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The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

22 Nov

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a modified version of the Morton-Kenney annual public lecture given at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale on November 18, 2015 under the joint sponsorship of the Department of Political Science and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.]


The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

While focusing on the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East it is relevant to acknowledge that given the circumstances of the region failure to some degree was probably unavoidable. The argument put forward here is that the degree and form of failure reflected avoidable choices that could and should have been corrected, or at least mitigated over time, but by and large this has not happened and it is important to understand why. This analysis concludes with a consideration of three correctible mistakes of policy.


It is also true that the Middle East is a region of great complexity reflecting overlapping contradictory features at all levels of political organization, especially the interplay of ethnic, tribal, and religious tensions internal to states as intensified by regional and geopolitical actors pursuing antagonistic policy agendas. Additionally, of particular importance recently is the emergence of non-state actors and movements that accord priority to the establishment and control of non-territorial political communities, giving primary legitimacy to Islamic affinities while withdrawing legitimacy from the modern state as it took shape in Western Europe. Comprehending this complexity requires attention to historical and cultural background, societal context, and shifting grand strategies of geopolitical actors.





From many points of view American foreign policy in the Middle East has been worse than a disappointment. It has been an outright failure, especially in the period following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Even such an ardent supporter and collaborator of the U.S. government as Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has acknowledged as much in a recent set of comments where he basically says that the West has tried everything, and whatever the tactics were relied upon, the outcome was one of frustration and failure. In Blair’s telling words:

“We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq; we’ve tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya; and we’ve tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria. It’s not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies would have worked better.” [as quoted in David Swanson, “Tony Blair is Sorry, a Little,”] In Blair’s either/or world the political imagination is militarized to the extent that the only viable alternatives are to intervene/or not to intervene, suggestive of that most celebrated of binaries, Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be,’ an utterance relating to whether or not he should kill the usurping king, the presumed murderer of his father.


Several comments are worth observing: first, the scope of inquiry in Blair’s comment is limited to an assessment of military intervention as a tactic, without any consideration of diplomacy or respect for the dynamics of self-determination; secondly, the ‘we’ in his comments is the West, which mainly has meant the United States, rather than the UN or the wider international community; it is a geopolitical ‘we’; thirdly, the fact that intervention violates the UN Charter and international law is irrelevant for a post-colonial advocate of Western militarism, such as Blair. This comment is revealing in the same way that Sherlock Holmes famously perceived the nature of a crime by noticing that a dog was not barking in its habitual manner, that is, identifying what is omitted from Blair’s assessment is far more interesting and illuminating than what is acknowledged, which is the frustrations of interventionist statecraft in the Middle East; fourthly, it is a misrepresentation of Western policy toward the Syrian conflict to classify it as an instance of ‘nonintervention’ because there has been no concerted air campaign or ground forces mounted by external actors; fifthly, and perhaps most important of all, Blair’s focus on intervention as a Western instrument to control behavior in particular countries does not attempt to encompass the blowback or boomerang effects of intervention as being increasingly unconstrained by the territorial geography of the combat zone; this extra-regional extension of intervention is being most vividly experienced in the contradictory forms of the migration crisis and the horrifying Paris attacks; the point here being that the reverberations of Western intervention can no longer be reliably confined to non-Western battlefields as was the case during the colonial era.


Tom Mayer gives a more satisfactory gloss on this same range of experience. Mayer is a peace activist in Boulder Colorado who manages a very perceptive listserv with the name “Just Peace in the Middle East.” His assessment: “US military intervention has been a calamity in the Middle East. They have destroyed Iraq, destabilized Libya, fostered dictatorship in Egypt, accelerated civil war in Syria, and the destruction of Yemen, and helped squelch a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.” [Oct. 25, 2015] The difference in outlook between Blair and Mayer is evident: Blair is exclusively concerned with whether Western policy attained its goals or not, while Mayer emphasizes the harmful effects on the society that is on the receiving end of intervention. Blair epitomizes what I regard as an obsolete yet dangerous form of ‘geopolitical thinking’ while Mayer focuses on the primacy of people and the suffering brought about by a misguided reliance on military solutions for conflicts in the Middle East. Mayer’s consequentialist thinking is also like Blair, not overtly sensitive to the relevance of restraints associated with the United Nations or international law but puts all his emphasis on the effects of these Middle Eastern uses of force. He also does not here mention the post-colonial globalization of conflict, the non-localization of Western political violence in the non-Western world, or more dramatically, the recourse by non-Western extremist forms of resistance to striking back at Western civilian or ‘soft’ targets. In my view, this last point is great significance signaling the end of a long era of one-sided violence in which non-Western resistance was confined to the territorial limits of the combat zone.








Before proceeding on the facile assumption of the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East, it is illuminating to consider alternative interpretations of recent developments.


There are important senses in which American foreign policy in the Middle East has not failed given certain assumptions about its character and priorities. If U.S. priorities are oil, Israel, non-proliferation, and the containment of political Islam, then American policy in the region, despite the collateral devastation and suffering entailed, has been surprisingly successful. For decades U.S. strategic relationships with the Gulf states have been successfully balanced with support for Israel. Oil has continued to keep the world economy going at affordable prices during a period when additional energy sources outside the region have been under development and exploration. After being a strategic burden during the early stages of its existence, Israel emerged as a valued strategic asset and partner with the United States in the region, especially since 1967. The U.S. together with Israel has successfully challenged all instances of the threatened proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, while quite remarkably enabling Israel to maintain its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, even to the extent of being insulated from criticism and pressure that should have been expected given such a blatant double standard as well as its process of covert acquisition. [Israel’s attack destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981; Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (1991)]


Beyond these central points, it is relevant that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are also valued as major purchasers of American weaponry, and that Israel has field tested new tactics and weaponry in relation to the Palestinians that seem to have had a particular influence on Washington since the 9/11 attacks. Israel has joined with Washington in the development of counter-terrorism doctrine and tactic in all phases, including shared intelligence. In addition, Saudi Arabia has, despite its own fundamentalist orientation, operated as an unlikely counterweight in the region to the spread of Islamic radicalism, especially due to its bitter rivalry with Iran and hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, by relying on the cool abstractions of geopolitics it is possible to make a strong case for concluding that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, given the priorities, has been a success, and the current devastation chaos, and oppressiveness in several of the countries is a diversionary sideshow that should not be understood as outweighing the benefits.


It must be acknowledged that this positive assessment is no very convincing given the inability to prevent the turbulence of the Middle East from spilling over to the West is taken into account. The migration crisis confronting Europe and the extra-regional terrorism of jihadism must now be included in any credible calculation of foreign policy success and failure. Put differently, those countries not militarily engaged in the region, including China and Brazil, have not yet experienced the lethal backlash of Middle East turbulence and the related jihadi backlash.


As indicated, much depends on whether the prevailing geopolitical outlook of dominant states in the West is the criterion of success or failure rather than the normative criteria of peace, human rights and justice in the region. I am far more inclined to rely on the latter evaluative approach as coupled with a revisionist interpretation of 21st Century geopolitics. I contend that given the realities of the contemporary world, a nonviolent geopolitics respectful of international law, the authority of the United Nations, and the primacy of the politics of self-determination, despite some difficulties, best serves the strategic interest of the United States. [See Jens David Ohlin, The Assault on International Law (2015)] In effect, the United States position in the Middle East and the world would have been much more successful if built around adherence to international law and respect for UN authority than it has been by the refusal to accept the dynamics of self-determination. In this primary sense there is no conflict between affirming normative priorities and geopolitics, that is, presupposing reliance on this revisionist version of geopolitics.


This refusal to accept the political verdicts of self-determination remains in my view the unlearned major lesson of the American defeat in the Vietnam War, a lesson reinforced by the outcome of a series of wars against European colonial powers and by the unhappy post-Vietnam experiences of the United States with military intervention, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. The only convincing reading of international history since the end of World War II is that military superiority does not produce political victories in struggles for national independence waged against foreign domination and generates a number of extra-geographical negative effects. These results are unlike the experience of earlier centuries when military superiority did largely shape the historical process. It is quite understandable that this decline in the agency of military policy is hard to difficult to integrate into the thinking and behavior of Western elites.


After the Vietnam War, a conversation between an American colonel who was a counterinsurgency specialist and his Vietnamese counterpart makes this essential point. The American declares, “You know that you never defeated us on the battlefield,” to which the Vietnamese colonel replies, “Yes that is true, but it is irrelevant.” From my perspective, the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and elsewhere, is largely a consequence of the inability and unwillingness to comprehend this irrelevance. General David Petraeus, rose to the top of the military bureaucracy by reinventing counterinsurgency warfare in the late 1980s as part of the effort to overcome what American policymakers were derisively calling ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ that is, the post-Vietnam inhibition on the use of force due in the pursuit of international goals. I would argue that until the U.S. Government and its political leaders are ready to think outside this military box, we should expect more calls in the future for intervention, followed by new instances of frustration, failure, and non-territorial blowback. If you have watched the presidential debates there is no sign at all given by the candidates of either party of any understanding of the questionable role of military power in addressing characteristic 21st century conflicts. This understanding of the limited usefulness of military power has yet to penetrate the political consciousness of leaders and the public, and is rarely reflected in the media treatments of the Middle East. The consensus in Washington remains that it is military power that best correlates with American security and strategic interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. It had seemed for a while that the ex-colonial powers in Europe had learned this preeminently important lesson, and were successfully creating a culture of peace in Europe that included a reluctance to use force internationally except in self-defense as set forth in the UN Charter. Then the Libyan temptation came along in 2011, and spoiled this impression, which has now

all but disappeared given the challenges posed for Europe by mass migration and ISIS.


Against this background, it seems helpful to depict the historical depth of the present circumstances together with a discussion of events that have shaped the

challenge faced by American foreign policy in the region, and then reach for some partial explanations of what went wrong, followed by some thoughts as to what might be done by way of corrective. The distorting impact on American foreign policy of the two so-called special relationships that the United States maintains with Israel and Saudi Arabia deserves special attention. A critical attitude toward these special relationships is at the core of my revisionist approach to the regional turmoil and its extra-regional spillover. At the very point where grand strategists in the old realist tradition think American foreign policy has been most effective is where I think it has gone off the tracks if objectively appraised from the perspective of interests, policies, and values of the United States. In my view fixing these special relationships would initiate a long journey that will be needed if American foreign policy in the Middle East is to more effective and more consistent with international norms and proclaimed American values.




I am fully aware that there is something arbitrary and opinionated about any insistence that certain lines of historical explanation should be labeled ‘root causes.’ My effort is to highlight some historically rather remote happenings that are not often enough mentioned when discussing policy options in the region. Also, as my focus is on the conceptual and normative failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, I point to these early developments without any implication of a direct American responsibility, unlike the more recent proximate causes for which there exists a definite and direct American role. Indeed, here the responsibility that is asserted relates not to participation in misguided policies of past colonial actors but to the national failure of policymakers and leaders to make the effort to learn from the past.


Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. An initially secret agreement between Britain and France on how to divide up the Middle East in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The goal of the agreement was to extend European colonial rule to the region, thereby circumventing the self-determination aspirations of Woodrow Wilson and the United States as well as breaking promises to Arab leaders that assured sovereign independence. Russia had originally been party to this colonial diplomacy, but after the Russian Revolution, the agreement was made public by the new Soviet leadership with the intention of discrediting such diplomatic maneuvering.


What emerged were two developments that have significant relevance to the current turbulence and coercive ordering of the region: first, the establishment of artificial political communities with borders determined by colonial convenience rather than by historical and ethnic circumstances, completely neglecting the will of the relevant population or its prior experiences of community and culture. To give an example, Lebanon was carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy the French desire to have a Christian majority country in the region. In fact, all of the contemporary Middle Eastern territorial sovereign states were imposed from above and without, and lack indigenous legitimacy. Hence, when Osama Bin Laden, and more recently, ISIS, talk about the end of Sykes-Picot and the renewal of the Islamic caliphate, there is a cultural and historical resonance. The modern territorial sovereign state may seem like an inevitable choice given the character of world order and the persisting Orientalist mentality, but its legitimacy in the Middle East is fragile because the states failed to emerge as a consequence of the trials and errors of self-determination. From this perspective it is not so surprising that transnational non-state actors have emerged as the most formidable challengers of the established order in the Middle East, and no where else.


I encountered a similar non-territorial mindset when interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini in early 1979. On that occasion he made clear that the victory in Iran should not be grasped by reference to national or territorial parameters suggested by the label ‘the Iranian Revolution.’ He insisted on the primacy of community as religious conceived, that is as an ‘Islamic Revolution.’ In passing I would note that the state system is constitutive of world order, and that Iran as political actor has been challenged and responded since 1979 as a typical Westphalian state, especially given the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the Israeli-American policy of aggressive containment of subsequent years.


Secondly, in such countries as Iraq, Libya, and Yemen the governance role of the state has been challenged from below. The idea of ‘the nation’ so vital to the coherence and success of the modern European state was relatively weak in the Middle East, and never succeeded in displacing the primacy of tribal loyalties in many countries and regions within countries, eroding the capacity of the state to maintain order and control except by highly coercive methods. Further, in many states a particular tribal or kinship group would gain control of the state, and privilege their own group while discriminating against and persecuting rival tribes.


Thirdly, the inability after World War I to implement the Sykes-Picot vision of the Middle East leading to a kind of compromise in the form of the mandate system that combined colonial paternalism with a sacred trust given to the organized international community that these peoples subject to administrative rule by the European colonial powers would when ‘ready’ be granted independence. In effect, this arrangement satisfied the substance of colonial ambition (trade routes, access to Suez Canal, resources) while ambiguously compromising its formal legitimacy. Without the weakening of Europe as a result of World War II, it is not clear that such independence would have been achieved, at least without lengthy wars of liberation of the sort fought in Indochina and North Africa.


