Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza

7 Aug

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Pondering Jonathan Pollard’s Release

3 Aug

 

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No more confusing mind games are played by sovereign states than in the context of ‘espionage,’ ‘treason,’ and the work of the professional spy. All important governments seek secret knowledge of what other governments and their leaders are doing and planning, and it matters little whether these governments are allies or adversaries, especially with respect to espionage. Espionage is the unseemly twin of secrecy, and national security is becoming ever more dependent on a country keeping its own secrets while learning those of others. In the amoral world of global espionage there are shockingly surprising cooperative liaisons, and bargains worked out behind closest doors even with the direst of enemies. Treason (and patriotism) are closely related to the ethos of espionage, and exhibit the politically correct subservience of individual conscience to the security policies of the state.

 

Edward Snowden’s massive disclosures were confusing in this respect as he disclosed secrets about what amounted to acts of de facto espionage carried out by the government against American citizens, as well as others. In effect, the surveillance apparatus of the U.S. Government was abolishing the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ or ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ in world politics. For some, this made Snowden a traitor guilty of treason because he disclosed to the world some premium national security secrets of his own government. For others, Snowden was a hero as he acted benevolently, sacrificing his personal wellbeing, career, and safety to warn the publics of the world, but above all the American public, that the government was abusing its powers in fundamental ways, threatening to privacy and the very fabric of democracy. Snowden acted from the belief that expectations of trust and privacy should be the first principle of a functioning constitutional democracy as the United States purports to be. This does not mean that security claims can never be given precedence, but that their scope should be constrained by strong evidence justifying specific actions, and that meta-data consisting of indiscriminate and totalizing forms of surveillance are fundamental threats to republican commitments to constrain government in state/society relations.

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The latest example of this confusing and contradictory optic that pertains to the work of a spy is illustrated by the controversy swirling around the scheduled release on November 20th of Jonathan Pollard who has been in prison since being convicted of espionage on behalf of Israel 30 years ago. As with Snowden, there are many liberals, and even some on the left, in the intelligence community, and among anti-Israelis who view the decision to release Pollard as setting a horrible precedent. The argument being made is that if Pollard had not been a Jewish-American ardent Zionist with ties to Israel he would have been sentenced to death as a traitor, and such a punishment would be deserved given the secrets he passed to Israel. Others point out that Pollard had become a bargaining chip in relations between Israel and the United States, and that his release was an expression of cynical geopolitics, a way of softening the anger in Tel Aviv associated with the Iran Nuclear Agreement that is viewed by Israel, both its leaders and most of its public as a dangerously imprudent initiative.

 

James North and Philip Weiss question the release from the treason angle. They contend that Pollard’s release is dubious because he provided Israel with information during the Cold War that allegedly was then likely traded to the Soviet Union (reportedly in exchange for allowing Jews to emigrate) that might have disclosed information to Moscow that exposed American agents to death or capture.[“MSM avoids central Pollard question: Did Israel trade secrets with Soviets for emigres?” Mondoweiss, July 30, 2015] For this reason, the crimes of Pollard cannot be excused or mitigated as acts of conscience to protect Israel from threats associated with undisclosed activities in hostile Arab neighbors, and his parole is rendered as problematic. It is never made clear in this line of reasoning whether Pollard was privy to such secondary uses made of his work as a spy in the pay of Israel, and whether that should make any difference in assessing the case for parole. Parole should be granted or withheld based on the behavior of a convicted person during his time in prison and the degree to which his release might produce further harm to society.

 

There is a question underlying this debate about the relationship between conscience and national identity. Is obedience to the laws of the state of residence and nationality the highest claim on behavior? I believe that a principled and reasonable disregard for national law could morally and politically justify acts of espionage of the sort that Pollard was alleged to have committed, including a genuine dedication to the promotion of the opportunity for Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Apparently, conscience was not the main motivator for Pollard, and for this reason alone, he does pose a threat to society more serious than being one among thousands of rogue espionage entrepreneurs that pass secrets back and forth around the world as a matter of profession or for the sake of adventure and material gain. As such, whether Pollard is released or not is more a matter of public empathy than a question of whether or not his crime was such as to make his release either overdue or unacceptable.

