Tag Archives: Thomas Friedman

Stalking Netanyahu’s Victory: Palestine and Iran

21 Mar

 

 

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

 

 For Palestine:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

On Iran Diplomacy:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Obama’s Libyan Folly: To be or not to be..

5 Apr

The outcome in Libya remains uncertain, but what seems clear beyond reasonable doubt is that military intervention has not saved the day for either the shadowy opposition known as ‘the rebels,’ and certainly not for the people of the country. It has seemingly plunged Libya into a protracted violent conflict with the domestic balance of forces tipping decisively in favor of the Qaddafi regime despite a major military onslaught managed by the American-led coalition, which in recent days has been supposedly outsourced to NATO. But since when is NATO not an American dominated alliance? The best that can be hoped for at this stage is a face-saving ceasefire that commits the Libyan leadership to a vague power-sharing scheme, but leaves the governing process more or less as it is, possibly replacing Qaddafi with his son who may offer the West the cosmetic trappings of liberal modernity, which may exhibit a genuine interest in reform.

President Barack Obama has chosen Libya as the place to draw a line in the sand, although it is a rather wavering and fuzzy line. It was finally drawn in response to what was being called two weeks ago an imminent atrocity about to be inflicted upon the people of Benghazi, although the evidence of this prospect of dire bloodletting was never present much beyond the bombast of the dictator. Obama stopped what the more ardent interventionist in his camp were derisively calling his ‘dithering.’ Heeding these criticisms Obama on March 28 came out clearly in support of military action, although carefully circumscribed in scope and nature by reference to its supposedly narrow humanitarian undertaking of protecting Libyan civilian.  The futility of preventing a Qaddafi victory on the ground by establishing a No Fly Zone, even as inappropriately expanded to become a No Drive Zone, should have been obvious to anyone conversant with the course of numerous political struggles of recent times being waged for the political control of a sovereign state. What the world actually witnessed was mainly something far different than an effort to protect Libyan civilians. It was rather a an unauthorized attempt to turn the tide of the conflict in favor of the insurrectionary campaign by destroying as many of the military assets possessed by Libya’s armed forces as possible, clearing the path for a rebel advance.

The campaign and character of the opposition has never been clearly established. It is still most accurately described as a motley gathering of opposition forces mysteriously referred to as ‘the rebels.’ In contrast to the seeming failure and ineptness of its military challenge, the public relations campaign of the rebels worked brilliantly. Most of all it mobilized the humanitarian hawks inhabiting the Obama presidential bird nest, most prominently Samantha Power, Hilary Clinton, and Susan Rice, as well as the recently departed former State Department Head of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Samantha Power particularly has long called upon the United States Government to use its might wherever on the globe severe human rights abuses should occur (unless in a large country beyond interventionary ambitions), apparently analogizing every humanitarian crisis to the totally different circumstances of Rwanda (1994) where a small effort to mitigate major genocide was inappropriately blocked by the Clinton White House. And in the media the celebrants of this intervention have been led by the NY Times pious stalwarts, Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman.  At least Friedman, the patron saint of ‘wars of choice’ was sensible enough on this occasion to acknowledge that Obama would need major help from Lady Luck if his Libyan policy would have any chance of a happy ending, which is welcome contrast with his cheerleading of the Iraq intervention. If lives were not at stake, it might be amusing to note the new cosmic humility of this most arrogant of journalists, who in the past was forever fond of addressing world leaders by their first names in his columns while dishing out his unsolicited guidance, now being reduced to treating the Libyan intervention as the equivalent to a night out in Las Vegas!

The PR full court press by the rebels, aided by that high flying French publicity seeking French enthusiast for intervention Bernard-Henri Lévy, also misleadingly convinced world public opinion and several Western political leaders that the Qaddafi regime was opposed and hated by the entire population of Libya making him extremely vulnerable to intervention. This encouraged the belief that the only alternative to military intervention was for the Western world to sit back and bear witness to genocide against the Libyan people on a massive scale. This entire portrayal of the conflict was at best premature, and likely misleadingly intended to make it appear that the only choices available to the UN and the global community was to intervene militarily or sit back and take the consequences. Among other options, diplomacy and the search for a ceasefire was never seriously embarked upon.

Even without the spurious wisdom of hindsight, the international undertaking could be criticized from another angle as having been designed to fail: a questionable intervention in what appeared increasingly to be an armed insurrection against the established government, yet falling far short of what would be needed to secure the only outcome proclaimed as just and necessary—the fall of the Qaddafi government. How can such a struggle, involving one more paternalistic challenge to the dynamics of self-determination, be won by relying on the bombs and missiles of colonial powers, undertaken without even the willingness to follow the attack with a willingness to engage in peacekeeping on the ground? Had this willingness been present it would have at least connected the dots between the interventionary means adopted and the political mission being proclaimed. Even with this more credible posture the odds of success would still remain small. If we consider the record of the past sixty years very few interventions by colonial or hegemonic actors were successful despite their overwhelming military superiority. The only ‘success’ stories of interventionary politics involve very minor countries such as Grenada and Panama where organized resistance was absent, while the failures were in the big and prolonged struggles that took place in Indochina, Algeria, Indonesia, elsewhere.

