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Was the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 Wrongly Awarded?

15 Oct

[Prefatory Note: The Nobel Prize for 2016 was given to the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, in recognition of his efforts to end internal civil strife that had continued in the country for over half a century. An agreement was achieved with the main rebel group, but depended for final adoption on approval by the citizens of Colombia through a referendum. This was unexpectedly defeated, leaving the future of the country in doubt. The NYT initiated a discussion of the merits of this award to Santos through its mechanism of ‘Room for Debate’ in which several individuals are invited to submit comments. My comment critical of the award is printed below, and is followed by an even more critical comment by Fredrik S. Heffermehl, a Norwegian jurist who has taken a special interest in the Nobel Peace Prize, especially making a great effort to call attention to the failure of the Norwegian committee that is responsible for deciding on recipients to adhere to the will and intentions of Alfred Nobel who established this most coveted of international awards at the end of the nineteenth century. The two other comments published in this debate on the opionion pages of the NY Times were contributed by Jeffrey Goldberg of the New School of Social Research in New York City and Michael Kazin of Georgetown University.]




NY Times–The Opinion Pages

  • OCTOBER 11, 2016

What the Nobel Peace Prize Prizes


President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.

John Vizcaino/Reuters


Five days after his nation voted down his effort to end a 52-year conflict with leftist rebels, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace treaty. President Barack Obama won the prize only nine months into his presidency.

Should the Nobel Prize be awarded for concrete achievements, or is it important to recognize those who aspire to peace? What is lost or gained when awards are given for aspirations?





The New York Times

Should the Nobel Prize only be given for actual achievements, or is it important to recognize those who aspire to peace?






The Nobel Peace Prize Committee Has Stretched the Understanding of the Prize

Richard Falk is Milbank Professor of International Law, Emeritus, at Princeton University, and author of “Power Shift: on the New Global Order.”



The Nobel Committee insisted that this year’s peace prize was given to President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia because he tried so hard to achieve peace, even though he failed, and to encourage efforts to revive the process. It remains to be seen whether those efforts will succeed. Thorbjorn Jagland, former chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the peace prize, observed that “since there is so little actual peace in the world, we have to award those who are trying.”

Without moral clarity with respect to the recipient, only the greatest achievement can overcome the taint of a compromised past.

But should the award be a way of encouraging efforts to achieve peace or to honor the achievement of peace? I think that both kinds of contributions to a peaceful world are consistent with the wishes of Alfred Nobel, although I think the selection committee stretched the understanding of peace beyond what Nobel had in mind by honoring human rights and environmental activists (for example, Shirin Ebadi in 2003, Lech Walesa in 1983 and Al Gore in 2007) whose activities however admirable are not easily linked to peace as understood by Nobel.

It’s even worse when the award is bestowed either prematurely, as with President Barack Obama in 2009, or against the background of a career that seemed disposed to war-making and complicity in human rights abuses, as in the case with the 1973 award to Henry Kissinger. There are occasions when an award can be given for a lifetime of struggle for peace as was the case when Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences received the award in 1995 for “their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.” Such encouragement seems entirely appropriate.

Obama’s Prague speech, given prior to his Nobel Prize, inspired many by depicting his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. In retrospect, the Nobel Committee was indulging in wishful thinking. Obama, although internationally moderate in many respects, escalated the American military involvement in Afghanistan just weeks after receiving the award, and worse, never really used the eight years of his presidency to push forward the Prague vision.

Finally, the Santos award is questionable for several reasons. For one thing, Santos served as Defense Minister under Alvaro Uribe, who earlier pushed a vicious paramilitary campaign led by Santos against the guerillas. For another, unlike prior Nobel awards for peacemaking efforts (U.S./Vietnam, Israel/Egypt, Israel/P.L.O.), the counterpart in negotiations, the rebel leader Ronrigo Londono, was not a co-recipient or even mentioned in the citation.

What emerges from this commentary is the importance of moral clarity with respect to the recipient, without which only the greatest actual achievement can overcome the taint of a compromised past.





Nobel’s Will Determines What the Peace Prize Should Recognize


Fredrik S. Heffermehl, a retired Norwegian lawyer, is the author of “The Nobel Peace Prize, What Nobel Really Wanted,” and director of Nobel Peace Prize Watch.

October 13, 2016


Since writing a book with a legal analysis of Aflred Nobel’s intention I have been reminding the world that the will Nobel wrote in 1895 is decisive in all questions about the prizes, even though its criticism has been frequently ignored. If the testament covers an issue, one may debate the wisdom of Nobel, but he is dead and the will is final. If it doesn’t cover an issue, the floor is open.


He said all five prizes should go to those who have conferred the greatest benefit on humanity.” Above all the will is important on the core question of who can win. Surprisingly many seem to think that to answer such questions they just need to go to the will and make sense of what the words mean to them. But legal interpretation is about what the testator intended and requires extensive study of evidence and circumstance. What counts in law is what the words must have meant to Nobel irrespective of the words he used, said the Swedish jurist Torgny Haystad.


So, does Nobel’s will require that the prize only recognize achievements? A mere linguistic analysis of the words is not conclusive. More helpful is to note that all his five prizes should go to those who have conferred the greatest benefit on humanity, and also consider the zeitgeist of boundless optimism and hopes of changing the plight of mankind through major inventions. As he signed the will he also took steps to buy a Swedish liberal paper, writing that he wished to end armaments and other remnants from Medieval times, this is also evidence of what went on in his head in 1895.


The will´s most helpful word to identify Nobel´s intention is that prizes were to benefit the champions of peace and the evidence, mainly letters, show that by this expression he meant the movement for ending armaments through co-operation and nations relying on courts of law instead of strength in the battlefield. These ideas for a specific new, peaceful world order were inspired by Nobel’s friend, the prominent peace advocate Baroness Bertha von Suttner.

As long as the Nobel committee is loyal to his vision of peace, I would allow it considerable leeway. But without even considering the question of achievement or aspiration, neither President Obama nor President Santos should be considered the champions of peace who Nobel had in mind. Nobel envisioned global disarmament, not mere resolution of national conflicts, as Santos tries to accomplish. And since receiving his prize, Obama has hardly pursued such a path.






The Nobel Prize Recognizes That Aspiring to Peace Makes Peace More Likely

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Michael E. Gellert Professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at the New School for Social Research, editor in chief of Public Seminar and author of “Reinventing Political Culture: the Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life.”

UPDATED OCTOBER 11, 2016, 1:43 PM


Given President Barack Obama’s stewardship of American foreign policy after winning his Nobel Peace prize, it would seem that the award this year to President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia may have been a mistake. In both cases, the award was as much about aspiration as achievement, and sometimes aspiration is just not enough.

But then again, sometimes it is, and sometimes the recognition of the aspiration has a way to turn it into achievement.

Obama recognized the ideals of Gandhi and King, and knew he wouldn’t be able to adhere to their ideals absolutely.


Obama was awarded the prize for his “efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Yet, he escalated the war in Afghanistan, and the war there and in Iraq continue. The U.S. drone program has been expanding during Obama’s watch. And under Obama’s leadership, the U.S. has continued to be engaged in further military actions in North Africa and the Middle East.

On the other hand, Obama has helped de-militarize American foreign policy, winding down two wars. He has publicly and clearly affirmed U.S. commitments to respect the Geneva Agreements and ended the American use of torture. And under Obama’s leadership, American military engagements have been multilateral and debated in and supported by the United Nations.


The prize is awarded in the tough zone that exists between ideal and reality.


Obama’s Nobel lecture was about this. He confronted the paradox of awarding the Peace Prize to the commander in chief of the world’s premiere superpower. He recognized the ideals of Gandhi and King, as he knew he wouldn’t be able to adhere to their ideals absolutely. But he has confronted the hard realities of a complex world mindful of the ideals, distinguishing himself on the world stage.

And this indeed is what President Santos has done. He has resolutely worked to “bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end,” trying to convince all parties to the conflict that a just peace has been achieved, one that properly balances the ideals of peace, with the pursuit of justice and accountability. While because of the complex political situation in Colombia, he has not achieved his goal to date, in his aspirations, he has kept the ideal alive, which the Nobel Committee rightly recognized and honored.

And this may be politically significant: the very recognition of the aspiration makes more likely the achievement of peace.



