Tag Archives: Israel/Palestine

Interview: Middle East Turmoil: Israeli Massacre, Palestinian Grievances

3 Apr

The Middle East is Heating Up — Again: An Interview with Richard Falk (with C.J. Polychroniou)

 

[Prefatory Note: This is a somewhat modified text of an interview of two weeks ago conducted by the Greek journalist and author, C.J Polychroniou. Since then several developments have occurred, none more significant than the Return Home Land Day demonstrations of March 30, 2018. The original interview appeared in several online publications. The format is altered to make somewhat more reader friendly.]

 

CJP: Richard, let’s start with Donald Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there by May of this year. First, is this legal from the standpoint of international law, and, second, what are likely to be the long-term effects of the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on the region as a whole?

 

RF: There is no question, Chronis, that Trump’s Jerusalem policy relating to recognition and the move of the American embassy is regionally and religiously provocative and disruptive, underscoring the abandonment by Washington of even the pretense of being a trustworthy intermediary that can be relied upon by both sides to work for a sustainable peace between the two peoples. Some critics of the initiative are saying that the U.S. is free to situate its embassy in Jerusalem, but the whole of Jerusalem isn’t Israel. The status of this holy city remains to be determined and East Jerusalem, where the Old City is located, which for the present is considered to be an ‘occupied territory’ in international humanitarian law.

 

Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, which rests on the central proposition that an occupied territory should not be altered in any way that changes its status and character without the consent of the occupied society. It also is a unilateral rejection of a near unanimous international consensus, endorsed by the United Nations, that the future of Jerusalem should be settled by negotiations between the parties as a part of a broader peacemaking process. Israel had much earlier violated both international law and breached this international consensus by unilaterally annexing an enlarged Jerusalem, and declared that the whole city, within expanded boundaries, would be the ‘undivided, eternal capital’ of Israel. It is notable that the General Assembly on December 21, 2017 approved by an overwhelming majority of 128-8 (35 abstentions) a strong condemnation of the U.S. move on Jerusalem, with even America’s closest allies joining in this vote of censure.

 

It is difficult to predict the long-term consequences of this diplomatic rupture. It depends, above all, on whether the U.S. Government acts convincily to restore its claim to act as a conflict-resolving intermediary. The Trump administration continues to insist that it is working on a peace plan that will require painful compromises by both Palestine and Israel. Of course, given the unconditional alignment of Washington with Netanyahu’s views of Israel and the Palestinian future, as well as the orientation of those entrusted with drafting the plan, it is highly unlikely that even Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, generally accommodationist will be inclined to enter a diplomatic process that is virtually certain to be weighted so heavily in favor of Israel. Yet as many have come to appreciate, nothing is harder to predict than the future of Middle Eastern politics.

At the same time, Jerusalem has an abiding significance for both Islam and Christianity that makes it almost certain for the indefinite future that there will be formidable regional and civilizational resistance to subsuming Jerusalem under Israeli sovereign control.

 

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CJP: Israel appears bent on restricting Iran’s rising influence as a regional power in the Middle East. How far do you think the US can go in assisting Israel to contain Tehran’s strategy for empowering Shia’s?

 

Richard Falk: Israel and Saudi Arabia are both for different reasons determined to confront Iran, and quite possibly, initiate a military encounter with potentially widespread ramifications for the entire region, if not the world. A quick glance at the Syrian conflict suggests how complex and dangerous is this effort to destabilize the Iranian governing process, with the dual objectives of destabilizing the governing process mixed with the more ambitious goal of causing civil strife of sufficient magnitude as to produce a civil war, and ideally from the perspectives of Iran’s adversaries, regime change.

 

The Israeli adherence to this recklessness seems partly motivated by its overall security policy of seeking to weaken any country in the region that is hostile to its presence and has the potential military capability to threaten Israeli security and regional role in a serious manner. Israel has been so far successful in neutralizing each of its credible adversaries in the region (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Syria) with the exception of Iran. In this sense, Iran stands out as the last large unfinished item on Israel’s post-1967 geopolitical agenda. Israel’s real intentions are difficult to pin down, shifting with context and perceived opportunity. Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders frequently manipulate the alleged Iranian threat to cause fear among Israelis. Their goal seems to be the mobilization of domestic support for adhering to an aggressive foreign policy. This manipulation panics many Israeli security specialists who express are more alert to the risks of an actual military confrontation with Iran than are political leaders.

 

Saudi motivations are quite different, associated with a fierce regional rivalry that is articulated in terms of a sectarian clash between Shia and Sunni Islam, aggravated by a concern that Iran’s influence increased as a result of the Iraq and Syrian Wars, which both seem to have outcomes favorable to Tehran. The sectarian rationale of the conflict seems intended to disguise the more fundamental explanation, which is that there is a power struggle between these two sovereign states to determine which one will achieve regional ascendancy. The sectarian explanation was also somewhat undermined by the intensity with which the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies used their financial and diplomatic resources to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt despite its strong Sunni identity. From the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Tehran looked upon the monarchy governing Saudi Arabia as corrupt and decadent in the same manner as it regarded the Shah’s dynastic rule in Iran as politically illegitimate.

 

Your focus on how far the U.S. can go in restricting Iran’s influence is difficult to assess at this point. Trump’s virtual repudiation of the agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program seems to express a commitment to join with Israel and Saudi Arabia to engage in coercive diplomacy, consisting of intensifying sanctions, covert operations to encourage internal opposition, and a variety of military threats. Where this will lead, if indeed it goes forward in defiance of the other parties to the agreement and almost all UN members, is anybody’s guess, but it is a highly irresponsible diplomatic gambit that risks a deadly ‘war of choice.’

 

Trump’s regional diplomacy, such as it is, has been most notable for giving even greater emphasis to the ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia than earlier American leaders. Even previously, under Obama, George W. Bush, and prior presidents, the subordination of American strategic interests and national values to this posture of unquestioning support, which is the operational significance of designating these links as special relationships.

 

 

 

CJP: Syria’s civil war not only continues unabated but the country has become a battlefield for the spread of the influence of various powers in the region, including Turkey and Russia. Do you see a way out of this mess?

 

Richard Falk: The Syrian War is among the most complex conflict patterns in the history of warfare. Not only is there an internal struggle for control of the Syrian state that has been waged by not one, but by several insurgent movements that are not even compatible with one another. There is also a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar against Iran, with Turkey playing a confusing role that sometimes seems guided by anti-Damascus goals but at other times is preoccupied with curtailing the Kurdish challenge. The various national struggles of the Kurds for autonomous rights, possibly independent political communities, threatens the territorial integrity of several Middle Eastern states, as well as Syria. In addition to all of this there are major multi-faceted and fluid Russian and American involvements on opposite sides, although not even this opposition is clear cut and consistent. For a time there was an almost collaborative effort to defeat ISIS and obtain a Syrian ceasefire, although the basic involvement has been to put Russia on the side of the Damascus government and the U.S. as aligned with the insurgencies.