Balfour Declaration 1917. Also initially secret, and equally colonialist, was the promise made by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to the World Zionist movement to look with favor on the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in

Palestine. Such an initiative was an enormous morale boost for the fledgling Zionist project, and can be seen as a decisive negative turning point for the Palestinian people. It was a pure colonialist gesture, both the form of the declaration and the complete disregard of the wishes of the indigenous population. What Balfour proposed was written into the mandate arrangement for Palestine administered by Britain, which leaned toward the Zionist side at first because there was more of a convergence of interest than with the native Arab population. In the end, when Zionism became more robust, and aimed for the establishment of a Jewish state, it turned against the British, relying on terrorist tactics to induce the British to abandon the mandate, and give responsibility for the future of Palestine to the UN, which as we know, carried forward the colonialist approach by proposing a partition plan that was adopted without the participation or agreement of the people living in Palestine, two-thirds of whom at the time were Palestinian Arabs, and about one-third Jews. Perhaps, the intentions underlying the UN proposal were benign, seeking some formula for peace and reconciliation, but the approach lacked the political will to implement the plan embodied in GA Resolution 181 and suffered from a process that was insensitive to the self-determination imperative.


Geopolitics also played a part in completing this Zionist project. The combination of the Holocaust and the guilty conscience of the liberal democracies led the international community to endow the state of Israel with immediate membership in the UN and left the Palestinian people in a permanent condition of limbo where they remain 68 years later. We hear frequent complaints from the U.S. Government and Israel that the UN pays disproportionate attention to Israel and Palestine, forgetting that unlike the other unresolved self-determination struggles in the world such as Kashmir, Western Sahara, Sri Lanka, the UN was from the outset directly implicated and responsible for the flawed approach to the post-Ottoman evolution of Palestine.


The Suez War of 1956. Without going into detail, the Suez War in which Britain, France, and Israel collaborated in waging war against Egypt in retaliation for the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the harassment of Israel by guerrilla fighters based in Egypt, had the major geopolitical impact of shifting the burden of protecting Western interests from Europe to the United States. At the time, it seemed like a benevolent sequel to the colonial era, but after the passage of 59 years it is not evident that this was helpful to the peoples of the region or for that matter to the United States. Put provocatively, the subsequent period might have had a different character if under the waning colonialism of a weak Europe rather than a strong and proactive United States (as complemented during the Cold War by a strong Soviet Union).


In conclusion, we cannot adequately grasp the depth of turmoil in the Middle East without looking back a century ago at the diplomacy associated with World War I.

The denial of Kurdish rights, the questionable legitimacy of the borders of the countries in the region, and the frustration of Palestinian self-determination are persisting unresolved issues that offer insight into present challenges, and the difficulties of response. The region, and even the world, is paying the deferred costs of these policies in the form of chaos, oppression, severe civil strife, and terrorist blowback.






By moving from root causes to proximate causes the methodological claim is being made that the present regional turmoil was significantly generated by several seismic happenings in recent decades. Again these events singled out should be understood as shorthand designations of turning points that have had a lasting impact on the political life of the region, and are themselves a product of the earlier root causes. Because they occurred after the enhanced American engagement in the Middle East after 1956 the United States was more of a participant, with more at stake.


The 1967 War. This war was a turning point in the strategic perception of Israel, changing its relationship to the United States rather dramatically from being a burden undertaken for moral and political reasons in defiance of realist calculations to becoming a strategic asset that could facilitate American hegemonic goals in the region. In this way the special relationship with Israel began to be perceived in terms of mutual benefits, and this was reinforced by the growth and influence of the Israel Lobby within the country. There is another more controversial view that the special relationship, at least as enacted, continued to distort American foreign policy, a position articulated by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book. [The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007)] It can be illustrated by the added complexities of the relationship with Iran and its nuclear program due to the need to insulate Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; similarly diplomacy to end the Syrian War has been definitely inhibited by giving in to Israel (and Saudi Arabia) on the role of Iran in seeking a negotiated end to the war.


Perhaps, the biggest detrimental effect of the special relationship in relation to the greatly expanded territorial expanse of Israel after the 1967 War was the U.S. unwillingness to exert effective pressure on Israel to withdraw to the ‘green line’ boundaries, which was the unanimously decreed directive of Security Council Resolution 242. I would imagine that if the withdrawal core of the resolution had been implemented, we would today have a two state solution rather than a single Israeli apartheid state that seems destined to sustain in one form or another its unilateral control over the whole of historic Palestine for the indefinite future. To give greater credence to this conjecture we should take into account both the 1988 PLO/PLC acceptance of the legitimacy of the Israeli presence within these 1967 green line borders on the basis of implementing 242 and the 2002 Arab Initiative along the same lines that offered Israel legitimacy and normalization. The United States has consistently affirmed this basis of Israel/Palestine peace, but it has been unwilling to use its geopolitical muscle to make it happen, and in fact has done the opposite, shielded Israel from criticism while the settlements expanded, and various steps were taken to make a viable Palestinian state incapable of realization. This double game of the United States that has bipartisan backing is to proclaim in public diplomacy its commitment to an independent Palestinian states and yet through the maneuverings of private diplomacy conspire with Israel’s increasingly evident resistance to the emergence of a Palestinian state.


The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978-79). Without elaborating on this unexpected challenge to Western interests, the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran had a profoundly unsettling effect on American behavior in the region. First of all, it reversed the apparent success of the 1953 geopolitical move that had returned the Shah to his throne with the help of the CIA; secondly, it led to the shocked realization that political Islam was becoming a greater threat to American interests in the Middle East than either Marxism or Soviet encroachment; thirdly, it introduced the notion of Islam as the natural political community in the Islamic world, with its ideas of a non-territorial caliphate and umma, which contrasted with the post-Ottoman imposition on the region of territorial sovereign states, which were not legitimate or natural even by Westphalian criteria.


The United States reacted hostilely to the popular movement that arose in Iran to displace its imperial ally in Tehran. Again, the root failure of American foreign policy was its unwillingness to respect the principle of self-determination if it seemed to go against its grand strategy in the region, which was then built around anti-Communism, oil, and Israel, soon supplemented by a strong commitment to oppose the spread of political Islam (unless serving Western interests as was the case with Saudi Arabia).


The Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). The fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the collapse of the Soviet empire, contributed dramatically to upgrading the American role in the Middle East. It removed the Soviet Union as rival and left the United States as the uncontested external political actor in the region. It also had the effect, given salience by Israeli strategic thinking coupled with the rise of neo-conservative foreign policy in Washington, of shifting the central venue of geopolitical significance from Europe to the Middle East. [See neocon report “Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (1996, 2006); also reports of Project for a New American Century] What followed were years of supposed unipolarity in which the United States was being criticized in conservative circles for its passivity in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War in which a dramatic military victory was not followed up by imposing a regime-changing political solution that removed Saddam Hussein from control over the Baghdad government. Such a shift has been somewhat diluted during the Obama presidency by the so-called ‘pivot to Asia,’ but the persistence of chaos, warfare, and sectarian rivalries continues the preoccupation with the Middle East of American foreign policy.




The Al Qaeda 9/11 Attacks. The fact that the Al Qaeda attacks in 2001 were carried out by Middle Easterners (manly Saudis) and that Al Qaeda, as led by Osama Bin Laden, took responsibility sharpened the perception that the main strategic threat to the United States now emanated from religious extremism in the Middle East as materialized through the medium of a non-state and non-territorial actor. Such a traumatic event has had lasting impacts by way of focusing attention on counter-terrorism and global securitization of foreign policy, categorizing terrorism as a mode of warfare rather than as crime as in the past, and transforming warfare from a territorial encounter to engage with on a global battlefield. It also led to a further positive perception of the special relationship with Israel as counterterrorist mentor. Ariel Sharon’s remark that Yasir Arafat was Israel’s Osama Bin Laden summarized this sentiment of solidarity, which Netanyahu repeated in crude form after the 2015 Paris attack. This mentorship I believe encouraged drone warfare, targeted assassinations, and even led to extensive reliance on Israel to train American police forces in a paramilitary approach to opposition. President François Hollande of France has taken the same path, calling the Paris terrorist attacks as ‘an act of war’ by ISIS, adopting the disastrous Bush discourse of warfare, rather than elaborating upon the European counter-terrorist path of cooperative criminal law enforcement. [Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008)]


In light of the foregoing, what may seem more surprising is the resilience of the special relationship with Saudi Arabia, given its connections with 9/11. Notable Saudis were alone allowed to leave the United States on 9/12, and more relevantly, the Saudi role in the worldwide financing of Wahabbist jihadism was publically ignored by American leaders, and implicitly tolerated, which seems a perverse contradiction with the securitization of American global policy based on a post-9/11 counterterrorist rationale. What seems shocking is that this tolerance persists even in the face of the terrorist spillovers beyond the Middle East.


The Iraq War and Occupation. (2003-2014). The main response to 9/11 was George W. Bush’s declaration of war on global terror, starting with the attack on Afghanistan, governed by harsh Taliban rule and offering Al Qaeda its base area for training and ideological leadership. In many ways this American shift from crime to war is most responsible for the severity and spread of the regional turmoil. This approach reached its climax with the attack on Iraq, which lacked a foundation in international law, and could not gain an endorsement at the UN Security Council. In this regard, the Iraq War of 2003, which was misleadingly principally justified by efforts to remove weapons of mass destruction from the country and to react to the false alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks, was the occasion for bringing an American military presence into the center of the Middle East, and connecting this with safeguarding Israel and Saudi Arabia, confronting Iran, and establishing permanent military bases and assured access to the oil and natural gas reserves of the Gulf.


After a heavy expenditure of military personnel and resources, the outcome in Iraq after a decade of occupation and economic reconstruction aid, has been dismal. Instead of a partner with the West, there is a Shi’ia leadership in Iraq that is pledged to Iran, instead of constitutional democracy there is civil strife and chaos, instead of security there is ISIS control over a large portion of Iraqi territory, instead of some kind of regional collective security arrangement there is sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Under such circumstances is it any surprise that the United States policy planners dream of a second coming of Saddam Hussein? Once again American failure was mainly associated with trying to impose an external solution that defied the logic of self-determination.


The Arab Spring (20ll). It is impossible to overlook the impact of the Arab uprisings of 2011. What occurred was first an unexpected challenge from below to secular autocracies throughout the region. It caught the United States by surprise, and alarmed to various degrees the two beneficiaries of special relationships—Israel and Saudi Arabia—although for somewhat different reasons. After calling for democratization in the Middle East for many years, the actuality of democratic glimmerings was greeted in Washington with ambivalence, at best, and more accurately, as an occasion of tension as between democratic values and geopolitical goals. This tension rose to the surface in the counterrevolutionary aftermath in which the United States sided with suppression in Bahrain, intervention in Libya, looked the other way when the Egyptian armed forces staged a bloody coup to overthrow the first ever democratically elected leader in the country’s history, and seemed bewildered by what to do in Syria, even seeming to give tacit tactical backing to jihadist anti-regime forces and to Kurdish militant entities previously regarded as ‘terrorist organizations.’




Conclusion: What should be done to calm the situation is in sharp tension with the realistic assessment of what is politically possible. For example, the special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia should be abandoned, and replaced by normal relationships based on true mutuality and respect for human rights and international law. Pressure should be mounted to establish a just and sustainable peace that acknowledges rights of self-determination of both Israeli and Palestinians. Further, foreign policy in the Middle East should be carried out in accord with the guidelines of international law and with respect for the authority of the United Nations. Finally, self-determination of peoples in the Middle East offers the only hope for legitimating the state system within the region. It seems obvious that without a sea change in perceptions and behavior of the West there is no prospect for overcoming the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East. These failures have contributed to the turmoil, oppressiveness, and migratory and terrorist spillovers from the region. At present, there seems no likelihood of such a sea change, and so we must expect more of the same sense of failure and frustration.

At least, the citizenry can begin to understand what is wrong with American foreign policy in the Middle East.


Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism

9 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my written text for a public presentation on the theme of “Edward Said’s Humanism and the Rejection of the State Department’s Definition of Anti-Semitism” at a conference at Fresno State University, Nov. 6, 2015 bearing the title “Universities at the Crossroads: The Assault on Academic Freedom,” which was the last event of the “Edward Said Lecture Series” organized by Professor Vida Samiian of the Department of Linguistics at FSU. My talk as given departed considerably from this text.]


Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism 

In these remarks, I will present the following analysis: (1) the most ardent Zionist forces have longed tried to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with hatred of Jews, the traditional understanding of anti-Semitism, but this effort has intensified recently, and even has been endorsed by the US Government and is currently under consideration by the University of California and elsewhere; (2) examine the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, and discuss briefly why it has pernicious implications for academic freedom, and indeed even for an understanding of the genuine nature of anti-Semitism; (3) show why Edward Said despite his intense opposition to anti-Semitism would nevertheless be vulnerable to allegations of being an anti-Semite if the State Department definition were to be applied to his writings and activities; (4) and finally to point out that according to the imperatives most influentially expressed by Noam Chomsky and Said, the ‘responsibility of the intellectual’ would perversely require them to be ‘anti-Semitic’ according to this pernicious wider conception.



My personal experience with this theme of anti-Semitism and Israel can be summarized by recalling two different occasions: The first was in Greek Cyprus more than a decade ago at a meeting of the Inter-Action Council (composed of ex-heads of states) devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I had been invited as a resource person. At a session devoted to Israel/Palestine the Israeli ambassador to Greece spoke at some length, insisting that it was anti-Semitic to express strong criticisms of Israel and Zionism. As the only other Jew at the table I felt it to be almost a duty to clarify what I believed to be a mischievous manipulation of ideas. In my intervention I explained that Zionism was a project or ideology, Israel was a state, and that Jews were a people or persons. I attempted to explain that to disagree with Zionism or to criticize Israeli policies and practices as a state was not at all anti-Semitic, but to exhibit hostility, hatred, and discrimination against Jews as a people or as individuals was indeed anti-Semitism. Recall that Hitler did not persecute Jews for being Zionists, but for being Jews, for partaking of a race or ethnicity. After the meeting recessed, several participants thanked me for my comments, indicating that only a Jew could offer this kind of clarification, which they found persuasive. In contrast, the Israeli ambassador and his NGO sidekick came to me to complain vigorously, insisting that Zionism had become synonymous with Jewish identity through the establishment of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, making the three ideas interchangeable. In effect, their separation was now deemed deeply hostile to the Jewish experience, and was properly viewed as ‘anti-Semitism’; I walked away unconvinced, yet disturbed by the encounter.