The Nobel Can Reward Thankless Efforts for a Crucial Goal

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown, editor of Dissent magazine and author of “War against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918,” to be published in January.

UPDATED OCTOBER 11, 2016, 3:21 AM


It is hardly novel to award the peace prize for a goal that has not yet been accomplished. President Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 for championing a League of Nations the United States did not join. A French and a German diplomat shared the prize in 1927 for “contributions to Franco-German reconciliation” – at the time, more a hope than an achievement. The lovely aspiration became a bad joke when Hitler’s armies rolled into Paris thirteen years later. The Norwegian committee had better foresight when it gave the prize to Lech Walesa in 1983 and Desmond Tutu a year later. Within a decade, both their causes had triumphed.

The prize sends a message about how societies should work, instead of how they actually do. It rewards service in the quest of a peaceful world.


Such prizes always send a message of how societies should work instead of how they actually do. And shouldn’t there be at least one universally celebrated form of recognition that rewards diligent service in the quest of a truly peaceful world?


If so, two of the most worthy recipients were American feminists – Jane Addams and Emily Green Balch. Addams won the award in 1931 for decades of pacifist organizing. As one of the leaders of the movement to stop World War I, she got condemned as a traitor and a coward. In the wake of that horrific conflict, however, she seemed more like a prophet. The Nobel committee saluted Addams for holding “fast to the ideal of peace even during the difficult hours when other considerations and interests obscured it from her compatriots and drove them into the conflict.” Balch received the honor in 1946. With Addams, she had created the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – an organization whose members devoted themselves to exposing the cruel U.S. occupation of Haiti as well as campaigning for international disarmament.


Pacifism has never been a sizeable movement, in any land or in the world at large. In his great 1910 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” William James pointed out that men from every nation were willing, even eager, to fight—and most women supported them—because war seduced as well as horrified. It was, he wrote, a mark of “the strong life…of life in extremis.” In contrast, peace advocates appeared weak, soft, and ineffectual. But this is all the more reason to signal, with the world’s most prestigious medal, that stopping both current and future wars is one of the greatest and most urgent tasks of all.










Why Okinawa Should Matter

12 Oct


[An earlier version of this post appeared in the Japanese publication, Ryukyu Shimpo. The article is devoted to a critical discussion of Okinawa’s role in serving American and Japanese strategic interests. Since the end of World War II Okinawa has been a mostly unhappy host of American military bases, and the issue has been prominent at times on the agenda of the Japanese peace movement. The interplay of overseas bases and U.S. foreign policy is a crucial and often hidden dimension of the global projection of American power, which gives rise to friction with and opposition from the peoples living in the vicinity of the bases. This has certainly been the case in relation to Okinawa. The essay below offers some reflections on this underlying reality, as well as the linkage between this network of foreign military bases and the emergence of the first global state in history, a new political phenomenon that should not be confused with ‘empires’ of the past.]


Remembering Okinawa


When President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima in May of 2016 there was an effort to persuade him to put Okinawa on his travel itinerary, but as has happened frequently throughout the long tortured history of Okinawa, the request was ignored, and the people of the island were once more disappointed. In an important sense, Okinawa is the most shameful legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II, exceeding even the sites of the atomic attacks by its daily reminders of a continued colonialist encroachment on Okinawan national dignity and wellbeing.


Actually, Okinawa is being victimized by overlapping exploitations with that of the United States reinforced and legitimized by mainland Japan. For the United States Okinawa serves as a hub for its strategic military operations throughout the Pacific, with at least 14 separate military bases occupying about 20% of the island, with Kadena Air Base having been used for B-29 bombing missions during the Korean War more than a half century ago, the island being used as a major staging area throughout the Vietnam War and as a secret site for the deployment of as many as 1,000 nuclear warheads in defiance of Japanese declared no-nukes policy. Actually, in recent years Okinawa rarely receives global news coverage except when there occurs a sex crime by American servicemen that provokes local outrage, peaceful mass demonstrations followed by the strained apologies of local American military commanders.


Japan’s role in the misfortunes of Okinawa is more than one of a passive acceptance of the enduring side effects of its defeat and humiliation in World War II. After a series of military incursions, Japan finally conquered Okinawa and the Ryukyu island chain of which it is a part in 1879, and then imposed its rule in ways that suppressed the culture, traditions, and even the language of the native populations of the islands. What is virtually unknown in the West is that Okinawa was the scene of the culminating catastrophic land battle between the United States and Japan in the Spring of 1945 that resulted in the death of an astounding one-third of the island’s civilian population of then 300,000, and its subsequent harsh military administration by the United States for the next 27 years until the island was finally turned back to Japan in 1972. Despite an estimated 60-80% of Okinawans being opposed to the U.S. bases, confirmed by the recent election of an anti-bases governor of prefecture, the government in Tokyo, currently headed by a dangerous militarist, Shinzo Abe, is comfortable with the status quo, which allows most of the unpopular continuing American military presence to be centered outside of mainland Japan, and hence no longer a serious political irritant within the country.


What the plight of Okinawans exemplifies is the tragic ordeal of a small island society, which because of its small population and size, entrapment within Japan, and geopolitical significance, failed to be included in the decolonizing agenda that was pursued around the world with such success in the last half of the 20th century. This tragic fate that has befallen Okinawa and its people results from being a ‘colony’ in a post-colonial era. Its smallness of current population (1.4 million) combined with its enclosure within Japanese sovereign statehood and its role in pursuing the Asian strategic interests of the United States, as well as joint military operations with Japan make it captive of a militarized world order that refuses to acknowledge the supposedly inalienable right of self-determination, an entitlement of all peoples according to common Article 1 of both human rights covenants. In this respect Okinawa, from a global perspective, is a forgotten remnant of the colonial past, which means it is subjugated and irrelevant from the perspective of a state-centric world order. In this respect, it bears a kinship with such other forgotten peoples as those living in Kashmir, Chechnya, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Palau, Marianas Islands, among many others.


There are other ways of being forgotten. I have for many years been concerned about the Palestinian ordeal, another geopolitical and historical casualty of Euro-American priorities and the colonialist legacy. Here, too, the indigenous population of Palestine has endured decades of suffering, denials of basic rights, and a dynamic of victimization initiated a century ago when the British Foreign Office issued the Balfour Declaration pledging support to the world Zionist movement for the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in historic Palestine, later placed under the tutorial role of the United Kingdom with the formal blessings of the League of Nations until the end of World War II. Instead of Japan playing the intermediate role as in Okinawa, it is Israel that pursues its own interests and teams with the United States and Europe as a strategic partner to carry forward its shared geopolitical goals throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Of course, there are crucial differences. Japan is constrained as a partner by its postwar peace constitution, which Abe is keen to circumvent and dilute, while Israel has become a military powerhouse in the region, enjoying a special relationship with the United States that includes the incredible assurance by Washington of a military capability capable of defeating any foreseeable combination of Arab adversaries. Also, unlike Okinawa, there are no American military bases in Israel. There is no need for them. Israel acts as an American surrogate, and sometimes even vice versa. Yet the result is the same—force projection unconnected with self-defense, but vital for upholding regional strategic interests that involves maintaining a visible military presence and offering allies in the region credible promises of protection.


When we raise questions about the future of Okinawa, we come face to face with the role and responsibility of global civil society. The Palestinian goals appear to remain more ambitious than those of the Okinawans, although such an impression could be misleading. The Palestinian movement is centered upon realizing the right of self-determination, which means at the very least an end to occupation and a diplomacy that achieves a comprehensive, sustainable, and just peace. For Okinawans, long integrated into the Japanese state, earlier dreams of independence seem to have faded, and the focus of political energy is currently devoted to the anti-bases campaign. Taking moral globalization seriously means conceiving of citizenship as borderless with respect to space and time, an overall identity I have described elsewhere under the label ‘citizen pilgrim,’ someone on a life journey to build a better future by addressing the injustices of the present wherever encountered.


