28 March 2007

29 March 2007 – More in anger than sorrow

Hillel Neuer, executive director of United Nations Watch, a Geneva-based organization that acts against anti-Israel bias at the UN, recently let rip in a speech at the UN Human Rights Council, pointing out that the organization has spent little energy dealing with human rights and a great deal of energy attacking Israel:

Neuer’s speech was well-written and well-delivered, and the conditions in which he gave it must have been trying. Certainly it was unfair of the chair to suggest that Neuer’ statement was “inadmissible.” But I have to wonder whether he struck the right tone. What did he aim to achieve? Did he go there to make a statement, and to (rightfully) embarrass the Council? Or did he hope to win support for his position?

When I was working as an opposition speechwriter in the South African Parliament, we called this type of speech a “Fight Back” speech—not just because our party had once run a campaign with that slogan, but because of the defensive posture it strikes. We were often tempted to write “Fight Back” speeches, but we tried to avoid them: they may rally your existing voters, they don’t win new ones.

I thought of other speeches given in similar settings. There was Chaim Herzog’s response to the “Zionism is Racism” resolution in 1975, which also invoked the Holocaust in the opening and sounded a defiant tone throughout. But Israel is not in the same position today. And Neuer represents an NGO, not an member state; referring to “the dictators who run this council” may have been a bit too much.

I was deeply impressed by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior’s speech to the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. There, the circumstances were much more difficult. Israel really was in danger of being totally isolated by the international community. It was an appropriate time and place for defiance. Yet the genius of the speech was its sober tone and universal appeal.

Melchior’s statement (which was delivered in his absence) began by referring to what all human beings had in common, and only later moved on to specifically Jewish and Israeli concerns. It left the “sting” in the “tail” of the speech—for only in the last few lines, having built up considerable rhetorical momentum, did he unleash his righteous condemnation of the conference and what it had wrought.

The speech worked because it did not simply condemn: it expressed real empathy for the goals of the conference, and hinted at ways in which those goals could be achieved. Neuer could perhaps have improved his speech if he had couched it in more universal terms and suggested ways in which the Council could have a positive influence on the Middle East. More in sorrow than in anger, we used to say in Parliament.

28 March 2007 – Hope rests on Saudi summit

I feel suddenly hopeful about the prospects for peace. I was encouraged by the remarks of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas upon arriving in Riyadh yesterday for the Arab summit. Abbas told reporters that the Saudi peace plan would offer Israel the chance to “live in a sea of peace that begins in Nouakchott and ends in Indonesia.” These are, for Abbas, unusually bold words.

Could this be true? The conditions very well could be ripe for peace. All sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict are exhausted. The Israelis are enduring a rare moment of humility after the failures of what is now being called the “Second Lebanon War.” And the Arab world is beginning to wake up to the Iranian nuclear threat. Perhaps Sunni leaders have decided they have bigger problems than Israel to deal with.

The U.S. may be helping to engineer greater Saudi leadership in the region. When the Bush administration told Israel not to negotiate with Syria, I thought it was perhaps being short-sighted and intransigent. Perhaps, instead, the Americans wanted to give space to the Saudi initiative to blossom, and to discourage a separate Syrian peace in favor of a more comprehensive deal and a united front against Iran.

If the Arab summit does pay off, all of these debates we have about Carter and apartheid and Soros and the rest of it will seem rather petty. And suddenly, all the contacts that have been going on between Israel, Jews and the liberal Arab states will jump into the foreground. Remember Shimon Peres’s visit to Qatar? Or Olmert’s Saudi talks? Were you at the Yossi Beilin debate in Doha this week?

I recently saw a press release from the American Jewish Committee, America’s real “Jewish lobby.” And what was this group doing? Not strengthening their iron grip on U.S. foreign policy, as the Walt-Mearsheimer crowd might think, but touring Arab countries. Clearly, some people are thinking ahead to the future beyond the conflict and laying the foundations for the future. We might soon start to notice.

Will there be Nobel peace prizes? Probably, for Abdullah and Bandar; perhaps, for Olmert and Abbas; and maybe even for Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who came up with the idea of the Saudi plan and broke the story when they decided to adopt it as their own. I’ve always found Friedman’s style a little hokey, but at least he thinks creatively about solutions. He sets an example for other journalists.

On the other hand, the summit could end in failure, in two ways. One, more likely, is that the Palestinians or other Arab states will insist on the “right of return” for refugees, or some other hard-line position. Another, less likely but possible, is that the Arab states will rally around the idea that Israel is an apartheid state and that the only solution is the one-state solution. Either result would prolong the conflict.

Somehow, I think this time around might be different after all. There is too much riding on this. The Bush administration wants a foreign policy victory—and I want to see them get it, partly to spite all of the reflexive Bush-haters out there. Arab unity would also help stabilize the situation in Iraq and would weaken Iran’s position. We’ll know the result of the summit by Thursday. I’m praying for peace.

27 March 2007

27 March 2007 – Back to human rights

I have spent a great deal of effort over the past few posts responding to anti-Israel critics. It is quite a tedious business, and once you get involved, you give a veto over your state of mind to everyone with a laptop. The latest example is that of New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who calls on Americans to “stop biting our tongues” and start criticizing Israel—as if this weren’t happening already.

I’m not sure where Kristof is taking his cue from. Perhaps Jimmy Carter, with whom he has fairly close connections. Other bloggers have pointed out that Kristof shares Carter’s desire to see a Democratic presidential candidate emerge who is openly critical of Israel. That isn’t likely to occur—not just because of the Jewish constituency, but because siding with Israel’s enemies is against U.S. interests.

Don’t they get it? Most Americans do, but the lefty Democrats are reviving the old right-wing position that U.S. interests lie in closer relations with Arab oil-producing nations. Say what you will about President Bush—there’s a lot to criticize, and I’ve never voted for him—at least he recognizes that the threat of terror means that America’s interests are aligned with America’s values, and thus with Israel.

I think that much of the complaining that goes on about the supposed lack of debate about Israel and the alleged power of the “Jewish lobby” is just opportunistic posturing. People can see what the eventual solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will look like, and they can see that Israel is probably capable of imposing it unilaterally. At any rate, it is emerging as a point of consensus in the Middle East.

So it has now become safe to attack Israel, because doing so is like writing a check that will never be cashed. Many of those who bash Israel, like Soros, Kristof, and Carter, recommend the same two-state solution that is prescribed by those who defend Israel. This is not a disagreement about ends; it is not even a disagreement about means. It is really just about “competitive prestige,” to borrow Orwell’s phrase.

The goal of Israel’s critics is to be seen as having been on the “right” side of history, before it is too late for moral grandstanding. But the anti-Israel check actually could be cashed one of these days, if Iran and Hamas and Hizbollah have their way. So this kind of empty criticism is really just a parlor game, born of the illusion that terrorism is just a distant threat, which is in turn an illusion born of comfort.

I’m sick of it, and many other people are, too. There’s a blog out there called Muzzlewatch, which is a forum for a group calling itself Jewish Voices for Peace, and which is devoted to: ‘shining a light on incidents that involve pressure, intimidation, and outright censorship of critics of US-Israeli policy.” To this end, JVP has apparently joined a defamation lawsuit against certain pro-Israel groups.

What's more interesting than the blog are the responses in the blog’s comment section, some of which are quite well-written. One poster writes: “JVP seems awfully hypocritical. Most of the alleged ‘muzzling’ is actually counterspeech. In contrast, it appears to be supporting an effort to actually silence an advocacy group through the threats of a lawsuit.” “Counterspeech” is a great term and I think it should be used more often to defend legitimate opposition.

So—enough of that. What I’d actually like to do is comment briefly on an in this week’s edition of the Economist. The weekly may be spotty on the Middle East (and Africa, too, but that’s another story). However, its core principles are rock-solid. The article in question, “Stand up for your rights,” takes Amnesty International to task for its self-defeating support of social and economic rights.