 

Because the anti-ISIS dimension of the conflict is at odds with the anti-Damascus dimension, depending on the priority accorded to one rather than the other, alignments are contradictory and shifted over time. Sometimes precedence has been given to achieving regime-change in Damascus by removing Assad from power, and in such contexts, it was acknowledged silently that ISIS was the most effective military challenge on the ground being mounted against the Syrian government. At other times, the counterterrorist campaign against ISIS was given uppermost prominence, and there was even high-level indications that Washington was willing to live with the Assad regime, a position given added credence recently due to the success of the Syrian government in quelling its opposition, making continued opposition futile politically and irresponsible ethically. Whenever pragmatism gained the upper hand, Russia and Iran were accepted as partners in these efforts to defeat and destroy ISIS.

 

All wars eventually come to an end, and I am sure Syria will not be an exception. Yet it difficult at present to project a solution that brings about more than a ceasefire, and even this kind of ending of what has become an orgy of senseless killing is highly elusive, as each of the many parties to the conflict jockeys violently for minor positional advantages to improve its bargaining leverage when the conflict enters some kind of negotiating phase. Although all wars end eventually, internal wars of this kind, especially with such complex regional and international aspects, can simmer for decades with no clear winner or loser as has been the case in the Philippines and Colombia. It seems as if at present the Syrian government believes it is on the verge of victory, and is pressing for an outcome in East Ghouta and Idlib such that it will not be expected to make significant concessions.

 

The best hope, which has been the case for several years, is that the various parties will recognize that the situation is indeed a mess that is causing mass suffering and widespread devastation without producing political gains. Yet translating that recognition into a formula that produces an end to the violence has so far proved futile and frustrating as each party sees the conflict from its partisan perspective of gain and loss.

 

 CJP: With the two-state solution having ceased long ago being a viable alternative, what are the most likely prospects for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations?

 

Richard Falk: The safest response is to anticipate a persistence of the present status quo, which involves continuing Israeli expansionism by way of the settlements and the persistence of the Palestinian ordeal, with some resistance in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem and a growing global solidarity movement exerting pressure on Israel in the form of the BDS campaign. There may be some attention given to a variety of proposals to end the conflict by revived diplomacy. The Trump blustery promise of ‘a deal of the century’ has received skeptical attention, but its likely one-sidedness makes it almost certain to be a non-starter, especially as the Israeli government feels insufficient pressure to produce a peaceful solution based on a genuine political compromise and the Palestinian Authority remains unwilling to accept a demilitarized statelet as a token Palestine state, or even to participate in negotiations that are so obviously stacked against it. For public relations reasons, the international consensus clings to the two-state solution even though, as your question suggests, its viability has long been superseded by Israeli expansionist policies intended to fulfill the Zionist goal of making the boundaries of Israel coterminous with the whole of the Jewish biblical conception of the ‘promised land.’

 

There are other outcomes that are possible. Daniel Pipes has been promoting what he dubbed ‘the victory caucus,’ which posits Israel as the victor in the struggle to establish a Jewish state and Palestine the loser. Pipes argues that diplomacy has failed to resolve the conflict after years of effort, and hence that the only alternative is for one side to win and the other to lose if peace is to be established. He encourages Israel to escalate pressure on the Palestinians to make them see the light, accept the reality of a Jewish state, and move on. Such an initiative is distasteful to those who support the Palestinian struggle, and it seems oblivious to the claims of international law and international morality as these are generally understood in the 21st century when colonialism and ethnic nationalism are illegitimate forms of political control and the right of self-determination has become universally accepted as an inalienable right of an oppressed people in the circumstances of the Palestinians.

 

In my view, neither the two-state nor a consensual one-state outcome of the struggle is currently within the realm of political feasibility. We are necessarily speculating about future political scenarios within the domain of ‘political impossibility.’ Yet the impossible sometimes happens. Colonialism was successfully challenged, the Soviet Union collapsed, South Africa renounced apartheid, the Arab Spring erupted. In none of these cases did such occurrences seem possible except in retrospect. After the events, as expected, experts appeared who explained why these impossible developments were, if closely considered, inevitable.

 

In this spirit, I think it useful to acknowledge the limits of rational assessment, and either remain silent, or offer for consideration, a solution that is ‘impossible,’ yet ‘desirable’ from the perspective of humane values, which in this case involves a secure, equitable, and sustainable peace for both peoples that is, above all, sensitive to their equality and to their distinct, yet legitimate, claims to self-determination. I find it unimaginable to realize such a peace within the current structure of the Middle East, which consists of a group of artificial and autocratic states held together by varying mixtures of coercion, corruption, and external military assistance. Israel/Palestine peace cannot unfold in a benevolent manner without a structural return to the Ottoman framework of regional unity and ethnic community, and possibly Islamic caliphate, adapted to post-colonial realities. Such a stateless Middle East would reverse the harm inflicted on the region by the imposition of European territorial states through the infamous Sykes-Picot diplomacy.

 

 CJP: South Africa’s former apartheid system has been employed analytically by many to describe the current status of the state of Israel with regard to it’s treatment towards Palestinians. Indeed, it is from such a comparison that the Boycott, Divestment and Sactions (BDS) movement was borne, but to what extent are the two cases compatible? South Africa was pretty much isolated by the early 1980s, but the same cannot be said about Israel today. In fact, Israel has even managed to expand recently it’s network of allies with Greece and the Sunni states. So, what are your thoughts on the comparison between the former South African apartheid regime and Israel and the effectiveness of the strategy of BDS?

 

RF: Your question raises two distinct issues: Is Israel responsibly regarded as an ‘apartheid state’? If so, is Israeli apartheid similar to South African apartheid?

 

Prior to responding to these questions, it seems helpful to clarify the status of the international crime of apartheid as it has evolved in international law, taking particular note of the fact that although the name and core idea is based on the specific condemnation of South African racism, the international crime is detached from this precedent. The essence of the international crime is any form of discriminatory domination by one race over another that relies on ‘inhuman acts’ to sustain its purposes. In this important sense, Israeli forms of domination over the Palestinian people may be quite different than the domination of whites over blacks in South Africa and yet constitute the international crime of apartheid. Treating apartheid as an international crime is based both on the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and on the 2002 Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court that categorizes ‘apartheid’ in Article 7 as one of eleven types of Crime Against Humanity.

 

In a study commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission, Virginia Tilley and I concluded that the policies and practices of Israel toward the Palestinian people as a whole satisfy the requirements of the international crime of apartheid. Our conclusion is based on the view that Israel, to maintain an expanding Jewish state has subjected the Palestinian people to structures of subjugation and victimization that are sustained by excessive violence and other inhuman means. It was our judgment that Jews and Palestinians are distinct ‘races’ as the term is understood in international law. The scope of Israeli apartheid is based on coherent strategies designed to subjugate the Palestinian people whether they are living under occupation, the most obvious case, or as a discriminated minority within Israel or as residents in refugee camps in neighboring countries or living is a global diaspora as involuntary exiles. Each of these domains is connected with the Israeli efforts to ensure not only the prevalence of a Jewish state, but also a secure Jewish majority population that could only be achieved by a process of dispossession, dispersion, and fragmentation, as well as by the denial of any right of return.

