Tag Archives: UN

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.

 

 

 

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Why the United Nations Matters (even for the Palestinians)

18 Jan

 

There are many reasons for persons with very different worldviews to feel disillusioned by, if not angry at, the United Nations. These negative feelings arise usually because the UN stands idly by the sidelines while terrible national and human tragedies unfold as the world media visually narrates horrific events in real time. At other times the hostile feelings toward the UN arise because the Organization is seen as a plaything of geopolitics, as bowing to crude leverage wielded by major funding governments, and in the process violating the letter and spirit of the UN Charter. Such behavior undermines the UN’s constitutional foundations and casts doubt on the central claim that the Organization is dedicated to the cause of war prevention.

 

No people have more reason to be disappointed with the UN, international law, and the precepts of international morality than do the people of Palestine. From the moment the UN was established up until the present moment, the Palestinians have been victimized either by the use of the UN to pursue geopolitical goals or by the inability of the UN to implement its own decisions and assessments that are responsive to Palestinian grievances or supportive of Palestinian aspirations.

 

Obviously, there is present a world order puzzle that needs solving. Many believe, especially here in the United States, that it is Israel that is the victim of UN bashing and bias, being singled out at the UN for continuous censure and criticism, and it is the Palestinians that have over the years received aid and comfort in the halls of the UN for their contentions, however inflammatory. For our dualistic Western minds, incapable of reconciling opposites, something must be wrong. It seems impossible for both the Palestinians and Israelis to be both victimized at the UN.

 

Yet this is precisely the case. The Palestinians are victimized because the UN doesn’t mean what is says, at least not on the plane of action. The UN gives the Palestinians the pabulum of words, while refraining from the reality of deeds, which over time gives rise to resentment and cynicism summarized by the sentiment: ‘what good are words, if nothing happens, and the situation on the ground even deteriorates.

 

At the same time, partly in reaction to this sense of impotence when it comes to imposing its views effectively on behavior, the UN slaps, sometimes strongly, the defiant Israelis. And the Israelis, never above playing the anti-Semitic card, keep telling the world that they are singled out for bashing even though their wrongs are far less bad than that of others. Of course, never far in the background is the weight of geopolitics, with the United States wielding a punitive stick on Israel’s behalf.

 

History needs to be taken into account in sifting through the complexities of argument and counter-argument carried on now for decades about the performance of the UN in relation to Palestinians and Israelis. With respect to the geopolitical explanation of Palestinian disillusionment, the UN already in 1946 accepted the responsibility to supersede the United Kingdom, which had been administering Palestine on behalf of the international community since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I., in working out a solution on behalf of the two peoples. Yet instead of consulting the resident population of Palestine on its wishes with respect to the implementation of the right of self-determination, the UN on its own initiative proposed an Orientalizing solution that gave Israel 55% of Palestine despite less than 33% of the population being Jewish. This demographic disparity existed despite several decades of Jewish immigration spurred by energetic Zionist efforts around the world as well as by the British, eager for strategic reasons of their own to carry out the Balfour pledge of 1917. Jewish immigration was also greatly encouraged by the rise of Nazism, which intensified the search for a sanctuary that could protect Jews, especially those fleeing Hitler’s Germany.

 

Then to compound this imposition of a settler colonialist outcome, repugnant from the outset to the majority Arab population, the UN proceeded in 1948 to accept Israel as a member of the UN without first making obligatory provision to ensure an equitable future for the Palestinian people. This flawed UN response to the end of the British mandate has been compounded by years of Israeli expansionism, especially since 1967. Such an internationally tilted outcome reflected intense liberal guilt toward Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust combined with the skill and tactics of the Zionist movement in influencing the Jewish diaspora as well as government policy in Europe and North America. It was an early demonstration of geopolitics triumphing over international law and global justice within the UN. It should not be forgotten that the UN was established in ways that gave leading states a geopolitical comfort zone, more familiarly known as ‘the veto,’ a blunt instrument for opting out of responsibilities, and useful to protect friends and batter enemies.

 

Turning to the impotence of the UN when it comes to its resolutions and decisions that encounter geopolitical resistance, the pattern has been evident all along. After the outcome of the 1967 War, the international community by way of the UN acquiesced with hardly a whimper to the extension of Israeli territorial claims from 55% to 78% of mandate Palestine. Ever since, this enlargement of Israeli territorial expectations has formed the basis for the two-state consensus, and was even accepted by the Palestinians as the realistic territorial baseline for a compromise solution.

 

Beyond this central issue of territorial allocation, the UN General Assembly affirmed the right of return of Palestinians forced to leave their homes in the 1947-48 War in General Assembly Resolution 194, and a second wave dispossessed in the 1967 War. The resolution has been pointedly rejected by Israel without any adverse consequences.

 

In similar fashion, the expansion and annexation of Jerusalem has been strongly condemned, most canonically, by the UN Security Council in Resolution 478 (1980), a unanimous vote except for the U.S. abstention. Finally, despite this, and the periodic Security Council denunciations of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestine territory, Israel has continued year upon year to build and increase the settler population. Against this background, it is to be expected that the Palestinians feel that having their rights affirmed at the UN is a worthless exercise, if not a feeble way to obscure UN impotence, given that the Palestinian ordeal has worsened year after year, decade after decade.

 

And yet despite all this the Jerusalem resolution of last December (passed by a vote of 128-9 with 35 abstentions and 21 absences) repudiating the Trump initiative is significant, partly because symbols are of great, if indirect, importance in international life. Symbolic victories at the UN do on occasion have subtle, yet real, behavioral impacts. The UN for all its weaknesses has long been the primary source for authoritative determinations of the legitimacy and illegitimacy of internationally recognized claims and grievances. This resolution is illustrative, supported by every important country in the world including the closest allies of the United States, with the symbolic and unequivocal rejection of the Trump diplomatic gesture of recognition being clear and consequential.

 

The Jerusalem resolution seems likely to produce a series of consequences: it greatly weakens, if not terminates, the central role that the United States has played as the only recognized third party mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, thereby creating an opportunity for the EU and individual European states to fill the diplomatic vacuum that seems to have formed; besides this, demonstrations around the world opposing the U.S. recognition initiative are translating support throughout the world for the Palestinian global solidarity movement that is likely to be expressed in several ways, especially by way of a more robust Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign. And at least for the moment, the Palestinian Authority, and its leadership, has moved away from adopting a quasi-collaborative stance in its relations with Israel, insisting that Trump’s move caused a damaging rupture. In effect, if diplomacy is to go forward in the future, it will have to proceed under new auspices, possibly Europe, maybe even China or the UN. Such radical expectations, while expressing a welcome refusal to be coopted by the Tel Aviv/Washington charade carried on for so long within the Oslo framework, is totally unrealistic in the near term. Israel would much rather be a pariah state than to submit its fate to Chinese or UN diplomacy, or for that matter, any intermediary that would seem fair to the Palestinians rather than partisan as in the past in favor of Israel. For so long Israel has

been coddled by American leaders that it became a hardened expectation with little wiggle room as Barack Obama found out early in his presidency when he dared to take baby steps in search of a middle ground.

 

It is worth recalling the anti-apartheid campaign against the South African racist regime that achieved prominence in the decades after 1945. The UN played a crucial role by its authoritative condemnation of apartheid as a crime against humanity and by its indirect encouragement of nonviolent resistance to South Africa racism throughout the world. This anti-apartheid experience is an instructive precedent, raising hope for the eventual success of the Palestinian national struggle, although the South African leadership had been far less creative and effective than the Israelis in insulating their governing process from external pressures.

 

What is analyzed with reference to Palestine and the Jerusalem resolution can be understood as a template for a general appreciation of both what the UN can and cannot do. The UN has this central role to play in either confirming or dismissing symbolic claims associated with the grievances and rights of subjugated peoples in the world. It is for this reason that governments fight so hard to have their policies accepted at the UN, or at least not criticized, censured, or punished, none more so than the government of Israel. Israel’s vicious attacks on the UN should be understood as disclosing the Israeli appreciation that, despite everything, the UN is a crucial site of struggle in the contemporary world order. Its findings of legitimacy and illegitimacy, especially if they resonate with feelings of justice around the world, impact strongly on civil society and often exert a strong influence on international public opinion and media coverage.

 

At the same time even if there is intense support for a symbolic outcome, it will rarely be self-enforcing, and it will be almost impossible to enforce at all absent a rare supportive geopolitical consensus. For instance, with respect to imposing sanctions on North Korea given its provocative nuclear program and accompanying diplomacy, it has been possible for all 15 members of the Security Council to agree sometimes on a common course of action, although as worried by Trump’s blustering belligerence that increases the danger of a universally unwanted and feared war. The geopolitical divergencies that were present at the UN were temporarily overcome by compromises. In this instance, the shared goal of avoiding a war on the Korean Peninsula encouraged governments to find some common ground.

