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Pope Francis Visit to Palestine

26 May

 

 

            Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land raises one overwhelming question: ‘what is the nature of religious power in our world of the 21st century?’ ‘can it have transformative effects’?

 

            Media pundits and most liberal voices from the secular realm approve of this effort by Francis to seek peace through the encouragement of reconciliation, while dutifully reminding us that his impact is only ‘ceremonial’ and ‘symbolic’ and will not, and presumably should not, have any political consequences beyond a temporary cleansing of the political atmosphere.

 

            The June 6th prospect of Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres praying together in the Vatican as a step toward a peaceful end of the long struggle is, I fear, an ambiguous sideshow. For one thing, Peres as President of Israel is about to leave the office, and in any event, his position exerts no discernible influence on the head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu, or the approach taken by Israel in addressing Palestinian concerns. It has long been appreciated that Peres is less than he seems, and beneath his velvet globe is a steel fist. Also, Abbas, although the formal leader of the Palestinian Authority and Chair of the PLO, is a weak and controversial leader who has yet to establish a unity government that includes Hamas, and finally provides political representation for the long suffering population of the Gaza Strip within global venues.

 

            Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the significance, symbolically and materially, of what Pope Francis’ visit to Palestine heralds. To begin with, just below the surface of what is avowed by words and style, is the contrast between the humility and sincerity of this religiously oriented initiative and the recently acknowledged breakdown of direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel that was the ill-advised and contrived initiative of the U.S. Government, and became the personal project of the American Secretary of State John Kerry. In effect, the Pope epitomizes the moral and spiritual dimensions of the unresolved situation in Palestine while Kerry’s muscular diplomacy called partisan Alpha attention to the political dimensions.

 

            Undoubtedly more relevant is the degree to which Francis lent his weight to fundamental Palestinian grievances. By referring to the territory under occupation since 1967 as ‘Palestine,’ Francis affirmed the status conferred by the UN General Assembly in 2012, and since then angrily rejected by Tel Aviv and Washington. In doing so, Palestinian statehood was affirmed as a moral reality that should be endorsed by people and governments of good will everywhere, thereby strengthening the call of global solidarity.

 

            Most dramatically of all, by praying at the apartheid wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and bowing his head prayer while touching with his hand that hated metaphor of Israeli cruelty, illegality, and oppressiveness, Pope Francis has made an indelible contribution to the Legitimacy War of nonviolent resistance and emancipation that the Palestinian National Movement has waged with increasing militancy, and is being embraced throughout the world.

 

            Such moments of moral epiphany are rare in our experience of the torments afflicting the world. We need to remind ourselves that this pope has imparted a spirit of justice and spirituality. We are responding to his call because of who he is as well as what he is: his warmth, sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and identification with those brutally victimized by war. We are responding to the concreteness of his commitments and the actualities of his performances whether he points to the atrocities of war in Syria or the ordeal that has so long confronted the Palestinian people.

 

            The Pope challenges all of us to act as citizen pilgrims, having a personal responsibility to act as best we can against bastions of flagrant injustice. The Pope, the most universally acclaimed moral and spiritual authority figure on the planet has spoken by word and deed, and now it becomes our privilege to act responsively. By this means alone can we discover the ecumenical nature of religious authority in our times.

Northern Ireland and the Israel/Palestine ‘Peace Process’

22 Dec

Richard HaassUnknown-1UK flagIrish flag

            I visited Belfast the last few days during some negotiations about unresolved problems between Unionist and Republican (or Nationalist) political parties, I was struck by the absolute dependence for any kind of credibility of this process upon the unblemished perceived neutrality of the mediating third party. It would have been so totally unacceptable to rely on Ireland or Britain to play such a role, and the mere suggestion of such a partisan intermediary would have occasioned ridicule by the opposing party, confirming suspicions that its intention must have been to scuttle the proposed negotiations. In the background of such a reflection is the constructive role played by the United States more than a decade ago when it actively encouraged a process of reconciliation through a historic abandonment of violence by the antagonists. That peace process was based on the justly celebrated Good Friday Agreement that brought the people of Northern Ireland a welcome measure of relief from the so-called ‘Time of Troubles’ even if the underlying antagonisms remain poignantly alive in the everyday realities of Belfast, as well as some lingering inclination toward violence among those extremist remnants of the struggle on both sides that reject all moves toward accommodation. The underlying tension remains as Republican sentiments favor a united Ireland while the Unionists Having continue to be British loyalists, deeply opposed to any moves toward a merger with the Republic of Ireland.

