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Why the United Nations Matters (even for the Palestinians)

18 Jan

 

There are many reasons for persons with very different worldviews to feel disillusioned by, if not angry at, the United Nations. These negative feelings arise usually because the UN stands idly by the sidelines while terrible national and human tragedies unfold as the world media visually narrates horrific events in real time. At other times the hostile feelings toward the UN arise because the Organization is seen as a plaything of geopolitics, as bowing to crude leverage wielded by major funding governments, and in the process violating the letter and spirit of the UN Charter. Such behavior undermines the UN’s constitutional foundations and casts doubt on the central claim that the Organization is dedicated to the cause of war prevention.

 

No people have more reason to be disappointed with the UN, international law, and the precepts of international morality than do the people of Palestine. From the moment the UN was established up until the present moment, the Palestinians have been victimized either by the use of the UN to pursue geopolitical goals or by the inability of the UN to implement its own decisions and assessments that are responsive to Palestinian grievances or supportive of Palestinian aspirations.

 

Obviously, there is present a world order puzzle that needs solving. Many believe, especially here in the United States, that it is Israel that is the victim of UN bashing and bias, being singled out at the UN for continuous censure and criticism, and it is the Palestinians that have over the years received aid and comfort in the halls of the UN for their contentions, however inflammatory. For our dualistic Western minds, incapable of reconciling opposites, something must be wrong. It seems impossible for both the Palestinians and Israelis to be both victimized at the UN.

 

Yet this is precisely the case. The Palestinians are victimized because the UN doesn’t mean what is says, at least not on the plane of action. The UN gives the Palestinians the pabulum of words, while refraining from the reality of deeds, which over time gives rise to resentment and cynicism summarized by the sentiment: ‘what good are words, if nothing happens, and the situation on the ground even deteriorates.

 

At the same time, partly in reaction to this sense of impotence when it comes to imposing its views effectively on behavior, the UN slaps, sometimes strongly, the defiant Israelis. And the Israelis, never above playing the anti-Semitic card, keep telling the world that they are singled out for bashing even though their wrongs are far less bad than that of others. Of course, never far in the background is the weight of geopolitics, with the United States wielding a punitive stick on Israel’s behalf.

 

History needs to be taken into account in sifting through the complexities of argument and counter-argument carried on now for decades about the performance of the UN in relation to Palestinians and Israelis. With respect to the geopolitical explanation of Palestinian disillusionment, the UN already in 1946 accepted the responsibility to supersede the United Kingdom, which had been administering Palestine on behalf of the international community since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I., in working out a solution on behalf of the two peoples. Yet instead of consulting the resident population of Palestine on its wishes with respect to the implementation of the right of self-determination, the UN on its own initiative proposed an Orientalizing solution that gave Israel 55% of Palestine despite less than 33% of the population being Jewish. This demographic disparity existed despite several decades of Jewish immigration spurred by energetic Zionist efforts around the world as well as by the British, eager for strategic reasons of their own to carry out the Balfour pledge of 1917. Jewish immigration was also greatly encouraged by the rise of Nazism, which intensified the search for a sanctuary that could protect Jews, especially those fleeing Hitler’s Germany.

 

Then to compound this imposition of a settler colonialist outcome, repugnant from the outset to the majority Arab population, the UN proceeded in 1948 to accept Israel as a member of the UN without first making obligatory provision to ensure an equitable future for the Palestinian people. This flawed UN response to the end of the British mandate has been compounded by years of Israeli expansionism, especially since 1967. Such an internationally tilted outcome reflected intense liberal guilt toward Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust combined with the skill and tactics of the Zionist movement in influencing the Jewish diaspora as well as government policy in Europe and North America. It was an early demonstration of geopolitics triumphing over international law and global justice within the UN. It should not be forgotten that the UN was established in ways that gave leading states a geopolitical comfort zone, more familiarly known as ‘the veto,’ a blunt instrument for opting out of responsibilities, and useful to protect friends and batter enemies.

 

Turning to the impotence of the UN when it comes to its resolutions and decisions that encounter geopolitical resistance, the pattern has been evident all along. After the outcome of the 1967 War, the international community by way of the UN acquiesced with hardly a whimper to the extension of Israeli territorial claims from 55% to 78% of mandate Palestine. Ever since, this enlargement of Israeli territorial expectations has formed the basis for the two-state consensus, and was even accepted by the Palestinians as the realistic territorial baseline for a compromise solution.

 

Beyond this central issue of territorial allocation, the UN General Assembly affirmed the right of return of Palestinians forced to leave their homes in the 1947-48 War in General Assembly Resolution 194, and a second wave dispossessed in the 1967 War. The resolution has been pointedly rejected by Israel without any adverse consequences.

 

In similar fashion, the expansion and annexation of Jerusalem has been strongly condemned, most canonically, by the UN Security Council in Resolution 478 (1980), a unanimous vote except for the U.S. abstention. Finally, despite this, and the periodic Security Council denunciations of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestine territory, Israel has continued year upon year to build and increase the settler population. Against this background, it is to be expected that the Palestinians feel that having their rights affirmed at the UN is a worthless exercise, if not a feeble way to obscure UN impotence, given that the Palestinian ordeal has worsened year after year, decade after decade.

 

And yet despite all this the Jerusalem resolution of last December (passed by a vote of 128-9 with 35 abstentions and 21 absences) repudiating the Trump initiative is significant, partly because symbols are of great, if indirect, importance in international life. Symbolic victories at the UN do on occasion have subtle, yet real, behavioral impacts. The UN for all its weaknesses has long been the primary source for authoritative determinations of the legitimacy and illegitimacy of internationally recognized claims and grievances. This resolution is illustrative, supported by every important country in the world including the closest allies of the United States, with the symbolic and unequivocal rejection of the Trump diplomatic gesture of recognition being clear and consequential.

 

The Jerusalem resolution seems likely to produce a series of consequences: it greatly weakens, if not terminates, the central role that the United States has played as the only recognized third party mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, thereby creating an opportunity for the EU and individual European states to fill the diplomatic vacuum that seems to have formed; besides this, demonstrations around the world opposing the U.S. recognition initiative are translating support throughout the world for the Palestinian global solidarity movement that is likely to be expressed in several ways, especially by way of a more robust Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign. And at least for the moment, the Palestinian Authority, and its leadership, has moved away from adopting a quasi-collaborative stance in its relations with Israel, insisting that Trump’s move caused a damaging rupture. In effect, if diplomacy is to go forward in the future, it will have to proceed under new auspices, possibly Europe, maybe even China or the UN. Such radical expectations, while expressing a welcome refusal to be coopted by the Tel Aviv/Washington charade carried on for so long within the Oslo framework, is totally unrealistic in the near term. Israel would much rather be a pariah state than to submit its fate to Chinese or UN diplomacy, or for that matter, any intermediary that would seem fair to the Palestinians rather than partisan as in the past in favor of Israel. For so long Israel has

been coddled by American leaders that it became a hardened expectation with little wiggle room as Barack Obama found out early in his presidency when he

dared to take baby steps in search of a middle ground.

 

It is worth recalling the anti-apartheid campaign against the South African racist regime that achieved prominence in the decades after 1945. The UN played a crucial role by its authoritative condemnation of apartheid as a crime against humanity and by its indirect encouragement of nonviolent resistance to South Africa racism throughout the world. This anti-apartheid experience is an instructive precedent, raising hope for the eventual success of the Palestinian national struggle, although the South African leadership had been far less creative and effective than the Israelis in insulating their governing process from external pressures.