These rights, the Economist argues, are noble policy goals, but cannot be achieved within the rights framework. Including these “positive freedoms” (as Berlin and Hayek would describe them) among the “negative freedoms” of civil and political rights simply dilutes the latter and destroys the former. The article notes that countries like China and Cuba that tout positive rights often deny negative rights.

By going along with “intellectual fashion,” the Economist argues, Amnesty International has undercut its ability to speak out about negative rights at the very moment when they are being encroached upon in western democracies. This is a brave argument; one only wishes that the Economist would take its own advice and think twice before following “intellectual fashion” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

26 March 2007 - Soros goes for appeasement

Billionaire George Soros has a truly awful article (“On Israel, America and AIPAC”) in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books. It is really so poorly conceived and clumsily written that it ought to be a source of embarrassment to the author and to the publication (though both probably view it as a great triumph). It is really one of the weakest article the Review has yet published on the subject.

Soros strings together a series of disjointed claims, some basically correct and some wildly and willfully inaccurate, about Israeli policy and the role of AIPAC in formulating it. Some time ago, Soros planned to set up an alternative lobby to rival AIPAC, one that would take a dovish approach to Israel instead of AIPAC’s ostensibly hawkish one. He abandoned the idea, but is still banging the same drum.

I won’t go into the messy details of the article, which does not merit close analysis. One glaring mistake says it all. Soros writes:

“. . . Hamas is not monolithic. Its inner structure is little known to outsiders but according to some reports it has a military wing, largely directed from Damascus, which is beholden to its Syrian and Iranian sponsors and a political wing which is more responsive to the needs of the Palestinian population that elected it to power. If Israel had accepted the results of the election, that might have strengthened the more moderate political wing.” (emphasis added)

This is worse than wishful thinking. It is the politics of appeasement. The idea that Israel could have hoped to exert a moderating influence on Hamas by welcoming its terror-supporting, genocidal government is reminiscent of Chamberlain’s promise that Hitler could be bought off with a few conciliatory gestures and small territorial sacrifices. Soros’s article is just a recapitulation of the capitulation at Munich.

One hesitates to use such parallels, because Soros is a Holocaust survivor himself. However, there is no other way to describe his approach. Perhaps we should not expect him to know more than others do about the events that led to Hitler’s rise. It is ironic, though, that the founder of the Open Society Institute should find it necessary to attack Israel, the only open society in the entire Middle East.

Another problem with his article is that it basically repeats and expands the conspiracy theory that AIPAC controls American foreign policy. Soros tries to avoid responsibility by adding a disclaimer: “One of the myths propagated by the enemies of Israel is that there is an all-powerful Zionist conspiracy. That is a false accusation.” Yet the rest of his article cannot but lend credence to that theory.

I was reminded, reading this sorry article, of Ronnie Kasrils’s speech in the South African Parliament in October 2003, when he launched his campaign against Israel. Kasrils claimed: “I am not using the icon of the concentration camps…I am not making that comparison,” then contradicted himself, saying Israeli policy “smacks of the way Fascism in Europe dealt with people they considered to be nonpeople.”

One cannot help but speculate about Soros’s motives. He is not a self-hating Jew; indeed, he professes to be neither a practicing Jew nor a Zionist. More accurately, he is a target of antisemitism who has decided to defend his own interests by joining the anti-Israel bandwagon. Soros, after all, fits the role of the villain in the anti-Jewish narratives that were once constructed around financiers such as Rothschild.

It was Soros that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad had in mind when he blamed a Jewish conspiracy for his country’s currency crash. Perhaps Soros is frightened by such perceptions, or sees them as an obstacle to doing business, and wants to minimize costs by attacking Israel. I’m not sure it helps—though attacking Israel is pretty costless nowadays, despite what Soros claims.

I think the reason that Soros and so many critics of Israel parade the idea that they have been accused of antisemitism (or of being self-hating) is that hating Jews is actually not generally viewed as a bad thing. Everyone wants to believe they would draw the line at outright persecution, but many also seem to think Jews deserve what they get, a feeling perhaps reinforced by the wretchedness of Jewish victimhood.

In South Africa today, critics of the ruling party are often labeled as racists. While many people complain about this, few are willing to say that they themselves have been called racists, lest someone actually believe it to be true. I think people would be as wary of letting it be known that they had been accused of antisemitism if hating Jews were really seen as a bad thing. Instead, it has become a mark of martyrdom.

Regardless, there is no doubt that in elite intellectual circles, Jews are expected—and expect themselves—to denounce Israel. It is seen as a test of courage, a sign that you are prepared to detach yourself from your primordial moorings and enter a world of supposedly transcendent beings, a symbol that your primary loyalty is to the literary club and not to the people or places you might have come from.

Real courage would demand that people confront prejudice head-on; that they use their minds to discover the truth of an issue rather than regurgitating slogans and leftover bits of dinner-party conversations; that they have the courage to face criticism rather than hiding behind contrived tales of martyrdom. The only conspiracy is the attempt by Soros and his allies to hide, and hide from, the truth.

26 March 2007

25 March 2007 - A battle within Christianity

One of the most difficult trends for supporters of Israel to deal with in recent years has been the growing antipathy for Israel within liberal Protestant denominations in the U.S. Some liberal churches have considered, and others have actually adopted, a policy of divestment from Israel. This approach stands in stark contrast to the pro-Israel stance of many conservative and evangelical churches in America.

Today, the sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church—which is broadcast on WHRB radio and over the Internet every Sunday—was given by the Reverend Dr. Dorothy A. Austin. Her text was Luke 20:9-19, which is the assigned reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent. The story describes an argument between Jesus and the Jewish priests and has historically provided a basis for Christian antisemitism.

Reverend Austin faced the text’s troublesome legacy head-on, denouncing the way in which it had been abused by those who so easily ignored that Jesus and his followers, too, were Jewish. However, she then concluded her sermon by deducing a political message from the text—one that included opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle. “Remember Palestine,” she instructed the congregants.

The Reverend did not consider that she was merely replacing an old form of antisemitism with a new one, demonstrating in a clear and concrete way the link between hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews. Instead of highlighting, as she might have done, the fallibility of religious leaders such as Luke, and the need for even the holiest among us to seek forgiveness, she cast Israel as the new Pharisees.

Confronted with a complaint of antisemitism, the Reverend would surely deny it. Had she not tackled the most difficult of antisemitic texts? And she had not, after all, attacked Jews as such, only Israel. Indeed, she might say, it is Israel that is exposing Jews to antisemitism by purporting to act in the name of Jews around the world when it does terrible things to the Palestinian people. And so on.

But I doubt that the Reverend could have developed such a certain and simplistic picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had she not drawn on religious texts and justifications to do so. It seems fairly certain that the same sort of sermon is being preached in other liberal churches across New England. And of Palestinian terror, of the destruction of churches by Palestinian Islamists, not a whisper.

When I was living with a Muslim family in a Muslim neighborhood in Cape Town, we used to tune into the Muslim radio stations and hear hatred of Israel justified in theological terms all the time. It is quite amazing and disappointing to discover that some liberal churches in America are preaching the same sort of message—that Israel deserves punishment because it is re-enacting the perfidy of the Jews.

One good thing about the sermon is that it clarifies where someone like Jimmy Carter is coming from. His book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is not really about Israel or apartheid at all. It is really a salvo within the battle between the Christian right and Christian left for the American evangelical tradition. Israel is just one front in this battle, and Carter’s battle with the Jewish community is incidental.

But it pains me to know that there are freedom-loving people who are joining in the global effort to strip Israel of legitimacy and prepare the theological justification for her destruction. I am not pessimistic about Israel’s future, but the threat of a nuclear attack is real, and efforts to identify Israel with pure evil are paving the path to the abyss. How sad that Harvard’s own church has lent its trowel.

