Tag Archives: Israel

The Semantics of Struggle

9 May

Words Against the Grain


While reporting to the UN on Israel’s violation of basic Palestinian rights I became keenly aware of how official language is used to hide inconvenient truths. Language is a tool used by the powerful to keep unpleasant realities confined to shadow lands of incomprehension.


Determined to use the rather modest flashlight at my disposal to illuminate the realities of the Palestinian ordeal as best I could, meant replacing words that obscure ugly realities with words that expose as awkward truths often as possible. My best opportunity to do this was in my annual reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York. My courageous predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, deserves credit for setting the stage, effectively challenging UN complacency with language that looked at the realities lurking below the oily euphemisms that diplomat seem so fond of.


Of course, I paid a price for such a posture as did Dugard before me. Your name is added to various black lists, and doors once open are quietly closed, if not slammed shut. If the words used touched enough raw nerves, you become a target of invective and epithets. In my case, my temporary visibility as UN Special Rapporteur meant being called ‘an anti-Semite,’ even ‘a notorious anti-Semite,’ and on occasion ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Strong Zionist pressures are now seeking to induce legislative bodies in the United States to brand advocacy of BDS or harsh criticism of Israel as prohibited forms of ‘hate speech.’ In April of this year pressures  by the British Jewish Board of Deputies led the University of Southampton to cancel a major academic conference on the Israel/Palestine conflict.


In relation to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the clarifying/some of the offending words are ‘apartheid,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘settler colonialism,’ ‘annexation,’ ‘crimes against humanity,’ and ‘genocide.’ The UN evades such invasions of light by speaking of Israeli ‘occupation’ (as if a static reality without history) and without challenging certain strong normative tendencies, including the criminalization of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, the delegitimation of colonialism, and the unlawfulness of annexation (as in Jerusalem by legal diktat and the West Bank by the de facto settlement phenomenon).


It was my experience that using words that connect the realities with the norms changes the discourse that is used by some of those at the UN and in the media, especially among those who seek genuinely to understand the significance of what is actually happening. Right language encourages right action. What is right language follows from how convincingly the word links to the reality being pointed to, and whether ideological obstacles can be overcome. The weakness of Israel’s position from the perspective of controversy is being expressed by their avoidance of substantive debate, for instance, challenging the labeling of occupation as apartheid, and recourse instead to character assassination of those who dared to connect these dots.


I feel that Israel is losing this struggle to obscure the true nature of their activities, and its devastating effects on Palestinian lives and rights. Whether this will mean that Israel will alter its policies is far less clear, and certainly not assured, and the outcome of the 2015 Israeli elections and formation of the new coalition government would suggest that the most extremist Israeli government ever has been installed under the leadership of Netanyahu and the Likud Party.


Nothing should be more shocking to Western liberal sensibilities than the appointment of Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party as the Minister of Justice in Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition government. Ms. Shaked, while being a member of the Knesset, became globally notorious as a result of her post sent around during the Israeli attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014 in which she called the entire Palestinian population the “enemy” that “should be destroyed.” Leaving no room doubt she went on to say that even that even “its elderly and and its women” should not be spared, and that the killing of Palestinian mothers is justified because they give birth “to little snakes.” Ali Abunimah asks rhetorically, “If Shaked’s post does not meet the legal definition of genocide then nothing does.” What is as shocking as these sentiments of Shaked is the silence of the Western media and leaders in the face of such an appointment in the only democracy in the region. Imagine the self-righteous angry posturing from liberals in the West if Hamas dared to select such a personality from their ranks to serve as the Minister of Justice. As it is the Hamas Covenant is invoked to confirm genocidal sentiments although subsequent behavior and political initiatives have moved in a far more accommodating direction. What is at stake is the discriminatory manner of either noticing or not noticing the elevation of adherents of ‘genocide’ to the pinnacles of state power. This two-way approach to language is fully displayed in the political discourse surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. And closer to home, compare Ayelet’s selection as Minister of Justice after her offensive tweet with the University of Illinois’ breach of Steven Salaita’s contract to become a tenured professor in reaction to his tweets expressing his outrage about Israel’s 51 day criminal assault on Gaza last summer. It conveys a lively sense of the extremity to which double standards are carried when it comes to Israeli behavior. 


There is another set of intense struggles around language that arise when a single word is insisted upon because of its emotive value, and possibly its legal ramifications. I am referring to the unconditional insistence of the Armenian diaspora that the catastrophic events that climaxed in the 1915 massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians should be acknowledged as ‘genocide’ by Turkey in the form of an official apology by the government and its leaders. The Armenian insistence stems from several motivations, it seems. Above all, the fact that once ‘genocide’ is admitted, then the link to ultimate evil is established beyond controversy, the Armenian narrative is validated beyond controversy, descendants of victims are granted a kind of clisure, and what happened to the Armenians is implicitly equated with what later happened to the Jews as a result of Naziism. It is psychologically important to prevail with respect to how these events are described so as to alleviate the pain endured over the years by the Armenian people because of what they have experienced as ‘genocide denial’ on the part of Turkey.


Turkey’s response to the Armenian allegations has evolved over the years, but it remains somewhat edgy. The 2014 statement of Erdogan seemed to accept the Armenian narrative to the extent of acknowledging the massacres and wrongdoings of 1915, while stopping well short of using the G-word. A few weeks ago, Prior to the centenary of April 24, Pope Francis brought his moral authority to bear by describing in a solemn mass as ‘genocide’ what happened to the Armenian people, and called upon Turkey to recognize these events for what they were. In reaction, Erdogan and other Turkish leaders stepped back, declaring that the issue of what happened in 1915 has not yet been sufficiently resolved by historians to justify attaching the word ‘genocide’ to this horrific set of events, that wrongdoing was not as one-sided as Armenians claim, and that the pope stepped out of line by issuing such an ill-informed and partisan statement concerning historical events that are complex and contested. 


Taking a different tack than that of Pope Francis, Barack Obama angered Armenians (even more than the pope angered Turks) by refusing to include the word ‘genocide’ in his centenary message to the Armenian people, instead using the Armenian descriptive Meds Yegham (the great calamity). Obama added that the 1915 events constituted a ‘massacre,’ produced ‘a terrible carnage,’ and were ‘a dark chapter of history.’ It seemed meant to be a strong statement of solidarity with the Armenian campaign, omitting only the word ‘genocide,’ but this omission was all that was needed to turn this expression of solidarity with the Armenian call for redress of grievances into an anti-Armenian statement that was unwelcome because it refused to show its support for all that now mattered to the Armenians, namely, that their victimization be regarded as ‘genocide’ beyond any doubt. For this goal to be reached, the endorsement by the U.S. Government is deemed to be necessary, and hence the Obama formulation fell decisively short.  No denunciation of the 1915 events that did not adopt the descriptive label of genocide was acceptable for the aggrieved and mobilized Armenian diaspora. This semantic hard line shows how much meaning can be invested in whether or not a particular word is used.


In response to Obama, representatives of the organized Armenian diaspora expressed their disappointment in harsh language, going so far as to say it would have been better if Obama had said nothing at all. They called ‘disgraceful’ his refusal to live up to a 2008 campaign pledge that if elected president he would identify the events of 1915 as genocide. Obama’s apparent justification for this semantic retreat is that as the head of state his primary obligation is to care for the strategic interests of the country, and Turkey as a NATO ally was too important to antagonize over such an issue. But my point here is to take account of the power of the word, as well as to notice that the language functions differently in private and public domains. To refer to 1915 as Meds Yegham is a strong affirmation of the Armenian narrative. By comparison, if Obama were to describe the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 as the nakba, there would be dancing in the streets of Ramallah and Gaza City. Such a designation, if ever used by an American president, would be correctly viewed as a mighty slap in Israel’s face and a great symbolic victory for the Palestinians. The point here is that the Armenians have been able to raise the threshold of semantic redress to the very highest level by this insistence on genocide, and accompanying sentiment that nothing else will be acceptable, while the Palestinians have yet to receive even a formal acknowledgement that they were victims of a calamity in the less incendiary terminology of Arabic, much less that of genocide or ethnic cleansing.


What are we to make of this bitter fight about the words used to describe a series of events that happened 100 years ago? First, and most obviously, words matter, and are made to matter deeply by political actors, especially when the purpose is to challenge conventional wisdom. Some words achieve a charismatic stature, and none more than genocide. [As an aside, I was never more attacked by Zionist activists and the mainstream media than when in 2007 I referred in a newspaper article to Israel’s policies of punitive siege imposed on the entire civilian population of Gaza as ‘genocidal’ (not ‘genocide’) in its intent and effect, a contention given governmental endorsement by Shaked’s appointment, but still manages to slip under the radar of Western moral and political sensibilities.


Secondly, the alleged Turkish reason for its objection to genocide is based on the factual contention that historical realities of 1915 remain contested, and can only be resolved by an international commission composed of historians enjoying unrestricted archival access. The Armenians summarily reject such an approach as proof of Turkish bad faith, insisting that there already exists an authoritative international consensus supportive of their claim of genocide due to the establishment of systematic, one-sided, deliberate massive slaughter designed to eliminate the Armenian presence in Turkey. Thirdly, the American position is aligned with the Armenians on the facts, but with the Turks on the appropriate language at governmental levels, which seems the weakest of all rationalizations for evading the charge of genocide. Fourthly, if the search is for a way to resolve the conflict, the Armenian tactic of invoking foreign governments and moral authority figures such as the pope, is dysfunctional although it does provide strong moral support for the campaign. If, on the contrary, the mobilization of support is primarily intended to generate a heightened collective memory of victimization among Armenians, then soliciting these external expressions of solidarity from leading moral authority figures is of great value.


I find my own view trapped midway between the positions put forward by Pope Francis and President Erdogan. On the facts, although as Turkey argues the events occurred in wartime with the Armenians acting as adversaries and sometimes engaged in violence against Turks, still the basic character of the events  certainly seemed to be genocidal in character, with entire Armenian communities being forced to make death marches. As a lawyer, however, I would refrain from using the label genocide as there was no crime of genocide in 1915, and criminal law can never properly have a retroactive application. As I have pointed out before, even the London Agreement of 1945 setting up the Nuremberg Tribunal to assess Nazi crimes did not include ‘genocide’ among the international crimes that could be charged even though the word genocide had been coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1944, or before.


Yet is it not appropriate in view of the consensus on the facts, to recognize the links to catastrophes that have been definitively called genocide by affixing the term to the onslaught against Armenians planned and executed by ‘the young Turks’ acting under Ottoman authority? Surely no sane person objects to categorizing the Holocaust as ‘genocide’ even though the death camps were established and the final solution occurred before the Genocide Convention of 1950, and was long underway before Raphael Lemkin had invented the word. Thinking along this line, and acknowledging that the crime of genocide had yet to be established, it would seem that it is politically, morally, and therapeutically correct to describe the 1915 tragic ordeal of the Armenian people as genocide, but legally irresponsible to do. In this gap between semantic contexts there seems room for a conflict resolving compromise. Yet the distinction drawn may seem obscure, and somewhat academic, unlikely in the end to be attractive for either side in the controversy.


How, then, can such an encounter over the word be resolved? It seems doubtful that Turkey will back down without some face saving ritual, and it is virtually certain that the Armenian diaspora having raised the temperature surrounding this single word to such a fever pitch will be content with anything less than a full fledged Turkish capitulation. The Armenian campaign will certainly continue to refuse to risk an ambiguous outcome arising from convening the sort of historical inquiry that Turkey proposes as the necessary next step in resolving the controversy. It doesn’t require much sophistication to conclude that the parties are stuck and likely to remain so for a long time.