 

Those who endorse Pollard’s release most enthusiastically are mainly drawn from the ranks of those who identify unconditionally with Israel, contending that he has already suffered too much, considering that he was acting on the basis of his Zionist conscience to provide Israel with highly classified intelligence information that it was supposedly, in any event entitled to receive from the U.S. Government according to a memorandum of understanding between the two governments. Beyond this, the claim being made by supporters is that Pollard has served already a disproportionately long prison sentence considering that his acts of espionage were on behalf of a government that was a friend and ally of the United States, and besides, that he has serious health issues that make his release justifiable on humanitarian grounds alone, especially given his age and harmlessness. Whatever knowledge Pollard may have had about U.S. secrets is 30 years old, and presumably worthless, making it purely vindictive to continue his imprisonment or impose strong conditions on his release. For Israel, Pollard became over the years a high profile symbolic hero (second only to the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit) whose release was avidly sought on a priority basis by a string of prominent leaders including Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It seems that the Israeli government wanted to show the depth of its commitment to someone whose liberty was lost because he acted to uphold Israeli security interests.

 

As a matter of public relations, Pollard’s release is being portrayed as an act of good will by the U.S. Government and as a routine exercise of discretion by parole authorities in a context where no convincing rationale exists for extending Pollard’s time in jail. Such a stance is opposed by some former top-ranked security officials, including Donald Rumsfeld, who contend that Pollard still has information that could damage U.S. security interests. In this regard, such right-wing critics of Pollard’s release claim that he possesses ‘a photographic memory,’ and thus continues to pose a threat to American security interests, surely vindictiveness disguised as paranoid patriotism.

 

Behind this argument about espionage, treason, loyalty, and parole is the strange person of Jonathan Pollard whose life as a master spy remains an enigma of multiple dimensions. Pollard would be a good model for an inverted 20th century version of Dostoyeski’s ‘underground man,’ living a lavish life style by reliance on dark and devious undertakings. It seems a no-brainer that Pollard should never have been hired as an intelligence analyst. His application for employment had been rejected by the CIA, apparently because of the numerous instabilities uncovered in his private life. Yet he was later inexplicably hired by U.S. Naval Intelligence despite the organization having reliable information that Pollard was a drug-using loose cannon whose multiple lies distorting his past were detected by a polygraph test. Although the facts are contested, it is well established that Pollard was a Zionist true believer drawn to the Israeli experience since his childhood. As a young adult he became a mercenary and mercurial spy in Israel’s pay. He actively sought, in collaboration with his first wife, to sell secret information to South Africa and even Pakistan as well as to Israel, partly to deal with private financial troubles that included heavy indebtedness. His behavior while serving as a U.S. Government employee seemed altogether bizarre, including his undisguised and careless seizure for private use of large quantities of highly classified materials outside his area of responsibility. He even had trouble convincing Israel, at first, that he could be trusted to provide useful information without detection, but after finally succeeding in gaining Tel Aviv’s confidence, was paid significant sums during his rather short career as a spy.

Nevertheless, in 1985 when Pollard was on the verge of being apprehended in the United States on spying allegations, he sought refuge in Israel’s Embassy in Washington. Israel embassy guards turned Pollard away, evidently not wanting Israel to be tarnished by their association with him. After leaving the embassy he was immediately arrested by U.S. enforcement officers waiting on the periphery. In keeping with this posture, Israel at first denied any involvement with Pollard, then in 1987 issued an apology to the U.S. Government for receiving information from Pollard. Israel only conceded the professional espionage relationship with Pollard in 1998. Perhaps, this earlier failure to protect someone on their payroll as a spy, explains Israel’s later full court press to gain Pollard’s release.