 

South African apartheid was very different in its operation as compared to Israeli apartheid. For one thing, white South Africa was a minority demographic in the country and critically dependent on black labor. For another, the South African concept of law, citizenship, and democracy was delineated along racial lines, while Israel claims to be an inclusive democracy, although is more accurately understood to be an ethnocracy. Despite these fundamental differences, the core reality of ‘inhuman acts’ and ‘discriminatory structures of domination’ are present, although distinctly enacted, in both national settings.

 

Finally, it should be understood that such allegations of Israeli apartheid are made on the basis of academic study, and while they may be persuasive morally and politically, it is also true that until a valid tribunal passes judgment on such allegations, the legal status of the allegations remains unresolved, and is of course feverishly contested by Israel and its supporters.

 

CJP: Overall, what are the prospects for restored stability and a positive future for the countries in the Middle East?

 

RF: Without the intervention of unanticipated developments, the prospects are poor. On one level, the extreme turmoil in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and neighboring Libya are likely to continue and could spread to additional states. On a second level, the regional rivalries between Iran and a Saudi led coalition on the one side and Israel on the other, seem likely to intensify. On a third level, there is no plausible scenario for establishing a sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. On a fourth level, with the reassertion of Russian engagement and the U.S. pursuit of a strategic agenda related to Israel, oil, political Islam, Iran, and nuclear nonproliferation, the region has as in the Cold War become a site of dangerous geopolitical maneuver and confrontation. On a fifth level, perhaps less serious than the others, is the sort of intra-regional tensions that have given rise to the Gulf Crisis centered upon the relations of Qatar to other Gulf countries, and to the role of Turkey as partner and antagonist, especially in relation to the continuing search of the Kurdish peoples for self-determination. Finally, on a sixth level, there is almost certain to be new expressions of internal strife and various extremisms that strike against the West, inviting retaliation, which will probably be accompanied by further migratory flows that aggravate relations between the Middle East and Europe.

 

The drastic and prolonged victimization of the Middle East also exhibits the failure of the West to understand, much less address, the root causes of conflict and chaos that have produced mass suffering and material deprivations throughout the region. These root causes can be traced back at least a century to the imposition of European style states on the region, reflecting colonial ambitions, in the aftermath of World War I and by way of a colonial pledge to the world Zionist movement to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then inhabited by a Jewish minority not larger than 6%. The other principal root cause related to the abundance of oil in several parts of the Middle East, which created rentier mentalities in development contexts and provided strong strategic motivations for intervention and control by global political actors.

 

In the end, this complexity joining the historical past to the tormented past creates a dismal set of prospects for the future of the Middle East. At this point, only paradoxical, although unrealistic, hopes for prudence and moderation can make the portrayal of the situation less gloomy than the evidence and trajectory suggest.

 

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After the Interview: A Postscript on the Land Day Massacre (‘Great March of Return’)

 

The precise statistics remain inconclusive, although there exists general agreement that more than 15 Palestinians were killed by live ammunition fired by Israeli snipers stationed at the border with Gaza, another estimated 750 Palestinians were injured by ammo and rubber bullets resulting in an estimated total of 1,500 injuries, including from tear gas dropped on the largely unarmed demonstration. Whether the Israeli behavior should be viewed as ‘excessive force’ or ‘collective punishment,’ or both, is a matter for debate, but there is no question that the killings and firepower were in direct conflict with Israel’s obligations as an Occupying Power as specified in the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel’s ‘disengagement’ in 2005 did not end the occupation from the perspective of international humanitarian law, but rather rearranged its management, with control and deployments being concentrated on the borders rather than throughout Gaza, and reinforced by periodic massive military incursions causing large numbers of civilian casualties and widespread devastation.

 

This latest interaction returned the Palestinian litany of grievances to the front pages of the world’s media often accompanied by gruesome pictures, but also revealed two kinds of gaps: between the Western and non-Western media and between the mainstream media response and that of civil society. The mainstream media worries that this is a public relations setback for Israel and urges restraint on both sides. In contrast, the activist segment of civil society condemns the Israeli tactics as constituting a massacre, and calls for an arms embargo. This distinction at the level of response is revealing, with the mainstream and almost every Western government pinning their public hopes on reviving negotiations aiming at a political solution based on the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestine. Engaged civil society has lost all faith in diplomacy under current conditions, believes only escalating nonviolent pressure can change the political climate sufficiently to make negotiations sufficiently promising to undertake, and then only if the two-state mantra is abandoned once and for all.

 

 

 

 

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Peace and Justice for the Palestinian People: a Conversation

4 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The post below is a modified text of an interview conversation with Khourosh Ziabari, initially published on the website of the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence on February 4, 2018, <info@odvv.org>] </info@odvv.org>

 

 

Peace and Justice for the Palestinian People: a conversation

 

Khourosh Ziabari: Humanitarian crisis in Gaza has entered its 11th year as the crippling siege by Israel is making the living conditions of Palestinians more complicated with time. The blockade in what is popularly referred to as the world’s “largest open-air prison” means growing unemployment, people having intermittent access to pure water, the economy is almost dysfunctional and poor infrastructure and lack of funding make the two-million population vulnerable to heavy rains and extreme weather. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories believes Israel is not doing enough to make the living conditions of Gaza Palestinians better, and the United States is also failing to play a constructive role.

 

Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, who has published and co-edited some 40 books on human rights, international humanitarian law and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an interview with the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof Falk shared his views on the recent controversy surrounding President Trump’s proposal to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the ongoing humanitarian emergency in the Palestinian territories.

 

Q: In a piece recently published on Foreign Policy Journal, you talked of Palestine as being a hugely discriminated against nation, which in the recent decades has undergone major hardships due to the inability or reluctance of the United Nations to take steps to balance the needs of the Palestinian people against the political leverage of Israel and its allies. The improvement of the living conditions of the Palestinians depends on a logical and justifiable way out being found to end the conflict. Is the international community really unable to come up with a sustainable and all-encompassing solution?

 

A: The failure of the international community with respect to the Palestinian people and their legitimate grievances is due to several special circumstances; most importantly, the underlying determination of the Zionist movement to control most of Palestine as delimited by the British mandate. In this respect, assertions by Israeli leaders of their desire for a political compromise should never been accepted at face value, and are patently insincere, public relations gestures seeking to influence international public opinion, and convey the false impression that Israel is seeking a political compromise with Palestine.

 

Secondly, this Zionist ambition is now strongly supported by the United States despite not being clearly articulated by the government of Israel. This obscurity, essentially a deception, allows the international community to act as if a peace process is capable of producing a solution for the conflict even though Israel’s actions on the ground point ever more clearly toward an imposed unilateral outcome, which essentially is a unilateral insistence that the conflict has been resolved in favor of Israel.

