Archive | Israel RSS feed for this section

Interrogating the Qatar Rift

7 Jun

 

The abrupt announcement that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen, the Maldive Islands, and the eastern government in divided Libya have broken all economic and political ties with Qatar has given rise to a tsunami of conjecture, wild speculation, and most of all, to wishful thinking and doomsday worries. There is also a veil of confusion arising from mystifying reports that hackers with alleged Russian connections placed a fake news story that implicated Qatar in the promotion of extremist groups in the region. Given Russian alignments, it makes no sense to create conditions that increase the credibility of anti-Iran forces. And finally the timing and nature of the terrorist suicide attacks of June 7th on the Iranian Parliament and on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini adds a particularly mystifying twist to the rapidly unfolding Qatar drama, especially if the ISIS claim of responsibility is substantiated.

 

Four preliminary cautionary observations seem apt: (1) the public explanation given for this rupture is almost certainly disconnected from its true meaning. That is, the break with Qatar is not about strengthening the anti-ISIS, anti-extremist coalition of Arab forces. Such an explanation may play well in the Trump White House, but it is far removed from understanding why this potentially menacing anti-Qatar regional earthquake erupted at this time, and what it is truly about. (2) Any claim to provide a clear account of why? And why now? should be viewed with great skepticism, if not suspicion. There are in the regional context too many actors, crosscurrents, uncertainties, conflicts, mixed and hidden motives and contradictions at play as to make any effort at this stage to give a reliable and coherent account of this Qatar crisis bound to be misleading.

 

(3) Yet despite these caveats, there are several mainly unspoken dimensions of the crisis that can be brought to the surface, and sophisticate our understanding beyond the various self-serving polemical interpretations that are being put forward, including the centrality of Israeli-American backing for a tough line on Iran and the realization that Gulf grievances against Qatar have been brewing for recent years for reasons unrelated to ISIS, and led to an earlier milder confrontation in 2014 that was then quickly overcome with the help of American diplomacy.

 

And (4) The anti-Iran fervor only makes sense from the perspective of the Gulf monarchies (other than Qatar) and Israel, but seems radically inconsistent with American regional interests and counter-ISIS priorities—Iran is not associated with any of the terrorist incidents occurring in Europe and the United States, and ISIS and Iran are pitted against each other on sectarian grounds. Intriguingly, neither Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), nor Israel, that is, the principal antagonists of Qatar, have been ever targeted by ISIS.

 

The main contention of the anti-Qatar Arab governments, led by Saudi Arabia, is that this coordinated diplomatic pushback is motivated by anti-terrorist priorities. On its face this seems to be a ridiculous claim to come from the Saudis, and can only make some sense as part of a calculated effort to throw pursuing dogs in the hunt for ISIS off a course that if followed would inevitably implicate the Riyadh government. It has long been known by intelligence services and academic experts that it is Saudi Arabia, including members of its royal family, that have been funding Jihadi extremism in the Middle East and has for many years been spending billions to spread Salifist extremism throughout the Islamic world.

 

By comparison, although far from innocent or consistent of terrorist linkages, as well as being internally oppressive, especially toward its migrant foreign workers, Qatar is a minor player in this high stakes political imbroglio. For the Saudis to take the lead in this crusade against Qatar may play well in Washington, Tel Aviv, and London, but fools few in the region. Trump has with characteristic ill-informed bravado has taken ill-advised credit for this turn against Qatar, claiming it to be an immediate payoff of his recent visit to the Kingdom, ramping up still further the provocative buildup of pressure on Iran. To claim a political victory given the circumstances rather than admit a geopolitical faux pas might seem strange for any leader other than Trump. It is almost perverse considering that the al-Udeid Air Base is in Qatar, which is the largest American military facility in the Middle East, operated as a regional command center actively used in bombing raids against Iraq and Afghanistan, and serviced by upwards of 10,000 American military personnel.

 

Netanyahu warmongers will certainly be cheered by this course of events and Israel has not hidden its support for the anti-Qatar moves of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It achieves two Israeli goals: its longtime undertaken to encourage splits and disorder in the Arab world and its campaign to maximize pressures on Iran.

 

Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn at the start of the week when the momentous British elections are scheduled to take place, called on Teresa May to release a report (prepared while David Cameron was prime minister), supposedly an explosive exposure of Saudi funding and support for Islamic extremism in the Middle East. All in all, a first approximation of the Qatar crisis is to view it as a desperate move by Riyadh to get off the hot seat with respect to its own major responsibility for the origins and buildup of political extremism in the Middle East, which has indirectly produced the inflaming incidents in principal European cities during the last several years. Such a move to isolate and punish Qatar was emboldened by the blundering encouragement of Donald Trump, whether acting on impulse or at the beckoning of Israel’s and Saudi leaders, confusing genuine counter-terrorist priorities with a dysfunctional effort to push Iran against the wall. Trump seems to forget, if he ever knew, that Iran is fighting against ISIS in Syria, has strongly reaffirmed moderate leadership in its recent presidential elections, and if Iran were brought in from the cold could be a major calming influence in the region. True, Iran has given support to Hezbollah and Hamas, but except in Syria not with much effect, and on a scale far smaller than what other actors in the region have been doing to maintain their control and push their agendas. In effect, if Washington pursued national interests in the spirit of political realism, it would regard Iran as a potential ally, and put a large question mark next to its two distorting ‘special relationships,’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel. In effect, reverse its regional alignments in a way that could replace turmoil with stability, but this is not about to happen. The American media, and thoughtful citizens, should at least be wondering ‘why?’ rather than staring into darkness of a starless nighttime sky.

 

But this is not all. The Saudis, along with the UAE and Egypt, have long resented and maybe feared the early willingness of Qatar to give some sanctuary and aid and comfort to various elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It is hardly farfetched to assume that Israel is outraged by the Emir of Qatar’s friendship and earlier support for the Hamas exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal. Saudi Arabia strives to obscure its incoherent approach to political Islam. It loudly proclaims Sunni identity when intervening in Syria, waging war in Yemen, and calling for confrontation with Iran, while totally repudiating its sectarian identity when dealing with societally or democratically oriented Islamic movements in neighboring countries. Such an anti-democratiing orientation was dramatically present when Riyadh and Abu Dhabi scolded Washington for abandoning Mubarak’s harsh authoritarian secular rule in Egypt back in 2011 and then welcoming the anti-Morsi coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi two years later, even welcoming its bloody suppression of Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. As has been long obvious to close and honest observers of the Kingdom, the Saudi monarchy has become so fearful of an internal uprising challenging its oppressive rule that it will oppose any liberalizing or democratizing challenge anywhere in its neighborhood. The Kingdom is particularly wary of its Shia minority that happens to be concentrated in locations near where the main Saudi oil fields are located. Similar concerns also help explain why Bahrain behaves as it does as it also fearful of a domestic Shia led majority opposition, which has made it a strategically dependent, yet ardent, adherent of the anti-Qatar coalition.

 

Also far more relevant than acknowledged is the presence of Al Jazeera in Doha, which at various times has voiced support for the Arab Uprisings of 2011, criticism of the Israeli practices and policies toward the Palestinians, and provided an Arabic media source of relatively independent news coverage throughout the region. Qatar is guilty of other irritants of the dominant Gulf political sensibility. It has arranged academic positions for such prominent Palestinian dissidents as Azmi Bashara and more than its neighbors has given welcome to intellectual refugees from Arab countries, especially Egypt. Given the way the Gulf rulers close off all political space within their borders it is to be expected that they find the relative openness of Qatar a threat as well as consider it to be a negative judgment passed on their style of governance.

 

Qatar is very vulnerable to pressure, but also has certain strengths. Its population of 2.5 million (only 200,000 of whom are citizens), imports at least 40% of its food across the Saudi border, now closed to the 600-800 daily truck traffic. Not surprisingly, this sudden closure has sparked panic among Qataris, who are reportedly stockpiling food and cash. The Doha stock market dropped over 7% on the first day after the Gulf break was announced. Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and is a major source of Turkish investment capital. Western Europe is wary of this American project to establish an ‘Arab NATO,’ and sees it as one more manifestation of Trump’s dysfunctional and mindless impact on world order.