 

In my view, releasing Pollard is the proper course of action, not because of Israeli pressures, but despite them. President Obama tried to portray the release as a law enforcement issue, nothing more, nothing less. Because of the suspicious timing given the tensions associated with the Iran diplomacy and the resulting inflamed domestic political context, this effort to downplay the release did not gain traction. Pollard served long enough for the crimes that he committed, poses no credible threat to the security of any country, and behaved well as a prisoner. To deny parole for another 15 years would be unconscionable given these conditions, or even to condition its grant on forcing Pollard to remain in the United States appears vindicative.

 

In my view, espionage has long been one way clever people make a living, assuming the risks of detection and hypocrisies associated with criminalization of the activity. It is certainly within the prerogatives of the sovereign state to criminalize the improper use of the knowledge acquired in the course of public employment in an espionage capacity. What Pollard did was surely a breach of contract and trust that breaks national criminal law. Yet espionage may be morally and politically justified (and may be even imperative) in exceptional circumstances where truth-telling and whistle blowing serves as a safety valve against abusive forms of state secrecy and a variety of political dangers posed by government policies.

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In this regard, it is illuminating to contrast Israel’s belated solidarity with Pollard to its determined hostility to Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli employee at the Dimona nuclear facility who confirmed for the world that Israel had secretly developed nuclear weapons. Vanunu was made by Israel to pay a high price for his public service (compounded by his conversion to Christianity), spending 18 years in prison (11 in solitary confinement), and then upon release being put under a series of punitive constraints that have included several instance of brief reimprisonment for violating conditions of his release. In my view, Vanunu belongs on the same honor roll as Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg who revealed state secrets that served the cause of national wellbeing and were also of benefit to humanity as a whole. Ellsberg has called Vanunu “the preeminent hero of the nuclear era.”

 

Pollard does not belong in this company. He seems more like an unstable and rogue opportunist than a self-sacrificing idealist even if his behavior is evaluated from an Israeli Zionist perspective. Perhaps, Pollard will partially redeem himself, and his legacy, by writing an honest memoir that unravels his mixed motives, tangled pre-prison life, and search for redemption. He seems to harbor no resentment against Israel for their refusal to give him sanctuary within their embassy back in 1985. On the contrary, while in prison he married an Israeli woman associated with the far right, seeks to be repatriated to Israel where he was awarded citizenship, and has expressed gratitude for those in the Israeli government who struggled for his release. Given Pollard’s past, it would not be surprising if he tells his story wrapped in an Israeli flag.

 

Those who criticize Pollard’s release on patriotic grounds, contending that his information helped an enemy (Soviet Union) or hurt the United States, are prioritizing loyalty to the state over competing considerations that could motivate such behavior. The ethos of treason as a high crime is the apotheosis of statist absolutism, overriding the exposure of the most extreme state crimes, for example, disclosing plans of a contemplated war of aggression initiated by a first strike with nuclear weapons. Calling Snowden or Vanunu ‘traitors’ is a perversion of moral principle, condemning those whose public acts deserve praise and protection given their nature. Not all disclosures of state secrets should be treated as expressions of civic virtue. Disclosures that violate the law to be justifiable must be deemed as sincere acts of public conscience that appear reasonable based on surrounding circumstances.

 

Loyalty to the state continues to be the north star of conventional patriotism. For the citizen pilgrim solidarity with an emergent eco-humanist insurgency is the keystone of 21st century political community and ethical responsibility deserving precedence when in conflict with nationalist and tribal affinities.

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

31 Jul

In further critique of Michael Oren

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

26 Jul

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Postscript: Campaign for Bernie Sanders

15 Jul

Opposing Hilary Clinton: Supporting Bernie Sanders

 

As a result of several astute comments, I became aware that my prior post on why Hilary Clinton had crossed a red line that could not be erased by invoking the amoral rationale of the lesser of evils, was seriously incomplete. It overlooked the presence of Bernie Sanders as a rival candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Sanders was present in my mind while I was writing the post, but I wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he was sure to lose out to the Hilary juggernaut that has already captured huge campaign contributions (reportedly over $70 million) and has the backing of the Democratic Party bureaucracy and leadership, and hence not worth the effort.