In this respect, acting as citizen pilgrims means giving attention to injustices that the world as a whole treats as invisible except when an awkward incident of lethal abuse occurs. Okinawa has been effectively swept under the dual rugs of statism (Okinawa is part of the sovereign state of Japan) and geopolitics (Okinawa offers the United States indispensable military bases), and even the mainly Japanese peace movement may have grown fatigued and distracted, being currently preoccupied with its opposition to the revival of Japanese militarism under Abe’s leadership. Whether attention to the plight of Okinawa will give rise to false hopes is a concern, but the aspiration is to produce an empowering recognition throughout the world that for some peoples the struggle against colonialism remains a present reality rather than a heroic memory that can be annually celebrated as an independence day holiday. Until we in the United States stand in active solidarity with such victims of colonialist governance we will never know whether more can be done to improve prospects of their emancipation. This awareness and allegiance is the very least that we can do if we are to act in the spirit of a citizen pilgrimage.

The Geopolitics of Shimon Peres’ Legacy

6 Oct



The recent death of Shimon Peres is notable in several respects that are additional to his salient, contradictory, and ambiguous legacy, which may help explain why there has been such an effort to clarify how best to remember the man. Basically, the question posed is whether to celebrate Peres’ death as that of a man dedicated to peace and reconciliation or to portray him as a wily opportunist, a skillful image-maker, and in the end, a harsh Zionist and ambitious Israeli leader. My contention is that the way Peres is being perceived and presented at the time of his death serves as a litmus test of how those on opposite sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide experienced Peres and beyond this, how various prominent personalities for their own purposes position themselves by either championing the well orchestrated ‘Peres myth’ or seeking to depict the ‘Peres reality.’ This rich obscurity of perceptual interpretation is part of what led the death of Shimon Peres to be taken so much more seriously than that of Ariel Sharon or Moshe Dayan, who were both much more instrumental figures in the history of the Zionist project and the evolution of the state of Israel. As Shakespeare taught us, especially in Julius Caesar, it is the quality of opaqueness that creates heightened dramatic tension in reaction to an historically significant death.


These divergent assessments of the life of Shimon Peres can be roughly divided into three categories, although there are overlaps and variations within each. What can we learn from these divergences? (1) the rich, famous, and politically powerful in the West who have been bewitched by Peres’s formidable charms; (2) the rich, famous, and politically influential who know better the moral and complexity of Peres, but put on blinders while walking the path of politically correctness, which overlooks, or at least minimizes, his blemishes; (3) the marginalized, often embittered, whose self-appointed mission it is to be witnesses to what is deemed the truth behind the myth, and especially those on the Palestinian side of the fence.



Peres is unique among those recently active in Israel as his long life spans the entire Zionist experience, but more than longevity is the credibility associated with the claim that Peres should be set apart from other Israeli politicians as someone genuinely dedicated to establishing peaceful relations with the Palestinians via the realization of the two-state solution, and achieving more generally, good relations with the wider Arab world. Peres’ own presentation of self along these lines, especially in his latter years during which he served as President of Israel, provided international personalities with an excellent opportunity to exhibit the quality of attachment not only to the man, but to Israel as a country and Zionism as a movement. Allowing Peres’ idealist persona to epitomize the true nature of Israel created the political space needed to affirm contemporary Israel without being forced to admit that Israel as a political player was behaving in a manner that defied law and morality.


As already suggested, those praising Peres without any reservations fall into two of the categories set forth above. There are those like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who seem to believe that Peres is truly a heroic embodiment of everything they hoped Israel would become, and to some extent is; in effect, the embodiment of the better angels of the Israeli experience. As well, displaying unreserved admiration and affection for Peres present Western leaders with a subtle opportunity to express indirectly their displeasure with Netanyahu and their concerns about the recent drift of Israeli diplomacy in the direction of a de facto foreclosure of Palestinian aspirations and rights.


Of course, such politicians are also eager to be seen at the same time as unconditionally pro-Israeli. Obama made this abundantly clear in his fawning and demeaning farewell meeting with Netanyahu at the UN, which Israel reciprocated by a provocative approval of a controversial settlement expansion, basically one more slap in Obama’s face.


Clinton, as well, seems understandably eager to make sure that no daylight appears between his solidarity with Israel and that of his presidential candidate spouse who has topped all American politicians, which says a lot, by tightening her embrace of everything Netanyahu’s Israel currently hopes for in Washington, including even an explicit commitment to join the fight against BDS. By so doing, Hilary Clinton has committed her presidency to favor what appear to be unconstitutional encroachments on freedom of expression that should be an occasion to vent public outrage, but has so far survived the gaze of the gatekeepers without eliciting the slightest critical comments from her opponents and even the media.


In the second category of fulsome praise for the departed Peres a variety of private motives is evident. There are those self-important braggarts like Tom Friedman, who clearly knows all about the complexity of the Peres story, but pretends to be gazing wide eyed at the brilliant blue of a cloudless sky as he describes his supposedly idyllic friendship with Peres over a period of 35 years. Friedman is definitely informed and intelligent enough not to be taken in by the Peres myth, and despite his signature demeanor of fearless candor, his views tend to be in total alignment with the liberal pro-Jewish mainstream, whether the topic is assessing Peres’s life or for that matter, assessing America’s global role or the current race for the presidency. He is as anti-Trump and as he is pro-Peres, exhibiting his mentoring stature as the guru of centrist political correctness, which is slightly disguised to the unwary by his brash tone that purports to be telling it like it is even when it isn’t.


And then in this same category, strange bedfellows to be sure, are quasi-collaborationist Palestinian leaders, most notably, Mahmoud Abbas who showed up in Jerusalem at the Peres funeral, described in the media as a rare visit to Israel, and seized the opportunity of Peres’ death to demonstrate that the Palestinian leadership is not hostile to Israeli leaders who the world recognizes as committed to peace based on the two-state solution. Abbas was presumably seeking, as well, to enhance his image as a reasonable, moderate, and trustworthy partner in the search for peace, which of course understandably infuriated not only Hamas but all those Palestinians who know better, given the daily ordeal that Palestinians are enduring as a result of policies that Peres never opposed, and in some instances, as with settlements and occupation, helped to establish. The portrayal of Peres by the respected Israeli historian, Tom Segev can hardly be news to Abbas who has endured first hand the long Palestinian ordeal: “Mr. Peres would certainly liked to enter history as a peacemaker, but that’s not how he should be remembered: indeed his greatest contributions were to Israel’s military might and victories.”


Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who has had important positions with the PLO for many years, and has long worked for a real peace in a spirit of dedication, but without succumbing to the deceptions surrounding the Oslo diplomacy. Ashrawi has managed to keep her eyes open to the reality of Palestinian suffering, making her inevitably more critical of Peres and suspicious of those who would whitewash is life story. She writes of Peres after his death, as follows: “Palestinians’ faith in Mr. Peres had been tested before. Not forgotten by Palestinians and others in the region is the role that he played arming the Israeli forces that expelled some 750,000 Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948; the regional nuclear arms race he incited by initiating Israel’s secret atomic weapons program in the 1950s and ’60s; his responsibility for establishing some of the first Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the ’70s; his public discourse as a minister in Likud-led coalitions, justifying Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and extremist ideology; and his final role in Israeli politics as president, serving as a fig leaf for the radically pro-settler government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” [NY Times (international edition, Oct 3, 2016)]




Above all, this overly elaborate observance of Peres’ death serves as an informal litmus test useful for determining degrees of devotion to Israel and its policies without bothering to weigh in the balance the country’s obligations under international law or the cruel reality being imposed on the Palestinian people year after year. Those who praise Peres unreservedly are deemed trustworthy within the Beltway, scoring high marks from AIPAC, and those who point to his shortcomings or to policies that went awry are viewed as unredeemably hostile to Israel. They are correctly assumed to be critics of the Special Relationship and of the over the top flows of U.S. military assistance (at least $3.8 billion over the next ten years), or worse, identified as sympathizers with the Palestinian struggle. This description fits such respected and influential critics of the Peres myth as Robert Fisk (British journalist), Uri Avnery (Israeli peace activist, former Knesset member), Gideon Levy (Israeli journalist), and Ilan Pappé (noted Israeli revisionist historian living in Britain).




In my view only those who see the dark sides of Shimon Peres are to be trusted, although it is excusable to be an innocent devotee in the manner of Obama. In this regard the knowledgeable liberal enthusiast is the least acceptable of the three categories because of the willful deception involved in painting a picture of Peres that is known to feed a misleading myth that is itself part of the Israeli hasbara manipulating international public awareness of the Palestinian ordeal, and thus encouraging a false public belief that the leadership in Israel, even the Netanyahu crowd, is sincere in their off again on again advocacy of a two-state solution or of the establishment of a truly independent Palestinian state. Remember that even Netanyahu joined the chorus at the funeral by treating Peres with a moral deference that should be reserved for the gods.