 

What this portends for the future remains is highly uncertain. Some look upon these moves against Qatar as a tempest in a teapot that will disappear almost as quickly as it emerged. The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, have urged mediation and offered reassuring comments about anti-ISIS unity remaining unimpaired. It is true that the existence of the Udeid Air Base in Qatar may in time dilute deference to the Saudi-led desire to squeeze the government in Doha, possibly to the point of its collapse. A more fearsome scenario is that the Trump encouraged confrontation sets the stage for a coup in Qatar that will be quickly supported by Washington as soon as Riyadh gives the green light, and will be promoted as part of the regional buildup against Iran. The notorious ceremony in which King Salmon, Trump, and Sisi were pictured standing above that glowing orb with their arms outstretched can only be reasonably interpreted as a pledge of solidarity among dark forces of intervention. Many of us supposed that George W. Bush’s policy of ‘democracy promotion’ that provided part of the rationale for the disastrous 2003 attack on Iraq was the low point in American foreign policy in the Middle East, but Trump is already proving us wrong.

 

While this kind of ‘great game’ is being played at Qatar’s expense in the Gulf, it is highly unlikely that other major players, especially Iran, Russia, and Turkey will remain passive observers, especially if the crisis lingers or deepens. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Mohammed Zarif, has non-aggressively tweeted to the effect that “neighbors are permanent; geography can’t be changed,” stating his view that the occasion calls for dialogue, not coercion. If the isolation of Qatar is not quickly ended, it is likely that Iran will start making food available and shipping other supplies to this beleaguered tiny peninsular country whose sovereignty is being so deeply threatened.

 

Russia, has been long collaborating with Iran in Syria, will likely move toward greater solidarity with Tehran, creating a highly unstable balance of power in the Middle East with frightening risks of escalation and miscalculation. Russia will also take advantage of the diplomatic opportunity to tell the world that the U.S. is seeking to raise war fevers and cause havoc by championing aggressive moves that further the ambitions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Such Russian diplomacy is likely to play well in Europe where Trump’s recent demeaning words in Brussels to NATO members made the leading governments rethink their security policies, and to view the United States as an increasingly destabilizing force on the global stage, such feeling being reinforced by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

 

Turkey seems to believe that its immediate effort should be similar to that of the Tillerson and Mattis approach, having tentatively offered to mediate, and advocates finding a way back to a posture of at least peaceful co-existence between Qatar, the Gulf, and the rest of the Arab world. Turkey has had a positive relationship with Qatar, which includes a small Turkish military facility and large Qatari investments in the Turkish economy.

 

To cool things down, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Sheik Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, while denying the allegations, has also joined in the call for mediation and even reconciliation. Bowing to Gulf pressures, Qatar has prior to the current crisis withdrawn its welcome from Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood exiles, and seems poised to yield further to the pressures of the moment, given its small size, political vulnerability, and intimations of possible societal panic.

 

While the civilian population of Yemen is faced with imminent famine as an intended consequence of the Saudi intervention, the Saudis seems to be again using food as a weapon, this time to compel Qatar to submit to its regional priorities and become a GCC team player with respect to Iran—joining in the preparation of a sectarian war against Iran while maintaining a repressive hold over political activity at home. One preliminary takeaway is that ISIS dimension is serving as a smokescreen to draw attention away from a far more controversial agenda. The Saudis are deeply implicated in political extremism throughout the region, having likely paid heavily for being treated, temporarily at least, as off limits for Jihadi extremism. Qatar, too is tainted, but mainly by being a minor operative in Syrian violence and in 2015 paying ISIS an amount rumored to be as high as $1 billion to obtain the release of 26 Qataris, including members of the royal family, taken hostage while on a falcon hunting party, of all things, in Iraq. We can gain some glimmers of understanding of what is motivating these Arab governments to act against Qatar, but little sympathy. In comparison, the new U.S. foreign policy in the region defies any understanding beyond its adoption of a cynical and unworkable geopolitical stance, which certainly does not engender any sympathy from the victimized peoples of the region, but rather fear and loathing.  

Advertisements

Erasing the UN

3 Mar

 

Donald Trump has articulated clearly, if somewhat vaguely and incoherently, his anti-globalist, anti-UN approach on foreign policy. For instance, in late February he told a right-wing audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, or a global flag. This is the United States that I am representing. I am not representing the globe.” A similar sentiment was expressed to Congress a few days later in a tone of voice and choice of words praised by media wonks as ‘presidential.’ On this occasion Trump said, “[m]y job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” Such rhetoric coming from a normal American leader would probably be interpreted as an expression of geopolitical humility, implicitly rejecting the standard insistence on American exceptionalism, exemplified in recent times by the project to create and maintain the first global state in human history.

 

This potentially self-limiting language might even be understood as renouncing earlier claims to assert American global leadership as the keystone of world order. George W. Bush in 2002 gave this bold leadership claim a sharp edge when he insisted the that only the US model of market-based constitutionalism was a legitimate form of governance for sovereign states in the 21st century. Or even more grandiosely, in the spirit of Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman, that the United States as a consequence of its martial strength, technological prowess, democratic values and institutions, and skills of leadership provides the world with the benevolent reality of virtual ‘world government.’ Let’s face it, Donald Trump is not a normal political leader, nor is he someone disposed to embrace humility in any form, so we should take his pledge to represent American interests while leaving the world to fend for itself with many grains of salt, especially if we consider the specifics of the Trump worldview. What Trump seems to be offering is maximum disengagement from international and global arrangements designed to institutionalize cooperation among sovereign states, and that is where the UN figures in Trump’s unfolding game plan.

Even before being sworn in as president Trump engaged in UN-bashing on behalf of, and in concert with the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu. His dismissive comment contained in a tweet is rather revealing: “The UN has great potential, but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time. So sad!” Of course, we are not told what Trump thinks might bring into being this ‘great potential’ of the UN. Also not surprisingly, the tweet was provoked by Security Resolution 2334, adopted December 23rd by a 14-0 vote, which sharply criticized Israeli settlement expansion as unlawful and as creating a major obstacles to establishing peace with the Palestinians. The Obama presidency was sharply criticized by Trump and others, including many Democrats, for allowing passage of this resolution at the UN by failing to do what it had consistently done for the prior eight years, shield Israel from often fully deserved, and long overdue, UN censure by casting a veto. It seems that Trump, a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and the new US Representative at the UN, Nikki Haley evaluate the usefulness of the UN through an ‘Israel first’ optic, that is, the significance of UN is actually reduced to its attitude toward Israel, which is viewed through Israeli eyes, and is unmindful toward the wide spectrum of UN activities and contributions to human wellbeing.

 

It must be acknowledged that the Obama presidency did only slightly better when it comes to both the UN and Israel. True, Barack Obama in his annual addresses to the General Assembly affirmed the importance and contributions of the UN by concrete reference to achievements, and used these occasions to set forth his vision of a better world that included a major role for the UN. Also, Obama recognized the importance of the UN in dealing with the challenge of climate change, and joined with China to ensure a multilateralist triumph under UN auspices by having the 194 assembled government successfully conclude the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. However, when it came to war/peace issues such as drone warfare, threats of war directed at Iran, modernization of nuclear weapons, and the defense of Israel, the Obama Administration flexed its geopolitical muscles with disdain for the constraining limits imposed by international law and international morality. In this core respect, Trump’s approach, while blunter and oblivious to the etiquette of global diplomacy, appears to maintain fundamental continuity with the Obama approach.

 

With respect to defending Israel even when it faces responsible criticism, I can report from my own experience while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, that the defense of Israel’s unlawful behavior within the UN during the Obama years was unconditional, and deeply irresponsible toward respect for international legal obligations, especially in relation to upholding international humanitarian law and norms governing recourse to non-defensive force. American chief representatives at the UN, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both called for my dismissal from my unpaid post in vitriolic language without ever confronting the substance of my criticisms of Israel’s murderous periodic attacks on Gaza, its excessive use of force in sustaining the occupation, its expansion of unlawful settlements, and its discriminatory administration of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I mention this personal experience to underscore the willingness of the Obama presidency to go all in with Israel despite the awkward fact that Obama was being harshly attacked in Israel, including by government leasers, and hence also in the US. Obama was being wrongly accused of being unfriendly to Israel as compared to earlier American presidents. Israel has high expectations that Trump will sway with the wind from Tel Aviv.