 

What I did not take into account is the importance of Bernie’s campaign, win or lose, in raising for Americans in ways that are substantive and progressive issues involving the 40 year decline of America’s middle classes and poor, and the massive transfers of wealth to the top 1%. Clinton is addressing these issues rhetorically but her policy minders and political instincts are Wall Street crafted (without policy bite) and in the end quite compatible with the rapacious practices of hedge fund operators. The United States desperately needs a genuine attack on predatory capitalism and its increasing success in replacing republican democracy with proto-fascist plutocracy. Perhaps, Bernie Sanders will not go this far by way of critique and prescription, but his campaign deserves the full support of progressives, and hopefully his presence in the political arena will contribute to the belated awakening of more American citizens to the variety of internal dangers (racism, gun culture, collapsing infrastructure) confronting the country, developments that cannot be separated from the geopolitical militarism and geoeconomic neoliberalism that Clinton espouses.

 

My encouragement, then, is for hard campaigning on behalf of Bernie Sanders, and if he should after all lose the nomination to Clinton after putting up a good fight, a message of gratitude as well as a principled shift to the second most worthy candidate on the presidential stage, Jill Stein of the Green Party. If the Democratic Party faithful goes ahead and chooses Clinton over Sanders it should expect the defection of all those of us who insist upon a precautionary approach to climate change and a repudiation of neoliberal capitalism, as well as a genuine embrace of racial justice, immigration equity, and the sexual/gender liberation agenda. Being less distasteful on these litmus issues than the Republicans is not sufficient to warrant support.

Voting for Hilary Clinton? Red Lines versus Lesser of Evils

14 Jul

 

 

Assuming that the current prospects for presidential candidates hold firm, and Hilary Clinton is nominated by the Democrats and Jeb Bush, Rick Rubio, or Scott Walker win the Republican nomination, what should a conscientious citizen do when it comes to voting in November 2016? Of course, step one is to rule out support for the Republican candidates due to their regressive views on a range of social and economic issues, and their militarist bluster on foreign and defense policy. Step two is more difficult. Clinton is clearly preferable if the domestic agenda is taken into account, and probably no worse than the Republicans when it comes to foreign policy, but also not noticeably better, and in some ways more objectionable.

 

For instance, she begins her recent letter to the billionaire arch Zionist mega-donor and longtime Clinton family supporter, Haim Saban, on July 7, 2015 this way: “I am writing to express my alarm over the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, ‘BDS,’ a global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial and academic exchanges.” She seeks Saban’s guidance in pursuit of this nefarious goal with this deferential language: “Now I am seeking your thoughts and recommendations on how leaders and communities across America can work together to counter BDS.”

 

I am sure it didn’t escape the gurus of the Clinton campaign that Saban had joined with the casino mogul, Sheldon Adelson not long ago to headline a donors gathering at which each participant was expected to pledge $1 million to fight BDS. Although Adelson identifies as Republican and Saban as Democrat, both fervently embrace the Netanyahu brand of Israeli leadership. Saban has been quoted on Iran in language that manages to outdo Bibi, “I would bomb the daylight out of those sons of bitches.”

 

Clinton has a variety of other scary credentials, including voting in support of the Iraq War of 2003, and to this day remains unwilling to admit that the war was at the very least a tragic mistake, and more accurately, a costly international crime. She not only argued for intervention in Libya in 2011, but made a chilling comment on CBS News after learning of the grisly vigilante execution of Muammar Qaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” Further, among the emails that Clinton has long withheld from the public are several that substantiate the charges that France from the outset both intended to overthrow the Qaddafi regime, and expected to reap economic benefits by way of the spoils of war, especially with respect to Libya’s oil wealth. It is not that Clinton actually conspired with such plans while serving as Secretary of State, but she did knowingly lead the effort to support the French-led NATO intervention in 2011, claiming that its limited goal was the protection of Libyan civilians in Benghazi, when she was well aware that the real purpose of the UN-mandated intervention was regime-change in Tripoli.