 

The role of the UN in the Middle East has been particularly lamentable, First, the legacies of colonialism have left artificial political communities throughout the region. The Middle East also suffered from the geopolitical ambitions of the U.S., including its Cold War containment policy, strategic priorities accorded Gulf oil reserves and the security of Israel, and since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, its resolve to limit the spread of Islamic influence and political extremism. In effect, when the geopolitical stakes are high and associated with the policy priorities of dominant states, then the UN becomes marginalized, playing only trivial roles as in the long international civil wars that have caused such massive suffering in Syria and Yemen.

 

The conclusion to be reached is to view the UN realistically, affirming its central role with regard to symbols of legitimacy and its relative impotence if geopolitical forces are mobilized against any UN calls for action. Sometimes, arguably, the UN can be too effective, as when geopolitical forces turn a blind eye to issues of sovereignty and justice in a weaker country. This happened when in 2011 the Security Council was hoodwinked into endorsing a NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya undertaken in the name of freedom and democracy, but resulting in chaos, violent strife, and ethnic tensions.

 

The prospects for a stronger UN presence in international life involve tethering geopolitics by taking steps that now seem politically impractical: abolishing the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council, making resolutions of the General Assembly binding if supported by ¾ of UN members, basing UN funding on an independent tax base tied to international civil aviation or transnational financial transactions, and removing the selection of the Secretary General from the filter of P-5 approval. These steps have been long advocated by those seeking a more effective UN, but have been blocked by states that do not want to diminish their international status or their geopolitical leverage.

 

Until the international system experiences a shock or intense stress, it is hard to imagine such steps being taken. In fact, given Trump’s regressive approach to global policy and thinly disguised hostility to the UN, it is more likely that the UN will be even more constrained in the near future as to what it can do to make the world more peaceful, prosperous, sustainable, and just. The diplomatic rebuff of the U.S. after its irresponsible Jerusalem unilateralism, including the failure of its bullying tactics, has undoubtedly made the Trump presidency realize that the UN will not be a venue in which to push its regressive version of ultra-nationalist militarism.

 

Despite understandable degrees of disillusionment, people of good will dedicated to UN ideals should not give up on the Organization or its potentiality, but work harder to make the UN come closer to fulfilling its original promise, needed now more than ever. Justice for the Palestinian people, however long deferred, remains the defining moral prism by which to assess the shifting balance between achieving global justice and bowing to the whims of geopolitics at the UN and elsewhere.

Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

31 Dec

 

Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is the modified text of an interview on behalf of the Tasnim News Agency in Iran as conducted by Mohammed Hassani. It tries to assess the wider implications of the UN reaction to Trump’s December 6th decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to follow this by relocating the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.]

 

Q1: As you know, nearly 130 countries recently voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the US decision to recognize Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the capital of the Israeli regime. What message does the vote signal to the world’ public opinion?

The main message of this overwhelming rejection of the Trump recognition of al-Quds as the capital of Israel by the UN General Assembly is to disclose that the Palestinian national movement continues to enjoy strong support from each and every important country in the world, thereby rejecting the current Israeli approach, supported by the United States, to impose unilaterally a solution of the long struggle over land and rights on the Palestinian people. Such a solution would foreclose both a sovereign Palestine, deny the Palestinian people the most fundamental of all rights, that of self-determination, and preclude any fair and just arrangement of shared sovereignty between the two people.

A secondary message was the consensus in the General Assembly that on this issue of Jerusalem matters of global justice take precedence over geopolitical maneuvers. There can also be read into the vote the growing erosion of global leadership that had been exercised by Washington since the end of World War II. This erosion reflects the rise of China, and its advocacy, along with that of Russia, and maybe also even leading countries in Europe, of a multipolar approach to the formation and implementation of global policy with respect to security issues, environmental policies, and economic governance. The fact that America’s closest allies, including France, United Kingdom, and Japan voted for the resolution condemning the effort of the U.S. Government to legitimize the establishment of Jerusalem (al-Quds) as Israel’s capital is also of considerable significance. What remains to be seen is how the future of Jerusalem will unfold in light of these dramatic developments. There are currently visible two tendencies—first, the handful of negative votes by tiny island countries and a few minor and dependent Central American countries to follow the lead of the U.S. and move their embassy to Jerusalem; secondly, the counter-initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, given concrete expression by the Turkish decision to establish its embassy for Palestine in East Jerusalem.

What remains to be seen is whether the Trump presidency softens its stand on these issues or doubles or even triples down by defiantly moving its embassy to Jerusalem, withholding economic assistance from countries that voted for the resolution, and reducing its financial contributions to the UN in a vindictive display of hostility at the various actors viewed as responsible for humiliating the U.S. Government, thereby pleasing those pro-Israeli forces that insist that the UN is primarily a venue for Israel-bashing.

Q2: Prior to the UN vote on Jerusalem, US President Donald Trump had threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that voted in favor of the resolution. It seems that his warning has been ineffective. What do you think?

Yes, the ineffectiveness of such an unprecedented overt threat at the UN, abetted by back channel pressures, is definitely a sign that U.S. soft power leadership in the world is experiencing a sharp decline if measured against its reality in the years after World War II, and extending throughout the Cold War Era. More generally, the failure of Haley’s threats to influence the vote of a single country of stature in the world is also indicative of a parallel decline of geopolitical capabilities to control global policy at least on the key issue of the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly in the context of Jerusalem, which has a strong symbolic significance for many countries. What is unclear is whether this vote exhibits a broader trend among states to pursue foreign policies that exhibit their sovereign independence and distinct views of global policy, rather than as in the past, displaying a strong tendency to defer to the views of a globally dominant state(s). In this context, the radical character of Trump’s presidency may be having the effect of fracturing hegemonic structures of control in contemporary world order that were in any event faced with accumulating skepticism since the end of the Cold War, and the breakdown of the bipolar structure that had shaped much of global policy between 1945 and 1992. What Trump has done is to intensify pre-existing pressures for global restructuring, a dynamic also reinforced by the rejectionist approach taken by the United States on other key issues of global concern, including climate change, the Iran Nuclear Program (5 + 1) Agreement, global migration, ad international trade. The Trump slogan of ‘America, First’ has to be coupled with ‘World, Last,’ to grasp the extent to which the United States invites by its own initiatives a reaction against its outlier policies at odds with strong countervailing views of the international community of states as to desirable forms of global cooperation for the public good. At the very historical moment when the future of humanity depends on unprecedented action on behalf of human, habitat, and global wellbeing, the leading political actor not only withdraws from the effort, but does its best to obstruct constructive behavior. It is as if the United States Government has become a deadly virus attacking the fabric of the global body politic.

 

 

Q3: In a speech at the White House on December 6, Trump said his administration would also begin a years-long process of moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem. Do you see any chance that Trump would press ahead with his plan to relocate the embassy given the widespread international opposition? 

 

My guess at this point is that the U.S. Government will definitely implement its decision to relocate the embassy, but will probably do so in a gradual manner that does not provoke a major subsequent reaction, especially if implementation is entrusted to the State Department. Of course, any steps taken to relocate the American Embassy in Jerusalem will be correctly perceived as a defiant and provocative rejection of the conclusions set forth in the GA Resolution. In this sense, the quality and impact of reactions will depend on the political will of the Palestinian Authority, the OIC, the UN, and world public opinion. At stake, is whether the United States further produces an adverse international reaction to its behavior and whether governments seek to engage further on the issue to preserve the rights of the Palestinian people with respect to Jerusalem. The future interaction with respect to Jerusalem will be very revealing as to both the responsiveness of the United States to the rejection of its approach to the recognition of the Israeli capital at this time and as to the energy of those that supported the resolution to take further steps in the direction of achieving compliance. There is little doubt that a test of wills is likely to emerge in the months ahead that will reveal whether the Jerusalem resolution was a mere gesture or a tipping point.

 

The fact that the al-Quds resolution was itself based on The Uniting for Peace Resolution (GA Res. 377 A (V), 1950) gives its text a special status, both as the outcome of a rare Emergency Session of the General Assembly and as a truly responsible reaction on behalf of peace and security to an irresponsible use of the veto in the Security Council to block its decision of condemnation backed by a 14-1 vote, that is, all other members. This status gives the General Assembly response on Jerusalem an authoritativeness that should extend far beyond its normal recommendatory capabilities, but as earlier indicated there are few guidelines as to how such an initiative will be implemented if defied.

At stake is the larger issue of whether this path taken to circumvent a P-5 veto in the Security Council might produce a shift in UN authority to the more representative General Assembly.

 

In any event, it may well be that whatever course of action ensues will exert an important influence on how well the UN in the future can serve the human and global interest, as well as take account of distinct and aggregate national interests as opportunities present themselves. The Trump phenomenon gives a pointedness to fundamental issues of world order viability, especially a capacity to address challenges of global scope in the course of the first biopolitical moment, confronting humanity as such with a prospect of its own mortality.