This trivial incident still seems relevant as it illustrates what I believe has been an effective effort by unconditional Israel supporters to stifle criticism of Israel by inappropriately playing such an anti-Semitic card. It is inappropriate as it merges what might be called genuine hate speech with an attempt to intimidate freedom of expression in a domain where it seems needed, that is, in justifiable questioning of Israel’s state behavior and the colonial nature of the Zionist project as it is playing out in the 21st century. It is a doubly unfortunate and dangerous tactic as it tends to weaken and confuse opposition to real anti-Semitism by this misleading linkage of a contentious political argument with a condemnation of racism.


My second experience was to receive an email a couple of years ago informing me that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a non-governmental organization devoted to unconditional support of Israel, had issued its annual list of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in the world, and that I was listed as third. I found it quite astounding, especially after discovering that #1 was the Supreme Guide of Iran and #2 was the then Prime Minister of Turkey. Others on the list included such notable authors as Alice Walker and Max Blumenthal. It was obvious that I was placed on the list as a consequence of my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period between 2008 and 2014. In the fulfillment of this role, I had indeed written very critically from the perspective of human rights and international law about the manner in which Israel was administering the occupation, which involved elements of annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. But nothing in my reports directly or indirectly exhibited hatred or hostility toward the Jewish people or toward Jews as Jews. My prominence on the Wiesenthal list at first troubled me deeply, fearing that it would damage my credibility as well as be a painful and unjustified attack on my identity that would be humiliating and probably ineffective to oppose. I never overcame these feelings, but they became somewhat balanced by my realization that highlighting my name in this way could only be explained by the degree to which my UN reports were exerting some influence on the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict was being more generally perceived, especially within UN circles. I continue to feel a certain pride in bearing witness as best I could to the realities under law of Israel’s occupation policies, and the extent to which prolonged Palestinian suffering has been the result.


These personal experiences relate to the current debate nationally, internationally, and here in California. The essential argument is that Jews in Europe feel threatened by what they describe as a new wave of anti-Semitism, which is deliberately linked to the rise of anti-Israeli activism, and was dramatized by several recent terrorist incidents, especially the 2014 attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The European migration crisis is undoubtedly giving rise in Europe to a strengthening of the political right extreme, including its neo-Nazi fringe that does express real anti-Semitic hatred, but it is far less virulent in its racism toward Jews than toward Muslims. One problem with this focus on anti-Semitism is to treat Jews as accorded extra protection while at the same time immunizing hostility to Islam by reference to freedom of expression. There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo, while victimized for its opinions, was disseminating toward Muslims the kind of hate images and messages that if directed at Jews would be regarded by almost everyone as anti-Semitism, including myself.


It is somewhat understandable that Europe would be sensitive to any return of anti-Semitism, given that it was both the scene of the Holocaust, the historic center of anti-Semitism, and in many ways provided the historic vindication of the Zionist movement. We should not forget that the international validation of the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland received its first formal encouragement in the notoriously colonialist letter written by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, in 1917. As well, during the 1930s, prior to Hitler’s adoption of the Final Solution, the preferred solution of the so-called Jewish Problem in Europe was mounting widespread pressure on Jews to emigrate to Palestine or even to face forced expulsion, and this was not solely a consequence of Nazi policies. Timothy Snyder in his important recent book, Black Death, documents the extent to which Polish anti-Semitic political leaders collaborated with Zionist leaders, including even providing military training and weapons that developed the Zionist militias that laterchallenged the British mandatory presence in Palestine and then successfully waged a war of independence. In effect, many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.


The contemporary American argument and debate has less historical baggage compared to Europe and is more subtle, mainly focused on campus activity and is a reflection to some extent of the U.S. government’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. It is evident that Israeli officials definitely project the view that hostility to Israel or Zionism is indistinguishable from what the State Department calls ‘traditional anti-Semitism,’ that is, hatred or persecution of Jews because of their ethnicity. What is most troublesome in the State Department approach is its incorporation of what it calls ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which “manifests itself in the guise of opposition to Zionism and the existence and/or policies of the state of Israel.” [Contemporary Anti-Semitism: A Report Provided to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; See also fact sheet of U.S. Dept of State, June 8, 2010, on defining anti-Semitism] This “ anti-Semitism, characterized by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism that is anti-Semitic in effect—whether or not in intent- [and] is more subtle and thus frequently escapes condemnation.” As many of you know the Board of Regents of the University of California is currently considering whether to adopt such a conception of anti-Semitism as official university policy. The principal arguments advanced in its favor are that pro-Palestinian student activism, especially around calls for boycotts and divestments, are making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, even under threat, with the further implication that such insecurity should not be present in any academic community. This rationale skirts the issue that the BDS campaign has been gaining significant traction in recent years, and this effort to brand the activist dimension of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as anti-Semitic is motivated by a major multi-pronged Israeli effort to weaken BDS by having those who support such an unacceptable campaign as guilty of ‘anti-Semitism.’


Such developments go back to my experience in Cyprus, and reflect this determined effort to meet the rise of Palestinian solidarity efforts with its suppression being justified as opposition to the new anti-Semitism. [See also to the same effect, Michael Oren’s Ally that depict Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. making an effort to render unacceptable any public utterance of criticism of Israel] Note the features of this negative branding: only the sensitivities of Jews are singled out despite the far greater discomfort confronting Muslim minority students and others on campuses and throughout America; the initiative is overtly designed to weaken popular support for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine given the collapse of diplomatic efforts to produce the two-state solution; the BDS campaign is being challenged in ways that never occurred during earlier comparable campaigns, especially in the American civil rights movement and the BDS movement contra South African apartheid, both of which relied on boycott and divestment tactics. Part of the context that is rarely mentioned in debating the scope of anti-Semitism is the degree to which this surge of pro-Palestinian nonviolent militancy is in reaction to two developments: Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and persistence with such unlawful activities as settlement expansion and the completion of the separation wall.


It is in this atmosphere of endowing anti-Semitic smearing with respectability that outrages to academic freedom such as the revocation of a tenure contract issued to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois was revoked because of some allegedly anti-Semitic tweets written during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza that would make his students uncomfortable. In fact, Salaita possesses an outstanding performance record in the classroom, his teaching is greatly appreciated by his students, including those who were Jewish and pro-Israeli. Undoubtedly more serious than high profile cases are the invisible effects of this inflammatory and aggressive use of anti-Semitism, exhibited by the reluctance to hire or promote individuals who have engaged in Palestinian solidarity activity or even to invite speakers that would be attacked as bringing an anti-Semite onto campus. Again my experience is relevant. During the six years that I held the UN position, everywhere I went to speak, including at my former university, Princeton, or in foreign settings as remote as Beirut or Sydney, Australia concerted campaigns were conducted by Zionist groups to persuade university administration to cancel my lectures. The claim being made was that I should not be allowed to speak because I was a notorious anti-Semite. These efforts were backed up by threats to withhold contributions to the university if the event went ahead as scheduled. These efforts failed, and my talks went given without incident, but what the campaign did accomplish was to shift media and audience attention from the substance of my presentation to the utterly false issue of whether or not I was an anti-Semite, which of course, required me to deal with accusations that were hurtful as well as false.




It is against this background that I wanted to mention Edward Said’s humanism, which in the context of this State Department approach, would clearly qualify as an unacceptable, if disguised, form of the ‘new anti-Semitism.’ As many of you know Edward Said was the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation. His books, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism continue to be read all over the world more than a decade after his death. I was privileged to have Edward Sasid as a close and cherished friend who over the years nurtured my interest in and engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and whose remarkable life remains an inspiration to many of us. His views are peculiarly relevant to the theme chosen for my remarks as he was both a fierce opponent of the old anti-Semitism and an exemplary exponent of the new anti-Semitism, which as I am mainly arguing should not be considered anti-Semitism at all, and these attempts to discredit criticisms of Israel and Zionism should themselves be discredited, especially in view of recent behavior.


As his colleague and close friend at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, an Indian professor of comparative literature observed, Said “..despised anti-Semitism as much anyone I know.” [Kilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2014) Humanism was the only –ism with which Said was comfortable. His circle of identification embraced the human species, although rooted in the particularity of his Palestinian background. His academic training, publications, and career were situated firmly in literature until awakened by the 1967 Six Day War to take up the Palestinian struggle in a dedicated manner for the rest of his life.


Said’s writing on Palestine was always informed by fact and shaped by his deep grasp of history and culture, initially in his important The Question of Palestine. What is striking about Said’s approach, despite his anger about the refusal of the world to appreciate and correct the terrible injustices done to the Palestinian people in the course of establishing the Israeli state, is his steadfast appreciation that Zionism did what it did beneath the shadow of Nazi persecution, especially culminating in the Holocaust. In other words, his sense of the conflict with Israel is conceived in inclusive terms as pertaining to Jews as well as Palestinians. In his words, “I have spent a great deal of my life during the past thirty-five years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention to the reality of the Jewish people, and what they suffered by way persecution and genocide.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) He never endorsed a solution to the struggle that was not sensitive to both Palestinians and Jews, and in a sense his approach embodied a principled rejection of the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were intent on pushing the Jews into the sea.


While insisting that Jews must never experience in Israel the sort of dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionist project, Said was unrelenting in linking a sustainable peace to acknowledging the justices of the past. As he expressed it Ari Shavit in one of his last interviews, “[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.” He goes on to add, “[W]hat is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967[Power Politic, 446] In effect, the injustices of the past can be superseded but only if they are acknowledged in an appropriate format with due solemnity. On at least one occasion Said seems to suggest a truth and reconciliation process modeled on what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.


Said central contribution of developing a critique of West-centric views of the Arab world are most influentially set forth in Orientalism, one of the most widely studied and seminal books of the past century. Among many other facets of the analysis in the book it led Said to offer this surprising convergence: “Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) This convergence is explained by the dual effort to achieve “a better understanding of the way cultural domination have operated.” (Orientalism 27).


At the same time, Said felt that Zionist exclusivism sought to keep the issue as one of what Jews had endured in the Holocaust as a sufficient vindication of Zionism and the creation of Israel, with the adverse effects on the Palestinians as self-inflicted or irrelevant to this hegemonic Israeli narrative. Said writes that “..all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” [Question, 59] Long before the present debate he believed that such an informal tactic prevented truthful conversation as non-Jews were inhibited by “..the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.” [59] Writing in the late 1970s Said felt that criticism of Israel was often insensitive to the background of its establishment as a last bastion of defense for the Jewish people after the ordeal of the Holocaust.


Almost 40 years later the context has altered, but not the effect of treating anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Because of the failure to establish some kind of solution, and given Israeli defiance of international law through the settlements, separation wall, reliance on excessive force and collective punishment, the issue has captured the imagination of many people around the world, especially students, to become the leading unresolved moral struggle of our time, a successor to the South African struggle against apartheid a generation earlier, as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now the government itself intrudes its influence on American society to make sure that the extended definition of anti-Semitism as incorporating strong criticism of Israel and Zionism is treated as hate speech. This is not only threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom, it is undermining the capacity of American citizens to fight nonviolently for what they believe is right in the world. When the government adopts punitive measures to discourage the BDS campaign or even academic conferences addressing the conflict, it is behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic manner. Such behavior follows directly from the understanding given to the ‘special relationship’ binding Israel to the United States in a manner that often contradicts proclaimed national values and even national interests. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, boasts of the hundreds of occasions where the U.S. has blocked votes critical of Israel within the UN without even bothering to consider whether any of such initiatives were justified or not.  










Let me finally raise the questions as to why this debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitism relates to the responsibility of the intellectual as understood, especially by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. In his 2003 Preface to Orientalism Said writes these telling words: “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or anther approved enemy.” [XXII] Frequently, Said reinforces the role of the intellectual to remain on the margins, an outsider, whose only weapon is bearing witness and truth-telling, a role authenticated by the absence of any claim to have expert knowledge, more a standing in solidarity with those being victimized by oppression and injustice, a normative posture that rests on moral and legal foundations of respect for the value of all persons and peoples. Said’s succinct expression is memorable. He characterizes the public intellectual “as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power.” [Representations, XVI]


The irony of this orientation of the intellectual is that it collides directly with the State Department conception of the new anti-Semitism. In other words, to avoid the blanket charge of anti-Semitism as now officially defined Said would have to renounce his chosen identity as a public intellectual. This would weaken the quality of academic freedom as well as undermine public discourse. No resource of higher education is more precious, in my judgment, than the presence of those all to few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness. It is the foundation of vigilant citizenship, already recognized by Thomas Jefferson as indispensable for sustaining democracy, and it is also the basis for challenging vested interests and mistaken policies. This role of public intellectuals is threatened by this assault on freedom of expression wrapped up in a false effort to discourage anti-Semitism, and it relates to such broader concerns as the stifling of political discourse due to the corporatization of the media and higher education.


On no issue is this unfettered dialogue more needed in the United States than in relation to Israel/Palestine. As Michael Oren showed in his memoir Ally the special relationship bonding Israel and the United States implies the absence of any public acknowledgement of policy disagreements and a policy of unconditional support. Israel did its bit to uphold its end of this unseemly bargain recently by being the only country of 194 in the UN that supported the United States determination to maintain sanctions on Cuba despite the Obama renewal of diplomatic relations. After all American taxpayers have long sent annually billions of dollars to Israel, as well as a range of weapons and munitions. They are entitled to know if this money is being spent in a manner that accords with international law and American national interests. The overriding of Israel’s objections to the Iran Nuclear Agreement illustrated the extent to which Israel can challenge vital policy

initiatives undertaken by the elected leaders of the American government.