This is a pity. Both sides would have much to gain by finding a way forward. It is quite likely that if the word issue was finessed, Turkey would be relieved, and go out of its way to preserve a vibrant memory of the events through such initiatives as a national museum, agreeing to a commemorative day, and hosting a variety of Armenian cultural events. If the Turkish leadership could persuade itself that the historical issue is substantially settled, and what matters is the present relationship, maybe then it could issue the kind of statement the Armenian people so fervently seek, and a mutually beneficial future could likely unfold. Both sides need to look in the mirror sufficiently to realize that more is at stake then fidelity to their fixed position for and against the use of the word genocide. Yet, the way in which psycho-political works, it is likely that the wait for such a sensible breakthrough to happen will be long. The burden of magnanimity is on the Turkish side, the stronger party and with less at stake concerning national identity.


Before concluding, I would mention another word that is obstructing reason and decency in the national and global political realm. It is ‘terrorism,’ used to demonize the grievances and the tactics of the adversary, and in mainstream discourse preempted by governments and their media apologists to create an unbridgeable moral distance between themselves and a political challenge.

“We refuse to negotiate with terrorists” is the rationale for keeping a hot war going. We should also notice that the language of terrorism is racialized. If the incident involves a white American, there is a tacit turn toward focusing on his mental condition and sociopathic sensibility, but if the suspect is Islamic a frantic search is undertaken to link the acts of violence with either jihadist groups or to trace its source to the Koran.


There are efforts to offset equalize word play. For instance, critics of hegemonic semantics introduce the phrase ‘state terror,’ to designate violence by state entities against their non-state enemies. This rejects the attempt by governments to immunize their own violence from censure, while branding the violence of their adversary as morally and legally prohibited because it is terror


We know that the accusatory language of terrorism is in the toolkit of governmental policymaking, and can be dropped when convenient. When a political actor is ready to negotiate, adherents of the former enemy are no longer described as ‘terrorists.’ Think how effortlessly the former leaders of the IRA, ANC, or even the PLO were seated at diplomatic dinner tables when the right moment arrived! Yet until the appointed hour, relying on the terminology of terrorism is the equivalent of a hunting license that can be used as a rationale for torture, disproportionate force, civilian casualties, extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, and special ops wherever, whenever without regard to constraints of law or morality.


Public reason in democratic society would greatly benefit from a renunciation of terrorism as a respectable term of art. Instead, the focus could be placed on what to do in effective and humane ways to sustain security and safeguard just political orders. In effect, to forego the temptation to call the enemy ‘a terrorist’ the path would be clear to talk as well as fight, and to resist the absurd dichotomy that we are totally ‘good’ and the adversary is totally ‘evil.’


But what if the insurgent challenge is demonizing the established order by contending that it is decadent, corrupt, and oppressive? Is it not reasonable if such a critique jumps the barriers of law, and mobilizes for violent struggle, to respond? Of course it is not only reasonable, but morally and politically imperative to respond as persuasively as possible, and to uphold the security of what is deemed legitimate societal arrangements. What is not helpful, actually diversionary, is to respond as if the struggle was between good and evil, and that is what happens as soon as the insurgent challenger is labeled

‘a terrorist.’ Such language exempts the defenders of the status quo from self-criticism and considering accommodationist tactics, proscribing negotiation and assessment of grievances. The response to ‘terrorists’ is war talk, rendering peace talk as irrelevant of worse.


Shall we also abandon the label of ‘state terror’ for crimes of the state associated with violence directed toward the innocent? Yes, as part of a wider semantic contract to banish ‘terrorism’ from the lexicon of political discourse. Yet, not unilaterally, as under existing conditions ‘state terror’ at least creates some understanding that it is the manner of deploying violence that should be repudiated rather than the blackening of insurgent reputation. As terrorism is used on behalf of the state, even violence carefully directed at state structures and their human instrumentalities are called ‘terrorists.’ In any event, state terror calls attention to policies and practices, and does not purport to demonize the state itself, leaving open possibilities of diplomacy and reconciliation.


At the very least, it would be a salutary move to call for a moratorium on the use of the word ‘terrorist’ from this day forward. And as with the fierce ideological struggles over ‘genocide’ it is best to know when to be provocative so as to expose suppressed realities and when to be pacifying so as to calm the atmosphere raising hopes for compromise and a shift of energies in the direction of nonviolent struggle.

Apartheid and the Palestinian National Struggle

28 Apr

Apartheid and the Palestinian National Struggle


Preliminary Observations


In this period when the centenary of the genocidal victimization of the Armenian people in 1915 is being so widely observed and discussed, it seems especially appropriate to call attention to the comparable victimization of the Palestinian people. This second story of prolonged collective victimization also received its jump start almost a century ago with the issuance by the British Foreign Office of the Balfour Declaration supporting the Zionist movement project of establishing a Jewish national home in historic Palestine. The most striking difference between these two experiences of severe historical wrongs is that the Armenian people are seeking acknowledgement and apology for what was done to their ancestors a century ago, and possibly seeking reparations, while the Palestinian people may sometime in the future have the opportunity to seek similar redress for the past but now their urgent focus is upon liberation from present daily structures of acute oppression. This Palestinian situation is tragic, in part, because there is no clear path to liberation, and the devastation of oppressive circumstances have gone on decade after decade with no end in view.


The political puzzle of the Israel/Palestine conflict continues to frustrate American policymakers despite their lengthy diplomatic engagement in the search for a peaceful future that satisfies both peoples. There are significant changes, of course, that have occurred as time unwinds. Perhaps, the most crucial change has involved the gradual extension of Israeli control over virtually the whole of historic Palestine with American acquiescence. This coincides with a growing and more vivid awareness around the world of how much suffering and humiliation the Palestinian people have endured over the course of the last century, and the degree to which this frozen situation can be blamed on the unlimited willingness of the United States to deploy its geopolitical muscle on Israel’s behalf.


My approach to the Palestinian struggle reflects four points of departure: first, regarding the long suffering of the Palestinian people as having become the primary international moral challenge of our time, which does not deny that there are other equally serious moral challenges, but none is so implicated in wider global patterns of past injustice or as salient in the political consciousness of the peoples of the world; secondly, believing that international law and morality should be allowed to provide essential guidance in determining the contours of a just and sustainable peace between these two long embattled peoples; thirdly, emphasizing the decisive liberating role of nonviolent civil society militancy in finding a solution for the conflict, achieving liberation from below by the mobilization of people, not the action governments as offering the most promising present scenario for ending the Palestinian ordeal; and fourthly, approaching the struggle for Palestine as matter of human wellbeing without privileging a particular ethnicity, nationality, and religion, that is, from a sense of shared humanity rather than from adversary perspectives of Jewish and Palestinian exclusivity.  


The Palestinian struggle is about far more than the ‘end to occupation,’ although the concreteness of the Israeli occupation of Palestine lends itself to visualization, as would Israeli withdrawal, and this partly explains why so many liberal activists equate peace with ending the occupation. Yet conceiving the conflict in this territorial manner is profoundly misleading. It ignores the depth and complexity of what is at stake for both Jews and Palestinians, but especially for Palestinians. I consider the Palestinian national struggle within its broader scope and less distinct parameters as a persisting struggle to achieve the right of self-determination. Self-determination is the solemn promise of common Article 1 in the two international human rights covenants made to all peoples in the world, in effect, a legal, moral, cultural, and frequently a political entitlement to determine collective destiny so long as the equal right of other peoples is not encroached upon. These 1966 covenants set forth the content of international human rights law in their most authoritative treaty form. The extended inability to realize this right is the core tragedy of the Palestinian people, informing the hardships and humiliations of daily life.


In some respects, even describing the Palestinian goal in the language of self-determination is too restrictive, and by itself, not very clarifying. Ultimately the preconditions and contours of a just and sustainable peace is what should concern us most. It is an outcome that controversially also addresses the overlapping and conflicting right of self-determination enjoyed by those of Jewish identity who are now long enough resident in Israel to possess their own legitimate basis for claiming self-determination. The key strategy of accommodation is to find the best formula for reconciling these basic competing claims of self-determination, and to reject as unacceptable contentions of their fundamental incompatibility or their resolution by force of arms. It is important at this stage to recognize that Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism are making it increasingly difficult for the affected parties to find such a formula, much less give it life.


When considering the content of this underlying right of self-determination additional substantive concerns are disclosed, above all the fate of the several million Palestinian refugees many living for more than 50 years in miserable refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. If Palestinian goals or the requirements of peace are confined to the territorial language of ending the occupation, the plight of Palestinian refugees tends to be left in limbo or at best consigned to the periphery of peacemaking that implicitly denies any right of repatriation and leaves the refugee communities without adequate representation.


There are other challenges facing peacemakers, as well. Edward Said, and other sensitive commentators on the interminable Palestinian ordeal have repeatedly observed that one catastrophic dispossession, that of the Palestinians in 1948, in no way justifies seeking a second dispossession, this time of Jews. In effect, the illegitimacies of the past that have victimized the Palestinians and produced the present intolerable state of affairs, must be put to one side in peacemaking contexts, and the future framed by reference to how Palestinians and Jews can best live together when account is taken of all the circumstances of past and present, including the allocation of rights by the application of international law. This injunction of mutuality should not be interpreted as a readiness to forget the past, or to minimize its relevance. Rather it is an insistence that replicating past wrongs by superimposing on all of historic Palestine a new power structure that excludes or subjugates Jews is not ethically acceptable or politically feasible as goals of conceiving Palestinian empowerment. Said did insist, however, that grave past injustices endured by the Palestinians, especially the massive dispossessions of 1948 and again in 1967, must be confronted and acknowledged by Israel before any sustainable progress toward peace and reconciliation is possible. Similarly, there is no way of reconciling the contending claims of self-determination if Zionism clings to its demand of ‘a Jewish state’ and an exclusive unlimited right of return for Jews only.


The contention that Israel has become an apartheid state is highly relevant to grasping the fate endured by the Palestinian people over the course of the last hundred years. Most poignantly, if the quest for Palestinian self-determination continues to fail, the outcome of the unresolved struggle will almost certainly result in the further entrenchment of existing systematic structures of ethnic discrimination. Such structures possess the key elements of the international crime of apartheid. If this is so, it means that the very arrangement relied upon to sustain public order in Palestine and Israel is itself an ongoing international crime of utmost gravity. Apartheid is designated as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of 2002, the treaty that regulates the operations of the International Criminal Court.


In other words, the present and the future of the Israel/Palestine relationship cannot be understood in neutral, symmetrical, and static terms of both sides more or less equally thwarting the path leading to conflict resolution and enduring the same consequences if that path remains blocked. Unfortunately, this has long been the official American rebuke to both parties. John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, and President Barack Obama, never tire of telling Israel and Palestine that each must make ‘painful concessions’ if the deadlock is to be broken and peace to be attained. Such language conveys a fundamentally distorted image of the present reality because it refuses to take account of the essential and vital difference between the situation of the oppressor and the oppressed, a difference that becomes unmistakable if you experience directly the many dimensions of everyday inequality between the two peoples. [this point is often made by Edward Said. See for instance his last interview: “My Right of Return,” (with Ari Shavit), in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (Pantheon, 2001, 443-458, esp. 445-449.]


The imagery of deadlock and equal responsibility for the unsatisfactory present reality also falsely implies a static situation that would seem detrimental to both sides. This is a false image because with the passage of time Palestine loses, and Israel gains. This is so territorially, but also to live as the oppressor is consistent in most respects with living well, while living under conditions of oppression or as refugees in to varying degrees living badly. Of course, power shifts are common, and roles can be reversed, although this does not seem likely anytime soon.