There is another aspect of what was signified by the ardent eulogies delivered by Western leaders at the Peres funeral that was dramatically underlined by the renowned Israeli columnist, Gideon Levy, yet entirely overlooked in the extensive commentary: “Anti-Semitism died on Friday — or at least, its use as an excuse by Israel. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5777, the world proved that while anti-Semitism remains in certain limited circles, it can no longer frame most of the world’s governments. Also, hatred of Israel is not what it is said to be, or what Israel says it is.” Levy’s observation is timely and relevant. It goes beyond an expression of the view that Peres was partly lauded because he was ‘not Netanyahu.’ Far deeper is Levy’s understanding that the Peres funeral gave the West an opportunity to express their affection and admiration for a prominent Jew being celebrated because he fashioned for himself and others the image of a ‘man of peace.’ Independent of whether or not this is a true appreciation, it allows a distinction to be sharply drawn between rejecting Jews as a people and criticizing Israel and its leaders for their practices and policies. In effect, if Israel were to embody the supposed worldview of Peres, and bring peace, then Israel would be welcomed into the community of states without any resistance arising from the Jewish identity of its majority population.


We in the United States are particularly grateful to Gideon Levy for making this point so clearly. We are faced with the opposite syndrome. Namely, criticisms of Israel’s policies and practices with respect to the Palestinian people are being deliberately treated as ‘hate speech’ and worse, as a new virulent form of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Such attacks have been recently mounted with hurtful fury against pro-Palestinian activists and supporters of the BDS Campaign.


May Shimon Peres rest in peace, and may the Palestinian people through their representatives intensify their struggle to achieve a real peace with Israel based on law, justice, and mutual empathy.




The Enigma that was Shimon Peres

29 Sep

Responses to Interview Questions on Shimon Peres

(from Rodrigo Craveiro of Correio Braziliense, Brasilia)


[Prefatory Note: the text that follows is derived from an interview yesterday with an important Brazilian newspaper. I have retained the questions posed by the journalist, but expanded and reframed my responses. The death of Shimon Peres is the last surviving member of Israel’s founding figures, and in many ways a fascinating political personality, generating wildly contradictory appraisals. My own experience of the man was direct, although rather superficial, but it did give me greater confidence to trust my reservations about his impact and influence, which collides with the adulation that he has inspired among American liberals, in particular.]


  • 1) What is the main legacy of president Shimon Peres, in your point of view?

Shimon Peres leaves behind a legacy of a long public life of commitment to making Israel a success story, economically, politically, diplomatically, and even psychologically. He is being celebrated around the world for his intelligence, perseverance, and in recent decades for his public advocacy of a realistic peace with the Palestinians. I believe he lived an impressive and significant life, but one that was also flawed in many ways. He does not deserve, in my opinion, the unconditional admiration he is receiving, especially from the high and mighty in Europe and North America. Underneath his idealistic rhetoric was a tough-minded and mainstream commitment to Zionist goals coupled with an expectation that the Palestinians, if sensible, would submit graciously to this reality, and if not, deservedly suffer the consequences of abuse and harm. He was never, contrary to his image, a supporter of an idealistic peace based on recognizing the equality of the Palestinian people, acknowledging the wrongs of the nakba and the Palestinian ordeal that followed, and in creating a sustainable peace that included realizing Palestinian rights as defined by international law.

* 2) Do you believe Peres was ever close to obtaining a definitive peace deal with Palestinians? What did it get wrong?

In my view, Peres never even wanted to reach a sustainable peace agreement with the Palestinians, but he fooled many people, including the committee in Oslo that selects the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unyielding in his refusal to grant Palestinians dispossessed in 1948 any right of return. He early favored, in fact helped initiate, and never really confronted the settlement movement as it encroached upon the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He consistently pretended to be more peace-oriented than he was except when it served his purposes to seem war-like. I share the assessment made by Marc H. Ellis, the highly respected and influential dissident Jewish thinker, that aside from the exaggerated praise he is receiving, Peres will be more accurately remembered, especially by Palestinians, as an enabler of “a narrative of Jewish innocence and redemption that was always much more sinister from the beginning.” When Peres’ political ambitions made it opportune for him to be militarist, he had little difficulty putting ‘peace’ to one side and embarking on hawkish policies of destructive fury such as the infamous attack on Qana (Lebanon) in April 1996, apparently with the design of improving his electoral prospects, which in any event turned out badly. What seems generally accurate is the view that Peres believed the Israel would evolve in a more secure and tranquil manner if it achieved some kind of peace with Palestine, thereby the conflict to a negotiated end. Yet the peace that Peres favored was always filtered through a distorting Zionist optic, which meant that it was neither fair nor balanced, and was unlikely to last even if some such arrangement were to be swallowed in despair at some point by Palestinian leaders. To date, despite many attempted entrapments, the Palestinians have avoided political surrender beneath such banners of ‘false peace’ that have adorned the diplomatic stage from time to time. The Oslo diplomacy came close to achieving a diplomatic seduction, yet its ‘peace process’ while helpful for Israel’s expansionist designs never was able to deliver, as it promised, an end to the conflict in a form that met Israel’s unspoken priorities for territorial gains, a legitimated Jewish state, and a permanently subordinated Palestinian existence.



  • 3) Have you ever had chance of talking directly with him? If yes, what could you tell us on his personality?

I had small dinners with Peres on two separate occasions, and attended a couple of larger events where he was the guest of honor. Both of these dinners took place in New York City more than twenty years ago. I was impressed by Peres’ intelligence and social skills, but also by his arrogant and insensitive Israeli nationalism and his unanticipated interest at the time in promoting a strategic alignment with US global and regional policies in the Middle East, which he expressed in think tank militarist terms when he regarded himself as among friends. I remember, in particular, his advocacy, then way ahead of unfolding events, of the feasibility of achieving close strategic partnerships among Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. His premise, which has proved correct, was that these three political actors shared common interests in regional security and the political established order that would take precedence over supposedly antagonistic ideological goals and ethical values. Peres believed that these countries were natural allies bound by mutual interests, an outlook that exhibited his geopolitically driven political mentality. Peres also seemed always to make it clear in private settings that he was not seen as naïve, and frequently made the point that the Middle East was not Scandinavia. I heard him speak in 1993 one time at Princeton shortly after the famed handshake on the White House lawn between Rabin and Arafat. On that occasion he made it clear that the ‘Palestinians’ were ‘Arabs,’ and accordingly it would be appropriate for the 22 Arab countries to absorb the Palestinian refugees rather than expect this burden to fall on Israel’s shoulders. Beyond this, he indicated his hopes for normalization in the Middle East that would benefit both Israel and the Arab countries, which he visualized by a metaphor I found racist at the time: Israel would supply the brains, while the Arab would supply the brawn, and the combination would be a productive regional body politic.



* 4) Do you think Shimon Peres was one of the most dedicated Israeli leaders to achieving a two state solution? Why?


I am not sure about the true nature of Peres’ commitment to a two state solution, although I felt his public offerings were often manipulative toward the Palestinians and were put forward in a disarming manner as if responsive to reasonable Palestinian expectations. Underneath the visionary rhetoric, Peres acted as if Israel’s diplomatic muscle gave it the opportunity to offer the Palestinians a constrained state that would end the conflict while leaving Israel with indirect and no longer contested control of a disproportionate share of historic Palestine. As is typical for political realists, Peres exaggerated the capacity of military might to prevail over political resolve. He has been so far wrong about attaining Israel’s goal of a controlled peace ever being achievable, underestimating Palestinian nationalism and its insistence that peace be based on the equality of the two peoples. Part of why Peres was so appreciated internationally is that his language and vision tended to be outwardly humanistic, and thus contrasted with the far blunter approaches associated with many recent politicians in Israel, and most notably with Bibi Netanyahu. Only by such a comparison can Peres be genuinely considered as ‘a man of peace.’ But this image, however much polished, does not capture the essence of this complicated, contradictory, and talented political personality. As suggested earlier, Peres is probably best understood as a geopolitical realist who believed in maximizing Israeli military power, and not only for defensive purposes, but to give the country the capacity to impose its will on the outcome of the conflict, and to exert unchallenged influence over the entire region. It should not be forgotten that Peres initially became prominent decades ago as a leading overseas procurer of weapons for Israel and later as the political entrepreneur of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which included persuading France to give assistance that violated its commitments as a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty. As well, on occasion, for the sake of his political ambitions when in or aspiring to high office, Peres supported and was responsible for very aggressive military retaliatory strikes against Palestinian communities that caused heavy casualties among innocent civilians.