 

More to the point, Trump’s view of foreign policy at this stage appears to be a primitive mixture of state-centrism, militarism, nationalism, overall what had qualified until World War I as realpolitik. There was back then no UN, few international institutions, no international law prohibition on aggressive war, no Nuremberg Principles imposing criminal accountability on political and military leaders, no tradition of protection for international human rights, and no affirmation of the inalienable right of all peoples to self-determination. It was a Eurocentric state system that combined the interaction of sovereign states in the West with colonial rule extended directly and indirectly to most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Of course, now the colonial system has formally collapsed, China, Russia, and India have risen, Europe has declined, nuclear weapons continue to shadow human existence, and the specter of global warming dangles a sword of Damocles over the human condition. Trump seeks to restore a simpler world with his raucous rally cries of ‘America First.’ This is to be accomplished by carrying out a series of promises: to renegotiate trade arrangements, build walls, crush terrorism, terrorize undocumented immigrants, liberate police from accountability, bar Muslim immigration, and develop the world’s most feared nuclear arsenal. It is not a pretty picture, but also it involves a reckless disregard of the fragility of our interconnected and networked world order that mandates a globalizing framework for common problem-solving rather that a retreat to a glorious past that never was.

 

Of course, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the Trump worldview is bereft of any constructive thoughts about how to engage with the world. Trump’s controversial connections with Putin and Russia impart a contradictory impression: what is favorable is an evident interest in exploring prospects for a cooperative relationship, which goes against the grain of the American national security establishment, including several Republican heavyweights, which seemed likely in an expected Clinton presidency to be readying the country for a dangerous plunge into a second cold war. It would be ignited with reckless bravado by confronting Russia along its borders; in contrast, what is dubious about the Trump overtures to the Kremlin are the backdoor dealings with Russian officials during the presidential campaign and subsequently, reinforced by the ‘golden shower’ innuendo and unresolved concerns that Trump’s withheld tax returns might reveal awkward information about indebtedness or business dealings or both.

 

Whether Trump is going to abandon this effort to smooth things with Moscow under this pressure from the US intelligence and security bureaucracy will be a defining feature of whether his foreign policy gets early stuck in the Washington swamp, or risks the governmentally unsettling effects of discontinuity with the past. There are some cynical interpretations of Trump’s opening to Russia as primarily intended to set the stage for intensified confrontations with China. If this view is even partially correct it could easily generate a cold war of its own, although with new alignments. It might quickly lead to hot battlefield incidents that could further escalate, giving rise to renewed fears of nuclear war.

 

Trump occasionally expresses an appreciation of international cooperation for mutual benefit with other states, as well as recognizing the benefits of keeping traditional alliances (NATO, Japan, South Korea) alive and threatening those countries that menace the global or regional status quo (North Korea). What is totally absent is any acknowledgement of global challenges that cannot be met by states acting on their own or cooperatively through bilateral arrangements. It is here where the erasure of the UN from political consciousness is so troublesome substantively as well as symbolically. To some degree this erasure preceded Trump and is widespread. It has not been challenged as yet by even the Sanders’ end of the political spectrum in the US. I found it telling that Obama made no reference to the UN in his Chicago farewell speech, which can be most accurately understood as a more positive and polite version of Trump’s ‘America First’ engagement with the world.

 

Even better, on an abstract level, Trump expressed some sentiments that if concretized could overcome some of the forebodings being voiced here. In his speech to Congress on February 28th Trump said “[w]e want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace wherever peace can be found.” He went on to point out that “America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite sides of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.” If this outlook ever comes to inform the actual policies of the Trump presidency it would give grounds for hope, but as of now, any such hopes are mere indulgences of wishful thinking, and as such, diversions from the one true progressive imperative of this historic moment–political resistance to Trumpism in all its manifestations.

 

Dark lines of policy have also been set forth by Trump. The angry defiance of his Inaugural Address, the belligerence toward China, threats toward North Korea, exterminist language in references to ‘radical Islamic’ extremism and ISIS. Trump’s belligerence toward the world is reinforced by lauding military virtues and militarism, by appointing generals and civilian advisors to top positions, and by boosting the military budget at a time when the United States already spends almost as much on its military machine as is the total of military expenditures by all other countries, and has only a string of political defeats to show for it.

 

These contrasting Trump imaginaries create an atmosphere of foreboding and uncertainty. Such a future can unfold in contradictory ways. At present, the forebodings clearly outweigh the hopes. Although Trump speaks of fixing the decaying infrastructure of the United States and not wasting trillions on futile wars, especially in the Middle East, his inclinations so far suggest continuity in such brutal war theaters as Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

 

We have reached a stage of human development where future prospects are tied to finding institutional mechanisms that can serve human and global interests in addition to national interests, whether pursued singly or in aggregate. In this central respect, Trump’s ardent embrace of American nationalism is an anachronistic dead end.

 

What I find particularly discouraging about the present bipartisan political mood is its near total erasure of the United Nations and international law. These earlier efforts to modify and ameliorate international anarchy have virtually disappeared from the political horizons of American leaders. This reflects a loss of the kind of idealism that earlier energized the political imagination of those who spoke for the United States ever since the American Revolution. There was admittedly always much hypocrisy and self-deception attached to this rhetoric, which conveniently overlooked American geopolitical ambitions, slavery, and devastation visited on native Americans. It also overlooked imperial maneuvers in the Western Hemisphere and the ideologically driven foreign policy of the Cold War era that brought death, destruction, and despair to many distant lands, while keeping a dying European colonialism alive for many years by deferring to the warped logic of the Cold War.

 

Finally, I believe that the agenda of resistance to Trumpism includes a defense of the United Nations, and what its Charter proposes for the peoples of the world. We need a greatly empowered UN, not an erased UN.

Condemning Israeli Settlement Expansion: UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and Secretary Kerry’s Speech

4 Jan

 

           

On December 23, 2016 the UN Security Council by a vote of 14-0 adopted Resolution 2334, notably with the United States abstaining, condemning Israeli settlement expansion. It was treated as big news in the West because the Obama presidency had finally in its last weeks in office refused to use its veto to protect Israel from UN censure. Especially in the United States, the media focused on the meaning of this diplomatic move, wondering aloud whether it was motivated by Obama’s lingering anger over Netanyahu’s effort to torpedo his efforts to reach agreement with Iran in 2014 on its nuclear program or meant to challenge the incoming Trump leadership to deal responsibly with the unresolved Israel/Palestine conflict and also by indirection to mount criticism of Trump’s reckless pledge to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and his apparent readiness to side openly with extremist Israeli leadership while in the White House.

 

           

The likely lasting importance of the resolution is the evidence of a strong international consensus embodied in the 14-0 vote, with only the US abstention preventing unanimity. To bring together China, Russia, France, and the UK on an initiative tabled by Senegal, Malaysia, and Venezuela, is sending Israel and Washington a clear message that despite the adverse developments of recent years in the Middle East the world will not forget the Palestinians, or their struggle. It is also significant that the resolution calls upon the new UN Secretary General to report back to the SC every three months on progress implementing the resolution and explicitly keeps the Council seized of the issue. Such provisions reinforce the impression that the unresolved Israel/Palestine conflict will remain on the UN policy agenda in the months ahead, which by itself is extremely irritating to Israel.