 Indyk Kerryimages

            The current round of negotiations going on in Belfast involve seemingly trivial issues: whether the flag of the United Kingdom will be flown from the Parliament and other government buildings on 18 official holidays or everyday and whether the Irish tricolor will be flown when leaders from the Republic of Ireland are visiting Belfast; the degree to which annual Unionist parades passing through Republican neighborhoods of the city will be regulated to avoid provocations; and how might the past be addressed so as to bring belated solace to those who have grievances, especially associated with deaths of family members that were never properly addressed by those in authority at the time.  Apparently, in recollection of the achievements attributed to George Mitchell, the distinguished American political figure who was principally associated with developing the proposals that produced the Good Friday Agreement, the present phase of an evolving accommodation process is being presided over by another notable American, Richard Haass. Haass is a former State Department official and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations, the influential establishment NGO in the foreign policy domain. In this setting the United States Government (as well as its leading citizens) is seen as an honest broker, and although the government is not now directly involved, an individual closely associated with the established order has been chosen and seems acceptable to the five Northern Ireland political parties participating in the negotiations. This effort to ensure the continuation of stability in Northern Ireland seems responsive to the natural order: that negotiations in circumstances of deep conflict do benefit from third-party mediation provided it is perceived to be non-partisan, neutral, and competent, and acts credibly and diligently as a check on the gridlock of partisanship.

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            The contrast of this experience in Northern Ireland with what has emerged during the past twenty years in the effort to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict could not be more striking. The negotiating process between Israel and Palestine is generated by an avowedly partisan third party, the United States, which makes no effort to hide its commitment to safeguard Israeli state interests even if at the expense of Palestinian concerns. This critical assessment has been carefully documented in Rashid Khalidi’s authoritative Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013). Beyond this taint, sand is repeatedly thrown in Palestinian eyes by White House gall in designating AIPAC related Special Envoys to oversee the negotiations as if it is primarily Israel that needs reassurances that its national interests will be protected in the process while Palestinian greater concerns do not require any such indication of protective sensitivity.

 

            How can we explain these contrasting American approaches in these two major conflict-resolving undertakings? Of course, the first line of explanation would be domestic politics in the United States. Although Irish Americans by and large have republican sympathies, Washington’s multiple bonds with the United Kingdom ensure a posture of impartiality would be struck from the perspective of national interests. The United States had most to gain in Ireland by being seen to help the parties move from a violent encounter to a political process in pursuing their rival goals. Such would also seem to be the case in Israel/Palestine but for the intrusion of domestic politics, especially in the form of the AIPAC lobbying leverage. Can anyone doubt that if the Palestinians had countervailing lobbying capabilities either the United States would be excluded as the diplomatic arbiter or it would do its best to appear impartial?

 

            There are other secondary explanatory factors. Especially since the 1967 War, it has been a matter of agreement with American policymaking circles, that Israel is a reliable strategic ally in the Middle East. Of course, interests my diverge from time to time, as seems recently to be the case in relation to interim agreement involving Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but overall the alliance patterns in the region put the United States and Israel on the same side: counter-terrorist operations and tactics, counter-proliferation, containment of Iran’s influence, opposition to the spread of political Islam, support for Saudi Arabia and conservative governments in the Gulf. Since 9/11, in particular, Israel has been a counter-terrorist mentor to the United States, and to others in the world, offering expert training and what it calls ‘combat-tested weaponry,’ which means tactics and weapons used by Israel in controlling over many years the hostile Palestinian population, especially Gaza.

 

            A third, weaker explanation is purported ideological affinity. Israel promotes itself, and this is endorsed by the United States, as the ‘sole democracy’ or ‘only genuine democracy’ in the Middle East. Despite the many contradictions associated with such an assertion, ranging from eyes closed when it comes to Saudi Arabia or the Egyptian coup to a wide-eyed refusal to notice the Israeli legalized pattern of discrimination against its 20% Palestinian minority. It has been persuasively suggested that part of the reason that Arab governments are reluctant to support the Palestinian struggle is the fear that its success would destabilize authoritarian regimes in the region. In this regard, it was the first intifada, back in 1987, that seems in retrospect to have been the most important antecedent cause of the 2011 Arab Spring. It is also notable that despite the profession of democratic values in the Middle East, Israel showed no regrets when the elected government in Egypt was overthrown by a military coup whose leadership then proceeded to criminalize those who had been chosen only a year earlier by the national electorate to run the country.