Never have we more needed to protect and celebrate our public intellectuals, and never more so than in the context of Israel/Palestine. For this reason we

should be celebrating the legacy of Edward Said, a world famous public intellectual, and the person, who more than anyone on the planet fulfilled the role of responsible public intellectual. Instead of defending him against these incendiary charges of anti-Semitism we should be honoring his memory by studying his ideas and enacting the values of resistance and struggle that he commends in the face of injustice.




In concluding, there is an obvious tension that exists more vividly than when Edward Said was alive, and commenting on the Palestinian struggle. Israel has created on the ground a set of circumstances that seem irreversible and are institutionalizing a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine (minus Jordan). The Israeli leadership has made clear the inappropriateness of establishing a Palestinian state, and given the insistence on making even the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ the dye seems cast. At the same time, the international Palestinian solidarity movement has never been stronger, with the BDS campaign leading the way, moving from success to success. And so as ‘the battlefield’ has shifted to a legitimacy war that the Palestinians are winning, the Israeli tactics have retaliated with an all out effort to demonize as anti-Semitism these new forms of non-violent resistance. This is the essential objective of the new anti-Semitism, and it is scandalous the U.S. State Department has endorsed such demonization with its newly adopted formal definition of anti-Semitism. To defeat this effort is essential not only for the Palestinian struggle, but to keep America safe for democratic discourse and universities hospitable to the kind of critical thinking that Edward Said’s scholarship and activism exemplified.


A Gaza Centric History of Palestine: Past, Present, and Future

24 Sep



[Prefatory Note: The review below was initially published in the Journal of the Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (SCITIW REVIEW). It is one of three remarkable books dealing with Gaza that I read this past summer. The other two are Mohammed Omer’s Shell Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault (2015) (see my July 8, 2015 post, “Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza”) and Max Blumenthal’s The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). Both of these books are accounts of the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza by normatively engaged journalists. Omer giving an insider account that stresses the day by day experience of those exposed to such an onslaught that allows one to almost feel the excruciating pain, fear, and loss that Gazans felt during the attacks. Blumenthal also gives readers the benefit of his presence in Gaza and exposure to its courageous population, but he also includes valuable interpretative material. Their normative engagement is evident from their empathy with the Gaza ordeal of the Palestinians and understandable antipathy to Israel’s tactics and overall behavior. While discarding the liberal posture of neutrality, this high quality journalism under the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the sense of conveying the unfolding reality of important events in ways that deepen awareness and understanding beyond what mainstream media reports.

What makes Filiu’s book so important, beyond its extraordinary historical depth that allows readers to better grasp the tragedy that has befallen the Gazan people, is its persuasive insistence of the centrality played by Gaza throughout the experience of Palestinian resistance to Israeli dispossession and annexation, including the originality of the uprising known as the first intifada in 1987, and even more so an insistence that the Gaza holds the key to any kind of sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine. This is a striking view, given the extent to which both Israel and the world treat Ramallah and the Palestinian Authority as central, and Gaza as marginal if not altogether dispensable in the context of diplomatic negotiations and the outcome of the conflict.]

A Gaza-Centric View of the Palestine National Movement


Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza: A History, trans. John King, Oxford University Press, 2014, 440 pp., $29.95 US (hbk), ISBN 9780190201890.

The distinguished French historian, Jean-Pierre Filiu has produced a magisterial overview that recounts the ebb and flow of Gaza’s fortunes from ancient times up through the present. Although a member of the faculty of Sciences Po in Paris, Filiu is not a typical academic historian, having earlier served as a diplomat in Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia, published two novels, and even written popular songs, including one devoted to Gaza. Filiu’s pedigree training and scholarly contribution have earned him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading Arabists, and someone particularly expert on political trends in contemporary Islam. He has published several well-regarded books on the Middle East including The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (2011) and From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadist Legacy (2015). The latter book poses the haunting question as to whether the political destiny of the peoples in the Middle East is to remain entrapped in the ongoing struggle between tyrannical leaders and Muslim fanatics. More than most commentators on the regional developments, Filiu perceptively realized that the democratizing hopes of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 would be short lived, and likely would be soon overwhelmed by a variety of counterrevolutionary forces intent on restoring an authoritarian status quo ante, however high the costs of doing so. The main motive of these counterrevolutionary elites was to avoid the twin fates of secular democracy and radical Islam.

Filiu’s authoritative treatment of Gaza starts with a useful background summary of its role as a trading center in the ancient world of the Middle East with a past traced back to the Hyksos people of the eighteenth century BCE. Readers are helpfully informed that Gaza, situated between Sinai and Negev Deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, became a major site of struggle for warring neighbors over the long arc of history, including Egyptian pharaohs, Persian kings, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Mamluks, Crusaders, and Ottomans. Filiu emphasizes the rivalry between Baghdad and Cairo with respect to Gaza as contributing to the frequent changes of fortune confronted by the city and region. A second chapter is informative about the generally unappreciated relationship of Gaza to hallowed figures in Islamic tradition. For instance, one principal mosque in Gaza is built to honor the memory of the great grandfather of the Prophet and another is dedicated to one of Muhammad’s close followers who accompanied him on his sacred journey from Mecca to Medina. Both of these men were prosperous traders who brought caravans of goods from Arabia for sale in

September 22, 2015


the markets of Gaza. After presenting this early history, Filiu devotes the remainder of Gaza to Gaza’s experience in the continuing struggle over Palestine’s future that began in a serious way with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British Mandate established after World War I under the auspices of the League of Nations lasting until 1947 when Britain turned over responsibility for Gaza’s future to the United Nations.

The remaining fifteen chapters of Gaza narrate the tortured and tormented experience of Gaza, the scene of many dreams of liberation and peace, but also a place of frequent carnage and a continuing ordeal of massive suffering. Gaza, which covers 140 square miles, the size of several middle sized American cities, still plays a central role in the unfolding Israel/Palestine conflict. In this fundamental respect, Gaza is a detailed historical narrative of past and present, which also underscores the totally unresolved future of Palestine as a whole, leaving readers free to contemplate Gaza’s future through the sophisticated optic that Filiu provides.

Filiu has produced, in a manner that I find extraordinary, a study of Gaza’s history over this incredible sweep of time that manages to exhibit at each phase of the narrative an astonishing mastery of detail. Filiu presents us with the dizzying interplay of dominant personalities interweaved with accurate depictions of the many defining incidents that give substance to the complex history and experience of Gaza. Such a tours de force of scholarly achievement does not make for easy reading given the density of the material. As a whole, Gaza is somewhat overwhelming in its cumulative impact as a result of its long succession of unfamiliar names and recitation of one detail after another that are difficult for a normal reader to keep in mind. At the same time, beyond the weight of Filiu’s facticity is a wealth of interpretative knowledge that imparts an unprecedented understanding of the contemporary experience of Gaza and the part it has played for both Israelis and Palestinians in the unfolding conflict.

Despite this challenge posed by this seeming surfeit of names and events, a kind of pre- digital example of information overload, Filiu facilitates comprehension of the main narrative motifs by framing his central interpretative analysis through reference to illuminating conceptual themes. He proceeds chronologically assessing the unfolding Palestinian ordeal in three clusters of four chapters each: “1947-1967: The Generation of Mourning,” “1967-1987: The Generation of Dispossession,” “1987-2007: The Generation of the Intifadas.” The book concludes with a final chapter entitled “The Generation of the Impasse?” as if the currently blocked situation in the underlying conflict between Israel and Palestine that has dominated the lives of the Gazan people for several generations seems likely to continue to be their fate for the indefinite future. Filiu ever so slightly lightens this gloomy prospect by putting a question mark at the end of the chapter title, perhaps acknowledging that not even a master historian should pretend to foretell Gaza’s future with confidence or indicate with confidence hopes and fears that the impasse will be broken at some point.

With this framework Filiu brilliantly portrays the Palestinian ordeal as it has tragically played out during the 67 plus years since Israel came into existence as a sovereign state. There is no attempt by Filiu to write this contemporary history of Gaza from a detached point of view, that is, by suspending empathetic feelings and ethical judgments. The tone of the narrative and the spirit of Filiu’s personal engagement with the Palestinian tragedy is clearly conveyed on the dedication page: “To the memory of the thousands of anonymous who died in Gaza before their time though they had a life to live en famille and in peace.” In effect, without sparing Palestinians and their leaders harsh criticism for failures of competence in the course of his narrative, including their embrace of brutality and

corruption, Filiu laments Palestinian victimization and decries Israeli oppression. With such a perspective it is not surprising that Filiu is generally sympathetic with Palestinian resistance activities over the years.

In discussing partition, the plan proposed by the UN General Assembly to overcome the tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Filiu makes clear that the Zionist movement was pushing the British hard to endorse such a division during the latter stages of the mandatory period. For Zionist leaders partition seemed at the time the only available path leading to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, thereby achieving the basic Zionist project in accord with the Balfour undertaking. In angry contrast, the most representative Arab voices in Palestine were early united in their fervent opposition to partition ever since it began to be seriously considered by the British government, increasingly aware of rising tensions between the resident Arab population of Palestine and the successive waves of Jewish immigration. Already in 1937 Fahmi al-Husseini, the mayor of Gaza, warned British authorities against partition and any related attempt to promote the emergence of Jewish statehood. Filiu quotes al-Husseini to illustrate this depth of opposition: “It would be better for the British government to consign the inhabitants of Palestine to death and destruction, or even to envelop them in poison gas, than to inflict upon them any such plan” (46). As we know, such Palestinian wishes were ignored not only by the British, but also by the organized international community acting under the auspices of the United Nations. In response to the mounting tension in Palestine between Jews and Arabs, Britain went ahead and proposed partition, which was consistent with their typical colonial endgame and legacy in many other parts of their collapsing empire (for instance, Ireland, India, Malaya, and Cyprus). When the UN in 1947 did finally propose partition in General Assembly Resolution 181, the British surprisingly abstained, perhaps feeling that there was nothing to be gained at that point by further antagonizing the Arab world, especially given the persistence of British interests in the region, epitomized by the retention of the Suez Canal.

The focus on the complex dialectics of victimization and resistance in Gaza is at the core of Filiu’s interpretative standpoint. This emphasis likely represents the most enduring contribution of the book to our appreciation of both the scholarship and policy relevance of the Gaza Strip to the overall story of the Israel/Palestine struggle. What Filiu does convincingly is to challenge the mainstream view that Gaza is but an ugly sideshow of the main Palestinian dramas, generally regarded by both sides to be the West Bank and Jerusalem. Of course, the centrality of Gaza’s victimization has become internationally recognized, especially after the imposition of a blockade in 2007 when Hamas took over the government in Gaza and during the last seven years when Israel launched savage attacks in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014 that eroded the carefully orchestrated public image of Israel as a benevolent political actor. What Filiu significantly adds to this image of Gazan victimization is the understanding that the broader movement of Palestinian national resistance has been centered in Gaza since the onset of the conflict with the Zionist project, and that this pattern of resistance continues in Gaza more than elsewhere in Palestine despite the severe and prolonged forms of collective punishment imposed by Israel on the Strip over the course of decades.

Even more challenging is Filiu’s controversial insistence that a sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine can only be achieved if Gaza will be accorded a decisive role in the process. Filiu underscores this belief in his drastic revision of thinking surrounding the peace process in the closing sentences of Gaza: “It is in Gaza that the foundations of a durable peace should be laid…The Gaza Strip, the womb of the fedayin and the cradle of the



intifada, lies at the heart of the nation-building of contemporary Palestine. It is vain to imagine that a territory so replete with foundational experiences can be ignored or marginalized. Peace between Israel and Palestine can assume neither meaning nor substance except in Gaza, which will be both the foundation and the keystone” (340).

Filiu’s view of a peaceful solution challenges the view of most Israelis that Gaza, without figuring in Israeli biblical claims, and containing 1.8 million Palestinians hostile to Israel’s very existence, has no place in Israel’s conception of its own final borders or of an acceptable outcome of the conflict. Israelis generally regard Gaza as nothing more than a bargaining chip in any future peace negotiations. From Israel’s perspective Gaza is the one unwanted part of occupied Palestine (in sharp contrast, with Jerusalem and the West Bank), an assessment provisionally expressed by Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, which involved the withdrawal of IDF forces and the removal of Israeli settlers in a plan conceived and implemented by the Israeli hardline leader Ariel Sharon. Gaza continues to be viewed as a threat to Israeli security if ever allowed to become consolidated with the West Bank in a future Palestinian state and is viewed as a threat to Israel’s ethnocratic and democratic claims if incorporated into a single Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine.

With respect to Gaza, Israelis seem now to prefer either retaining control over a subjugated and devastated Gaza or inducing Egypt to resume responsibility for administering Gaza. The Egyptian government has made clear its unwillingness to accept responsibility for governing Gaza, which makes the unfortunate present situation the most likely scenario for the foreseeable future. In this sense, the whole burden of Filiu’s assessment is at odds with the manner in which Washington framed the “peace process,” which, as might be expected, seems based on an acceptance of Israel’s view of the marginality of Gaza with respect to the final resolution of the conflict.

Filiu’s mode of highlighting Gaza also challenges the views of the Palestinian Authority, with its capital in Ramallah, that gives its highest priority to ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, getting rid of as many Israeli settlements as possible. The Palestinian Authority seems to care little about the fate of Gaza, especially since Gaza fell under the control of Hamas in 2007, although its formal position continues to include Gaza as an integral part of a Palestinian state.

In this respect, Filiu’s Gaza-centric interpretation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine is by far the most original and controversial part of his historical account. It rests on a carefully documented narrative of Gaza’s role as the true center of Palestinian resistance and resilience throughout more than six decades of struggle. As Filiu mentions, the most perceptive of Israeli leaders, notably David Ben-Gurion, were nervous about the developing situation in Gaza from the earliest period of Israel’s existence, especially as Gaza became the default option for many Palestinians displaced during the nakba, the occasions of massive expulsion and dispossession that caused so many Palestinians to be driven from their homes, and to seek sanctuary in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring Arab countries. In Filiu’s view, throughout the war that produced the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state, “…Israeli units were systematically driving the Arab population out of the combat zone even when their villages offered no resistance to the advance of the Zionists” (62). The sadness and desolation of dispossession resulted in Gaza becoming early in the conflict dominated and radicalized by refugees and their profoundly alienating experiences. In the late 1940s Palestinian refugees amounted to more than 75% of Gaza’s total population.