 

Here is my dilemma. In view of such considerations, does one vote for Hilary Clinton with eyes wide open because she is likely to be better for ordinary Americans on a range of crucial issues, including some effort to challenge the obscene scandal of growing inequalities and sustained slippage in the real income and labor rights of workers and the accumulated hardships on much of the middle class? Or does one say there are certain candidates whose views are so abhorrent as to be unsupportable without weighing their suitability against alternatives? Many remember the acrimonious debates along the same lines concerning the 2000 campaign pitting Bush against Gore, and allegedly lost by Gore in Florida because Ralph Nader, running as a third party candidate, received over 90,000 votes, arguably more than enough to swing the state to Gore’s side of the ledger, and thus enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Most Democrats angrily dismissed Nader as a spoiler and harshly criticized supporters for indulging in irresponsible political behavior. As someone who voted for Nader in 2000, while coming to detest the Bush presidency, I continue to believe that primary duty of citizens in a democratic society is to be on most occasions responsive to their conscience rather than to attempt pragmatic calculations often glamorized as ‘the best being the enemy of the good.’ In the case more accurately phrases as ‘the worst being the enemy of the bad.’ I do admit that I didn’t realize in 2000 that Bush would turn out as badly as he did, and if I had, I might have wavered.

 

Looking ahead to 2016 the issue of choice can be at this stage put as follows: vote for Hilary Clinton as ‘the lesser of evils’ or vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party as the most attractive presidential candidate, but someone with no chance to do more than enliven the debate and give alienated voters like myself a positive option that feels better than not voting. Remember that there were those establishment liberals who in the tense days after the 9/11 attacks were ready to rationalize torture as the lesser of evils. It was alleged lesser as compared to the need for information that would lead to dangerous terrorist suspects, but where it actually led was to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and a nationally humiliating orgy of torture with very little security payoff. The Kathryn Bigelow film on the search for and execution of Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” also gave a bright green light to the torture policies of the Bush presidency, fed to the public by the grotesque evasion embedded in the words ‘enhanced interrogation.’

 

The alternative logic may be described as respect for ‘red lines.’ I happen to believe that the BDS campaign is a desirable and an essential step in the redesign of a peace process that might produce a just and sustainable peace for Palestinians and Israelis

after more than 67 years of agonizing failure, including the recent frustrations associated with the Oslo diplomacy initiated by the handshake in 1993 between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, with a beaming Bill Clinton standing in between. For me, Hilary Clinton crossed my red line with her craven letter to Haim Saban, making it impossible for me to vote for her by invoking the alternative logic of the lesser of evil. But maybe, although unlikely, by the time November 2016 comes around, I might reconsider.

 

I realize that if one of those awful Republicans is elected president by a close vote that is skewed by Green Party votes, I will be bitterly criticized by liberal friends. I admit that it is a tricky issue on principled grounds. Livelihoods and wellbeing will almost certainly be adversely affected by a Republican victory, whereas the differences in foreign policy between the two candidates are murky at best, and on Israel/Palestine there is no up side regardless of which party prevails. At the same time, the American plutocracy has become a bipartisan enterprise, calling for resistance as an ethical and political imperative, acknowledging the validity of Chris Hedges’ powerfully reasoned insistence that the country is experiencing pre-revolutionary tremors.

 

At this stage of the electoral process, my overall sense is that the lesser of evils is still evil, and that morally significant red lines are important for citizens to draw and respect. Until further notice, then, I have decided not to cast my vote for Hilary Clinton.  

