Tag Archives: diplomacy

Balfour: Then and Now

2 Nov

 

 

Today, November 2, is exactly 100 years after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the pledge given to the World Zionist Movement in a letter signed by the British Foreign Secretary to support the establishment of a ‘national home’ in the then Ottoman millet of Palestine. Certainly ‘a day of infamy’ for the Palestinian people and their friends around the world, while unfortunately treated as ‘a day of pride’ by the British Government, and all in the West those morally bankrupt enough to regret the passing of the colonial era, and to pretend without embarrassment that the Balfour legacy is something to celebrate, rather than to mourn, in the year 2017.

 

The British pledge was an unabashed expression of colonialist arrogance in 1917, ironically made at the dawn of the worldwide movement of national upheavals that would lead in the course of the century to the collapse of European colonialism. At the end of World War I colonialism was being increasingly questioned morally, but not yet challenged legally or politically. Such challenges only began to emerge as the struggles of national liberation gained political traction globally after 1945.

 

It is worth noticing that there was a certain amount of diplomatic pushback even in the post-1918 diplomacy, especially by way of Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of ethnic ‘self-determination’ for the Ottoman held territories of the Middle East. More strongly in the same direction was Lenin’s radical critique of colonialism as a system of oppression that needed to be opposed and crushed wherever in the world it existed. This pushback did lead Britain and France to moderate their colonial ambitions as embodied in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, but these two unrepentant colonial powers still managed to gain essentially uncontested de facto control of political communities throughout the Middle East by way of the mandate system, which might be better understood as ‘tutelary colonialism.’

 

I am led to wonder whether if Wilson had had his way at Versailles in 1919 would the Balfour impact have been lessened with respect to the unfolding reality of Palestine? Presumably, Arab self-determination throughout the region would have drastically reduced the British and French role. Perhaps this European displacement would have been to an extent as to prompt a shift of Zionist energies away from Palestine, leading to a willingness to find a secure homeland somewhere that would be more receptive to the establishment of a Jewish state in their midst. This might have spelled a different tragedy for a different people than what has befallen the Palestinian people. Of course, ‘what might have been,’ is only of interest as a way of historically decoding the injustices that currently afflict oppressed and deprived peoples. We are helpless to change the past, although we can imagine unfolding in more benevolent ways. As much as the Palestinians, the Kurds throughout the region were fragmented and subjugated, and continue to this hour to struggle for some measure of ethnic autonomy, collective dignity, and self-determination. The Kurds were promised by World War I victors a state of their own situated mainly in present day Turkey and embodied in the Treaty of Sévres (1920). A few years later what was given was taken away, reflecting geopolitical moves that adapted to intervening political developments at the enduring expense of the Kurdish people. The main intervening event between the two treaties was the shocking Ataturk victory over European powers in Turkey, which helps understand why the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) abandoned the arrangements proposed at Sevres.

 

Reverting to reality, Britain became the mandatory administrator of Palestine in 1923, opening the country to the incremental realization of the Zionist agenda, which concentrated during the 1920s and 1930s on buying land from Palestinians that could be given to Jewish settlers, doing it all it could to induce Jews to emigrate to Palestine, and resorting to a terrorist campaign that was intended to make the British position in Palestine untenable. To make the whole Zionist undertaking credible ideologically, economically, and politically it was imperative to overcome the huge demographic imbalance that existed in Palestine during the early phases of the Zionist movement. It is instructive to recall that the Jewish presence in Palestine at the time of Balfour was no more than 5-7%. Such a small minority could not possibly succeed in establishing and dominating the government of a state that was to be ethnically oriented and yet democratic. Not a single Zionist expected the resident population to accept willingly such an outcome. Israel as a viable sanctuary for Jews escaping persecution necessarily depended on finding the right formula for combining armed struggle and political deception.

 

In this sense Balfour launched a project that was utopian from the Zionist point of view and dystopian from the Palestinian perspective. On the utopian side, establishing a Jewish state that could show a democratic face to the world seemed well beyond the horizon of feasibility. To attain the Zionist goal of a democratic Jewish state in Palestine ran directly counter to the anti-colonial historical tide in the 20th Century that swept away all in path elsewhere in the non-Western world. And then to overcome such a one-sided

demographic imbalance seemed a mission impossible no matter how much the Jewish diaspora was goaded into emigrating to Israel.

 

On the dystopian side as experienced by the Palestinians, the nakba dispossession and expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians, reinforced by discriminatory immigration policy, rigid security policies, and by Zionist expansionism that continues to this day has inflicted a tragic destiny upon the Palestinian people. This kind of ethnic restructuring also was coupled with the legitimation of a settler colonial state, including by the United Nations, at a historical moment when colonialism was entering its sunset phase and the UN was supposed to reflect the moral will of the organized global community. This outcome was permanently disillusioned for the Palestinians, and involves a cruel and paradoxical twist to the long Palestinian ordeal.

 

As an American terrified by Trump and Trumpism I cannot refrain from noting the analogies with the efforts of this leadership to airbrush the Confederate past of the United States, featuring slavery, with broad strokes of moral relativism. Trump’s outrageous assertion that there were good people on the white supremacist side of the Charlottesville demonstrations and General John Kelly’s more recent obtuse contention that the American Civil War resulted from the failure of the two sides (North and South) to strike a compromise, as if a compromise with slavery was a preferred option. A rejection of this kind of high profile posturing is not only a matter of political correctness, it is much more a matter of elemental moral sensitivity and political vigilance then and now.

 

Without letting Britain off the Balfour hook, the main international culprits since 1945 are surely the United States and the UN, jointly and separately failing to produce a sustainable and just peace for both peoples. At this time such a peace will not be achieved by continued recourse to the two-state solution that with each passing Israeli settlement expansion becomes, at best, an empty slogan, and more realistically, a way of changing the conversation to avoid considering the step that alone could bring peace to both peoples: ending the apartheid structures that have fragmented, subjugated, and victimized the Palestinian people ever since the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Until Israel is persuaded to dismantle its apartheid regime (as the racist South African regime was a decade earlier), peace diplomacy is bound to be a farce that does more harm than good. If this more realistic appreciation of the preconditions for peace between Palestinians and Israelis were to begin emerging on this day of remembrance, the Balfour century could at least claim to end on a more hopeful note than it began.

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The Horrifying Syrian Dilemma Persists

15 Sep

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a somewhat modified version of the text published on the Middle East Eye website on September 9, 2015, and here by prior arrangement.]

 

On its surface Syria offers seems an ideal case for humanitarian intervention. An incredible half of the 23 million Syrians are either internally displaced or refugees living in dire circumstances, aggravating the migrant crisis currently overwhelming Europe. What is worse, mass atrocities have continued under the authority of the Damascus regime since March 2011, and to some degree by actions of the opposition. Further, for more than a year ISIS has emerged as a principal opposition force in Syria, and is responsible for unprecedented barbarism in large areas of the country under its control.

 

Beyond this, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict has so far failed miserably. The UN has appointed several distinguished Special Envoys who have resigned in disgust unable to rely on ceasefire reassurances from Bashar el-Assad. The two Geneva inter-governmental conferences that were convened with great effort ended in utter frustration. The United States is far from blameless, seemingly avoiding Russian compromises early on because it believed that the insurgency was on the verge of victory, and diminishing prospects later by insisting that Iran be excluded from the diplomatic process because of Israeli and Saudi sensitivities.

 

To complete this depressing picture, the parties to the conflict seem badly stuck, neither having a path to victory nor displaying any willingness to work toward a credible compromise. The opposition to the Assad government remains incoherent and disunited, and certainly seems incapable of offering Syria a workable alternative.