 

            It is quite obvious that 2334 is largely a symbolic initiative, which is a way of saying that nothing on the ground in occupied Palestine is expected to change even with respect to Israeli settlement policy. Israel responded to the resolution even more defiantly than anticipated partly because this challenge to its policies, although symbolic, was treated as more threatening than a mere gesture of disapproval. Israeli anger seemed principally a reaction to the American failure to follow its normal practice of shielding Israel by casting its veto. It may also reflect concerns in Israel about the growing civil society challenge posed by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) that is gaining traction in recent years, particularly in Europe and North America. In effect, 2334 may be the beginning of a new phase of the legitimacy war that the Palestinian people and their supporters have been waging in recent years in opposition to Israeli occupation policies and practices, not only in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but also in Gaza and to discredit its diplomacy on the world stage. If Trump delivers on his provocative pledge to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem it is likely to intensify offsetting international efforts to induce the UN to exert greater pressure on Israel to address Palestinian grievances in a manner more in accord with international law.

           

The motivation for the US change of tactics at the UN was greatly elaborated upon a few days later by John Kerry, the American Secretary of State. He mainly connected 2334 with a US effort to save the two-state solution from collapse. Kerry insisted that the two-state solution could still be salvaged, although he acknowledged that it was being put in increasing jeopardy by the steady expansion of Israeli settlements, which he acknowledged as signaling Israel’s ambition to impose their own version of a one-state outcome on the Palestinians. Kerry articulated the widely held belief that the formal annexation of occupied Palestinian territories would force Israel to choose to be either ‘Jewish’ or ‘democratic.’ It could not be both if the 5 million or so Palestinians living under occupation were added to the 1.7 Palestinian minority in pre-1967 Israel. At such a point Israel would either have to grant all Palestinians full citizenship rights, and no longer be Jewish, or withhold these rights and cease further pretenses of being democratic. Significantly, Kerry refrained from saying that such a solution would violate basic Palestinian rights or antagonize the UN to such a degree that sanctions would be imposed on Israel. Secretary Kerry relied on the practical advantages for Israel of making peace with Palestine, and refrained from warning Israel of dire international consequences of continuing to violate international law and defy the unified will of the international community.

 

For a variety of reasons, as suggested, 2334 and the Kerry speech were welcome corrective to the relative silence of recent years in response to the failure of the parties to move any closer to a sustainable peace. It was also a belated indication that at least part of the American political establishment was no longer willing to turn a blind eye to Israeli wrongdoing, at least with respect to the settlements. Yet 2334, and especially the Kerry speech, do not depart from fundamentally mistaken presentations of how to move diplomacy forward. There is no mention of the widely held belief in civil society that the train carrying the two state baggage has already left the station, stranding the hapless diplomats on the platform. In fact, both 2334 and Kerry seek to breathe life into an opposite impression that the only feasible peace arrangement must be based on achieving two independent, sovereign states; no consideration is given to the alternative of a secular one state solution with equality for the two peoples based on democracy and human rights.

 

            The second serious misrepresentation of the situation is the assertion of a false symmetry as between the parties rather than a necessary recognition of disparities in capabilities and responsibilities that have doomed the ‘peace process’ from its inception. The Palestinians are living under a harsh occupation regime, in refugee camps spread around the region, or in a worldwide diaspora, while Israelis are living in freedom, prosperity, and relative security. Israel violates international law in numerous systematic ways, while Palestine endures an oppressive occupation that it is unable to challenge. In this spirit, Kerry declares that both sides are responsible for the lack of diplomatic progress, which overlooks the consequences of Israeli settlement expansion, ethnic policies in Jerusalem, and the blockade of and attacks on Gaza. Reasonable expectations about how to move forward should be grounded in the realities of these disparities and how to overcome them. A start would be to acknowledge that Israeli compliance with international humanitarian law, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention, is a precondition for the resumption of any further negotiations.

 

Considered more carefully, it is probably not surprising that 2334 is somewhat more critical of Israel than the Kerry speech, although the speech is not nearly as ‘anti-Israeli’ as the mainstream Western media would have us believe. 2334 condemns not only recent settlement expansion moves but declares in its first operative clause that all of the settlements established by Israel since 1967 in occupied Palestine, including those in East Jerusalem, have “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.” Kerry deep in his speech, almost as an aside, acknowledges the continued US acceptance of this wider illegality of the settlements, but simultaneously reassures Israel that it is taken for granted that land exchanges would enable Israel to keep its largest settlements if future peace diplomacy ever does lead to the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestine. In effect, the fact that these largest settlements built on the best land in the West Bank are widely considered flagrantly unlawful from the time they were established is treated as essentially irrelevant by Kerry with respect to working out a deal on peace.

 

Even more telling, 2334 while affirming the international consensus supportive of a two-state solution does not go on to give any indication of what that might mean if transformed into political reality. Kerry outlines the American vision of such a solution with ideas, which if carefully considered, would make the plan unacceptable to Palestinians even if we make the huge, and currently unwarranted assumptions that Israel might in the future become a sincere participant in a peace process, including a willingness of its government to dismantle substantially the settlement archipelago.

 

For instance, Kerry reflects Washington’s view of a two-state solution by presupposing that if any Palestinian state is ever established it would be entirely demilitarized while Israel would retain unlimited options to remain as militarized as it wished. Such one-sidedness on the vital matter of security is affirmed, despite an expectation that in the course of allowing a Palestinian state to come into existence the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative would be fully implemented. Such a development would allow Israel to count on demilitarized regional security cooperation with the entire Arab world, including full normalization of economic and cultural relations. Even if the Palestinian Authority were persuaded to accept this fundamental inequality in the sovereign rights of the two states, it is doubtful that the Palestinian people would accept such a humiliating and compromised status over time. In effect, the Kerry outline of peace expresses a continuing commitment to pro-Israel partisanship and is less a formula for a sustainable peace between these two peoples than it is a presumably unintentional setting of the stage for an indefinite continuation of the conflict under altered conditions.

 

Yet there are two qualifying considerations that should be taken into account. There are reliable reports that Kerry wanted to make his speech of late December two years ago, and was prohibited from doing so by the White House that feared a backlash that would burden its already difficult task of governance. In effect, as with such famous retirement speeches as Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial-complex a half century ago the citizenry is warned when it is too late even to attempt to address the problem until a new leadership takes office. In my view, even if Kerry had been allowed to speak when there was still time to act, there would have been little behavioral effect because Israel is now unconditionally committed to the Greater Israel image of a solution, there was insufficient political will in Washington and around the world to push Israel hard enough, and because the image of ‘peace’ was too one-sided in Israel’s favor as to be either negotiable or sustainable.

 

 

Similar partisan features undermine the credibility of other aspects of Kerry’s advocacy of how best to proceed. While recognizing the importance of the refugee issue, Kerry calls for some kind of solution that allows Palestinian refugees to receive monetary compensation and the right to return to the state of Palestine, but not to their homes or village if located in present day Israel. And no where is Israel’s unlimited right of return available to Jews worldwide, however slight their connection with Israel or Judaism might be.

 

Kerry went out of his way in the speech to demonstrate that the US abstention in relation to 2334 was in no way intended to rupture the special relationship between Israel and the United States. In this vein, Kerry pointed to the fact that the Obama administration had been more generous than its predecessors in bestowing military assistance upon Israel and had over its eight years protected Israel on numerous occasions from hostile initiatives undertaken it various UN venues. His point being that Israel’s defiance on settlements made it politically awkward for the United States to be an effective supporter of Israel and created tension between its preferred pro-Israeli posture and the more pragmatic pursuit of national interests throughout the Middle East.

 

Despite this friction between Washington and Tel Aviv, the US was the only member of the Security Council to refrain from supporting the resolution, limiting its departure from Israel’s expectations by refusing to block 2334, although it apparently toned down the criticism through threatening to use its veto if the language used was not ‘balanced.’ Kerry went out of his way to celebrate the recently deceased former Israeli president, Shimon Peres as a heroic peace warrior, which amounted to a not subtle dig at Netanyahu. Kerry quotes approvingly Peres’ self-satisfied assertion that 78% of historic Palestine should be enough for Israel, which Peres was comparing to the excessive demands for even more land by the settler one-staters. Of course, 78% gives Israel much more than the 55% it was awarded in 1947 by UNGA Assembly Resolution 181. At the time, the entire Arab world and Palestinian representatives rejected this UN proposal as unacceptable despite given 45% or more than double the territory of Palestine after Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian land occupied since the 1967 War. Beyond this, Kerry’s inclusion of land swaps as integral to his version of the two-state solution would result in further encroachments on territory left to the Palestinians, a result obscured to some extent by giving Palestine uninhabitable desert acreage as a dubious equivalent for the prime agricultural land on which the unlawful Israeli settlements are built. At best, territorial equality would be achieved quantitatively, but certainly not, qualitatively, which is what counts.