 

What is analyzed with reference to Palestine and the Jerusalem resolution can be understood as a template for a general appreciation of both what the UN can and cannot do. The UN has this central role to play in either confirming or dismissing symbolic claims associated with the grievances and rights of subjugated peoples in the world. It is for this reason that governments fight so hard to have their policies accepted at the UN, or at least not criticized, censured, or punished, none more so than the government of Israel. Israel’s vicious attacks on the UN should be understood as disclosing the Israeli appreciation that, despite everything, the UN is a crucial site of struggle in the contemporary world order. Its findings of legitimacy and illegitimacy, especially if they resonate with feelings of justice around the world, impact strongly on civil society and often exert a strong influence on international public opinion and media coverage.

 

At the same time even if there is intense support for a symbolic outcome, it will rarely be self-enforcing, and it will be almost impossible to enforce at all absent a rare supportive geopolitical consensus. For instance, with respect to imposing sanctions on North Korea given its provocative nuclear program and accompanying diplomacy, it has been possible for all 15 members of the Security Council to agree sometimes on a common course of action, although as worried by Trump’s blustering belligerence that increases the danger of a universally unwanted and feared war. The geopolitical divergencies that were present at the UN were temporarily overcome by compromises. In this instance, the shared goal of avoiding a war on the Korean Peninsula encouraged governments to find some common ground.

 

The role of the UN in the Middle East has been particularly lamentable, First, the legacies of colonialism have left artificial political communities throughout the region. The Middle East also suffered from the geopolitical ambitions of the U.S., including its Cold War containment policy, strategic priorities accorded Gulf oil reserves and the security of Israel, and since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, its resolve to limit the spread of Islamic influence and political extremism. In effect, when the geopolitical stakes are high and associated with the policy priorities of dominant states, then the UN becomes marginalized, playing only trivial roles as in the long international civil wars that have caused such massive suffering in Syria and Yemen.

 

The conclusion to be reached is to view the UN realistically, affirming its central role with regard to symbols of legitimacy and its relative impotence if geopolitical forces are mobilized against any UN calls for action. Sometimes, arguably, the UN can be too effective, as when geopolitical forces turn a blind eye to issues of sovereignty and justice in a weaker country. This happened when in 2011 the Security Council was hoodwinked into endorsing a NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya undertaken in the name of freedom and democracy, but resulting in chaos, violent strife, and ethnic tensions.

 

The prospects for a stronger UN presence in international life involve tethering geopolitics by taking steps that now seem politically impractical: abolishing the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council, making resolutions of the General Assembly binding if supported by ¾ of UN members, basing UN funding on an independent tax base tied to international civil aviation or transnational financial transactions, and removing the selection of the Secretary General from the filter of P-5 approval. These steps have been long advocated by those seeking a more effective UN, but have been blocked by states that do not want to diminish their international status or their geopolitical leverage.

 

Until the international system experiences a shock or intense stress, it is hard to imagine such steps being taken. In fact, given Trump’s regressive approach to global policy and thinly disguised hostility to the UN, it is more likely that the UN will be even more constrained in the near future as to what it can do to make the world more peaceful, prosperous, sustainable, and just. The diplomatic rebuff of the UN after its irresponsible Jerusalem unilateralism, including the failure of its bullying tactics, has undoubtedly made the Trump presidency realize that the UN will not be a venue in which to push its regressive version of ultra-nationalist militarism.

 

Despite understandable degrees of disillusionment, people of good will dedicated to UN ideals should not give up on the Organization or its potentiality, but work harder to make the UN come closer to fulfilling its original promise, needed now more than ever. Justice for the Palestinian people, however long deferred, remains the defining moral prism by which to assess the shifting balance between achieving global justice and bowing to the whims of geopolitics at the UN and elsewhere.

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Let the Two-State Solution Die a Natural Death

7 Jan

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a modified version of an article published in Middle East Eye on Jan. 1, 2018. It contends that the proper priority for genuine advocates of peace between Israelis and Palestinians should be centered around apartheid rather than be devoted to reviving an Oslo style ‘peace process’ (always a sham) or proclaiming the goal of an independent and sovereign Palestine as attainable without first dismantling the apartheid structures that subjugate the Palestinian people as a whole so as to maintain the Zionist insistence on Israel as the state of the Jewish people (rather than providing a homeland within a normal and legitiamt state based on ethnic and religious equality, human rights, and secular principles.]

 

Let the Two-State Solution Die a Natural Death

 

Despite all appearances to the contrary, those in the West who do not want to join the premature and ill-considered Israeli victory party, are clinging firmly to the Two-State Solution amid calls to renew direct diplomatic negotiations between the parties so as to reach, in the extravagant language of Donald Trump, ‘the ultimate deal.’

 

Israel has increasingly indicated by deeds and words, including those of Netanyahu, an unconditional opposition to the establishment of a genuinely independent and sovereign Palestine. The settlement expansion project is accelerating with pledges made by a range of Israel political figures that no settler would ever be ejected from a settlement even if the unlawful dwelling units inhabited by Jews were not located in a settlement bloc that have been conceded as annexable by Israel in the event that agreement is reached on other issues. What is more Netanyahu, although sometimes talking to the West as if he favors a resumption of peace negotiations seems far more authentic when he demands the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people as a precondition for any resumption of talks with the Palestinians or joins in welcoming American pro-Israeli zealots who insist that the conflict is over, and that Israel deserves to be anointed as victor. To top it all off, the Trump decision of December 6, 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to follow this up by soon relocating the U.S. Embassy, effectively withdraws from future negotiations one of the most sensitive issues—the status and sharing of Jerusalem—despite the language accompanying Trump’s statement on recognition that purports to leave to the future, permanent Jerusalem borders and disposition of the city on a permanent basis that is misleadingly declared to remain open for an agreement between the parties to be achieved at a later date of their choosing.

 

All in all, it seems time to recognize three related conclusions:

         –first, the leadership of Israel has rejected the Two-State Solution as the path to conflict resolution;

         –secondly, Israel has created conditions, almost impossible to reverse, that make totally unrealistic to expect the establishment of an independent Palestinian state;

         –thirdly, Trump even more than prior presidents has weighted American diplomacy heavily and visibly in favor of whatever Israel’s leaders seek as the endgame for this struggle of decades between these two peoples.

 

Despite these obstacles, which seem conclusive, many people of good will who are dedicated to peace and political compromises, cling to the Two State Solution as the most realistic approach to peace. The words of Amos Oz, celebrated Israeli novelist, expressed recently this widely shared sentiment among liberal supporters of a Zionist Israel: “..despite the setbacks, we must continue to work for a two-state solution. It remains the only pragmatic, practical solution to our conflict that has brought so much bloodshed and heartbreak to this land.” It is also significant that Oz made this statement in the course of a yearend funding appeal on behalf of J-Street in 2017, the strongest voice of moderate Zionism in the United States.

 

What Oz says, and is widely believed, is that there is no solution available to Palestine unless there is a sovereign independent Jewish state along 1967 borders as the essential core of any credible diplomatic package. All alternatives would, in other words, not be ‘pragmatic, practical’ according to Oz and many others. Why this is so is rarely articulated, but appears to rest on the proposition that the Zionist movement, from its inception, sought a homeland for the Jewish people that could only be secured and properly proclaimed if under the protection of a Jewish state that was permanently, as a matter of constitutional framework, under Jewish control.