Peres was always very useful for the West: an ally and someone who presented a hopeful, moderate, and peace-oriented outer look that was presented as exhibiting the soul of Israel, a moral energy trying forever to free the country from the birth pains of its violent emergence. The Economist unintentionally illustrated Peres’ witty cynicism that also came across in personal encounters: “There are two things that cannot be made without closing your eyes, love and peace. If you try to make them with open eyes, you won’t get anywhere.” The august magazine offered this to show off Peres’ wisdom, but I take it as summarizing his deeply suspect view of real peace, or for that matter, of real love.


It is not surprising, yet still symbolically disappointing, that President Barack Obama unreservingly exalts Shimon Peres, and is making the symbolic pilgrimage to Israel to take part in the funeral service honoring his life. If Peres’actual political impact is taken into account, his words of excessive tribute to Peres should haunt Obama if he were exposed to the other side of Peres, the so-called ‘father of the settlement movement,’ ‘the butcher of Qana,’ ‘the man behind Israeli nuclear weapons’: “A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever. Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves – to the very end of our time on Earth and to the legacy that we leave to others.”



As with Obama’s recent disturbingly positive public statement of farewell to Netanyahu at the UN, the departing president seems overly eager to create a final, formal impression of unconditional solidarity with Israel, an attitude reinforced in these instances by showing only the most nominal concern for the ongoing Palestinian ordeal. One can only wonder what became of the outlook contained in Obama’s much heralded 2009 speech in Cairo that viewed Israel/Palestine in a more balanced way and promised to turn a new page in relations between the United States and the Middle East. It does not require a historian to remind ourselves that Israel wasted little time in mobilizing its lobbying forces to pour scorn on such a revisioning of policy inducing Obama to back down in an awkward and politically costly manner. Perhaps, this ‘reset’ can be justified as a practical move by Obama in the interest of governing, but why now when the tides of political pressure have relented and after so much experience of Netanyahu, does Obama want to be regarded more than ever as Israel’s staunch friend rather than as someone who was so often obstructed by the Israeli leadership?


Such a posture is distressing, in part, because it overlooks the outrageous and undisguised effort by Netanyahu to favor Romney for president in the 2012 American elections and his later belligerent circumvention of White House protocol by speaking directly to the U.S. Congress to register intense opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. If Obama behaves in this craven way, what might we expect from a Clinton presidency? Clinton has already committed her likely forthcoming administration to the absurd goal of raising even higher the level of friendship and solidarity between the two countries higher than it was during the Obama years. She has provided tangible evidence that this pledge is genuine by making gratuitous and unacceptable avowals of intense opposition to the BDS Campaign, and hence of subordinating the constitutional rights of American citizens to the whims of pro-Israeli extremists.

Testing for the Mental Disabilities of U.S. Presidential Candidates

21 Sep


 I would have hoped that any sensible American citizen would by now have been sufficiently scared by Donald Trump’s morbid flights of fancy, high school playground style bullying, outlandish threats and bluffs, unrealistic and unsavory promises to crush enemies and enrich workers, to put aside all their concerns about alternative candidates and refuse any temptation to cast a masochistic vote for Trump.


Yet such confidence seems sadly unjustified in this election and points up the vulnerability of the institutional arrangements governing qualifications to be an American president. Far more important than the constitutional requirement of an American birthplace, or even than physical health, is the mental condition of a candidate. Clearly, we cannot trust voters to pass this judgment, even if they were so inclined, as the Trump saga confirms. With Trump’s over the top narcissism and wild bipolar swings of sentiment, it seems painfully obvious that he is mentally unfit for the presidency, and this is frightening considering the embedded capacities of any occupant of the Oval Office to initiate war and use nuclear weapons, as well as inflict less spectacular harms as might result from unraveling the world economy, scrapping the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and irresponsibly ending old alliances and entering into new ones.


It must be acknowledged that Hilary Clinton is also multiply deficient as a presidential candidate, but not nearly in ways so scary and in forms far less likely to involve blind dives from the high board of flights of fancy into waterless pools. I dearly wish she was closer to Sanders in outlook, commitment, and character, but she can at least be counted on to do some decent and constructive things to enhance the quality of governance and life at home. She will surely push hard to implement the climate change agreement and probably will abide the Iran agreement despite Israel’s continuing efforts to undermine all that was achieved. Above all, she is not Trump!


It is not that Clinton deserves our vote, especially taking into account her hawkish regime-changing approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, but maybe, just maybe, she learned a thing or two from her support of the Iraq and Libyan disasters, and even if she hasn’t, she still earns my vote by the lamentable logic of ‘the lesser of evils.’ At the same time, I would not criticize those who weighed the pros and cons differently than I do, voting for a third party nominee that seemed the best available candidate regardless of their prospects of winning in November. There is much to be said in favor of voting for someone who is a good enough candidate that a vote of support would be something other than one more iteration of the lesser of evils. It is one of the few ways that an ordinary citizen has to register a vote of no confidence in a system that can do no better than provide citizens over and over again with nothing more congenial than a choice among evils. Unlike football, winning isn’t everything in politics, although most of our politicians approach their challenge with a zero-sum mentality. It is damaging to democracies when the cynical among us call the tune with their belief that casting a principled, yet losing, vote is a wasted vote, or worse, almost a crime against reason! Remember the liberal fury directed at Ralph Nader and his 90,000 or so supporters in Florida that allowed George W. Bush, with a major assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, to win the 2000 election.


In the end, Americans, whether or not they realize it, have a responsibility to the world that citizens of other countries possess to a far lesser degree. If Trump were to become the next American president it would imperil the world, and likely cause grave dislocations in many international settings that could cause massive suffering along with possibly disastrous unintended consequences. Even our most ‘rational’ recent presidents have caused havoc in foreign societies. Our militarized government rests on three principal pillars of influence: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. These constraining forces can push even the most decent and intelligent of presidents in militarist directions as Barack Obama found out.


The United States as a liberal democratic global state, projecting its power throughout the whole of the planet, should ideally extend its electoral franchise globally. As things stand, and will indefinitely remain so, the United States and its people insist on the absolute prerogatives of territorial sovereignty while denying comparable autonomy to many other nominally sovereign states. Given this uncontested reality, there is as much likelihood of Americans agreeing to extend the vote in its national elections to foreign societies throughout the world as there is of the ISIS leadership waking up one morning to announce adherence hereafter to the pacifist precepts of Gandhiism.


What is a distant second best option, yet far better than nothing, is for as many Americans as possible to be at least aware of their custodial role for the peoples of the world. With such awareness would come the duty to vote responsibly with respect to the wellbeing of others, including taking into consideration impacts on a sustainable human future. Again, predicting that a substantial number of American voters might be willing to behave like world citizens is a bet no oddsmaker in Vegas would be foolish enough to take.


Obviously, mere awareness is not nearly enough to secure the wellbeing of either the country or the world. The realities of technology and complex interdependence are such that the current world order has no capacity to absorb and localize serious mistakes of judgment made by the United States Government. The most minimal elements of political sanity at this stage of history mandates the adoption of a constitutional requirement that candidates for the presidency be certified as to their mental health, and not only by a psychiatrist of their choice. A professional politically neutral mechanism should be established to select a panel of qualified psychiatrists that would then be entrusted with certifying the mental health of aspiring candidates for the presidency and vice presidency.


At present, there is some relevance accorded to physical health with much attention accorded to the disclosure of medical records and indications of physical ailments that might interfere with the discharge of the formidable burdens associated with being president. When Hilary Clinton was found to be suffering from a mild case of pneumonia earlier this month a media frenzy ensued that examined the issue of her health from every conceivable angle. Such a preoccupation highlights by comparison the neglect of the far more serious, and possibly more difficult to detect, presence of serious mental disabilities of a kind that could produce the worst sorts of governmental decisions and policies. The mental disorders of an aspiring presidential candidate are far more threatening to the security of the country and the world than are physical ailments, which although also potentially dangerous to the person, are far less likely to cause catastrophic damage or twist decisions in sinister directions.