25 March 2007

24 March 2007 - A debate about a debate

In last week’s Harvard Law School Record, I wrote an article (“JFP Stands Against Real Justice For Palestine”) criticizing an event held by the law school’s pro-Palestinian group, Justice For Palestine, about the Israel-apartheid analogy. This past week, JFP’s co-chairs responded with an article of their own (“Real Justice Requires Honest Reflection"). I leave it to readers of this blog to judge between them.

One thing that really annoyed me was being referred to as an “uncritical supporter of Israeli policy” in the opening paragraph. Usually I ignore such criticism, but when I read JFP’s article I got quite irritated and fired off an e-mail to one of the authors. He wrote a vitriolic reply, and I responded in kind. Eventually I decided that an e-mail argument served no one, and I invited him to coffee next month.

I have, however, worked on a response. I include an excerpt below, for comment.


Those who have used the Israel-apartheid analogy fall into roughly three categories. First, there are those who use the label “apartheid” as a weapon against Israel, such as South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils. The co-chairs of Justice For Palestine cite Kasrils with approval; perhaps they are unaware that he is propping up Robert Mugabe’s tyranny in Zimbabwe, a far greater human rights atrocity.

Second, there are those who believe that using the term “apartheid” will motivate the international community to intervene in the conflict. These include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter, and UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard, all referenced by JFP. What these well-meaning critics overlook is the deadly and determined role Palestinian terror plays in preventing negotiations.

Dugard, for example, introduced his most recent report on human rights in the occupied territories by declaring: “I shall not consider the violation of human rights caused by Palestinian suicide bombers. Nor shall I consider the violation of human rights caused by the political conflict between Fatah and Hamas.” Such bias gives Palestinian extremists license to continue attacks, and discourages negotiations.

Finally, there are Israelis who compare their country’s policies with apartheid in a metaphorical send, in order to create alarm. Few of these would actually claim that Israel is guilty of apartheid. Beilin, for example, recently defended President Carter’s use of the term “apartheid” as “first and foremost metaphorical,” but noted that he found the comparison to apartheid to be “simply unacceptable.”

I once visited the West Bank with B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group that is cited by JFP for its use of the term “apartheid.” B’Tselem operates freely in Israel; in apartheid South Africa, it would have been banned. And, according to B’Tselem, that is exactly how human rights activists are treated by the Palestinian Authority when they try to investigate Palestinian prisons or torture by Palestinian police.

The Israel-apartheid analogy, in sum, is not an intellectual comparison. At best, it is a rhetorical flourish. At worst, it is a propaganda ploy used by Israel’s enemies to undermine its right to exist. It is the reincarnation of the UN’s “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975, which was designed by the Soviets and the Arab bloc to destroy Israel’s legitimacy and prevent the peace process from moving forward.

22 March 2007

22 March 2007 - Report of the CERD

The UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released its conclusions on Israel earlier this month. The report seemed to generate little media attention, which I took as a sign that it probably portrayed Israel in a positive light. After reading the report, it is clear that the committee found relatively little to condemn in Israel’s domestic practices, though it offered some important criticisms.

There are a few fundamental problems with the CERD report. One is that it takes certain conclusions about international law for granted, though these conclusions were guided by anti-Israel constituencies at the UN. The report urges Israel to adopt the International Criminal Court’s judgment on the “wall,” for example. It also rejects Israel’s stance that the occupied territories are disputed territory.

By far, however, the worst part of the CERD report is its recommendation that Israel implement a Palestinian “right of return,” on the basis that the current law is discriminatory. The issue is hardly so simple! The committee recognizes Israel’s right to establish the Jewish character of the state, but somehow does not seem to consider the effect that a Palestinian right of return would have on that character.

The CERD report also considers the human rights situation in the occupied territories, even though Israel argued that these were beyond the scope of CERD’s investigation into Israel itself. Some of the claims raised are valid; others, such as concerns about the effect of excavations near the Al-Aqsa mosque, have no basis in fact and show undue deference to the hysterical accusations of Israel’s enemies.

Finally, the report notes its concern about “the persistence of violence perpetuated by Jewish settlers, in particular in the Hebron area.” I know little about the Hebron situation, but today’s edition of Ha’aretz features an op-ed by Nadav Shragai that criticizes the way in which the settlers of Hebron are portrayed and points to some of the legal disabilities suffered by Jews who have chosen to live there.

There are always two sides to every story, though the two sides are not always equal and the midpoint between the two is not necessarily a neutral position. What I do know about Hebron leads me to believe that it is an example of Israeli occupation at its worst. At the same time, I believe that Jews should have a right to live there if they so choose, without fear, even under Palestinian sovereignty.

I recently received an e-mail announcing a competition for the best student international law paper on the legal aspects of the occupation of Hebron. The competition guidelines clearly indicate that the illegality of the Israeli presence in Hebron is a foregone conclusion; the suggested questions include such queries as “Israeli policy and actions in Hebron: Apartheid or Security?”

Without taking the side of the settlers, I feel instinctively that this approach to the issue exemplifies everything that is wrong about the approach of human rights activists to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The competition guidelines suggest that papers should only cover the past forty years, which leaves out the 1929 Hebron massacre, which was one of the events that shaped the conflict as we know it today.

It is my contention that while human rights abuses tend to arise in conflict situations, the context of that conflict has to be taken into account in evaluating the responsibility of each side for those abuses. We must investigate what Israel is doing to the Palestinians of Hebron that violates their human rights—but equally, we must ask whether Palestinians recognize the human rights of Jews in Hebron.

Let’s put it another way: human rights abuses occur, and the question of whether they have occurred and who is guilty of them is not open to creative interpretation. However, context is critical to the question of responsibility and punishment, and so we must allow the different sides to raise affirmative defenses, or to testify in mitigation of sentence (to borrow some criminal law terms I have picked up).

I must admit it is disappointing to see the list of organizations that are sponsoring the paper competition. The International Red Cross is perhaps no surprise, since it has a long history of anti-Israel bias; however, my own future employer, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), is among the sponsors. On the other hand, perhaps this is good, since in working for ACRI I’ll get a truly different perspective.

One thing the CERD report does not do is apply the term “apartheid” to Israel or its policies in the occupied territories. This is attributable to the fact that CERD is made up of a panel of independent experts, and not a bunch of political hacks specially selected by their home countries to pour invective on Israel. For that reason alone, the report deserves closer consideration by the Israeli government.

21 March 2007

21 March 2007 – The new/old scapegoat

This morning’s Harvard Crimson reports that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer are preparing to publish a book this coming September that develops the argument they made in their infamous paper last year—namely, that a shadowy “Israel lobby” controls American foreign policy and steers it in a pro-Israel direction that is supposedly at odds with America’s real interests in the Middle East.

The paper’s argument has been thoroughly refuted, by Alan Dershowitz and others. However, it continues to enjoy credibility, not just from knee-jerk Israel-haters but from otherwise respectable and intelligent people. I participated in a study group at Harvard’s Institute of Politics last semester, and the eminent person who convened it was convinced that Walt was right about the power of the “Israel lobby.”

Walt addressed our seminar on the subject of American foreign policy in the Middle East more generally. I took notes patiently, and uncovered what I think is the key flaw in his thought (leaving aside, for the moment, the question of latent antisemitism): he believes all outcomes in the Middle East are America’s fault, refusing to assign agency to Iran or terror groups or any other local actors.

If you believe America is responsible for everything that happens, even when events run against American interests, then you will naturally look for the source of America’s (mis)fortunes within America itself. But that alone cannot explain why Walt and Mearsheimer focus exclusively on the “Israel lobby,” when other actors and interests—notably the Saudis and the oil lobby—may have more clout.

I’ve read Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper, and it really does seem to be nothing more than a re-heated version of the old Jewish conspiracy theory, which had been frozen on the political margins for decades. The fact that the theory has been out of circulation for so long may account for some of its appeal, since it may strike the uninformed as a new idea, whose familiar (if ugly) tropes give it the ring of truth.