The large refugee camps spread throughout tiny Gaza became focal points of ferment and eventually resistance, taking the initial form of the fedayin insurgent activities from the

1950s on. It was the fedayin fighters that found ways to penetrate Israel and inflict casualties particularly on soldiers and police, and later, on Israeli settlers in Gaza. This type of armed struggle inevitably prompted Israeli reprisal raids that were from their outset deliberately disproportionate. As Filiu observes, “[i]t was in Gaza that the fedayin were moulded, and the Hebrew State would soon make Gaza pay for it dearly” (94). This prediction was fulfilled in 1956, Egypt being displaced from Gaza, and Israel occupying the Strip for four months as an aspect of the Suez War, with accompanying massacres of Palestinian civilians being carried out by the Israeli military prior to a UN protective force being inserted to monitor the border. Filiu asks this provocative question: “Is there any doubt that the history of Gaza would have taken a different turn had a Palestinian entity been established there, under UN protection, in defiance of Israel, while maintaining special ties with Egypt” (105-106)? Although Filiu seems to have meant the question to be rhetorical, I am skeptical of any supposition that Gaza might have been spared Israeli fury even if the UN had agreed to sponsor and protect Gazan self-determination and sovereignty within the less crystalized climate of opinion in 1956. The political will to confront Israel has never existed on a global level or within the United Nations except to the extent of adopting a public discourse sharply challenging Israel’s policies and practices that is reinforced by periodic censure moves that were generally softened or opposed by the West.

As dramatic as the fedayin phenomenon, the outbreak of the intifada in 1987 that witnessed an unexpected mobilization of Palestinian civil society in Gaza, later spreading to the West Bank, challenged Israel’s capacity to maintain order in occupied Palestine. As Filiu persuasively argues, it was the fedayin and intifada that finally lent credibility and inspiration to the Palestinian national struggle, somewhat overcoming the humiliating failure of the pathetic international efforts by neighboring Arab states to challenge the existence of Israel. The failure of these several regional wars, culminating in the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 War, which greatly expanded Israel’s territorial identity, resulted in a second and permanent occupation of Gaza, with the war having the geopolitical effect of transforming Israel in American strategic thinking from being a heavy burden on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to becoming a major strategic asset. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, “the rest is history.”

Filiu gives a fascinating portrayal of the rise of Islamism in Gaza, including a depiction of the charismatic leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by an Israeli missile in 2004. What Filiu’s discussion shows it that the early Islamic efforts in Gaza, inspired by and derivative of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, were devoted on principle to resistance activities within the law, focusing on a long range view of liberation by way of family values and education. It was only as a result of Israeli oppression in Gaza and a growing rivalry for popular allegiance with the secular coalition, the Palestine Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, that led to the formation of the militant Hamas, and with this development, to extreme violence, highlighted by suicide bombing attacks within Israel in the late 1990s, often directed at the civilian population. Israel, at first, actually encouraged the political emergence of Islam, supposing that it would weaken what was perceived to be its principal adversary, the PLO, but as time passed, and Hamas tactics shifted to suicidal violence, Israel treated Hamas as a terrorist organization, and remains unwilling to back off such a view despite Hamas’ effort to pursue a political track for reaching its national goals since it took part in Palestinian elections in 2006.

Arafat is duly presented as the leading Palestinian liberation figure and international diplomat, but also deeply criticized by Filiu for the political innocence of his deferential approach to the United States and accompanying naïve hopes that Washington would deliver



a just peace to the Palestinians after the Oslo Framework of Principles had been agreed upon in 1993. Filiu draws our attention to Arafat’s reaction to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which brought tears to his eyes and the tormenting cry “It’s over, it’s over” (234)—meaning the prospect of a negotiated peace died with Rabin. Although Filiu does not evaluate Arafat’s reaction, it seems exaggerated, given Rabin’s acquiescence in expanding the settlement movement in the West Bank and Jerusalem and his “iron fist” policies in reaction to the first intifada.

One of the several virtues of Filiu’s historical approach is his willingness to employ evaluative language to describe Palestinian experience of victimization and Israeli tactics of oppression. He repeatedly refers to Israeli practices as imposing “collective punishment,” and as resulting in “massacres” of innocent Gazans, and of the experience endured by Gaza’s population as trauma, including “collective trauma.” At the same time, despite being highly critical of Israel’s approach, Filiu avoids any condemnations based on international humanitarian law or international criminal law. Filiu does not, unlike Ilan Pappé and other critics of Israel’s behavior in Gaza, speak of “genocide” or even “crimes against humanity.” In general, I conclude that Filiu’s sense of critical history with respect to Gaza does not accord significant relevance to international law.

In conclusion, Filiu provides a reader with a wealth of information, an historical perspective that greatly deepens our appreciation of the importance achieved by Gaza in the past, and above all, depicts the brutality of Israel’s behavior toward the people of Gaza and its failure to quell the spirit of Palestinian resistance. At the center of Filiu’s argument, beyond his assessment that the present period is best characterized as one of “impasse,” is the claim that Gaza remains the keystone for a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a view shared by neither the formal Palestinian leadership nor by any influential Israeli, American, or European leaders, past or present. However this issue is resolved, Filiu is highly successful in making a reader appreciate Gaza’s illustrious past and the crucial role that recent generations of its people have played in keeping the fires of Palestinian resistance burning even in the face of Israel’s cruel, domineering, and oppressive behavior.

A few final comments on Filiu’s historiography. First of all, I wonder whether it was necessary to provide so much factual detail in narrating the history of Gaza; it seems to me that the main interpretative lines of assessment could have been developed as authoritatively, and with a gentler reading experience. Secondly, I think that the ethical forthrightness of Filiu’s approach lent added clarity to his interpretive perspectives, and was valuable as a matter of “full disclosure” of author to reader. If hidden from view, it would have raised questions about integrity and trust. And thirdly, the inclusion of prescriptive ideas in a work of contemporary history gives greater practical relevance to the understanding of the past being set forth. Policymakers on all sides would gain much from Filiu’s deeply considered argument for the centrality of Gaza to the Palestinian national struggle and to hopes for a sustainable peace that protects the rights of both peoples on the basis of equality.


Israel’s Likud Troika: Burying the Oslo ‘Peace Process’

12 Sep



[Prefatory Note: This is a slightly modified text of an article published in Middle East Eye on September 1, 2015, and republished on my blog with permission.]



Israel’s relentless accumulation of territorial facts on the ground some years ago doomed the peace process associated with the Oslo Framework of Principles adopted in 1993. It became increasingly difficult to envisage an Israeli willingness to dismantle settlements and road network or remove the separation barrier, and without such steps there could never be achieved an independent and viable Palestinian state. It should be kept in mind, without even raising the issue of the right of return of at least five million Palestinian refugees living outside of Palestine, that the whole premise of Palestinian statehood was based on the green line ceasefire borders that emerged from the 1967 borders. Even if Israel were persuaded to withdraw from the entirety of occupied Palestine, it would amount to only 22% of historic Palestine, less than half of what the UN recommended to a much smaller population by way of partition in 1947 (GA Res. 181). Yet even in those days of illusion when Israel was purporting to be receptive to the two-state approach it insisted on carving out a permanent security zone in the agriculturally rich Jordan Valley and maintaining a significant measure of border control.


For years Israel has played along with the diplomatic consensus constructed on basis of a two-state solution of the conflict as the only reasonable politically compromise. Israel had lots to gain from upholding this consensus, but quite a bit to lose by actually implementing it in a reasonable manner. Maintaining the diplomatic track satisfies its own citizenry and world public opinion that it is doing everything possible to reach a peaceful end of the conflict. In the course of such events, Israel gained the time it needed to expand the settlement phenomenon until it became so extensive as to negate any reasonable prospect for substantial reversal. And yet by relying on its sophisticated control of the media it could pin most of the blame on the Palestinian Authority for one round after another of failed bilateral negotiations. This in turn made it possible to mount propaganda campaigns around even the false claim that Israel lacked a Palestinian partner for peace negotiations.


While this diversionary process has continued for more than two decades, Israeli consolidated its influence in the U.S. Congress, which strengthened an already unprecedented ‘special relationship’ between the two countries. These dynamics made a mockery of Washington’s claim to be a neutral intermediary. And above all, the consensus pacified the international community, which repeatedly joining the public chorus calling for resumed negotiations. This became a cynical process with diplomats whispering in the corridors of UN buildings that the diplomatic effort to end the conflict was a sham while their governments kept restating their faith in the Oslo approach.


As argued here, the present futility of Oslo diplomacy has been indirectly acknowledged by Israel, and should be explicitly abandoned by the world community. Whether Israel’s was ever prepared to accept a Palestinian state remains in doubt. The fact that each prime minister since Oslo, and this includes Yitzhak Rabin, endorsed settlement expansion raises suspicions about Israel’s true intentions, but there were also indications that Tel Aviv earlier had looked with favor upon the diplomatic option provided that it could, with American backroom help, persuade the Palestinians to swallow a one-sided bargain that incorporated the settlement blocs and satisfied Israel’s security goals.


In the last couple of years the veil has been lifted, and it is overdue to declare Oslo diplomacy a failure that has been costly for the Palestinian people and their aspirations. We can reinforce this assessment by pointing to three connected developments at the pinnacle of Israeli state power, dominated in recent years by the right wing Likud Party. The first is the election by the Knesset in 2014 of Reuven Rivlin as the tenth Israeli president.

Rivlin is a complex political figure in Likud politics, a party rival of Netanyahu, a longtime advocate of a one-state solution that calls for the annexation of the West Bank, and an opponent of international diplomacy. The complexity arises because Rivlin’s vision is one of humane, democratic participation of the Palestinian population, conferring citizenship based on fully equality, and even envisioning an ethnic confederation of the two peoples to be achieved within Israel’s expanded sovereign borders.


The second development was the campaign promise made by Netanyahu on the eve of the March elections that a Palestinian state would never be established so long as he was prime minister. This startling break with the American posture was also a reversion to Netanyahu’s initial opposition to the Oslo Framework, and bitter denunciations of Rabin for embracing a process expected to result in Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu’s 2015 campaign pledge seemed closer to his true position all along if judged by his behavior although contradicting what his talk at Bar Ilan University back in 2009 when he declared support for Palestinian statehood as the only way for Israel to achieve peace with security. To slightly mend relations with Washington after his recent electoral victory, Netanyahu always crafty, again modified his position, by saying that in the heat of the elections he only meant that no Palestinian state could be established so long as jihadi turmoil in the region persisted. Given the extent of Israeli territorial encroachments on occupied Palestine I would trust Netanyahu’s electoral promise much more than his later clarification, a feeble attempt to restore confidence in the special relationship with the United States.


The third development, which should remove the last shred of ambiguity with respect to a diplomatic approach, is the designation of Danny Danon as Israel’s next ambassador at the UN. Danon is a notorious settlement hawk, long an outspoken advocate of West Bank annexation, arrogantly disdaining the arts of diplomacy needed to deflect the hostile UN atmosphere. If Israel felt that it had anything to gain by maintaining the Oslo illusion, then certainly Danon would not have been the UN pick. There are plenty of Israel diplomats skilled in massaging world public opinion that could have been sent to New York, but this was not the path chosen.


How shall we best understand this Israeli turn toward forthrightness? In the first instance, it reflects the primacy of domestic politics, and a corresponding attitude by Israel’s leaders that it has little need to appease world opinion or accommodate Washington’s insistence that diplomacy, while not now working, remains the only road leading to a peaceful solution.

Furthermore, the Likud troika seems to be converging on a unilateralist approach to the conflict with the Palestinians, while doing its best to distract the international attention by exaggerating the threat posed by Iran. This unilateralist approach can move in two directions: The Netanyahu direction, which is a shade more internationalist, and involves continuing the process of de facto annexation of occupied Palestine, reinforced by an apartheid structure of control over the Palestinian people; the Rivlin/Danon direction overtly incorporating the West Bank into Israel, and then either following the democratic and human rights path of treating the two peoples equally or hardening still further the oppressive regime of discriminatory control established during over 48 years of occupation.


While this Israeli scenario of conflict resolution unfolds most governments, not sensing an alternative, continue to proclaim their allegiance to a two-state solution despite its manifest disappointments and poor prospects. At present, there are a series of international gestures toward lifting the peace process from its deathbed. Sisi of Egypt hosts Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority proclaiming a readiness to mediate bilateral negotiations, and even Netanyahu in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s inability to scuttle the Iran Nuclear Agreement has the temerity to indicate an interest in renewed peace talks. In effect, ‘Oslo is dead, long live Oslo.’ Put differently, the political death of Oslo is being disguised by a diplomatic afterlife. It will be shameful if the Ramallah leadership again enters this cynically set diplomatic trap. As the above analysis shows there is no evidence whatsoever that Israel is at all inclined to allow an independent sovereign Palestinian state to come into existence. Israel is even fought hard against allowing Palestine to fly national flag in front of the UN building. Of course, as in the past, Israel will for the sake of public relations, including rehabilitating its ‘special relationship’ with the United States, evidently again play this cruel game of charades. But why are the Palestinians willing to be partners to such a sham?


This see-no-evil posture of governments, and even the UN, ignores the emergence of two more promising alternatives: the gathering momentum of civil society activism exhibited via the BDS campaign and increasingly acknowledged by Israel as its most security threat, leading recently to the establishment of an official ‘Delegitimation Department’ assigned to do battle with the Palestinian solidarity movement.


And on a diplomatic level, pursued with some energy and imagination by the Palestinian Authority, is the use of international law and Palestinian statehood to engage the wider international community of states in support of its struggle. Several examples illustrate the approach: the 2012 General Assembly endorsement of Palestinian statehood; the adherence to prominent international law treaties and conventions; admission as member to UNESCO; adherence to the Rome Treaty framing the activities of the International Criminal Court; and just days ago, the GA approval of the wish of Palestine, although having the status of a non-member observer state, to fly its national flag alongside the flags of UN members at UN buildings. With the abandonment of armed struggle and the breakdown of bilateral diplomacy, Palestinian recourse to legitimacy tactics reinforces the civil society global solidarity network that has been exerting increasing pressure on Israel.




Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza

7 Aug

thI visited North Vietnam in 1968, and had meetings with its leaders in the midst of the ongoing war, which resulted in receiving the outlines of a proposal for ending the conflict on a basis more favorable to the United States than what was finally negotiated by Henry Kissinger seven years and many deaths later.  Because I was among the early anti-war visitors to Hanoi and may have been the first with a combination of academic credentials and some access to American decision-makers there was great journalistic interest inmy experience. I was approached on my return by mainstream journalists from major newspapers and TV networks, especially those who harbored growing doubts about the war, resulting in a series of interviews given prominent media attention for several days.


Yet I was deeply disappointed and disturbed by the experience, and the journalistic ethos that it revealed. The mainstream interest was totally focused on what I had been told by the North Vietnamese leadership about their receptivity to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This preoccupation was, of course, understandable, but what I found so distressing at the time was a total disinterest in my accounts of the total vulnerability of the Vietnamese people to the onslaught of high tech weaponry, the resulting suffering and devastation, as well as the absence of military targets in the Vietnamese  countryside where the only structures were churches and hospitals. I was deeply affected by this exposure to the human fabric of warfare, as well as by the Vietnamese spirit of resilience and perseverance coupled with an absence of bitterness toward the American people in part a reflection of the way Vietnam was governed at the time. School children were taught that it is not contradictory to view the government of the United States as an enemy and yet maintain friendship with American people and the best of their national traditions. Throughout the war, I found it remarkable that Vietnamese school children were taught to regard the American Declaration of Independence as a step toward human liberation that deserved universal affirmation.


What I encountered in Europe and the United States when I tried to convey these impressions to journalists, especially those who were unashamedly liberal in their critical outlook toward the war, was a total disinterest in the (in)human face of the Vietnam War. Their concerns were confined to the realist agenda about how the war was going and whether the Vietnamese were serious about their posture of seeking peace via diplomacy on the basis of a political compromise rather than through victory on a battlefield outcome. The more I reflected on this, the more I came to realize that the journalistic ethos as applied to foreign policy was indifferent to the wartime suffering of the enemy population and a humanitarian catastrophe of massive proportions.


This deep seated indifference had several components. Above all, it reflected the nationalistic limits of empathy, which highlights sufferings of our side, and essentially ignores the losses of the other side, an extension of the friends/enemies dichotomy that underlies the realist paradigm. At most, the losses of the enemy other will be reported as statistics, but except in rare circumstances, without much human context to exhibit the terrible impact of war on the civilian population of a country that is subject to the sort of one-sided onslaught that afflicted Vietnam for so long.  A second explanation had to do with the imperial mentality that dominated Western journalism whether liberally inclined or not, which dissented from the war not because it violated the UN Charter or international law or was an affront to fundamental morality, but either because it was not producing a victory or was not worth the cost in American lives and resources. It is this realist calculus that is filtered through a nationalist optic that helps understand the peculiar form of liberalism that prevails in the United States and endorses the pernicious postulates of  ‘American exceptionalism.’


A third explanation had to do with the overt commitment of Western mainstream journalism to a style of reportage based on facts, nor feelings or opinions, both of which are distrusted because of their supposedly subjective character.  The primary journalistic claim in this tradition of professionalism is ‘the news without spin.’ In this respect, my post-Vietnam interviewers were acting ‘professionally’ given this canon as any display of empathy for Vietnamese suffering would be discrediting to their claims to stand outside the circle of controversy when reporting the news. Not that such disengagement was unbiased, hiding rather than acknowledging its nationalist and realist framings.


All of which brings me to Mohammed Omer’s extraordinary Shell-Shocked: On the Ground under Israel’s Gaza Assault, published by Or Books (New York & London) in 2015.  The book consists of dispatches from the war zone by a young prize-winning journalist who has been telling the world about the Gaza ordeal for almost ten years, since his early 20s. Omer’s prior reporting earned him the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2007, recognizing the excellence of his reportage on Gaza (‘a voice for the voicelss’). After receiving the award in The Netherlands, Omer on his return home received a brutal reception at the Gaza border by Israeli security guards being beaten so severely as to endure serious injury that required specialized surgery. With the help of a Dutch diplomat and medical treatment Omer restored his health while studying in overseas universities, yet opting to return to Gaza rather than to enjoy a life abroad as an honored exile. Omer wrote this book while doing his best during the 51 day war of 2014, what Israelis called Operation Protective Edge, to tell the world about the war from the perspective of those enduring it, that is, the civilian population of Gaza. Shell-Shocked raises many issues worthy of commentary but here I will limit myself to issues bearing on the style and ethics of professional journalism.


In essence, Omer does not have the option of detachment from the ordeal of war in the manner of the liberal journalists who I describe above as covering the Vietnam War as an instance of failure for American foreign policy. Omer by choice and circumstances refused to be detached, but that does not mean that he cannot be trusted.  On the contrary.  As Omer explains, “..I’m a journalist, and I owe it to my people and the Israeli people to get to the truth. I choose to stay in Palestine, my beloved home, with my wife, son, mother, father, siblings. I am not willing to let Israel or Zionism exterminate me.” (28) He has a Dutch passport, and could leave, and lament the fate of Gaza from afar, and who could blame him for doing so. Obviously, the choice is not an easy or simple one. He observes at one point, “I wish I could airlift my wife and son (3 months) out of here. But this is my ancestral home; what else can I do?” (26) In describing the effects of the war, minimizes his own struggle to stay alive, courageously confronting life-threatening dangers on an hourly basis so as to fulfill his role as the eyes and voice of the Palestinian people enduring the ultimate horrors of war.


Part of what separates Omer from even the most empathetic of foreign journalists, for instance Max Blumenthal, is his embeddedness in the history and realities of life in Gaza. Even if he were to leave, his family would be surviving under the heavy weight of the Israeli assault. He can never escape emotionally from his deep attachment to Gaza. Again his words are the best evidence of the authenticity and importance of his journalistic witnessing: “..I am offended, not only as a human, as a Palestinian in Gaza and as a father, but also as a journalist in Gaza. To get a story, I navigate a sea of body parts and blood each day, much it the remnants of people I know: my neighbors, friends and community. Unlike international reporters, those of us from Gaza don’t simply report. We live and die here.” (23) Of course, the last part of this passage is not entirely fair. Many brave international correspondents have risked their lives and paid the highest price on some occasions. I recall the great French reporter, Bernard Fall, being blown up by a mine while walking on a Vietnam beach, or more recently, the grisly 2014 TV beheading of the American journalist, James Foley, but Omer’s distinction still generally holds. The outsider who enters such a cauldron of political violence puts his life at risk, yet in almost all circumstances, can after awhile withdraw from the combat zone, resuming normalcy, although some journalists are subject to a kind of ‘fever of war,’ and only feel truly human when in the close vicinity of mortal danger. I remember Peter Arnett telling me in Hanoi on my second trip there in 1972 that after covering many major wars he only felt fully alive when doing first-hand war journalism, but the New Zealand born Peter, although animated and brave, never allowed the suffering of the civilian population to get to him, managing a detachment in the Western style, supposedly letting the facts do all the talking.


In important respects, this is also what Omer does, but with an undisguised sharp normative edge. The book consists of describing the daily ordeal experienced by the citizens of Gaza living under the fury of the Israeli attacks with no way of finding secure sanctuary, often relying on their own words to give the details of their struggles for survival and to recount their harrowing loss of loved ones. In this spirit Omer makes the reader almost feel what it must be like not to find food on the shelves of the neighborhood store or not to afford the spike in prices that follows from growing scarcities or not to have safe drinking water for growing children or not to be able to escape the confines of one’s house, which is itself never out of the danger zone.  And most of all, what it feels like to cope with the unspeakable death and maiming of family members and neighbors as a result of Israeli military tactics. These graphic descriptions of what the 51-day war meant for specific residents of Gaza constitutes the basic reportage of Shell-Shocked.


One expects that within this frame of witnessing Omer reports as accurately as possible, without exaggeration or invention. From what I know of Omer (he is a friend who I have known and admired for seven years) and of the situation in Gaza from other sources, I am utterly convinced that Omer is adhering to the highest standards of accuracy in reportage, relying heavily on descriptions of the scene and the witness of those who have endured the worst  losses of loved ones, homes, livelihood. As well, his local affiliations are neutral. Omer does not belong to or identify with any political party or association. He is embedded in Gaza by life circumstances, being a member of the victimized society with deep family and community affinities, and by this identity disposed toward ending the occupation of Gaza, achieving self-determination for the Palestinian people, and the achieving a durable and just peace for both peoples.


Omer never pretends that he has no personal stake in this conflict. In introducing his book Omer gives the reader a sense of his outlook: “As for myself, I try to remain optimistic, no small feat in ruined shell of what was once a beautiful and self-sufficient coastal enclave. Our reality is predicated upon Israel’s determination to drive us from our homes for good.” (7)  More than this, Omer observes critically that “[v]ery few in the mainstream media ever talk about the right of the people of Gaza to defend ourselves, or even just to exist.” (10) Note in the tangled syntax of this sentence that Omer gets trapped between describing the right that pertains to the people and a right that belongs to himself as one of the people.  Making his political viewpoint even clearer, and from the Western journalistic ethos unacceptable, Omer acknowledges his support for BDS as raising the costs of occupation for Israel, and besides being a tactic that is lawful and nonviolent. Omer also affirms the inclusiveness of his hopes: “Speaking personally I would like to see a single state where equity and tolerance are the only way forward for Israelis and Palestinians.” (11)


Omer also makes it clear that Israel understands that from its perspective that such journalistic depictions of the effects of the war both complicate and even undermine their propagandistic portrayals of good versus evil. Omer quotes a Beirut-based TV camera man, Abed Afifi, who reacts to the intentional targeting of a journalistic colleague with these words: “Such [an] attack is meant to intimidate us. Israel has no bank of targets, except civilians and journalists.” (55) He goes on to insist that “[A]ll these attacks on civilians should not stop us from working—the world has to see what Israel is doing in Gaza.” (55) And so it has to some degree, thanks to the efforts of Omer, Afifi, and many others.


Given the Israeli use of precision missiles against clearly marked TV vans, the inference of deliberate targeting seems hard to avoid. Israel has half acknowledged this by claiming that the journalists targeted are not ‘legitimate journalists,’ a claim refuted by Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, pointing out that such an attack is a violation of international humanitarian law even if the journalists can be shown to be partisan. In effect, the subjectively motivated journalist is by choice and hostile perception a kind of warrior, seeking to help win that part of the war, often the decisive part, waged for control of the psychological terrain governing ‘hearts and minds,’ and hence ‘illegitimate’ in the eyes of the side relying on a military onslaught to impose its will.


Finally, I return to my central comparison between objectively styled journalism that prevails in the West and the subjectively styled approach taken by Mohammed Omer and other journalists who work from a vantage point within the orbit of extreme victimization. I recall my friend, Walden Bello, the noted author and political figure from the Philippines, saying that he didn’t have to determine whether imperialism was real or not as he experiences its reality on a daily basis, which shaped and conditioned his observational standpoint. For Omer, the reality of violent oppression does not have to be determined as it is experienced in the most intense possible ways.


Some years ago, in collaboration with Howard Friel, I was the junior co-author of two books highly critical of the manner in which the New York Times handled foreign policy debates and reported on Middle East issues, especially the Israel/Palestine conflict. [The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (2004) and Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misrepresents Conflict in the Middle East (2007). We reached two main conclusions: (1) the Times systematically excluded the relevance of international law whenever it was seen as impinging on American choices in the pursuit of foreign policy goals; (2) the selective presentation of evidence sought to maintain a pro-Israeli consensus and to minimize the actualities of Palestinian victimization, a pattern very evident in the news coverage, but also in the type of opinion writers who were published and those who were excluded. In this regard, the claim of objectivity and detachment were sham, and devices used to manipulate and indoctrinate the reader, a phenomenon brilliantly depicted by Noam Chomsky in his studies of ‘indoctrination in a liberal society. I remember telling my students during the height of the Cold War that if you were a Russian in Moscow you learned how to discern realities by reading between the lines but if you were an American in Washington it required much greater sophistication to gain a comparable appreciation of the news from the New York Times or Washington Post, despite their widely accepted claims of being ‘papers of record.’


In this sense, I learn more about the news and the infrastructure of opinions that are shaping its editorial assessments from the avowedly conservative Wall Street Journal than I do from reading these liberal, more sympathetic, papers of record. And without doubt I learn more from Mohammed Omer about the realities of what happened during those 51 days in Gaza than I do from the mainstream media with its hidden biases and posture of apolitical detachment. That this learning corresponds with my political and ethical inclinations makes the experience moving and congenial as well as informative, and I encourage all with concern for Palestine’s present and future to read Omer’s brave book that can also be appreciated as a documentary compilation of testimony by the residents of Gaza caught in the maelstrom of a particularly cruel military onslaught and who yet manifest that quality of sumud that has made Palestinian resilience such an inspiring human reality amid the doldrums of the early 21st century. Mohammed Omer deserves the last word: “I have written this book as a way of preserving and passing on stories that need to be told.” (11)





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Eco-Insurgency, Tribal Vision, and Ultra-Nationalist Geopolitics

31 Jul

In further critique of Michael Oren


I devoted my last post to an expression of support for the July 14th P5 + 1 agreement reached with Iran on its Nuclear Program, and coupled this with criticism of what the former Israel ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, sets forth in his memoir, Ally, as the ideal form of special alliance relationship that exists and should exist between Israel and the U.S.. In this sequel, I explore the further implications of such a special relationship as a template for dangerous trends in political life at all levels of social organization. Oren reflects these trends, and his views and their implication deserve out attention. He has enjoyed an extremely successful life after surmounting serious childhood learning disabilities and a humble social background. He became a prize-winning historian, an elite IDF paratrooper and intelligence operative, a high-ranking civil servant, and a prominent diplomat, and most recently launched a further career as a politician, being elected to the Knesset in March. In addition to all these worldly achievements Oren appears to have had a long, satisfying marriage accompanied by a fulfilling family life, mostly spent in Israel.