In Libya the prospects were further worsened by the incoherence, inexperience, and lack of discipline exhibited by rebel forces. This effort of a weak and unorganized opposition to induce foreign forces to secure for themselves an otherwise unattainable victory is reminiscent of the bill of goods that wily Iraqi exiles sold to neoconservative operatives such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz during the lead up to the Iraq War (2003). Remember those promises of flowers greeting the American troops arriving in Baghdad or regime change being ‘a cakewalk’ that would be achieved without notable American casualties or costs. As in Libya the case for intervention rested on the false assumption that the foreign occupiers would be welcomed as liberators and that the Saddam Hussein regime lacked any popular base of support. Obama sang this interventionists’ lullaby when he lauded the villager

who thanked an American pilot whose plane crashed accidentally over some rebel held territory.

Such a negative assessment of the Libyan intervention seems clear enough. Such an assessment was offered at the outset of the crisis by the most qualified high official in the Obama inner circle, Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense. Why did Obama not heed this sensible advice? Unfortunately, every Democratic president, and none more than Obama, struggle to maintain their image as willing to use force in the pursuit of national interests whenever the occasion arises. We must pause to give credit as Obama has pursued a generally militarist foreign policy while still managing to collect a Nobel Peace Prize, something that W’s handlers could never have achieved, and likely didn’t seek. And here in Libya, the risks of inaction must have seemed too great to bear. Instead Obama attempted to have it both ways: lead the diplomatic effort to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council and then provide most of the military muscle for the initial phase of the operation, and then hastily withdraw to the background while NATO supposedly takes over. This middle path is littered with contradictions: to convince the Security Council, and avoid a Russian or Chinese veto, it was necessary to portray the mission in the most narrow humanitarian terms as being only for the protection of civilians, while to protect the rebels (who are not ‘civilians’ as legally understood) required a much more ambitious scale of attack than is implied by establishing a No Fly Zone; beyond this, if the unconditional goal was the elimination of the Qaddafi regime, then the intervention would have to go far beyond the boundary set by the Security Council decision. It would have to tip the balance in the conflict. As has become clear, the approved military objectives have been dramatically exceeded in the flawed effort to protect the rebels and help them win, but seemingly to no avail.

Of course, the abstainers also have blood on their hands, and share some of the responsibility for what has gone wrong. These abstaining members of the Security Council went along with a mandate to use force that seemed inconsistent with the Charter assurances of refraining from UN intervention in matters essentially within domestic jurisdiction, as this struggle surely was and is. They also allowed the backers of the Securitry Council to twist enough arms to get their mission creep hopes raised by inserting the permissive clause ‘by all necessary means.’ China, Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa should be ashamed of their posture, criticizing before the vote, abstaining so as to assure that authorization would be provided, and then resuming criticism afterwards to undertakings that should have been anticipated and precluded by much more constricted language in 1973. The vote was 10 in favor, none opposed, and five abstaining.

Such disregard of the limits of the UN Security Council authorization, awkwardly reinforced by the failure of the Security Council to play any subsequent supervisory role to ensure that its approval of force did not go beyond what had been agreed, has once again weakened the UN as a body operating within the constitutional framework of the UN Charter. It makes the UN in the peace and security area appear to be more an agent of geopolitical and neoimperial forces in the West than an objective body seeking to implement the rule of law in relation to the strong and weak alike. We all should remember that when the UN was established in the aftermath of World War II it was assigned the primary responsibility of minimizing the role of war in human affairs.  The inspirational opening words of the Preamble to the UN Charter should be recalled and solemnly reaffirmed: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” To allow these words to be selectively overridden by the recently endorsed norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ or R2P is to provide a selective tool that shamelessly exhibits double standards. Where were those humanitarian and paternalistic voices when the civilian population of Gaza was subjected to a murderous attack from land, air, and sea for three weeks by the Israeli Defense Forces (Dec. 27, 2008-January 19, 2009)

Throughout this period of revolutionary ferment in the Arab world, Obama’s paternalism has been pronounced. While intermittingly celebrating these popular risings, Obama has unblushingly felt entitled to pronounce on which leaders should stay and which should go as if he is indeed the first designated global chief executive. And these pronouncements lack even the pretense of coherence and consistency unless measured from an exclusively geopolitical standpoint. The White House was fine with Mubarak until the popular movement made his continued presence untenable, and then he was instructed to leave. In Yemen the leader is told to step down after he failed to quiet the protests, while in Bahrain the Al Khalifa royal family is supported by Washington although governed as an absolute monarchy, which has not only recently relied on extremely violent means to quell unarmed demonstrators, but has even inviting its stronger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to send military forces across the border to help restore order. Restoring order in Bahrain  is a matter of making further repressive moves to thwart robust popular calls for a new political order based on democracy and human rights.

Obama’s maneuvers in and out of the limelight during the unfolding of events in the Arab world reveals the two sides of the current American dilemma: it is not yet ready to shed the mantle of imperial overseer in the post-colonial regions of the world, but it is faced with the contradictory pressures of imperial decline and overstretch.  This fledgling patriarch can lecture the world, and even manage a military thrust or two, but nothing is sustained, and little achieved. Obama seems to be auditioning to play Hamlet in this unfolding global tragedy.

IV..5…2011