Admittedly, certifying mental health is an awkward process that needs to be handled with great sensitivity, and even then could misfire, or be wrongly interpreted by the public. At the same time, this forthcoming election amply demonstrates that business as usual, with eyes and ears closed to issues of mental disability is no longer an acceptable approach to the selection of American leaders in the 21st century. Too much is at stake.


Despite this, there persists a strong taboo surrounding mental health. Raising questions about the mental condition of a candidate for public office is still widely perceived as hitting below the belt. And what is worse, some mental disorders perversely give rise to enthusiastic support among the citizenry. In this regard what makes Trump seem a high risk candidate because of his mental health is what may yet get him elected! This is a thought to ponder. The memory of Hitler and Mussolini reminds us that pathological mental imbalances can be a source of public charisma and political popularity. The Trump candidacy is certainly not the first time that a demagogue’s manifest mental disorders are a principal explanation of his passionate populist support, but it could be the last time!



A Warming of US/Turkish Relations?

19 Sep


[Prefatory Note: a prior version of this post was published by Al Jazeera Turka; there are continuing concerns in Washington and Ankara about whether and to what degree United States-Turkey relations can be restored; it depends on the behavior of the two governments, and likely will be influenced by the outcome of the American presidential elections.]



It may seem a bit strange that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barack Obama had to travel all the way to Hangzhou, China to take a welcome step toward restoring good relations between the two countries. But this is the way with 21st century diplomacy. Leaders meet in groups all over the planet, and were in Hangzhou between September 4 and 6 for the annual G-20 gathering devoted to global economic policy, and some seized the opportunity to conduct bilateral diplomacy. In this vein the most notable achievements of the 2016 G-20 meeting is probably best associated with so-called ‘sideline meetings’ that are not part of the group agenda. What is likely to be longest remembered such occurrence after the political leaders go home is not what was agreed upon about global inequality or stimulating growth but rather the dramatic joint ratification of the Paris Climate Change Agreement by China and the United States, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses.


Another feature of modern diplomacy is the importance of tone, nuance, and atmospherics. What Erdoğan and Obama achieved was mainly in this realm of intangible signs of mutual appreciation and understanding. It was undoubtedly pleasing for Erdoğan to hear the American president refer to the events of July 15th as “terrible coup attempt.” And further, when Obama expressed his admiration for the way the Turkish people took to the streets to defend democracy and support the elected government. Such sentiments convey a spirit of solidarity that was noticeably missing throughout the earlier diplomatic discourse. It contrasts, for instance, with what John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, said on July 15th, the night of the failed coup, which seemed indifferent to the fate of Turkey’s democratic government even when violent challenge by the failed putsch. In his statement Kerry called for “stability and peace and continuity within Turkey,” which was correctly heard by the Turkish people and their leaders as, at best, a statement of neutrality as to which side was favored by Washington, and seemed to express the view that as long as there was stability in Turkey and continuity with respect to the West, the United States ‘had no dog in the fight.’


When Obama personalized his message by saying “this is the first opportunity that I have had to meet face to face with President Erdoğan” since July 15, and then added, “We’re glad you’re here, safe, and that we are able to continue to work together” it contributed a tone of personal warmth to the reaffirmation of the critical strategic relationship between the two countries. When it came to the issues that have recently caused tensions between Turkey and the United States nothing very concrete transpired, at least in public. Obama talked about unity in fighting against ISIS, while Erdoğan stressed the importance of opposing all terrorist groups. Underneath these vague assertions was the apparently persisting disagreement about how to deal with Kurdish anti-ISIS and anti-Assad political actors, especially the Syrian militia, YPG (Popular Protection Unit) that the US treats as an ally and Turkey views as a Syrian extension of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), and as such, regards as a terrorist organization. From what was made public no steps were made by either side to change their approach, but the atmosphere of collaboration at Hangzhou suggests that the two leaders at least listened to each other’s concerns, and were careful to avoid any confrontation.


Without doubt the complexity of the Syrian conflict is such that none of the participants have pursued a consistent course of action that avoids contradictions, and this is certainly true of the United States and Turkey. I would expect a tacit understanding of the differing priorities of the two governments to emerge, allowing tensions over Syrian policy to diminish, if not disappear. Turkey and the United States agree on ISIS and support for anti-Assad forces, but also on urgently seeking a prolonged ceasefire as a prelude to some kind of political compromise that ends the conflict. It seems likely that the U.S. will quietly defer to Turkey’s insistence on avoiding a Kurdish de facto state bordering Turkey in northern Syria. This will not be the first time that the United States has opportunistically relied on Kurdish armed militias during a conflict only to withdraw their support at a later stage when greater strategic interests, as here, present themselves. In this regard, American relations with the YPG are likely to deteriorate as those with Ankara improve, especially on joint policy in Syria.


The same reliance on atmospherics rather than tangible results was evident in dealing with the equally delicate issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Obama affirmed the importance of bringing the coup perpetrators to justice and offered full cooperation on the mechanics of the extradition process. For his part, Erdoğan spoke of gathering evidence to establish convincingly the link between the allegations and the event. In Turkey there is virtually no dissent from that part of the official version of the coup attempt that charges Fethullah Gülen with being the mastermind, which underlies a strong consensus that he should be extradited to face criminal charges in a Turkish court. In Europe and the United States where Gülenist influence remains surprisingly strong, skepticism remains as to who should be blamed for the coup, and there is a tendency to doubt the Turkish insistence that it was the work of the Gülen movement, and its mysterious leader who claims spiritual power and supposedly runs the organization with an iron hand. The Hangzhou meeting sidestepped this underlying awkwardness probably to avoid spoiling the efforts of both leaders to reaffirm the relationship and even to imply adherence to common goals in Syria.


Shortly before the meeting in China, Obama made a constructive statement in a CNN interview: “What we want to do is indicate to them [Turkey] the degree to which we support the Turkish people, but like any good friend we want to give them honest feedback if we think the steps they’re taking were going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership.” What is notable here is Obama’s careful phrasing that avoids condemning the Turkish government for its post-coup attempt efforts to find elements throughout the government and society that were directly or indirectly complicit in the events of July 15. Again this kind of statement contrasts with the many shrill and decontextualized international condemnations of Turkish security measures without any appreciation of the subversive nature of the persisting threat faced by the government. Obama’s statement reaches for higher ground in the ways that Washington conveys concerns about human rights and democracy to Ankara, and although still somewhat patronizing (making it hard to imagine Turkey giving friendly advice to Washinton), it seems fully consistent with the geopolitically conditioned friendship between the two governments. Of course, if Turkey has similarly lectured the United States after the 9/11 attacks about torture or the detention of Muslims it would have been met with anger, but this merely reminds us that international relations is not conducted between equals.


In the end, we are left asking whether the spirit of Hangzhou restores the constructive side of the US/Turkish relationship in a lasting manner, seemingly so vital for the future of the region, or whether this is a flash in the pan soon to be forgotten. The fact that Obama’s term is about to end is of concern in this respect, but there is some confidence that Obama’s approach represents a US Government consensus that will endure. What will clarify this prospect, above all, will be the approach taken by the winner of the American presidential elections this November. Also important, the manner that the two governments handle their substantive differences (on Syria, extradition, and likely Russia and Iran), and whether Erdoğan is able to sustain the inclusive approach (unfortunately excluding Kurdish participation) that he has so far mainly taken in Turkish domestic politics after July 15.


Undoubtedly, although these issues are all quite explosive, the one that poses the most danger to the future of relations between Turkey and the United States, involves how the extradition request will be handled with respect Fethullah Gülen in the months ahead. A Turkish journalist, Ogüz Kaan Salıcı captured the prevailing mood in Turkey by calling attention to a comment by a member of the Turkish Parliament—“there are only two things 90% of Turks agree upon: That there is a god and that FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) was behind the coup.” If as seems quite likely, the extradition request will be denied in the United States for respectable legal reasons, the Turkish leadership and the public are bound to view the legalistic explanations as political evasions. If this interaction occurs, it will take a diplomatic miracle to avoid a collapse in the long cooperative relationship between the two countries. Their shared interests and long history of close collaboration will be put to one side, at least temporarily. Some wounds are just too deep.