 

Not surprisingly given this overall situation, especially the spectacle of persisting civilian suffering, with its regional spillover effects destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, is prompting a renewed call for humanitarian intervention, most influentially, in the form of a no fly zone (NFZ). It is contended that a well implemented NFZ could protect Syrians from the ravages being wrought by notorious barrel bombs. These terrible weapons are mainly used by Damascus to make civilian governance impossible in rebel held areas of the country. Proponents of intervention argue that once a NFZ is established it will ease civilian suffering, and might in due course exert sufficient pressure on the Syrian leadership to produce a political climate in which an acceptable diplomatic solution is finally attainable and this dreadful war brought to an end, a result that might even have at this point the benefit of a nudge from Iran and Russia.

 

Responsibility to Protect

 

The UN recently held a self-congratulatory session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the R2P (or responsibility to protect) norm, while acknowledging that there was work to be done considering the existence of ongoing killing fields as Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and North Korea. Notably absent from the list, a supreme instance of diplomatic tact at its hypocritical worst, was Gaza, and more generally, occupied Palestine, which since 2012 is after all a ‘state’ in the eyes of the General Assembly. Such other geopolitical touchy places as Kashmir, Rakhine, Xinjiang were also conveniently ignored in this effort to assess the record of R2P’s first decade. Leaving these awkward silences aside, at least the question should be asked: ‘Why has the R2P norm not been applied to Syria?’ The answer illuminates what is wrong with the cynical way world order operates in a post-Cold War setting, being more protective of trade and finance than it is of people, more motivated by oil than by a genuine humanitarian rescue mission.

 

The superficial obstacle to a R2P operation in Syria is the geopolitical standoff between states continuing to back the Assad regime and those supporting the opposition. This means that approval of an NFZ as a tactic compatible with the UN Charter is unavailable because of an anticipated Russian veto. Thus any use of force, such as establishing a NFZ, in either the north or south of Syria, or both, would neither have the backing of the UN Security Council nor qualify as self-defense under international law. This means that such an undertaking would violate the Charter on its key principle of prohibiting recourse to non-defensive international force without authorization from the Security Council, thereby disregarding the requirement of UN approval that is a critical feature of the R2P approach.

 

Proceeding outside the UN would further undermine the authority of international law with respect to war/peace issues. A less legalistic and constitutionalist explanation of this blockage arises from the dark side of the R2P precedent set in Libya back in 2011 when Russia and China and other SC members, despite their reluctance, were persuaded to allow a proposed humanitarian NFZ in Libya to be established only to find that the UN debate was a notorious instance of bait-and-switch. It was obvious that NATO’s intentions from the outset were far more expansive than the authorizing resolution in the Security Council, and once the military operation began immediately employed tactics seeking regime change in Tripoli rather than civilian protection for Benghazi. What seemed to skeptics of the R2P approach as an outright deception in its first test of R2P left a bad taste that has definitely discouraged a cooperative approach to Syria that engaged Russia. The Libyan precedent is not the whole story of relative passivity of the international community by any means. Syria’s antiaircraft capabilities also inhibited coercive action by making it more problematic to suppose that air power could shift the balance quickly and at moderate costs against the Assad regime.

 

 

 

 

Kosovo—A Poor Precedent

 

Then there is the earlier Kosovo precedent in which a humanitarian intervention was controversially carried out without UN approval, under the authority of NATO before the R2P norm existed and in the face of strong Russian opposition. Arguably, the operation was a success, Serbian oppressive rule ended, Kosovo and its people saved from an impending episode of ethnic cleansing similar to the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian males (1995), and despite being ignored in the undertaking, the UN willingly entered the post-conflict scene in a big way to help Kosovo achieve transition to political independence. One influential appraisal of Kosovo pronounced the NATO intervention to be unlawful, yet legitimate, because it effectively removed a credible threat of imminent threat of mass atrocity at a moderate cost.

Several problems arise if relying on Kosovo to justify establishing a NFZ in Syria. First of all, Syria is a much larger country within which a civil war has been raging for more than four years causing an estimated 300,000 deaths, the Syrian government is reported to have sophisticated antiaircraft capabilities. Secondly, Europe was unified with regard to an anti-Serb intervention in Kosovo, with the partial exception of Greece, whereas the Middle East is so deeply divided with respect to Syria as to be engaged on opposite sides of a proxy war with sharp sectarian dimensions. Thirdly, the opponents of NFZ, unless persuaded to change their position, are more deeply involved, and have the capabilities to offset the impact of such an operation against their ally in Damascus.

 

Fourthly, assuming that a Syrian NFZ would be effective, the elimination of Syrian air power might actually work to the advantage of ISIS, which operates exclusively on the ground. Fourthly, unlike Kosovo where the U.S. was eager to demonstrate that NATO still had a role in the post-Cold War world, the geopolitical motivation in Syria remains confused and weak, being uncertain despite the passage of time. Also, the U.S. has had bad experiences with its recent interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants to avoid being drawn into yet another war in a predominantly Muslim country. And fifthly, the present scene in Libya and Iraq show that handling the effects of even a militarily successful intervention can lead to prolonged chaos and militia governance. Such experiences of sustained chaos are not viewed by most of the affected population as improvements over the old authoritarian orders held together by the brutality of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, or Assad. When the alternatives are chaos or order, populist sentiments generally opt for order. This pattern has been evident throughout the region, especially in the aftermath of the short-lived Arab Spring.

 

Further in the background are considerations associated with state-centric world order in a post-colonial setting, which in the Middle East has left many bad memories of the harm the European colonial powers did to the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. To override the sovereignty of a state, and its capacity for national resistance, ignores the experience of the world in the period since 1945 where almost every Western intervention has ended in political failure.

 

The West’s Dilemma

 

So here is the dilemma: to stand by doing nothing while mass atrocities occur year after year in Syria with no end in sight is an intolerable international failure of moral responsibility for human suffering of this innocent civilian population. Yet to do something that will actually improve the situation is far from obvious, and the record of NFZs in the kind of situation that exists in Syria is not encouraging, nor are other coercive alternatives. General Martin Dempsey, the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned against establishing a NFZ in Syria, pointing out that the government’s antiaircraft capabilities are at least five times greater than what Libya possessed, including some high end systems capable of shooting down high altitude planes.

 

 

There are some alternatives that try to find tactics that do something without making the situation worse. One sort proposal is to propose a more assertive approach by the United States, comprehensively advocated in a recent report of the International Crisis Group, believes that a series of non-military and covert initiatives could make a difference. It argues that this approach should start with what is logistically easier, a focus on the South of the country where moderate anti-regime forces are in greater control, and then if successful, extending such tactics to the more contested Northwest where Syrian antiaircraft pose a greater obstacle and ISIS has its strongholds.

 

All in all, the West cannot stand one more failed intervention in the Middle East, nor can it leave unattended a deep humanitarian crisis that spilling over Syrian borders. The burden in such a tragic situation should be placed on pro-interventionists to show convincingly how a NFZ can be established and maintained in the face of expected resistance from within and opposition from without. So far this burden has not been sustained. There are other ways to help alleviate civilian suffering and to exert greater pressure on Damascus that do not rely on such a blunt and unreliable instrument as a NFZ. In the background is the steadfast refusal of the United States or its European allies to be willing to contemplate an occupation of Syria via a ground attack, not because of legal or moral inhibitions, but due to the lack of political support for any military operation likely to result in significant casualties for the intervenor.