 

For many years the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership has shared this view, and has given its formal blessings in its 1988 PNC/PLO declaration that looked toward the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate state, if the occupation were ended, Israeli forces withdrawn, and Palestinian sovereignty established within the 1967 borders. It is notable that this Palestinian conditional recognition of Israeli statehood accepted a territorial delimitation that was significantly larger than what the UN had proposed by way of partition in GA Resolution 181(that is, Israel would have 78% rather than 55% of the overall territory comprised by the British Mandate, leaving the Palestinian with the remaining 22% for their state). This type of outcome was also endorsed by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and was confidently depicted as the solution during the Obama presidency, and even adapted to meet Israel’s security demands in ways designed to make such a solution appeal to Israel. Even Hamas endorsed the spirit of the two-state approach by proposing over the course of the last decade a long-term ceasefire, up to 50 years, if Israel were to end the occupation of the East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza. If Israel were to agree, the resulting situation would materialize the Two-State Solution in the form of two de facto states: Israel and Palestine. It differs from the two-state approach only to the extent that it refuses to grant Israel de jure legitimacy or to renounce formally Palestinian claims to Palestine as a whole. Among the deficiencies of such territorially oriented approaches to peace is the marginalization of the grievances of up to seven million Palestinians living for generations as refugees or involuntary exiles.

 

There are at least four problems, conveniently swept under the nearest rug by two-state advocates, any one of which is sufficiently serious to raise severe doubts about the viability and desirability of the Two-State Solution: (1) Liberal Zionism expressed an outlook toward a diplomatic settlement that was not shared by the Likud-led rightest Israeli governments that have dominated Israeli politics throughout the 21st century; the Israeli goal involved territorial expansion, especially with respect to an enlarged and annexed Jerusalem, and by way of an extensive network of settlements and transport links in the West Bank, underpinned by the fundamental belief that Israel should not establish permanent borders until the whole of ‘the promised land’ as depicted in the Bible was deemed part of Israel. In effect, despite some coyness about engaging with a diplomatic process, Israel never credibly endorsed a commitment to a Palestinian state within 1967 borders that was based on the equality of the two peoples.

 

(2) Israel created extensive facts on the ground that have definitively contradicted its professes intention to seek a sustainable peace based on the Two-State Solution; these developments associated with the settlements, road network linking settlement blocs to Israel, references with Israel to the West Bank as ‘Judea and Samaria,’ that is, as belonging to biblical or historical Israel.

 

(3) The Two-State Solution as envisioned by its supporters effectively overlooked the plight of the Palestinian minority in Israel, which amounts to 20% of the population, or about 1.5 million persons. To expect such a large non-Jewish minority to accept the ethnic hegemony and discriminatory policies and practices of the Israeli state is unrealistic, as well as being contrary to international human rights standards. In this fundamental sense, an ethnic state that is exclusively associated with a particular people, is by its own proclamations and legal constructions, an ‘illegitimate state’ from the perspective of international law.

 

(4) Beyond this, to sustain Israel in relation to the dispossessed and oppressed Palestinian people has depended on establishing structures of ethnic domination over the Palestinian people as a whole that constitute the crime of apartheid. As in South Africa, there can be no peace with the Palestinians until these apartheid structures used to subjugate the Palestinian people are renounced and dismantled (including those imposed on Palestinian refugees and involuntary exiles); this will not happen until the Israeli leadership and public give up their insistence that Israel is exclusively the state of the Jewish people, with includes an unlimited and exclusive right of return for Jews and other privileges based on Jewish ethnic identity; in effect, the core of the struggle is about people rather than as in two-state thinking, about territory.

 

If we discard the Two-State Solution as unwanted by Israel, normatively unacceptable for the Palestinians, not diplomatically attainable, and inconsistent with modern international law, then what? It should be understood that even if a strong political will unexpectedly emerged that was genuinely dedicated to the balanced implementation of the Two-State Solution it would be highly unlikely to be achieveable. Against this critical background, we are obliged to do our best to answer this haunting question: ‘Is there a solution that is both desirable and attainable, even if not presently visible on the political horizon?’

 

Following the lines prefigured 20 years ago by Edward Said two overriding principles must be served if a sustainable and honorable peace is to be achieved: Israelis must be given a Jewish homeland within a reconfigured, and possibly neutrally renamed Palestine and the two people must allocate constitutional authority in ways that uphold the cardinal principles of collective equality and individual human dignity. Operationalizing such a vision would seem to necessitate the establishment of a secular unified state maybe with two flags and two names, which would have a certain resemblance to a bi-national state. There are many variations, provided there is strong existential respect for the equality of the two peoples in the constitutional and institutional structures of governance. Said also believed that there must be some kind of formal acknowledgement of Israel’s past crimes against the Palestinian people, possibly taking the form of a commission of peace and reconciliation with a mandate to review the entire history of the conflict.

 

If the liberal Zionist approach seems impractical and unacceptable, is not this conception prescribed as a preferred alternative ‘an irrelevant utopia’ that should be put aside because it would be a source of false hopes? If the Palestinians were to propose such a solution in the present political atmosphere, Israel would undoubtedly either ignore or react dismissively, and much of the rest of the international community would scoff, believing that the Palestinian are living in a dreamland of their own devising.

 

This seems like an accurate expectation, despite my insistence that what is being proposed here is a relevant utopia, the only realistic path to a sustainable and just peace. There is no doubt that the present constellation of forces is such that an initial dismissal is to be expected. Although if the Palestinian Authority were to put such a vision forward in the form of a carefully worked out proposal, it would constitute fresh ground for a debate more responsive to the actual circumstances faced by Israelis, as well as Palestinians. It would also be a step toward unity, overcoming the current political fragmentation that has weakened the Palestinians as a political force.

 

The primary political and ethical question is how to create political traction for a secular state shared equally by Israelis and Palestinians. It is my view that this can only happen in this context if the global solidarity movement presently supportive of the Palestinian national struggle mounts sufficient pressure on Israel so that the Israeli leadership recalculates its interests. The South African precedent, while differing in many aspects, is still instructive. Few imagined a peaceful transition from apartheid South Africa to a constitutional democracy based on racial equality to be remotely possible until after it happened.

 

I envisage a comparable potentiality with respect to Israel/Palestine, although undoubtedly there would also be present a series of factors that established the originality of this latter sequence of development. In politics, if political will and requisite capabilities are present and mobilized, the impossible can and does happen, as it did in South Africa and in struggles against the European colonial regimes in the latter half of the 20th century.

 

Further, without such a politics of impossibility there is no path to genuine peace and justice for both Palestinians and Israelis, massive suffering will persist, and the normalcy of an existential peace based on living together on the basis of mutual respect and under a mature, humane, and democratic version of the rule of law, underpinned by checks and balances, and upholding constitutionally anchored fundamental rights. Only then, could we as citizen pilgrims dedicated to the construction of human-centered world order give our blessings to a peace that is legitimate and existentially balanced as between ethical values and political realities.