With this background in mind, I find Michael Oren’s life experience to be at once impressive, worrisome, provocative, and overall, alien and emblematic of dangerous trends in politics. I compare my own background, not to claim a comparable stature, but to highlight how small differences in our social locations seem to have produced dramatic variation in life circumstances and outlook. We were both born as American Jews, and were later influenced by spending significant portions of our lives at Princeton University. Yet our experience diverges sharply when it comes to Princeton, Israel, America, Zionism and almost everything in between. It makes me wonder anew about the tenuous links between the subjectivity of consciousness and our perceptions of reality within what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’


Let me start with Princeton, perhaps unfairly, because Oren seems to be so far from the reality I experienced over the course of forty years as to make me think that his ideological affinities with Israel and Zionism clouded his vision of the place to the point of extremity, if not absurdity. In Ally a single reference to me is inaccurate and inflammatory, and raises doubts about Oren’s credibility as an observer.

After calling “outrageous” the UN Human Rights Council inquiry into war crimes committed in the course of Israel’s attack of 2008-09 on Gaza Oren goes on to write in the same sentence that “..its special rapporteur on Palestine, Richard Falk, regularly compared Israelis to Nazis.” With this view of the HRC in mind Oren adds approvingly of George W. Bush being so “disgusted by its anti-Israel bias” that he withdrew the American representative from participation in the council. [references are to location 1069 of the Kindle Edition of Ally]. His reference to me is totally false, and maliciously misleading. On only a single occasion, well before serving as UN Special Rapporteur, lacking any connection with HRC, did I draw any connection between Israel and Nazi Germany, and then only in a very restricted reference to the disturbing similarities between the sort of collective punishment being inflicted on the people of Gaza with the forms of collective demonization relied upon by the Nazis. Not only was there no comparison of any sort while serving in the UN, even in my journalistic writing, there was never ‘regular’ assertions along the lines that

Oren irresponsibly alleges to show HRC bias. In fact, such language was never a part of the critical discourse directed at Israel in the HRC. Rather as the Goldstone Report elaborated in conservable detail, there existed a widely shared perception that Israel’s policies and practices in Gaza before, during, and after the Operation Cast Lead (the IDF name given the 2008-09 attack) amounted to

Crimes Against Humanity, a view that resurfaced again in 2015. The later contentions are to be found in the report of a new fact finding commission appointed by the HRC to examine Israeli military operation, code-named Protective Edge, a 51 day devastating military attack upon Gaza in July 2014. Oren makes his inflammatory reference to my views presumably to make readers believe, contrary to the true situation, that the HRC relies on a deeply flawed and overly critical attitude toward Israel, and its behavior.


Oren’s approach to Princeton is no more convincing, and clearly contradicts my experience. Oren writes that he found himself isolated at Princeton because his Zionist sympathies and support for Israel were so out of step with the prevailing attitudes. In the course of completing his graduate studies Oren found that his support for Israel “was scarcely popular at Princeton.” He doesn’t single out Princeton, but believes his experience was reflective of a more widespread national “mood on many American campuses [that] had turned against Israel and even against America.” [Loc. 567] He goes on, “I held firm but the academic atmosphere regarding Israel remained toxic.” [loc. 594] He even portrays himself as a victim of an anti-Israeli academic establishment, suggesting that his Zionist views exacted a high ‘professional’ cost: “Publisher after publisher rejected my books, precluding an academic career.” [loc. 638; later he alludes to his academic success, having his books appear under prestigious publishing imprints and find their way onto bestseller lists as indirect benefits of Israel’s victory in the 1967 War] At Princeton, and elsewhere, Oren holds that his support for Israel was responsible for leaving him “..often a lone voice in an increasingly one-sided harangue.” [loc. 622]


My impressions of Princeton are diametrically opposed. It was considered precarious on campus to voice any opinions that were out of step with support for Israel or that showed sympathy with the Palestinian struggle. Bernard Lewis was a hegemonic presence in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, and used his influence to marginalize and banish Israeli critics from academic arenas, not only at Princeton, but throughout the world. Michael Walzer was the second most visible scholarly luminary at Princeton who was concerned with this subject-mater, and like Lewis, a stalwart supporter of Israel and an ardent proponent of the Zionist Project, and then after him there was Fouad Ajami, a prominent Lebanese-American intellectual who increasingly sided with Israel in its clash with Palestinian aspirations and later became associated with the Hoover Institutions and the most bellicose views on the Middle East. Not surprisingly, I experienced hostile and condescending treatment from Lewis and Walzer, and their departmental colleagues, on several occasions. There were few contrary voices on these issues at Princeton during my entire period at the university, and those few of us who held more critical positions toward Israel were the ones who during these felt sidelined at the university during the 1980s and 1990s. There were almost always Israeli military officers among the small group of doctoral students interested in international relations, and prominent pro-Israeli diplomats were frequent visitors. I had to get permission from the State Department to allow a PLO diplomat, Shafik al-Hout to speak as a guest in my seminar, and it was granted on condition that he not deliver a public

lecture. Even such a prominent Princeton graduate as Edward Said came to the university to speak in my classes, and never as an invited public speaker.


Many students from the Arab world in this period complained to me about this one-sided pro-Israeli atmosphere at Princeton, and in an effort to counter its presence a wealthy student from Morocco who had suffered from Orientalist pedagogy during his Princeton years took it upon himself to fund a parallel research center with the express purpose of giving students and scholars an alternative voice more open to a sympathetic treatment of issues on the policy agenda affecting Islam and Palestinian aspirations. Such an institutional initiative was a breadth of fresh air so far as the intellectual and political mood was concerned, diluting to some extent the pro-Zionist atmosphere that had dominated the university during my period as a faculty member.


Oren’s undisguised hostility to Edward Said’s Orientalism is a further revelation of his zealous hostility to all intellectual efforts to widen the conversation on Israel and Palestine. In a wildly overstated observation, Oren writes that “Said’s book became canonical in many Middle East Studies Departments, pressuring students and professors to prove that they were not Orientalists.” [loc. 576] To Oren, Said’s book was abhorrent because it alleged that the academic study of the Arab world was shaped by racist, imperialistic, and European ethnocratic assumptions of cultural superiority, and further that Said’s prime targets, such as Bernard Lewis, should be

discarded as purveyors of false consciousness. [Loc. 567, 576] In reaction to these supposed pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli trends, Oren felt “compelled to stand my ground. I worked to expose Said’s Orientalism’s screed.” [Loc. 576] To describe Said’s seminal book as ‘a screed’ is polemical at best, and more likely an indication that Oren had never bothered to read Said’s careful exploration of his hypotheses by literary and cultural analysis. After so much fire and brimstone, Oren’s main refutation of Said seems to be his rather trivial contention that the earliest Middle Eastern scholarship was the work of scholars from Germany and Hungary, “neither of whom colonized the region.” [Loc. 585] This strikes me as a silly argument, considering that both countries were firmly in the Western camp, and shared an Orientalist worldview. But no matter, as Oren professed purpose is to deflect to the extent possible criticisms of Israel. Oren does make some perfunctory remarks acknowledging that Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 and establishment of settlements after 1967 might have something to do with growing criticism of Israel. This is mere window dressing as Oren makes it clear that whatever wrongs Israel might commit is beside the point, and a diversion from his us or them worldview: “The terrorists, together with their Arab and Iranian state supporters, would still try to massacre us even if every settlement were removed.” [Loc. 588] This kind of declamation exposes the raw tissue of Oren’s beliefs—that hostility toward Israel is at bottom anti-Semitism and premised on an absolute Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist in Palestine as a Jewish state. This is a convenient and opportunistic standpoint, trivializing criticism of Israel, which should always deserves support as the sole Western style democracy in the entire region. Oren indirectly inverts the argument of Orientalism, claiming that hostility to Israel is based on ethnocratic criteria rather than being a reaction to Israel’s violation of fundamental Palestinian rights, which serve the Arab world as a respectable rationalization for hatred of Jews.


Oren grew up in a Catholic neighborhood in West Orange, New Jersey where he experienced daily bullying because he was a Jew. This early contact with anti-Semitism was combined with a strong Jewish involvement based on family, community, and synagogue, giving Oren, while growing up, an attachment to Zionism and Israel as a sanctuary for diaspora Jews. He became a Zionist youth activist, departing for Israel at a young age, and never looked back. He combined ardent participation in all things Israeli while maintaining a strong attachment to America. It is not surprising that Oren developed the state of mind of a dual citizen. He movingly describes the day that he was compelled to renounce his American citizenship so that he could become the official representative of Israel in the United States. This act of choice caused anguish for Oren as it violated the reality of his depth experience of dual identity that never dissipated regardless of the legal niceties.


It is very tempting to compare my childhood and adult life with that of Oren, and reflect upon the starkness of the differences. I lived in Manhattan as a child in a middle class neighborhood dominated by Jews, and attended a private school that was almost deserted on Jewish holidays, which were totally ignored on the secular homefront. At the same time my immediate societal environs were sufficiently assimilationist so as to make it seem natural to observe Christmas by singing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and decorating a Christmas tree. My parents, although both Jewish, were completely post-ethnic in temperament and behavior, as well as post-religious in their beliefs. Already as an adolescent I challenged their secular humanist leanings by becoming interested in religion, and later explored several religious traditions. This inclination toward an embrace of religion may have resulted from the fact that as a child I was cared for by a young Irish immigrant who was a devout Catholic, and took me with her frequently to attend mass at a nearby church, which I found satisfying despite the mysteries of Latin Rite being lost on me. This early exposure to religion has led a non-denominational spirituality throughout my life, but left me without much attraction for institutional affiliations with organized religions.


Also, the rise of Nazism did not impact strongly on my experience during childhood. I had no known relative that was ever in a concentration camp, and the Holocaust seemed horrible, but something that happened in Europe, which seemed distant and remote to in those years. From the age of seven I was raised by my father as a single parent. He was a conservative, strongly anti-Communist lawyer and historian who managed in his spare time to write a couple of widely read books about the rise of Japanese sea power. My father, a tender and loving man in concrete relationships, lacked public empathy. He deeply disliked FDR’s New Deal, accepted the judicial logic of strict constitutionalism, and wrote a book attacking Roosevelt’s plan to circumvent the Supreme Court by enlarging the number of judges through appointment of individuals who would uphold his policies. These parental politics, and my status as a de facto only child, led me to interact with prominent people in several fields as an adolescent, but also to drift inconsequentially in search of an authentic identity. Israel and Zionism were completely remote from this search. I learned from my father that what mattered was national identity, not the sort of tribal reality that Oren acknowledges as an essential part of his experience of being Jewish. As I matured, and decided on the study of law without have clear career goals, my orientation became increasingly anti-vocational. From this standpoint, I hoped to practice ‘international law’ or find something to do that had nothing to do with being a ‘real’ lawyer. With such an outlook, I ended up focusing on international law and law in India while still a law student, and due to a series of coincidences, was hired upon graduation on an emergency basis (substituting for a faculty member who had suddenly fallen ill) to teach some courses for the year at the College of Law at Ohio State University. I ended up spending five years on the campus in Columbus, almost immediately discovering that academic life was congenial, providing me with autonomy and interesting friends at the very beginning of a professional career.


It was in this period that I began to develop a political identity. While still a law student, I had instinctively opposed McCarthyism, and was surprised that my classmates at the supposedly very liberal Yale Law School were generally unwilling to sign a petition opposing blacklisting of so-called ‘Fifth Amendment Communists’ for fear that it would hurt their job prospects. At Ohio State I became involved as a non-tenured faculty member in litigation against several members of the Board of Trustees alleging that as they were owners of off-campus student housing that unconstitutionally discriminated against African American student renters they were personally responsible for violation of rights. Although a favorable settlement of the case was a source of satisfaction, what turned out to be more influential for my political development in this period was interaction with progressive graduate students at Ohio State. And even more so was an afternoon in the university library where I started reading by accident of the French defeat in their war to retain colonial control over Indochina. I was so persuaded that afternoon by Owen Lattimore’s critique of the French colonial enterprise that it led me to became an early opponent of the Vietnam War adopting the realist premise that if the French failed, so would the United States fail, and at great cost to itself, and to its wider alignments and interests. My opposition at that time was framed by reference to arguments about international law and realist assessments of costs and benefits.

A decade later, in 1968, I accepted an invitation to visit North Vietnam as both a peace activist and academic expert on the international law aspects of the war. During this visit, relating again to this contrast with Oren, I found myself identifying with the vulnerability of the Vietnamese peasantry in response to the high-techology warfare being waged by the United States against their country, people, and nationalist aspirations. I shifted emphases from being an opponent of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam to becoming a supporter of Vietnam’s struggle for self-determination.


It became a normative preoccupation rather than a realist stance, the latter being much more respected within the Princeton environment, especially among the faculty. In the course of this political development, I had never experienced any tribalist longings to affirm my Jewish identity, and now I found myself at odds with my government, beginning to feel more comfortable with an affirmation of human identity than with the national identity derived mechanically from my American birth and citizenship, and the dynamics of socialization beneath an American flag. Long before I encountered the words of Vincent Harding, I resonated to the sentiment he movingly articulated: “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” Derrida, I believe, was pointing to a similar reality when he wrote and spoke of ‘a democracy to come,’ that is, a democracy not yet existing, and not even clearly envisioned beyond some humanistic values that constituted a political community with no spatial boundaries. I have never doubted the primacy of this human identity in my political consciousness, although I find that remaining dedicated to the better realization of national identity through the fulfillment of America’s promise and potential both compatible, and in a sense intertwined. I have at times envied some forms of tribal identity, especially if not enacted at the expense of others, but it never resonated existentially. I believe the interplay of tensions between tribal, national, and human identities in our life experiences goes a long way toward explaining why I see the world so differently than Oren.


