Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Must-Read Analysis of American Policy in the Middle East

How would the Obama's administration Middle East policy look different if they had left Dennis Ross and Dan Shapiro out, and brought Rob Malley in? Part of an answer can be found in an excellent article appearing in Foreign Affairs which Malley has co-authored with Peter Harling. It is simply one of the best policy diagnoses and prescriptions ever. It's a long read, but worth the time spent.

Beyond Moderates and Militants

How Obama Can Chart a New Course in the Middle East

Robert Malley and Peter Harling
ROBERT MALLEY is Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group and served as Special Assistant to the President for Arab-Israeli Affairs from 1998 to 2001. PETER HARLING heads the Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria Project at the International Crisis Group. He worked in Baghdad from 1998 to 2004 and in Beirut from 2005 to 2006, and he is now based in Damascus.

IN THE Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama has spent the first year and a half of his presidency seeking to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor. He has made up some ground. But given how slowly U.S. policy has shifted, his administration runs the risk of implementing ideas that might have worked if President George W. Bush had pursued them a decade ago. The region, meanwhile, will have moved on.

It is a familiar pattern. For decades, the West has been playing catch-up with a region it pictures as stagnant. Yet the Middle East evolves faster and less predictably than Western policymakers imagine. As a rule, U.S. and European governments eventually grasp their missteps, yet by the time their belated realizations typically occur, their ensuing policy adjustments end up being hopelessly out of date and ineffective.

In the wake of the colonial era, as Arab nationalist movements emerged and took power across the Middle East, Europe either ignored the challenge they posed or treated them as Soviet-inspired irritants. By the time the West understood the significance and popularity of these movements, Europe's power had long since faded, and its reputation in the region was irreparably tarnished by the stain of neocolonialism. Likewise, the United States only became fully conscious of the jihadist threat in the aftermath of 9/11, after Washington had fueled its rise by backing Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan during the 1980s. And Washington only endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in 2000--just when, as a result of developments on the ground and in both the Israeli and the Palestinian polities, the achievement of a two-state solution was becoming increasingly elusive.

The West's tendency to adopt Middle East policies that have already outlived their local political shelf lives is occurring once again today: despite its laudable attempt to rectify the Bush administration's missteps, the Obama administration is hamstrung by flawed assumptions about the regional balance of power. Washington still sees the Middle East as cleanly divided between two camps: a moderate, pro-American camp that ought to be bolstered and a militant, pro-Iranian one that needs to be contained. That conception is wholly divorced from reality.

Paradoxically, such a prism replicates the worldview of the Bush administration, which, in almost every other respect, the Obama administration has rejected. Its proponents assume the existence of a compelling Western vision of peace and prosperity, which the region's so-called moderates can rally around, even as U.S. and European credibility in the Middle East is at an all-time low. It underestimates and misunderstands the role of newly prominent actors, such as Turkey, that do not fit within either supposed axis and whose guiding principle is to blur the line between the two. Most important, it assumes a relatively static landscape in a region that is highly fluid.

Ignoring the Middle East's changing composition makes it difficult to understand the significance of recent political adjustments. If the goal is to defeat the radicals in order to strengthen the moderates, how is one to assess Saudi Arabia's resumed dialogue with Hamas or its improved ties with Syria? What is one to make of a regime in Damascus that simultaneously ships arms to Hezbollah, deepens its intelligence and security ties with Tehran, and opposes important Iranian objectives in Iraq? And how is one to interpret Turkey's multifaceted diplomacy--maintaining its ties to the West, deepening its relations with Syria, mediating a nuclear deal with Iran, and reaching out to Hamas?

By disregarding subtle shifts that are occurring and by awaiting tectonic transformations that never will, Washington is missing realistic chances to help reshape the region. Obama has an opportunity to change course by adopting a more elastic policy, but he cannot wait long: the United States might soon awake to a Middle East that it will find even harder to understand or influence.


DURING THE 1990s, the United States arguably reached the apex of its power and prestige in the Middle East. President George H. W. Bush showcased Washington's formidable military capabilities by forcing Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. Diplomatically, his performance was equally impressive: he assembled a diverse coalition in support of Operation Desert Storm and that same year convened an unprecedented Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid. President Bill Clinton's approach built on those achievements: he contained Iran and Iraq while managing the Arab-Israeli conflict through the peace process. Meanwhile, the Lebanese time bomb was temporarily defused by a U.S.-endorsed Pax Syriana that guaranteed stability in exchange for Beirut's submission to its neighbor's domination.

All told, Washington had successfully frozen the region's three most critical and volatile arenas of conflict: the Arab-Persian fault line, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Lebanon. This newfound equilibrium gave rise to a loose coalition among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, whose relative convergence of interests--maintaining the regional status quo, a U.S.-managed peace process, and a Saudi-financed and Syrian-policed order in Lebanon--helped stabilize the inter-Arab balance of power. However halting, frustrating, and disappointing it proved to be, progress on the peace process also made the region less allergic to Washington's continuing special relationship with Israel. But this delicately constructed regional order collapsed with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, and the situation only grew worse during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The George W. Bush administration's approach to the Middle East and its response to the 9/11 attacks fundamentally altered the region's security architecture. By ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban and Iraq of Saddam Hussein, Washington unwittingly eliminated Tehran's two overriding strategic challenges, thus removing key impediments to Tehran's ability to project power and influence across the region. At the same time, after the breakdown in the Israeli- Palestinian talks, the Bush administration redefined the core principles underpinning the peace process. It made meaningful advances dependent on preconditions, such as changes in the Palestinian leadership, the establishment of statelike institutions in the occupied territories, and the waging of a nebulous fight against an ill-defined terrorist menace. The end result was polarization of the region in general and of the Palestinian polity in particular. This approach also heightened the costs of the U.S.-Israeli alliance in the eyes of the Arab public. Finally, the United States overreached when--not content with having secured Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon--it pursued the unrealistic three-part goal of isolating Damascus, disarming Hezbollah, and bringing Lebanon into the pro-Western camp.

Although U.S. policy at the time helped put an end to the impasses that had long plagued Iraq and Lebanon, this came at a heavy human and political cost. More broadly, the resumption of crises in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, and between the Israelis and the Palestinians prompted an ongoing, persistently vicious, and periodically violent renegotiation in the balance of power among nations (involving Egypt, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) and within nations (in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories). Suddenly, everything seemed up for grabs.

This proliferation of conflicts and emergence of new threats to U.S. interests occurred just as U.S. power was eroding and regional rivals were gaining strength. Serious limitations to the United States' military capabilities were exposed directly (in the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq) and indirectly (when Washington's ally, Israel, suffered setbacks in the Lebanon and Gaza wars).