 

There exists a more drastic diplomatic approach that should have been tried long ago, and still seems worth the effort: bringing Iran and Russia into a peace process as major players, overriding objections by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Such a diplomatic atmosphere might at last create the war-ending conditions for compromise and cooperation that include putting pressure on Damascus. In such an altered setting, either a NFZ, or an equivalent proposal could find support within the Security Council or such a measure would no longer be needed. This diplomatic initiative is admittedly a long shot, but better than the alternatives of doing nothing or acting outside the framework of the UN and international law with scant prospects of success and big chances that things would go badly wrong. There are reliable reports circulating that the U.S. Government rejected a Russian backed initiative 2012 that would have included Assad being removed from power because Washington was then so convinced that the Damascus government was about to collapse in any event, and no diplomatic compromise was needed. At least, there is now a more realistic understanding of the balance of forces in Syria, and what form of compromise has any chance of being sustained. Unfortunately, however, with the emergence in the meantime of the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, difficult questions arise as to whether in the situation that prevails at present any compromise is sustainable unless externally maintained by a major international presence, which itself seems politically unattainable. 

What this prolonged dilemma in the face of mass atrocity shows is the deficiency of state-centric world order if appraised from the perspective of human wellbeing rather than national interests. The failures in Syria are not just the shortcomings of diplomacy and manipulations of geopolitics, but also a severe mismatch between structures and capabilities of global authority and the vulnerabilities of the peoples of the world. Until these structures are transformed on the basis of the human and global interests Syrian dilemmas in one form or another are bound to recur.

Parodies of Parity: Israel & Palestine

14 May

Parodies of Parity: Israel & Palestine

 

As long ago as 1998 Edward Said reminded the world that acting as if Palestinians were equally responsible with Israelis for the persisting struggle of the two peoples was not only misleading, but exhibited a fundamental in misunderstanding of the true reality facing the two peoples: “The major task of the American or Palestinian intellectual of the left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appears to be in perfect balance, but are not in fact. To reveal that this is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.” [interview with Bruce Robbins published in Social Text (1998)] I would rephrase Said’s statement by substituting ‘any engaged citizen and morally sensitive intellectual’ for ‘the American or Palestinian intellectual of the left.’ We do not need to be on the left to expose the cruel hypocrisy of suppressing gross disparities of circumstances, or more to the point, blocking out the multiple diplomatic, military, material, and psychological advantages enjoyed by Israel as compared to the Palestine. “It is elementary, my dear Watson!” as Sherlock Holmes so often exclaimed, or at least it should be.

 

Unfortunately, a principal instrument of the mind numbing diplomacy of the United States is precisely aimed at avoiding any acknowledgement of the disparity that at the core of the encounter. As a result, the American public is confused as to what it is reasonable to expect from the two sides and how to interpret the failure of negotiations to get anywhere time and again. This failure is far from neutral. It is rather the disparity that has done the most damage to peace prospects ever since 1967: This pattern of delay has kept the Palestinians in bondage while allowing the Israelis build and create armed communities on occupied Palestinian land that was supposedly put aside for the future Palestinian state.

 

Beyond this appeal to intellectuals, Said’s message should be understood by everyone everywhere, and not just by Americans and Israelis, although these are the two populations most responsible for the prolonged failure to produce a peace based on justice. Elsewhere, except possibly in parts of Western Europe, such a discourse as to shared responsibility for the ongoing struggle is not so relevant because the ugly forms of Israeli exploitation of the Palestinian ordeal have become increasingly transparent in recent years. Only in America and Canada has the combined manipulations of hasbara and the Israel Lobby kept the public from sensing the extremities of Palestinian suffering. For decades Europeans gave Israel the benefit of the doubt, partly reflecting a sense of empathy for the Jewish people as victims of the Holocaust without giving much attention to the attendant displacement of the indigenous Arab population. Such an outlook, although still influential at the governmental level, loses its tenability with each passing year. 

Beyond this, there are increasing expressions of grassroots solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by most peoples in the world. It is a misfortune of the Palestinians that most political leaders in the world are rarely moved to act to overcome injustice, and are far more responsive to hegemonic structures that control world politics and their perception of narrowly conceived national interests. This pattern has become most vividly apparent in the Arab world where the people scream when Israel periodically launches its attacks on Gazan civilian society while their governments smile quietly or avert their eyes as the bombs drop and the hospitals fill up.

 

In Israel, the argument as to balance also has little resonance as Israelis, if they pause to wonder at all, tend to blame the Palestinians for failing to accept past Israeli conflict-resolving proposals initiatives made over the years. Israelis mostly believe that the Barak proposals at Camp David in 2000 and the Sharon ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005 demonstrated Tel Aviv’s good faith. Even Netanyahu, at least when he is not seeking reelection, and is speaking for the benefit of an American audience disingenuously claims Israel’s continuing dedication to a peace process based on seeking a two-state solution while he explains diplomatic gridlock by contending that lacks a Palestinian partner in the search for peace, and never deigns to mention the settlement archipelago as an obstacle.

 

Looked at objectively, by assessing behavior and apparent motivation, it is the Palestinians that have no partner for genuine peace negotiations, and should have stopped long ago acting as if Israel was such a partner. That is, Israel inverts the Said disparity, contending that the public should point its finger of blame at Palestine, not Israel. Of course, this is hasbara in its impurest form. Israel never made a peace proposal that offered Palestinians a solution based on national and sovereign equality and sensitive to Palestinian rights under international law. And as for Sharon’s purported disengagement from Gaza, it was justified at the time in Israel as a way to deflect international pressures building to pursue a diplomatic solution and it was managed as a withdrawal that didn’t loosen the grip of effective control, leaving Gaza as occupied and more vulnerable than it was when the IDF soldiers patrolled the streets. Since 2005 the people of Gaza have suffered far more from Israel’s military domination than in all the years following 1967 when occupation commenced, and it should be clear, this outcome was not a reaction to Hamas and rockets. Hamas has repeated sought and upheld ceasefires that Israel has consistently violated, and offered long-term arrangements for peaceful coexistence that Israel and the United States have refused to even acknowledge.

 

Where the equivalence argument is so influential is with the Obama administration and among liberal Zionists, including such NGOs as J Street and Peace Now that are critical of Israel for blocking progress toward a two-state solution. It is a blindfold that obscures the structural reality of the relationship between the two sides, and believes that if Israel would make some small adjustments in their occupation policy, especially in relation to settlements, and if the Palestinians would do the same with respect to refugees and accepting Israel as a Jewish state, then a negotiated peace would follow as naturally as day follows night. In effect, Israel is expected to curtail unlawful settlement activity in exchange for Palestine suspending its rights under international law affecting the situation of several million Palestinian refugees. As is widely known, Jews from anywhere in the world have an unconditional right to immigrate to Israel, whereas Palestinian living abroad with deep residence roots in the country are almost totally banished from Israel including if their purpose is to resume residence so as to live with close family members.

 

In Ramallah back in March 2013, and speaking to a Palestinian gathering, President Obama did forcefully say that “The Palestinians deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it,” and this will require “a state of their own.” Obama even then acknowledged “that the status quo isn’t really a status quo, because the situation on the ground continues to evolve in a direction that makes it harder to reach a two-state solution.” Such a display of circumlocution (“..continues to evolve in a direction”) so as to avoid clearing mentioning Israel’s continuous encroachment on the land set aside by the international consensus, is for a discerning reader all that one needs to know. The unwillingness to challenge frontally Israel’s unlawful and obstructive behavior is underscored by Obama’s reassurances given to a separate Israeli audience in Jerusalem on the same day that he spoke guardedly to the Palestinian, with such phrases as “America’s unwavering commitment,” ‘unbreakable bonds,” “our alliance is eternal, it is forever,” “unshakeable support,” and “your greatest friend.” No such language of reassurance was offered the Palestinians. His two speeches left no doubt that Israel retained its upper hand, and could continue to rest easy with this status quo of simmering conflict that had worked so long in its favor.