 

Endings and Beginnings: A Commentary on 2017 to 2018

1 Jan

Endings and Beginnings: A Commentary on 2017 to 2018

 

The bad news from a global perspective is that the world crisis worsened during 2017, largely due to the inept and anachronistic orientation toward reality and human wellbeing exhibited by the Trump presidency. Two things

allowed this regressive narrative to unfold, putting aside the irresponsible failure of Democrats and progressive forces to put forward a mobilizing vision or candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign. First of all, Trump’s presidential narcissism that associated itself in militarism, a nativist nationalism, and a corporatism geared to satisfy only the ultra-wealthy and to activate the hitherto mostly dormant pre-fascist virus. Secondly, a Republican Party that shared the reactionary domestic agenda of Trump, and were unwilling to challenge him even on traditional Republican signature issues such as free trade and zero deficits. In the background was the Bannonesqe base that would have abandoned the Republican Party as soon as there was the perception that mainstream Republicans were abandoning Trump. In other words there is a lethal symbiosis between Trumpism and the fragility of the Republican establishment securely temporarily by crude opportunism.

 

Trump’s influence was an immense distraction from facing challenges that required urgent and creative national and global attention, including climate change, biodiversity, global migration, Middle East turmoil, nuclearism, and scandalous levels of income and wealth inequalities. Even without Trump this agenda of challenges would have required unprecedented ruptures from past patterns of international behavior if adequate responses were to be forthcoming. Above all, how could the world solve these daunting problems without a much stronger set of instruments to promote the global and human interest. If you read the Preamble of the UN Charter it would make you believe that this was what the UN was about, an Organization representing the best interests of humanity as a whole, and not an instrument to be used or not on behalf of its national and geopolitical parts.

 

The Charter of the UN as well as UN practice tells a different kind of story, giving the most dangerous and powerful countries a right of veto, exempting themselves from international law and responsible international behavior, allowing geopolitics to play a role via funding and the appointment of a Secretary General, and leaving up to the discretion of governments as to whether or not they will submit international disputes to the International Court of Justice or alternative peaceful methods. The UN as constituted by the Charter, and exemplified by more than 70 years of practice combines statist priorities dominated by diverse perceptions national interest with geopolitical procedures that give control of global policymaking to the richest and strongest states. In effect, although the UN does make a variety of valuable contributions to a better world, when it comes to the major challenges it has proved itself to weak to promote effectively the global public good. At its best, when governments perceive their interests to overlap with global wellbeing and when geopolitical leadership is relatively benign, the UN can do some good.

 

Returning to consider ‘the Trump effect’ it becomes clear that the United States has not only relinquished its claims to positive global leadership, providing the world with some prospect of filling the vacuum of effectiveness and normativity resulting from UN weakness as an autonomous source of policy, but has indulged in a series of steps that can only be described as ‘negative leadership.’ These include a withdrawal from international engagements premised on the common good and asserting a high risk conception of power and influence that is both harnessed to the war system and disdainful of cooperative arrangements serving the common interests of humanity. Instead of openness and cooperation we are given hard and soft barriers, anti-immigration moves reinforced by the attempted construction of expensive and deceptive walls, a protectionist psychology applicable to persons, trade, environment as well as militancy toward adversaries that threatens dangerous warfare in notable hot spots, at the moment, North Korea and Iran.

 

Are there countervailing factors that might make 2018 less of a disaster than it could be if the trajectory of 2017 is pushed into the future. It may be clutching at straws to suggest that the world seems to have passed through a honeymoon phase with Trump and is on to his dangerous and irresponsible ways. Of course, Israel may be happy enough with this new twist in American foreign policy to name a station on its new light railway station ‘Trump,’ which is as close to a Nobel Peace Prize as this New York real estate dealmaker is likely to get, and Saudi Arabia may delight in enticing Trump to join in a sword dance and then ratchet up confrontation with Iran, but increasingly the rest of the world is on to this latest American trickster.

 

One token of this awakening was evident in the Security Council and General Assembly votes declaring the Trump decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel ‘null and void.’ The General Assembly vote was particularly impressive as a rebuff of bullying tactics fronted by Ambassador Nikki Haley who issued feverish warnings to governments around the world that they would pay a price if they voted for the resolution and against the United States and indirectly warned the UN itself that funding would be cut if the Organization proved unfriendly, that is, opposed to U.S. positions. She had the back of a chuckling Trump who saw the vote as a welcome opportunity to save money for his billionaire buddies, and scoffed at the authority of the UN. Against this background a GA resolution condemning the Trump move by a vote of 128-9 was quite an extraordinary demonstration of declining American leadership capability, first by rebuffing Trump’s wayward initiative and even more by totally disregarding the bullying tactics. The one-sided vote is even more significant than it seems when it is fully realized that every important country in the world, without exception, supported the resolution, and that the small scattering of ‘no’ votes came from insignificant small Pacific island states and a couple of minor vulnerable Central America countries.

 

Of course, this global turn against Trump has its own pitfalls. If the Mueller investigation turns up truly incriminating and impeachable material, Trump seems most likely to respond by behaving as a cornered animal, even a wounded one. Such a stance could produce a variety of provocations internally and internationally that were intended to shift the conversation, to unify the country, and sharpen the conflict to the point of a heightened risk of nuclear war abroad and civil strife at home.

 

Ever since the nuclear age began in 1945 apocalyptic risks have been present, and inadequate efforts have been made to remove them from the domain of miscalculation, malfunction, and malice. During the Cold War, at various times, most memorably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, our sense of these risks rose to alarming levels. With the Trump presidency we should be similarly alarmed, if not more so. And not only alarmed, but resolved to do all in our individual and collective power to induce postures of global prudence, which as a first approximation, translates into a populist movement dedicated to denuclearization along with the strengthening of international law and the UN.

Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

31 Dec

 

Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is the modified text of an interview on behalf of the Tasnim News Agency in Iran as conducted by Mohammed Hassani. It tries to assess the wider implications of the UN reaction to Trump’s December 6th decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to follow this by relocating the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.]

 

Q1: As you know, nearly 130 countries recently voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the US decision to recognize Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the capital of the Israeli regime. What message does the vote signal to the world’ public opinion?

The main message of this overwhelming rejection of the Trump recognition of al-Quds as the capital of Israel by the UN General Assembly is to disclose that the Palestinian national movement continues to enjoy strong support from each and every important country in the world, thereby rejecting the current Israeli approach, supported by the United States, to impose unilaterally a solution of the long struggle over land and rights on the Palestinian people. Such a solution would foreclose both a sovereign Palestine, deny the Palestinian people the most fundamental of all rights, that of self-determination, and preclude any fair and just arrangement of shared sovereignty between the two people.

A secondary message was the consensus in the General Assembly that on this issue of Jerusalem matters of global justice take precedence over geopolitical maneuvers. There can also be read into the vote the growing erosion of global leadership that had been exercised by Washington since the end of World War II. This erosion reflects the rise of China, and its advocacy, along with that of Russia, and maybe also even leading countries in Europe, of a multipolar approach to the formation and implementation of global policy with respect to security issues, environmental policies, and economic governance. The fact that America’s closest allies, including France, United Kingdom, and Japan voted for the resolution condemning the effort of the U.S. Government to legitimize the establishment of Jerusalem (al-Quds) as Israel’s capital is also of considerable significance. What remains to be seen is how the future of Jerusalem will unfold in light of these dramatic developments. There are currently visible two tendencies—first, the handful of negative votes by tiny island countries and a few minor and dependent Central American countries to follow the lead of the U.S. and move their embassy to Jerusalem; secondly, the counter-initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, given concrete expression by the Turkish decision to establish its embassy for Palestine in East Jerusalem.