The existing Israel and Palestine interplay is constantly evolving. This understanding leads me to have a quite different overview of the present situation that I will express in a deliberately provocative way–either the future will witness a further entrenching of the Israeli apartheid state or Israel will abandon and dismantle current apartheid structures and accept a Palestinian call for peace in accord with international human rights law, and more generally, agree on steps that need to be taken to realize the Palestinian right of self-determination. As previously stated such a Palestinian realization of self-determination must not be exercised at the expense of a complementary Jewish right of self-determination. This is not meant as an indirect endorsement of Zionist goals as articulated by currently dominant Israeli forces. It is obviously difficult to adjudicate between these overlapping claims of self-determination, and doing so most likely requires help from genuinely detached third parties. Putting this more concretely, a spiritual homeland for the Jewish people in ancient Palestine would could be maintained, but not the current Jewish state with its preferential ethnically framed nationality laws, making Israel what the Jewish leader Henry Siegman perceptively identifies as an ‘ethnocracy’ rather than a ‘democracy.’


Let me acknowledge, without delving into the matter, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the formal representatives of the Palestinian people in international venues, has been partly responsible for the confusion about these fundamental points by seeming to go along with both a territorial definition of the conflict and a solution based on the Oslo process despite it being tainted by the United States acting in the role of intermediary. The PA posits its primary goal to be the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state on the currently occupied territory of the West Bank, and indeed claims that such a state already exists, a position affirmed by the General Assembly in a resolution adopted on November 29, 2012. This also allows Israel and the United States to continue treating ‘the peace process’ as necessitating direct negotiations between the parties despite Israel’s multiple efforts to de facto annex portions of the West Bank at Palestine’s expense ever since the early 1990s. By now it should be evident that these direct negotiations have given the Palestinians zero benefits for the last 20+ years while bestowing on Israel a golden opportunity to pursue its expansionist agenda in violation of international law. The fact that Israel continues to lend rhetorical support to such a peace process sustains for many the illusion that its government favors a genuine effort to solve the conflict through diplomatic compromise. Washington does its part, going sheepishly along not only because it habitually defers to Israel, but because playing this particular diplomatic game enables the United States to continue portraying itself as patron of a process dedicated to producing peace.




Understanding Israel’s Recourse to Apartheid


At a conference at the National Press Club on April 10, 2015 in Washington devoted to assessing and depicting the Israel Lobby as it operates in the United States, the influential Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, painted a picture of the current Palestinian ordeal concisely with a few verbal brush strokes. He emphatically told the audience what every follower of this ‘peace process’ should have understood long ago: “The two state solution is dead!” What does that mean? According to Levy, neither Israeli motivation nor any practical possibility of moving toward Palestinian self-determination is present, even in that constricted and inadequate sense of territorial empowerment with respect to currently occupied Palestine. Israel’s main policies have long been subversive of the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestine, the major presupposition of the ‘two state solution.’ The centerpiece of this subversion is, of course, the settlement phenomenon—the establishment and continuous expansion of 121 settlements authorized by Israel (along with 102 so-called ‘settlement outposts’ that are formally unauthorized but are nevertheless officially supported and subsidized) that now provide unlawful homes for between 700,000-750,000 Israeli settlers. This massive encroachment on any future independent Palestine has been abetted by the multi-billion dollar construction of a network of settler only roads, and by building a separation barrier of several hundred miles many segments of which cut deep into occupied Palestinian territory. This notorious wall was authoritatively declared illegal by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice back in an advisory opinion issued in 2004, endorsed by the General Assembly, and summarily rejected by Israel.


Although Levy didn’t explain exactly what he meant by using the word ‘dead,’ it can be interpreted in two distinct ways: first, as Benjamin Netanyahu himself proclaimed in the recent Israeli electoral campaign, as long as he and the Likud Party control the government, Israel will never allow the formation of a Palestinian state in historic Palestine. This also seems to express the real views of a majority of Israeli citizens, and thus the utterance of views to the contrary by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders for international consumption should be disregarded as a cynical move to placate public opinion; and secondly, even if the words were to be treated as sincere, the settlements, roads, and wall make a viable sovereign Palestinian state incapable of establishment even if Israel some day possesses the political will to bring it into being.


The two-state solution has long been what the NY Times columnist Paul Krugman calls a ‘Zombie Idea’, that is, a discredited idea that continues to be accepted as the way to solve a problem because it upholds the self-interest of some powerful political actors, thereby diverting attention from alternative solutions that could be burdensome for those who benefit from freezing the status quo; it is a zombie, as in being a ghost, which lives on beyond its natural death causing torment to those it haunts. In ghostly respect the two sate solution continues to be treated as the only solution for the convenience of the parties, including the United States, Europe, and the UN, despite their private awareness of its irrelevance. During my period as UN Special Rapporteur I was often privy to corridor conversations that acknowledged the absence of any hope for a two state solution, but in public it was business as usual with these same individuals expressing their fervent hopes that talks would soon resume and finally find common ground.



In the contrasting theater of ‘reality politics’ the prospects are for further Israeli unilateralism. This impression has been reinforced by the selection by the Knesset two years ago of Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin as President of Israel. Rivlin is a rightest Likud figure long known for his unapologetic embrace of a one state solution that envisions the Israeli incorporation of the whole of occupied Palestine. Netanyahu, a wily politician, differs from Rivlin in fundamental respects, and despite both men belonging to the same political party, they disagree on key issues and are personal antagonists: Netanyahu has previously given lip service internationally to a diplomatic process built around bilateral negotiations, as well as expressing his provisional support on behalf of Israel to a two-state solution; somewhat surprisingly Rivlin, unlike Netanyahu, strongly opposes an apartheid approach to internal Israeli security. In its place, Rivlin offers the Palestinians a Faustian Bargain, if Palestinians agree to live in an orderly manner while foregoing self-determination they deserve to be treated as fully equal citizens within a Jewish state comprising Greater Israel, including a guaranty of unrestricted political participation that might even include a Palestinian victory someday in national elections. [elaborated in by David Remnick, “The One-State Reality,” The New Yorker, Nov. 17, 2014.] To obtain this equality of treatment, the Palestinians would be expected to accept this consummation of the Zionist Project in a form that was originally proposed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky the Zionist visionary who inspired the founding of the Likud Party!


It should be obvious that the Palestinians will never agree to such an outcome of their national struggle, which would amount to the acceptance of a humiliating political surrender. In the unlikely event that the Ramallah leadership of the PA ever dared to accept such a deal, perhaps disguised in its presentation by granting Palestinians some community and local rights of self-government, the Palestinian people are almost certain to reject it. Such an arrangement would not bring peace, but at most it would be seen as nothing other than one more ceasefire to be broken by a further cycle of renewed resistance.


In effect, combining the physical encroachment on any Palestinian expectations of a viable sovereign state of their own with the rightward drift of internal Israeli politics, makes the apartheid solution a near certainty whether in the form of a perpetuation of the present condition of irresolution or by adopting a version of the Israeli one-state outcome within which discriminatory structures will have to be maintained to uphold public order. In light of such futures, robust Palestinian resistance can be anticipated, and for Israel to contain and suppress it will require police and paramilitary structures of control at least as strong as has has long been operative in the West Bank, and in different modalities in Gaza, ever since occupation commenced in 1967.


Again referring to Levy’s Washington talk, he regards the cumulative impact of the occupation as having produced the “systematic dehumanization of the Palestinians.” Collective dehumanization is an almost sure sign of the presence of apartheid when those experiencing abuse are ethnically and territorially distinct, and have a sufficient demographic weight as to consider themselves as ‘a people’ rather than a victimized minority.

My own experience with Palestinians has certainly confirmed this dynamic of dehumanization, but it has also been coupled with shining instances of Palestinian humanization despite everything as well as with Israeli dehumanization associated with forcing its will by brute force on a totally vulnerable people being denied their most elemental rights.


At this point, a glance at history helps us appreciate the perversity of this emergence of apartheid in Palestine. It needs to be remembered that the Zionist project received its first decisive international endorsement in a strictly colonialist form, by way of an assurance in 1917 given by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, the head of the Zionist Movement in Britain, that the British government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” At this initial stage, a Jewish state, as distinct from a national home, was neither endorsed in the text nor envisioned as an overt goal, although Zionist leaders seemed to have had this in mind from the beginnings of the movement in the late 19th century. Even the limited idea of a Jewish homeland was qualified by the clause “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”


The Balfour promise of a Jewish national home was intended to be fused with the British plan to govern the whole of Palestine primarily in pursuit of its strategic goals of safeguarding trade routes to India, and especially the Suez Canal. Britain resorted to its habitual colonial tactic of ‘divide and rule’ with respect to its administration of relations between Jews and Arabs. But as the peace diplomacy unfolded after World War I, the British were forced by the United States to roll back their overt colonial ambitions, and operate within the mandate system that entailed an international commitment to grant Palestine eventual national independence as a single independent state but also contained the Balfour promise of a Jewish national home. In actual fact, the British governed Palestine as a de facto colony during the mandatory period from 1920-1948, but their divide and rule approach backfired as the Jewish presence disproportionately increased and as Zionist statist ambitions became evident they began colliding with British policy. In the end Zionist extremists resorted to systematic terrorism with the goal of inducing the British to abandon Palestine. Palestine became ungovernable, and the British shifted from their divide and rule tactics to the advocacy of a partition plan that would divide Palestine into two national entities, one for Palestinians, the other for Jews.


After World War II, when Britain could no longer handle the burdens of administering Palestine, the UN was given the job of addressing these conflicting claims, and in GA Resolution 181 influenced by the British approach, a partition plan for Palestine was approved over the objection of Arab countries. In the UN plan, 55% of historic Palestine was awarded to the Jewish claimants, and the remaining 45% to the Palestinians. Jerusalem was given to neither side nor split, but was designated as a corpus separatum to be administered as an international enclave by the UN with the Trusteeship Council given the assignment.


There was no attempt by the UN to implement, or even consider, self-determination by consulting the will of the resident population in Palestine, which was then overwhelmingly opposed to partition. Partition was a paternalistic initiative of the international community that in effect ratified the settler colonialist approach of the Zionist movement as initially facilitated by Britain and later greatly strengthened due to developments in Europe, especially Germany. Not surprisingly partition was at the time rejected by the Palestinian majority population and accepted by the Zionists, resulting in the 1948 War, decisively won by the Jewish side. This battlefield outcome shrank the Palestinian remnant from 55% to 22% of the land, and also de-internationalized the city of Jerusalem, putting West Jerusalem under the control of Israel and East Jerusalem under the administrative authority of Jordan ; in the course of the 1948 war, there occurred the forcible dispossession of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians accompanied by the destruction and depopulation of as many as 531 Palestinian villages. The Palestinians recall and observe these events as the nakba, or catastrophe, a narration of national tragedy that combines the politics of dispossession with the tactics of massive ethnic cleansing.


Subsequent consequences, associated with refugee camps in neighboring countries, the 1967 War that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the rest of Palestine, and intensifying hostility toward Gaza, especially after 2006, are viewed by Palestinians as a continuation of the nakba, conceived now more adequately as a process through time rather than as a circumscribed event.


If we consider the sweep of developments over the course of the century a pattern emerges that continues into the present. Put simply: ever since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Palestinians have survived within a steadily diminished horizon of expectations, while the Zionist Movement was continuously widening its horizons. The unfolding of this dual process can be crudely expressed by reference to three periods: the first, lasting from 1917 to 1947, the mandate period during which the demographic balance of Palestine started shifting due to Jewish immigration, a dynamic accelerated by the emergence of Nazism that also increased international attention to and support for a Jewish homeland, and later, Israeli statehood; secondly, from 1948 to 1967 during a state-building period in Israel, with the West Bank and East Jerusalem administered as occupied territory in the aftermath of the 1948 War by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt; thirdly, from 1967 to the present when these Palestinian territories (as well as the Syrian Golan Heights) were shifted from Arab occupation to Israeli occupation, during which de facto annexation of portions of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights took place. Gaza was first occupied and settled, with Israel ‘disengaging’ in 2005, but continuing to exert effective control over Gaza through its total regulation of borders, air space, and shoreline.