UN Gaza Report Part II: Israel’s Counterinsuurgency Apologist: Colonel Richard Kemp

6 Jul

 

Retired British colonel, Richard Kemp, has been an ardent supporter of Israel’s three major military operations in Gaza conducted over the last six

years. He has collaborated on several occasions with the two notoriously pro-Israeli NGOs, UN Watch and NGO Monitor, serving on the Advisory Board of the latter and appearing as star witness under such auspices at the UN, most recently at a two-day side event at UN Headquarters in Geneva devoted to condemning the UN Commission of Inquiry Report on the Gaza War of 2014.

 

There is no doubt that Col. Kemp has the credentials to speak as a counterinsurgency specialist, having served as commander of British forces

in Afghanistan and elsewhere, where he acknowledges close cooperation with Mossad and the influence of Israeli tactics. In fairness, Kemp writes from such a militarist view with little effort to assess the relevance of international humanitarian law, treating ‘military effectiveness’ as determined by military commanders as the defining criterion of legality for a challenged battlefield practice. In his own words, “[i]t’s the dispassionate military perspective that I bring.” Of course, such an outlook ignores the relevance of international criminal law, which is to superimpose accountability as a constraining framework on this ‘military perspective.’ Actually, Kemp doesn’t so much ignore international criminal law as to (mis)interpret its rules so as to vindicate the tactics of the counterinsurgent side while condemning those of the insurgent.

 

On June 25, 2015 the New York Times published an opinion piece by Kemp assessing the UN Report. What I find scandalous and perverse on the part of this self-claiming authoritative media source, is to publish such a harsh and partisan dismissal of a prudent and overly balanced report without any kind of offsetting piece. I can only imagine the furor that would have been provoked if the NYT had published a piece by an expert in international criminal law, say William Schabas or John Dugard, calling for the indictment and prosecution of Israel’s political and military leaders on the basis of the Report. At least, if such a piece had been published alongside the Kemp article, NYT readers could have been exposed to the realities of controversy flowing from these UN allegations that Israel (and to a far lesser extent, Hamas) was guilty of war crimes.

 

Kemp begins his article with the claim that “..it pains me greatly to see words and actions from the UN that can only provoke further violence and loss of life.” As is ‘law’ imposed on the powerful and not their weaponry is responsible for violence and the loss of life in Gaza. We are not told exactly why reaches this perverse conclusion, but presumably Kemp believes that the condemnation of Israel’s use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force would embolden Hamas, and Palestinians generally, to continue to claim a right of resistance. What Kemp (and Israel) obviously seek is a circumstance in which whatever the dominant military forces do is validated by its effectiveness and what a population under domination does in opposition is condemned with the implication that resistance to Israel’s prolonged occupation is inherently unlawful.

 

Kemp’s puff piece is filled with bland endorsements of Israel’s most blatant propaganda. For instance, Kemp asserts, in complete disregard of the evidence, that Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza “only in response to attacks by Hamas.” While it is common knowledge, even in Israel, that the blockade has been maintained since 2007 as a ‘collective punishment’ imposed on the civilian population of Gaza, having little to do with security, which was mainly sustained by way of rigorous monitoring of all crossings to and from Gaza, and with Egypt’s cooperation at Rafah during the Mubarak era and since Sisi’s ascent. Kemp has nothing to say about Israel’s frequent lethal incursions into Gaza that have accompanied the occupation since it started in 1967, and he uncritically supports Israel’s distorted one-sided timeline that claims Israel only attacks in retaliation for missiles and mortar fire from Hamas, and never initiates violent interactions by on its own. Kemp also never refers to the ceasefires broken by Israel, as in the leadup to Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. Instead, as Kemp has written elsewhere of this earlier brutal attack on a vulnerable, cage population, “I can only say this: during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

 

Most disturbingly, Kemp writes in a condescending manner as follows: “The report is characterized by a lack of understanding of warfare,” as revealed by its failure to compare what Israel is doing with what the U.S. and Britain have done in Afghanistan, Iraq. In Kemp’s words, Israeli tactics are no different than those used extensively by American and British forces in similar circumstances.” What is most dangerous about this counterinsurgency worldview is its implicit reasoning that allows such conclusions to be set forth in good faith by professional soldiers. To begin with, Kemp is essentially correct that the counterinsurgency wars waged by the U.S. and Britain have relied on similar tactics, but does that make Israel’s pattern consistent with international law and morality? Most international law assessments of these uses of modern weaponry against densely populated civilian areas consider such tactics to be severe war crimes, not models to be invoked as validation.