UN Under Siege: Geopolitics in the Time of Trump

1 Jul

[Prefatory Note: This post is a modified and enlarged version of a talk I gave in Geneva a week ago. The audience was a blend of students of all ages from around the world, with almost none from Europe and North America, and several NGO representatives with lots of UN experience.]

 

 Why the peoples of the world need the UN: multilateralism, international law, human rights, and ecological sustainability

 

[ISMUN (International Youth & Student Movement for the United Nations), Summer School, June 28, 2017, Geneva]

 

 A Point of Departure

 

When Donald Trump withdrew American participation from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in early June of this year a bright red line was crossed. Most obviously, there were a series of adverse substantive consequences associated with weakening an agreement that was promising to provide critical interim protection against severe harms to human wellbeing and its natural habitat threatened by further global warning. U.S. withdrawal from Paris was also a rather vicious symbolic slap at multilateralism under UN auspices. We should recall that the agreement was rightly hailed at the time as the greatest success ever achieved by way of a multilateral approach to international problem solving. The Paris Agreement was indeed a remarkable achievement, inducing 195 governments representing virtually every sovereign state on the planet to sign up for compliance with a common agreed plan to address many of the challenges of climate change in the years ahead. To reach such an outcome also reflected a high degree of sensitivity to the varied circumstances of countries, rich and poor, developed and developing, vulnerable and less vulnerable.

 

The Paris withdrawal also exhibited in an extreme form the new nationalistic posture adopted by the United States in relation to the UN System, and a major retreat from the leadership role at the UN that the U.S. had assumed (for better and worse) ever since the Organization was established in 1945. Instead of fulfilling this traditional role as the generally respected cheerleader and predominantly influential leader of most multilateral lawmaking undertakings at the UN and elsewhere the U.S. Government has instead apparently decided under Trump to become obstructer-in chief. This Trump/US assault on the UN approach to cooperation among sovereign states and global problem solving and lawmaking is particularly troubling. This manifestation of the new American approach in the policy domain of climate change is particularly disturbing. To have any prospect of meeting the climate change challenge requires the widest and deepest international cooperation, and is absolutely vital for the future of human and ecological wellbeing. Such a dramatic disruptive act by the United States strikes a severe blow to the capabilities and legitimacy of the UN at a historical moment when this global organization has never been more potentially useful.

 

The credibility and severity of the threat is magnified by an evident American-led campaign to exert financial pressure to bend the Organization to the will of major funders. When the United States behaves in this manner it indirectly gives permission to other political actors to follow suit, and exerts immense pressure on the UN Secretariat and Secretary General to give ground. Saudi Arabia has used such leverage to embarrass the UN in relation to both its human rights record at home and its responsibility for war crimes against civilians, including children, in Yemen. Israel has also been the beneficiary of such delegitimizing pressures, with the UN giving ground by softening criticism, inhibiting censure, shelving damaging reports. Such backtracking by the United Nations weakens any claim to be guided in its policies and practices by international law and international morality. The weaponization of UN funding politics should awaken public opinion to the importance of finally establishing an independent funding base for the UN by way of some variant of a Tobin Tax imposed on financial transactions or international air travel. If it is desirable to encourage the UN to conduct its operations in accordance with the UN Charter and international law, UN funding should be removed from the control of governments at the earliest possible time.

 

It needs to be acknowledged and understood that this unfortunate shift in the U.S. role at the UN preceded the Trump presidency, involving a gradual American retreat from political internationalism, which reflected the outlook of an increasingly sovereignty-oriented U.S. Congress. Even an environmentally minded Barack Obama was led at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit to insist that national commitments to reduce carbon emissions be placed on a voluntary rather than obligatory basis, which was regarded at the time as a major setback in the effort to safeguard the future from the perils of global warming. The Copenhagen approach was also a negative development with respect to international law, substituting volunteerism for obligation in this major effort to protect human and global interests. We need to appreciate that international law in its more imperative forms already suffers from the weakness of international enforcement mechanisms. Putting compliance on a voluntary basis dilutes the ethos of good faith that guides responsible governments when giving their assent to obligatory instruments of international law.

 

Beyond this, the Obama presidency boasted of its unconditional defense of Israel at the UN, regardless of the merits of criticism, and even in contexts where the U.S. was willing to voice muted criticisms directed at Israel but only in discreet language conveyed in bilateral diplomatic channels. The UN was off-limits for critical commentary on Israel’s behavior despite the long history of unfulfilled UN responsibilities toward the Palestinian people.

 

 

 

 

Why the UN is especially needed now

 

It should be obvious to all of us that the UN is now even more needed than when it was established in 1945. At least on the surface the UN enjoyed the ardent support of every important government and their publics at the end of World War II. These sentiments reflected the widely shared mood of the global public that maintaining world peace and security required the establishment of global institutions devoted to war prevention. There existed post-1945 a somewhat morbid atmosphere of foreboding with respect to the dawn of the nuclear age that took had taken the dire form of atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities. The concerns arising from these unforgettable events strongly reinforced and underlay the war prevention emphasis of the UN Charter, and were culturally expressed by such major works of the imagination as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and On the Beach.

 

This grim mood also lent an aura of poignancy to the memorable opening words of the Charter Preamble—“We the peoples of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It was evident that when the UN was established the overriding global preoccupation of public opinion and of governments was to avoid any recurrence of major international warfare, especially in light of the possession of nuclear weapons. Of course, such an impression partly reflected the absence of adequate representation at the UN and other international venues of voices articulating non-Western priorities. From the beginning the non-Western members of the UN were far more focused on anti-colonialism, development priorities, and the reform of a rigged world economy than on war prevention.

 

It is worth pondering why the formal legitimating call establishing the UN, as set forth in the Preamble, was phrased as coming from ‘the peoples’ and not from the ‘governments.’ In fact, governments were not even explicitly mentioned in this foundational document. Yet as a practical matter, despite this language in the Preamble, the UN as a political actor has always been almost exclusively an Organization reflecting the will of ‘we the governments,’ and in many cases ‘we the Permanent Members of the Security Council.’ Iddn some situations the ‘we’ over time and in situations of global crises has been reduced to the government of the United States, sometimes joined by its European allies. In other words, the geopolitical dimension of UN operations has had the effect of moving the actions of the Organization on war/peace agenda items away from international law and the framework set forth in the UN Charter. It has instead given decisive authority to the most powerful members of the UN with the intended effect of concentrating UN authority in the Security Council, whose operations are more subject to geopolitical discipline in the form of the veto than to the mindfulness toward international law.

 

An understanding of this circumstance underscores the aspirational importance of constraining geopolitics and enhancing the role of international law. Respect for international law in framing UN policy must be increased if there is to be any hope that the UN will eventually fulfill the ambitions and expectations of its strongest supporters in civil society. As matters now stand these supporters are often caught between being seen as blind idealists that are enthusiastic about whatever the UN does or dismissive cynics who dismiss the UN as a great power charade that is a waste of time and money. Both of these outlooks seems unwarranted, inducing either an uncritical passivity toward the UN or exhibiting a lack of appreciation of the contributions being daily made by the UN and what could be done to make these contributions more robust.

 

 

The UN and a Populist Reform of World Order

 

Two important questions that all of us, and especially young people should be asking: how can the UN System be made more responsive to the needs and wishes of people and less dependent on the warped agendas of many governments? And how can the Organization be made more responsive to international law and less of a vehicle for geopolitical ambitions? To make the relevance of positive global populism more concrete we can ask: ‘Would the establishment of an assembly of civil society organizations or a global parliament along the lines of the European Parliament be helpful from the perspective of world peace and global justice?’ What follows are several daunting questions concerning the feasibility of such a proposal: “Can the political will be mobilized that would be needed to make realizable such a UN reform?” “Even if a UN Peoples Parliament were established would it be allowed to exert significant influence?” We should remember that some past successful undertakings, such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), seemed utopian when proposed, and thus we should not be easily dissuaded if a project seems worthwhile. But we should also be aware that the ICC once established and operating has been chasing the mice while ignoring the tigers, which gives rise to another version of this clash between sentimentalists overjoyed that the institution exists at all and realists who believe that the ICC has surrendered to geopolitical forces, thereby betraying its overriding mission of administering justice as called for by non-compliant behavior.

 

For several years in the 1980s I participated annually in a large public event held in Perugia, Italy under the banner of ‘A United Nations of the Peoples.’ It made me wonder at the time whether the world was not being divided up into three distinct identies: ‘the Geopolitical Person’ who was increasingly dominating world politics, including the UN, ‘the Davos Person’ who at the World Economic Forum was mounting strong pressures on all governments to privilege the interests of market forces, essentially banks and corporations, above that of their own citizens, and ‘the Perugia Person’ who was on the sidelines whispering words to the grassroots community conveying the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, and by so doing, highlighting problems of poverty, peace, environment, biodiversity, health, and justice. In one sense, my analysis is an argument for a concerted public and grassroots transnational effort to magnify the Perugia whisper until it becomes a stentorian voice that is heard and heeded within the halls and conference rooms of the UN in Geneva and New York. Is such a call for positive global populism desirable, and if so, are there practical steps to be taken to make it happen? Will states feeling UN pressure reopen the withdrawal option, and weaken the Organization from the governmental end?