The UN is typically criticized for devoting too much attention to Palestinian grievances while overlooking other issues where the humanitarian urgency is as great or greater. This criticism that is frequently invoked by political leaders in Israel and the U.S. completely overlooks the degree to which the UN, and the League before it, have a special responsibility for the failure to resolve the conflict over Palestine. No where else in the world can such a humanitarian fiasco be laid so directly at the feet of the UN making it seem more appropriate to blame the Organization for doing too little or doing what it did ineptly, rather than blaming it for being obsessively focused on Israel’s wrongdoing with respect to Palestine and Palestinians.





The Politics and Ethics of Naming


Calling the Israeli domination of Palestinians within the various governmental zones of Israeli domination apartheid is one facet of the wider controversy. For ardent defenders of Israel the mere allegation of apartheid is inflammatory and viewed as so totally inaccurate as to suggest that anyone calling Israel an apartheid state is an anti-Semite. Israel defends its policies toward Palestinians in Israel and under occupation by invoking the democratic character of Israel in which Palestinians vote, form political parties, and enjoy membership in the Knesset. For Palestinians who live outside of Israel under occupation in the West Bank or Gaza, Israel justifies its policies by security considerations. And for the Palestinian refugees, Israel shifts blame to the Arab countries in which they are resident.


As the accusation of Israeli apartheid has become more and more mainstream pro-Israeli responses have become harsher. Even revered and eminent figures such as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu after expressing their opinion as to the actual and potential apartheid character of Israel have been defamed. Despite this effort to intimidate the use of the terminology of apartheid to describe not only the occupation of the West Bank but also the discriminatory regimes operative in Israel itself and East Jerusalem, as well as the oppressive securitization of Gaza, is increasing. Apartheid as the descriptive label of Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people has been gaining acceptability throughout the world, including within the UN. It has also captured the imagination of many campus groups in the West that organize Palestinian solidarity efforts and justify the BDS campaign under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid Week,’ believing that the idea of apartheid now better expresses the essential character of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people than any other descriptive language. In retaliation, Israel and its NGO global network of support are seeking to criminalize civil society initiatives that flow from the apartheid analysis.


It is important to distinguish the political use of the terminology of apartheid in expressive and impressionistic modes from its legal usage in international law, although the two types of usage overlap. The legal conception of apartheid has evolved via the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid adopted in 1973. This treaty criminalized apartheid and made clear that the essence of the crime involved maintaining systematic regimes of extreme discrimination based on race or ethnicity, and although derived from the South African experience the crime was not limited to that particular type of discriminatory separation. The Rome Statute of 2002 that underpins the operations of the International Criminal Court categorizes the crime of apartheid within its broader classification of crimes against humanity in Article 7(1)(j). Article 7 provides a clear definition of apartheid as an: “..institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of managing that regime.” It is understood that ‘race’ is used here in a broad sense to encompass diverse ‘ethnicities’ or ‘religions.’


The political use of apartheid in relation to Israel does not attempt to pass legal judgment. It is rather an assessment based on the systematic character of structures of domination and discrimination that cannot be convincingly rationalized as either non-discriminatory or by reference to the reasonable requirements of Israeli security. In the background of the apartheid debate is the overarching idea of international humanitarian law as mainly set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention to the effect that an occupying power has as its primary obligation the protection of civilians living in a society under occupation, subject only to the right of the occupier to adopt measures necessary to uphold security. The apartheid perception with respect to Palestinians is diverse and fragmented. This corresponds to the sub-regimes of control that Israel has established to deal with different segments of the Palestinian resident population.


The most clearly delineated apartheid structures are maintained in the West Bank where there is a pervasive subjugation of the Palestinian population by a regime of rightlessness as administered by Israeli military authorities, and to some extent since 1993 delegated to the Palestinian Authority. This regime gives rise to contrasts between the Palestinian experiences of everyday abuse and uplifting Israeli experiences of the rule of law and the stable life circumstances enjoyed by unlawful settlers. This bright line of discrimination is reinforced by the checkpoints, house demolitions, settler only roads, an intrusive separation wall, settler violence, and epitomized by the grossly unequal allocation of Palestinian water resources.


The 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza, especially since the Israeli ‘disengagement’ of 2005 followed by the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, have been subjected to the most severe sub-regime of discriminatory domination. The Gazan civilian population has been locked within the borders of Gaza and subject to periodic military attacks, chillingly described in Israel as ‘mowing the lawn.’ Jerusalem and pre-1967 Israel are administered by the government of Israel, and here discriminatory laws are based on nationality and administrative rulings limiting Palestinian rights and stability of residence, denying family unification, restricting employment and education opportunities, and imposing the domination of a Jewish state, creating a situation of pervasive human insecurity for the Palestinian minority. There are also about 1.6 million Palestinians living behind the Green Line within Israel’s 1967 borders as Israeli citizens, while being denied real equality due to this wide variety of nationality laws that blatantly privilege Jewish nationality.


In its totality, the Israeli apartheid system can be compared to the colonial governance approach of the British. The British derived security by ‘divide and rule’ tactics while the Israel approach can be summarized as ‘divide, dominate, and discriminate.’ In the first case, we have the traditional format of a colonial power, while in the second, the most obvious label is that of ‘settler colonialism,’ yet it must be particularized in relation to Palestine to be fully understood.




The Palestinian National Movement


The Palestinian struggle has gone through a series of overlapping stages during the course of almost a century. There was an early period of a building internal resistance by the native population to continuing Jewish immigration during the mandate period coupled with growing Zionist influence and militancy in Palestine. The British colonialist approach tended to support this buildup of the Jewish presence in Palestine, initially feeling more kinship with Jews as mainly fellow Europeans. This widening cleavage eventually led the British and then the UN to seek stability and conflict resolution via partition, dividing the two peoples territorially, with the hope of creating separate polities. The British reached the conclusion, which was endorsed by the UN, that Jews and Palestinians would never peacefully live together, and that separation was the only viable approach. This idea of partition, eventually accepted as a goal by many world leaders, including those representing the Palestinian people, has since the 1990s morphed into ‘the two state solution.’ Among its original flaws, aside from the arrogance of imposing a solution from without and above, was the dispersion of the native Palestinian population throughout all of Palestine, whereas the Jewish population was confined to certain portions of the country. This meant that even with dispossession many Palestinians would find themselves captive in the incipient Jewish state, and consigned to the status of a subjugated minority in what had been their homeland for countless generations.


The failure of partition led to a phase of Arab belligerency in relation to the Palestinian struggle. In wars waged in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, it was the goal of neighboring Arab countries to liberate Palestine and Jerusalem by joint military action. These efforts were unsuccessful, resulting in a series of Israeli military victories, coupled with territorial expansion, and belligerent occupation.


The failure of such liberation from without was followed by a period of resistance from within, the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. This rise of national resistance activity was especially pronounced in the years following the 1967 War, a period of nationalist resurgence by the Palestinian people. It was in this period that Palestinian armed resistance activity began being portrayed in the West as ‘terrorism’ and its suppression by Israel was welcomed, especially in reaction to internationalizing the Palestinian struggle through the staging of shocking violent incidents at the Munich Olympics, hijacking, exploding planes, attacking airports and passenger ships.


Armed struggle by Palestinians also was discredited and defeated by Israel’ effective counter-terrorist tactics and by its ability to tilt in its favor the media treatment of the conflict. In a spontaneous show of civil society activism, the Intifada of 1987 created a new previously unexpected challenge to Israeli dominance. In a show of populist unity and courage, ‘the war of the stones’ was defiantly waged by the Palestinian people. It communicated to the world the dramatic refusal of the Palestinian people to allow the occupation to be normalized. The inequalities in weaponry and suffering between the two sides began to shift the balance in the war of ideas and images, especially giving enhanced credibility to Palestinian narratives of victimization.


In response, the conflict once again became internationalized. The United States playing a leading role, culminating in the formulation of the Oslo Framework of Principles solemnized by Itzaak Rabin and Yasir Arafat with a historic handshake on the White House Lawn in 1993. Oslo diplomacy reflected the power disparity that exists between Israel and Palestine, and the naively bewildering trust of the Palestinian leadership in the good offices of the U.S. Government to deliver a decent agreement. It should not have been surprising that the diplomacy over these many years was of a one-sided variety that relied on fruitless periodic negotiations between the parties, with the United States serving as intermediary and wrongly assigning blame for failures to find an agreed solution to the inflexibility of the Palestinians.


The unwillingness of Israel even to stop settlement expansion during the negotiating sessions both exhibited the one-sidedness of the process and the underlying absence of political will in Israel to reach a fair settlement. Of course, there is an element of subjectivity with respect to the content of ‘fair,’ but international law could have offered guidelines had it been allowed to be relevant. And what is objectively clear was translating Israel’s unlawful ‘facts on the ground’ into new negotiating positions that continuously diminished Palestinian prospects. In retrospect, the Oslo diplomacy was based on the relative bargaining power of the two sides, combined with the intensity of their respective political will. It was also shaped by the American deference to Israel’s policy priorities, above all, its refusal to give ground on the right of return of dispossessed Palestinian refugees or to accept shared governmental authority in Jerusalem.


The intifada was the basis for what later became the legitimacy war strategy of struggle. The energy of Palestinian resistance shifted from top down to bottom-up, that is, to the agency of civil society. The formal authority or top-down Palestinian leadership is being bypassed. There is a rejection under existing conditions of both armed struggle and inter-governmental diplomacy, including via the UN. Major mobilization efforts are directed at delegitimizing Israeli policies and practices, as well as stimulating militant forms of nonviolent coercive support for Palestinian empowerment and liberation. This Palestinian version of a legitimacy war has been deeply influenced by the successful anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, and has centered its actions in relation to a comparable BDS Campaign that responded to an appeal from a coalition of Palestinians NGOs in 2004, and has been gaining global momentum, including within the United States, especially, in the aftermath of the massive military onslaughts carried out against Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014.


Many sympathetic commentators believe that the Palestinians are winning this Legitimacy War, including the important Palestinian founder of the Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah. It is also the thesis of my book Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope. I take note of the international experience since the end of World War II in which the side that prevailed in a Legitimacy War generally controlled the political outcome of conflicts, despite being militarily inferior. Recourse to a Legitimacy War strategy usually reflects two kinds of developments: a societal sense of moral outrage that combines with the refusal of governments and international institutions to promote a just solution.


This unfolding of the legitimacy discourse has definitely moved in a direction favorable to Palestinian hopes. In the years following World War II, Israel was seen as the David battling the Arab Goliath, with Israel scoring unexpected military victory after military victory against hostile larger neighbors accused of seeking to throw the Jewish people into the sea. The Palestinians were portrayed as ‘rejectionists’ that defied the UN’s plan widely deemed at the time in the West to be a reasonable compromise. This negative image of Palestinian political behavior was further strengthened by the portrayal of Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism.’ This violence was widely perceived as unacceptably threatening the Jewish people, and reminded the world of the Holocaust and the fate of Jews during the Nazi period. Such a link between Jewish victimization in the Holocaust and the Palestinian/Arab struggle was strongly promoted through intense Israeli propaganda efforts. (hasbara)


This image, which remains strong in the West, and certainly is powerful in the United States where Israel is viewed not only as the most admirable and dynamic country in the region, but also as the most important strategic partner Washington possesses and a recipient of intense support in Christian evangelical circles. This strategic bonding was greatly facilitated by Israel’s military prowess as revealed in its victorious wars, especially the 1967 War, and given additional reinforcement through its long experience of counter-terrorism that was treated as a major Israeli contribution to American security policies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.


Concluding Comments


The basic drift of my argument is as follows:

            –UN authority was not able to obtain a solution;

            –armed struggle and international statecraft were tried, but both failed to resolve the conflict or improve the Palestinian position;

            –what this leaves is either Israeli unilateralism, carrying out the Zionist endgame of incorporating the whole of Jerusalem and the West Bank into Israel, and claiming to be the state of the entire Jewish people, or a Legitimacy War victory by the Palestinian people that induces a cycle of ‘new diplomacy’ on a level playing field;

            –in the interim, any further attempts to revive the Oslo diplomacy, even enjoying should they enjoy the cynical of the Netanyahu government should be resisted as a dead end that is more harmful to the Palestinian struggle than is facing the realities of Israeli expansionism.