 

The Secretary of State, John Kerry, ploughs the same field, calling on both sides to make “painful concessions.” Obama in his Jerusalem speech illustrated what this concretely might mean, assuming that the two sides were equally called upon to act if peace were to be achieved. The Palestinians were called upon to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, while Israel was politely reminded in language so vague as to be irrelevant, “Israelis must recognize that settlement activity is counterproductive.” To ask Palestinians to recognize Israel is to affirm as legitimate the discriminatory regime under which the 20% Palestinian minority lives, while asking the Israelis to recognize that the counterproductive character of settlement expansion is to misunderstand Israeli intentions. If their goal is to avoid the establishment of a Palestinian state then being ‘counterproductive’ is exactly the result being sought. Besides asking the Palestinians to abridge their rights while requesting Israel to admit that their settlement activity is not helping the diplomatic process is to appeal to their self-interest, and avoid a demand to cease and reverse an unlawful, likely criminal, activity. The false equivalence is a metaphor for the deformed framework of diplomacy that has unfolded largely as a result of the United States being accepted as the presiding intermediary, a role for which it is totally unsuited to play. This lack of qualification is admitted by its own frequent declarations of a high profile strategic and ideological partnership with Israel, not to mention the interference of a domestic Israeli lobby that controls Congress and shapes the media allocation of blame and praise in relation to the conflict.

 

Kerry expresses the same kind of one-sidedness in the guise of fairness when he calls on the parties to make compromises: “..we seek reasonable compromises on tough complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues. I think reasonable compromises has to be a keystone of all of this effort.” What kind of compromises are the Palestinians supposed to make, given that they are already confined to less and less of the 22% of the British Mandatory territory of Palestine, and since 1988 have sought no greater proportion of the land. Kerry’s approach overlooks, as well, the defiant refusal of Israel to act in good faith in relation to the 1967 Security Council Resolution 242 that called upon Israel to withdraw without claiming territory through its use of force or by taking advantage of being the occupying power. In the interim, while being unwilling to do anything concrete to implement its view of decades that Israeli settlement activity is ‘counterproductive’ the United States proclaims and proves its readiness to oppose any Palestinian attempt to gain access to the UN to express its grievances, an effort which Obama denigrated as “unilateral attempts to bypass negotiations through the UN.” The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly made clear that it favors a resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, despite being at a great disadvantage within such a framework, and insists persuasively that there is no inconsistency between its seeking greater participation in international institutions and its continued readiness to work toward a diplomatic solution of the conflict. If Israel and the United States were sincerely dedicated to a sustainable peace, they would encourage this Palestinian turn away from violent resistance, and their increased effort to push their cause by persuasion rather than missiles, to advance their cause by gaining respectability through joining institutions and adhering to lawmaking treaties instead of being confined in a prolonged rightless lockdown euphemistically disguised as ‘occupation.’

 

In the end, we cannot see the situation for what it is without reverting to theSaid insistence that the relation between oppressor and oppressed is a paramount precondition for sustainable peace. Unless the structural distortion and illegitimacy is acknowledged, no viable political arrangement will be forthcoming. From this perspective the Kerry emphasis on ‘reasonable compromise’ is as mind numbingly irrelevant as it would have been in seeking a peaceful end to racial struggle in apartheid South Africa by demanding that ANC and Nelson Mandela become amenable to compromise with their racist overlords. Peace will come to Israel and Palestine, and be sustained, if and only if the oppressor becomes ready to dismantle its oppressive regime by withdrawing, not merely by disengaging Gaza style. At present, such a readiness is not to be found on the Israeli side, and so long as this is so, direct negotiations and these periodic calls issued by Washington to resume direct talks have one main effect–to free Israel to realize its ambition to establish ‘Greater Israel’ while keeping the Palestinians in chains. This ambition has not yet been explicitly embraced by the Israeli leadership, although only those who refuse to notice what is happening on the ground can fail to notice this expansionist pattern. Israel’s new coalition government even more rightest and pro-settler than its predecessor makes Israel’s ambition to end the conflict by self-serving unilateral action less and less a well kept state secret.

Stalking Netanyahu’s Victory: Palestine and Iran

21 Mar

 

 

(Prefatory Note: This is a much modified version of an article published online by Al Jazeera America on March 19, 2015; its ambition is to grasp the dual significance of the Likud victory for strengthening the role of civil society activism in the Palestinian struggle and with respect to the ongoing diplomacy associated with Iran nuclear program.)

 

 For Palestine:

My immediate reaction to the outcome of the Israeli elections is that for Palestinian solidarity purposes, it was desirable for Netanyahu to receive this electoral mandate. It exhibits as clearly as possible that the long discredited Oslo ‘peace process’ is truly discredited. But don’t believe that the call for bilateral talks will not be revived within the ranks of the so-called liberal Zionists. Already Israeli commentators, including Likud operatives, are saying that Israel would welcome a resumption of direct negotiations. In the words of the Likud Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, “[w]e would be delighted to renew the negotiations..[i]t is to the benefit of both parties.” Really! Why wouldn’t they? How have the Palestinians benefitted during the past 22 years from these negotiations during which the Israel has been relentless in accomplishing the creeping annexation of the West Bank and the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem past the point of return? As Jeff Halper points out the only question about the future is whether Israel’s state will be secular and Democratic or Zionist with an apartheid apparatus of discrimination and exploitation.

 

And as for the embarrassment of Netanyahu’s pledge never to establish a Palestinian state in the closing days of his campaign, it can be put aside as we all know that Bibi is ‘a pragmatist’ who knows the difference between campaigning and governing. As a prominent Israeli think tank personality, Grin Grinstein, put it, Netanyahu now that he is securely elected can shift attention to his legacy, and will want to avoid Israel’s international isolation: “I would not rule out his going back to the two-state solution.” Neither would I, at least rhetorically and opportunistically. It should have long been obvious that there has never been an Israeli willingness to endorse a viable Palestinian state based on the equality of the two peoples, the sina qua non of a sustainable peace based on implementing the two-state consensus. The only way to understand this long afterlife of the two-state solution is that provided governments and decent people to hold onto a belief that a just solution to the conflict remained within reached, and that its attainment depended on ‘painful concessions’ made by both sides. Such a contrived myopia enabled liberal Zionists to pretend that Israel could remain democratic and Zionist, while not permanently dispossessing and subjugating the Palestinian people.

 

The cynically obvious conclusion is that when Netanyahu craves votes from the ultra-right in Israel he reassures Israelis that there will never be a Palestinian state so long as he remains the leader. When the election season is finished, then it is time to reassure Washington and Europe that he remains as committed as ever to the two-state mantra, with the unspoken clause, “so long as it remains a mantra.” What should disturb us most is the willingness of so many in the United States and elsewhere to embrace such tactics that consign the Palestinian people to the cruelty of their various circumstances (under occupation, in refugee camps, in exile, subject to blockade). Whether this last phase of disclosure associated with Netanyahu successful campaign strategy will offend the Obama presidency sufficiently to alter American foreign policy in the Middle East is uncertain at this point.