Meanwhile, Washington made the promotion of liberal values a pillar of its Middle East policy, putting forth a profoundly moralistic vision of its role, precisely at a time when it was trampling the very principles underlying that vision. A president whose foreign policy was predicated on an ability to inspire Arabs with the rhetoric of democratic values undercut any such inspiration by occupying Iraq, rejecting the results of the Palestinian elections in January 2006, showing excessive deference to Israeli policies, and permitting human rights violations to take place, most notably at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The "with us or against us" philosophy underpinning the U.S. war on terrorism placed Washington's Arab allies in a relationship that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and politically costly as animosity toward the United States became widespread. Meanwhile, Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah benefited from renewed popular sympathy and were driven together despite their often ambiguous relations and competing interests.

Washington's enemies were finding that the impediments to their geographic expansion and political ascent had disappeared: with the collapse of the Iraqi state, Iran was free to spread its influence beyond its borders toward the Arab world; Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon unshackled Hezbollah, helping transform it into a more autonomous and powerful actor; and the bankruptcy of the peace process boosted Hamas' fortunes and deflated Fatah's.


EVEN AFTER the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers stuck to a Cold War-era approach to foreign policy: dividing the world between faithful friends and well-defined foes, anchoring diplomacy in relatively stable bilateral relationships, and relying on allies to promote clear-cut interests and contain enemies. In the 1990s, such a paradigm served as a more or less effective guide to Middle East policy because the United States enjoyed room to maneuver without being seriously challenged. Today, this model has become irrelevant.

The United States is currently juggling many competing and at times incompatible interests. These include curbing Tehran's increasing clout and its nuclear program while stabilizing an Iraq under heavy Iranian influence, shoring up the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while protecting Israel's ambiguous nuclear status, retaining ties to friendly but repressive regimes while promoting democracy, preventing renewed violence in Gaza and Lebanon while not dealing with Hamas or Hezbollah, and advancing the peace process while perpetuating the schism among the Palestinians. Worse, the United States is striving to do all this at a time when it is no longer perceived to be as dominant as it once was. Local protagonists have learned various rhetorical and practical means of resisting U.S. pressure, ways of surviving and sometimes thriving by saying no. Local nonstate actors, which are harder to persuade or deter, have grown more powerful. Washington's foes can now use public opinion to their advantage, as do Hamas and Hezbollah, or curry favor with rival powers, as Iran has tried to do with Brazil, China, and Turkey.

The Obama administration has shown some signs of adjustment. Conscious of the United States' declining credibility in the Middle East and of its inability to resolve crises independently of one another, Obama has sought to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reach out to Iran and Syria, and forsake the simplistic "war on terror" mentality inherited from the Bush administration. It has redefined U.S. national security doctrine to make room for a more multipolar world.

Indeed, Obama is pursuing policies that, had Bush implemented them during his administration, may well have worked. But the region has not stood still, and at the current pace of change, the United States risks making vital policy adjustments only after it is too late.

The Obama administration will push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement but will likely recognize the importance of intra-Palestinian unity for that goal only after spending several more years playing Fatah against Hamas and only after differences between the two movements have hardened beyond repair. Washington is engaging with Damascus, but by postponing a serious, high-level strategic dialogue about Syria's future regional role in a post-peace-deal environment, it risks making it immeasurably more costly for Damascus to relax its ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Similarly, Washington might formally accept Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes only after Tehran has reached the point of no return in its nuclear weapons program.

At bottom, Washington still sees the Middle East as divided between moderates and militants--an understanding that blinds it to much of what currently fuels the region's dynamics. After all, on issues deemed central to U.S. interests, Washington's nominal allies in the region often pursue objectives that are not aligned with the United States', and its foes sometimes promote goals compatible with Washington's. For example, even though Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter enemies, both tend to view Iraq through a similar confessional prism (albeit taking different sides in the sectarian competition), while Washington's vision of Iraq as a nonsectarian state is closer to Syria's and Turkey's. Even so, when it comes to Iraq, the U.S. government's inclination is to condemn Iran and Syria while praising Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Israel's undeclared nuclear program, foot-dragging approach to peace, and often single-minded reliance on military means to resolve conflicts are hard to reconcile with Obama's intention to restore the United States' standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And as Bush quickly discovered and as his successor knows, the United States' democracy and human rights agenda finds few takers among friendly regimes while resonating with the Islamist parties Washington is loath to empower.

Regional actors simply do not fit into a recognizable moderate-versus-militant template. Syria, one of the Arab world's most secular countries, is also the one most closely aligned with militant Islamist movements. Hezbollah, a symbol of Shiite militancy, has adapted to Lebanon's political system, which, with its pluralistic confessional makeup, liberal economic leanings, and endemic corruption, defies the movement's self-proclaimed principles. One can be a secular, liberal Arab democrat and still be profoundly hostile to Washington and the West, just as one can be an ally of the West and find common cause with certain jihadist groups.

Ironically, Iran espouses the bipolar logic of axes adopted by the United States, seeking to both lead and bolster a camp adhering to its militant values, even as Turkey, a NATO member and close U.S. ally, distances itself from Washington's vision and tries to erase the lines between the two purported groupings. Qatar hosts a U.S. military base, has enjoyed trade relations with Israel, has strong ties with Syria and Hamas, is friendly with Iran, and, through the global television network al Jazeera, has (notably on its Arabic channel) created the most potent and articulate exponent of the "militant" view. In May 2008, Qatar brokered the inter-Lebanese accord and Turkey mediated Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Neither Doha nor Ankara can plausibly be labeled as belonging to one axis or the other; both have earned reputations for talking to everyone.


IT SHOULD come as no surprise that the West is finding it increasingly problematic to manage complex situations with a rigid, one-dimensional paradigm. It is difficult to place Israel, Fatah, Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia, and Iraq's outgoing prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in the same so-called moderate camp when they share neither values nor interests. Each has strong ties with Washington, to be sure, but these relations are motivated by different and sometimes contradictory considerations. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia--standard-bearers of the moderate camp--do not have much in common, either. They do not share a willingness to engage with Israel, they exhibit different systems of government, and each pursues a separate approach to addressing religious extremism--Cairo tries to suppress it, Amman channels it through participation in a controlled democratic process, and Riyadh seeks to coopt it.