But the main reason the theory is becoming more popular is it offers a way to explain America’s apparent failures in Iraq. In other words, the “Israel lobby” is a classic scapegoat. And since, as the most recent issue of the Economist shows, few people bother to distinguish between the “Israel lobby” and the “Jewish lobby,” this scapegoat is not actually new, but an old one. And this should arouse grave concern.

What we are seeing today is not dissimilar to what happened in Germany in the interwar years, where defeat in war was blamed on Jews, who were not only a vulnerable minority but one that had long been viewed with prejudice and which was easily portrayed as “foreign” to the national body. A conspiracy theory was already available from Czarist Russia, which had lost a war to Japan in 1905.

We all know the end result in Germany. Jews are not in danger in today’s America, but the conspiracy theory may lead to other unpleasant results, including a turning inward in America’s foreign policy that would leave the Middle East unstable and that might have the same negative effects as U.S. isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly it would allow Iran to continue in its attempts to destroy Israel.

The Crimson article includes the following about historian and Jewish Israel-baiter Tony Judt’s views on Walt and Mearsheimer:

“New York University professor Tony Judt, who wrote a New York Times op-ed supporting the pair shortly after their article appeared, said in an interview yesterday that the professors’ work has forced a discussion of the Israeli lobby’s influence, a previously taboo topic.

“The article and subsequent furor have opened up the debate as never before [and] the book will presumably do more of the same,” Judt said.

Judt added that the book will likely include more “technical detail and primary sourcing” and “address the formal criticisms made of the article, some genuine, many in bad faith.”

There is nothing more dishonest, and more damaging, than the idea that discussion of the “Israel lobby” was previously “taboo.” There was nothing preventing anyone from attacking the “Israel lobby” before, except perhaps the embarrassment of supporting conspiracy theories and fundamentally wrong ideas about American foreign policy and the Middle East, which is a deterrent to most intelligent people.

No one is attacking the fact that Walt and Mearsheimer attacked the Israel lobby. Walt and Mearsheimer are being attacked on the merits of their claim, and the “taboo” charge, ironically, is actually an attempt to quash debate. Judt does not attempt to defend the paper, but in invoking the “taboo” label he attempts to defend its central and fatal claim: that the “Israel lobby” controls debate in America.

What Judt is doing with the “taboo” claim is reinforcing the attempt to scapegoat Israel and the Jews for America’s foreign policy failures. It is amazing that an esteemed European historian cannot see that history is repeating itself. But he is not alone; various left-wing Jews are backing Walt and Mearsheimer, presumably because they perceive a common interest in attacking the Jewish mainstream.

If so, it is a misperception, and a dangerously short-sighted one at that. The new/old scapegoat of “world Jewry,” the “Israel lobby,” “neo-Zionism” or whatever else it is called is a monster that cannot be tamed once it is brought to life. The Jewish left is at much at risk as other Jews, or anyone else, from the idea that Jews control U.S. foreign policy, which is a motivating belief of Islamist terror movements.

The sad irony is that the closer you get to Ground Zero, the fewer people who seem to understand this. I have heard people in Manhattan defend suicide bombings, without shame, in front of supportive audiences. We are living in an age of profound cognitive dissonance. The reality of what we are facing in the Middle East, and what it will take to deal with it, is one few people are prepared to grapple with.

20 March 2007 – What’s wrong with the Economist?

The Economist is not only one of the world’s most comprehensive print news sources, but also one of the best, and is committed to the unassailable ideals of liberal thought and free trade. Its Middle East coverage has been spotty on occasion, but in the aftermath of the Jenin “massacre” in 2002, it called such reports “so much nonsense” and demanded that the mainstream British media recant.

So why, then, has the Economist been indulging the same kinds of fiction lately? This week’s issue features a cover story about “America’s Jewish lobby” that combines fiction and prejudice in volatile proportions. The story, in the Lexington column on American affairs, is ostensibly a reflection on the recent conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, D.C.

Firstly, AIPAC is not “America’s Jewish lobby.” It does not speak for the American Jewish community and plays no role in governing Jewish communal affairs in the United States. Its specific and limited mission is to advocate on behalf of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, to which end it enlists the help of thousands of volunteers, many of whom are not Jewish (a significant number are evangelical Christians).

To call AIPAC “America’s Jewish lobby” is to break down the distinction between Jews and Israel; to attack AIPAC as a Jewish front is to bring anti-Israel criticism dangerously close to antisemitism. Critics of Israel and Zionism are at pains to deny the antisemitism charge. But they want it both ways, because criticizing seemingly weak Jews is perhaps easy, while counter-criticism from Israel is seen as bullying.

The article itself features many of the familiar old anti-Jewish symbols and tropes. The title is “Taming Leviathan,” and AIPAC is depicted as a sea monster, a Leviathan (a reference to its supposed political dominance), much as antisemitic propaganda in early twentieth-century Europe and the contemporary Arab world portrays world Jewry as an octopus with tentacles in every realm.

The substance of the article is appalling in its disregard for basic facts. It describes AIPAC as if its goal were to increase the number of Jews in Congress. It claims AIPAC was among the “pro-war hawks” on Iraq, when in fact AIPAC had no official position on the Iraq war. The article even gives credence to the protest of the Neturei Karta crazies, who are described as if they represented a real Jewish backlash.

Lexington describes AIPAC’s “ace in the hole” as “the idea that it represents Jewish interests”—an idea that exists only in the minds of antisemitic conspiracy theorists, who portray a supposedly massive shadow of Jewish power over American politics. The article also describes the fact that most American Jews are left-wing as a problem for AIPAC, when this has in fact been true since well before AIPAC’s founding in the 1980s.

The article concludes by claiming that “it is suddenly becoming possible for serious people . . . to ask hard questions about America’s relationship with Israel”—as if it were ever impossible!—and accuses AIPAC of being “too willing to close down debate with explosive charges of anti-Israel bias when people ask whether this is a good thing.” (I wonder: did the original text of the article read “anti-Semitic bias”?)

What actually closes down debate is news analysis that presents complete fabrications and conspiracy theories as absolute fact and makes use of still-powerful anti-Jewish tropes to drive these spurious ideas home. Accuse the authors of such articles about the “Jewish lobby” of antisemitism, and you will find yourself in the dock; confine your comment to the article’s errors and you are likely to be ignored.

Another article in the same issue, a comparison of Israeli and Palestinian history textbooks, typifies the double standard that the Economist has applied to the two sides. Israeli textbooks that tell the truth about history—albeit with some errors, oversimplifications and embellishments—are equated with Palestinian textbooks that falsify history outright, teach intolerance and call for Israel’s destruction.

The reality is that Israeli children—through studying Arabic poetry, national observances of mourning for massacres in Arab villages, and pedagogical rituals of coexistence—have been tutored for peace for at least a generation. Palestinian children, however, continue to be indoctrinated to hate Jews, to admire suicide bombers and anticipate war, as this disturbing clip from MEMRI (posted on LGF) shows.

Such blatant anti-Israel bias does nothing to encourage peace; in fact, it is objectively opposed to peace. The only article in the Economist this week that deals with a positive effort to promote peace is skeptical, even contemptuous, of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian project to restore the waters of the Dead Sea and create multiple spin-off projects to boost economic growth in the region.

The article reports that Israel’s “Peace Corridor,” which is being promoted by Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, is being greeted with criticism by economists and environmentalists. Fine—but why is the Economist so dismissive of the idea of the “peace dividend” that such a project might bring to the region? Apparently Israel can do no right, even when it reaches out to its neighbors.

What a disgrace to the Economist’s supposedly high standards of journalism.

19 March 2007 – Alternative rights

I’m resuming my blog this week after a short hiatus, during which I made a quick trip back to South Africa. Interesting political developments are unfolding—including Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille’s declaration that she will run for the leadership of the Democratic Alliance, the country’s biggest opposition party. Also, events in Zimbabwe seem to be heading toward a climax—but Mugabe’s survived worse, so we’ll see.