 

            These are weighty reasons when considered together, help us understand why the Oslo Framework and its Roadmap sequel, and the various negotiating sessions, have not produced an outcome that remotely resembles what might be fairly described as ‘a just and sustainable peace’ from a Palestinian perspective. Israel has evidently not perceived such a conflict-resolving outcome as being in its national interest, and has not been given any sufficient incentive by the United States or the UN to scale back its ambitions, which include continuous settlement expansion, control over the whole of Jerusalem, denial of Palestinian rights of return, appropriation of water and land resources, intrusive, one-sided, and excessive security demands, and an associated posture that opposes a viable Palestinian state ever coming into existence, and is even more opposed to give any credence to proposals for a single secular bi-national state. What is more, despite this unreasonable diplomatic posture, which attains plausibility only because of Israel’s disproportionate influence on the intermediary mechanisms and its own media savvy in projecting its priorities, Palestine and its leadership is mainly blamed for the failures of the ‘peace process’ to end the conflict by a mutually agreed solution. This is a particularly perverse perception given Israel’s extreme unreasonableness in relation to resolution of the conflict, the U.S. partisanship, and Palestine’s passivity in asserting its claims, grievances, and interests.

 

            Finally, we must ask why Palestinian leaders have been willing to give credibility for so long to a diplomatic process that seems to offer their national movement so little. The most direct answer is the lack of the power to say ‘no.’ This can be further elaborated by pointing to the lack of a preferable alternative. A further indication of Palestinian diplomatic dependence, is the degree to which the United States exerts pressure on Ramallah because it finds the management of this bridge to nowhere of the peace process to be useful, despite its many frustrations and failures, allows Washington to exhibit both a commitment to peace and to Israel. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has in recent months pressured the parties to resume peace talks, talking often of ‘painful concessions’ that both sides would have to make if the negotiations are to succeed. This misleading appeal to symmetry overlooks the gross disparity in position and capabilities of the two sides. Whether such a disparity is so great as to make it dubious to use the language of conflict is itself an open question. Would it not be more forthright and revealing to ask due to the degree of inequality, whether Palestine has any capability to say anything about the terms of a resolution other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what Israel is prepared at any time to offer? In this sense it more closely resembles the end of a war in which there is a winner and loser except that here the loser at least retains the sovereign right to say ‘no.’ Also it needs to be observed, that this perception is deeply misleading because it overlooks what might be called ‘the other war,’ that is, the Legitimacy War that the Palestinians are winning, and given the history of decolonization, seems to have a good chance of controlling the political outcome of the struggle.

 

             Returning to the inter-governmental approach, it should also be noticed that the diplomacy does not take account of the historical background. Did not Palestine concede more than enough before the negotiations even began, accepting a frame for territorial proposals that seems content with 22% of historic Palestine, although this territory is less than half of what the UN partition plan proposed in 1947, and seemed then to be unfair given the ethnic demographics at the time? We should also take account of the relevance of the supposed basic UN policy against the acquisition of territory by the use of force, which would seem to mandate a rollback of Israeli territory at least to the 1947 UN proposals contained in General Assembly Resolution 181. The implication of Kerry’s painful concession rhetoric is that Israel would only be expected to remove some isolated settlements and outposts in the West Bank even though they were unlawful ever since established, and could retain the valuable land it has appropriated for the settlement blocs established since 1967 despite their existence being in flagrant violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In other words, Palestine is expected to give up fundamental rights while Israel is supposed to abandon some relatively minor unlawful aspects of its prolonged occupation of the West Bank and retain most of the ill-gotten gains.

 

            What do we learn from such an analysis?

(1)  Third-party intermediation only works if it is perceived to be non-partisan by both sides;

(2)   Partisan intermediation can only succeed if the stronger side is able to impose its vision of the future on the weaker side;

(3)   Analyzing the Palestine/Israel diplomacy underscores the relevance of (2), and should not be confused with its claimed character as an instance of (1);

(4)   Perhaps in the aftermath of a Palestinian victory in the Legitimacy War the sort of framework for constructive diplomacy achieved in Northern Ireland could be devised, but its credibility would depend on non-partisan intermediation.