Perhaps, another take on these differences, would emphasize forms of empathy that are chosen by each of us. Clearly, Oren has strong empathy when it comes to family, clan, tribe, and nation, but less so, or not visibly at all, when it comes to the human species (putting aside how becoming fully human means extending empathy to animals and even plants). I found surprising that Oren approvingly quotes Atticus, the wise lawyer hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, as saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” [Loc. 2222] In his text, I find no effort to achieve such understandings as when he deals with Palestinian militancy or Edward Said’s attack on Orientalism. It is this failure of comprehending the other that makes it accurate to brand Oren, however well educated, as primarily a tribalist and nationalist when it comes to politics, while being a very dedicated husband, father, and friend when focusing on the realm of personal relations.


For myself, I raise the historical and humanist question as to whether species survival is increasingly at risk because of the lethal rivalries produced by tribal and national agendas as reinforced by ever more sophisticated technologies of destruction and control. Thinking hopefully, the Anthropocene Age may soon witness the first species insurgency against the eco-tyrannical elites of the world, who have become the suicidal guardians of our neoliberal market forces joined in an unbreakable alliance with dominant forces of tribalism and nationalism. In moments of despair, the end-time hegemony of this unbreakable alliance are likely to retain control of species destiny, perhaps justifying their techno-violence and paralyzing surveillance by imagined struggles with ISIS-like forces, given mass credibility by a compliant, fear-mongering media. In effect, if we care about future generations and the wellbeing of the species and its natural surroundings, we must begin to think, feel, and act like an eco-insurgent.

Alliance Blackmail: Israel’s Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

26 Jul


The Vienna Agreement [formally labeled by diplospeak as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)] reached by the P5 + 1 on July 14, 2015 has been aptly hailed as a political breakthrough, not only because it calms regional worries about Iran’s nuclear program, but more so because it has the potential to remove an ugly dimension of conflict from the regional turmoil in the Middle East. Such a diplomatic success, after so many years of frustration, chaos, and strife, should be an occasion for hope and celebration, and in many venues it is, although not in Israel or Saudi Arabia or among the neo-con kingpins in Washington think tanks and their numerous Republican allies in the U.S. Congress.


Which side will prevail in this dysfunctional encounter is presently obscure, which itself is an indication of the dismal conditions of political life in America. Many unanswered and unanswerable questions bedevil the process: Will this agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program be approved, and then implemented, or will it be blocked or unacceptably revised before coming into operation, or later on? Will Iran become associated more openly with Western attempts to defeat ISIS and in the desperate need to bring peace and humane governance to Syria where the people of the country have endured such severe suffering since 2011? Will these developments allow Iran to be treated as a normal state within regional and global political settings, and if this reduced atmosphere of external tension occurs will it also have moderating impacts on the internal governing process in Iran? Or will Israel and its allies succeed in keeping Iran in ‘a terrorist cage’ reserved for pariah states, and continue to insist upon a military option to wage war against Iran? Will Israel receive ‘compensation’ in the form of enhanced military assistance from the United States to demonstrate Washington’s unwavering commitment to the alliance? Will Israel’s secretly acquired nuclear weapons capability be called into question in an effort to achieve denuclearization, which is more consistent with peace and morality than calling into question Iran’s threat of nuclear proliferation? Further afield, will this gap between the American/European and Israeli/Gulf approach lead over time to new geopolitical alignments that broaden beyond policy toward Iran’s nuclear program?


At the core these many concerns, is the nature and health of the United States/Israel relationship, and more broadly the appalling balance of forces that controls political life from the governmental hub in Washington. The alliance bonding between the two countries have been called ‘unconditional’ and even ‘eternal’ by Obama, words echoed by every American public figure with any credible mainstream political ambitions, currently including even the supposed radical presidential aspirant, Bernie Sanders. And yet that is not nearly good enough for AIPAC and the Adelson-led legions pro-Israeli fanatics, which periodically lambaste this strongly pro-Israeli president for alleged betrayals of Israel’s most vital security interests, and generally take derisive issue with the slightest sign of accommodationist diplomacy in the region.

The most illuminating discussion of these issues from Tel Aviv’s perspective is undoubtedly the recently published memoir of Israel’s American born ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, who served in this key role during the period 2009-2013. Oren was elected to the Knesset earlier this year representing, Kulanu, a small centrist Israeli party focused on economic and social reform. Oren’s bestselling book, Ally: Managing the America/Israel Divide (Random House, 2015) succeeds in combining an intelligent insider’s account of the strained relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama presidency with frequent vain and self-aggrandizing autobiographical reflections in the spirit of ‘Look Ma, I am dancing with the Queen,’ reinforced by analysis that justifies every aspect of Israel’s extreme right-wing and militarist approaches to security policy and diplomacy. To understand better the Israeli worldview that mixes genuine fears of its enemies with arrogant behavior toward its friends there is no more instructive book.


An American–born Jew, Oren conceived of himself both as a product of and an emissary to the Jewish diaspora in the United States, diplomat discharging his conventional government-to-government diplomatic role. Above all, Oren during his tenure in office (2009-2013) apparently did his best to keep political tensions between these two countries and their personally uncongenial leaders below the surface while unreservedly supporting the public claim that this special alliance relationship serves the interests and values of both countries. Oren ends his book with a dramatic assertion of this overlap: “Two countries, one dream.” Perhaps even more disturbing than the rationalization of all that is Zionist and Israeli throughout the book is the seeming sincerity of Oren’s sustained advocacy. A bit of cynicism here and there might have made Oren less of a self-anointed Manchurian candidate.


Given this posture of dedicated advocate, it is hardly surprising that Oren is a harsh opponent of those liberal groups that question AIPAC’s constructive influence on American policy debates or that he views initiatives critical of Israel, such as the Goldstone Report or the BDS campaign, as dangerous, disreputable, and damaging threats to Israel’s security and wellbeing. Even J-Street, harmless as it has turned out to be, was viewed as an anathema to Oren who turned down its invitations and regarded it as somehow exhibiting a leftist posture toward Israel. Only later when it became domesticated by denouncing the Goldstone Report and generally supportive of Israel’s use of force against Gaza did Oren feel it had joined what he calls ‘the mainstream’ of Beltway politics, which in his slanted vision is where he situates AIPAC and the U.S. Congress. Quite incredibly, even Martin Indyk, early in his career an AIPAC researcher and more recently the American ambassador to Israel, was viewed as a poor appointment as Special Envoy to the Kerry peace talks of 2013-2014 because he did not have a cordial enough relationship with Netanyahu. From my perspective, it was also a poor appointment, but for opposite reasons–an in-your-face display of pro-Israeli partisanship that undermined any credibility the United States claimed as a responsible intermediary at the resumed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.


Central to Oren’s presentation of Israeli behavior is the one-way street that he treats as embedded in the word ‘ally,’ which for Oren expresses the peculiar and generally unacknowledged character of this ‘special relationship.’ It is well illustrated by Oren’s support for Israel’s effort led with undisguised bluntness by Netanyahu to undermine Obama capacity to negotiate a nuclear arrangement with Iran despite JCPOA being strongly endorsed as in the national interest of the United States, but also of France, United Kingdom, China, Russia, and Germany. The agreement also seems beneficial for the Middle East as a whole and indeed for the world. Such an encompassing consensus endorsing the elaborate arrangement negotiated was exhibited in a resolution of support adopted by the UN Security Council [SC Resolution 2231, 20 July 2015] by an unusual unanimous vote. Oren still complains bitterly that Israel’s rejectionist views toward an agreement with Iran were in the end circumvented, at least so far. At one point Oren even suggests that Israel was better off when the inflammatory Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president rather than the more measured Hassan Rouhani. In his view, Iran remains just as aggressively disposed toward Israel despite the more moderate language of the present leadership, but that the West has been falsely reassured to the point of being willing to ease gradually the sanctions previously imposed in this latest diplomatic initiative, thereby raising the level of threat faced by Israel and accounting for Netanyahu’s frantic opposition to the agreement.


In the end, despite siding with Israel at every turn with respect to tension with the U.S. Government, Oren recognizes that Obama has been on balance been a faithful ally. Although indicting the Obama presidency the United States for being a disloyal ‘ally’ when the Iran chips were on the diplomatic table. It is not presently clear whether Netanyahu’s insistence that the nuclear deal (JCPOA) is ‘a historic mistake’ will overcome rationality and self-interest in the American setting either in the immediate future of approving the (non-treaty) agreement, or over a longer period should the United States have the misfortune of electing a Republican president in 2016 who are presently stumbling over one another in their competition to denounce more decisively.


More generally, Oren outrageously proposes that this alliance between Israel and the United States, to live up to its potential, should have three dimensions that would make it unlike all others: ‘no daylight’ on common concerns, that is, no policy differences; ‘no suprises,’ that is, advance notification to the other government of any international policy initiatives bearing on the Middle East; and never a public display of disagreements when policy differences between the two governments emerge as happened with Iran. The justifications given by Oren emphasize the usual litany of two states sharing commitments to political democracy, anti-terrorism, and having common regional strategic and security goals.


What seems superficially astounding is that the world’s number one state seems frightened to step on the smallest Israeli toe, while Israel is ready to do whatever it needs to do to get its way on policy issues in the event of a dispute with its supposedly more powerful partner. After negotiating a far tougher deal (on enriched uranium and intrusive inspections) with Iran than the realities warrant, at least partly out of deference to Israeli concerns, Washington still feels it appropriate and apparently necessary to indicate a readiness to provide ‘compensation,’ that is, enlarged contributions beyond the current $3.1 billion, offers of weapons systems designed to bolster further Israel QME (Qualitative Military Edge) in the Middle East. The White House additionally sends its recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, to Israel with hat in hand, evidently to reassure the Israeli leadership that nothing about the agreement is inconsistent with continuing support of Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit, which appears to be a writ of permission in violation of the UN Charter and international law by granting Israel assurance in advance of U.S. support should it at some future point launch an attack on Iran. It should be noted that no state in the world enjoys such inappropriate benefits from an alliance with the United States. The whole dubious logic of QME implies a continuing willingness to put Israeli security permanently on an unlawful pedestal in the region that places other states in a subordinate position that makes them susceptible to Israeli military threats and hegemonic demands. It is tantamount to providing Israel with assured capabilities to win any war, whatever the pretext, that should emerge in the future, and also means that Israel is the only state in the Middle East not deterred by concerns about retaliation by an adversary. For years Israel has been threatening Iran with a military attack in flagrant violation of Article 2(4) that unconditionally prohibits “any threat or use of force” except in situations of self-defense as strictly limited by Article 51.


Oren, of course, sees things much differently. He repeats without pausing to entertain the slightest doubt, that Israeli is the only democracy in the Middle East and joined at the hip to American foreign policy as a result of these shared interests and values. He insists that the UN is biased against Israel, and is thankful for American blanket opposition to all hostile initiatives, whether justified or not, that arise within the Organization. For Oren UN bias is clearly evident in the greater attention given to Israel’s alleged wrongs than those of much bloodier international situations and worse violators. He also faults Obama, as compared to George W. Bush, for being a weak ally, too ready to please the Palestinians and indeed the entire Islamic world, and supposedly causing an unspecified ‘tectonic shift’ in the alliance with Israel during his presidency. In this regard, the Iran Agreement is the last straw for Oren, and the most damaging example of a departure from the alleged alliance code of no daylight and no surprises (epitomized by recourse to secret diplomacy between Washington and Tehran that left Tel Aviv out of the loop for several months leading up to the agreement). Of course, Oren is unapologetic about Israel’s obstructionist behavior. He treats Netanyahu’s conception of Israel’s security as essentially correct, if at times unnecessarily confrontational. He believes that in this instance Israel’s worries are sufficiently vital and well-founded as to deserve putting aside diplomatic niceties. This was the case when the Israeli leader was invited by the Republican leadership in Congress to speak on Iran at a special joint session convened for this purpose in early 2015 without even informing the White House in advance of the invitation, a violation of political protocol.


Deconstructing the Oren view of alliance politics makes it clear that its operational code would be better observed if the Congress and not the President represented the United States in matters of foreign policy. Netanyahu and a majority of the U.S. Congress do seem to see eye to eye, including of course on whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as negotiated, should be approved. Across the board of foreign policy in the Middle East, Netanyahu and Congress are bellicose, inclined toward military solutions despite the dismal record of failure, and inclined to decide about friends and enemies on the basis of geopolitical alignment and religious orientation without the slightest concern about whether or not supportive of democracy, human rights, and decency.


Should a Republican with these views be elected president in 2016, then Oren’s dream of the alliance as based on ‘no daylight, no surprises, and no public discord’ would likely come true, illustrating the proposition that one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. More carefully considered, it would seem probable that if Hilary Clinton gets the keys to the White House her approach to Israel will be closer to that of Congress than that of Obama even recalling that Obama backed away quickly from his early demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion and has significantly increased military assistance for Israel without exhibiting much concern about peace and justice in the region, or with regard to the Palestinian ordeal. U.S. response to the Sisi coup in Egypt is indicative of a strategic convergence of approach by the Obama White House and Netanyahu’s Likud led government.


Two realities are present as surfacing in response to the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA):

-the presidency is on one side (along with Clinton) and Congress/Israel is on the other side;

–yet more broadly conceived, the alliance remains as unconditional and bipartisan as ever, defiant toward the UN and the constraints of international law whenever expedient.


A final point. JCPOA imposes more restrictions on Iranian enrichment capabilities and stockpiles, and on inspection and monitoring of compliance, than has been imposed on any country in the course of the entire nuclear era. Its regional justifications, aside from Israeli security, emphasize the avoidance of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. And left out of consideration altogether was the nuclear weapons arsenal of Israel acquired with Western complicity and by covert means, as well as through operations outside the Nonproliferation Treaty regime, which is used to tie Iran’s hands and feet. Such are the maneuvers of geopolitics, that underpin the alliance so strongly celebrated by Michael Oren.







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