The negotiation book I’ve been reading, 3D Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals, suggests that negotiators look for ways to “create value,” or to “enlarge the pie” so that negotiations can move beyond zero-sum games. One example it offers is the Camp David Accords that brought peace—thus far durable—to Israel and Egypt, which had been fighting for decades.

The authors, David A. Laz and James K. Sebenius, write: “Rather than a zero-sum battle over where to draw a line in the sand, they came up with a demilitarized one under the Egyptian flag; the kinds of value they created were not mainly economic, but involving security for the Israelis and sovereignty for the Egyptians.” (16-17)

Instead of trying to split the land—which invariably invites argument over who deserves what more and who attacked whom first, and provides opportunities for all kinds of ruptures—the two sides at Camp David eventually agreed to trade sovereignty for security, land for peace. The lesson is that differences between what the two sides want might be the terrain on which deals are made, not broken.

Would there be chances to achieve similar trade-offs between Israel and the Palestinians? The land-for-peace formula hasn’t seemed to work. Partly that is due to Palestinian inability and unwillingness to enforce agreements. The Israelis haven’t always played along, either. And the failure is partly due to the interim nature of the process that’s been followed thus far, which allows for interruptions.

But perhaps there’s a way of exchanging rights that would lead to a stable agreement. Maybe not just land for peace, but something else, perhaps based on the existing partnerships and trade-offs in economic and environmental affairs. Perhaps—I’m just thinking aloud here—Israeli settlers could be allowed to stay in areas like Hebron in equal proportion to the number of Palestinians allowed to “return” to Israel.

Or perhaps Palestinians could be guaranteed some kind of shared ownership of something in Israel in exchange for concession—some kind of deal that would allow both Palestinians and Israelis to claim all of the land in a symbolic way while limiting real claims in conformity with a two-state solution. This would enable both sides to claim a kind of victory while recognizing each other’s claims and sovereignty.

Another one of the theorists I’ve been reading lately is James M. Buchanan—specifically, his work The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan. In it, he argues that there is no real difference between property rights and what we call human rights. He also argues that we cannot all have equal rights, otherwise no exchanges would take place, but that the process of assigning and trading rights has to be neutral. (14)

He may be right, and casting Israeli rights and Palestinian rights differently might prompt the two sides towards negotiation. However, perhaps recognizing the equal rights of Israelis and Palestinians will create the mutual recognition—and mutual recognition of the costs of the conflict—that is also a necessary condition for negotiations. Perhaps framing both sides’ claims in equal terms is the answer?

15 March 2007 - The no-deal option

I’ve been delving into negotiation theory lately, among other theoretical sources, in order to better understand the patterns of behavior in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the most important concepts in negotiation theory is the BATNA—the best alternative to a negotiated settlement, also known as the “no-deal option.” Each party in a negotiation process has a BATNA, and some are worse than others.

In the Oslo peace process, the Israeli BATNA was the status quo of occupation. Israel began negotiating because it hoped to get something better out of a deal—greater international legitimacy, improved security, perhaps even recognition of some claims in the occupied territories. But when Oslo began to go sour, the no-deal option looked more attractive, and Israel suspended participation, more than once.

As for the Palestinian leadership, the BATNA was really rather bad—continued intifada. Some Palestinians convinced themselves that continued struggle and repression really were better options. In the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, many other Palestinians may have been convinced that fighting wasn’t such a bad no-deal option after all, and possibly better than peace.

One of the books I’ve been reading, 3D Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals, by David A. Laz and James K. Sebenius, talks about the double-edged nature of the BATNA. On the one hand, if parties have bad BATNAs, there’s a greater incentive to negotiate. On the other hand, when parties have good BATNAs, the other parties all know they have to negotiate.

It follows that if you want the best deal, you should try to improve your own BATNA while weakening that of your opponent. So, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Israel built more settlements during the Oslo peace process and also increased the number of checkpoints: it was making occupation more attractive for itself, and a return to violence less attractive for the Palestinians.

What about the other side? The Palestinian leadership, one could argue, made Israel’s BATNA worse by continuing to threaten violence, and by embarrassing it on the world stage through exposing the continued abuses of the occupation. But Arafat and his cronies did nothing to make the Palestinian BATNA better than a return to terror: they enriched themselves rather than building institutions.

The second intifada made Israel’s old BATNA worse by increasing the costs of occupation. But even a worse BATNA was better than negotiating with a Palestinian leadership committed to violence. Eventually, Israel did something quite innovative: it changed its own BATNA by building the security barrier in the West Bank and carrying out the disengagement from Gaza in August 2005.

These measures were controversial, and had some negative costs to human rights—not just for Palestinians, but for uprooted settlers, too. However, they also meant that Israel had a no-deal option that did not involve exposing its soldiers or civilians—or those of the Palestinians—to continued violence. To achieve this BATNA, Israel also had to pay the cost of giving up the idea of “Greater Israel,” but it was worth it.

There are three caveats to consider. One is that a real negotiated peace would still be better than Israel’s no-deal option, since terror groups still fire rockets from Gaza. Another is that this BATNA may make negotiations more difficult, because Israel’s alternative is so much better than it was before that Palestinians may have to offer a lot—more than they may be prepared to—in order to get Israel back to the table.

Then there is also the problem that the Gaza disengagement, like the Lebanon withdrawal, may have convinced Palestinian leaders that their bad BATNA is not so bad after all. That is a mistake, and can only be rectified in two completely different ways: by thoroughly crushing the ability of Palestinians to wage violence, or else by sweetening a potential deal, perhaps beyond what is reasonable for Israel.

There may be a third way: intervening to improve Palestinian no-deal options by doing what the Palestinian leadership should have done from the beginning: building institutions, creating a functional state and a growing economy. That may be impossible for Palestinians to do on their own, and may require direct intervention by a party that is trusted by both sides. Another occupation? Maybe it’s come to that.

15 March 2007

14 March 2007 – Joseph Lelyveld on Carter

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books features a review of Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The review, by former New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld, seems a bit overdue—since the controversy over the book is already three months old—but is the most thorough I have yet seen. Lelyveld wrote extensively about South African apartheid and also seems fairly well-informed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I have Lelyveld’s most famous book, Move Your Shadow, on my bookshelf. I found it at a used book store in Cape Town. The book both reflected and contributed to the deep sense of revulsion that thinking people felt about South Africa at the time. I have to confess I’ve never been able to get through it: its descriptions of apartheid society seemed overwrought with self-righteous certainty, and hence rather tedious.

In Carter’s book, Lelyveld is faced with a rather similar kind of rhetorical excess as he explores whether Carter’s use of the “A-word,” as he calls it, is justified. He distinguishes between two uses of the word to describe Israel: the “Durban” usage, which refers to all of Israel as an “apartheid state,” and the Carter usage, which—taking Carter at his word—refers only to Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

Lelyveld dismisses the Durban usage quickly and firmly, referring to Benjamin Pogrund’s 2005 article in Focus (though not Pogrund’s reply to Chris McGreal in the Guardian, which was presumably more widely read. The Focus reference, which I’ve often cited, along with Lelyveld’s introduction referring to websites that argue the apartheid claim, made me wonder if he had consulted this blog in his research.)

Lelyveld also points out that Carter hardly discusses apartheid in his book at all, and that the book is saturated with self-flattery. The book is “more memoir than tract . . . and more tract than a serious excursion into the conflict,” Lelyveld writes, as Carter reveals an ego that is “full of vigor” as he intimates that conflict would have been solved if the voters had just been wise enough to re-elect him in 1980.

But Lelyveld does not reject Carter’s use of the “A-word” with regard to the West Bank and Gaza. He acknowledges that even many serious critics of Israeli policy are uncomfortable with the analogy. Lelyveld’s main complaint, however, is not that Carter made the comparison, but that he did not make it well enough, and Lelyveld devotes a great deal of space to “fill[ing] in the blanks” in Carter’s argument.