 

Thirdly, the ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the U.S. translates into a geopolitical protection arrangement encompassing security issues and even extending to insulating Israel from censure at the UN, especially by the Security Council, and making sanctions impossible to impose. In such a setting, the Israelis are able to pursue their goals, while ignoring Palestinian grievances, which results in tragedy and suffering for the Palestinian people. Given the balance of forces, there is no end in sight that might end the conflict in a fair way.

 

Q: President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his plan to move the U.S. embassy to this city met a big resistance at the United Nations, both on the General Assembly and Security Council levels. Why do you think the international community and even the major U.S. allies didn’t say yes to this proposal?

 

A: Trump’s initiative on Jerusalem ruptured whatever fragile basis existed for seeking a diplomatic solution for relations between Israel and Palestine. There had been a clear understanding, respected by prior American leaders, that the disposition of Jerusalem was a matter that was to be settled only through negotiations between the parties. This understanding was broken by the Trump initiative for no apparent reasons beyond pleasing Netanyahu and some wealthy Zionist donors in the U.S. Beyond this, for Trump to side with Israel on such a sensitive issue, which deeply matters symbolically and substantively, not only for Palestinians, but for Muslims everywhere, and even for Christians, damaged beyond repair the credibility of the United States to act an acceptable intermediary in any future peace process.

 

American credibility was at a low level anyway, but this latest step relating to Jerusalem, removed, at least for the foreseeable future, any doubt about the American partisan approach, and more dramatically, made it evident that diplomacy based on the two-state solution had reached a point of no return.

 

In one respect, the Trump move on Jerusalem lifted the scales from the eyes of the world. It should have been clear for some years that the size of the settlement phenomenon and the influence of the settlers, now numbering about 800,000, had made it impractical to contemplate the establishment of a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state. As well, the U.S. had long ceased to be an honest broker in the diplomatic settings that were described by reference to ‘the peace process,’ and probably never was partisan from the outset of the international search for an outcome that was a genuine political compromise. If there is to be an effective diplomacy with respect to the relations between the two peoples, it must, in any event, be preceded by dismantling the apartheid structures that were developed by Israel over the decades to subjugate the Palestinian people as a whole and the United States must be replaced by a credible third party intermediary. Israel feels no pressure to accept such changes, and so there is no current alternative to exerting pressure on this untenable status quo through support for militant nonviolent forms of Palestinian resistance and the global solidarity movement, with a special recognition of the contributions of the BDS campaign. It may be relevant to note that the BDS Campaign has been nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.

 

Q: In the recent years, many resolutions and statements have been issued in condemnation of the expansion of Israel’s settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied following the Six-Day War in 1967 by the UN General Assembly and its affiliated human rights bodies. Even the UNSC Resolution 2334 (2016) declares Israel’s settlement activity a “flagrant violation” of international law. Is the publication of statements and condemning a state, while the state itself doesn’t recognize the demands and considers them invalid, a viable solution? If the international community is convinced that Israel should stop the illegal settlements, then how is it possible to make it happen?

 

A: The continued expansion of the settlements despite their flagrant violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention is both an expression of Israel’s contempt for international law and for world public opinion. It also reveals the impotence of the UN to do anything effective to impose its will that is any more consequential than the issuance of complaints. When geopolitical realities shield the behavior of a state from international pressures, the UN is helpless to implement its resolutions, and international law is put to one side. The UN is an organization of states, and limited in its capacity to shape behavior, especially by the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council. As such, the UN was never expected to have the constitutional capacity to overcome the strongly held views and commitments of the five states given permanent membership and the right of veto in the Security Council in the UN Charter. The Security Council is the only organ of the UN System with clear authority to reach and implement decisions, as distinct from advisory opinions and recommendations. The Israel/Palestine conflict is an extreme version of the Faustian Bargain struck between the geopolitical power structure and global justice, which was written into the UN Charter and the constitutional framework of the UN, as well as exhibited in UN practice over the years.

 

Q: News reports and figures show that the living standards and the economic conditions in the Gaza Strip are getting worse as time goes by. The unemployment rate has climbed to 46%. Research organizations and local media say 65% of the population is grappling with poverty and the food insecurity rate is roughly 50%. How do you think the perturbing humanitarian crisis in Gaza can be alleviated?

 

A: It is difficult to comprehend accurately the Israeli approach to Gaza as its motivations are very different from its stated justifications. Israeli policy often appears cruel and vindictive, with security rationales sounding more like pretexts than explanations. Excessive force has been repeatedly used by Israel in Gaza, and little effort to achieve some kind of tolerable stability has been made.

 

Israel has rejected a series of proposals for long-term ceasefires put forward by Hamas during the past decade. Israel has periodically attacked Gaza, inflicting heavy damage on a helpless and impoverished civilian society in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014 while the international community condemned these excessive uses of force. Now that the economic squeeze is pushing Gaza once again toward the brink of a humanitarian disaster the ordeal of the nearly two million Palestinians entrapped and utterly vulnerable. The situation in Gaza is once again a matter of grave concern, with humanitarian alarms being sounded by those with knowledge of the precarious health and subsistence crisis facing the population.

 

It is unclear what Israel actually wants to have happen in Gaza. Unlike the West Bank and Jerusalem, Gaza is not part of the Zionist territorial game plan, and is not considered part of biblical Israel. To the extent that Israel is pursuing a one-state solution imposed on the Palestinians, Gaza would be likely excluded as adding its population to that of Israel would risk exploding ‘the demographic bomb’ that has for so long worried Israelis because of endangering the artificially generated Jewish majority population, and supposed ‘democratic’ control of this ethnocratic polity.

 

The Zionist project has long resorted to extreme measures to achieve and then sustain the democratic pretension of its governing process, initially dispossessing as many as 700,000 Palestinians from the territory that became Israel in 1948. This coerced dispossession during combat was combined with a post-conflict refusal to allow those who left their homes and villages during wartime any right of return. Such ethnic cleansing was reinforce by completely destroying hundreds of Palestinian villages with bulldozers. This pattern of controlling the population ratio between Jews and non-Jews has been a persistent issue ever since the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917 when the Jewish population of Palestine was about 5%. In the early period, the Zionist effort was focused on overcoming the Jewish demographic minority status by stimulating and subsidizing Jewish immigration. Yet even after the surge in immigration prompted by the rise of Nazism and European anti-Semitism, the Jewish population of Palestine was only about 30% at the start of the 1947-48 War.

 

Israel would probably like to have Gaza disappear. If that is not going to happen, then the second best solution is to entrust Jordan or Egypt with administrative control, security responsibility, and sovereign authority. So far neither Arab government wants to assume control over Gaza. With these considerations in mind, Israel seems determined to maintain instense pressure on Gaza, allowing the population to hover around the subsistence threshold, and to signal Israeli aggressiveness to the rest of the region, asserting a military presence from time to time that seems both punitive and designed to remind Gazans that resistance on their part would be met with overwhelming lethal force causing devastation and heavy casualties, including imposing a condition of enduring despair on the civilian population.