What remains to be seen is whether the Trump presidency softens its stand on these issues or doubles or even triples down by defiantly moving its embassy to Jerusalem, withholding economic assistance from countries that voted for the resolution, and reducing its financial contributions to the UN in a vindictive display of hostility at the various actors viewed as responsible for humiliating the U.S. Government, thereby pleasing those pro-Israeli forces that insist that the UN is primarily a venue for Israel-bashing.

Q2: Prior to the UN vote on Jerusalem, US President Donald Trump had threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that voted in favor of the resolution. It seems that his warning has been ineffective. What do you think?

Yes, the ineffectiveness of such an unprecedented overt threat at the UN, abetted by back channel pressures, is definitely a sign that U.S. soft power leadership in the world is experiencing a sharp decline if measured against its reality in the years after World War II, and extending throughout the Cold War Era. More generally, the failure of Haley’s threats to influence the vote of a single country of stature in the world is also indicative of a parallel decline of geopolitical capabilities to control global policy at least on the key issue of the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly in the context of Jerusalem, which has a strong symbolic significance for many countries. What is unclear is whether this vote exhibits a broader trend among states to pursue foreign policies that exhibit their sovereign independence and distinct views of global policy, rather than as in the past, displaying a strong tendency to defer to the views of a globally dominant state(s). In this context, the radical character of Trump’s presidency may be having the effect of fracturing hegemonic structures of control in contemporary world order that were in any event faced with accumulating skepticism since the end of the Cold War, and the breakdown of the bipolar structure that had shaped much of global policy between 1945 and 1992. What Trump has done is to intensify pre-existing pressures for global restructuring, a dynamic also reinforced by the rejectionist approach taken by the United States on other key issues of global concern, including climate change, the Iran Nuclear Program (5 + 1) Agreement, global migration, ad international trade. The Trump slogan of ‘America, First’ has to be coupled with ‘World, Last,’ to grasp the extent to which the United States invites by its own initiatives a reaction against its outlier policies at odds with strong countervailing views of the international community of states as to desirable forms of global cooperation for the public good. At the very historical moment when the future of humanity depends on unprecedented action on behalf of human, habitat, and global wellbeing, the leading political actor not only withdraws from the effort, but does its best to obstruct constructive behavior. It is as if the United States Government has become a deadly virus attacking the fabric of the global body politic.

 

 

Q3: In a speech at the White House on December 6, Trump said his administration would also begin a years-long process of moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem. Do you see any chance that Trump would press ahead with his plan to relocate the embassy given the widespread international opposition? 

 

My guess at this point is that the U.S. Government will definitely implement its decision to relocate the embassy, but will probably do so in a gradual manner that does not provoke a major subsequent reaction, especially if implementation is entrusted to the State Department. Of course, any steps taken to relocate the American Embassy in Jerusalem will be correctly perceived as a defiant and provocative rejection of the conclusions set forth in the GA Resolution. In this sense, the quality and impact of reactions will depend on the political will of the Palestinian Authority, the OIC, the UN, and world public opinion. At stake, is whether the United States further produces an adverse international reaction to its behavior and whether governments seek to engage further on the issue to preserve the rights of the Palestinian people with respect to Jerusalem. The future interaction with respect to Jerusalem will be very revealing as to both the responsiveness of the United States to the rejection of its approach to the recognition of the Israeli capital at this time and as to the energy of those that supported the resolution to take further steps in the direction of achieving compliance. There is little doubt that a test of wills is likely to emerge in the months ahead that will reveal whether the Jerusalem resolution was a mere gesture or a tipping point.

 

The fact that the al-Quds resolution was itself based on The Uniting for Peace Resolution (GA Res. 377 A (V), 1950) gives its text a special status, both as the outcome of a rare Emergency Session of the General Assembly and as a truly responsible reaction on behalf of peace and security to an irresponsible use of the veto in the Security Council to block its decision of condemnation backed by a 14-1 vote, that is, all other members. This status gives the General Assembly response on Jerusalem an authoritativeness that should extend far beyond its normal recommendatory capabilities, but as earlier indicated there are few guidelines as to how such an initiative will be implemented if defied.

At stake is the larger issue of whether this path taken to circumvent a P-5 veto in the Security Council might produce a shift in UN authority to the more representative General Assembly.

 

In any event, it may well be that whatever course of action ensues will exert an important influence on how well the UN in the future can serve the human and global interest, as well as take account of distinct and aggregate national interests as opportunities present themselves. The Trump phenomenon gives a pointedness to fundamental issues of world order viability, especially a capacity to address challenges of global scope in the course of the first biopolitical moment, confronting humanity as such with a prospect of its own mortality.

The Jerusalem Votes at the UN

23 Dec

 

 

What struck me as the most significant dimension of the Jerusalem votes in the Security Council and General Assembly has been oddly overlooked by most commentary in the media. The public discourse has, of course, been correct to identify the isolation of the United States with respect to the rest of the world as well as regarding the majority position as a defiant rejection of Trump’s leadership and bullying tactics. Although as some have noted, without the bullying by Ambassador Haley (including, I will report yes votes to the president; those that vote for the resolution will not receive economic assistance in the future; we are watching; “America will remember this day;” “the vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the UN.”), there might been as many as 150 positive votes for the resolution instead of 128, with fewer abstentions (35) and fewer absences from the vote (21).

 

Nevertheless, 128-9 is a clear expression of an overwhelming moral and legal sentiment, and deserves to be respected by any government that values the role of the General Assembly as the arbiter of legitimacy with respect to sensitive global issues. Although far weaker and more subject to geopolitical manipulation than is desirable, these main political organs of the UN provide the best guide that currently exists as to what global policy should be if the global and human interest is to be protected, and not merely an array of national interests and their multilateral aggregation to achieve cooperative results.

 

What this discussion glosses over in this instance without stopping to observe its significance is the degree to which issues of substance prevailed over matters of geopolitical alignment. Not one of America’s closest allies (UK, France, Germany, and Japan) heeded the fervent arguments and pleas of Haley and Trump. Beyond this, every important country in the world backed the General Assembly Resolution on December 21, 2017 regardless of geography or political orientation (China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran). This unanimity enhances the quality of the consensus supportive of the resolution repudiating Trump’s arrogant decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as ‘null and void.’ Such an impression is strengthened by listing the nine governments that voted against the resolution (Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Israel, Miscronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo, and the U.S.).

 

Should these striking results be interpreted as the demise, or at least twilight, of geopolitics? Any such speculation would be wildly premature. What seems to have swayed many governments in this case is the negative fallout expected to follow from Trump’s unilateralism that disregards decades of international practice and agreement about the status and treatment of Jerusalem, as well as the gratuitous neglect of Palestinian rights and aspirations by taking such an initiative without even pretending to take account of Palestinian grievances. In this regard, Trump’s poor international reputation as a result of pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, decertification of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and withdrawal from negotiations to fashion an agreed approach to the global migration crisis undoubtedly help tip the scales on the Jerusalem resolution, especially among European governments. Trump’s unpopular implementation of his diplomacy of ‘America, First’ is arguably morphing into the disturbing perception of ‘America, Last’ or the United States as ‘rogue superpower.’ Consciously or not, the UN vote was a distress signal directed at Washington by friends and adversaries alike, but as near as can be told, it will be disregarded or angrily rebuffed by the White House and its spokespersons unless they decide to pass over these happenings in silence.