 

 

Reviving War Prevention

 

As it turned out the onset of the Cold War made it exceedingly difficult for the UN to be effective as a war prevention institution almost from the day it was established, although over the years it made many quiet contributions to peace when political conditions made this possible. The effort to prevent a third world war fought with nuclear weapons was mainly left up to the rival governments of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, relying on geopolitical arrangements that on occasions of confrontation sent periodic chills of fear down the collective spine of humanity, especially in Europe and North America. Global security was conceptualized around the abstract idea of deterrence, which was most simply understood as the prevention of a major war by the exchange of mutual threats of devastating retaliatory strikes with weaponry of mass destruction by these two superpowers with capabilities that were sufficiently resistant to preemptive first strikes to keep the capacity for retaliation entirely credible. This fundamental doctrine of deterrence was called ‘Mutual Assured Destruction,’ and more familiarly known by the ironically apt acronym ‘MAD.’ It amounted to a paradoxical permanent mobilization for war with the overriding goal of preventing the outbreak of war, which did strike the peace community as rationality gone mad, really mad. MAD was tied to a destabilizing ongoing arms race justified by a security rationale. Each superpower both sought to gain the upper hand and above all acted to make sure that its rival did not acquire ways of destroying its retaliatory credibility. This unstable and permanent war footing, always susceptible to accident and miscalculation, lasted throughout the Cold War, dominating the security policy of leading UN members, and as a side effect marginalized the UN Security Council in the peace and security domain. The intense ideological antagonisms between the Atlantic Alliance and the Soviet Bloc generated a series of geopolitical standoffs that made it almost impossible for the Permanent Members of the Security Council to reach agreement about who was responsible and what to do whenever international conflicts turned violent.

 

The world has avoided such a catastrophic war up to this point by a combination of prudent statecraft and good fortune. There were several close calls that make it apparent that it is grotesquely reckless to normalize the present role of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nine current nuclear weapons states. When the path to nuclear disarmament was abandoned, the leading global states resorted to a Plan B, a nonproliferation regime tethered to the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 (NPT), negotiated under UN auspices. It was advertised as essentially a holding operation designed to give the nuclear weapons states ample time to negotiate, as they were obligated to do, a reliable supposedly disarming treaty regime. With the hindsight of almost five decades, it has become evident that the commitment to nuclear disarmament embedded in Article VI of the NPT was never implemented, and quite likely was not meant to be. Accordingly, 123 non-nuclear states have taken a new initiative to propose a denuclearizing Plan C within the confines of the UN, a step opposed by 36 members, with an additional 16 abstentions. As with the NPT, the UN is again providing the venue and encouragement for the negotiation of a draft treaty to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons (2017 BAN Treaty; Convention to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons), leading eventually to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. This initiative enjoys the support of most non-nuclear governments, but will not pose a serious challenge to nuclearism until public opinion is effectively mounted. As yet the BAN approach is not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states nor by those governments that base their security on holding a nuclear umbrella over their country.

 

Beyond this overriding concern with nuclear weapons, the Perugia Person should be using the UN to raise questions about globally unregulated arms sales and rampant militarism as practiced with post-modern weaponry and tactics, what might be regarded as a Plan D framework. In this vein, the UN and its civil society supporters could begin to explore the potentialities of a nonviolent geopolitics appropriate for a post-colonial, post-Cold War world order in which the global policy agenda finally takes seriously several biopolitical challenges with respect to which traditional instruments of ‘hard power’ are totally irrelevant, or worse. If we wish the UN to fulfill its potential it is essential that the negativity of right-wing populism be countered by affirmative visions generated by a rising progressive populism. Such progressive populists, rather far removed from traditional left politics, need to keep in mind the biblical admonition: “a people without a vision perishes.”

 

 

Serving the Human Interest

 

Overall, there has been a failure of the UN to live up to the expectations and hopes of its founders when it came to enhancing the quality of international peace and security. At the same time, the UN has vindicated its existence in numerous other unexpected ways that have made its role in human affairs now widely regarded as indispensable, but still far below what was and is possible, necessary, and desirable. The UN validated its existence early on by offering the governments of the world a crucial platform for articulating their grievances and expressing their differences. The UN became the primary arena for inter-governmental communication. The UN, especially by way of its family of specialized agencies that have evolved over the decades has done much excellent unheralded work at the margins of world politics. These activities have made vital daily, often unheralded, contributions to the global common good in such diverse areas as human rights, economic and social development, wellbeing of children, environmental protection, preservation of cultural heritage, promotion of health, assistance to refugees, and the development of international law, including international criminal law. The UN also has provided the best available venue for cooperative problem solving associated with complex issues of global scale that reflect the uneven circumstances of sovereign states. This flexible dynamic of practices within and outside the UN provides the fabric of everyday ‘multilateralism,’ that is, the reliance on collective mechanisms for policy and law formation by representatives of sovereign states that in countless ways contribute to problem solving and life enhancement in social settings ranging from the very local to the planetary.

 

 

A strong confirmation of the value of the UN arises from the fact that every government, regardless of ideology or relative wealth and power, has up to now regarded it as beneficial to become a member and remain in the UN. True, Indonesia briefly withdrew in 1965 to announce the formation of a parallel organization of ‘newly emerging forces,’ but within a year at its request was allowed to resume its membership without even passing again through the normal admission process. Within international society, the greatest sign of a recognition of diplomatic stature has become the election of a country to be a term member of the Security Council for a period of two years. This record of universal participation is truly extraordinary, especially when compared with the disappointing record of the League of Nations. There have been no sustained withdrawals from the Organization as a whole and when the former European colonies obtained political independence they shared a uniform ambition to join the UN as soon as possible and exert some influence on global policy, especially with respect to trade, investment, and development. These efforts by the enlarged Third World membership reached their peak in the late 1960s and 1970s. A vibrant Non-Aligned Movement pursued its policy goals within the UN, its energies concentrated on the effort to create a New International Economic Order that would level the playing field internationally for trade and investment. This radical reform effort was centered in General Assembly activism, and prompted a formidable backlash led by the most industrialized states. The backlash took many forms including the formation of the Trilateral Commission as a strong undertaking led by American economic elites determined to hold the line on behalf of capitalist values, procedures, practices, and above all, privileges. Membership in the UN nevertheless continues to be regarded as not only advantageous for the legitimacy it confers on states, but because it offers weaker and less experienced countries invaluable rights of participation in the full range of UN activities, including access to knowledge and technology required for successful transitions to modernity.

 

 

Global Populism as a Threat to the UN

 

Yet despite all of these achievements and contributions the UN is again under sharp attack these days, especially by its most powerful member, the United States. Donald Trump and several other autocratic leaders around the world uniformly belittle the UN role in world affairs because they regard the sovereign state to be the ultimate source of political authority and deeply resent external criticisms of their own domestic behavior. These leaders are currently promoting ultra-nationalist agendas that are chauvinistic, anti-immigrant, hostile to international law, and are especially hostile to all forms of individual accountability and state responsibility for human rights violations.

 

This is not only a problem associated with the emergence of right-wing populist leaders enjoying domestic support. It is also a feature of dynastic autocracy, most prominently associated with the kind of regional geopolitics being promoted by Saudi Arabia, seeking hegemony over the Arabian Gulf, crushing democratizing forces even if Islamic in outlook, and waging war against any political tendency perceived to be increasing Iranian influence anywhere in the region. With respect to the UN, Saudi Arabia in particular has been following the lead of the United States, hinting at withholding financial contributions, and even bluffing possible withdrawal from the Organization, if Saudi policies should become subject of critical UN scrutiny, no matter how flagrantly these policies violate international human rights standards and the norms of international humanitarian law. Israel should also be grouped with states that push back against any and all efforts to hold them accountable. This search for total impunity with respect to UN activity gains traction to the extent endorsed by leading states.

 

 

A characteristic illustration of the detrimental global effects of this recent wave of populist nationalism revolves around the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Although Paris fell significantly short of what the scientific consensus insists as necessary if global warming is to be properly limited, it still represented what a broad consensus of informed persons regarded as a crucial step in the right direction, and a serious show of commitment to the momentous task of transforming the carbon world economy into a sustainable and benign energy system in a timely manner. For this greatest of UN multilateralist achievements to be repudiated by the U.S. Government because Trump contends that it is a bad deal for America is dramatic evidence that the UN is under assault, and what may be worse, seems increasingly leaderless and ready to submit.