 

 

 

Apartheid and the Future of Israel/Palestine

20 Sep

 

[Prefatory Note: There has been lots of discussion prompted by the release of a report jointly authored with Prof. Virginia Tilley, a study commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), and given by us the title, “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.” The interview, associated with my current visit to Belgium and France to speak on various aspects of the analysis and implications of the report, brings up to date the controversy generated at the UN by its release a few months ago, and by the willingness of the UN Secretary General to bow to U.S. pressure and order the removal of the report from ESCWA website. The interview questions were posed by veteran Middle East correspondent, Pierre Barbancey, and published in l’Humanité, Sept. 6, 2017.]

 

 

 

1 YOU HAVE PUBLISHED A REPORT: WHO ASKS FOR THAT AND WHY?

 

The Report was commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia in 2016 at the request of its Council, which has a membership of 18 Arab states. Professor Virginia Tilley and I were offered a contract to prepare a report on the applicability of the crime of apartheid to the manner in which Israeli policies and practices affected the Palestinian people as a whole, and not as in previous discussions of the applicability of apartheid, only to those Palestinians living since 1967 under Israeli occupation. The originality of the Report is to extend the notion of apartheid beyond the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and investigate its applicability to Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, to those Palestinians enduring involuntary exile abroad, and to those existing as a discriminated minority in Israel.

 

2) What are the conclusions of the ESCWA Report?

 

The most important conclusion of the Report was that by careful consideration of the relevant evidence, Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid as defined in the 1976 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid with regard to the Palestinian PEOPLE AS A WHOLE, that is, Palestinians living under occupation as refugee and in involuntary exile, and as a minority in Israel are all victimized by the overriding crime. The Report also found that Jews and Palestinians both qualify as a ‘race’ as the term is used in the Convention, and that Israel to sustain a Jewish state established by ‘inhuman acts’ a structure of oppressive and discriminatory domination by which the Palestinians were victimized as a people.

 

A second conclusion of importance is that the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court considers apartheid to be one type of ‘crime against humanity,’ which does not necessarily exhibit the same features as pertained to the apartheid regime in South Africa, the origin of the concept and crime, but not a template for its subsequent commission.

 

A third conclusion is that given the existence of apartheid, sustained to maintain a Jewish state in Palestine, all sovereign states, the UN, and civil society all have a legally grounded responsibility to take all reasonable steps of a nonviolent character to bring the commission of the crime to an end.

 

A fourth conclusion is that the Report is an academic study that draws conclusions and offers recommendation on the basis of a legal analysis, but it is not a duly constituted legal body empowered to make formal findings with respect to the allegations that Israel is guilty of apartheid.

 

 

 

3) WHAT WAS THE REACTIONS?

 

We experienced two contradictory sets of reactions.

 

From ESCWA the report was received with enthusiasm. We were told it was the most important report that ESCWA had ever published, with by far the largest number of requests for copies.

 

At the UN, the report and its authors were strongly attacked by the diplomatic representatives of the United States and Israel, with the demand the UN acted to repudiate the report. The Secretary General instructed the Director of ESCWA to remove the report from its website, and when she refusing, she tendered her principled resignation explained in an Open Letter to the Secretary General. It should be appreciated that this was an academic report of international law experts, and never claimed to be an official reflection of UN views. A disclaimer at the outset of the Report made this clear.

 

4) WHAT HAPPENED NOW WITH THE REPORT?

 

The status of the report within ESCWA is not clear. As far as I know the report itself has not been repudiated by ESCWA. In fact, it has been endorsed in a formal decision of the 18 foreign ministers of the ESCWA countries, including a recommendation to other organs of the UN System that the findings and recommendations of the Report be respected. Beyond this, the report has altered the discourse in civil society and to some extent, in diplomatic settings, making the terminology of ‘apartheid’ increasingly displace the emphasis on ‘occupation.’

 

 

5) ISRAEL SAYS THAT THE BDS MOVEMENT IS ANTI-SEMITIC. WHAT IS YOUR ANSWER?

 

This is an inappropriate and even absurd allegation. The BDS Campaign is directed against Israeli policies and practices that violate international law and cause great suffering to be inflicted on the Palestinian people. It has nothing whatsoever to do with hostility to Jews as persons or as a people. The allegation is clearly designed to discredit BDS and to discourage persons from lending it support or participating in its activities. It is an unfortunate and irresponsible use of the ‘anti-Semitic’ label designed to manipulate public opinion and government policy, and inhibit activism.

 

6) IN FRANCE YOU CAN BE PUT IN COURT IF YOU ACT FOR BDS, LIKE A CRIME. DO YOU HAVE ANY KNOWLEDGE OF SIMILAR SITUTIONS IN OTHER COUNTRIES?

 

I know there have been efforts in Europe and North America to criminalize support for BDS, but so far as I know, no formal laws have yet been brought into existence, and no indictments or prosecutions, outside of Israel and France, have taken place. I am not entire clear as to what has happened in Israel along these lines, although I know that Israel has been denying BDS supporters from abroad entry into the country.

 

7) WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE AS SPECIAL REPORTEUR OF THE UNITED NATIONS IN THE PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES AND IN ISRAEL?

 

My experience as UN Special Rapporteur in Occupied Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council was both frustrating and fulfilling. It was frustrating because during my six years as SR the situation on the ground and diplomatically worsened for the Palestinian people despite the documented record of Israeli human rights abuses. It was fulfilling because it enabled a forthright presentation of Israeli violations of basic Palestinian rights, which had some influence on the discourse within the UN, building support for corporate responsibility in relation to commercial dealing with Israel’s unlawful settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as shifted some of the discourse within the UN from ‘occupation’ to ‘settler colonialism’ and ‘apartheid.’

 

It was also something of a personal ordeal as I was constantly subject to defamatory attacks by UN Watch and other ultra Zionist NGOs and their supporters, also organizing efforts to have me dismissed from my UN position and barred from lecturing on university campuses around the world. Fortunately, these efforts failed by and large, but they did have the intended effect of shifting the conversation from substance to auspices, from the message to messenger.

7) 70 YEARS AFTER THE DIVISION OF PALESTINE BY THE UNITED NATIONS  HOW DO YOU SEE THAT DECISION?

 

The1947 partition resolution [GA Res. 181] was part of the exit strategy of the British colonial administration in the mandate period that controlled Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of World War I. This approach was flawed in several basic respects: it neglected the will of the majority Arab and non-Jewish domestic population, and imposed a solution to the conflict without consulting the inhabitants; it also within its own terms failed to secure Palestinian rights or its sovereign political community, or even to uphold international humanitarian law. The UN never effectively implemented partition, and thus gave Israel the de facto discretion to impose its will on the entire territory of Palestine, including the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in the 1947 War, which overcame the demographic imbalance, and allowed itself to be branded to this day as ‘a democracy,’ even being hailed as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’ The US and Europe played a crucial geopolitical role in producing these developments, which rested on an Orientalist mentality lingering in the West.