The moderate camp is in desperate need of what has been most lacking: a credible U.S. agenda around which its members can rally and that they can use to justify their alignment with Washington. In the absence of such an agenda, the most relevant competition pits two homegrown visions against each other. The first, backed by Iran, emphasizes resistance against Israel and the West and prioritizes security alliances and military buildups. The second, whose key advocate is Turkey, highlights forceful diplomacy, stresses engagement with all parties, and values economic integration. Although the two outlooks are being championed by non-Arab regional powers, both are largely in tune with local Arab sentiment. The region, it turns out, is organizing itself less in accordance with a U.S. policy and more in the absence of one.

The allegedly pro-Iranian axis also escapes neat description. In terms of ideology, interests, practical constraints, and even sectarian identity, Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah differ in notable ways. Their ties fluctuate and reflect constant adjustments to shifting regional realities. Descriptions of this axis often veer into exaggeration and caricature. It is not, as some assume, the expression of a militant form of Shiism. Indeed, Syria is ruled by its Alawite minority, which has little in common with Iran's brand of Shiism, whereas Hamas is a quintessential Sunni movement and is at pains not to appear excessively beholden to Iran. Syria would prefer to see a Palestinian reconciliation that gave Hamas an important, albeit not exclusive, voice in decisionmaking. Hezbollah has outgrown its proxy relationship with Syria and has a vested interest in ensuring that Lebanese-Syrian relations do not revert to the old order. Contradictions between Iran and Syria run deeper still and are at play across the region. Whereas Iran has ruled out any dealings with Israel and openly calls for its destruction, Syria repeatedly asserts its willingness to negotiate and, should a peace deal be reached, normalize relations. And events in Iraq have brought Iran's and Syria's competing interests into even sharper relief. In Iraq today, as they did in Lebanon during the 1980s, Tehran and Damascus back different parties and espouse divergent goals: Iran seeks an Iraq under heavy Iranian influence, whereas Syria hopes to make the country an integral part of the Arab world.

What principally brings the so-called militant camp together is the need to counter what its members perceive as a U.S.-Israeli threat. The binary choice they face--either shift allegiances or remain frozen in a hostile relationship with the West--gives them no choice at all. On the contrary, the more that U.S., European, or Israeli pressure increases, the easier it becomes for them to disregard or downplay their disagreements. The unprecedented security coordination among Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah is the clearest illustration of this dynamic, as each prepares for a potential wide-ranging confrontation. Meanwhile, "moderate" Arab countries--unsettled by a stagnant peace process and undercut by weakened U.S. leadership--face increasingly pointed social and political contradictions, potential succession crises, and a growing temptation to turn inward. Ironically, the United States has proved far more successful over the past decade in reinforcing the cohesiveness of its foes than it has in maintaining the unity of its allies.


SOME HAVE been quick to conclude that the United States is marginalized, that Washington's era in the Middle East is over, and that the future belongs to Tehran or Ankara. This is fantasy. As both Iran and Turkey are no doubt beginning to appreciate, there is a strict limit to what they can accomplish without--let alone in opposition to--the United States. Even with its popularity on the Arab street rising, Turkey has yet to achieve a breakthrough on any of the major initiatives on which it has labored: holding Israeli-Syrian peace talks, negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, mediating a truce between Israel and Hamas, or attempting to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.

Still, in the absence of more forceful U.S. leadership, the Middle East is fast becoming a region of spoilers, nations whose greatest imperative--and sole possible accomplishment--is to prevent others from doing what they themselves cannot do. Egypt is trying to thwart Turkey's efforts to reconcile the rival Palestinian groups and get Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. Syria hinders peace efforts that come at the expense of its allies. Saudi Arabia is intent on blocking Iranian advances in Iraq. Practically no country has a positive agenda or is in a position to successfully advance one. Of course, despite the rise of its rivals, the United States still enjoys veto power over virtually all significant regional initiatives. But that is small consolation. To be spoiler in chief is a sad ambition for Washington and would be a depressing legacy for Obama.

The alternative is for the United States to play the role of conductor, coordinating the efforts of different nations even as it preserves its privileged ties to Israel and others. For example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar and Turkey, could spearhead efforts to bring about Palestinian national reconciliation consistent with a continued U.S.-led peace process. Turkey, assuming that it mends its ties with Israel and maintains its newfound credibility in Arab countries, could serve as a channel to Hamas and Syria on peace talks or to Iran on the nuclear issue. Under the auspices of the United States, Iraq's Arab neighbors and Iran could reach a minimal consensus on Iraq's future aimed at maintaining Iraq's territorial unity, preserving its Arab identity, protecting Kurdish rights, and ensuring healthy, balanced relations between Baghdad and Tehran. Washington should intensify its efforts to resume and conclude peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which would do far more to affect Tehran's calculations than several more rounds of UN sanctions. Syria also could be useful in reaching out to residual pockets of Sunni militants in Iraq.

As much as anything, the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process illustrates why a new approach is needed. Pillar after pillar supporting long-standing U.S. policy on this issue--strong, representative Israeli and Palestinian leaders; support from the Arab states; unrivaled U.S. power and credibility--has eroded to the point where they barely matter today. The Palestinian national movement has fragmented, Fatah's clout and legitimacy have dwindled, and foreign countries have boosted their influence over the Palestinian arena, affecting the decisions of Fatah and Hamas alike.

The most politically active Israeli and Palestinian constituencies--Israeli settlers and members of the Israeli religious right, on the one hand, and the Palestinian diaspora, Palestinian refugees, and Islamists, on the other--are the least involved in discussions about an eventual settlement, even though they are precisely the groups that could derail it. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, the Arab states on which Washington has customarily relied, are no longer popular enough in the region to sanction a deal on their own. Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Jazeera can dilute or even drown out any positive reaction to a possible accord by denouncing the agreement as a sellout. Given pervasive skepticism about the peace process among the Arab public, criticism of a deal is likely to resonate far more widely than is support.

For the United States, adapting to new patterns of power would at a minimum mean accepting the need for internal Palestinian reconciliation and acknowledging that a strong, unified Palestinian partner is more likely to produce a sustainable peace agreement than a weak, fragmented one. The United States must take into account the concerns of different Israeli and Palestinian constituencies (for example, acceptance of the Jewish right to national self-determination and recognition of the historic injustice suffered by Palestinian refugees); acknowledge that meaningful Israeli-Syrian negotiations have become a necessary complement to Israeli-Palestinian talks, not a distraction from them; and grasp the necessity of including new regional actors to help achieve what is now beyond the ability of Washington and its allies to do on their own: giving legitimacy and credibility to an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

It will not be easy for the United States to undertake such a strategic shift, nor will it be risk free. Traditional allies, feeling jilted, might lose confidence or rebel; newfound partners, getting a whiff of U.S. weakness, could prove unreliable. Still, hanging on to an outmoded policy paradigm does not offer much hope. The likely consequences would be increased regional divisions, increased tensions, and increased chances of conflict. Obama began his presidency with the unmistakable ambition of turning a page. To succeed in the Middle East, he will have to go further and close the book on the failed policies of the past.