For example, he writes that by neglecting a full exploration of Israeli land grabbing in the West Bank, Carter missed one of the clearest parallels to apartheid. “What could have been his most incisive argument in support of his provoking use of the A-word turns up in the pages of his book as little more than an aside,” he suggests. He then goes on to provide several other connections that Carter could have provided.

But Lelyveld does not bother to fill in blanks that might refute Carter’s claim, and it is soon clear that he shares Carter’s views in general, if not in detail. He criticizes Carter for treating Palestinians with greater empathy, yet shares Carter’s view that “it’s up to Israel to make the next move, if only to demonstrate that they’re not permanently trapped in their old security doctrines”—as if the disengagement never happened.

Like Carter, Lelyveld refers to the security barrier as a “wall,” and minimizes its role in reducing attacks, agreeing with Carter that Hamas is to be given “as much or even more” credit. He argues, as Carter does, that Israel’s policies have “gone beyond” South African apartheid, as if Israel shared the same dream of “strict separation.” He even implies Palestinians in Israeli jails are political prisoners.

Lelyveld does not comment on the difference between Palestinian and South African resistance, only briefly considering whether nonviolence might be a better approach He suggests weakly that “nonviolence could hardly have accomplished less for the Palestinians than suicide bombings, ” which he condemns on tactical but not moral grounds, since they cause “visceral horror . . . among Israel’s supporters” and others.

This is not a critique, but an admonishment: Lelyveld wants Carter’s argument to carry more intellectual weight and emotional appeal than it does. He sees the pitfalls in the argument that the occupation is the root cause of the problem, but he believes President Bush has abandoned diplomacy in the name of fighting terror, and he wants to shout “from the rooftops” that the occupation is bad and something must be done.

But what? Lelyveld criticises Carter for offering decades-old peace proposals, but then reverts to the knee-jerk “Israel first” position. I say “knee-jerk” because Lelyveld does not bother to consider what the Palestinians might do. He absolves them of all responsibility for past failures and denies them any agency in solving present-day problems—such as the Fatah-Hamas civil war, which has little to do with Israel.

Lelyveld is rightfully skeptical of the word “tragedy” to describe the occupation, arguing that the term suggests “that the settlements were not the result of deliberate and stealthy planning but simply good intentions gone wrong.” However, he refuses to see that Palestinian terror—he uses the word “terror” only once, and in quotes—is not just about the occupation but serves a radical and genocidal agenda.

It is interesting that Lelyveld deletes the colon in the book’s title, just as Carter claims he wanted to. (I’m not sure what difference it makes.) But suppose we left it there and inverted the question, asking the Palestinians themselves: peace or apartheid? What are your goals? How will you achieve them? What can you do in the meantime to improve your situation? Somehow, these questions are never posed.

Lelyveld’s review is a thoughtful one, among the best of a generally bad bunch. But it reflects the left-wing tendency to expect less of, and to side with, the “weaker” party, however blameworthy. It also reflects the typical unwillingness of the New York Review of Books to regard terror as a serious threat. Lelyveld pans Carter’s book but elevates its central premise, leaving the “A-word” exactly where Carter wanted it.

14 March 2007

13 March 2007 - Yossi Beilin interview (2001)

I’ve just reached the end of an exhausting but exciting day here at Harvard. Rather than write something new, I thought I’d post an interview I did with current Meretz-Yachad leader Yossi Beilin in September 2001, just several days before September 11th. I had just come back to Cape Town from covering the Durban racism conference, and my nerves were shattered. It was a tense and difficult time, and it would get worse.

Beilin was a guest of the South African left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim-Dror, which was celebrating its 70th anniversary. He has made some questionable political calls since then—including supporting former President Jimmy Carter’s book—but his presence in South Africa at that time, and his refutation of the Israel-apartheid analogy, was a real source of reassurance in those tough, combative days.

Below I reprint the article, “The Long Walk to Peace,” which was published in the November edition of The Big Issue, a magazine sold on the streets by South Africa’s homeless but mostly written by professionals. I got my start in freelance writing by contributing pieces to the magazine and earning R0.50 a word. The money didn’t go far, but perhaps the article—which isn’t online anywhere else—will be of interest.


The Long Walk to Peace – The Big Issue (SA) – November 2001

Can South Africa bring peace to the Middle East? Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo peace process, thinks so.

by Joel Pollak

Beilin spoke to The Big Issue in early September during a brief visit to South Africa in which he approached President Thabo Mbeki about South Africa’s possible role in the Middle East peace process.

Beilin: I said to the president that I believe that South Africa is in a unique position. The fact that the ANC and the current government are trusted by the Palestinian side is something from which we can benefit. Because it might make South Africa one of the most important thirds parties alongside the Americans, Europeans, [and] the UN, as a party which is trusted by the Palestinians, and which at least is not untrusted by us.

I’m not pushing the [South African] government to solve the problem. It is very difficult. What I’m saying is that there is much room to be involved here. You don’t need, necessarily, to be the biggest superpower in the world in order to help. Sometimes it is enough to be a human being who is appreciated by both sides, and suggest something.

Q: There’s been an impression that has emerged that Israel can be compared to apartheid South Africa. How would you approach such a comparison?

Beilin: Well, it’s really crazy. Only ignorant people, or people with malice, can say something like that. The ignorance is either about what apartheid was all about, or about Israel.

Q: Looking back on the Oslo process, why do you think that it has fallen apart in the way it seems to have done?

Beilin: I would say that you don’t have too many saints in our story, on both sides. And there were violations on both sides. But what wa, I believe, very, very problematic, was the fact that [Benjamin] Netanyahu was the [Israeli] prime minister in the period when we had to implement the agreement. He actually came to power in order to prevent the implementation of Oslo. But what happened on the Palestinian side is that they did not fulfill all the parts of the agreement, including a very important issue which is also the main issue in Ireland—what they call “decommissioning” [of arms].

But there was frustration on their side, because in these five years [since 1994] there was no development whatsoever towards any kind of a permanent solution. And the [Palestinian] GNP per capita went down, between ’94 and ’99, by 20 percent. So the frustration grew, and there was a feeling, on the Palestinian side, that we deceived them, that we were not serious enough about the permanent solution. Which doesn’t justify, of course, what they did—I mean the violation, by using force against us, was such a gross breach of the agreement...

Q: There were some critics who suggested that perhaps the agreement was designed to keep Palestinians in a subordinate role in the first place...

Beilin: Yeah. [Palestinian author and intellectual] Edward Said did say it; this was his accusation from day one. [Just] as on the Israeli side, the accusation was that the Palestinians were ready to accept such an agreement only because what they want is to have a state on part of the country, and then to use it in order to fight against us and push us to the sea. So, on both sides, you have criticisms which say that the other side has probably deceived you, and that you are naive in accepting such an agreement. In reality, I believe that that was not the case, and that it was done in good faith, and that it was done by people who trusted each other.

Q: You’ve spoken of South Africa’s possible involvement at a diplomatic level. Are there lessons to be learned in the Middle East from South Africa’s transition?

Beilin: Well, they are very different stories. But since we are speaking about human situations, there is much resemblance. You have fear, and fear is the illegitimate father of hatred, and hatred is conducive to revenge. And this is a universal phenomenon. Now, if you are aware of it, you can try and stop it somewhere between fear and hatred, between hatred and revenge, hoping that eventually you will be able to prevent fear, too, and then you can prevent the whole sequence.

When I met with Archbishop Tutu, we talked about the ability to build something like the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] between Israelis and Palestinians—without the “T”. I mean, I don’t need “lies,” but the truth is not the important thing, because you have many truths.

You can really listen to a Palestinian and an Israeli telling the same story in such a different way that you are not sure whether they are talking about the same thing. We [Israelis] don’t understand enough the world which they [Palestinians] see, and vice versa. When they see malice, we see an accident. And what has to happen is, first of all, to listen to them, to understand at least how they see the developments. And they should listen to us.