8) IS THERE A SOLUTION FOR THE PALESTINIAN TO RECOVER THEIR RIGHTS AND TO LIVE IN THEIR OWN STATE?

 

It is difficult to envision the future at this stage, yet it is clear that the Palestinian national struggle is continuing both in the form of Palestinian resistance activities and by way of the international solidarity movement, of which the BDS Campaign is

by far the most important undertaking. In my judgment until there is exerted enough pressure on the Israeli government to change course drastically, signaled by a willingness to dismantle the laws and procedures associated with the current apartheid regime used to subjugate the Palestinian people, there is no genuine prospect for a political solution to the conflict. Such a change of course in South Africa occurred, against all expectations at home and abroad, and partly in response to pressures generated by this earlier version of an international BDS campaign. My hope is that as the Palestinian people continue to win the ongoing Legitimacy War, this pattern will eventually be repeated, leading after a prolonged struggle to a sustainable peace between these two peoples based on the cardinal principle of equality. This will not happen, tragically, until there is much suffering endured, especially by Palestinians living under occupation, in refugee camps and involuntary exile, and as a discriminated minority within Israel. This Palestinian ordeal has gone on far too long. Its origins can be traced back at least a century ago when in an undisguised colonial gesture of the British Foreign Office pledged its support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine to the World Zionist Movement in the form of the Balfour Declaration (1917). The competing national narratives of what transpired over the subsequent century tell different stories, each with an authentic base of support in the relevant community, but only the Palestine narrative can gain present comfort from the guidelines of international law, above all, the inalienable right of self-determination

 

 

Blocking Comments: Toward a Constructive Compromise

6 Jul

 

 Almost since the blog was initiated in 2010 I have wrestled with the proper and desirable scope of my monitoring role. I wanted to avoid two things: dogmatic bickering between opposed viewpoints and hateful, hurtful comments directed at either me or comment contributors. Although I did avoid the worst instances of defamatory and insulting attacks it was difficult to draw the line when substance was intertwined with nasty innuendo, and for a long time I leaned in the direction of inclusion, tolerating a certain level of incivility, some righteous anger, some insidious efforts to undermine and discredit.

 

A further concern, not evident to me early on, was the submission of long rambling comments that bore no discernable relevance to either posts or earlier comments. I have come to view that these too should be blocked for the sake of making the blog community feel the published comments were worth their time and attention. And then there was another case of unacceptable comments, those submitted by commercial entities peddling a product or vacation package, and attempting to gain smidgeons of free advertising by piggybacking on blogs.

 

I thank especially Gene Schulman and Laura Knightly (and a few others who contacted me offline) for pushing me to be more exclusionary, especially toward the repetitive hasbara contributions of several of the more persistent comment authors. This whole issue of how and when to block was really confined to a single issue on this blog—the flurry of defamatory comments pushing back against any and all criticisms of Israel, conflating anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli practices and policies with anti-Semitism, as well as those equating Palestinian resistance with terrorism, disregarding Israel’s defiance of international law, and placing the burden of blame for the Palestinian ordeal primarily on the slumped shoulders of the oppressed. Along similar lines were comments exaggerating calls for the end of apartheid or the end of exclusivist ethnic claims to be a Jewish state by treating such critiques as advocating the destruction of Israel as a state, or even of the Jewish people. This tendency to refute a charge inflated far beyond its obvious intention is a common hasbara tactic, and unacceptable.

 

The more common trope of the liberal wing of the mainstream is to do what Obama and J Street tend to do, which is to insist that both sides are responsible for the impasse and both must make ‘painful concessions’ if peace is to be achieved. Although I find such a diagnosis deeply misleading as it bypasses the structure of oppressor and oppressed, insisting on ‘balanced’ apportionment of blame and sacrifice in a situation of extreme imbalance, I consider dialogue possible, although rarely fruitful.

 

As I have made clear on several occasions, comments that support Israel’s positions and Zionist claims and activities will not be excluded so long as they are not fused with rhetoric that smears those who hold opposing views or not repeated dogmatically in redundant submissions. Likewise attacks on Israel’s policies and practices, Zionist ideology and tactics, and Jewish support for Israel have been and will be blocked if the comment includes demeaning and gratuitous personal insults.

 

In my view, the more restrictive approach is working. The quality of the comments section of this blog has recently in my judgment greatly improved, containing creative responses that engage with or go beyond the posts, and by and large avoid bickering and trivializing exchanges. I thank the participants for this enhanced quality, which was my hope from the beginning.

 

Finally, the blog domain is happily pluralistic in all its dimensions. There is no reason that a blog dealing with controversial issues needs to be neutral or non-partisan, including whether or not the blog manager wants to have a comments section at all. I felt that a dialogic format was the most valuable frame to adopt given my main concerns, especially in view of their often controversial character. On an intellectual level I draw a distinction between debate, which I have find rarely useful, and dialogue, which is a listening mode as much as a speaking mode, and if appropriately practiced is a lifelong learning experience.

 

Although it is somewhat more work for me, I think safeguarding this blog space for such dialogue is a better way to express my blog ambitions and goals, which implies a corollary willingness to limit access for those whose motivation is acrimonious debate. Without being too mechanical and dogmatic about it, and even acknowledging that a good debate can on occasion rise to the level of dialogue and that bad dialogue between narcissistic talkers can sink to the level of debate, the distinction justifies attentiveness if drawn with sensitivity.

 

I suppose in the end we who aspire to be good netizens all need a civics guidebook when it comes to enjoying a nomadic life in cyberspace.

Israel’s New Cultural War of Aggression

5 May

A Small Battleground in a Large Culture War

 

A few weeks ago my book Palestine’s Horizon: Toward a Just Peace was published by Pluto in Britain. I was in London and Scotland at the time to do a series of university talks to help launch the book. Its appearance happened to coincide with the release of a jointly authored report commissioned by the UN Social and Economic Commission of West Asia, giving my appearances a prominence they would not otherwise have had. The report concluded that the evidence relating to Israeli practices toward the Palestinian people amounted to ‘apartheid,’ as defined in international law.

 

There was a strong pushback by Zionist militants threatening disruption. These threats were sufficiently intimidating to academic administrators, that my talks at the University of East London and at Middlesex University were cancelled on grounds of ‘health and security.’ Perhaps, these administrative decisions partly reflected the awareness that an earlier talk of mine at LSE had indeed been sufficiently disrupted during the discussion period that university security personnel had to remove two persons in the audience who shouted epithets, unfurled an Israeli flag, stood up and refused to sit down when politely asked by the moderator.

 

In all my years of speaking on various topics around the world, I had never previously had events cancelled, although quite frequently there was similar pressure exerted on university administrations, but usually threatening financial reprisals if I was allowed to speak. What happened in Britain is part of an increasingly nasty effort of pro-Israeli activists to shut down debate by engaging in disruptive behavior, threats to security, and by smearing speakers regarded as critics of Israel as ‘anti-Semites,’ and in my case as a ‘self-hating,’ even a self-loathing Jew.