By Robert Malley and Peter Harling



Thursday, August 26, 2010

Five Reasons Why Barbara Slavin’s Cautious Optimism is Misplaced

A very good example of what is fundamentally wrong about how Americans view the Israel/Palestinian Conflict is provided by Barbara Slavin here. In a contrarian spirit of being a teeny bit upbeat about the next round in Israeli Arab peace talks (going on for around sixty plus years, but in its present Israeli-Palestinian format, for almost twenty years), she lists five reasons for optimism, before turning to reasons for pessimism. Since I am a pessimist I will focus on her first five reasons. Here they are with my comments.

"1. The outlines of a settlement have been clear for years. Israel would retain large blocs in the West Bank near Jerusalem, share Jerusalem with the Palestinians and get rock-solid security assurances from the United States. Palestinian refugees could return but only to a new Palestinian state."

Comment: The fact that the outlines of a settlement have been clear "for years" suggests that they are, in fact, unacceptable and unworkable. For example, what matters the most to Palestinians, according to a recent poll, is their having a strong military to provide for their own security -- a demand that no Israeli government will even contemplate. (Not even the Geneva Initiative goes there.) And there are many other non-negotiables for both sides. So if the talks focus around these outlines, they are doomed to fail. Of course, I can see that how these outlines would be most acceptable to your garden-variety liberal Zionist. But how will they speak to Palestinians who are concerned with the control of their borders, their land, their resources, their security, and their future? And for that matter, what of those on both sides who reject them – and they may constitute a majority?

"2. Both sides would benefit from a settlement…."

Comment: It is not clear how Israel, or Israel's government, would benefit significantly from such a settlement. Yes, there would be some diplomatic benefit but the potential costs would be great, and the economy is doing fairly well, as it is. Israelis themselves are in no hurry to leave the West Bank; few really care about the democratic issue when they feel that security is at stake, and fewer believe that a settlement will bring security. They are happy when the world cheers them, but they shrug when the world boos. As for the Palestinians, the proposed outlines would constitute an enormous sacrifice, and needless to say, would be considered a sell-out by many Palestinians in Palestine and abroad. And who will give ironclad guarantees for Palestinian security?

"3. West Bank Palestinians have made progress creating the institutions of a state…." 

Comment: Slavin provides no examples. Instead, she says that the PA security forces are doing a good job of keeping down attacks against Israel. So I suppose that by "institutions of a state" she means security forces subcontracted by Israel to the PA. What are the other state institutions or civil society institutions being built? And in light of the ongoing expropriation of land and resources, of what interest will they be? Need we be reminded that the democratic institutions (characterized by postponed elections and jailed legislators) are at a nadir.  

"4. The Arab League has endorsed the talks...This contrasts with the hastily arranged Camp David summit of 2000, when Palestinians were pressured to make compromises without the chance to obtain the prior support of Arab allies" 

Comment: This is based on a confusion of what the Arab league can and cannot support. Members had no problem with Arafat's attending the 2000 Camp David summit. What they didn't endorse then, and what they haven't endorsed now, are the concessions that were demanded of Arafat and will be demanded of Abbas. It is true that in the meantime, there has been the very important Arab League Initiative. If the US can convince Israel to make compromises so as to accept that initiative, then there may be some hope. But all Israeli governments have so far rejected them. And let's face it: Egypt and Jordan will be there as US client-states, not as representatives of the Arab league.

"5. The Obama administration is committed to making these talks work." 

Comment: Indeed? In the space of two years, the Obama administration has not wrested a single significant concession from the parties. The so-called settlement freeze has more holes than Swiss cheese. The Obama administration's flip-flops have made it look remarkably inept. Almost two years into his presidency the administration was barely able to put together an Annapolis II. Mitchell has had no success at all for his efforts, and were it not for the enormous pressure of the US on Abbas, there would be no talks. As for the US's threat to table its own proposals – if the threat is genuine, which I doubt, then it gives the Palestinians no incentive to make concessions now, since the US's offer will have to be better than the Israelis.

Slavin's perspective is woefully lacking in an understanding of the history of the talks, and her inability to even question the dogma of "everybody-knows-what-the-final-settlement-looks-like-It's-just a-matter-of-knowing-hot-to-get-there" shows how deeply mired she is the conventional thinking that has produced nothing but disaster -- especially for those Palestinians who are worse off now than they were before the Oslo Process turned them into Israel's junior partner in the peace-process dance marathon.

If – that is, when -- the talks fail, and frustration and mutual recriminations ensue, what reasons for optimism will Slavin have then? If she can point to one way in which this summit differs from the other summits under Clinton and Bush, maybe I allow myself to pray for a miracle. But she has given, in addition to her reasons to be pessimistic, five reasons for us to be extra pessimistic – not of a positive outcome of the talks, but of the misguided thinking behind them.

Let us be thankful that the expectations are very ,very low.

(h/t to Ali Gharib for pointing me to Slavin's op-ed.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Israel Convicts Another Palestinian Gandhi

So what were the charges against Abdallah Abu Rahmah, the internationally-known organizer of the Bil'in protest, that stuck? Exonerated of stone-throwing and weapons possession (a charge that even John Stewart in his wildest satire could not have concocted), he was convicted for "incitement" and "organizing illegal demonstrations."

As the statement below reports, incitement is defined, under Israel military law, as "the attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order." Forget for a moment that the evidence was gathered from minors arrested in the middle of the night. Since any protest against the expropriation of land in the Occupied Territories (by Arabs; Jewish settlers, under the system of Hafradah, are not tried in military courts) can be interpreted as IPSO FACTO disturbing the public peace or public order (what public peace or public order? These protests are in Palestinian villages), the law, in effect, bans all Palestinian protest. And if you organize a non-violent protest, you can sit in jail for up to ten years.

What is an illegal protest under Israeli military law? A gathering of 11 people without a permit from the military commander. Note that Abu Rahmah was not charged or convicted with organizing a violent protest, or a protest in which stones are thrown. Just a protest.

Abdalla Abu Rahmah may sit in jail for a long time. But he will be replaced by others. And what if the Israelis track down the other Palestinians Gandhis and jail them? What if they imprisoned all of them? From every corner of Palestine hundreds, maybe thousands, would rise to take their place. Even Israelis can't jail that fast.

This is the Third Intifada, the Intifada of the Unarmed Protest. It will continue for a long, long time – at Bil'in, at Ni'lin, at Wallajeh, at many other places.