 

If the Zionist Union coalition of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni had been elected on March 17th, liberal Zionists would undoubtedly have had a field day, proclaiming a new dawn, restoring good will and inter-governmental harmony in relations between Washington and Tel Aviv. Even now a leading liberal Zionist, the NY Times columnist, Roger Cohen, throws his support behind the idea of a ‘national unity government’ that would supposedly rein in the extremist tendencies of Netanyahu. It is also reported that Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president and Likud member who is an avowed Zionist maximalist (that is, one Jewish state in all of historic Palestine) and unilateralist (‘peace’ by Israeli fiat without the bother of negotiations and diplomacy) is seeking to form such a unity government on the basis of the election results. Despite these views, Rivlin, unlike Netanyahu, is an advocate of human rights and equality for Palestinians living within whatever boundaries Israel achieves, a position almost as incapable of realization as the old delusionary embrace of the Oslo framework as something other than a device to allow Israel to consolidate its hold over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

 

Principled liberal Zionists, such as Rabbi Michael Lerner and even more the admirable Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, view Netanyahu’s reelection as an unconditional disaster both for what it means for Israel’s governing policies and even more so for what it tells us about the prevailing political culture of racism and militarism within Israel. In contrast, an ideological liberal Zionist of the Thomas Friedman variety laments the emergent picture is such a way as to distribute an equal portion of blame to the Palestinians, both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Ponder these slanted words: “It would be wrong to put all of this [blame] on Netanyahu. The insane, worthless war that Hamas started last summer that brought rockets to the edge of Israel’s main international airport and the Palestinians’ spurning of two-state offers of Israeli prime minister (Ehud Barak and Edud Olmert) built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did.” [NY Times, March 18, 2015] This pattern of distributing responsibility for the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people and the denial of their most fundamental rights to both sides equally is the most authentic signature of ideological liberal Zionists, purporting to be objective and balanced in assessing responsibilities while effectively supporting Israeli expansionism. Any reasonable assessment of the massive Protective Edge attack launched by Israel last July would acknowledge the Netanyahu provocations that started with the manipulation of the June kidnapping incident resulting in the murder of three young West Bank settlers and the anti-Hamas rampage that followed, as part of the timeline, not to mention Israel’s furious reaction to the unity agreement reached between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas some weeks earlier. As well, for Friedman to present the proposals of Barak and Olmert as offering the Palestinians equality and a viable state coupled with a recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, is to serve as a reckless purveyor of Israeli propaganda.

 

It is on the basis of repudiating such reasoning that the most credible advocates of Palestinian justice, otherwise as far apart as Ali Abunimah and Gilad Atzmon, agree that it is better that Netanyahu and the Likud won the election rather than their supposedly centrist opponents. These more upbeat commentaries on Netanyahu’s triumph believe that this heightened transparency relating to Israel’s true intentions will lead to a long overdue burial of Oslo-generated delusions about a diplomatic settlement of the conflict and that this will, in turn, awaken more of Western public opinion to the true nature of Israeli ambitions, and strengthen the BDS approach to peace with justice. This development should help people throughout the world understand that a positive outcome for the Palestinian national movement is utterly dependent on struggle and that diplomacy has nothing to offer at this time, nor does the revival of armed struggle.

 

From these perspectives, a positive future is dependent upon Palestinians waging and winning a Legitimacy War directed at realizing Palestinian rights under international law. This is the central argument of my recently published Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (Just World Books, 2015); see also to the same effect, Ali Abunimah, The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books, 2014). This reliance on civil society activism implies growing support in the court of public opinion being reinforced by a worldwide militant nonviolent solidarity movement that challenges Israel by way of such tactics as the BDS Campaign and Freedom Flotillas. It should be clear that such a movement from below is not seeking the delegitimation of Israel as such, but of its policies and practices that are precluding a just peace, which as of now presuppose the formation of a single democratic secular state with equal economic, political, social, and cultural rights for all residents regardless of ethnicity and religious identity.

 

On Iran Diplomacy:

 Unfortunately, in my view, this is not the whole story of the Israeli elections. The Netanyahu victory cannot be assessed exclusively through a Palestinian optic. The dangerous implications for broader regional issues of a Netanyahu controlled foreign security policy cannot be overlooked, nor the grave danger of coordination between the militarist approach to the Islamic world of the Likud Party in Israel and the Republican Party in the United States, or less dramatically, of a restored cooperative regional strategic partnership between the two countries. These concerns most obviously pertain to the prospects for a stable termination of the dangerous encounter with Iran. The Netanyahu/Republican approach is likely to have at least two harmful effects: shifting the internal Iranian balance toward a harder line and creating pressures in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East to move closer to the acquisition of nuclear weaponry, which will likely cause a regional arms race, including the proliferation or near proliferation of nuclear weapons and/or be the proximate cause of one more devastating war within the region, which regardless of outcome is almost certain to strengthen ISIS and other extremist non-state actors throughout the Middle East.

 

Of course, the Netanyahu Republicans see this core conflict differently, more in the spirit of poker (than chess), supposing that raising the stakes in the game still higher will prompt Iran to fold. This does not seem plausible. If Iran’s efforts to accommodate the West (including Israel) by accepting an unprecedented level of regulation and foregoing a nuclear option despite Israel’s arsenal and threatening posture, would make additional constraints on Tehran depend on the willingness of a more hard line Iranian leadership to give way further than its moderate predecessors.

 

From this vantage point, the Lerner view of the Netanyahu victory as a major disaster for Israel and the world seems the most sensible interpretation, even if never fully consummated by the transformation of bluffs into policies, and not nearly as threatening as it will become if a Republican wins the presidential election in 2016. Even if Hilary Clinton rises to the occasion and is elected the next American president I would not invest much hopes that she will challenge the Netanyahu approach toward Iran except possibly in matters of style and at the margins. Even supposing, as now seems unlikely, that Rivlin convinces Likud to go along with his preference for a unity government it is almost certain to be dominated, especially in relation to security policy, by Netanyahu. Beyond this, even as Netanyahu shows his readiness to rehabilitate his never credible endorsement of a two-state solution for Palestine, confident that it will lead no further than in has over the decades, he is almost certainly not going to budge on Iran.

 

Why? It is entirely possible that Netanyahu has swallowed his own propaganda, and honestly believes that Iran poses a real threat to Israel’s security, and possibly survival, rather than seeing the calculus of fear the other way around. In actuality, it is Iran that is threatened, Israel that poses the existential threat. Beyond this, the Iran card has proved exceedingly helpful to Netanyahu, allowing him both to play on Israeli fears to build support at home and to divert international attention from Israel’s refusal to act reasonably and lawfully with respect to Palestine. In light of this combination of adverse circumstances, I am not sure what I would advise the Iranian government to do at this point other than to bide its time. If Netanyahu had been soundly defeated, then it would have made sense to do everything possible to reach an agreement while Obama is still in office. But now to invite a repudiation of whatever is agreed upon is to choose what would likely turn out to be the worst alternative available.

 

For these reasons, as helpful as Netanyahu’s electoral victory seems from the viewpoint of building a stronger Palestinian national movement, this political result in Israel is a definite setback from the perspective of resolving the conflict with Iran. Is there any way to separate these two concerns, taking advantage of Netanyahu’s victory in the Palestinian context while seeking at the same time to mobilize a movement favoring denuclearization of the Middle East as a vital ingredient of a peaceful future for the Middle East. This seems to be the challenge facing civil society activism that seeks justice for the Palestinians, peace for both peoples, and an end to fear-mongering and saber-rattling in relation to Iran.

 

When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

20 Feb

 

 

What the Chapel Hill police in North Carolina initially pitched to the world as ‘a parking dispute’ was the deliberate killing of three young and devout Muslim American students by an ideologically driven ‘new atheist’ killer named Craig Stephen Hicks. What the The Economist unhesitatingly calls ‘terrorism in Copenhagen’ involved the attempted shooting of a Danish cartoonist who repeatedly mocks the Prophet and Islamic beliefs as well as the lethal shooting of a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue. A friend understandably poses a serious question on Twitter that might have been dismissed as rhetorical overkill just a few years ago: “Are only Muslims capable of terrorism?”