Q: What is your analysis of the current US policy toward the Middle East—the Bush administration’s policy?

Beilin: I don’t think that they have a policy towards the Middle East. And [their] ideology—if I may call it ideology—of “hands-off,” is actually the ideology of “let them bleed.” And this is something which, in my view, the only superpower in the world cannot afford. Neither morally, nor practically. Because when, God forbid, the fire is bigger, and the Americans decide to get involved, it might be too late, or too difficult for them. So I believe that they are totally mistaken in their attitude toward the Middle East. And we are paying the price, the Palestinians are paying the price, and the world might pay the price.

The most important thing we have to do in the Middle East is to get back to the negotiating table and to immediately continue the talks on the interim solution and the permanent solution. We were very, very close to an agreement—we know the agreement already. It’s a very unique situation—whereby the question is not what the agreement is going to be, because we know it by heart, but only how to get there.

Q: In the current situation, there seem to be a lot of people who appear to have a mood of despair. What is your mood about the prospects for the future?

Beilin: Well, I am far from this mood. I believe that we were very close; we will get back there. The question is when, and what is the death toll which will have to be paid until we are there. But I’m sure that we will go there, because it’s like here [in South Africa]: people knew that this strange, artificial policy [of apartheid] will not go on forever. The question was only when. I’m saying the current situation cannot go on forever. It doesn’t serve anybody in the region. Everybody is paying a price.

It is so difficult to understand why both sides were ready to give up so easily on it, and I’m sure that [the violence] won’t go on forever.

12 March 2007

12 March 2007 - On rights, odds and ends

Last week, I met with my friend Sapir last week and we continued our discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. During the course of our conversation, I realized that the sovereignty problem I’ve encountered in the past with regard to my proposal for joint negotiating institutions—why build joint institutions when you are trying to implement a partition?—might have a solution after all.

Sapir’s ideas about an indirect peace process—one that begins with the question of what kind of society to create in times of conflict rather than the question of how to resolve the conflict—could create parallel processes in each society that consolidate the independence of each while supporting an overall process of negotiation between the two societies, processes that affirm identity but encourage tolerance all at once.

It is easy to forget that intractable conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not have a single, magical solution, even if the final picture of what peace looks like is fairly well-known and predictable. Several approaches at once—indirect processes, direct talks in public negotiating institutions, direct talks among elite representatives, and the efforts of Machiavellian leaders—may be necessary.

There are also alternatives to negotiation that must be kept in mind—not because they are better, which they are not, but because they make the costs and benefits of the peace process clear to everyone. For the Israelis, the clearest alternative is one that has already begun—namely, unilateral withdrawal. For Palestinians, the historic alternative has been violence (which is really no alternative at all).

Both sides are troubled by a silent alternative that may be chosen by the civilian population—the option of emigration. Israelis seem to be staying put, but over time many consider leaving for more secure surroundings. Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article about the despair among Palestinian youth, and how many Palestinians, concluding peace is impossible and resistance futile, want to leave.

I’ve continued to edit the critical article I’ve been writing about Ehud Olmert and the Lebanon war. I’ve managed to re-frame the issue by stepping back from simply attacking Olmert to calling on him to make tough choices. Leaders should be given a chance to make amends and do something useful with their power, while they still have it; besides that, I doubt that Netanyahu, his likely successor, would do better.

I don’t know—it’s tough to identify exactly what human rights means to me. I flipped through Michael Ignatieff’s Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry this weekend—appropriately, perhaps, since I was in Canada—and tried to understand what Ignatieff and the other contributors thought was important about human rights. For many, they mean the ability not to be coerced or humiliated by the state.

I relate much more readily to the idea that human rights mean the ability to avoid random violence. That’s why I get upset about cluster bombs killing Lebanese children. I also remember that one of the stories that upset me most was an attack on a group of Israeli schoolgirls on a field trip who were killed by a crazy Jordanian soldier. I also feel that I worry more about terrorists than I do about state violence.

At some level, our feelings about these political and philosophical issues seem to have psychological roots. I can only explain the behavior of Jews who hate Israel by imagining that they have something against authority in general. My own feelings in Israel, I imagine, have to do with the idea about fitting in; and I suppose my feelings about terrorists stem from a deep dislike for bullies. Who knows?

Ignatieff arrives at the conclusion that the world’s disagreements about the content of human rights may be irresolvable, and so rights might not work as a doctrine but could survive as a kind of conversation. I think that’s a pretty damning admission. If the doctrine has been destroyed, was it doomed from the start? Was it undermined by those who have used it for selfish ends? Or is that too pessimistic?

By the way, I’ve had the chance to watch West Bank Story. It is a very silly farce, well-produced, with some genuinely funny moments. However, I don’t think its proposed solutions would work. It seems to suggest that everything would be better if both sides accepted a one-state solution, intermarried with each other, and emigrated to Beverly Hills. A quite typical Hollywood assessment of the situation!

11 March 2007

11 March 2007 - The Saudi plan? A debate

Israel Campus Beat is a useful resource that provides a weekly roundup of the best articles on Israel (and I’m not just plugging it because they’re running my Business Day piece on the Mandela hoax). Every week, they provide a point-counterpoint debate on a topic of current interest. This time, it has links that form an interesting four-person debate on whether Israel should accept the revived Saudi peace initiative.

The viewpoints are interesting. Gershon Baskin, writing in the Jerusalem Post, argues that the Saudi plan is an opportunity that should not be missed, because it marks a rare point of Sunni-Israeli convergence and is the best deal Israel is likely to get. He places great significance on the Arab offer to “normalize” relations with Israel, effectively meaning that Israel will be accepted as part of the Middle East.

Yossi Alpher, writing in the Middle East Times, supports the Saudi plan but suggests several modifications that are necessary for it to be accepted by Israel. These include allowances for border adjustments; more specific details of what “normalization” would mean; clarification on whether the Palestinian “right of return” is to be broad or narrow; and a staged plan for implementing the deal.

Anshel Pfeffer takes an opposing view in the Jerusalem Post, pointing out that the Saudis failed to get Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government; failed to get Iran to approve the peace plan (despite early reports); and will fail to modify the refugee clause in the plan that basically preserves the Arab strategy of using the Palestinian refugee problem as a means of destroying Israel demographically.

Finally, Khaled Abu Toameh, a Muslim Palestinian who writes for the Jerusalem Post, also predicts that the Arab summit in Riyadh will reject Israel’s request to modify the plan to limit the Palestinian “right of return.” The reason, he says, is that the Arab countries want to get rid of the refugees—and he documents the way in which Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have mistreated Palestinians for decades.

Personally, I am skeptical of the Saudi plan. I doubt a real peace initiative could have won the unanimous support of the Arab League. I think the plan is really an old Soviet-style trick: pretend to offer peace, but make sure that the democratic side is the only one to make all the real concessions; then, when the offer is declined, portray the democratic side as the aggressor that has refused a just peace.

This strategy was described by Jean-François Revel, the French resistance fighter and anticommunist writer, in his book How Democracies Perish (1983), which I am now reading. In a chapter entitled “Attack, Always Attack,” Revel described the Soviet strategy, which is echoed by today’s cut-and-paste anti-Israel propagandists, who are busy preparing the political justification for Israel’s hoped-for destruction:

“A standard Communist tactic is to mount a propaganda operation to accompany a practical operation. If the latter hits a snag, the former will leave traces in people’s minds that will help condition them to give future actions a kind reception.

“In 1958, for example, the U.S.S.R. suggested a nonaggression pact among all the states facing on the Baltic Sea, whether they belonged to NATO or the Warsaw Pact or were neutral. Because of the inequalities of power among the various countries involved, this amounted to total Soviet domination and conversion of the Baltic into a Russian lake. Although the Baltic states resisted the seduction of this magnanimous offer—those that had a choice, that is—the vague ring of the word “nonaggression” was all that sounded in the ears of more distant peoples. How could the notion fail to sink in eventually that a state that spends its time proposing nonaggression pacts could not really be aggressive? . . .