With the support of every lover of freedom.

Below follows the press release of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee

Bil'in's Abdallah Abu Rahmah Cleared of Stone-Throwing; Convicted of Incitement

Protest organizer Abdallah Abu Rahmah from Bil'in was convicted of incitement and organizing illegal demonstrations today, after an eight months long military trial, during which he was kept behind bars. He was acquitted of a stone-throwing charge and a vindictive arms-possession charge.

Abdallah Abu Rahmah's verdict was read today in a packed military court room, concluding an eight months long politically motivated show-trial. Diplomats from France, Malta, Germany, Spain and the UK, as well as a representative of the European Union were in attendance to observe the trial. Many of his friends, supporters and family members showed up to send their support.

Abu Rahmah, the coordinator of the Bil'in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, was acquitted of two out of the four charges brought against him in the indictment - stone-throwing and a ridiculous and vindictive arms possession charge. According to the indictment, Abu Rahmah collected used tear-gas projectiles and bullet cases shot at demonstrators, with the intention of exhibiting them to show the violence used against demonstrators.  This absurd charge is a clear example of how eager the military prosecution is to use legal procedures as a tool to silence and smear unarmed dissent.

The court did, however, find Abu Rahmah guilty of two of the most draconian anti-free speech articles in military legislation: incitement, and organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations. It did so based only on testimonies of minors who were arrested in the middle of the night and denied their right to legal counsel, and despite acknowledging significant ills in their questioning.

The court was also undeterred by the fact that the prosecution failed to provide any concrete evidence implicating Abu Rahmah in any way, despite the fact that all demonstrations in Bil'in are systematically filmed by the army.

Under military law, incitement is defined as "The attempt, verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order" (section 7(a) of the Order Concerning Prohibition of Activities of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda (no.101), 1967), and carries a 10 years maximal sentence.

Abu Rahmah's case was the first time the prosecution had used the organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations since the first Intifada. Military law defines illegal assembly in a much stricter way than Israeli law does, and in practice forbids any assembly of more than 10 people without receiving a permit from the military commander.

Abu Rahmah's sentencing will take place next month, and the prosecution is expected to ask for a sentence exceeding two years.

Click here for the complete verdict (Hebrew)


Last year, on the night of International Human Right Day, Thursday December 10th, at 2am, Abdallah Abu Rahmah was arrested from his home in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Seven military jeeps surrounded his house, and Israeli soldiers broke the door, took Abdallah from his bed and, after briefly allowing him to say goodbye to his wife Majida and their three children — seven year-old Luma, five year-old Lian and eight month-old baby Laith — they blindfolded him and took him into custody.

Abu Rahmah did not find himself behind bars because he is a dangerous man. Abdallah, who is amongst the leaders of the Palestinian village of Bil'in, is viewed as a threat for his work in the five-year unarmed struggle to save the village's land from Israel's wall and expanding settlements.

As a member of the Popular Committee and its coordinator since it was formed in 2004, Abdallah has represented the village of Bil'in around the world. In June 2009, he attended the village's precedent-setting legal case in Montreal against two Canadian companies illegally building settlements on Bil'in's land; in December of 2008, he participated in a speaking tour in France, and on 10 December 2008, exactly a year before his arrest, Abdallah received the Carl Von Ossietzky Medal for Outstanding Service in the Realization of Basic Human Rights, awarded by the International League for Human Rights in Berlin.

Last summer Abdallah was standing shoulder to shoulder with Nobel Peace laureates and internationally renowned human rights activists, discussing Bil'in's grassroots campaign for justice when The Elders visited his village. This summer, he may be sent to years in prison, exactly for his involvement in this campaign

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Islamophobia as the New Antisemitism

Daniel Luban has written a timely and well-researched article in Tablet on what he calls, the "New Antisemitism," the anti-Islamic bigotry that is on the rise in the United States. Using the term "New Antisemitism" to describe this bigotry is much more appropriate than using it to describe anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism; the latter often have nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and when they do, it is with the old anti-Semitism. While it is true that the term "anti-Semitism" originally arose in Germany as an explanatory euphemism for anti-Judaism, the exclusion of an "alien semitic and oriental religion" goes quite nicely with current Islamophobia, although, of course, there are important and fundamental differences. (For both similarities and differences see Luban's article.)

It is a sign of the Jews making it in America that, with Islamophobia on the rise, many Jews now feel comfortable about joining their erstwhile enemies, the nativist (old) anti-Semitic bigots, in common cause against the newcomer religion. Add to this the Jewish antipathy towards Islam because of Arab attitudes towards Israel and Zionism (Jews tend to forget that prominent Arab anti-Zionists were Christian), plus the human propensity for bigotry and tribalism, and that pretty much explains Jewish Islamophobia – except that, I hasten to add, there is very real Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism out there in the world, again mostly because of Israel and Zionism. Still, it is the task of religious leaders to fight the very natural tendency of their flock to degenerate into bashing the other. I would like to think that most Jews will join the real Americans who reject all forms of religious bigotry – not merely because it politically correct to do so, or because it is our American duty, but because it is a core value.

Why, then, are so many Jews hemming and hawing about the Cordoba Center? Take it from me – it's all about Israel. When Jews, and I mean here liberal Jews, are open to religious dialogue with Christians and Muslims, they have no difficulty in respecting difference. But when it comes to Israel, they demand that the other side accept the Zionist narrative, or, at the very least, be open to accepting it. A reform rabbi in today's American may have good friends who are Christian. But how many anti-Zionist friends will she have? And given that most Muslim clerics are anti-Zionist, the Jews' insistence on their acceptance of Zionism is a bar to tolerance and real dialogue.

Let me take as an example of this insistence on Zionism a recent op-ed by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin . Rabbi Salkin begins by commending his friends and colleagues for standing up to the anti-Islam hysteria. But he then explains why Jews are "permitted to worry" about the "man behind the mosque," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Actually, Rabbi Salkin never refers to him as "Imam Rauf" but prefers to call him, rather discourteously,"Rauf". But perhaps it is understandable that Rabbi Salkin omits the religious title because in his long piece he does not write a single word about Imam Rauf's religious doctrines, his interpretation of Islam, his views of other religions such as Judaism, or his writings on spirituality. Rabbi Salkin does not say why Imam Rauf has been called by Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee (the pre-eminent Jewish figure in ecumenical relations world-wide and the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland), "an important voice of moderation." Rather, Rabbi Salkin only discusses what Imam Rauf writes about Israel and Zionism, and makes this the litmus test of his acceptability for Jews.