             

The Palestinian National Movement Advances

19 Dec

             The advocacy of a Legitimacy War approach to the Palestinian National Movement for self-determination and a just peace is basically committed to Hegelian categories of conflict, shifting its energies away from Marxist forms of encounter based on material assessments of the balance of forces. Put less obscurely, the Palestinian shift toward Legitimacy Wars is a recognition that in this kind of conflict the decisive battles are generally not won by the side with the superior weaponry and technology but rather by the side that prevails in the realm of ideas and symbols of just cause, especially those bearing on nationalist claims of rights based on international law and universal standards of morality. Since the outcome of the colonial wars, the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the failure of Western interventions, the tide of history is flowing favorably for indigenous forces able to win control over these normative heights. This does not imply a renunciation of violence or a guaranty of victory, but it does signify a massive shift in the balance of forces in favor of the side that most successfully uses soft power instruments in conflict situations.

 

            Such a Hegelian view of historical process intends only to claim an altered emphasis, and does not imply a disregard of material circumstances. When Marx was active, his insights into the political economy of the day were brilliantly conceived, calling attention to the revolutionary vulnerabilities of industrial capitalism to a mobilized working class. Both Hegel and Marx, responsive to the alleged truth claims of science, purported to have discovered the laws governing change in the human condition, but only truly identified at most what were historical dispositions, and their claims of ‘determinism’ exaggerated what we are able to discern in the present about what will happen in the future. In the context of the Palestinian Legitimacy War there is only a sense that victory is likely to produce positive political results, but not a guaranty. The political outcome depends on many unknowable features of context, especially how the side losing a Legitimacy War responds.

 

            The battlefields of a Legitimacy War are mainly symbolic and non-territorial. Their relation of forces cannot be measured, but should not be understood only as a battle of ideas. It is rather the conversion of ideas into people power in various forms along with a downplaying of relative technological proficiency. In relation to the Palestinian struggle such soft power militancy is exhibited by such developments as the growth of the BDS Campaign, the decision by the Swarthmore Chapter of Hillel to defy institutional guidelines of its central body by allowing a forum to speakers critical of Israel, the decision of prominent Dutch companies to cut commercial ties with Israeli settlements because such relationships are understood to be problematic under international law, the decisions by the Association of Asian-American Studies and the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. In effect, a cascade of societal expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian quest for fundamental rights.           

 

           This surge of support for peace with justice has evoked a variety of dysfunctional Israeli responses, including vituperative dismissals and a variety of efforts to change the subject. Nothing is more suggestive of Israel’s loss of composure in this new atmosphere than the decision of its leaders, Netanyahu and Peres, to boycott the funeral of the globally sanctified figure of Nelson Mandela, presumably in retaliation for his frequent statements of support for the Palestinian struggle, and maybe for fear that Israel’s long record of collaboration with apartheid South Africa might finally be scrutinized in a transparent manner if they had showed up. Yet the symbolic impact of this deliberate disaffiliation from such a universal show of reverence for this beloved man has been lodged in the moral consciousness of humanity.

 

            Israel’s more calculated responses to these various developments in the Legitimacy War are revealing. For instance, a Foreign Ministry representative, Yigal Palmor, complains that the ASA endorsement of the boycott of Israel’s academic institutions is part of a campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state of Israel and that it is morally misdirected as it fails to target states with the world’s most horrendous human rights records. The first response is significantly deceptive: the ASA boycott, and indeed all related initiatives, have been directed at Israel’s policies, and do not question the legitimacy of the Israeli state, although elsewhere there are serious questions raised about the insistence by Israeli leaders that others acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Such a demand is oblivious to the human rights of the Palestinian minority that consists of more than 1.6 million persons who have been living in a societal environment that includes numerous discriminatory laws regulating their behavior.

 

            As for the contention that there is no idea of boycotting other states with horrendous human rights records, such an argument incorporates two kinds of misleading contentions—first, it deftly avoids the substantive accusations as to whether Israel’s treatment of Palestinians within the academic environment is as prejudicial as claimed by boycott advocates and whether the closeness of Israeli academicians and institutions to the military and political activities of the state is not sufficient grounds for singling out Israel. Add to this the failure of Israeli apologists to address the central ASA contention that singling out Israel is justified because of the existence of ‘significant’ American links to Israeli policies long violating fundamental Palestinian rights and contributing to violations of international law.

