances by continuously referencing international law, human rights, and international morality.

The Israelis (and officialdom in the United States) indicate their awareness of this UN role by repeatedly stressing their unconditional opposition to what is labeled to be ‘the delegitimation project,’ which is a subtle propagandistic shift from the actual demand to uphold Palestinian rights to the misleading and diversionary claim that Israel’s critics are trying to challenge Israel’s right to exist as a state sovereign state. To be sure, the Palestinians are waging, with success a Legitimacy War against Israel for control of the legal and moral high ground, but they are not at this stage questioning Israeli statehood, but only its refusal to respect international law as it relates to the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people.

Let us acknowledge a double reality. The UN is a geopolitical actor that is behaviorally manipulated by money and hard power on many fundamental issues, including Palestine/Israel; this stark acknowledgement severely restricts the effectiveness of the UN with regard to questions of justice. Fortunately, this is not the whole story. The UN is also a normative actor that articulates the grievances of peoples and governments, influences public discourse with respect to the global policy agenda, and has great and distinctive symbolic leverage in establishing the legitimacy of claims. In other words, the UN can say what is right, without being necessarily able to do what is right. This distinction summarizes the narratives of articulating the Palestinian claims and the justice of the Palestinian struggle without being able to overcome behavioral obstacles in the geopolitical domain that block their fulfillment.

What such a gap also emphasizes is that the political climate is not yet right for constructive inter-governmental negotiations, which would require both Israel and the United States to recalculate their priorities and to contemplate alternative future scenarios in a manner that is far more congruent with upholding the panoply of Palestinian rights. Such shifts in the political climate are underway, and are not just a matter of changing public opinion, but also mobilizing popular regional and global support for nonviolent tactics of opposition and resistance to the evolving status quo. The Arab Spring of 2011 initially raised expectations that such a mobilization would surge, but counter-revolutionary developments, political unrest, and economic panic have temporarily, at least, dampened such prospects, and have lowered the profile of the Palestinian struggle.

Despite such adverse developments in the Middle East from a Palestinian perspective, it remains possible to launch within the UN a broad campaign to promote corporate responsibility in relation to the settlements, which could gradually be extended to other unlawful Israeli activities (e.g. separation wall, blockade of Gaza, prison and arrest abuses, house demolitions). Such a course of action links efforts within the UN to implement international law with activism that is already well established within global civil society, being guided by Palestinian architects of 21st century nonviolent resistance. In effect, two disillusionments (armed struggle and international diplomacy) are coupled with a revised post-Oslo strategy giving the Palestinian struggle a new identity (nonviolent resistance, global solidarity campaign, and legitimacy warfare) with an increasing emancipatory potential.

Such an affirmation is the inverse of the ultra realist view mentioned above that the struggle is essentially over, and all that is left is for the Palestinians to admit defeat and for the Israelis to dictate the terms of ‘the peace treaty.’ While admitting that such a visionary worldview may be based on wishful thinking, it is also appropriate to point out that most political conflicts since the end of World War II have reflected the outcome of legitimacy wars more than the balance of hard power. Military superiority and geopolitical leverage were consistently frustrated during the era of colonial wars in the 1960s and 1970s. In this regard, it should be understood that the settler colonial enterprise being pursued by Israel is on the wrong side of history, and so contrary to appearances, there is reason to be hopeful about the Palestinian future and historical grounds not succumb to the dreary imaginings of those who claim the mantle of realism.

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