And what is Imam Rauf criticized for? For "simply repeating the Palestinian narrative and saying that the Muslim world is a restricted neighborhood into which a Jewish sovereign nation-state need not apply." The Imam writes that "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed in the Muslim world as being sustained by America." (One wonders whether Rabbi Salkin would have difficulty conducting a dialogue with General David Petraeus, who said something similar.)

In short, the Imam is criticized by Rabbi Salkin for not finding any room in his worldview for the Zionist narrative. He is criticized for not accepting Zionism!

I would rejoice in hearing, from his lips, an affirmation of the right of the Jewish state to exist, even in what he believes to be his Middle Eastern 'hood.

Rabbi Salkin's wish that Muslim clerics accept the Zionist claims to Israel is on a par with the traditional Christian's wish that the Jews accept the divinity of Jesus. To demand, or even wish of the other side to accept your narrative (especially when that narrative is highly controversial, and detrimental to the other side), and to make that wish a precondition for acceptance, is to place us back in the Middle Ages. If Jews can respect and tolerate Christians, and liberals can respect and tolerate conservatives, then Zionists should be able to respect and tolerate anti-Zionists, especially Muslim and Arab anti-Zionists. Not necessarily to agree with them, of course, but to respect and tolerate them. And, in any event, it is the duty of religious leaders not to make the existence of those differences a barrier to further cooperation and search for understanding – against the orthodox bigots of the world, both religious and secular.

I am sure that there are many stands taken by the orthodox rabbinate (such as the validity of reform conversions) that may make a liberal rabbi uncomfortable. But would Rabbi Salkin write an op-ed saying why reform Jews are "permitted to worry" when an orthodox rabbi comes to town?

On one point I will agree with Rabbi Salkin. The Imam is wrong in repeating the myth of the rosiness of Jewish life under Islam, a myth that incidentally was embraced by Jewish orientalists in the nineteenth century. But the Imam is right to say that the growth and success of political Zionism was most responsible for the deteriorating relations between Jews and Arabs (and Muslims, most of whom are not Arab). And the Imam is also right to say that many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, even with their dhimmi status (attenuated often in the modern era) were more acculturated in their surroundings, and felt more at home there, than, say, many Jews of Eastern Europe.

In any event, one does not look to rabbis or imams for historical accuracy. And Lord help us if we look to them for political analysis. Some of us continue to look to them for ethical and spiritual guidance, despite recurring disappointment in that department.

Do Jews have to "worry" about the thought of Imam Rauf? Maybe because I live in Israel, and because I see how some orthodox rabbis, both modern and ultra-, are able to relate to Muslim clerics who are not Zionists, I don't share the fears that an American rabbi like Rabbi Salkin has. I also see other orthodox rabbis writing things in the name of Judaism more worrisome for Jews than anything that Imam Rauf has ever written.

It would be better for Rabbi Salkin simply to agree to disagree with Imam Rauf about Zionism – and not make Imam Rauf's support of the Palestinian narrative any more a cause to worry than his support of the Islamic narrative. And, when he reads the Imam's book on Islam, he should not be sensitive only to what he has to say about Israel and Palestine.

Surely someone who urges Jews to "put God on the guest list" at their bar/bat mitzvah would not exclude a priori from his spiritual fellowship opponents of the Zionist enterprise, whether they be Jews or non-Jews.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back Into the Water

Note to Gaza Flotilla activists: you may be able to buy your IDF impounded laptop on Ebay if you're lucky.

Ynet has a lengthy expose in Hebrew here about the arrest of Israeli soldiers for trafficking in stolen laptops – with the high possibility that the laptops came from one of the ships of the Gaza Flotilla. If true, then "the most moral army of the world" will soon be prosecuting soldiers for stealing laptops from human rights activists. Of course, nothing new here; if you can steal from Gazans, you should be able to steal credit cards and laptops from folks who are coming to help the Gazans.

You can read a short version in Haaretz here.

Pity the poor folks in the IDF Spokesperson's office. After running around telling foreign journalists that Eden Abergil's Facebook posting was disgusting and atypical (a view not, apparently, shared by the majority of Israelis, or at least those who answer polls, in the Jerusalem Post), they now have to deal with this.

It's not easy advocating for the IDF nowadays.

Update: Captain Renault of the IDF once again reacts: "I'm shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in this establishment!" Read about it here

Update: Now the supporters and detractors of Eden Abergil are running neck-in-neck in the Jerusalem Post poll. Great going, hasbaraniks! (In fairness, the poll is open to readers outside of Israel, so presumably there are still leftwing readers outside of Israel disgusted by Edn Abergil's Facebook page.)


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Move Over Eden Abergil. New Facebook “Souvenir Pictures” of Bound Palestinian Civilians

Update: Ynet has now published the story with the pictures (blurred, unlike the ones you will find here)

Second Update: At the request of my source, I published the blurred pictures. But, for what it's worth, the IDF person posing with the gun is female.

So Eden Abergil, recently discharged from the IDF, poses with bound Palestinian civilians and then posts them on her Facebook page under the title "IDF – the Best Time of My Life." She sees nothing wrong with that.

"I still don't understand what's wrong," Abergil told Army Radio on Thursday, saying that the "pictures were taken in good will, there was not statement in them."

The former IDF soldier said the pictures, which she said were of Gazans who had been arrested while attempting to crossover into Israel, were meant to depict a "military experience," and were not intended to injure the detainees.

So what if she pretended to kiss them and her friends thought it sexy? (Note to readers: the pictures have been blurred – probably because of the military censor -- to protect Eden Abergil's identity. Needless to say, nobody , especially Eden, thinks that the civilians' identity needs protecting.)

What I don't understand is the IDF's response, "On the face of it the behavior exhibited by the soldier is base and crude." That reminds me of Captain Renault's, "I'm shocked, shocked to find gambling here" in Rick's Café, right before he pockets his winnings. Come on, IDF Spokespeople – taking souvenir pictures of bound Palestinians to show the gang/hevreh is as Israeli as felafel, oops, victory albums. When the IDF veterans group "Breaking the Silence" had its first photo exhibition in 2004, pictures like that were included. Once again, the IDF put a show of being shocked; once again nobody really cared. OK, so it's not required, but has anybody ever been disciplined for it? Can't it be construed as part of the IDF's attempt to establish deterrence, to show these people who are the boss.

Some people will say, "Hey, Jerry, Eden is not leading around a naked man by his genitals." I suppose we have to thank our lucky stars that "the most moral army in the world" doesn't post those photos on Facebook.