 

I find it deeply disturbing that while the Chapel Hill tragedy is given marginal media attention except among groups previously worried about Islamophobia and racism, The Economist considers that important principles of Western liberal democracy are at stake apparently only in the European context. In the words of Zanny Minton Beddoes, the new editor of the magazine: “Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and founder of a human-rights think-tank called Justitia, told me it would be a disaster if his country were to grow faint-hearted in its defense of free speech. ‘There can be no truce in the struggle between secular democracy and extremism,’ he says. Above all, politicians should avoid the trap of saying or implying that violence was really the fault of provocateurs, or that religious insult was to be equated with physical injury. Giving in to that sort of relativism would be letting down those followers of Islam who were brave enough to stand up for free speech, and indulging in a sort of “bigotry of low expectations”, said Mr Mchangama, whose paternal forebears were Muslims from the Comoros Islands. A good point.”

 

I am quite sure that this is not a good point, at least as phrased by Mr. Mchangama. Of course, governments should take action to protect all who are violently threatened, but to refuse to regard Islamophobic messaging as a species of hate speech while so regarding anti-Semitiic slurs or Holocaust denial is to combine two things that are both unacceptable: ignoring the root causes of political extremism and pathological violence; and prohibiting and punishing anti-Semitic utterances as hate speech while treating anti-Islamic or Islamophobic speech as requiring protection from the perspective of ‘freedom of expression.’ Admittedly, these outer bondaries are difficult to draw. Should the views of professional historians that cast doubt on the magnitude of the Holocaust be forbidden? Should critical literary and satiric treatments of Mohammed and the Koran be suppressed for the sake of public order? In the former case we have the experience of the French historian, Robert Faurisson, while in the latter case, that of Salman Rushdie. In my view, the writings of both should be regarded as forms of protected speech, and if a government is unable or unwilling to do this, it compromises its own claims to legitimacy. And what it certainly should not do, is defend Rushdie on freedom of expression grounds while punishing Faurisson on the basis of defamation or collective hate laws.

 

Another trope along a similar trajectory is the push toward acknowledging ‘war’ between the West and Islam, an embrace of the infamous Huntington thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations.’ Roger Cohen, an ethically oriented regular contributor to the opinion page of the New York Times, in a column headlined as “Islam and the West at War” [Feb. 17, 2015] criticizes the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as well as Barack Obama, for describing the adversary as a ‘dark ideology’ and as ‘violent extremists.’ Cohen insists that such terms are euphemisms that evade the central reality of our time, namely, that the West is confronting Islamic movements and governments throughout the world, and even argues that Islam is ‘fair game’ because it “has spawned multifaceted political movements whose goal is power.”

 

The article also observes that young Muslims feel alienated and are drawn toward ISIS and other radical Islamic movements. Cohen asks the central question “Who or what is to blame?” and then suggests that there are two opposing sets of responses. His descriptions are worth quoting in full: “For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel (seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant); its wars (Iraq); its brutality (Gunatanamo, Abu Ghraib); its killings of civilians (drones); its oil-driven hypocrisy (a Jihadi-funding Saudi ally).”

 

And then comes the second type of response: “… it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic state its appeal.”

 

I find several serious flaws in this way of presenting the issue. It should be obvious to any objective commentator that both sets of issues are interwoven, and cannot be separated except for polemical purposes. Furthermore, the failures of the Arab world are presented as detached realities, implying that the Western colonial legacies endured by the Arab world are irrelevant. We need to recall that following World War I, almost one hundred years ago, the European colonial powers effectively insinuated their national ambitions into the diplomatic process that produced the Middle East as we know it today. Such moves undermined Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination for the peoples comprising the collapsed Ottoman Empire as well as the promises of a unified country made to enlist Arab support for the war against Germany and the Ottomans.

 

These historical antecedents certainly contributed to the authoritarianism of the region as the only basis for sustaining a coherent order in the artificial political communities with which the region experienced the transition to political independence. And the sectarianism that Cohen laments was clearly inflamed by American occupation policy in Iraq, as well as providing the most palatable way for Saudi Arabia to justify its hostility to Iran, deflecting attention from corruption and gender cruelty of its dynastic rule.

 

Overlooking this legacy of colonialism also ignores the effects of the Balfour Declaration, which gave the imperial blessings of British Foreign Office to the Zionist project for Jewish homeland in historic Palestine that were later endorsed by the League of Nation and the UN. It is debatable as to how much of the turmoil and violence in the region is attributable to the open wounds caused by the dispossession and occupation of the Palesinian people, but it is certainly part of the sad regional story that has unfolded in the last several decades.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Cohen finds the second series of explanations “more persuasive” and especially so in light of “the failure of the Arab Spring,” which he believe is partly a consequence of Obama’s refusal to do more to promote and sustain democratic outcomes in the Middle East by way of intervention. Somewhat mysteriously he blames the Syrian tragedy on American ‘nonintervention’ without bothering to consider the prolonged national disasters that have followed from such interventions as the sustained ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the more limited one under NATO auspices in Libya. In each instance the aftermath of intervention was not democracy, or even stability, but chaos, strife, and a worsening of human security.

 

Cohen never ventures to suggest that in light of the colonial legacies in the region, abetted by the oil lust of the West, the least bad arrangement at this point that can be fashioned is a less corrupt and more responsible authoritarianism. As deficient as Saddam Hussein and Muamar Qaddafi were from the perspective of human rights and democracy, they did maintain order within their borders and their countries were rated rather highly by the Human Development Indicators (HDI) of the UNDP. If the United States is to be blamed for its diplomacy during the recent past, it would seem much more convincing to hold the Bush Administration responsible for the downward spiral of politics in the region than to point a critical finger at Obama. It was after all during the Bush presidency that an American interventionary resolve was linked to and justified as ‘democracy promotion.’ If we focus on the alienation of Arab youth, it would seem to be much more the result of these military and political interventions than a consequence of the Obama reluctance to engage the United States in yet another war with a Muslim country. Indeed, Obama can be faulted for being too quick to authorize drone and other air strikes, while pursuing an unimaginative diplomacy that remains the best hope for achieving sustainable peace in the region.

 

Cohen’s diagnosis and allocation of responsibility is a telling expression of the liberal mind-set as it addresses the interlinked agendas of anti-terrorism and Middle East politics. Liberals both minimize Western and American responsibility for what has gone wrong in the spirit of Bernard Lewis and make the partisan United States relationship to Israel seem almost irrelevant to the troubles of the region, thereby overlooking the high costs of the policy. For instance, many knowledgeable observers agree that regional stability would be dramatically enhanced by the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Yet such a policy option was never even considered in diplomatic settings, apparently because it would exert too much pressure on Israel to give up its arsenal of nuclear weaponry, which has given Israel a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region that insists on preserving at all costs, including risking a disastrous war with Iran.

 

At this stage there are no easy answers as to allocating responsibility or producing causal explanations for terrible realities being endured by the peoples of the region. Quite clearly there are no good military answers to the various unresolved disasters in the region, although that is where the sort of ‘war thinking’ that Cohen affirms continues to place its bets.