 

As has been observed, the Jerusalem decision was not part of a carefully crafted international approach to the Israel/Palestine struggle. It seemed mainly to be a payoff to domestic support groups of Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States (large pro-Israeli donors and Christian Evangelists wedded to a (mis)reading of the Book of Revelations), as well as a further display of post-Obama affection for Bibi Netanyahu. Apparently, for Trump being adored in Tel Aviv seems worth being discredited with allies and leading states throughout the rest of the world. As for the threatened major aid recipients (Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Africa; Kenya was absent during the vote); it was impressive that all of these states ignored the threat and voted for the resolution. If Washington follows through on withholding aid it will certainly not serve America’s strategic interests as previously understood, particularly in the Middle East, but also in Africa. Yet if it fails to carry its threat, its diplomatic posture will be seen as that of a novice poker player whose untimely bluff has been called.

 

There is also the question of ‘what next?’ Will the Jerusalem resolution be remembered as a moment in time to be superseded by contrary behavioral trends? In this regard, the U.S. now has its own chance to exhibit defiance and disrespect by quickly and ostentatiously moving its embassy to Jerusalem, which will of course give rise to further anger. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already seized the occasion to reassert its prominence in the Muslim world, first by co-sponsoring (with Yemen) the resolution, and then by explicitly calling on the U.S. Government to rescind its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I would darkly imagine that the Trump presidency would opt for World War III before it backed down on Jerusalem.

 

As widely reported, the Jerusalem resolution is symbolic in nature, and yet it does have serious political consequences for all relevant political actors. Does it clear a political space for the European Union to play a central role in seeking to revive a diplomatic approach on a more balanced basis than what could have been expected from Washington? How does the U.S. Government negotiate the fine line between disregarding the resolution and harming its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East? How unyielding should the Palestinian Authority be about insisting on a parallel recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine before it agrees to participate in negotiations with Israel? Will Turkey seek further steps at the UN and elsewhere to back up the resolution, including possibly fashioning realignments throughout the Middle East? Will the second tier of officials in the Trump Administration create pressure to create a foreign policy that more closely reflects U.S. national interests by taking better account of the many dimensions (digital, economic, security) of global integration?

Democracy, Development, and Reputation: Vietnam and Turkey

17 Dec

 

 

More than 25 years ago I took part in a major conference in Kuala Lumpur affirming the importance of human rights. At the end of the second day, the convener of the conference, Chandra Muzaffar, a leading advocate of human rights and democracy in Malaysia, arranged for a few of the speakers to meet with the controversial leader of the country, Prime Minister, Mahathir. I was the only Westerner among the 4 or 5 of us given this opportunity. As soon as we entered the room Mahathir looked straight at me while posing a rhetorical question: “Why do Western human rights NGOs and experts look only at our performance with respect to civil and political rights when our natural preoccupation is the promotion of economic and social rights?” Of course, his assertion was meant to challenge the complacent Orientalizing conventional wisdom, reducing the practice of human rights to whether or not a government is doing well or poorly on such issues as free elections and freedom of expression. No one denies the relevance and core vitality of rights, but not more so than whether the bottom strata of the citizenry, as measured by standard of living, can meet their basic material needs. This outlook remains dominant in the West, coloring condescending comments on non-Western human rights failures,, and persisting despite the West’s own downward spiral into the dark domains of illiberalism.

 

I was reminded of this meeting while in Vietnam for two weeks recently. Several Vietnamese intellectuals as well as the rather large Western expat community contended that the government of Vietnam had become repressive in the period since its extraordinarily victory in the Vietnam War. It was accused of harshly punishing critics and dissenters as if more scared of domestic protest than they had been of American B-52 carpet bombing. Such critics were right, of course, to lament this fall from grace on the part of Vietnam’s leaders, who also lacked the charisma and inspirational leadership of their wartime predecessors. At the same time it was unfortunate to fall into the Western trap of focusing on the failures of glasnost, while overlooking the achievements of perestroika, that is, judging political performance as the ACLU might rather than by reference to the overall wellbeing of the Vietnamese people.

 

What I am trying to draw attention to is the remarkable story of Vietnamese economic and social achievements, which center on drastically reducing extreme poverty and stimulating agricultural growth to such a level that Vietnam, previously frequently at the edge of massive famine, had become the third leading rice exporter in the world (after the U.S. and Thailand). In effect, the government of Vietnam, while failing to live up to expectations when it comes to such liberal ideals as transparency, participation, and accountability of their citizenry, was nevertheless successfully building a needs based economy in which there were relatively few below the poverty line and where almost everyone had their health, education, and housing needs met by the state. Not only was this an impressive profile of current Vietnamese society, but it represented a trajectory of steadily improving achievement. Since the 1990s, Vietnamese poverty rate had fallen from about 50% to 7% in 2015 in a period during which roughly 1/3 of the population overcame conditions of food insecurity, according to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

 

These Vietnamese national accomplishments are the normative realities obscured or ignored by the regressive kinds of thinking that validates and invalidates performance in leading capitalist societies of the West—selective quantitative indicators of economic growth and stock market performance. Let us remember that rich countries in the West are at ease living with large pockets of extreme poverty in their own affluent societies as measured by homelessness and extreme poverty, including the absence of health care, educational opportunity, and even food and housing necessities. Shocking figures of inequality are hardly ever taken into serious account. For example, the fact that the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet—possess wealth that exceeds the earnings of the entire American working class should occasion revolutionary incitement, but actually it is put to one side as a neutral outcome of moving beyond industrial capitalism.

 

The same one-sidedness is present in the discussion of another of my favorite countries in the world: Turkey—where I have spent several months each year for the last twenty. Of course, the dynamics are very adifferent within each national setting. The discourse in Turkey resembles that of Vietnam far more than that of the United States. The critical focus of anti-government forces has been the democratic failings of AKP since it assumed power in 2002; this criticism has sharpened since a drift toward more authoritarian rule in 2011, the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, and spiked sharply, especially in international circles, after the failed FETO coup of 2016 and the often crude and often cruelly implemented overreactions of the Erdogan government to threats that it was entitled to perceive as dangerous. The purge in universities and media of those whose views and activities were deemed unacceptable by the Turkish government, as well as the moves against specific journalists and politicians, especially those associated with supporting the struggle of the Kurdish people, are deeply troubling developments, should worry the society as a whole, and do warrant international criticism.

 

But these negative developments should not be presented as the whole story about Turkey and the AKP/Erdogan leadership. Part of the Turkish problem of perception and accuracy is a tendency of debate toward polarizations of good and evil, secular and religious, and even truth and falsity. This has led negative criticism of Turkish governmental behavior to be misleadingly expressed in the form of unbalanced criticism. In the early phase of AKP governance of the country the standard complaints of an unrelenting opposition were directed at Erdogan as dictatorial and leading the country away from Ataturk secular legacy and toward a religious polity similar to that in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, this line of attack was totally wrong. The early policy priority of the AKP consisted of satisfying European Union criteria for membership, which was actually a major step in the Ataturk direction of Europeanizing the country as the best path to economic modernization. During these early AKP years, the government in Ankara made a parallel effort to get the military out of politics and back in their barracks. Fairly considered, the first decade of AKP leadership dating from say 2002 was notable for achieving fundamental democratizing reforms that many knowledgeable observers of the country could never happen in Turkey. For example, Eric Rouleau, the eminent French journalist of Middle Eastern politics and later French ambassador to Turkey believed that the Turkish military would never give up its tutelage role that was not only well entrenched in the government bureaucracy, but also considered part of the hallowed legacy of Ataturk, as to be unchallengeable. Erdogan’s leadership achieved the impossible. Additionally in this period Turkey managed to break free of its Cold War straight jacket as a NATO pawn pursuing an independent and sensibly assertive foreign policy throughout the Middle East and beyond. The country also achieved a series of successes in trade and investment that led Turkey to be considered one of the most promising of emerging economies.