 

This disappointment and concern is greatly magnified by the intimations that Washington intends to withhold funds from the UN, as well as threatens to boycott and defund activities and organs that reach conclusions that do not correspond with U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to Israel. A prime target of this Trump demolition brigade is the work of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that is under intense attack because it is alleged to devote disproportionate attention to the wrongs and crimes of Israel. Such criticism besides sidestepping the question as to whether Israel is generally guilty as charged, also overlooks the fact that the British dumped the Palestine problem into the lap of the UN after World War II, making the fledgling Organization responsible for the transition from colonial subjugation to political independence. Such a direct responsibility was not imposed on the UN with respect to the decolonization any other national territory, and it has never been able to carry it out its assigned task in a manner consistent with the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. From a truly objective point of view, the UN has not devoted too much attention to Israel, and the Palestinian struggle, but too little. It has not gotten the basic job done, resulting in prolonged, massive, and intense Palestinian suffering with no end in sight.

 

In other words at the very time that the peoples of the world need a stronger UN to uphold the challenges of the present era, the Organization is under an unprecedented attack from ‘the Geopolitical Person.’ It is now time for ‘the Perugia Person’ to step forth with a strong sense of urgency and entitlement. Affirming this ‘necessary utopianism’ will give us confidence that the challenges of the present can be surmounted through the mobilization of people acting in collaboration with governments dedicated to upholding global public interests in tandem with their own national interests. For these revolutionary energies to be released within the confines of the UN will only happen in response to a new surge of grassroots transnational activism. Such a surge could foreground the hopes, dreams, and demands of people around the world, and especially the youth who have the most at stake. It has been both my pleasure and my honor to have this opportunity to meet with you today.

 

 

The U.S. Attack on al-Shayrat Airfield

8 Apr

 

 

In early morning darkness on April 7th the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian al-Shayrat Airfield from two American destroyers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean. It described the targets as Syrian fighter jets, radar, fuel facilities used for the aircraft. It asserted prior notification of Russian authorities, and offered the assurance that precautions were taken to avoid risks to Russian or Syrian military personnel. Pentagon spokespersons suggested that in addition to doing damage to the airfield, the attack had the intended effect of “reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.”

 

President Donald Trump in a short public statement justified the attack as a proportionate response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the western Syrian province of Idlib a few days earlier, which killed an estimated 80 persons, wounding hundreds more. Although there were denials of Syrian responsibility for the attack from Damascus and Moscow, a strong international consensus supported the U.S. view that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the attack allegedly as a means of convincing opposition forces concentrated in Idlib that it was time to surrender.

 

In the background, is the conviction among the more militaristic policy advisors and political figures, including Trump, that President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 ‘red line’ warning to Syria emboldened Assad to launch this latest attack with chemical weapons. Of course, this is all hawkish speculation that can be neither proven nor disproven, but it undoubtedly influenced the Trump entourage to suppose that it was presented with an opportunity to exhibit a greater readiness to use American military force in the Syrian conflict, incidentally, an outlook long advocated by Hillary Clinton and many of her advisors and foreign policy supporters. To do so, abandoned one of Trump’s signature pledges, to avoid military engagement in the conflicts raging throughout the Middle East, which he portrayed as a costly failure of prior American political leaders. Trump under pressure due to the growing evidence of ties with Russian political leaders during the 2016 presidential campaign may have welcomed an occasion on which to demonstrate his independence from Moscow and Putin. The departure from the Trump campaign agenda is particularly pointed as there were no American casualties resulting from the attack on Khan Sheikhoun 60 hours earlier than the Tomahawk response.

 

In Trump’s brief public rationale, the red line argument was not relied upon, but rather the combination of humanitarian outrage and grief with an assertion of the “national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” This geopolitical purpose was reinforced by a cursory appeal to international law and even the UN Security Council: “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.” Yet identifying Syria’s evident violation of international law should not be confused with an international law justification for the use of retaliatory force. In using this language Trump was evidently seeking to weaken the impression of an irresponsible unilateral American recourse to non-defensive force without bothering to seek an endorsement from the U.S. Congress or the UN. Not surprisingly Moscow and Damascus both condemned the attack as an act of ‘aggression’ and ‘a flagrant violation of international law.’

 

Trump used some additional words designed to draw attention away from the unilateral nature of the attack by contending that it fulfilled the common goals of “civilized nations” to deter Assad and defeat terrorism, thereby linking the American initiative to what he called ‘justice’ rather than basing legitimacy exclusively on an appeal to ‘law’ or ‘order.’ Trump expressed this sentiment as follows: “And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” This is very different in tone, substance, and policy from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which stridently stressed ‘America first,’ clarified as a call to act with reinvigorated resolve to devote military capabilities exclusively to promoting U.S. material national interests, and to stop wasting resources and energy by trying to address the larger concerns of the world, especially in the Middle East. This abrupt affinity with an internationalist spirit is made explicit in Trump’s final words—“Good night, and God bless America and the entire world.” As far as I know, this ritualistic invocation of God so much associated with George W. Bush and mimicked by Barack Obama never was extended to include “the entire world,” which is such an unfamiliar wording as to suggest that it was deliberately inserted to stake a quite unexpected and renewed claim to American moral leadership in world affairs. As with the attack itself, it seems likely to be a one/off embrace of cosmopolitan sentiments, but it is still worth noting. After all, language matters.

 

As has been suggested, bombing a Syrian airfield is unlikely to help Syrian children exposed to the terrible ravages of this war, that is, unless it does create a new momentum for a sustainable ceasefire. Already, the Russian reaction signals a worsening of relations with the United States in Syria and generally, and may end up producing the kind of confrontation that had led Republicans in the national security establishment to abandon Trump during the presidential campaign a year ago. With the removal of Bannon from the National Security Council it may not be premature to suggest that the deep state has found ways to reestablish its influence on national security policy after all seemed lost due to Trump’s electoral victory and vindictive attitude toward ‘the intelligence community.’ It is far too early to say that bureaucratic wars are over, but there is at the very least clear movement evident toward the restoration of the pre-Trump established order in Washington.

 

The Khan Sheikhoun attack raises more fundamental questions that are neither raised nor resolved by Trump’s speech. Despite making a gesture in the direction of international law by reference to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Security Council directives, the strike against al-Shayrat Airfield was a non-defensive use of force by the United States that violates the core UN Charter prohibition unless carried out on the basis of an explicit Security Council authorization. It is precisely the sort of unilateralism that the Charter, and post-1945 international law, made unlawful. In this context there was no urgency or necessity to strike immediately that might have made the departure from Charter norms seem more reasonable. Of course, Security Council authorization would not have been forthcoming, given the near certainty that Russia would use its veto. In that sense, assuming the attribution of responsibility for the chemical weapons attack to the Assad regime holds up, which is by no means assured, there is a dilemma presented when the moral and political case for action is strong, but lacks an ample justification in international law.

 

Of course, international law has for more three decades given way to the dictates of counterterrorism policies, which have featured retaliatory strikes ordered by American presidents without international authorization. Has this pattern of essentially unchallenged practice by the U.S. Government done away with the legal constraints of the UN Charter? Some jurists suggest that state practice of this character creates new expectations about the scope of legality of international uses of force by states in addressing security threats posed by non-state actors or by internal threats of state/society atrocities as here and in the Kosovo War of 1999. In a decentralized world, lacking governmental authority at regional and global levels, it seems regressive to endorse this return to a state of affairs where warfare is discretionary, and international law and respect for the authority of the United Nations are reduced to considerations of convenience and self-interest, and thus, as here, when inconvenient, a powerful state can use force with unconditional impunity in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

 

There are also accompanying prudential questions about recourse to a military response in this instance where the intended target is the internationally recognized government of a sovereign state that is engaged in a protracted civil war. Is this a further challenge to state-centric world order? Will the attack magnify the conflict still further rather than deter Assad and make a political compromise more likely? Will the antagonism of Russia and Iran make it more difficult to bring the conflict to an end by reliance on diplomacy? There is no way to answer such questions beyond the observation that where, as here, international law opposes recourse to force, the risks of further escalation are considerable, and the rise of geopolitical tensions inevitable, the presumption should be strongly against a military response.

 

Then there are domestic questions about whether it is okay for an American president to resort to an international use of force without some sort of Congressional debate and authorization (short of a Declaration of War). Again Trump has plenty of precedents for acting without a specific Congressional authorization from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Executive warmaking authority was definitely increased after the 9/11 attacks, and given a limited, although broad, legislative imprimatur in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) statute of 2001. AUMF is limited to those forces responsible for the 9/11 attacks and ‘associated forces,’ which the Obama presidency interpreted to extend to Al Qaeda wherever located, and without any time horizon. It seems beyond doubt that constitutionalism in the war/peace context has been severely weakened over the course of the last 70 years, and this latest episode just continues the trend. It would seem that where there is no necessity to act instantly and where there is no formal UN authorization, the underlying republican commitment to checks and balances to avoid abuses of power, should have led Trump to seek authorization from Congress, and in light of his failure to do so, a critical reaction from Congress.

 

There are two clusters of serious questions raised. Is this a new turn toward belligerent internationalism by the Trump presidency that will shape the near future of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and possibly elsewhere? Does the reversion to unilateralism with respect to international uses of force heighten the risks of geopolitical escalation and large-scale warfare, including possibly the threat or use of nuclear weapons?