Kemp’s state of play is revealed here: converting past crimes into authoritative precedents to justify present crimes, or to transform crimes into legitimate counterinsurgency tactics.

 

Beyond this, Israel’s tactics are worse in some instances than those of its predecessors. Whereas in Vietnam, the United States used its far less precise air power to inflict heavy casualties on the Vietnamese civilian population it refrained from attacking urban population centers as Israel did in the Gaza attack of 2014, as well as the earlier ones. Even in Falluja, the worst instance of American firepower directed at a city believed to be a center of insurgent opposition in Iraq to American occupation, the population was given ample time to vacate the city after warnings of impending attack. In contrast, except for the 800 Palestinians that held foreign passports who were allowed to leave Gaza, the remainder of the civilian population in Gaza was locked into the combat zone, losing even the desperate option of fleeing to safety by becoming a refugee. Col. Kemp, invoking his counterinsurgency experience and knowledge, never sees fit to mention such a damning ‘detail.’

Nor does he bother to point out that the whole of Gaza was a combat zone, and that civilians, including women and children, had no place of sanctuary and safety, other than to seek refuge in UN facilities and mosques, which then were turned into targets because of Israeli claims that weapons were stored in these places.

 

Parroting the worst elements of Israeli hasbara, Kemp sets forth this grotesque characterization of Hamas tactics: “Unable to inflict existential harm on Israel by military means, Hamas sought to cause large numbers of casualties among its own people in order to bring condemnation and unbearable diplomatic pressure against Israel.” To make such an extreme allegation without bothering to cite evidence is to portray Hamas as seeking the genocidal annihilation of its own people. This is an odd accusation in view of the evidence that Hamas became gained more popular support from the Gazan population after this Israeli attack than before, presumably because of its steadfastness under the most severe of pressures. Also, Kemp withholds comments on the repeated and strenuous efforts of Hamas to seek the renewal of the ceasefire prior to the initiation of the Israel onslaught in early July of 2014.

 

In effect, Kemp is appraising Israel’s behavior on the basis of the ‘new normal’ prevailing among counterinsurgency hawks that have led the West into war after war in its futile effort to defer the death of European colonialism, and its American sequel. What is done by the West is justified by military effectiveness (although without noticing that these wars have all been eventually lost), what is done by the forces of national resistance is criminalized if not demonized as ‘barbarism.’

 

 

It is not surprising that UN Watch and NGO Monitor organized an elaborate side event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva last week that featured Richard Kemp as its lead speakers, but included an array of other counterinsurgency specialists, with no attempt whatsoever to bring to bear the perspectives of international humanitarian law except in the spirit of Israeli apologetics. For description of this event held on June 29-30 see the home pages of either UN Watch or NGO Monitor. It is notable that unlike the response to the Goldstone Report in 2009 that featured denunciations of bias and personal attacks, the orchestrated reaction to COI report is more sophisticated, relying on a variety of substantive reports that set forth Israel’s claims of justification, a media blitz, along with major advocacy efforts by Israel’s well-trained NGO poodles.

 

A welcome contrasting vision, closer to law, morality, and reality is offered by Max Blumenthal in his new book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). David Swanson, the noted anti-war activist, titles his review of Blumenthal’s book, “the 51-day Genocide” <http//davidswanson.org/node/4815> As Swanson puts it in his review of the book, “I can think of a few other words that characterized the 2014 assault on Gaza in addition to ‘war,’ among them, occupation, murder-spree, and genocide. Each serves a valuable purpose. Each is correct.”

 

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