 

As things got worse from the perspective of political and civil rights, it was difficult for critics to express accurately these disappointments and criticism because the earlier negative comments of the opposition had earlier been so exaggerated. Some of the harshest critics, claiming with varying degrees of accuracy that they had applauded ed what the Erdogan leadership achieved in its early years, but in recent years the management of the Turkish state had fallen from grace. Recent exaggerations claim ‘there are no longer any newspapers in Turkey worth reading’ and the like. I would argue that there has been some decline in the range of media coverage and some lessening of criticism, yet several English language newspapers, including Sabah and Daily Hurryiet remain well worth reading, have useful critical commentaries on government policies and are informative about the major issues of domestic and international policy facing the country.

 

If international assessments were more balanced and less polarized, the AKP leadership would receive considerable credit in domestic and foreign policy from better educated and informed observers of the political scene in Turkey. Criticisms of Turkey’s failed Syrian policies would be set off against the success of Ankara’s African diplomacy, the vitality of its economy despite the obstacles created by the anti-Turkish international campaign, the robustness of its foreign assistance program (second only to that of the U.S., and highest in per capita terms), the care it has accorded over 3 million Syrian (and some Iraqi) refugees, the global attention it has brought to the plight of the Rohingya, and its various regional efforts at conflict resolution (including Cyprus; Israel/Syria; Iran’s nuclear program; Balkan and Caucuses internal relations within their respective regions). Turkey, unlike either Saudi Arabia or Iran, has mostly promoted a politics of reconciliation in the region, and unlike Egypt has done a great deal to help raise the standard of living of its most disadvantaged citizenry. The Turkish government has made Istanbul a global city in many respects, a center for inter-civilizational dialogue and alliance, and a sponsor of conferences dedicated to a more peaceful, prosperous, and humane global future. The TRT World Forum a couple of months ago in Istanbul featured presentations at the opening by the Turkish Prime Minister and at the closing by Erdogan, and in between panels on a variety of world order issues with a fairly wide range of speakers (including myself).

 

My most basic criticism of the anti-government discourse in and about Turkey is along the lines of my sense of what is right in Vietnam. For the bottom 50% or so of Turks the policies of the government have enhanced greatly their material life circumstances when it comes to health, security, housing, public transportation, as well as improved participatory rights of those outside the Western urban sectors. Talking with ‘ordinary’ Turkish workers during this period, such as private car drivers, apartment managers, barbers, fruit sellers, suggest that since the AKP has governed, their lives and that of their families has steadily improved, especially with respect to basic material needs, daily life, and enjoyment of what a modern society has to offer. Often ‘secularists’ deride these AKP supporters, and Erdogan enthusiasts, as uneducated and stupid. Their response when asked why they vote Erdogan adopts the opposite line: ‘Are we stupid?’ Many of these persons actually dislike the Islamic edge of the government identity or think the Syrian policies were a huge mistake, but for what is important for them, the AKP is far superior to alternatives. In effect, there’s nothing the matter with Anatolia, unlike Kansas!

 

It is not at all like the Trump base in America where the policies adopt by the elected leaders are in general materially harmful to much of this angry and alienated American underclass, and what they get from Trump are signals encouraging racism, xenophobia, and nativist patriotism, which seem to generate strong feelings of cultural satisfaction, especially when he punctures political balloons, many of which in any event were filled                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        with liberal hot air as suggested by the many glaring human rights failures during the long period of secular hegemony.

 

In the end we would all like to live in humane societies but in the interim it would diminish polarization and enhance understanding to balance strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced manner, especially with respect to class interests. The weakening of free expression, especially by punishing dissent and

treating criticism as subversion, has horrible effects for the intellectual and creative life that affects especially the sense of wellbeing of the upper echelons of society, but also weakens the innovativeness of those working in the private sector. The material neglect of the underclass causes fundamental deprivations in the daily life of the most economically marginalized portions of societies, hitting minorities especially hard. What I am objecting to is the invisibility of the suffering of the very poor (as in America) and the refusals to acknowledge the public achievement of their improved circumstances (as in Turkey or Vietnam).

 

My argument is not meant to be a reworking of the Huntington argument in the 1970s that developmental priorities tend to make authoritarian rule a palatable prelude to democratically oriented modes of governance. I am not suggesting that it makes sense to defer concerns with democratic practices and human rights, but that normative backsliding should not be the occasion for overlooking how well or badly a government behaves in other spheres of activity. In a sense, this is a search for balance and moderation, and a plea against using ideological brickbats to tear down legitimate governing processes, which undoubtedly need reforms, but do not deserve to be blacklisted except in the most extreme cases, and this is not happening. For instance, the human rights record of Turkey and Vietnam is the target of far more insistent criticism and attack than is the far worse records of Saudi Arabia or Sisi’s Egypt. Again, it is not that being worse elsewhere does not excuse being bad, but it does raise questions about motivation and geopolitical motivation. Vietnam is in a more fortunate position that Turkey because it is valued as part of the U.S. effort to contain Chinese influence, while Turkey is increasingly seen as a thorn in the side of such American allies in the region as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In effect, bashing countries for their poor human rights records needs to be geopolitically decoded if it is to be taken seriously.    

 

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

15 Dec

 

[Prefatory Note: The following post is a modified version of an article published on December 8th in Middle East Eye. It considers the normative and geopolitical sides of Trump’s unilateralism. Apologists claiming Trump finally acknowledged the operational reality that Jerusalem has been serving as the capital of Israel for the last 50 years, and the disruptive effects have been exaggerated as Saudi Arabia has not reacted in a strongly negative manner. Critics, including myself, regard the initiative as a gratuitous slap at the Palestinians and a further confirmation of Trump’s disregard of international law, international morality, and the authority of the United Nations. The status of Jerusalem serves as a focal point for the tension between the old geopolitics of hard power realism and the normative geopolitics of soft power new realism that is struggling through a birthing process in many settings. In my view the resolution of this tension will shape the trajectory of 21st century humanity. In other words, the stakes are high.]

 

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

 

With the deftness of a bull in a china shop, Donald Trump has ignored the advice of several close advisors, disregarded the fervent pleas of several of Israel’s closest Arab neighbors, ignored warnings of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East and Europe, and ruptured a key element of an international consensus that had long prevailed at the UN, by going ahead to proclaim formally Washington’s view that Jerusalem is and will be the capital of Israel. Such a declaration serves also to rationalize the prior pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv, the city where every other country in the world insists on maintaining its government to government relationship with Israel, to the city of Jerusalem, sacred to all three of the monotheistic religions.

 

The most obvious question to pose is one of motivations: Why? Strange as it may seem to those living in the Middle East, the most persuasive explanation is that Trump saw this act of recognition as an opportunity to show his most fervent supporters at home that he was being true to his campaign promises. Trump has been frustrated during the first year of his presidency by his embarrassing inability to carry out the program that helped get him elected in 2016. It is true that by taking this further step toward relocating the American embassy Trump’s popularity in Israel spiked and as he has pointed out he is actually doing what his predecessors and Congress has long proposed.