 

 

 

 

Erasing the UN

3 Mar

 

Donald Trump has articulated clearly, if somewhat vaguely and incoherently, his anti-globalist, anti-UN approach on foreign policy. For instance, in late February he told a right-wing audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, or a global flag. This is the United States that I am representing. I am not representing the globe.” A similar sentiment was expressed to Congress a few days later in a tone of voice and choice of words praised by media wonks as ‘presidential.’ On this occasion Trump said, “[m]y job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” Such rhetoric coming from a normal American leader would probably be interpreted as an expression of geopolitical humility, implicitly rejecting the standard insistence on American exceptionalism, exemplified in recent times by the project to create and maintain the first global state in human history.

 

This potentially self-limiting language might even be understood as renouncing earlier claims to assert American global leadership as the keystone of world order. George W. Bush in 2002 gave this bold leadership claim a sharp edge when he insisted the that only the US model of market-based constitutionalism was a legitimate form of governance for sovereign states in the 21st century. Or even more grandiosely, in the spirit of Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman, that the United States as a consequence of its martial strength, technological prowess, democratic values and institutions, and skills of leadership provides the world with the benevolent reality of virtual ‘world government.’ Let’s face it, Donald Trump is not a normal political leader, nor is he someone disposed to embrace humility in any form, so we should take his pledge to represent American interests while leaving the world to fend for itself with many grains of salt, especially if we consider the specifics of the Trump worldview. What Trump seems to be offering is maximum disengagement from international and global arrangements designed to institutionalize cooperation among sovereign states, and that is where the UN figures in Trump’s unfolding game plan.

Even before being sworn in as president Trump engaged in UN-bashing on behalf of, and in concert with the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu. His dismissive comment contained in a tweet is rather revealing: “The UN has great potential, but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time. So sad!” Of course, we are not told what Trump thinks might bring into being this ‘great potential’ of the UN. Also not surprisingly, the tweet was provoked by Security Resolution 2334, adopted December 23rd by a 14-0 vote, which sharply criticized Israeli settlement expansion as unlawful and as creating a major obstacles to establishing peace with the Palestinians. The Obama presidency was sharply criticized by Trump and others, including many Democrats, for allowing passage of this resolution at the UN by failing to do what it had consistently done for the prior eight years, shield Israel from often fully deserved, and long overdue, UN censure by casting a veto. It seems that Trump, a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and the new US Representative at the UN, Nikki Haley evaluate the usefulness of the UN through an ‘Israel first’ optic, that is, the significance of UN is actually reduced to its attitude toward Israel, which is viewed through Israeli eyes, and is unmindful toward the wide spectrum of UN activities and contributions to human wellbeing.

 

It must be acknowledged that the Obama presidency did only slightly better when it comes to both the UN and Israel. True, Barack Obama in his annual addresses to the General Assembly affirmed the importance and contributions of the UN by concrete reference to achievements, and used these occasions to set forth his vision of a better world that included a major role for the UN. Also, Obama recognized the importance of the UN in dealing with the challenge of climate change, and joined with China to ensure a multilateralist triumph under UN auspices by having the 194 assembled government successfully conclude the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. However, when it came to war/peace issues such as drone warfare, threats of war directed at Iran, modernization of nuclear weapons, and the defense of Israel, the Obama Administration flexed its geopolitical muscles with disdain for the constraining limits imposed by international law and international morality. In this core respect, Trump’s approach, while blunter and oblivious to the etiquette of global diplomacy, appears to maintain fundamental continuity with the Obama approach.

 

With respect to defending Israel even when it faces responsible criticism, I can report from my own experience while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, that the defense of Israel’s unlawful behavior within the UN during the Obama years was unconditional, and deeply irresponsible toward respect for international legal obligations, especially in relation to upholding international humanitarian law and norms governing recourse to non-defensive force. American chief representatives at the UN, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both called for my dismissal from my unpaid post in vitriolic language without ever confronting the substance of my criticisms of Israel’s murderous periodic attacks on Gaza, its excessive use of force in sustaining the occupation, its expansion of unlawful settlements, and its discriminatory administration of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I mention this personal experience to underscore the willingness of the Obama presidency to go all in with Israel despite the awkward fact that Obama was being harshly attacked in Israel, including by government leasers, and hence also in the US. Obama was being wrongly accused of being unfriendly to Israel as compared to earlier American presidents. Israel has high expectations that Trump will sway with the wind from Tel Aviv.

 

More to the point, Trump’s view of foreign policy at this stage appears to be a primitive mixture of state-centrism, militarism, nationalism, overall what had qualified until World War I as realpolitik. There was back then no UN, few international institutions, no international law prohibition on aggressive war, no Nuremberg Principles imposing criminal accountability on political and military leaders, no tradition of protection for international human rights, and no affirmation of the inalienable right of all peoples to self-determination. It was a Eurocentric state system that combined the interaction of sovereign states in the West with colonial rule extended directly and indirectly to most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Of course, now the colonial system has formally collapsed, China, Russia, and India have risen, Europe has declined, nuclear weapons continue to shadow human existence, and the specter of global warming dangles a sword of Damocles over the human condition. Trump seeks to restore a simpler world with his raucous rally cries of ‘America First.’ This is to be accomplished by carrying out a series of promises: to renegotiate trade arrangements, build walls, crush terrorism, terrorize undocumented immigrants, liberate police from accountability, bar Muslim immigration, and develop the world’s most feared nuclear arsenal. It is not a pretty picture, but also it involves a reckless disregard of the fragility of our interconnected and networked world order that mandates a globalizing framework for common problem-solving rather that a retreat to a glorious past that never was.

 

Of course, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the Trump worldview is bereft of any constructive thoughts about how to engage with the world. Trump’s controversial connections with Putin and Russia impart a contradictory impression: what is favorable is an evident interest in exploring prospects for a cooperative relationship, which goes against the grain of the American national security establishment, including several Republican heavyweights, which seemed likely in an expected Clinton presidency to be readying the country for a dangerous plunge into a second cold war. It would be ignited with reckless bravado by confronting Russia along its borders; in contrast, what is dubious about the Trump overtures to the Kremlin are the backdoor dealings with Russian officials during the presidential campaign and subsequently, reinforced by the ‘golden shower’ innuendo and unresolved concerns that Trump’s withheld tax returns might reveal awkward information about indebtedness or business dealings or both.

 

Whether Trump is going to abandon this effort to smooth things with Moscow under this pressure from the US intelligence and security bureaucracy will be a defining feature of whether his foreign policy gets early stuck in the Washington swamp, or risks the governmentally unsettling effects of discontinuity with the past. There are some cynical interpretations of Trump’s opening to Russia as primarily intended to set the stage for intensified confrontations with China. If this view is even partially correct it could easily generate a cold war of its own, although with new alignments. It might quickly lead to hot battlefield incidents that could further escalate, giving rise to renewed fears of nuclear war.

 

Trump occasionally expresses an appreciation of international cooperation for mutual benefit with other states, as well as recognizing the benefits of keeping traditional alliances (NATO, Japan, South Korea) alive and threatening those countries that menace the global or regional status quo (North Korea). What is totally absent is any acknowledgement of global challenges that cannot be met by states acting on their own or cooperatively through bilateral arrangements. It is here where the erasure of the UN from political consciousness is so troublesome substantively as well as symbolically. To some degree this erasure preceded Trump and is widespread. It has not been challenged as yet by even the Sanders’ end of the political spectrum in the US. I found it telling that Obama made no reference to the UN in his Chicago farewell speech, which can be most accurately understood as a more positive and polite version of Trump’s ‘America First’ engagement with the world.

 

Even better, on an abstract level, Trump expressed some sentiments that if concretized could overcome some of the forebodings being voiced here. In his speech to Congress on February 28th Trump said “[w]e want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace wherever peace can be found.” He went on to point out that “America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite sides of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.” If this outlook ever comes to inform the actual policies of the Trump presidency it would give grounds for hope, but as of now, any such hopes are mere indulgences of wishful thinking, and as such, diversions from the one true progressive imperative of this historic moment–political resistance to Trumpism in all its manifestations.

 

Dark lines of policy have also been set forth by Trump. The angry defiance of his Inaugural Address, the belligerence toward China, threats toward North Korea, exterminist language in references to ‘radical Islamic’ extremism and ISIS. Trump’s belligerence toward the world is reinforced by lauding military virtues and militarism, by appointing generals and civilian advisors to top positions, and by boosting the military budget at a time when the United States already spends almost as much on its military machine as is the total of military expenditures by all other countries, and has only a string of political defeats to show for it.