 

Returning to the United States I encountered a new tactic. The very same persons who disrupted in London, evidently together with some likeminded comrades, wrote viciously derogatory reviews of my book on the Amazon website in the U.S. and UK, giving the book the lowest rate possible rating, This worried my publisher who indicated that how a book is rated on Amazon affects sales very directly. I wrote a message on my Facebook timeline that my book was being attacked in this way, and encouraged Facebook friends to submit reviews, which had the effect of temporarily elevating my ratings. In turn, the ultra-Zionists went back to work with one or two line screeds that made no effort whatsoever to engage the argument of the book. In this sense, there was a qualitative difference as the positive reviews were more thoughtful and substantive. This was a new kind of negative experience for me. Despite publishing many books over the course during this digital age I had never before had a book attacked in this online manner obviously seeking to discourage potential buyers and to demean me as an author. In effect, this campaign is an innovative version of digital book burning, and while not as vivid visually as a bonfire, its vindictive intentions are the same.

 

These two experiences, the London cancellations and the Amazon harassments, led me to reflect more broadly on what was going on. More significant, by far, than my experience are determined, well-financed efforts to punish the UN for its efforts to call attention to Israeli violations of human rights and international law, to criminalize participation in the BDS campaign, and to redefine and deploy anti-Semitism so that its disavowal and prevention extends to anti-Zionism and even to academic and analytic criticism of Israel’s policies and practices, which is how I am situated within this expanding zone of opprobrium. Israel has been acting against human rights NGOs within its own borders, denying entry to BDS supporters, and even virtually prohibiting foreign tourists from visiting the West Bank or Gaza. In a remarkable display of unity all 100 U.S. senators recently overcame the polarized atmosphere in Washington to join in sending an arrogant letter to the new UN Secretary General, António Guterres, demanding a more friendly, blue washing, approach to Israel at the UN and threatening financial consequences if their outrageous views were not heeded.

 

Israel’s most ardent and powerful backers are transforming the debate on Israel/Palestine policy into a cultural war of aggression. This new kind of war has been launched with the encouragement and backing of the Israeli government, given ideological support by such extremist pressure groups as UN Watch, GO Monitor, AIPAC, and a host of others. This cultural war is implemented at street levels by flame throwing militants that resort to symbolic forms of violence. The adverse consequences for academic freedom and freedom of thought in a democratic society should not be underestimated. A very negative precedent is being set in several Western countries. Leading governments are collaborating with extremists to shut down constructive debate on a sensitive policy issue affecting the lives and wellbeing of a long oppressed people.

 

There are two further dimensions of these developments worth pondering: (1) In recent years Israel has been losing the Legitimacy War being waged by the Palestinians, what Israeli think tanks call ‘the delegitimation project,’ and these UN bashing and personal smears are the desperate moves of a defeated adversary in relation to the moral and legal dimensions of the Palestinian struggle for rights. In effect, the Israeli government and its support groups have given up almost all efforts to respond substantively, and concentrate their remaining ammunition on wounding messengers who bear witness and doing their best to weaken the authority and capabilities of the UN so as to discredit substantive initiatives; (2) while this pathetic spectacle sucks the oxygen from responses of righteous indignation, attention is diverted from the prolonged ordeal of suffering that has long been imposed on the Palestinian people as a result of Israel’s unlawful practices and policies, as well as its crimes against humanity, in the form of apartheid, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, and many others. The real institutional scandal is not that the UN is obsessed with Israel but rather that it is blocked from taking action that might exert sufficient pressure on Israel to induce the dismantling of apartheid structures relied upon to subjugate, displace, and dispossess the Palestinian people over the course of more than 70 years with no end in sight.

Ways of Living With ‘Alternative Facts’: An Anecdote

6 Feb

 

 

A couple of nights ago I went to see A Quiet Heart, a fine film about a young Jewish woman, an accomplished pianist from Tel Aviv who had come to Jerusalem, apparently to get away from her family and former boy friend. She moved into an apartment in the ultra-Orthodox part of the city where acute hostility is exhibited toward more secular Jews and local Christians connected with a nearby monastic church. The film was being shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, and was a special selection in the ‘sidebar’ devoted to Israeli films and sponsored by the strongly pro-Israeli NGO, Anti-Defamation League, or ADL. As was the case for all films at the Festival, someone from the sponsors or Festival staff makes a brief introduction to the audience. In this case an ADL staff person gave some helpful background information. He made a closing comment that showing a film set in Jerusalem was especially appropriate in 2017 as it was ‘the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city.’

 

At the time I was struck by the oddness and insensitivity of such a remark, which from my perspective, was a completely unfamiliar way of acknowledging the impact of 1967 on Jerusalem. I had recently been attuned to the importance of 2017 as tragic anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration (1917), Partition Resolution (1947), and the 1967 War (1967). As I reflected on what 1967 meant from a Zionist/Israel perspective, the conquest and unified control of Jerusalem was a natural way of perceiving, as were the accompanying exclusions of international law (Israel was unanimously instructed by the UN Security Council to withdraw from the city to the pre-war borders with small negotiated modifications) and the Palestinian people (as if they had no claim to Jerusalem, and hence were invisible). It should be expected that contrasting meanings would be attached to the importance of 1967 by most Israelis and Zionists on one side and by those who identified with the Palestinian national struggle on the other side.

 

Is there a right and wrong about such differing perceptions? On one level, no, merely different ways of ‘seeing.’ On other level, yes; it is a matter of whether to validate the status quo as authoritative or to allow international law and UN authority to have the last word. Dialogue, especially if among equals, can let us see and feel as the other, possibly narrowing differences, or at least raising consciousness of their existence. In ideal form, Martin Buber’s I-Thou spirit of meeting the other suggests the true nature of an authentic quest for an understanding of otherness than transcends our own deeply conditioned and inevitably partials perceptions.

 

At the same time, if the circumstances that underlie the contrasting perceptions are hierarchical or oppressive, then it is deeply misleading to suggest that both sides are equally responsible for the unhappy situation that prevails. The side in control, in this instance Israel, is primarily responsible for treating Jerusalem as appropriately and permanently unified under Israeli governmental and political control in 1967. This Israeli insistenc defies international public opinion as well as some elementary precepts of international morality, although it reflects the current realpolitik reading of the situation.

 

This brings me inevitably to Kellyann Conway’s reliance on ‘alternative facts’ to validate the White House claim that Donald Trump’s inaugural crowd was bigger than that of Barack Obama. She was contesting contrasting pictures shown by CNN and other media outlets in which even the most casual observer could tell that Trumps crowd was by far smaller. Of course, only a narcissistic lack of self-esteem would lead someone to be foolish enough to call attention to such a discrepancy. The childish comparison of inaugural crowd sizes would have totally disappeared from public consciousness by the next moon had not Trump thrown a fit. With the help of that feisty provocation, ‘alternative facts’ a seemingly trivial controversy has been given a prominent and likely permanent place in American political discourse. Poor Ms. Conway, normally a refreshingly coherent and informed advocate of Trump’s worldview, will now likely be remembered above all, and maybe only, for this one extravagant trope that so blatantly crossed the line of plausibility! Or possibly for pointing to ‘the Bowling Green massacre’ as evidence that the media was guilty, as Trump complained, of underreporting terrorist incidents. This time Ms. Conway didn’t rely on alternative facts but on no facts. As she admitted a couple of nights later, there never was a Bowling Green massacre, there was simply no such event, but this did not inhibit her from repeating the absurd contention of her boss that the media downplays terrorism. From my angle of vision the opposite complaint could much more plausibly be made.