 

At the same time there are some positive aspects to Kerry speech. It did create a stir by its sharp criticism of Israel’s policies on settlements, as well as open doors to debate and broke the silence that was enabling Israel to proceed with its plans for territorial expansion. It is worth noting that James Zogby, long a dedicated advocate of Palestinian rights who has been surprisingly effective in the face of the constraints of the American setting, has expressed his strong appreciation for Kerry’s speech in the following words: “To some, especially Palestinians, this may seem like ‘too little, too late.’ But as someone who has been a part of the effort to create an American debate on Israeli policies, Kerry’s intervention is both welcome, validating, and empowering. He laid down markers that should help liberals and progressives define a policy agenda on the Israel-Palestine conflict—exactly what we need as we enter the challenges of the Trump era.”

 

Overall, the impact of 2334 is likely to be greater than it would have been if Israel had not reacted so petulantly. Even if Trump reverses the American critical approach to further Israeli settlement expansion, the UN has been reawakened to its long lapsed responsibility to find a peaceful solution for the conflict and end the Palestinian ordeal that has gone on for an entire century since Lord Alfred Balfour gave a British colonial green light to the Zionist project in 1917 to establish a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. As well, civil society activists that have thrown their support to the BDS Campaign and governments critical of Israel’s behavior are likely to feel encouraged and even empowered by this expression of virtual unity among the governments belonging to the most important organ of the UN System. Of course, there have been many resolutions critical of Israel in the past, and nothing has happened. The harsh occupation persists unabated, the dynamics of annexation move steadily forward, and the Palestinian tragedy goes on and on. Despite this inter-governmental step at the UN, it still seems that the Palestinian fate will be primarily determined by people, above all by various forms of Palestinian resistance and secondarily by the extent of global solidarity pressures. Whether resistance and solidarity on behalf of justice is sufficient to neutralize the iron fist of geopolitics and state power remains the essential challenge.

James Zogby, long a dedicated advocate of Palestinian rights who has persevered in the face of the many difficulties present in the American setting, deserves a respectful hearing for his praise for of the Kerry speech. He has expressed his strong appreciation with the following words: “To some, especially Palestinians, this may seem like ‘too little, too late.’ But as someone who has been a part of the effort to create an American debate on Israeli policies, Kerry’s intervention is both welcome, validating, and empowering. He laid down markers that should help liberals and progressives define a policy agenda on the Israel-Palestine conflict—exactly what we need as we enter the challenges of the Trump era.” Let us join Zogby in acknowledging a few drops of water in the glass containing Palestinian hopes, but let us also recognize that even with Kerry break with silence, lots has to happen before we can begin to believe that the glass is half full.

While keeping open a suspicious eye, it is important to acknowledge positive aspects of the Kerry speech: It did create a stir by its sharp criticism of Israel’s policies on settlements, as well as open doors to debate and broke the silence that was enabling Israel to proceed with its plans for territorial expansion. In the period ahead, we may even become nostalgic for the posture, even if mainly hypocritical, of seeking a peaceful, negotiated future for the Palestinian people. Or maybe the stripping away of illusions will highlight the continued dependence of the Palestinians on struggle and solidarity.

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited

20 Aug

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited

 

The problem with Jewish identity is Jewish identity! By this I mean, the hegemonic forms of Jewish exceptionalism to which most Jews are enthralled, including a provocative insistence on willed disaffiliation in a few rate instances. Such a gesture of anti-exceptional exceptionalism is a kind of personal manifesto, a private declaration to the world of independence of Judaism with respect to both articles of faith and ethno-nationalist markers. It is usually rooted in a deep earlier experience of what it meant to be Jewish that is repudiated later on for personal and, sometimes, political reasons.

 

Of course, this kind of perverse exceptionalism also applies, with even greater stringency, to the genuine anti-Semite who attributes a negative exceptionalism to Jews by of hatred, blame, and paranoia. Zionist zealots often manipulate negative exceptionalism to instill fear among Jews about the intentions of their adversaries. It is also a useful instrument in Zionist hands to brand critics of Israel or supporters of BDS, discrediting their good faith by deliberately alleging hatred of a people while what is at stake is harsh criticism of the practices and policies of a state that inflict massive suffering on a vulnerable people. To be called a ‘self-hating Jew’ as I have been is to turn negative exceptionalism into a double-edged razor sharp weapon.

 

Positive exceptionalism, essentialized for many Jews by a variety of readings of Jews as the people chosen by God, as different and superior. It is sometimes concretized by reference to Israel that pulls above its weight when it comes to military power and technological achievement. There is another kind of positive exceptionalism that regards Jews as chosen by God to engage justly in the world seeking peace, abhorring violence. Michael Lerner, Rebecca Vilkomerson, and Marc H. Ellis exemplify the presence of such angels in our midst.

 

Thinking more personally, I acknowledge the importance of being Jewish as a marker of my identity both for myself and for many others in their chose life journey. What this means substantively is obviously very diverse. It eludes me almost altogether as I am not observant of nor familiar with Jewish rituals or traditions, although I have welcomed exposure to them when the occasion has arisen, and it has, although infrequently as my circle of friends is overwhelmingly non-observant. Subjectively, Judaism has never had a greater resonance for me than the rituals and traditions of other world religions, most of whom I have been exposed to from time to time, and which I studied long ago with a strong academic interest in religion as a structure of belief. I always welcomed opportunities to become more deeply immersed in any world religion whenever they arose. I never felt a particular attachment to the religion conferred upon me by the accident of birth, perhaps because in my case, it was not part of my upbringing and socialization experience as a child growing up in the highly secular surroundings of Manhattan.

 

Living part of each year in Turkey for more than twenty years has led my to think about the secular/religious divide that is very deep in Turkish society, and produces cleavages of understanding and polarizing enmities. I believe religion is deeply relevant to the mass of humanity, and has in recent decades been revived in quite diverse settings. In part, this seems a reaction to the modernist failures of community and identity. These failures are evident in the commodified surroundings we daily inhabit whether we wish to or not.  This defining reality of the lifeworld is heavily influenced by neoliberal capitalism as increasingly disseminated by the ambiguous magic of the digital age.

 

In the Turkish case, perhaps due to my experience of friends and colleagues, I find that the secularists tend to be more judgmental than their Islamist counterparts (who by and large accept the idea that religion and secularism can and should coexist so long as there is mutual respect and equal rights).  I interpret this difference as reflecting the fact that secularists held tightly the keys of power in republican Turkey until the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained an electoral mandate to govern in 2002, and has been reelected time and again ever since. Had the situation been reversed, it is possible that it would be the secularists who would be more open to coexistence and mutual respect, although their pre-AKP record of governance and societal dominance gives little reason for such confidence as their policy was guided by the strong wish to keep religion in its box.

 

I am undoubtedly influenced by the view that unless ethno-nationalism in all its forms is soon superseded by a surge of commitment to species identity the human condition faces a dismal future. This does not mean abandoning a Jewish or other sub-species identities altogether, but it does emphasize another way of conceiving and layering multiple identities, with an insistence on privileging ‘human identity,’ which would reverse almost all that has gone before.  Such a revolutionary hierarchy inverts the ordering of identities that presently exist that works outward from family and immediate neighborhood, and gives least weight to ‘humanity’ or ‘cosmic consciousness.’

 

Such assessments also reflect spatial and psychological location. The meaning of being Jewish would undoubtedly be more central to my daily experience if I were living in Israel, yet no less or more authentic than an identity shaped by living most of the year in California. This affirmation of equivalence is undoubtedly an anathema to many Jews in and out of Israel, especially to adherents of Zionism in any of its many forms. Zionism above all else, as I understand it, embodies a dialectical interaction between negative and positive variants of Jewish exceptionalism, and takes for granted the hypothesis that Jews are deservedly, and for some, unavoidably exceptional.