 

These contrasting Trump imaginaries create an atmosphere of foreboding and uncertainty. Such a future can unfold in contradictory ways. At present, the forebodings clearly outweigh the hopes. Although Trump speaks of fixing the decaying infrastructure of the United States and not wasting trillions on futile wars, especially in the Middle East, his inclinations so far suggest continuity in such brutal war theaters as Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

 

We have reached a stage of human development where future prospects are tied to finding institutional mechanisms that can serve human and global interests in addition to national interests, whether pursued singly or in aggregate. In this central respect, Trump’s ardent embrace of American nationalism is an anachronistic dead end.

 

What I find particularly discouraging about the present bipartisan political mood is its near total erasure of the United Nations and international law. These earlier efforts to modify and ameliorate international anarchy have virtually disappeared from the political horizons of American leaders. This reflects a loss of the kind of idealism that earlier energized the political imagination of those who spoke for the United States ever since the American Revolution. There was admittedly always much hypocrisy and self-deception attached to this rhetoric, which conveniently overlooked American geopolitical ambitions, slavery, and devastation visited on native Americans. It also overlooked imperial maneuvers in the Western Hemisphere and the ideologically driven foreign policy of the Cold War era that brought death, destruction, and despair to many distant lands, while keeping a dying European colonialism alive for many years by deferring to the warped logic of the Cold War.

 

Finally, I believe that the agenda of resistance to Trumpism includes a defense of the United Nations, and what its Charter proposes for the peoples of the world. We need a greatly empowered UN, not an erased UN.

Interview on Israel, Palestine, and Peace

14 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The interview below, conducted by C.J. Polychroniou and Lily Sage (bios at the end of the interview) was published in TruthOut on Sept. 10, 2016. It is republished here with a few stylistic modifications, but substantively unchanged. It is relevant, I suppose,to report that subsequent to the interview the U.S. Government and Israel have signed a military assistance agreement promising Israel $38 billion over the next ten years, the largest such commitment ever made. Such an excessive underwriting of Israel’s policies and practices should be shocking to taxpaying Americans but it passes almost noticed below the radar. It is being explained as a step taken to ensure that Obama’s legacy is not diminished by claims that he acted detrimentally toward Israel, but it is, pathetically, one of the few instances of genuine bipartisanship in recent U.S. foreign policy. Again, we should grieve over the extent to which ‘reality’ and morality is sacrificed for the sake of the ‘special relationship’ while looking the other way whenever the Palestinian ordeal is mentioned.

The initial question pertaining to Turkey is explained by my presence in that turbulent country when the interview was conducted.]

 

 

“A Continuous War Mentality”: Richard Falk on Israel’s Human Rights Abuses

Polychroniou & Sage: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians mirrors the abominable system of apartheid in South Africa, but many members of the “international community” who fueled the gradual delegitimization and eventual collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime are failing to apply similar pressure against Israel. In fact, many nations are even strengthening their ties with the Israeli government.

 

Even Greece has established close ties to Israel under the opportunistic Syriza government, while Sultan Erdogan in Turkey has also begun a process of kissing up to Israel after a few years of pursuing an “antagonistic” relation with the US’s closest ally under the pretext of expressing solidarity towards the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, the increased militarization of Israeli society continues to intensify the oppression and subjugation of Palestinians.

 

The Israeli government has recently suggested that a “normalization” process is underway with the Palestinians, but in reality Israel’s construction of illegal settlements continues unabated, and the right-wing politicians inside Israel who portray Palestinians as an “inferior race” are gaining ground. This is exactly what “normalization” has always meant in Israeli political jargon: continuing to commit abominable human rights violations against Palestinians while the world looks away. Indeed, apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel.

 

 

After years of intense antagonism, the Erdoğan regime has begun making overtures once again to Israel. Why now?

 The normalization agreement with Israel needs to be appreciated as part of a broader foreign policy reset that started well before the failed coup attempt of July 15th. The basic Turkish motivation appears to be an effort to ease bilateral tensions throughout the region, and as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has expressed it, “make as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.” It is the second coming of what had earlier gained political traction for Turkey throughout the region in the first 10 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) leadership with the slogan “zero problems with neighbors.”

 

The main reset by far is with Russia, which had become an adversary of Turkey in the context of the Syrian War, but Israel is a close second. [Israel’s relationship with Turkey] had been in freefall after Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel at the World Economic Forum in 2009, directly insulting the then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was present.

 

Then in 2010 came the Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, and directly challenging the Israeli blockade together with a group of smaller boats filled with peace activists in an initiative known as the Freedom Flotilla. The Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara resulted in nine Turkish deaths among the peace activists on the ship and pushed the Israeli-Turkish relationship close to the brink of war. For the past year or so both sides have shown an interest in de-escalating tensions and restoring diplomatic normalcy. And Turkey, now more than ever, would like to avoid having adversary relations with Israel, which is being given precedence over Turkey’s support of the Palestinian national struggle.

 

Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu said recently that he cares more about the Palestinians than their own leaders. Do you wish to offer a comment on this statement?

 

Netanyahu has a gift for exaggerated, bombastic, and misleading, often outrageous political language. This is a clear instance. There are plenty of reasons to question the adequacy of the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people in advancing their national struggle. But to leap from such an unremarkable acknowledgement to the absurd claim that Netanyahu cares more about the Palestinian future than do Palestinians themselves represents a grotesque and arrogant leap into the political unknown. It is Netanyahu who led the country to launch massive attacks against Gaza first in 2012, and then again in 2014. It is Netanyahu who has pushed settler expansion and the Judaizing of East Jerusalem. For Netanyahu to speak in such a vein is to show his monumental insensitivity to the daily ordeal endured by every Palestinian and to the agonies associated with living for so long under occupation, in refugee camps, and in exile.

 

What do you make of the “anti-normalization” campaign initiated by some Palestinian factions and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?

 

I think the BDS campaign makes sense under present conditions. These conditions include the recognition that the Oslo “peace diplomacy” is a dead-end that for more than two decades gave Israel cover to expand settlements and the settler population. They also include the realization that geopolitical leverage of the United States at the UN blocks all efforts to exert meaningful political pressure on Israel to reach the sort of compromise on issues of land, refugees, borders, water, settlements and Jerusalem that is indispensable if sustainable peace arrangements are to be agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians.

 

Against this background, it is important to recognize that civil society is presently “the only game in town,” and that BDS is the way this game is being played at present with the benefit of Palestinian civil society guidance and enthusiasm. Whether this campaign can exert enough pressure on Israel and the United States to change the political climate sufficiently to induce recalculations of national interest — only the future can tell. Until it happens, if it does, it will be deprecated by Israel and its Zionist supporters. While being dismissed as futile and destructive of genuine peace initiatives its participants will be attacked. A major effort is underway in the United States and Europe to discredit BDS, and adopt punitive measures to discourage participation.

 

Israel’s pushback by way of an insistence that BDS is seeking to destroy Israel and represents a new virulent form of anti-Semitism suggests that BDS now poses a greater threat to Israel’s concept of an established order than armed struggle or Palestinian resistance activities. Major Zionist efforts in the United States and elsewhere are branding BDS activists as anti-Semites.

 

It seems clear that nearly the entirety of the population of Israel and Palestine are in a constant trauma-reification cycle that began when Israel largely became inhabited by traumatized Jewish refugees, post-WWII. Do you think it is possible to overcome this, and would it be possible to find a peaceful resolution if this didn’t occur?

 

This is an insightful way of conceiving of the toxic interactions that have taken place over the years being harmful, in my view, to both people. However, unless the assertion is seriously qualified, it suffers from a tendency to create impressions of symmetry and balance, when the reality of relations from the outset, especially since the Nakba [the mass displacement of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948], has been one of oppressor and oppressed, invader and invaded, occupier and occupied. It is undoubtedly true that Israeli ideas about the use of force and security were reflections of their collective trauma and Holocaust memories, and Zionist ideology.

 

This Israeli narrative is further reinforced by biblical and ancient historical claims, but it is also the case that the Palestinians were invaded in their habitual place of residence, and then occupied, exploited, dispossessed and turned into refugees in their own country, while Israelis came to prosper, and to establish a regional military powerhouse that has enjoyed the geopolitical reinforcement of an unprecedented special relationship with United States. The early politics surrounding the establishment of Israel were also strongly influenced by the sense of guilt that existed in Western liberal democracies after World War II. Such guilt was epitomized by the shame associated with the refusal to use munitions to disrupt the Holocaust through air bombardment.

 

Under Netanyahu, Israel has moved dangerously closer to becoming a fundamentalist and neo-fascist state, although long-standing Israeli propaganda has it that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” In your view, what accounts for the transformation of Israel from a once-promising democracy to an apartheid-like state with no respect for international law and human rights?