Given this understanding of the conflict, and considering the extraordinary record of military assistance given to Israel by the United States government, the American people have an increasingly dishonorable connection to the conflict. The American indulgence of Israeli exceptionalism includes issuing a free pass to Israel when it secretly became a nuclear weapons state. American citizens have a special responsibility for the long ordeal of the Palestinian people. The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel observed “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” The Legitimacy War scenario gives each of us ample opportunities to exercise our individual responsibility. We owe the Palestinian people and ourselves nothing less.


Weakening and Discrediting the UN: The Mission of Israeli QGOs

17 Apr

Weakening and Discrediting the UN: The Mission of Israeli QGOs


[Prefatory Note: This post is the full text of my presentation at an excellent conference “The Israeli Lobby: Is it good for US? Is it Good for Israel?” National Press Club, Washington, D.C., April 10, 2015; the conference was sponsored and organized by the editorial leadership of the magazine Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, which brings together some of the best writing on the Israel/Palestine struggle, as well as covering other regional issues. I encourage readers of this blog to look at the full conference either at the YouTube website or the audio recording at http://www.israellobbyus.org Although there were many illuminating presentations during the day, and I would call particular attention to the memorable remarks of two highly informed Israelis, Gideon Levy and Miko Peled. The tacit conspiracy of media silence has been well described in a release prepared by Washington Report <http://www.wrmea.org/action-alert-archives/did-media-make-itself-irrelevant-boycotting-the-israel-lobby-conference.html&gt;]




There are no better texts for assessing the damage done to the role and reputation of the UN by the Israeli Lobby than to consider Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statements boasting about the U.S. success in protecting Israel from criticisms arising from its non-fulfillment of responsibilities under international law and as a member of the United Nations. It should be understood that the lobby does not act in a vacuum, and its leverage is greatly enhanced in global settings to the considerable extent that its priorities overlap with the strategic and economic interests of the United States in the Middle East.


Despite the tensions with the White House associated with Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress, Kerry proudly informed an ABC TV news boradcast: “We have intervened on Israel’s behalf..a couple of hundred times in over 75 different fora.” [“This Week,” Feb. 28, 2015]. And then when addressing the Human Rights Council Kerry included a statement that could just as well been drafted by AIPAC or Israel’s ambassador to the UN: “It must be said that the HRC’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.” And further, “we will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the UN system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel, not just in the HRC but wherever it occurs.” [Remarks, Palais des Nations, Geneva, March 2, 2015] What is striking about these kinds of statements by our highest ranking government officials dealing with foreign policy is the disconnect between these reassurances of unconditional support and Israel’s record of persistent disregard of its obligation under international law and with respect to the authority of the UN. In addressing an AIPAC gathering a few weeks ago, Representative Lindsay Graham curried favor by telling the audience that as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “I’m gonna put the UN on notice” that he would go after its funding if the Organization takes any steps to ‘marginalize’ Israel.



During my six years as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine I had the opportunity to observe the manner in which a group of international and national so-called NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are closely aligned with Israel give priority to deflecting criticisms of Israel and discrediting with the temerity to offer critical assessments of Israel’s conduct. I say ‘so-called’ because it is more revealing and accurate to regard these political actors as ‘quasi-government orgnaizations’ rather than NGOs. These covertly aligned entities now hide behind the NGO label to claim a civil society identity for themselves, but in practice they devote their energies and secure their funding because of their singleminded dedication and dogged defense of a particular government’s interests, in this instance those of Israel.


There were two features of the campaigns waged within the UN by these quasi-government organizations (QGOs]: attacks directed at discrediting critics of Israel and attacks directed at the UN as such, generally focused on particular organs of the Organization.


–with regard to personal attacks, a reliance on repeated defamatory attacks on a particular person being targeted, as biased and even anti-Semitic whenever such a person is addressing some aspect of Israeli policy or is sympathetically reporting on Palestinian grievances. Coupled with this kind of personal attack is an avoidance of the substantive aspects with respect to whether the criticisms or grievances are well grounded in international law and human rights law. The content of these toxic attacks, at least in my case, focused on a distorted presentation of my views on a variety of issues that were made in settings other than the UN and generally did not even pertain to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The intended effect was to shift attention from the message containing the issues about which the UN has a responsibility to consider upon to a controversy about whether the messenger is tainted. With incredible persistence, UN Watch the most aggressive of the QGOs, exclusively used the opportunity of ‘interactive dialogue’ in Geneva sessions of the HRC to give voice to their denunciation of my character and activities. Afterwards UN Watch circulated in the form of an organizational letter these defamatory attacks to prominent international personalities, including high-ranking civil servants in the UN itself, such as the UN Secretary General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a variety of ambassadors of countries friendly to Israel. Characteristically, the letter ended with a demand that I be dismissed from my post as Special Rapporteur.


It was particularly disturbing to me that these defamatory attacks were treated as credible on their face by supposedly responsible prominent UN officials and government representative without the slightest effort to conduct an independent investigation or the minimal courtesy of checking either with me or with the sources that were being relied upon to put forward these defamatory assertions. Instead, their endorsement by supposedly responsible public figures was damaging to my reputation, and helped to divert attention from fashioning appropriate responses to the substantive grievances of the Palestinian people, and hence also indirectly damaged the reputation and effectiveness of the UN. As might be expected the Fox News network took such attacks at face value as useful material in relation to their hostile coverage of the UN.


On more than one occasion the UN SG Ban Ki-Moon denounced me without making the slightest attempt to assess the accuracy of the views attributed to me in such UN Watch letters that referred in discrediting and misleading ways to material from my blog where I discussed in some detail the 9/11 attacks and the international context of the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon. After the first of these attacks by the UN SG I tried to find out why as someone working without salary on behalf of the UN was not given the opportunity to at least explain my views. When I tried to probe the matter by seeking an explanation, I was told somewhat apologetically by a close associate of the SG that the failure to take account of my actual views was due to the fact that ‘we didn’t do due diligence.’ He added that at the time the UN felt ‘under pressure from the U.S. Congress to show that the Organization were not hostile to Israel.’ It was a sensitive moment as Ban Ki-Moon was seeking U.S. support for reappointment to a second term. In a similar vein, the U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, and later Samantha Power, denounced me as biased, and deserving dismissal. When I sought some explanation from Ambassador Rice my overly polite letter remains unanswered. This experience of mine is important as it illustrates the readiness of public officials in this country and at high levels of the UN to condemn persons accused of bias toward Israel without bothering to find out whether the complaint against the is justified. The Israel Lobby’s basic premise is that any criticism of Israel at the UN is on its face evidence of bias and anti-Semitism, and this is exactly the approach taken by these officials connected with the UN and representing the U.S. Government. The QGOs serve as gatekeepers, signaling to those associated with global policy that it is time to act in support of Israel.


What I am trying to explain by reference to my experience is the degree to which these pro-Israeli QGOs stir up trouble for those who are doing their best to document Israel’s flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards. A major purpose of these tactics in response to well-evidenced documentation of Israeli state crime is to mobilize opposition on the part of government officials, especially in the U.S., but also Canada, UK, and Australia, and induce the pro-Israeli media to focus on controversies involving critics, rather than the criticisms, emanating from UN activities. One result of these repeated personal attacks along these lines is, by their mere repetition, useful in making the UN generally, and the Human Rights Council in particular, seem to be arenas dominated by individuals biased against Israel, and even anti-Semitic.


I can report that in my experience at the UN, including the Human Rights Council, the Organization has consistently leaned over backward to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. The official reports that I prepared on Israel’s occupation of Palestine over my term were based on essentially uncontested documentation of allegations of severe violations of international humanitarian law, as embodied in the Fourth Geneva Convention and on other authoritative norms. In my opinion, anyone possessing professional integrity could hardly arriving at the same, or similar, conclusions to mine with respect to the legal implications of the continuing occupation of Palestine. What is worth noticing is that this pushback by Israeli lobbying organizations reflects their apparent judgment that it is best to avoid engaging in any form of substantive debate. Undoubtedly, character assassination is proving more persuasive and effective.


It is also relevant to point out that my predecessor, John Dugard, a distinguished South African jurist and globally respected scholar, was also subjected to similar defamatory attacks during his period in the HRC as Special Rapporteur on Palestine. This style of defamatory QGO behavior has arguably weakened the role of the Special Rapporteur, which provides the Palestinian people with their only truly independent and potentially influential voice within the UN. My successor was explicitly chosen in 2014 to be Special Rapporteur for Palestine on the perverse rationale that he was more qualified than other candidates because he had no expert knowledge of the subject-matter and was not even shortlisted by the consultative committee of ambassadors that is charged with advising the President of the Human Rights Council on the qualifications of the candidates (it is amusing, although sad in its effects, that lack of qualifications became a crucial qualification in the UN selection process). The person chosen further demonstrated his suitability for the job by expressing a willingness in advance to make every effort to get along with Israel while discharging his office. The results of making this appointment have so far been much less attention to the grievances of the Palestinian people. Even with this corrupting process Israel has still not been willing to cooperate with the UN so as enabling the HRC to carry out the mandate. At present, the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine continues to be denied entry to Palestine, a situation that has existed ever since I was expelled in 2008. Even in the face of this refusal to allow the Special Rapporteur access to Palestine, the UN is sufficiently intimidated by Israel and the U.S., that it makes only pro forma protests.


I should also point out that the experience of Special Rapporteurs for Palestine is not a departure from a broader pattern of defamation of UN initiatives perceived as critical of Israel. When Richard Goldstone, a lifelong Zionist, prominent in Israel, and a respected international civil servant, submitted a report on behalf of a fact-finding inquiry into the Cast Lead 2008-09 attacks on Gaza, he was so savagely attacked by these QGOs, as well as by the top Israeli leaders, that he was induced to back down and retract the most serious allegations concerning Israel’s behavior in Gaza, a reformulation that none of the other three distinguished members of the inquiry group supported. It should be noted that Goldstone, as in the case of Dugard and myself, undertake these UN roles as unpaid volunteers, which does allow us independence and allows us to be sharply criticized without being dismissed.

I can also report that I was privately frequently complimented for the objectivity and persuasiveness of my reports by important UN officials, but were on the defensive in public because the Organization is deemed dependent on U.S. support.

These tactics of seeking to destroy the reputation of the UN as an arena is illustrated by an article prominently published in the NY Times a week ago written by the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, bearing the provocative title “The U.N. War on Israel.” [April 1, 2015] Ambassador Prosor contends “this once great global body had been overrun by the repressive regimes that violate human rights and undermine international security.” He argues that this pernicious influence is made plainly evident by the extent to which Israel is singled out for harsh criticism. He relied in his speech on UN Watch, which he blandly identify as “the Geneva-based monitoring group” to mount his diatribe, singling out the appointment of William Schabas a few months ago to head a commission of inquiry into the Israeli 2014 onslaught against Gaza as indicative of a disqualifying bias. Schabas resigned his post under a barrage of unfair criticism directed at the fact that he had once prepared a short technical report as a legal professional as to whether Palestine was qualified to be a party to the Rome Treaty governing the International Criminal Court. The fact that Proser’s inflammatory article was published in the NY Times, a venue respected for its objectivity and balance is itself reflective of the unhealthy degree of leverage wielded by Israeli lobbying groups.