 

In contrast, I would contend that a more imaginative diplomacy responsive to international law remains the only way forward. Such an orientation would look with favor on Iran’s active participation, especially in relation to Syria and to the possible negotiation of a regional security framework. It would also presuppose the relevance of a just and sustainable resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which it turn depends upon the adoption of a normal approach by the U.S. Government to its relationship to Israel. Until such a reorientation on the part of Washington policymakers occurs, the path of least resistance is to engage in one air war after another, and mindlessly lend aid and comfort to Sisi’s harsh oppression in Egypt and the dismaying blend of autocracy and theocracy in Saudi Arabia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

as

The Dead End of Post-Oslo Diplomacy: What Next?

15 Dec

(Prefatory Note: A much modified version of this post was published in AlJazeera America, Dec. 13, 2014)

The Latest Diplomatic Gambit

 

There are reports that the Palestinian Authority will seek a vote in the Security Council on a resolution mandating Israel’s military withdrawal from Occupied Palestine no later than November 2016. Such a resolution has been condemned by the Israeli Prime Minister as bringing ‘terrorism’ to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and this will never be allowed to happen. The United States is, as usual, maneuvering in such a way as to avoid seeming an outlier by vetoing such a resolution, even if it has less stringent language, and asks the PA to postpone the vote until after the Israeli elections scheduled for March 17, 2015. Supposedly, the delay is justified so that Netanyahu, seen as an obstacle by the American White House, would not be strengthened by any display of adverse pressure on Israel coming from outside, especially from the UN.

 

Embedded in this initiative are various diversionary moves to put the dying Oslo Approach (direct negotiations between Israel and the PA, with the U.S. as the intermediary). The French are promoting a resolution that includes a revival of these currently defunct negotiations, with a mandated goal of achieving a permanent peace within a period of two years based on the establishment of a Palestinian state, immediate full membership of Palestine in the UN, and language objecting to settlement activity as an obstruction to peace. Overall, European governments are exerting pressure to resume direct negotiations, exhibiting their concern about a deteriorating situation on the ground along with a growing hostility to Israeli behavior that has reached new heights since the merciless 51-day onslaught mounted by Israel against Gaza last summer. This seems to me to be ‘a politics of gesture’ as there is no indication of why resumed negotiations would enjoy any better prospect of success than the several past failed efforts, and would only give Israel additional time to move toward its increasingly obvious end game of imposed unilateralism.

 

A Post-Oslo Meditation

 

 

The horrendous events of the last several months in Jerusalem and Gaza have exhibited both the depths of enmity and tension between Jews and Palestinians and the utter irrelevance of American-led diplomacy as the path to a sustainable peace. This is not a time for people of good will, the UN, and governments to turn their backs on what seems on its surface either irreconcilable or on the verge of an Israeli victory. The challenge for all is to consider anew how these two peoples can manage to live together within the space of historic Palestine. We need fresh thinking that gets away from the sterile binary of one state/two states, and dares to ponder the future with fresh eyes that accept the guidance of a rights based approach shaped by international law. Israel will resist such an approach as long as it can, understanding that it has gained the upper hand by relying on its military prowess and realizing that if international law was allowed to play a role in demarcating the contours of a fair solution it would lose out on such crucial issues as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, and water.

 

A necessary step toward a sustainable peace is to overcome Washington’s blinkered conception of the conflict. There is no better sign that the Israel-Palestine peace process over which the United States has long presided is unraveling than the absurd brouhaha that followed the magazine article written by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic [“The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here,” Oct. 28, 2014] that referenced an unnamed senior White House official who called the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ‘chickenshit’ because of his obstinate refusal to take risks for ‘peace.’ Supposedly, this refusal put Washington’s dogged adherence to the Oslo Approach of direct negotiations under American diplomatic supervision beneath a darkening sky, but since there is no alternative way to maintain the U.S. central role in the interaction between the governing elites of the two parties, there is an eyes closed resolve to keep the worse than futile process on ‘life support.’ It is worse than futile because Israeli land grabbing on the West Bank in relation to the settlements, the settler only roads, and the separation wall continuously deteriorate Palestinian territorial prospects.

 

The collapse of the Kerry talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in April were unquestionably a negative watershed for the Obama presidency so far as its insistence that the Oslo Approach was the only viable roadmap that could resolve the conflict. Ever since the Oslo Declaration of Principles was sanctified by the infamous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, the U.S. Government has contended that only this diplomatic framework can end the conflict, and to this day it objects to any moves by governments to take steps on their own. [During the presidency of George W. Bush there was an interval during which ‘the roadmap’ was adopted as an elaboration of the Oslo approach in which a commitment to the idea of an independent Palestinian state was explicitly confirmed by Bush in a speech on June 24, 2002, and then formalized in a proposal made public on April 30, 2003; in this same period ‘the quartet’ was created at a Madrid Conference in 2002 that seemed to broaden diplomatic participation by adding the Russia, the EU, and the UN to the U.S., but in fact the quartet has been completely marginalized for the past decade] The Oslo Approach consists of direct negotiations between the parties and designated the United States, despite its undisguised partisan role, as the exclusive and permanent intermediary and go between. Without the slightest deference to Palestinian sensitivities, U.S. presidents have appointed as special envoys to these negotiations only officials with AIPAC credentials such as Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, and have proceeded as if their blatant partisanship was not a problem. Evidently Israel would have it no other way, and the Palestinian Authority has meekly gone along either out of weakness or naiveté.

 

Not only was the Oslo framework itself flawed because it leaned so far to one side, but it was an unseemly tacit assumption of the process that the Palestinians would be willing to carry on negotiations without reserving a right to complain about the relevance of ongoing Israeli violations of international law, most conspicuously the continued unlawful settlement activity. When on several occasions the Palestinians complained that this settlement activity was incompatible with good faith negotiations, they were immediately slapped down, informed that such objections interfered with the peace process, and that issues pertaining to the settlements would be deferred until the ‘final status’ stage of the negotiations. The Palestinians were assured that these issues would be addressed at the very end of the peace process after the main elements of a solution had been agreed upon. This was very detrimental to Palestine’s bargaining position as their only advantage in relation to Israel was to have international law in their favor in relation to most of the outstanding issues. Besides to allow Israel to continue with settlement expansion, rather than freezing the status quo, was obviously disadvantageous to Palestine. If legal objections were excluded it is not surprising that diplomatic bargaining would tend to reflect ‘facts on the ground,’ which were completely in Israel’s favor, and would continue to accumulate month by month. Despite this, Israel at no point seemed responsive to proposals for accommodation in accordance with the stated objective of establishing an independent sovereign Palestinian state.

 

After more than 20 years of futility Washington’s continuing public stand that only by way of the Oslo Approach will a solution be found is beginning to fall on deaf ears, and new directions of approach are beginning to be articulated. Israel itself is moving ineluctably toward a unilaterally imposed one-state solution that incorporates the West Bank in whole or in large part. It has recently seized 1000 acres of strategically placed land to facilitate the largest spatial enlargement of a settlement since the early 1990s and it has given approval for 2,600 additional housing units to be built in various West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements that already have more 650,000 settlers. In addition, the current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, elected by the Knesset a few months ago is an avowed advocate of the maximalist version of the Zionist project involving the extension of Israel’s borders to encompass the whole of Palestine as delimited in the British mandate. Rivlin couples this rejection of any Palestinian right of self-determination with proposals for equality of treatment for both peoples within this enlarged Israel, offering the Palestinians human rights, the rule of law, and unrestricted economic and political opportunity within Israel in exchange for renouncing their political ambitions for either a state of their own or a power-sharing arrangement on the basis of equality with Israel. There is no prospect that the Palestinian people, or even their compromised leaders, would accept such a Faustian Bargain.