Interview on Israel, Palestine, and Peace

14 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The interview below, conducted by C.J. Polychroniou and Lily Sage (bios at the end of the interview) was published in TruthOut on Sept. 10, 2016. It is republished here with a few stylistic modifications, but substantively unchanged. It is relevant, I suppose,to report that subsequent to the interview the U.S. Government and Israel have signed a military assistance agreement promising Israel $38 billion over the next ten years, the largest such commitment ever made. Such an excessive underwriting of Israel’s policies and practices should be shocking to taxpaying Americans but it passes almost noticed below the radar. It is being explained as a step taken to ensure that Obama’s legacy is not diminished by claims that he acted detrimentally toward Israel, but it is, pathetically, one of the few instances of genuine bipartisanship in recent U.S. foreign policy. Again, we should grieve over the extent to which ‘reality’ and morality is sacrificed for the sake of the ‘special relationship’ while looking the other way whenever the Palestinian ordeal is mentioned.

The initial question pertaining to Turkey is explained by my presence in that turbulent country when the interview was conducted.]



“A Continuous War Mentality”: Richard Falk on Israel’s Human Rights Abuses

Polychroniou & Sage: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians mirrors the abominable system of apartheid in South Africa, but many members of the “international community” who fueled the gradual delegitimization and eventual collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime are failing to apply similar pressure against Israel. In fact, many nations are even strengthening their ties with the Israeli government.


Even Greece has established close ties to Israel under the opportunistic Syriza government, while Sultan Erdogan in Turkey has also begun a process of kissing up to Israel after a few years of pursuing an “antagonistic” relation with the US’s closest ally under the pretext of expressing solidarity towards the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, the increased militarization of Israeli society continues to intensify the oppression and subjugation of Palestinians.


The Israeli government has recently suggested that a “normalization” process is underway with the Palestinians, but in reality Israel’s construction of illegal settlements continues unabated, and the right-wing politicians inside Israel who portray Palestinians as an “inferior race” are gaining ground. This is exactly what “normalization” has always meant in Israeli political jargon: continuing to commit abominable human rights violations against Palestinians while the world looks away. Indeed, apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel.



After years of intense antagonism, the Erdoğan regime has begun making overtures once again to Israel. Why now?

 The normalization agreement with Israel needs to be appreciated as part of a broader foreign policy reset that started well before the failed coup attempt of July 15th. The basic Turkish motivation appears to be an effort to ease bilateral tensions throughout the region, and as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has expressed it, “make as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.” It is the second coming of what had earlier gained political traction for Turkey throughout the region in the first 10 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) leadership with the slogan “zero problems with neighbors.”


The main reset by far is with Russia, which had become an adversary of Turkey in the context of the Syrian War, but Israel is a close second. [Israel’s relationship with Turkey] had been in freefall after Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel at the World Economic Forum in 2009, directly insulting the then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was present.


Then in 2010 came the Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, and directly challenging the Israeli blockade together with a group of smaller boats filled with peace activists in an initiative known as the Freedom Flotilla. The Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara resulted in nine Turkish deaths among the peace activists on the ship and pushed the Israeli-Turkish relationship close to the brink of war. For the past year or so both sides have shown an interest in de-escalating tensions and restoring diplomatic normalcy. And Turkey, now more than ever, would like to avoid having adversary relations with Israel, which is being given precedence over Turkey’s support of the Palestinian national struggle.


Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu said recently that he cares more about the Palestinians than their own leaders. Do you wish to offer a comment on this statement?


Netanyahu has a gift for exaggerated, bombastic, and misleading, often outrageous political language. This is a clear instance. There are plenty of reasons to question the adequacy of the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people in advancing their national struggle. But to leap from such an unremarkable acknowledgement to the absurd claim that Netanyahu cares more about the Palestinian future than do Palestinians themselves represents a grotesque and arrogant leap into the political unknown. It is Netanyahu who led the country to launch massive attacks against Gaza first in 2012, and then again in 2014. It is Netanyahu who has pushed settler expansion and the Judaizing of East Jerusalem. For Netanyahu to speak in such a vein is to show his monumental insensitivity to the daily ordeal endured by every Palestinian and to the agonies associated with living for so long under occupation, in refugee camps, and in exile.


What do you make of the “anti-normalization” campaign initiated by some Palestinian factions and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?


I think the BDS campaign makes sense under present conditions. These conditions include the recognition that the Oslo “peace diplomacy” is a dead-end that for more than two decades gave Israel cover to expand settlements and the settler population. They also include the realization that geopolitical leverage of the United States at the UN blocks all efforts to exert meaningful political pressure on Israel to reach the sort of compromise on issues of land, refugees, borders, water, settlements and Jerusalem that is indispensable if sustainable peace arrangements are to be agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians.


Against this background, it is important to recognize that civil society is presently “the only game in town,” and that BDS is the way this game is being played at present with the benefit of Palestinian civil society guidance and enthusiasm. Whether this campaign can exert enough pressure on Israel and the United States to change the political climate sufficiently to induce recalculations of national interest — only the future can tell. Until it happens, if it does, it will be deprecated by Israel and its Zionist supporters. While being dismissed as futile and destructive of genuine peace initiatives its participants will be attacked. A major effort is underway in the United States and Europe to discredit BDS, and adopt punitive measures to discourage participation.


Israel’s pushback by way of an insistence that BDS is seeking to destroy Israel and represents a new virulent form of anti-Semitism suggests that BDS now poses a greater threat to Israel’s concept of an established order than armed struggle or Palestinian resistance activities. Major Zionist efforts in the United States and elsewhere are branding BDS activists as anti-Semites.


It seems clear that nearly the entirety of the population of Israel and Palestine are in a constant trauma-reification cycle that began when Israel largely became inhabited by traumatized Jewish refugees, post-WWII. Do you think it is possible to overcome this, and would it be possible to find a peaceful resolution if this didn’t occur?


This is an insightful way of conceiving of the toxic interactions that have taken place over the years being harmful, in my view, to both people. However, unless the assertion is seriously qualified, it suffers from a tendency to create impressions of symmetry and balance, when the reality of relations from the outset, especially since the Nakba [the mass displacement of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948], has been one of oppressor and oppressed, invader and invaded, occupier and occupied. It is undoubtedly true that Israeli ideas about the use of force and security were reflections of their collective trauma and Holocaust memories, and Zionist ideology.


This Israeli narrative is further reinforced by biblical and ancient historical claims, but it is also the case that the Palestinians were invaded in their habitual place of residence, and then occupied, exploited, dispossessed and turned into refugees in their own country, while Israelis came to prosper, and to establish a regional military powerhouse that has enjoyed the geopolitical reinforcement of an unprecedented special relationship with United States. The early politics surrounding the establishment of Israel were also strongly influenced by the sense of guilt that existed in Western liberal democracies after World War II. Such guilt was epitomized by the shame associated with the refusal to use munitions to disrupt the Holocaust through air bombardment.


Under Netanyahu, Israel has moved dangerously closer to becoming a fundamentalist and neo-fascist state, although long-standing Israeli propaganda has it that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” In your view, what accounts for the transformation of Israel from a once-promising democracy to an apartheid-like state with no respect for international law and human rights?


I believe there always were major difficulties with Israel’s widely proclaimed and internationally endorsed early identity as a promising democracy guided by progressive ideals. This image overlooked the dispossession of several hundred thousand Palestinian residents, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages, and the long-term discriminatory regime of military administration imposed on the remaining Palestinian minority that coincided with the establishment of the newly established Israeli state. What is important to appreciate is that this 20th-century process of state-creation took place in an era that was increasingly imbued with anticolonial activism that was at odds with the project to establish Israel from its international genesis and given a colonialist certificate of approval by way of the Balfour Declaration in 1917). Even taking into the Holocaust into account as the culminating historic tragedy of the Jewish people there is no way evading the conclusion that the establishment of Israel amounted to a European colonialist imposition on the Arab world and the latest instance of settler colonialism, although abetted by the Zionist mobilization of world Jewry on behalf of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.