But how about these new ones, courtesy of "Breaking the Silence"?!/group.php?gid=100136500045599&v=photos

Their title: "The Norm that IDF Spokesperson Avi Benayahu Wants to Deny"

Oh, I should add that soon I may be required by Israeli law to mention that Breaking the Silence receives support from European states that support human rights (the bill passed its first reading yesterday). Note to Breaking the Silence – try to get funding from Jewish gambling moguls and slumlords. You won't have to report that.

(Hat tip to Gerald Steinberg's NGO monitor for helping to delegitimize Israel, one law at a time.)


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Israel’s Useful Idiots (?) in the US Media

Who needs AIPAC when all it takes is a few interviews with Israeli "sources" to scare the hell out of the Jews -- courtesy of Israel's spokespeople in the American media?

For the last, oh, seven years Israel has tried to convince the world that a) Iran is 1-3 years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon capacity; b) Israel feels existentially threatened by this; c) it is the duty and interest of the West to see that no other country but Israel has nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

And don't' forget d): if the World (i.e., the US) doesn't take military steps soon to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions, then Israel will go it alone.

Now few people believe a), whereas b) is irrelevant because Israel always feels existentially threatened (or says that it feels so); c) is entirely without basis; and d) is simply bullshit.

Call me naïve, but I don't think that Israel is so stupid, so suicidal, as to go it alone by bombing Iran. True, Israel has been capable of doing incredibly stupid and masochistic things in the past, and no doubt will continue to do so in the future. But even Israelis don't think that they can seriously defeat Iran's nuclear ambitions (whatever they may be), and the one thing Israel doesn't want to look like is a loser. So precisely because it goes around kvetching about Iran all the time, we can infer that Israel has no desire to attack Iran and every desire to make others think it desires to attack Iran

No, there is another reason for this hysterical warmongering, and that is simply to push the onus for attacking Iran on the US and – when it fails to do so -- portray Obama as weak and appeasing to Iran. And that is in order to get more votes for a Congress that will be even more favorable to Israel – if that's possible – and to further cripple a naturally hesitant and wimpy on Israel administration.

Israel knows that an Obama administration will not attack Iran. Period. When it makes noises to that effect, you can be sure that there is an ulterior motive.

Enter the servants of Israel in the US media who, in recent days, have sounded like the Rosh ha-Shanah shofar, trumpeting to the American media what Israel wants them to hear.

George F. Will is no idiot, but that doesn't mean that he can't be somebody else's idiot…no I have too much respect for George to say that. He must know that Netanyahu's warning is sham, that his rhetoric is sham, and that publicizing this stuff now can only have one purpose, which is to embarrass the Obama administration. So to call him a "useful idiot" is not fair to his intelligence or his ideology. He is doing what he thinks is necessary to further what he thinks is good for America, and that is the end of the Obama administration, with little regard for Israel or Iran.

I cannot say the same for Jeffrey Goldberg, who, unlike Will, has no ideological antipathy towards Obama, but whose recent much-criticized article on Israel's intentions towards Iran – Goldberg's colleague at the Atlantic James Fallows had to leap to defend his objectivity – reeks of an Israel-first political agenda. I know, I know, you will say, "Duh", and that it is unlikely that the Obama administration will take the message of the article seriously. But, that is not the point. Here, too, the effect will simply be to weaken the Obama administration's already weak posture towards Israel on other fronts, like the Israel/Palestine direct talks, which are scheduled to begin…uh…Real Soon Now.

How many articles have blasted Goldberg's piece? Well, among the many, let me point out good pieces by Eli Clifton, Justin Elliot, Paul Woodward, Matt Duss, Amjad Atallah , Tony Karon, Stephen Walt, Max Blumenthal, Glenn Greenwald, Trita Parsi and Robert Farley.

Time limited? Well, the last two are good places to start, the former for historical perspective, and the latter for insight.

I don't normally blog on this stuff, but what annoys me about the Iran hysteria is that I know Jews who don't sleep at night because they are afraid of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Like glatt kosher Chicken Littles, they run around in a tizzy, genuinely scared – I believe them – because their leaders have frightened the bejesus out of them.

The Passover Haggadah says, "In every generation, people rose against us to destroy us." Just like every Jewish generation needs a messiah (of which we have an endless supply), it also needs a Bogeyman. Ahmadinejad is this generation's Jewish bogeyman. The Iranian people should vote him out of office, but for existential threats to Israel, Iran is the last place to look.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

On Tony Judt, of Blessed Memory

Yesterday, Tony Judt, one of America's most distinguished historians, was vanquished by the disease that had been atrophying his muscles for a few years. As far as I know, no one survives Lou Gehrig's disease, but for some, the progress of the disease can be arrested, and Tony Judt had slowed down, if not stopped, the disease. During the past year, readers of the New York Review of Books were treated to a series of short essays, dictated by a man who could no longer move. As these were published in issue after issue I thought that maybe divine providence – or luck, if you prefer -- had given Judt a break. Then, the bitter news came.

As a historian Judt will be remembered for his sweeping account of modern European history after World War II, Postwar. The book is a synthesis of intellectual, social, political, and even cultural history and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As a public intellectual, Judt will be remembered most for his ground-breaking (one may say "earth-shattering") essay, "Israel: The Alternative." The essay was published during the Second Intifada, after the Oslo process had ground to a halt, much blood had been spilt on both sides, and the belated attempts of George W. Bush to revive it through a "road map" had failed.

Judt's thesis in that essay -- that Israel, as an ethnocracy (not his term), was a "dysfunctional anachronism" in today's world, and that it was a time to think of an alternative to the regime founded in 1948 -- hit American Jewry very, very hard. Here was a prominent historian, who had never gone beyond the liberal Zionist consensus, who had not made a career of bashing Israel, and who had himself worked on a kibbutz, raising questions as to the desirability of the regime founded in 1948. He could not be dismissed, as had been Chomsky or Finkelstein, and in some ways he was more dangerous than they were, for they had consistently argued on behalf of a two-state solution. Judt was one of the first people to say that it was too late for such a solution, that the question now was not one state vs. two states, but what sort of one-state Israel/Palestine would become. Here was the gist of what he wrote

In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today's "clash of cultures" between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.

To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its religious and nationalist foes will claim. In any case, no one I know of has a better idea: anyone who genuinely supposes that the controversial electronic fence now being built will resolve matters has missed the last fifty years of history. The "fence"—actually an armored zone of ditches, fences, sensors, dirt roads (for tracking footprints), and a wall up to twenty-eight feet tall in places—occupies, divides, and steals Arab farmland; it will destroy villages, livelihoods, and whatever remains of Arab-Jewish community. It costs approximately $1 million per mile and will bring nothing but humiliation and discomfort to both sides. Like the Berlin Wall, it confirms the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect.