 

Separating myself from this kind of involvement does not imply any hostility toward religious and ethnic identities so long as they seek openness to the ecumenical dimensions of human identity. To the extent a preferred identity is closed to religious and ethnic otherness, as in a variety of fundamentalisms (including secular fundamentalism), it has become in the twenty-first century the most widespread means to exhibit a collective death wish on behalf of the species. What I find most empowering is a trans-religious spirituality that draws on the insights and wisdom embedded in all the great religions, including the spirit faiths and nature religions of many native peoples. These religious and spiritual constructions of reality impart a far fuller sense of the awe and mystery of life on planet earth than can be gained by mastering what the Western Enlightenment canonized so powerfully through its amoral embrace of instrumental reason. All that reason leaves out is love, empathy, friendship, beauty, insurgent energies, and the indispensable balances and harmonies of co-evolutionary nature. Such spirituality could become a vital source of liberating energy if the human species manages to seize this bio-political moment that is upon us whether or not we realize it. And this also is a warning that the ethno-nationalist moment that continues to hold the political imagination in captivity has become the king’s highway to species extinction.

 

Instead of Jewish exceptionalism  (or American exceptionalism) the call of this bio-political moment is for species exceptionalism.

 

 

 

An Anecdote About Fascism

19 Apr

 

 

Recently I participated in a conference on global inequality and human rights held at the University of Texas in Austin, a lively quite cosmopolitan city. During the lunch break I was talking with a young PhD student from Israel who had just presented an informative paper on inequality in the Philippines. I asked her about her career plans and how it was like to be living in Israel these days. She told me that she was married to an Israeli and planned to return to finish her studies in Tel Aviv after a fellowship year at UT.

 

I tried to engage her in conversation about evolving Israeli attitudes toward the Palestinians and the related failed diplomacy, but she seemed rather uninformed and perhaps even disinterested as if the peace agenda was not really present in her active consciousness. Then all at once she said something that surprised me. “I am not looking forward to returning to Israel, it is becoming a fascist state.”

 

What made this strong statement surprising was that it contrasted with the blandness of everything that had preceded it. I asked inquisitively, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, “What makes you say that?”

 

She pondered the question as if it had come to her from the wild blue yonder. It seemed as if she had never thought about it before, and maybe it was just a spontaneous assertion that she was articulating for the first time. After a pause, she answered somewhat hesitantly: “Because the army is the most powerful and admired institution in Israel, and the government controls everything, it is acting as a totalizing force.” I suppose that gets you to Franco style fascism that prevailed for so long in Spain, but not the more virulent forms of fascism associated with Mussolini’s Italy and especially Hitler’s Germany.

 

I agreed with the young woman about the hegemony of the armed forces, both institutionally and psychologically, but I was less sure about the totalizing reach of the government. After all, Haaretz continues to publish Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, and they are both outspoken critics of Israeli policies and leaders, but then again there seems to be mounting pressure in Israel against human rights NGOs and peaceful protests, and an official tone of belligerence toward the BDS movement that even South African apartheid racists never exhibited.

 

The Israeli young woman in Texas never mentioned the oppression of the Palestinians as one dimension of this Israeli drift from democracy to fascism, although many progressive Israelis believe that it is the prolonged occupation of Palestinian territory that has pushed the country toward or over the precipice of fascism. Jeff Halper, author of War Against the People: Israel, Palestinians, and Global Pacification (2015), a leading Israeli activist scholar who emigrated from the U.S. decades ago and has fearlessly placed his body in front of bulldozers to block the demolitions of Palestinian homes, has a different way of putting his concerns about what is happening to the Israeli governing process. “Israel is a vibrant democracy if you are Jewish.” But even for Jews there is pushback, according to Halper, making it “harder and harder to protest.”

 

What of others living in Israel, especially the Palestinians? Those living in Israel or under occupation are given a fugitive identity by being called ‘Arabs,’  a designation that functions as a way of denying nationalist claims based on a ‘Palestinian’ primary identity. As is well known, Israel uses the legalities of citizenship strategically. It has been recently offering the 25,000 Druze residents of the Golan Heights Israeli citizenship, apparently to neutralize their antagonism toward Netanyahu’s land grab, which defies international law by insisting on permanent Israeli sovereignty over conquered and occupied Syrian territory. So far few Druze have accepted this offer of Israeli citizenship, but this could change if Israel is able to sustain its claim.

 

As Palestinians know from bitter experience, the privileged societal status of Jews within and without Israel is mostly achieved by way of nationality laws that are ethnically framed to favor Jews, while Israeli citizens, whether or not Jewish, enjoy formal equality that doesn’t count for much when it comes to rights and legal protection. The most notorious of the many ethnographic discriminations in Israeli law is between Jews who are granted an unlimited right of return wherever they live in the world and however tenuous their links to Israel, while Palestinians and other minorities do not have any right of return even if the Palestinian roots of their families go back many generations. Israeli apologists contend that as a Jewish state Israel can do what many other states do, and be selective about its policies toward immigration, and privilege whoever it wishes, and further that the historical context of Zionist was shaped by the aspiration to create a sanctuary for Jews so long targeted for persecution. What this rationale leaves out is that this sanctuary was created by the displacement of the majority of the indigenous population of Palestine, and surely those Palestinians who remain in Israel should not be disadvantaged in their own homeland.

 

There are other ways in which the fascist tendency toward racism and purification are manifest. The apartheid structures of occupation, differently maintained in the West Bank and Gaza impose systematic and severe discrimination and a miserable status of stateless rightlessness on the Palestinians while according internationally unlawful Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem the full panoply of rights associated with ‘the rule of law’ as bestowed by most constitutional democracies. Also, Israel’s consistent reliance on excessive force against Palestinian protests and resistance activities is also a sign of fascist disrespect for adversary ethnic and religious identities, and even of the right to dissent and display a posture of opposition to the state.

 

Of course, whether Israel is or is becoming fascist or not in the end is a matter of interpretation, but sadly, it is no longer an extremist assertion or a sign of anti-Semitism to regard Israel as a fascist state. And by way of contrast, it is extreme whitewashing to keep insisting that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’

 

Some years ago, Henry Seigman, seemed to imply a similar set of circumstances when he argued that Israel had become an ‘ethnocracy,’ that is, a Jewish state in which non-Jews were at best subordinated, and at worst scapegoated in such a way as to make involuntary population transfers an increasingly popular option with the public. Seigman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, also wrote that instead of being the only democracy Israel has become the ‘only apartheid regime in the Western world.”

 

Of course, the question of the American drift toward fascism has also been noted for several decades. To some extent, the awareness that ‘perpetual war’ is incompatible with the maintenance of real democracy was part of this concern. Peter Dale Scott’s explorations of ‘the deep state’ with its unaccountable dark forces of secrecy that pulled the strings of the national security was an indictment of the merger of covert intelligence and special ops with the underworld of crime and drugs that have intensified fears of the erosion of democratic governance. And we not must overlook Edward Snowden’s brave disclosures of the webs spun by the surveillance state that potentially entangle every person on the face of the earth or the special bonds connections the hedge fund moguls of Wall Street with the bureaucratic elites in Washington that are doing their assigned job of keeping the citizenry on an extremely short leash. This may help explain the anger in America bubbling to the surface during a time when profits continue to rise geometrically while wages remain either flat or keep declining in constant dollars.

 

And then came Trump, unleashing the dormant underbelly of populist fascism in America, surfacing in various virulent forms: Islamophobia and xenophobia being the most obvious. Just as some understanding of white racism was finally seeping into liberal consciousness by the much belated recognition that ‘black lives matter,’ it was also becoming clear that Muslim lives don’t matter, or matter even less, and Latino lives were becoming problematized by the sudden passion for upholding the law that was sweeping across the American plains, lending strident support to those calling for the punishment, and the massive deportation of those categorized as ‘the illegals.’