In my experience, the UN rather than being subject to what Proser calls “the tide of hatred aimed at Israel” is a result of American influence within the Oraganization, is increasingly unable to play a constructive role in relation to Israel or by rendering protection to the Palestinian people who have been denied their most fundamental rights for far too long. It is relevant to remember that the ordeal of the Palestinians people, unlike that of any of the other terrible situations afflicting people throughout the world, is one for which the UN has a significant share of past and present responsibility. The UN took over the role played by colonial Britain that had administered Palestine since the end of World War I, after colonial Britain and the League of Nations had encouraged Zionist hopes in 1917 by issuing the Balfour Declaration that looked with favor on the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people.” We need to recall in this connection that the initial partition proposals for historic Palestine in 1947 came from the UN in GA Resolution 181 without any effort to consult the wishes of the then resident population of Palestine, and thus in direct denial of the right of self-determination and against the tide of invalidating colonialist claims. It needs to be remembered that the much of the Palestinian tragedy is a direct result of this UN abandonment of the principle of self-determination in relation to Palestine as aggravated by the long record of Israeli defiance associated with its obligations under international law.


Rather than the UN reflecting the supposed hostility of oppressive regimes to Israel, the UN has increasingly been neutralized in any effort to produce after more than 68 years a sustainable and just peace for these two peoples, and the realities on the ground have moved relentlessly in defiance of international law in the direction of an outcome that denies elemental rights to the Palestinian people. It is notable, yet hardly surprising, that Proser makes no attempt to address the substantive charges of human rights and international humanitarian law abuses attributed to Israel, and does not even deny their accuracy. The fault of the UN, according to the lobby and its compromised diplomats, is with the UN as a prejudiced arena, and whatever the crimes of Israel may be, they should be treated as unworthy distractions from this overarching truth.


Palestine may be winning the Legitimacy War being waged throughout the world and at the UN to obtain popular support for the Palestinian cause with the peoples of the world, but it is losing the parallel Geopolitical War. Both wars view the UN as a strategic battlefield. The recommendations of the Goldstone Report were never implemented. If indeed the new fact finding commission on Gaza appointed to investigate Protective Edge delivers an appropriately strong report in June 2014 that condemns Israel’s tactics in its military operation of last summer, it is almost certain that its findings and any recommendations will be buried in the bowels of the UN bureaucracy. Israel, with strong U.S. backing, has persuaded the UN to hold a conference later in the year on the dangers of anti-Semitism, which seems almost certain to make the kind of arguments made by UN Watch and NGO Monitor that justifiable criticism of Israel should be dismissed without further consideration as a virulent form of anti-Semitism because it delegitimizes the state of Israel.



From an Israeli perspective these tactics of deflection makes sense as anyone familiar with the facts and law would certainly hold views that are critical of Israel’s policies and practices, and the UN endorsement of such a conclusion clearly adds weight to the global solidarity movement that is influenced by persuasive findings that confirm the illegitimacy of Israel’s policies and practices in relation to the Palestinian people. The Israeli settlement project has been almost universally condemned, the separation wall built on Occupied Palestine has been declared unlawful by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice, the severe and continuing collective punishment of the people of Gaza is unconditionally prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the annexation of a unilaterally enlarged Jerusalem defies the international legal consensus to name just a few of the salient issues of substance that Israel wants the world, and especially the UN, to ignore, while with the help of the United States, shifting as much attention as possible to issues of bias and anti-Semitism in relation to the UN and those who represent it.


In conclusion, I would say that the QGOs along with Israeli and American diplomats have managed to intimidate and neutralize the UN as a foundation of support for the justifiable grievances of the Palestinian people. In so doing, rather than overdoing its emphasis on Israeli violations of human rights and international law, the UN has increasingly allowed itself to be used by geopolitical actors to shield Israel from criticism and to deflect such stronger initiatives as sanctions designed to produce a just and sustainable peace for the two peoples. Israel on its side has adopted a pragmatic dual approach to the UN, complaining in public settings about bias and disproportionate emphasis, and behind the scenes using its direct and indirect leverage to influence the selection of personnel bearing on its interests and to push the agenda in directions that correspond with its worldview.


The Geopolitical Right of Exception at the United Nations

13 Apr


The notorious, yet influential, German jurist, Carl Schmitt famously insisted that ‘a right of exception’ was the core reality of national sovereignty. By this he meant that internal law could be put aside by ‘the sovereign,’ inhering as the crux of the relationship between state and society. In this regard international law has no overriding claim of authority with respect to sovereign states, at least from the perspective of statist jurisprudence. This discretion to ignore or violate law is distinct from submission to law as a realistic adaptation by weak states to political realities or compliance undertaken voluntarily for pragmatic reasons of convenience and mutual benefit.


When the UN was established, it was configured, to appeal both to realist minds who were eager to show that they had learned the lesson of Munich and to those architects of international cooperation that did not want the folly of the League of Nations, seen as a politically irrelevant sanctuary for utopians and dreamers to be repeated in this newly created organization. To achieve these ends the UN Charter vested only the UN Security Council with the power of decision (as distinct from recommendations), and limited its membership originally to nine states of which the five designated winners of World War II were given both permanent membership, and more importantly, a right of veto. In effect, the right of veto was a constitutional right of exception embedded in the UN Charter. It formulated the master procedural rule of the Charter as one that allowed permanent members of the Security Council to block any decision that was perceived to be sufficiently against their national interests or those of its friends. Just as Woodrow Wilson falsely misled the world with his pledge after World War I of ‘making the world safe for democracy’ the UN was more effectively manipulated into the actuality of ‘making the world safe for geopolitics.’


In effect, the UN was set up on the basis that it would never be strong enough to challenge these five major states, and that its effectiveness would rest on two possibilities: sustaining the voluntary cooperation that had worked successfully during World War II to thwart European fascism and Japanese imperialism or cooperating on issues of secondary concern in the peace and security area on which the permanent members could agree and persuade enough non-permanent term members to lend support. As was discovered several decades ago, these permanent members could only agree on what to do in the Security Council on the rarest of occasions, and that decisions relating to secondary issues, although often useful, left the really dangerous conflicts beyond the reach of the UN. The UN also committed itself to respect territorial sovereignty of its members, and by virtue of Article 2(7) of the Charter, placed all forms of civil strife beyond its writ unless the Security Council agreed that there were present substantial threats to international peace and security.


This constitutional right of exception to some extent contradicts the basic imperative of the Organization “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” that is set forth in the Preamble to the Charter. To the extent that major wars have been avoided during the lifetime of the UN it is not due to the efforts of the Organization. It is rather a consequence of deterrence, and geopolitical self-restraint and prudence, which were greatly encouraged by the awareness that any war fought with nuclear weapons would be a catastrophe regardless of which side prevailed. Major wars were prevented by a reliance on traditional notions of balance, containment, and countervailing power fine tuned for the realities of the nuclear age. These were realist instruments of statecraft associated with the European state system as adapted to the distinctive contemporary challenges. In the over 400 pages of his 2014 book, World Order, Henry Kissinger, the realist par excellence of this era, hardly mentions the UN, and accords it no significant role in shaping or even misshaping the ‘world order’ in the 21st century. The UN is simply seen as a diplomatic sideshow. He sees the present world order need to be primarily concerned with incorporating the non-Western major states, especially China, in an enlarged conception of a state system that is based on European ideas. For this process of incorporation to occur smoothly it will be essential that Westphalian logic of statism be newly perceived as reflecting the values and worldview of these diverse civilizations, and no longer be understood as an integral aspect of the Western world domination project.


Although the UN is a disappointment when it comes to ‘war prevention’ or the encouragement of a global rule of law, it has managed to achieve universality of membership. Unlike the League that failed to induce the United States to join and lost along the way several important members, the UN has neither expelled countries from its ranks nor have states withdrawn. The Organization has proved sufficiently useful as a site of diplomatic interaction and contestation that every government regardless of ideology or outlook finds it useful to participate in its activities. Even Israel that consistently complains loudly about the flawed and biased character of the UN, still tries with all its diplomatic ingenuity to influence its various activities in directions consistent with its foreign policy.


What has received too little attention so far is what I would call ‘the geopolitical right of exception’ that is quite distinct from the constitutional veto, but at least as pernicious from the perspective of enabling the UN to promote the human interest in its actions throughout the world. The geopolitical right of exception reflects the ability of one or more political actor in the world to promote or undermine policies that express its particular interest. In UN contexts the geopolitical right of exception allows a state to prevent the implementation of behavior that has been otherwise given formal approval. For instance, in the UN Human Rights Council there is no operative constitutional right of exception, and this allows certain steps to

be taken on the basis of majority approval. Yet when it comes to implementation or enforcement, acting behind the scenes, threatening funding cuts and actions for and against a high official, the political will of the Organization is effectively resisted and controlled. For instance, Israel despite ignoring strongly backed UN General Assembly resolutions dealing with such matters as refugees, Jerusalem, the separation wall, has been able to be defiant over the course of decades without experiencing any inter-governmental adverse consequences, and this is because it is protected by the United States exercise of its geopolitical right of exception on its behalf. The availability of such a geopolitical right is in direct proportion to the perceived hierarchy of hard and soft power in the world, which has meant that since World War II, the United States far more than any other political actor has enjoyed a geopolitical right of exception within the UN.


The existence of this geopolitical right of exception undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN. It is integral to regimes of double standards, and cuts directly against the grain of global justice that seeks to treat equals as equally as possible. It also implicitly endorses backroom strong arm tactics and procedural manipulation, as well as modifies and distorts the rights and duties of membership in the UN.


Overcoming the geopolitical right of exception would require its repudiation by the United States, in particular, through a recognition that its exercise is incompatible with the search for a peaceful, just, sustainable, and more participatory form of world order. Because it is often exercised invisibly, this geopolitical right is also a vehicle of influence relied upon by private sector corporate and financial interests that are contrary to the global public interest. At present, it seems hopelessly out of touch to expect any moves by the American and other powerful governments to forego the benefits of the geopolitical right of veto. Because its exercise is neither claimed nor acknowledged, there can be no accountability, thus operating in a manner that is contrary to the democratic spirit. The constitutional veto has the benefit of discourse and debate as various political actors try to offer convincing reasons for casting a veto to block a Security Council decision. For this very reason the geopolitical right of exception is often a more desirable option than the constitutional right if the policy or position being promoted is unpopular with public opinion and other governments. The U.S. Government struggles often behind the scenes at the UN to provide effective support for Israel in ways that get the job done without having to achieve such an unpopular result by a seemingly arbitrary reliance on its veto.


Unless a full-fledged world government were to be established, which seems slightly less likely than awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Vladamir Putin, there is no prospect of any renunciation of the geopolitical right of exception at the UN in the foreseeable future. The best that can be hoped for is a recognition of its existence and role, some sort of greater self-restraint exhibited in its exercise, and critical commentary by those who conceive of their political identity as that of ‘citizen pilgrims.’

Opposing Impunity for Geopolitical Criminality

5 Apr



Responding to intense pressure from the usual sources William Schabas, a prominent and respected expert on international criminal law, recently resigned as Chair of the UN expert commission of inquiry into war crimes allegations arising from the massive Israeli military operations in Gaza during July and August of 2014. These issues relating to international criminal accountability have also received recent prominence due to Palestine’s adherence to the Rome Treaty making it a party to the International Criminal Court, an initiative that generated an enraged punitive reaction on the part of Israel as well as an angry denunciation by Washington. On display in these instances is the struggle between extending the rule of law to international state crimes and the geopolitical resistance to such an effort whenever accountability to law is in tension with the pursuit of strategic interests.

Imposing international criminal responsibility upon political leaders and military commanders that occur in the aftermath of wars possesses a dual character from a geopolitical perspective: to vindicate major military undertakings of liberal democratic states and to ensure impunity for the leaders of these same states in the event that their behavior or that of their allies are alleged to be international crimes. These efforts at vindication are associated with strengthening the global rule of law and validating the established order, while impunity is invoked to insulate powerful individuals and their governments from criminal accountability. The resulting pattern in international life is one of double standards at the level of implementation and hypocritical rhetoric about the importance of a global rule of law based on its universal applicability.