 

In essence, Trump seems to have taken this internationally controversial step because he cares about pleasing the Christian Zionists and the Israeli Lobby in America more than he does about ruffling the feathers of UN diplomats, possibly inflaming the Arab masses, removing the last shred of doubt among Palestinians that the U.S. could ever be trusted to play the role of ‘honest broker,’ or even partisan intermediary, in the pursuit of a two-state solution, and perhaps most of all, connecting American foreign policy in the turbulent Middle East is some durable and coherent way with strategic national interests in regional stability.

 

From this perspective, Trump has once again demonstrated his extraordinary talent for choosing the worst possible alternative in delicate international situations where dire consequences could follow from the wrong policy turn, and the rewards of going it alone seem minimal and transient, at best.

This vivid instance of Jerusalem unilateralism parallels the geopolitical stupidity of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015 a few months ago. There also the Trump approach to foreign policy seemed perversely designed to burnish its already secure reputation as the first rogue superpower of the nuclear age. This global spoiler role is also dangerously evident in the apocalyptic threat diplomacy adopted by Trump in the Korean Peninsula as a response to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program, which include provocative bluster, weapons developments, and grave risks of mutual miscalculation.  

 

Liberal opinion in the U.S. and abroad lamented the Trump initiative on Jerusalem for the wrong reasons. Especially prominent was the assertion in various forms that Trump had damaged, if not destroyed, the ‘peace process,’ and its special role as convening party. Such a concern presupposes that a peace process sufficiently existed to be susceptible to being destroyed. While promising ‘the deal of the century,’ Trump turned over his supposed peace offensive, to pro-Zionist extremists and settler fundamentalists (David M. Friedman, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt) whose obvious goal was not peace, but putting the finishing touches on what they regarded as an Israeli victory that only needed a face-saving exit arrangement for the Palestinian Authority to complete the job. Working in tandem with the Netanyahu leadership, the Trump effort has been so far focused on killing ‘the two-state solution,’ at least in its claim to satisfy reasonable Palestinian expectations of self-determination in the form of a viable and truly independent sovereign state with its capital in East Jerusalem. In its place, one supposes that the Trump ‘dream team’ will come up with a non-viable polity in what remains under Palestinian control in the West Bank, either tied to Gaza or separated in some enduring way, affronting reality by calling the plan a fulfillment of two-state expectations, and dismissing Palestinian objections as ‘rejectionism,’ a stubborn insistence on having it all, and in the end, a take it or leave it version of Hobson’s Choice.

 

As matters now stand, the status quo is also very unfavorable from the point of view of the Palestinian national struggle and the implementation of the international community’s version of a reasonable compromise. This status quo of occupation and dispossession facilitates the continuing conversion of the 1967 ‘occupation’ of Palestinian territory into a permanent reality that unlawfully blends the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the maintenance of control over the Palestinian people by means of apartheid structures of subjugation. If this assessment is correct, then moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem can be seen as supportive of Netanyahu’s apparent conception of the end-game of this hundred year struggle between the national aspirations of these two embattled peoples. In this regard, the bluntness of the Trump approach exposes to the world an ugly reality that should have been obvious all along to anyone looking at Israeli behavior with a critical eye, or grasping the policy fallout from the ‘America First’ mantra.

What gives this regressive turn its plausibility, posing yet another challenge to the Palestinian movement, is the blind eye that the new look in Riyadh has turned toward even the Judaization of Jerusalem, which would seem to confirm the Saudi priority of geopolitical collaboration with the United States and Israel, even at the expense of fundamental Islamic concerns and the maintenance of solidarity in the Muslim world. In this sense, it is well to take some note of the declaration of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), endorsed by all 57 of its member states (including Saudi Arabia), that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, denying Israel any right to a formal governing process in the city.

 

While this substantive analysis helps us grasp the geopolitical context that makes recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a kick in the groin of Palestinian delusions about a viable peace diplomacy while at the same time leading most Israelis to dance in the streets. It also underscores the hypocrisy of the international community’s call for reviving the peace process when it should long have been evident that Israeli settlement expansion as well as Tel Aviv’s approach to Jerusalem had passed the point of no return, and thus the occasion for abandoning an unworkable diplomacy, and facing with honesty the daunting question—‘What next?.’ Israel’s recent behavior makes it clear for all except hasbarists that the Israeli government has no current willingness whatsoever to end the conflict if this means creating an independent Palestinian state delimited by 1967 borders, thereby encompassing West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. For Israel the alternatives are perpetuating the apartheid status quo or allowing for the emergence of ‘Bantustan Palestine’ as the diplomatic price that the Netanyahu leadership is willing to pay for a certification of ‘peaceful solution.’

 

From the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to this historic moment acknowledging Israel’s claims to Jerusalem, Zionism and since 1948, the state of Israel, have disseminated a double-coded message to the world. In its public utterances, Israel’s public posture is one of a readiness for compromise and peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, while its practices and actual objectives, can only be understood as the step by step consistent pursuit of the visionary ideal of Greater Israel or Our Promised Land. The present Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, in the course of thanking Trump for standing so strongly with Israel, told an American TV audience that Jerusalem has been truly the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. No where has Israel’s double-coding been more evident than in relation to Jerusalem. It uses the grandiose claims of Jewish religion tradition when it can and the somewhat more constraining diplomacy of statecraft when it offers opportunities, and does its best to avoid altogether the precepts of international humanitarian law or the UN consensus.

 

On the public discourse side stands Israel’s public acceptance of the partition arrangements embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, which included the internationalization of Jerusalem under UN administration. More critically viewed from a behavioral discourse perspective, Israel’s actual conduct flagrantly consistently defied international law by formally enlarging and annexing Jerusalem as ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people and manipulating the demographics and cultural heritage of the city in ways that made it seem more credible to regard the whole of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.

 

It is difficult for even notorious Israeli apologists, such as Elliot Abrams or former American ambassadors to Israel to defend the actual Trump decision. Such apologists prefer to adopt a default position. Yes, the timing of the White House initiative was tactically questionable, but its international condemnation greatly exaggerates its importance and inappropriateness. They view criticisms and concerns as overblown, amounting to a display of ‘heavy breathing.’ In effect these apologists agree with Trump’s core contention that the acceptance of Israel’s claim to have its capital in Jerusalem, is an overdue recognition of reality, nothing more, nothing less, and that the rest of the world will have to learn to live with this recognition. Time will tell whether this downplaying of fears of renewed violence of resistance and anti-Americanism are anything other than a feeble attempt by apologists to reaffirm Israel’s legitimacy in the face of what should turn out to be a geopolitical fiasco.

 

What should dismay the region and the world the most about Trump’s Jerusalem policy is its peculiar mixture of ignoring law, morality, and the international consensus while so blatantly harming America’s more constructively conceived national interests and tradition of global leadership. This mixture becomes toxic with respect to Jerusalem because by humiliating the Palestinian national movement and ignoring the symbolic status of Jerusalem for Muslims and the Arab peoples, it makes violent extremism more likely while lending support to existing postures of anti-Americanism. How incoherent and self-defeating to proclaim the defeat of ISIS and political extremism as the top American priority and then making this Jerusalem move that is virtually certain to produce populist rage and an extremist backlash. No ISIS recruiter could have wished for more!