 

The caustic cultural critic and ardent American Zionist, Leon Wieseltier, recently commented on Trump: “Someone asked me if I thought he was a fascist, and I said, ‘he says fascistic things, but to call him a fascist imputes too great a degree of intellectual coherence to him.” And then condescendingly added, “There is no belief system there. I mean he is not wrong. He’s pre-wrong.” He went on to say that Clinton also worried him as a candidate, not because of her hawkish views and record, but people might not vote for her because she was unlovable. As Wieseltier caustically put it, “I’m getting exceedingly nervous about her ability to beat that monster Trump. She’s not very nimble and nobody loves her.” Of course, no mention of Sanders as a glimmer of light, at least on the American horizon.

 

Instead Wieseltier instructs his 13-year old son “that presidential elections are lesser of evil exercises. I have never once voted happily.” Of course, this is not such an outlandish assessment, although as a candidate eight years ago, I still feel that Barack Obama was not the lesser of evils, but his candidacy represented an extraordinary breakthrough. Although often deeply disappointing later, as president, especially in the domains of security, neoliberalism, and the Middle East, the Republican extreme antipathy toward the man and his policies has fascist, as well as racist, undertones. And why wouldn’t even Wieseltier want to cheer his son up a bit by mentioning Bernie Sanders, who may not be the revolutionary he claims to be, but he is authentically talking some truth to power in ways that defy the mores of the American plutocracy? The American media and liberal mainstream, especially among older folks, is understandably preoccupied with the rightest surge, and is unabashedly counting on a Clinton victory. It is not nearly ready to ditch Democrats linked to Wall Street, Pentagon, and Israel in the manner of Clinton. In fact, most Clinton supporters see little, if any, substantive problem with her, but if critical at all, lament her lack of charm or go ‘tut, tut’ if anyone brings up her past support for the Iraq War, the Libyan intervention, and various authoritarian moves in Central America, most notably Honduras.

 

Robert Paxton, the author of one of the best books on fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism (2004), is reluctant to give a definition of fascism, both because there are many varieties and because it tends to essentialize fascism, which is better comprehended, he believes, as a process that evolves rather than as a system with certain defining attributes. Paxton at the very end of his book relents, offering a list of characteristics that he believes are shared by historical instances of fascism. I believe it is worth reproducing Paxton’s list [219-220], although its application to the U.S. and Israel depends on nuanced interpretation:

 

–“a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution;”

–“the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;;”

–“the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;”

–“dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;”

–“the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, by exclusionary violence if necessary;”

–“the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male(, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;”

–“the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;”

–“the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;”

–“the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterior of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”

 

It makes little difference as to whether we explain this militarist drift observed in Israel and the United States as the outcome of decades of high alert geopolitics or the impoverishment of tens of millions due to the cruel dynamics of neoliberal capitalism or primarily as a response to the changing paradigm of global conflict with its borderless battlefields and extremist non-state, transnational political actors. Widespread violent discontent and highly coercive security structures of state power seem here to stay, and so it becomes prudent to fear resurgent forms of fascism reconfigured to correspond with the parameters of the digital age. Reading through Paxton’s list is a chilling reminder of how fascist regimes destroy the fabric of humane societies, but the list also may be read as a cautionary reminder that what exists in Israel and the United States is best understood as pre-fascist, and that there remain anti-fascist political spaces to turn the tide of events in more progressive directions.

Three Unshakeable Pillars of American Foreign Policy

3 Apr

 

 

It deserves to be noticed that it is only the two anti-establishment candidates who have challenged the foreign policy consensus that has guided American politicians ever since the end of World War II: consistently express unconditional support for the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel (especially since the 1967 War).

 

Bernie Sanders has been the first serious presidential aspirant for several decades to challenge directly and unabashedly at least one of these pillars by way of his principled and concerted attacks on Wall Street, on the billionaire class, on the exploitative 1%. Although moderate overall, Sanders has been respectfully deferential to the other two pillars, Pentagon and Israel. Because he has mobilized an intense following among all categories of American youth there has been a media reluctance to assault his substantive views frontally, except to offer a variety of snide remarks that cast doubt on his ‘electability.’

 

Such a dismissal pretends to be pragmatic, but the polls indicate that Sanders would do better against likely Republicans than Clinton. This leads me to interpret the refusal of the corporatized mainstream to take Sanders seriously, at least so far, as a coded ideological attack, basically a reaction to his anti-Wall Street stand that can be viewed as the opening salvo of class warfare.

 

Donald Trump has encountered a somewhat different firestorm but with a similar intent. At first, when the cognoscenti dismissed him as a serious candidate, he was welcomed as a source of entertainment. When his popularity with primary voters could no longer be overlooked, he was challenged by a steady flow of condescending rebukes that question his competence to govern (rather than his electability) or to be a commander in chief. Again his cardinal sin, in my judgment, is not the extraordinary mobilization of a proto-fascist populism that relishes his anti-Muslim immigration stand, his xenophobic call for a high wall on the Mexican border paid for by Mexico, and his proposed revival of torture as a necessary instrument of anti-terrorism. Most hard core Trump supporters have been long hiding out in a closet until The Donald stepped forward with aplomb and a strident willingness to be politically incorrect. As with Sanders, but seemingly more capriciously and less convincingly, Trump has agitated the guardians of all three pillars, unlike Sanders with a programmatic assault, but more obliquely with provocative comments here and there. He manages to convey, although by way of his many off hand and unrehearsed asides, a heretical state of mind with respect to the received wisdom that has been guiding the country since World War II regardless of which party’s president sits in the oval office.

 

Of the Pentagon, his heretical views seem spontaneous challenges to settled policies. Trump appears to look with some indifference, if not outright approval, at the prospect for further proliferation of nuclear weapons, specifically in relation to Japan and South Korea. Such a comment is regarded as imprudent even if never meant to be acted upon as it makes the so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’ seem leaky to those accustomed to its protection, and more importantly, casts some doubt on American global commitments around the world.

 

Similarly, casting doubt on the role of NATO in a post-Cold War world, asking for the Europeans to pay more, is seen by the Beltway wonks, as both an unacceptable public rebuke to allies and an even more unacceptable failure to take seriously the threat being posed by a newly belligerent Russia that flexed its muscles in the Ukraine, and then Syria. Trump’s skeptical attitude toward NATO was particularly resented as it seemed insensitive to the bellicose slide toward a new cold war that had been gathering bipartisan momentum in Washington.

 

Beyond this, Trump showed little appreciation of the way the Pentagon community views the war on terror. Although war planners likely welcomed the Trump promise to rebuild America’s armed forces so as overcome their alleged decline during the Obama presidency. What bothered the Washington policy community was Trump’s skepticism about such mainstays of American foreign policy as military intervention and regime-changing missions. At one heretical high point Trump even hinted that it would be a good idea to divert Pentagon dollars into infrastructure investment here in America. Annoyed listeners among the guardians might have detected in such a sweeping assertion a disguised, if confused, nostalgia for a revival of American isolationism.

 

Of the Wall Street pillar, Trump is perhaps more seriously worrisome, although not at all in the Sanders’ mode. Trump trashes the international trading regime that has been such an article of faith at the core of ‘the Washington consensus’ that gave substance and direction to neoliberal globalization in the latter stages of the prior century. His views of the world economy clearly favor the nationalist sort of protectionism that is widely held responsible for the Great Depression. Beyond this, Trump seems intent on challenging the terms of trade with China in ways that could expose a disastrous American vulnerability to Chinese countermeasures, especially given their enormous dollar holdings. Although the foreign policy approach to China endorsed by the guardians is ready, if not eager, to confront China on the island disputes in the South China Sea, it does not want to disrupt the enormous economic benefits and continuing potential of orderly relations with the Chinese market. From this perspective, Trump’s aggressive deal-making approach to global economic policy is viewed as highly dangerous.

 

Trump has even made the Israeli pillar quiver ever so slightly by suggesting at one point that he favored neutrality in approaching the relations between Israel and Palestine. He sought to override this unwelcome and uncharacteristic display of judiciousness, by making a fawning speech at the AIPAC annual conference. Yet Trump’s willingness to follow the intimations of his gut must have probably made ardent Israeli advocates yearn for the likes of Clinton and Cruz who have mortgaged what’s left of their soul on the altar of subservience to the lordship of Netanyahu and his extremist cohorts.