Contemporary experience with these issues is grounded in the aftermath of World War II. In 1945 with great fanfare after World War II, especially at Nuremberg in the legal prosecution of surviving Nazi leaders, as well as at Toyko where a series of prominent Japanese personalities who had headed the imperial government and commanded its military forces were accused and convicted of international crimes. These sophisticated ‘show trials’ were generally endorsed in the West as a civilized alternative to the favored Soviet and British approaches, which would have been to arrange summary mass executions of all Germans deemed responsible for international crimes without making any effort to assess the gravity or accuracy of the charges directed at specific individuals. What was done at Nuremberg in 1945 was for prosecutors to prepare carefully evidence of alleged wrongdoing of each defendant under indictment as well as developing arguments about the legal relevance of the international crimes at stake while giving those accused an almost free hand to offer legal defenses and mitigating evidence as prepared by competent lawyers appointed to render them assistance.


In most respects, Nuremberg in particular continues to be viewed as a landmark success in the annals of the progressive development of international law. It is also significant that the outcomes of parallel Tokyo prosecutions of Japanese leaders are virtually unknown except in Japan where they are decried as ‘victors’ justice’ and throughout the world among a few specialists in international criminal law.


There are several reasons for the prominence of Nuremberg. First of all, the disclosures of the Holocaust at Nuremberg were so ghastly that some sort of punishment of those responsible seemed to be a moral imperative at the time.

Although the crime of genocide did not yet exist in law, the revelations of the Nuremberg proceedings documented as never before the systematic extermination of Jews and others in Europe. Beyond this, the war was widely believed to have been a just and necessary response to the menace of Naziism and Japanese imperialism, and their embrace of aggressive war. The Allied victory was viewed as decisive in overcoming the fascist challenge to liberal democracy, with the Nuremberg Judgment providing an authoritative rationale for waging a defensive war so costly in lives, devastation, and resources. Finally, the claim to be establishing a structure of legal accountability that took precedence over national law seemed integral to the postwar resolve to keep the peace in the future and deter aggression by reminding all leaders of the possibility of criminal accountability for initiating a war or abusing people under their control. The advent of nuclear weaponry reinforced the moral and political conviction that major wars must now be prevented by all available means, including this warning to leaders and military commanders that their actions could become the subject of criminal prosecution.


At the same time, this Nuremberg/Tokyo experiment was tainted from the outset. It was clearly victors’ justice that incorporated double standards. The evident crimes of the winners in the war were not even investigated, including the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities, which were viewed around the world as perhaps the worst single acts of wrongdoing throughout the course of the entire war, and only the Nazi death camps were in some way equivalent in relation to legality and morality. There were official statements made at Nuremberg that those who sat in judgment of the Germans would in the future be subject to similar procedures of accountability if they committed acts that seemed to be crimes under international law implying that the rule of law would replace victors’ justice. In effect, the claim made on behalf of moral credibility and political fairness was that this Nuremberg/Tokyo approach would assume the attributes of the rule of law by treating equals equally in future conflicts. Such expectations, if scrutinized, seemed to reflect the hopes of ‘liberal legalists’ in universal legal standards, but were never realistic goals given the structure and nature of world politics.


In effect, this Nuremberg promise could not be kept because geopolitical primacy continues to set the limits of legal accountability. Although there has existed an International Criminal Court since 2002, and ample grounds for believing that some major sovereign states have committed international crimes, there have zero prosecutions directed at dominant political actors, and not even investigations into possible criminality have been launched. Such a pattern results from a normative gap in world order that is not likely to be closed soon. It is a gap that is most visibly expressed by reference to the right of veto possessed as a matter of law by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This right of veto amounts to an institutional grant of exemption from the legal obligation to comply with the UN Charter on matters of peace and security. For these five states and their friends and allies, compliance is discretionary, and non-compliance is in effect ‘a right.’ In this regard, the UN Charter is itself a product of what might be called ‘geopolitical realism,’ which takes precedence over the apolitical aspirations of ‘liberal legalists.’


And yet, the impulse to hold accountable those who commit crimes against the peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity remains strong among moderate democratic governments and in some sectors of global civil society. As a result there is some further development of the Nuremberg idea, although the fundamental tensions between hard power and establishing a credible rule of law with general applicability remains. During the 1990s the UN Security Council established ad hoc international tribunals to assess criminal responsibility associated with the breakup of former Yugoslavia and in relation to the genocidal massacres in Rwanda. In these North/South settings, there was more willingness to allow all sides to bring forth their arguments about the criminal behavior of their adversary since there were no allegations directed at geopolitical heavyweights. That is, the approach of liberal legalists became practical in these situations where no high profile geopolitical actor is being accused of an international crime.


The International Criminal Court was itself brought into being in 2002 by an unusual coalition of forces, joining governments with a great many NGOs drawn from around the world in a joint project. What came into being is an international institution with a mandate to investigate and prosecute, but lacking the participation and support of the dominant states, and operating within a framework that up to now has been deferential to the sensitivities of sovereign states in the West. Operating in such a limited way has led the ICC in its first decade to focus its attention almost entirely on African leaders, while looking the other way with respect to geopolitical actors. Liberals conceive of this as progress, doing what can be done, and beneficial to the extent that it apprehends some persons who have been responsible for atrocities and crimes against humanity. Critics of the ICC view it as another venue for the administration of ‘victors’ justice’ and an inscription of Western moral hegemony that entails a cynical expression of double standards. Both interpretations are plausible. The ICC is currently facing an identity test as to whether it will undertake investigations of alleged Israeli criminality made at the request of Palestine. Its institutional weight is being demonstrated by the degree to which the Israeli leadership reacts with fury, punitive policies, and intense anger directed at the Palestinian Authority for raising such a possibility. It should surprise few that Israel’s backlash against the ICC is supported by the United States.


For centuries there has been recognized the capacity of national courts to act as agents of law enforcement in relation to international wrongdoing. Such a judicial role was long exercised in Western countries in relation to international piracy, which was viewed as a crime against the whole world and hence could be prosecuted anywhere. Such an extension of international criminal law is based on ideas of ‘universal jurisdiction,’ strengthening the capacity of international society to address serious crimes of state. This kind of approach receive great attention in relation to allegations of torture made against the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, after he was detained by Britain in response to a 1998 request for extradition by Spain where a court stood ready to prosecute on the basis of indictments already made. After a series of legal proceedings in Britain the House of Lords acting as the country’s highest judicial body decided that Pinochet should be extradited, but only for torture charges relating to a period after torture became an international crime within Britain. In theory, national courts could become much more active in relation to universal jurisdiction if so empowered by parliamentary mandate, but again doing so without challenging geopolitical red lines. When Belgian courts threatened to proceed against Donald Rumsfeld because of his alleged authorization of torture in Iraq, political pressures were mounted by Washington, including even threats to move NATO. In the end, Belgium backed down by revising its national criminal code so as to make it much more difficult to prosecute international crimes that occurred outside of Belgium and for which Belgians were not victims or perpetrators.


Civil society has also acted to close the normative gap created by patterns of geopolitical impunity. In the midst of the Vietnam War, motivated by a sense of moral outrage and the paralysis of official institutions when it came to challenging American behavior, Bertrand Russell organized a symbolic legal proceeding that investigated charges of criminality in 1966 and 1967. Prominent intellectuals from around the world were invited to serve as a jury of conscience, heard evidence, issuing their opinion as to law and facts at the end. Inspired by this Russell Tribunal experience, the Permanent Peoples Tribunal was established a decade later by citizens, operating out of Rome, holding sessions on issues where there existed moral outrage, legal prohibitions, and institutional paralysis, symbolically challenging geopolitical impunity. In 2005 there was organized in Istanbul by a dedicated group of female activists an independent tribunal to investigate war crimes charges against British and American political and military leaders, as well as corporate actors associated with the Iraq War. The Iraq War Tribunal relied upon a jury of conscience chaired by Arundhati Roy to pronounce upon the evidence. Of course, such a tribunal can only challenge impunity symbolically by influencing public opinion, and possibly through encouraging boycotts and other moves that delegitimize the claimants of power and possibly alter the political climate. Nevertheless, it plays a role in the legitimacy war dimensions of international conflicts, providing an alternative narrative to the discourse

disseminated by geopolitical forces and giving encouragement to civil society activism by providing a convincing rationale for concluding that contested behavior violates fundamental norms of international law and morality.


In summary, it is still accurate to observe that geopolitical primacy inhibits the implementation of international criminal law from the perspective of a global rule of law regime that treats equals equally. At the same time, ever since Nuremberg there have been efforts to end the impunity of those guilty of international crimes in war/peace situations and national settings of oppressive rule. These efforts have taken several main forms: (1) the establishment by the UN of ad hoc tribunals with a specific mandate as with former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; (2) the establishment of a treaty based international institution, the International Criminal Court, with limited participation and disappointing results to date; (3) reliance on universal jurisdiction to activate national courts to act as agents on behalf of international society with respect to enforcing international criminal law; (4) the formation of civil society tribunals to assess criminal responsibility of

leaders in situations of moral outrage and global settings that render unavailable either inter-governmental or governmental procedures of accountability. (1)-(3) are projects of liberal legality, while (4) draws on more progressive jurisprudential energies outside the statist paradigm.


In the end, there is posed a choice. One possibility is go along with the one-eyed efforts of liberal legalists, most notably mainstream NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, silently acknowledging that the rule of law cannot be expected to function in relation to many serious international crimes due to the hierarchical and hegemonic structure of international society. The other possibility is to insist there can be no international justice so long as there exists a regime of ‘geopolitical impunity.’ In both instances, the contributions of civil society tribunals are needed, both for the sake of symbolic indictment and documentation of wrongdoing, and to acknowledge civil society as the moral and legal conscience of humanity. It must be admitted that only among liberal democracies are such self-critical initiatives of civil society tolerated, although such undertakings are derided and marginalized by mainstream media as the work of a ‘kangaroo court.’ Obama’s refusal to look back at the international crimes alleged against leading members of the Bush presidency is one awkward admission of the limits on legal accountability; such reasoning if generalized would invalidate any concern with all forms of past behavior, and hence any notion of accountability for all crimes. In such a dysutopia criminal law might exist, but by habit and expectation it would never be implemented, however severe the crime and dangerous the criminal. In the world we inhabit, without kangaroo courts international criminal law would continue with its limited writ, and there would no tribunals whatsoever to assess the criminality of the most powerful political actors on the world stage that menace many vulnerable peoples in the world.





Iran’s Nuclear Program: Diplomacy, War, and (In)Security in the Nuclear Age

17 Mar


Perhaps, Netanyahu deserves some words of appreciation, at least from the Israeli hard right, for the temporary erasure of the Palestinian ordeal from national, regional, and global policy agendas. Many are distracted by the Republican recriminations directed at Obama’s diplomatic initiative to close a deal that exchanges a loosening of sanctions imposed on Iran for an agreement by Tehran to accept intrusive inspections of their nuclear program and strict limits on the amount of enriched uranium of weapons grade that can be produced or retained.


We can only wonder about the stability and future prospects of the United States if 47 Republican senators can irresponsibly further jeopardize the peace of the Middle East and the world by writing an outrageous Open Letter to the leadership of Iran. In this reckless political maneuver the government of Iran is provocatively reminded that whatever agreement may be reached by the two governments will in all likelihood be disowned if a Republican is elected president in 2016, or short of that, by nullifying actions taken by a Republican-controlled Congress. Mr. Netanyahu must be smiling whenever he looks at a mirror, astonished by his own ability to get the better of reason and self-interest in America, by his pyrotechnic display of ill-informed belligerence in his March 2nd address to Congress. Surely, political theater of sorts, but unlike a performance artist, Netanyahu is a political player whose past antics have brought death and destruction and now mindlessly and bombastically risk far worse in the future.