 

The Palestinians have their own version of a unilateral solution, although it is far more modest, and seems more fantasy than political project. It is essentially establishing a state of their own within 1967 borders, taking an ambiguous posture toward the settlement blocs and even East Jerusalem, and relying on political pressures to coerce an Israeli withdrawal. Such a state claims 22% or less of historic Palestine, and includes the somewhat confusing contention that Palestine is already a state in the eyes of the international community, having been recognized as such by 134 states and in a resolution of the General Assembly on 29 November 2012. It is currently reinforcing this position with this draft resolution that Jordan will submit on its behalf at some point to the Security Council proposing a resumed period of direct negotiations for a further nine months (accompanied by a freeze on settlement construction), followed by Israel’s mandatory withdrawal from the West Bank. On balance, this Palestinian approach seems ill-considered for a number of reasons. It appears to reduce the parameters of the conflict to the occupation of the West Bank, and leaves to one side the fate of Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as what is to happen to the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring countries or in exile. It also overlooks the structure of discrimination embedded in Israeli nationality laws that reduces the 20% Palestinian minority in Israel to a second class status in the self-proclaimed Jewish state.

 

Among the problems with these reactions to the breakdown of Oslo are the contradictory expectations. What the Netanyahu unilateralism is seeking is utterly inconsistent with any kind of viable Palestinian state constructed within the 1967 borders, and those opposition forces to his right are seeking an even more defiant unilateralism. Equally, what the Palestinian Authority is proposing would seem to require the elimination of most Israeli settlements, the dismantling of the security wall, and the abandonment of the Israeli-only network of roads, while ignoring those Palestinian grievances not directly associated with territorial issues. Each of these versions of a post-Oslo solution is doomed to failure as it proceeds as if the behavior of others need not be taken into account. The Israeli failure to do this is far more unacceptable as its claims are far more excessive than those of the Palestinians, which is really just a matter of wishing away the pattern of Israel’s unlawful encroachment on what is a minimalist Palestinian vision of a solution that it and the UN had long ago accepted in Security Council Resolution 242.

 

There is an evident unfortunate reluctance on the part of all sides to let go of the two-state conception of a solution. It is what Washington and even Tel Aviv and Ramallah continue to say they seek, although Netanyahu has been telling Israeli audiences that after its experience with Hamas rockets last July and August, it will never agree to allow the emergence of a neighboring Palestinian state in the West Bank that would bring Palestinian threats much closer to the Israeli heartland. Ever since the 1988 decision of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO has agreed to a solution framed in relation to a state within of its own within the 1967 borders, and even Hamas has signed on since 2006 to the extent of accepting a 50 year plan for peaceful coexistence with Israel providing it ends the occupation of Palestinian territories, and lifts the Gaza blockade. These are big concessions from the Palestinian side considering that the UN Partition Plan of 1947 awarded 45% of historic Palestine to the Palestinians and proposed the internationalization of the entire city of Jerusalem. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is built along the same lines as the PLO proposal, and includes a commitment to establish full diplomatic and economic relations with Israel on the part of the entire Islamic world. This proposal of the Arab League by a 56-0 vote of the Islamic Conference, with only Iran abstaining, and a year ago as a result of American pressure was modified to make it even more appealing to Israel by its acknowledgement of Israeli security concerns.

 

Most recently, a letter to Netanyahu by 106 high ranking retired Israeli military and security officials strongly urged this same two-state solution, implicitly condemning Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism as leading to a future for Israel of periodic warfare of the sort that occurred this past summer in Gaza. These members of the Israeli security establishment argue that these expansionist policies are weakening security for the entire Israeli population. The letter emphasized Israel’s moral decline associated with keeping millions of Palestinians under prolonged occupation, which they argue is unnecessary from the perspective of security. Again there is a lack of clarity about whether such encouragement assumes that the settlements can be retained, the rights of Palestinian refugees can be ignored, and Jerusalem can be kept under unified Israel control. But what the initiative does express is this emergent consensus that Oslo style negotiations have consistently failed and something else must be tried. The letter appears to propose a unilateral partial withdrawal described as “an alternative option for resolving the conflict not based solely on bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, which have failed time and again.”

 

Europe has also, at last, exhibited a limited unwillingness to accept any longer the Oslo Approach that keeps the United States alone in the driver’s seat. I interpret the recent Swedish recognition of Palestinian statehood, the House of Commons vote urging that the British government take a similar move, as well as similar moves by several other European countries as expressing both a loss of confidence in the Oslo Approach and a criticism of the manner in which Israel and the United States have dealt with the conflict. This is a desirable development in these respects, but it is coupled with some regressive features. Such initiatives are coupled with renewed faith in the two-state approach as the only solution, and call with a sense of urgency for a renewal of negotiations without giving the slightest indication as to why a further round of talks would yield any different results than past attempts. Such a prognosis seems more true at present than in the past given Israel’s moves toward a unilateral solution, which Netanyahu somewhat disguises so as not to affront the United States and Europe. It should be obvious to all who wish to look that Israel has created irreversible conditions that have all but ruled out the establishment of a viable Palestinian sovereign state.

 

The Way Forward

 

The expected controversy surrounding the PA initiative in the Security Council is a sideshow without any serious consequences however it is resolved. There needs to be a clear recognition by the PA that direct negotiations are pointless under present conditions, and a general understanding that unless Israel changes behavior and outlook there is no hope to resolve the conflict by a reliance on diplomacy. This will make recourse to nonviolent militancy via BDS, and such other tactics as blocking the unloading of Israeli cargo vessels, the best option for those seeking a just peace. [“Protesters Block Israel-Owned Ship from Unloading Cargo at Port of Oakland,” CBS St Bay Area, Aug. 18, 2014]

 

I believe the Oslo Approach is discredited, and of no present interest to the political leadership in Israel, which plays along with Washington by not openly repudiating direct negotiations. The European governments that have shown some initiative by advocating recognition of Palestine should be encouraged to take the further step of rejecting calls for resumed negotiations unless Israel demonstrates its sincerity by freezing settlement activity and affirming its readiness to withdraw to 1967 borders.

 

The best, and in my view, only realistic hope is to forget traditional interstate diplomacy for the present, and understand that the Palestinian future depends on a robust mobilization of global civil society in solidarity with the Palestinian national movement. The current BDS campaign is gaining momentum by the day, and is coupled with a sense that its political program is more in keeping with the wishes of the Palestinian people than are the proposals put forth by the formal representations of either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. When neither governmental diplomacy nor the UN can produce a satisfactory solution to a conflict that has caused decades of suffering and dispossession, it is past time to endorse a people-oriented approach. This is the kind of populist politics that helped end apartheid in South Africa and win many anti-colonial struggles. We have reached a stage in global history in which it is people, not weapons nor international institutions, that have the resilience and patience to win the legitimacy struggle involving law and morality, and on such a basis eventually prevail in the political struggle despite being inferior militarily.

 

The challenge of living together on the basis of equality seems to be the only template that offers the parties a vision of sustainable peace. Concretely, this would seem to require Israel to all ethnocratic claims that Israel is a Jewish state as distinct from being a Jewish homeland. Israel’s leaders would also have to renounce the present unrestricted right of return for Jews throughout the world or create some equivalent right of return for the Palestinians, and possibly for the Druse minority. How such a conception of a sustainable peace is given concrete form is necessarily a subject for diplomacy by suitable representative of both sides and carried on under neutral auspices and by authentic representatives of the two peoples. We cannot foretell how much further suffering and bloodshed will occur before this kind of vision, seemingly a remote prospect at present, can be converted into a practical project, but do know that nothing that falls short of this deserves to be considered ‘a solution’ given the realities of the situation.