 

The candidates who pass the litmus test associated with the three pillars approach are clearly Clinton and Kasich, with Ryan on the sidelines waiting to be called if gridlock ensues at the Republican Convention. Cruz would also be treated as an outlier if it were not for Trump preempting him by this assault on the three pillars. Cruz is hardly the kind of candidate that the guardians prefer. His evangelical religiosity is outside the political box, as is his imprudent stance toward engaging international adversaries, crushing enemies, patrolling Muslim communities, and endorsements of waterboarding. It is not the sort of image of America that the guardians wish to convey to the rest of the world.

 

Sanders is grudgingly admired for his authenticity, but grounded politically for assailing Wall Street and cruel capitalism in ways that threaten the established economic order (universal health care, free public university tuition) with initiatives popular with many voters.

 

For months the guardians assumed that Trump would self-destruct but instead he kept dominating the field of presidential hopefuls among the Republican ranks. Unlike the Clinton control of the Democratic Party machine, the Republican Party bureaucracy has been ineffectual in stemming the Trump tide. For this reason media and establishment reinforcements were called upon, and even President Obama joined the chorus of Trump detractors, not because he overtly opposed to the activation of fascist populism but to relieve pressures on the three pillars consensus.

 

The voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere still have an opportunity to push back. If Sanders should win by double digits on Tuesday, it will create a quandary for the guardians. To have to depend on Clinton’s support among the super delegates for the nomination would be such an anti-democratic rebuff of the Sanders’ constituency that not even Sanders could effectively control the backlash. Many of the Sanders’ faithful would sit out the election no matter what their leader urged, rejecting the lesser of evils plea.

 

If Trump should prevail, even narrowly, it looks as though the Republicans will find themselves swallowing hard while being forced to select a candidate unacceptable to themselves. Such an outcome would also probably mean kissing goodbye to any hope of regaining the White House, leading the main party effort to be directed at holding on to control of Congress.

 

Actually, this primary campaign reveals a dismal underlying situation: in a healthy democracy all three pillars should long ago have been shaken at least as hard as Sanders is currently challenging Wall Street. This benevolent challenge mounted by Sanders is a sign that America may be finally getting ready for a genuinely revolutionary challenge, although the grassroots strength of the Trump legions creates the menacing alternative possibility of a fascist counterrevolution. Such radical options are at this point no more than remote possibilities. The persisting probability is more of the same, most likely under Democratic Party auspices. In this respect, the three pillars seem secure in their dysfunction for the foreseeable future. We who lament this can only wish that this dysfunction does not achieve political maturity in the form of global catastrophe.

 

I have not dwelled on the lesser of evils argument that makes Clinton seem a vastly preferable alternative to a wannabe reactionary like Trump or Cruz. Even if we fear Clinton’s warmongering past, we could at least expect better judicial appointments, more positive initiatives on health care and women’s rights, and more informed and balanced assessment of foreign economic policy. Whether this is enough to overcome our distaste for Clinton’s wanton opportunism and instinctive militarism, is something every citizen will have to ponder on her own if the choice comes down to this next November.                            

A Christmas Message in Dark Times

24 Dec

 

 

Here in the United States, I react against the avoidance of the word ‘Christmas’ during this holiday season. I would undoubtedly feel differently if I were living in Turkey or India. The legions of ‘the politically correct’ determined to avoid offending those, especially Jews, who are not Christians, will carefully express their good wishes with such phrases as ‘happy holidays!’ This is okay except it obliterates the vibrant symbolism of Christmas as a seminal occasion that has over the centuries transcended for most of us its specific religious roots and meanings. It has an ecumenical resonance that calls for bright lights, ornamented trees, celebration, and wishes for peace on earth and good will toward all, bringing together those of diverse faith or no faith at all. When I was growing up in New York City Christmas was ‘Christmas’ regardless of whether one was Christian or not, and implied no religious dedication whatsoever.

 

As time has passed, ethnic and religious sensitivities have grown as identities have become more tribal. I do partly associate this trend in my experience with the greater ethnic assertiveness of Jews over the years, especially in response to the ascent of Israel and the rise of Zionist loyalties. America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel represents a governmental recognition that Israel can do no wrong in the eyes of Washington. This is another unfortunate manifestation of excessive deference, in this instance what might be called ‘geopolitical correctness,’ and has had many detrimental effects on American foreign policy in the region. Another kind of harm is associated with the inhibiting State Department formal adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates strong criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews.

 

Yet to decry such forms of political correctness as a posture is not to condone insensitivity to those among us who have suffered or are suffering from deep historical abuses. I do believe we need to do all we can avoid hurtful language and subtle slights when dealing with the situation of African Americans or Muslims. Donald Trump disgraces America because he embraces the kind of militant Islamophobia that is not only incendiary in the American political climate, but unwittingly is a tacit reinforcement of jihadist extremism. There is a vast difference between opportunistic deference to the ‘politically correct’ and moral sensitivity to those who have been or are being victimized in American society. Of course, Trump has achieved such prominence by his zealous willingness to be politically incorrect in all sorts of vulgar and hurtful ways, which sadly uncovers an angry and afraid constituency among the American citizenry, with its appetite for simplistic answers that shift the blame to the hateful other.

 

Do not such reflections also suggest the propriety of sensitivity to the long Jewish experience of persecution, climaxing with the Holocaust? To some extent, moral sensitivity is historical and geographical. It points to a difference in tone and content in Germany as compared to here in America. More concretely, it seems natural to exercise greater care in Germany not to offend, and not even to seem callous toward Jewish identity given the proximity of the Holocaust. I would affirm this kind of moral prudence and forebearance, but even this type of restraint can be carried too far. Germans and the German government obsessively avoid any semblance of criticism of Israel because of an apparent worry that such views would be treated as evidence that anti-Semitism continues to flourish in Germany. In this regard memories of the Holocaust are no longer a good reason, if it was ever the case, for suspending criticism of Zionism as a political project or Israel as a normal state as accountable to upholding international law, UN authority, and principles of morality as any other state.  

 

It is entirely inappropriate for anyone to ignore the brutal dispossession of the Palestinian people, the prolonged denial of the Palestinian right of self-determination, and the horrific daily ordeal of living, as millions of Palestinians do, under occupation, in refugee camps, and in involuntary exile decade after decade. Bad memories of victimization are never a sufficient reason to overlook crimes being committed in the present.

 

As a Jew in America I feel the tensions of conflicting identities. I believe, above all, that while exhibiting empathy to all those have been victimized by tribally imposed norms, we need to rise above such provincialism (whether ethnic or nationalistic) and interrogate our own tribal and ‘patriotic’ roots. In this time of deep ecological alienation, when the very fate of the species has become precarious, we need to think, act, and feel as humans and more than this, as empathetic humans responsible for the failed stewardship of the planet. It is here that God or ‘the force’ can provide a revolutionary comfort zone in which we reach out beyond ourselves to touch all that is ‘other,’ whether such otherness is religious, ethnic, or gendered, and learning from Buddhism, reach out beyond the human to exhibit protective compassion toward non-human animate dimensions of our wider experience and reality. It is this kind of radical reworking of identity and worldview that captures what ‘the Christmas spirit’ means to me beyond the enjoyment of holiday cheer.

 

From this vantage point, the birth of Jesus can be narrated with this universalizing voice. The star of Bethlehem as an ultimate source of guidance and the three wise kings, the Maji, who traveled far to pay homage to this sacred child can in our time bestow the wisdom of pilgrimage, renewal, and transformation that will alone enable the human future to grasp the radical wisdom of St. Augustine’s transformative: “Love one another and do what thou wilt.” Put presciently in a poem by W.H. Auden, “We must love one another or die.”

 

I suppose I am making a plea, or is it a dreamy affirmation? A utopian wish, to be sure, but nothing less has relevance in these dark times.