 

            Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, weighed in with a familiar riposte, ‘why Israel?’ Dermer advanced the familiar claim that Israel is the only democracy in the region: why should the ASA “as its first boycott choose to boycott Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, in which academics are free to say what they want, write what they want and research what they want.” (NYT, Dec. 17, 2013) Such an argument is questionable and unconvincing for many reasons, including the increasingly dubious claim of Israel to deserve the mantle of democracy considering its own chosen identity as an ‘ethnocracy’ (to borrow the label recently affixed by the respected Jewish leader, Henry Seigman’s). Also, acknowledging the existence of scholarly freedoms in Israel is besides the point. It does not even attempt to respond to the ASA main contention of prejudicial treatment of Palestinians in its educational system and the degree of collaboration of Israeli academic institutions with the state in relation to unlawful occupation policies and activities and the formulation of military strategy.

 

            Harsh Israeli critique is combined with a dismissive attitude, claiming that the ASA boycott resolution, and indeed the wider BDS campaign, has had and will have no practical impact on Israel’s economic wellbeing and political stability, and that the resolution has no binding effect on even the members of the American Studies Association. What is at stake in such a debate is the meaning of ‘practical.’ Similar arguments were made in the context of the comparable campaign against apartheid South Africa and against those of us who favored boycott and sanctions in response to the barbarous policies of Pinochet’s Chile. In relation to both South Africa and Chile, the argument was also made that such acts of hostility only hurt the most vulnerable people in the targeted society rather than weaken its regime, although in both instances the most credible representatives of the people were unreservedly supporting maximum pressures deriving from external initiative of this character.

 

            I remember being told in the late 1970s in a private meeting of a small group with the then president of the World Bank. Robert McNamara, that loans to the Pinochet regime were justifiable as denying funds to Chile would adversely affect the poor without harming the government. McNamara was claiming to be deeply opposed to the behavior of the Pinochet policies, and upholding the continuity of the World Bank relationship to Chile solely on humanitarian grounds. This interpretation by McNamara did not seem credible at the time. It was directly contrary to what we were being told by several leading diplomats and economists who were prominent in the Allende government, and led us to arrange this private meeting with the objective of persuading the World Bank to suspend financial assistance to Chile given the horrendous behavior of the Pinochet government.

 

            The larger point here is not about the material impacts of such moves of disaffiliation and disapproval. We had no illusions that if the World Bank withheld a loan from Chile it would precipitate the collapse of the Pinochet regime. What we did believe, however, that such a step would strengthen the perception of delegitimacy, possibly influencing American foreign policy and certainly encouraging to the mounting opposition in Chile, but mainly important as a symbolic move. In a similar vein, we can reflect on why it is proper to celebrate the endorsement of this ASA resolution goes back to the essentially Hegelian nature of a Legitimacy War. A symbolic victory is not merely symbolic, although symbols should not be underestimated. The ASA outcome is part of a campaign to construct a new subjectivity surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is the sort of act that lends credibility to claims that a momentum is transforming the climate of opinion surrounding a conflict situation. Such a momentum is capable of breaking down a structure of oppression at any moment. Unlike a hard power encounter between arrayed military forces, the course of a Legitimacy War cannot be assessed in advance, partly because the defeats endured by the established order are intangible, will be denied up until an abrupt change of course. As Thoreau observed long ago, “It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”  Hard power realists who rule over the peoples of the world, imperiling our destiny, tend to be dangerously shortsighted when it comes to seeing the course and effects of Legitimacy Wars.

 

            Such a concealment of elite reassessment in South Africa seems relevant to notice. The transformative reassessment was kept secret until revealed in the startling announcement to the South African public of Nelson Mandela’s totally unexpected release from his Robben Island prison cell. It was a stunning reversal of strategy by the South African leadership. It seems appropriate in this context to recall Gandhi’s familiar comment about the cycle of struggle: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

             Of course, this is not a time for optimism about reaching a just end to the long Palestinian quest for realization of their fundamental rights. It is a time when genuine hope becomes plausible thanks to Palestinian successes in waging a multi-front Legitimacy War. The eventual political outcome remains obscure, and depends heavily on whether and how interests are reassessed in Washington and Tel Aviv. Such a process of reassessment is certain to be shrouded in secrecy until it is crosses a threshold of decision, and only then will it be revealed. This will occasion many expert explanations of why it had to happen! Pundits are far more convincing when operating in a retrospective mode than when attempting to predict or prescribe.