What interests and disturbs me even more than the fallout from Netanyahu’s partisan speech, are several unexamined presuppositions that falsely and misleadingly frame the wider debate on Iran policy. Even the most respected news sites in the West, including such influential outlets as the NY Times or The Economist, frame the discourse by taking three propositions for granted in ways that severely bias our understanding:

                        –that punitive sanctions on Iran remain an appropriate way to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and enjoyed the backing of the United Nations;

                        –that Iran must not only renounce the intention to acquire nuclear weapons, but their renunciation must be frequently monitored and verified, while nothing at all is done about Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons;

                        –that there is nothing intrinsically wrong about Irael’s threats to attack Iran if it believes that this would strengthen its security either in relation to a possible nuclear attack or in relation to Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas.







Sanctions are a form of coercion expressly imposed in this case to exert pressure on Iran to negotiate an agreement that would provide reassurance that it was not seeking to acquire nuclear weaponry. Supposedly, Iran’s behavior made such a reinforcement of the nonproliferation treaty regime a reasonable precaution. Such measures had never been adopted or even proposed in relation to either Germany and Japan, the two main defeated countries in World War II, who have long possessed the technical and material means to acquire nuclear weapons in a matter of months. Iran has repeatedly given assurances that its nuclear program is peacefully aimed at producing energy and for medical applications, not weapons, and has accepted a willingness to have its nuclear program more regulated than is the case for any other country in the world.


It should be appreciated that Iran has not been guilty of waging an aggressive war for over 275 year. Not only has it refrained in recent years from launching attacks across its borders, although it has itself been severely victimized by major interventions and aggressions. Most spectacularly, the CIA-facilitated coup in 1953 that restored the Shah to power and overthrew a democratically elected government imposed a dictatorial regime on the country for over 25 years. And in 1980 Iraq invaded Iran with strong encouragement of the United States. Additionally, Iran has been subject over the years to a variety of Western covert operations designed to destabilize its government and disrupt its nuclear program.


Despite their UN backing, the case for sanctions seems to be an unfortunate instance of double standards, accentuated by the averted gaze of the international community over the years with respect to Israel’s process of acquisition, possession, and development of nuclear weaponry. This is especially irresponsible, given Israel’s behavior that has repeatedly exhibited a defiant attitude toward international law and world public opinion. I would conclude that Iran the imposition of harsh sanctions on Iran is discriminatory, more likely to intensify that resolve conflict. The proper use of international sanctions is to avert war or implement international law, and not as here to serve as a geopolitical instrument of hard power that seeks to sustain a hierarchical nuclear status quo in the region and beyond.




Iran is expected not only to forego the option to acquire nuclear weapons, but to agree to a framework of intrusive inspection if it wants to be treated as a ‘normal’ state after it proves itself worthy. As indicated, this approach seems discriminatory and hypocritical in the extreme. It would be more to the point to acknowledge the relative reasonableness of Iran’s quest for a deterrent capability given the extent to which its security and sovereignty have threatened and encroached upon by the United States and Israel.

It is relevant to note that the Obama presidency, although opting for a diplomatic resolution of the dispute about its nuclear program, nevertheless repeatedly refuses to remove the military option from the negotiating table. Israel does little to hide its efforts to build support for a coercive approach that threatens a preemptive military strike. Such an unlawful imprudent approach is justified by Israel’s belief that Iran poses an emerging existential threat to its survival if it should acquire weapons of mass destruction. Israel bases this assessment on past statements by Iranian leaders that Israel should not or will not exist, but such inflammatory rhetoric has never been tied to any statement of intention to wage war against Israel. To assert an existential threat as a pretext for war is irresponsible and dangerous.


From Iran’s perspective acquiring a nuclear weapons capability would seem a reasonable response to its security situation. If deterrence is deemed a security necessity for the United States and Israel, given their military dominance in conventional weaponry, it should be even more so for Iran that is truly faced with a genuine, credible, and dangerous existential threat. Few countries would become safer and more secure if in possession of nuclear weapons but Iran is one state that likely would be. Again what is at stake most fundamentally is the challenge to the nuclear oligopoly that has been maintained since the early stages of the Cold War when the Soviet Union broke the American nuclear monopoly. More immediately threatened if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons at some future point is Israel’s regional nuclear weapons monopoly that serves both as a deterrent to others and helps clear political space for Israel’s expansionist moves in the region. I would not argue that Iran should acquire nuclear weapons, but rather that it has the strongest case among sovereign states to do so, and it is a surreal twist of realities to act as if Iran is the outlier or rogue state rather than the nuclear weapons states that refuse to honor their obligation set forth in Article VI of the NPT to seek nuclear disarmament in good faith at a time. The most urgent threat to the future in this period arises from the increasing risk that nuclear weapons will be used at some point to resolve an international conflict, and thus it should be a global policy imperative to demand efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament rather than use geopolitical leverage to sustain the existing hierarchy of states with respect to nuclear weaponry.




Israel’s military threats directed at Iran clearly violate the international law prohibition contained in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter that prohibit “threats or uses” of force except for self-defense against a prior armed attack or with an authorization by the Security Council. Despite this threat to international peace in an already turbulent Middle East, there is a widespread international acceptance of Israel’s behavior, and in fact, the most persuasive argument in favor of the sanctions regime is that it allays the concerns of the Israeli government and thus reduces the prospect of a unilateral military strike on Iran.




Overall, this opportunistic treatment of Iran’s nuclear program is less indicative of a commitment to nonproliferation than it is a shortsighted expression of geopolitical priorities. If peace and stability were the true motivations of the international community, then we would at least expect to hear strident calls for a nuclear free Middle East tied to a regional security framework. Until such a call is made, there is a cynical game being played with the complicity of the mainstream media. To expose this game we need to realize how greatly the three presuppositions discussed above misshape perceptions and discourse.  







Netanyahu: The Day After (Revised)

4 Mar

Netanyahu: The Day After


My reaction to Netanyahu’s theatrical performance yesterday in Congress led me to recall that the deepest thinkers turned against democracy in ancient Greece because of the susceptibility of the Athenian citizenry to demagogic oratory from opportunistic politicians. Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides all became sensitive to the degree to which the rhetoric of demagogues contributed to the decline, and eventual downfall, of ancient Athens. They did this by convincing Athens to embark on superfluous and self-destructive war making.  Yet even in the worst last days of Athens the demagogues who performed so destructively were at least homegrown! It would have been inconceivable anywhere else than the United States for a controversial foreign leader to be welcomed before the legislative chamber with the express purpose of attacking the ongoing delicate diplomacy of the elected head of state on an issue of utmost importance for the peace and security of the world. It is not merely a matter of the niceties of governmental protocol as to whether the Speaker of the House was delinquent by not coordinating the invitation with the White House so as to agree on a date not so embarrassingly tied to Netanyahu’s bid for reelection on March 17, although even such issues are not trivial. More substantial, however, is what it tells us about this self-destructive embrace of a foreign leader that is unabashedly seeking to derail a critical foreign policy initiative clearly in the interest of the United States, the Middle East, and the world, and even Israel (although presumably not from Netanyahu’s and Likud’s inflamed and inflammatory worldview).


Such concerns about the vulnerabilities of democracy also underpinned the republican ethos of James Madison and other architects of the U.S. Constitution that explain why America’s founders opted for a republic rather than a democracy. They sought to rein in ‘the tyranny of the majority’ by a series of measures that willingly sacrificed efficiency for restraint. Such republican sentiments have been trashed in recent years, especially by Republicans who have been ironically particularly willing to give the President essentially unlimited discretion to wage war while foregoing the specifics of authorization and the requirements of a ‘declaration of war.’ In fairness, the Democrats are not without blame for this constitutional complacency, which is suggestive of the insidious effects of compulsive bipartisanship in recent American foreign policy, and no where more insidiously than in relation to Israel and a disastrous militarist approach to peace and security throughout the Middle East.


Stripped of its Baroque flourishes, what Netanyahu was telling Congress is that it should be sure to impose such unreasonably strict requirements on any future deal with respect to Iran’s nuclear program as to make any proposed arrangement non-negotiable. As it is, what Obama seems to be demanding of the Iranians is a set of assurances that extend far beyond what has been ever expected of any other non-nuclear state despite several others (including Germany and Japan) edging far closer to the nuclear weapons threshold than Iran. These impositions on Iran’s nuclear program include restrictions on enriching capabilities, removals of existing stockpiles of enriched uranium, and a program of periodic rigorous inspections, scheduled and unannounced.

There already exists an unreflective consensus in the United States that any effort by Iran to cross the nuclear threshold would provides ample justification for launching an aggressive war against Iran. The liberal center of the current American political debate, dominated by soft Zionist perspectives, seems mindless or clueless about why such a posture is so unjustified. It never makes mention of the litany of unlawful military threats made by the United States, and even more so by a nuclear armed Israel over the years, directed at Iran. Most commentators do not acknowledge that threatening a non-defensive military attack is as unlawful as is an actual use of force (the UN Charter uses the language of ‘threat or use of force,’ making no legal distinctions, and does so knowingly in light of the effects of such military threats on peaceful relations and on sovereign rights). This threat diplomacy has been reinforced by an array of provocative and unlawful covert interventions disregarding Iran’s rights as a sovereign state, including the assassination of nuclear scientists in Iran and cyber warfare waged against its nuclear program (in 2010 it became clear that the United States and Israel had jointly developed a computer worm known at Stuxnet that was being used to destroy Iranian centrifuge capabilities at their Natanz facility and maybe elsewhere). Against such a background, Iran’s willingness to negotiate in light of this background, not to mention its willingness to overlook Israel’s retention of a nuclear weapons monopoly in the region, can only be understood in relation to the hardship imposed on the country by the international sanctions regime established largely at the behest of Washington and Tel Aviv, as well as the drastic fall in world price of oil. Additionally, the leadership of the Iranian government seems inclined to establish more normal relations with the United States and the West after decades of confrontation.


Against this background, we can begin to appreciate how deeply irresponsible it was for Netanyahu to be given this Congressional platform from which to deliver his fear-mongering and war-provoking speech that quite obviously had one overriding purpose and effect—to defeat, and at least deeply complicate, the already complicated diplomacy of reaching an agreement with Iran acceptable to both sides. Its secondary motives, equally obviously, was to help Netanyahu win electoral approval in Israel and to show the American people that for the sake of Israel, they are far better off in the future with a Republican in the White House.


If this gloomy assessment is correct it will almost certainly lead in two main directions: giving the hardliners in Iran the upper hand, who have contended all along that an encounter with the West is inevitable and in accord with Islamic destiny. In effect, a collision course culminating in war would appear increasingly inevitable. And such a collision would have devastating effects in the region, including a substantial risk of a far wider regional war. It would also take a huge step in the direction of making the Huntington prophesy of ‘a clash of civilizations’ a tragic reality.


For a global state such as the United States, the pursuit of national interests is often destructive of the interests of others, but given that the alternative here of the adoption of the Netanyahu’s prescriptions, it should be a no brainer that the Obama approach is to be greatly preferred. As argued, even Obama is being far too deferential to Israel’s view of Iran, but at least it is far less destructive of national and human interests than where Netanyahu’s path leads. This is one situation in which ‘leading from behind’ (that is, following Israel) will not do. The world needs a responsible United States Government on the global stage, but this can only happen if the umbilical cord tying the country to Israel is cut, and this will only become feasible when many more of the American people awaken to their own interests and the betrayal of their most cherished values.


A final observation—we should not forget while this dark Netanyahu melodrama unfolds, the ordeal of the Palestinian people is completely ignored except by the Palestinians and by activist supporters around the world. Quite relevantly, the supposedly moderate Israeli opposition to Netanyahu has also kept mum about what they might do to bring about a just peace, apparently being either content with the status quo or fearing that any talk of making peace would alienate even anti-Netanyahu voters. In effect, one more cost of the Netanyahu visit is to preclude any mainstream attention being given to the intolerable realities so long endured by Palestinians living under occupation and in refugee camps.


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