 

I believe there always were major difficulties with Israel’s widely proclaimed and internationally endorsed early identity as a promising democracy guided by progressive ideals. This image overlooked the dispossession of several hundred thousand Palestinian residents, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages, and the long-term discriminatory regime of military administration imposed on the remaining Palestinian minority that coincided with the establishment of the newly established Israeli state. What is important to appreciate is that this 20th-century process of state-creation took place in an era that was increasingly imbued with anticolonial activism that was at odds with the project to establish Israel from its international genesis and given a colonialist certificate of approval by way of the Balfour Declaration in 1917). Even taking into the Holocaust into account as the culminating historic tragedy of the Jewish people there is no way evading the conclusion that the establishment of Israel amounted to a European colonialist imposition on the Arab world and the latest instance of settler colonialism, although abetted by the Zionist mobilization of world Jewry on behalf of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

 

 

Against this background, Israel became embattled in various ways with internal Palestinian resistance and regional hostility that produced several wars. In that process, a series of developments moved Israel further and further toward the right. A continuous war mentality tends to erode democratic structures and values even under the best of circumstances. Military successes, especially after the 1967 War, created a triumphalist attitude that also solidified US geopolitical support and made it seem possible for Israel to achieve security while expanding its territorial reality (via settlements) at Palestinian expense. Israeli demographics over the years, involving large-scale immigration of Sephardic and Russian Jews and high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews, pushed the political compass ever further to the right. These key developments were reinforced by Israeli public opinion that came to believe that several proposals put forward by Israel to achieve a political compromise were irresponsibly rejected by the Palestinians. These negative outcomes were misleadingly interpreted as justifying the Israeli conclusion that they had no Palestinian partner for peace and that the Palestinians would settle for nothing less than the destruction of Israel as a state. These interpretations are gross misreadings of the Palestinian readiness to normalize relations with the Israel provided a sovereign Palestinian state were to be established within 1967 borders and some kind of arrangements were agreed upon for those displaced from their homes in 1948.

 

Additionally, the supposed need for Israel to remain aggressively vigilant after Gaza came under the control of Hamas in 2007 led Israelis to entrusting the government to rightest leadership and in the process, weakened the peace-oriented political constituencies remaining active in Israel. In part, here, memories of the Nazi experience were invoked to induce acute anxiety that Jews suffered such a horrible fate because they remained as a group too passive in face of mounting persecution, and failed to take Hitler at his word. Fear-mongering with respect to Iran accentuated Israeli security-consciousness, and undercut more moderate political approaches to the Palestinians.

 

Have you detected any changes in US foreign policy toward Israel under the Obama administration?

 

There has been no change of substance during the eight years of the Obama presidency. At the outset in 2009 it seemed that the US government under Obama’s leadership was ready to pursue a more balanced diplomacy toward Israel, at first insisting that Israel suspend settlement expansion to enable a restart of the Oslo peace process with a fresh cycle of negotiations. When Israel pushed back hard, abetted by the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, the Obama administration backed off, and never again, despite some diplomatic gestures, really challenged Israel, its policies and practices, and its overall unilateralism. It did call Israeli settlement moves “unhelpful” from time to time, but stopped objecting to such behavior as “unlawful.” Washington never seemed to question the relevance of a two-state solution, despite the realities of steady Israeli de facto annexation of prime land in the West Bank, making the prospect of a Palestinian state that was viable and truly sovereign less and less plausible. Although, for public relations credibility in the Middle East, the Obama presidency continued to claim it strongly backed “peace through negotiations,” it did nothing substantive to make Israel respect international law as applied to the occupation of Palestine, and consistently asserted that the Palestinians were as much to blame for the failure of past negotiations as were the Israelis, fostering a very distorted picture of the relative responsibility of the two sides, as well as who benefitted and who lost from the failure to resolve the conflict. Western media tended to accept this pro-Israeli picture, making it appear that both sides were equally unready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace.

 

What could make Israel change course regarding its treatment toward Palestinians and the “Palestinian question?”

 

The easy answer to this question is a sea change in Israeli outlook as to its security, combined with an insistence by the US government that continued backing of Israel was contingent on its adherence to international law and its credible readiness to reach a fair political compromise, whether in the form of a two-state or one-state solution, but based on a recognition that sustainable peace depends on acknowledging Palestinian rights under international law and a concern for the equality of the two peoples when it comes to issues of security, resources, and sovereignty. Such a shift in Israeli elite opinion could conceivably come about through a reassessment of Israeli prospects in reaction to mounting international pressures and continued Palestinian resistance in various forms. This seems to have been what happened in South Africa, producing an abrupt and unexpected change of outlook by the governing white leadership in Pretoria that signaled a willingness to dismantle its apartheid regime and accept a constitutional order based on racial equality and procedural democracy. Such a development will be dismissed as irrelevant by Israeli leaders until it happens, if it ever does, so as to avoid encouraging those mounting the pressures.

 

You served for many years as special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights for the United Nations Human Rights Council. Did that experience teach you anything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that you were not aware of prior to this appointment?

 

In many ways, it was a fascinating experience, in almost equal measure dispiriting and inspiring. UN Watch, acting as an Israeli surrogate within the UN, repeatedly targeted me with vicious contentions that I was an anti-Semite and a proponent of a variety of extremist and irresponsible views that didn’t represent my actual views. UN Watch, along with other pro-Israeli NGOs, organized a variety of protests with the purpose of canceling my speaking invitations throughout the world, and threatening institutions with adverse funding implications if they went ahead with the events. Although no speaking invitation was withdrawn or event canceled, it shifted the conversation at the event and in the media — often from the substance of my presentation to whether or not the personal attacks were accurate. Also, I know of several invitations that were not issued because of these institutional concerns with controversy.

 

I also learned in ways that I only suspected prior to my six years as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Palestine, what a highly politicized atmosphere prevails at the UN, and how much leverage is exercised by the United States and Israel to impair UN effectiveness in relation to Israel/Palestine. At the same time, I realized that from the perspective of strengthening the legitimacy and awareness of Palestinian claims and grievances, the UN provided crucial venues that functioned as sites of struggle.

 

Are there Israeli organizations working on behalf of Palestinians and their ordeal, and, if so, what can we do from abroad to assist their efforts?

 

There are many Israeli and Palestinian NGOs within Israel and in Occupied Palestine that are working bravely to protect Palestinians from the worst abuses of the Israeli state, both in Occupied Palestine and in Israel (as defined by the 1949 “green line”). On the Israeli side, these initiatives, although having no present political relevance so far as elections and governing policy is concerned, are important ways of maintaining in Israel a certain kind of moral awareness.

 

If the political climate changes in Israel due to outside pressure and a general recognition that Israel needs to make peace to survive, then those that kept the flame of justice and peace flickering despite internal harassment will be regarded, if not revered, with long overdue appreciation as the custodians of Jewish collective dignity. In the meantime, it is a lonely battle, but one that we on the outside should strongly support.

It is also important to lend support to the various Palestinian efforts along the same lines and to the few initiatives that brings together Jews and Palestinians, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, of which scholar-activist Jeff Halper was a cofounder and remains a leader. There are many Palestinian initiatives under the most difficult conditions, such as Human Rights Defenders working courageously in and around Hebron, and of course, in Gaza.

 

There is an unfortunate tendency by liberal Zionists to fill the moral space in the West by considering only the efforts of admirable Israeli organizations, such as B’Tselem or Peace Now, when presenting information on human rights resistance to Israeli oppressive policies and practices. This indirectly marginalizes the Palestinians as the subject of their own struggle and in my view unwittingly denigrates Palestinian national character.

 

What’s the best way to explain the conversion of an oppressed group of people into oppressors themselves, which is what today’s Israeli Jews have structurally become?

 

This role reversal is part of the tragedy that Zionist maximalism has produced for the Jewish people living in Israel, and to some extent, for Jews worldwide. It has made the Nakba into a continuing process rather than an historical event that could have been addressed in a humane manner from the perspective of restorative justice as depicted so vividly and insistently by Edward Said, including in his influential 1993 book Culture and Imperialism. What has ensued has been a geopolitically conditioned unbalanced diplomacy that has served as a shield behind which Israel has been creating conditions for an imposed, unilateralist solution.

 

Israeli leaders, especially those on the right, have used the memories of the Holocaust, not as an occasion for empathy toward the Palestinians, but as a reminder that the well-being of Jews is based on strength and control, that Hitler succeed because Jewry was weak and passive. Further, that even the liberal West refused to lift a finger to protect Jews when threatened with genocidal persecution, which underscores the central Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance as an ethical and political imperative.

 

Psychologically, this general way of thinking is further reinforced by supposing that only the Israeli Defense Forces keeps Israel from befalling the fate of deadly Palestinian maximalism, a political delusion reinforced by images of a second Holocaust initiated by Iran or generated by the terrorist tactics attributed to Hamas. In effect, Israeli oppressiveness is swept under the rug of security, while the settlements expand, Gaza is squeezed harder, and the regional developments give Israel the political space to attempt an Israeli one-state solution.

 

The Interviewers

LILY SAGE

Lily Sage is a Montessori pedagogue who is interested in questions of symbiosis, intersectional feminism and anti-racist/fascist praxis. She has studied in the fields of herbalism, visual/performance art, anthropology and political theory in Germany, Mongolia and the US.

 

C.J. POLYCHRONIOU

C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.