A binational state in the Middle East would require a brave and relentlessly engaged American leadership. The security of Jews and Arabs alike would need to be guaranteed by international force—though a legitimately constituted binational state would find it much easier policing militants of all kinds inside its borders than when they are free to infiltrate them from outside and can appeal to an angry, excluded constituency on both sides of the border.5 A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.

The attacks on Judt, and the defenses of the 1948 state, were quick to follow. Some people claimed that ethnic states were hardly an anachronism in today's world (they pointed inter alia to the ethnic states that emerged from the former Soviet Union and in central Europe). Others dismissed Judt's cry for binationalism as itself an anachronism – hadn't Judah Magnes and Martin Buber raised that flag and failed miserably? These were some of the substantive criticisms of the article; others just spewed bile all over him. Judt was portrayed as calling for the destruction of Israel, which, in the mind of Zionists, was tantamount to calling for the destruction of the Jewish people, a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite.

In his response to his critics, and in subsequent pieces, Judt backed off from the call for binationalism, claiming that he had raised it as a possible and preferable alternative to the status quo of an intolerable occupation. And he wrote his piece before Ariel Sharon moved the settlers out of the Gaza, which gave hope to the two-staters (but not to him, to my knowledge) that moving West Bank settlers could also be accomplished. His subsequent writings on Israel were highly critical, but did not continue in the same vein as his bombshell piece. He still accused Israel of being stuck in the ethno-nationalist mentality, of not "growing up" – but his later critiques did not ruffle any feathers. Judt, Avrum Burg, and now, to some extent, Peter Beinart, have been at the vanguard of the post-Oslo disillusioned Jewish liberals. They came from different backgrounds, but they are arriving at the same place. And more will follow.

Judt ended one of his last pieces, a meditation on the use and abuse of the Holocaust, with a statement of what Judaism was to him:

Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples' conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

I find this passage sincere but baffling, its conclusion unconvincing, indicative of a superficial understanding of Judaism, one based less on sober investigation then on his upbringing in a family of Jewish socialists, where figures like Spinoza and social reformers were heroes. For liberal Jews like Judt, the phrase "liberal Judaism" is redundant. Still, It's a nice vision, historical accuracy aside. While Judt obviously knew that much of historical Judaism was illiberal, he was concerned with what Judaism said to him. Had he lived longer, I think his meditations on Judaism would have become more profound. Clearly, the reactions to his writings on Israel caused him to think harder about his Judaism. We will not have that now, nor will he hear his clear voice on the issues of the day.

Judt's Judaism was not too different from that of the Jewish socialists who ended up in Israel – except that for them, nationalism and ethnic loyalty almost always trumped socialism and liberalism, when in serious conflict. But it is this legacy that he felt he could not betray. When Richard Silverstein and I wrote a petition to be signed by American Jews against the Gaza operation, some were reluctant to sign because it did not go far enough in criticizing Israel; others did not want to be accused of flaunting their Judaism in order to win points. Judt just signed it. He was very comfortable with his Judaism. And with his liberal socialism.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Should Universities Discipline Faculty Members for Calling for an Academic Boycott of Their Own Institution?

Recently, Gideon, Sa'ar, the Israeli Minister of Education, Moshe Kaveh, the President of Bar Ilan University, and Amnon Rubinstein, the emeritus Tel-Aviv law professor, have held that university faculty members who endorse the academic boycott of Israeli universitities should be disciplined. According to Prof. Kaveh, they should even be fired. Opposing this position, Tel Aviv law professor Chaim Gans argues in today's Haaretz that endorsements of the boycott should be protected under academic freedom and freedom of speech. His arguments are familiar and should convince any person whose moral compass hasn't been thrown out of kilter by the current climate of jingoism. But there is one argument that he does not address, the "employee-damage" argument. It goes like this: When an employee calls for a boycott of his place of employment, his disloyalty causes real damage; hence, an employer should be able to discipline the employee, or even fire him.

The employee-damage argument should not be confused with the argument that it is unethical to criticize one's place of employment, "to spit in the well from which you drink." Faculty members are sometimes disciplined for ethical breaches, but what faculty member doesn't criticize his institution? When the president of Bar Ilan university says, "Someone who criticizes the place where he works is ethically obliged to resign," he dooms his own university into oblivion. Trust me, I was a tenured professor at Bar Ilan, and I know.

Still, even the employee-damage argument is very weak. A hundred Israeli faculty members calling for an academic boycott of their institutions do less damage than the thousands of Israeli academics who regularly strike for better pay. The latter causes real suffering to students and often harm their institutions. The right to strike, indeed, the unionization of faculty members, is recognized in Israel, but in most universities in the United States it is not. There is nothing sacrosanct about it, or, for that matter, about academic tenure. Many, especially in non-democratic countries, argue that faculty members who don't like their pay should shut up or look for a different job. But in Israel that argument is rejected. So it cannot be the mere fact of damage, or intended damage, that gets you in trouble; that could be used as a blanket argument to suppress any criticism, much less, job actions.

If you think that the analogy to striking faculty is far-fetched, consider a different scenario: A conservative government wishes to cut government spending and targets subsidies to its public universities. At a sensitive juncture in the public debate, a French professor who is philosophically a laissez-faire capitalist, publishes an op-ed endorsing the government proposals, arguing that the universities are already bloated by public funding, and that this is bad for society at large. The university administration and many of her colleagues are appalled by this disloyalty; indeed, one of them makes the argument that she is not protected by academic freedom because she teaches French and not economics. And to make matters worth, the Finance Minister appeals to the professor's op-ed in his speech before the Parliament, which approves the cuts. Now the professor is certainly being critical of and disloyal to her institution, with detrimental effect. Should she be disciplined?

Well, of course not. Faculty, like other employees, may be disciplined for being derelict in their duties. But it is a very big stretch to say that writing an op-ed, or signing a petition, makes one derelict. Employees should be protected from that sort of retaliation from the employer, and academic faculty, even when not speaking in their field of specialization, should feel free to speak without fear of retaliation.

The real damage to Israeli universities when their faculty members of a given university endorse the academic boycott against Israel is not from the boycotters but from the angry Jewish donors, who threaten to terminate their gifts. Such was the case with Neve Gordon at Ben Gurion University, and with Anat Matar at Tel Aviv University, one of whose donors, I am told, promptly announced that he was transferring his gift from Tel-Aviv University to Bar Ilan University. In this context one should understand the remarks of the Bar Ilan president. The proper response of the Bar Ilan faculty to Prof. Kaveh's interference in their free speech and their rights as employees is to sign a statement against him, and to do it as quickly as possible.