 

Without getting carried away with glee, it is helpful to remember that our daily existence tends to be dominated by alternative facts. Lawyers make a living by the careful selection of those facts favorable to their client, while ignoring or downplaying those that are unfavorable. And all of us nearly all the time, whether consciously or not, are coming up with our preferred menu of facts. The interpretation of facts is what creates the social and political fabric of life.

 

Yet there is a distinction between Ms. Conway’s alternative facts and those that are the stuff of nightly news debates, Her use of alternative facts flew in the face of what seemed to be a public truth, almost undeniable from the perspective of reason, and hence seemed more a ‘lie’ than an ‘interpretation.’ Crossing such a line weakens public discourse in a democratic society, turning politics into a deadly game in which the unaccountable whims of the leader amount to a death sentence imposed on innocence. Without the protection of innocence, there is scant prospect of justice. And so we are led to think that slaughtering political language might properly be viewed as an impeachable offense.

 

 

A Somewhat Anguished Open Letter to Blog Subscribers

4 Mar

 

In recent weeks, once again this website has been dominated by polarized debate about the relations between Israel and Palestine. My affinities in this debate are clear, but it has become for me and most others who share my viewpoint a very unproductive process. It reminds me of the sort of venom on display in the Republican primary struggle to select a presidential candidate, and at this point, the secondary struggle to offset the proto-fascist surge of Trump-mania that promises to make the choice of the next American leader a perverse and masochistic form of entertainment. This will be a tragedy not only for America, but for the world, considering the reality of its self-anointed role as the first global state in human history, and the implications this has for who is chosen to lead such a country.

 

I realize that such a free association is off point. What I want to express is that I have found the many comments contributors supporting Israel, while granting their sincerity, to resemble my experience in South Africa during the 1960s. In 1965 I spent the year in The Hague as an international law advisor to the Ethiopian and Liberian team in the South West Africa Cases being argued at the International Court of Justice. I learned many things, including being impressed and appalled by the skill and dogmatic convictions of the South African legal team in making their moral and legal case for apartheid, which I had previously uncritically viewed as a vicious form of racism that was not worth arguing about. It was not that I found these proponents of apartheid convincing, but it was my first experience of how ideological closure in the defense of a horrible situation can allow decent and intelligent people, pursuing their own social and material interests, to align themselves with what appeared to me to be a depraved structure of power and exploitation.

 

When I went to South Africa in 1968 to be an official observer at a political trial of activists in South West Africa, now Namibia, this dual experience of confrontation was deepened: with apologists for the apartheid regime and with those being victimized by it. I was told by the apologists a variety of things: “you don’t live here, and have no right to criticize what we do,” “blacks are better off here than elsewhere in Africa,” “it is either us or them, our survival is at stake,” “those who oppose apartheid are terrorists,” “we have brought prosperity and order to South Africa,” and on and on. My experience of the victimization of the African majority told, of course, a different story, one of fear, poverty, degradation, hardship, and the role of law in the service of oppression and degrading double standards.

 

I am not saying that the reality of Israel/Palestine relations are identical to those of apartheid South Africa, but there are essential similarities, including South African claims at the time of being a constitutional democracy governed according to the rule of law. There are also vast differences of history and circumstances, and the path to a just solution is very different, but the nature of debate between apologists for the status quo and its critics is sufficiently similar to make the comparison relevant and instructive.

 

While teaching at Princeton I agreed to debate a prominent American apologist for apartheid in an event sponsored by a conservative campus group. My opponent, an editor at the National Review with a Dutch background, made all the familiar pro-apartheid arguments in a cogent, even passionate form, and I angrily countered them, feeling afterwards ashamed that I had lost my poise having become so outraged by the distortions he was telling a mainly uninformed young student audience. It convinced me that such a debate, while sometimes captivating for its fireworks, is not the sort of communication and dialogue that I find worthwhile.

 

I have reached the same conclusion on several occasions with respect to the comments section of this blog. Over these years I have constantly vacillated between ignoring and engaging with the hostile and dogmatic comments submitted by Israeli apologists, which have frequently included nasty allegation or innuendo questioning my integrity and identity, and demeaning in various ways those who agreed with me. Such a dialogue of the deaf is repetitive, wasteful, hurtful, and initiates an intellectual race to the bottom.

 

I have been admittedly inconsistent in response, sometimes preferring a laissez-faire approach, sometimes monitoring to keep out personal insults and extremist views. I am a strong proponent of freedom of expression, although I have always found varieties of hate speech, including spurious allegations of anti-Semitism, to be troublesome and damaging. At the same time, while open to a wide divergence of views in the public square, I do not feel any obligation to invite those whose views I abhor to my home. A personal website is neither the public square nor a private dwelling, and that makes the issue messier, and undoubtedly explains why wavering between ‘openness’ and ‘boundaries.’

 

When a newspaper has opinion pieces and a comments section the case for extending the ethos of free speech is stronger, but not as convincing as it might appear on first glance. The Al Jazeera English comments section is dominated by vituperative and

hostile exchanges, polarizing and irrelevant debate and name calling, and rarely instructive. A personal blog site, even if addressing politically sensitive issues, seems to be justified in seeking to impose certain boundaries on what is acceptable. The goal is ‘productive conversation,’ which ideally would be hospitable to very divergent interpretations. I have always felt that I often learn most from those with whom I disagree, provided that these adversaries exhibit respect for the authenticity of my different experience and understanding.

 

These reflections leads me to once more adopt a more interventionist approach to comments submitted to this blog site. My goal is ‘productive conversation’ on a range of topics, and not limited to the Israel/Palestine agenda important that this is to me. I have enjoyed and benefitted from comments on a variety of issues, but rarely with respect to polar confrontations between Israel’s apologists and critics. With reluctance, but temporary resolve, I have decided to block comments that are written in a polarizing rhetoric or impugn the motives of Israel’s critics. It is

certain that the regular comment writers who I am categorizing as apologists for Israel will be offended, but I encourage them to go elsewhere. There are a variety of Zionist and pro-Israeli websites that are completely one-sided in ways they would find unproblematic, receiving either no critical comments or filtering out any that are out of tune with the spirit of the website.

 

On the basis of past experience, I have no illusions that this restrictive turn will work over time to improve the quality of discussion in the comments section, but I feel it is worth a try, and ask those who agree to be active, making it happen, providing that productive conversation on controversial issues is possible and useful.