Against this background, Israel became embattled in various ways with internal Palestinian resistance and regional hostility that produced several wars. In that process, a series of developments moved Israel further and further toward the right. A continuous war mentality tends to erode democratic structures and values even under the best of circumstances. Military successes, especially after the 1967 War, created a triumphalist attitude that also solidified US geopolitical support and made it seem possible for Israel to achieve security while expanding its territorial reality (via settlements) at Palestinian expense. Israeli demographics over the years, involving large-scale immigration of Sephardic and Russian Jews and high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews, pushed the political compass ever further to the right. These key developments were reinforced by Israeli public opinion that came to believe that several proposals put forward by Israel to achieve a political compromise were irresponsibly rejected by the Palestinians. These negative outcomes were misleadingly interpreted as justifying the Israeli conclusion that they had no Palestinian partner for peace and that the Palestinians would settle for nothing less than the destruction of Israel as a state. These interpretations are gross misreadings of the Palestinian readiness to normalize relations with the Israel provided a sovereign Palestinian state were to be established within 1967 borders and some kind of arrangements were agreed upon for those displaced from their homes in 1948.


Additionally, the supposed need for Israel to remain aggressively vigilant after Gaza came under the control of Hamas in 2007 led Israelis to entrusting the government to rightest leadership and in the process, weakened the peace-oriented political constituencies remaining active in Israel. In part, here, memories of the Nazi experience were invoked to induce acute anxiety that Jews suffered such a horrible fate because they remained as a group too passive in face of mounting persecution, and failed to take Hitler at his word. Fear-mongering with respect to Iran accentuated Israeli security-consciousness, and undercut more moderate political approaches to the Palestinians.


Have you detected any changes in US foreign policy toward Israel under the Obama administration?


There has been no change of substance during the eight years of the Obama presidency. At the outset in 2009 it seemed that the US government under Obama’s leadership was ready to pursue a more balanced diplomacy toward Israel, at first insisting that Israel suspend settlement expansion to enable a restart of the Oslo peace process with a fresh cycle of negotiations. When Israel pushed back hard, abetted by the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, the Obama administration backed off, and never again, despite some diplomatic gestures, really challenged Israel, its policies and practices, and its overall unilateralism. It did call Israeli settlement moves “unhelpful” from time to time, but stopped objecting to such behavior as “unlawful.” Washington never seemed to question the relevance of a two-state solution, despite the realities of steady Israeli de facto annexation of prime land in the West Bank, making the prospect of a Palestinian state that was viable and truly sovereign less and less plausible. Although, for public relations credibility in the Middle East, the Obama presidency continued to claim it strongly backed “peace through negotiations,” it did nothing substantive to make Israel respect international law as applied to the occupation of Palestine, and consistently asserted that the Palestinians were as much to blame for the failure of past negotiations as were the Israelis, fostering a very distorted picture of the relative responsibility of the two sides, as well as who benefitted and who lost from the failure to resolve the conflict. Western media tended to accept this pro-Israeli picture, making it appear that both sides were equally unready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace.


What could make Israel change course regarding its treatment toward Palestinians and the “Palestinian question?”


The easy answer to this question is a sea change in Israeli outlook as to its security, combined with an insistence by the US government that continued backing of Israel was contingent on its adherence to international law and its credible readiness to reach a fair political compromise, whether in the form of a two-state or one-state solution, but based on a recognition that sustainable peace depends on acknowledging Palestinian rights under international law and a concern for the equality of the two peoples when it comes to issues of security, resources, and sovereignty. Such a shift in Israeli elite opinion could conceivably come about through a reassessment of Israeli prospects in reaction to mounting international pressures and continued Palestinian resistance in various forms. This seems to have been what happened in South Africa, producing an abrupt and unexpected change of outlook by the governing white leadership in Pretoria that signaled a willingness to dismantle its apartheid regime and accept a constitutional order based on racial equality and procedural democracy. Such a development will be dismissed as irrelevant by Israeli leaders until it happens, if it ever does, so as to avoid encouraging those mounting the pressures.


You served for many years as special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights for the United Nations Human Rights Council. Did that experience teach you anything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that you were not aware of prior to this appointment?


In many ways, it was a fascinating experience, in almost equal measure dispiriting and inspiring. UN Watch, acting as an Israeli surrogate within the UN, repeatedly targeted me with vicious contentions that I was an anti-Semite and a proponent of a variety of extremist and irresponsible views that didn’t represent my actual views. UN Watch, along with other pro-Israeli NGOs, organized a variety of protests with the purpose of canceling my speaking invitations throughout the world, and threatening institutions with adverse funding implications if they went ahead with the events. Although no speaking invitation was withdrawn or event canceled, it shifted the conversation at the event and in the media — often from the substance of my presentation to whether or not the personal attacks were accurate. Also, I know of several invitations that were not issued because of these institutional concerns with controversy.


I also learned in ways that I only suspected prior to my six years as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Palestine, what a highly politicized atmosphere prevails at the UN, and how much leverage is exercised by the United States and Israel to impair UN effectiveness in relation to Israel/Palestine. At the same time, I realized that from the perspective of strengthening the legitimacy and awareness of Palestinian claims and grievances, the UN provided crucial venues that functioned as sites of struggle.


Are there Israeli organizations working on behalf of Palestinians and their ordeal, and, if so, what can we do from abroad to assist their efforts?


There are many Israeli and Palestinian NGOs within Israel and in Occupied Palestine that are working bravely to protect Palestinians from the worst abuses of the Israeli state, both in Occupied Palestine and in Israel (as defined by the 1949 “green line”). On the Israeli side, these initiatives, although having no present political relevance so far as elections and governing policy is concerned, are important ways of maintaining in Israel a certain kind of moral awareness.


If the political climate changes in Israel due to outside pressure and a general recognition that Israel needs to make peace to survive, then those that kept the flame of justice and peace flickering despite internal harassment will be regarded, if not revered, with long overdue appreciation as the custodians of Jewish collective dignity. In the meantime, it is a lonely battle, but one that we on the outside should strongly support.

It is also important to lend support to the various Palestinian efforts along the same lines and to the few initiatives that brings together Jews and Palestinians, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, of which scholar-activist Jeff Halper was a cofounder and remains a leader. There are many Palestinian initiatives under the most difficult conditions, such as Human Rights Defenders working courageously in and around Hebron, and of course, in Gaza.


There is an unfortunate tendency by liberal Zionists to fill the moral space in the West by considering only the efforts of admirable Israeli organizations, such as B’Tselem or Peace Now, when presenting information on human rights resistance to Israeli oppressive policies and practices. This indirectly marginalizes the Palestinians as the subject of their own struggle and in my view unwittingly denigrates Palestinian national character.


What’s the best way to explain the conversion of an oppressed group of people into oppressors themselves, which is what today’s Israeli Jews have structurally become?


This role reversal is part of the tragedy that Zionist maximalism has produced for the Jewish people living in Israel, and to some extent, for Jews worldwide. It has made the Nakba into a continuing process rather than an historical event that could have been addressed in a humane manner from the perspective of restorative justice as depicted so vividly and insistently by Edward Said, including in his influential 1993 book Culture and Imperialism. What has ensued has been a geopolitically conditioned unbalanced diplomacy that has served as a shield behind which Israel has been creating conditions for an imposed, unilateralist solution.


Israeli leaders, especially those on the right, have used the memories of the Holocaust, not as an occasion for empathy toward the Palestinians, but as a reminder that the well-being of Jews is based on strength and control, that Hitler succeed because Jewry was weak and passive. Further, that even the liberal West refused to lift a finger to protect Jews when threatened with genocidal persecution, which underscores the central Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance as an ethical and political imperative.


Psychologically, this general way of thinking is further reinforced by supposing that only the Israeli Defense Forces keeps Israel from befalling the fate of deadly Palestinian maximalism, a political delusion reinforced by images of a second Holocaust initiated by Iran or generated by the terrorist tactics attributed to Hamas. In effect, Israeli oppressiveness is swept under the rug of security, while the settlements expand, Gaza is squeezed harder, and the regional developments give Israel the political space to attempt an Israeli one-state solution.


The Interviewers


Lily Sage is a Montessori pedagogue who is interested in questions of symbiosis, intersectional feminism and anti-racist/fascist praxis. She has studied in the fields of herbalism, visual/performance art, anthropology and political theory in Germany, Mongolia and the US.



C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.