“All these offers, the oldest and the most recent, have been part of an extremely judicious Soviet tactic to impress world opinion with the notion that Moscow is seeking détente and to blackmail it with the specter of a nuclear apocalypse while the U.S.S.R. continues to build up its strategic arsenal. To judge from the results obtained in the past quarter-century, it’s not a bad system.” (109-12)

Revel went on to argue that since the Soviet Union did not have to deal with public opinion, unlike the democracies of the West, it could pound away with military or political tactics that had failed in the past because it would never be held to account. Meanwhile the West, with its cantankerous demonstrations of dissent, was weak in a response. It is a warning that every critic of Israel should heed . . .

And with that in mind, I deliver, as promised, another little excerpt of my work-in-progress on Olmert and the Lebanon War. I have received a few emails advising me that criticizing Israel is the wrong thing to do right now. I’d rather take the approach of Israel Campus Beat, and celebrate the diversity of opinions in Israel, which enshrines the right to criticize. After all, the Soviets lost, n’est-ce pas?


It almost goes without saying that none of Israel’s enemies is examining its conduct in the war. And no one is highlighting the apartheid practices of Israel’s Arab neighbours—such as Jordan, which denies Jews the right to become citizens; or Lebanon, which denies Palestinians citizenship also; or Egypt, where gay people are sent to jail; or Syria, where political dissidents are tortured; and so on and so on.

Paradoxically, Israel’s image is suffering precisely because it is a democracy, not an apartheid state. Its faults are openly investigated, debated and criticized by Israelis themselves. Nevertheless, there seems only one way to undo the damage caused by Olmert’s testimony: Olmert must resign, and new elections must be held. Only then will Israel’s morale be restored. In Israel, at least, democracy can put things right . . .

10 March 2007 - Criticizing Israel in tough times

I have been working on an article in which I criticize Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It has been an incredibly difficult task, and one that I have had serious doubts about. On the one hand, I feel very angry about the use of cluster bombs during the Lebanon War, and various other mistakes. On the other, I feel that this is the worst time to be critical, because anti-Israel hysteria is building to a feverish pitch.

I’ve decided to go ahead. One has to be able to criticize in difficult circumstances—indeed, that may be when criticism is most necessary and useful. But one has to shape such criticism very carefully. Below is an extract of the article I’ve been working on, which I’ve sent to the South African papers and which will hopefully be published this week. Then it’s back to defending Israel against the loony haters.


A photograph on the front pages of the Israeli newspapers last month said it all. There sat the Israeli Defence Force’s new chief of staff, whose predecessor had just stepped down over his mis-handling of last year’s Lebanon War. Next to him sat Defense Minister Amir Peretz, watching military exercises, peering through a pair of binoculars, trying hard to look competent. But woe!—the lens caps were still on . . .

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating is a disastrous three percent, made matters worse last month when he testified before the Winograd Commission, the government panel investigating the war. In testimony that was leaked to the media, Olmert revealed that he approved plans last March (four months before the war) to attack Lebanon in the event Hezbollah was able to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

Predictably, anti-Israel propagandists and conspiracy theorists have misconstrued Olmert’s statement to say that he had planned the war itself in advance and had used the kidnappings as a pretext. That could not have been true, and the simple proof is that Israel’s army was totally unprepared for war. Indeed, military officials greeted Olmert’s statement with outrage: if there was a plan, why didn’t we know?

Olmert’s testimony also revealed that he had tried to avoid war by quietly offering to withdraw from the Sheba’a Farms, a small area claimed by Lebanon and occupied by Israel that the UN says belongs to Syria. But Olmert’s other admissions have hurt Israel’s image, and invite legitimate questions about his responsibility for the humanitarian consequences of the war . . .

For Olmert, things should have been very different. When he took office last May, Israel held the moral and military high ground. The disengagement from Gaza in 2005 had convinced Israelis that progress, if not peace, was possible. But after the Lebanon war, Israel seemed vulnerable for the first time in decades. Hezbollah emerged from the war stronger than ever, while Israel was wracked with self-doubt . . .

This is a dangerous moment, a time when Israel dare not alienate her allies, nor lose faith in the rightness of her cause. Israel cannot afford the moral burden of what Olmert’s testimony suggests—that Israel may have gone to war unnecessarily, costing hundreds of innocent lives. The inexcusable and condemnable use of cluster bombs at the war’s end was bad enough; now Olmert has even more to answer for.

In 2002, when Palestinians made up a story that Israel had carried out a “massacre” in Jenin, Israel denied the charge. When those claims were proved false, Israel and her supporters enjoyed a huge boost of moral confidence. Many of the accusations Israel faced in Lebanon were fabrications as well. But some were not, and this time Israel’s leaders must accept responsibility for the choices they made . . .


I’ll publish another excerpt Sunday evening. I’ve just found out that Harvard Law School’s Justice For Palestine group is hosting an “Israel-apartheid” panel discussion (on Friday night, as usual, to minimize Jewish attendance). And I’ve been sent an article from this week’s Economist that blames Israel for the flaws in the Saudi peace plan. Hard times, indeed. But despair cannot lead to silence.

08 March 2007

08 March 2007 - Towards a positive Palestinian nationalism

Here’s another extract from my draft article on “a positive Palestinian nationalism” for New Society. I realize this is going to set the cat among the pigeons, particularly the bit about capturing the spirit of the first intifada. I invite all and sundry to savage my reasoning and my conclusions below. I’m hoping that several bouts of harsh criticism will help me make this a better and more useful article.


What, then, would a positive Palestinian nationalism look like? It needs a concept of Palestinian self-determination, elements of which can already be found in several fundamental texts. The Draft Constitution of the State of Palestine, last updated in 2003, defines the Palestinian state by the borders on the eve of June 4, 1967 with a capital in Jerusalem and a right of return limited to the West Bank and Gaza.

The Draft Constitution provides for a “parliamentary representative democracy,” and establishes Islam as the official religion with tolerance for “Christianity and all other monotheistic religions.” It therefore addresses the internal character of the state and its institutions at the same time that it stakes out a negotiating position that is not too far from what a final settlement to the conflict would look like.

It is a good start. The problem is that the Palestinian Authority is currently ruled by Hamas, an organization whose beliefs and behavior contrast sharply with the ideas and goals expressed in the Draft Constitution. The Hamas Covenant explicitly calls for Israel’s destruction, and for jihad—not only against Israel but also against “Judaism and Jews,” as well as international civic organizations such as Rotary.

In practice, both Hamas and the previous Fatah government have incited, supported and tolerated attacks against Israeli civilians, flouting the Draft Constitution’s call for peace and condemnation of terror. In the same way, the Palestinian Authority has ignored the Draft Constitution’s broad provisions for human rights and has often engaged in torture and other human rights abuses.

What is necessary for a successful Palestinian national vision is therefore not another document but a new ethos, a practical expression of “auto-emancipation” that lays the cultural and institutional foundations for Palestinian statehood independently, in spite of the internecine strife among Palestinian factions and regardless of the diplomatic wrangles with Israel and the international community.

Arendt noted that many of the most important achievements of Zionism were carried out quietly, beyond the overt attempts at statecraft: “Although the Jewish workers and farmers had an emotional awareness of the uniqueness of their achievements, expressed in a new kind of dignity and pride, neither they nor their leaders realized articulately the chief features of the new experiment.” That is not to say that the early efforts of these workers and farmers were apolitical; indeed, they were the only true political acts, dealing with reality and not utopianism.

Something of this spirit seems to have existed during the first intifada. The word itself literally means “shaking off”; it referred not only to the uprising against the occupation but also to a spirit of self-reliance. It was a radical departure from the ineffectual utopianism of Arafat and the PLO; indeed, the PLO leadership in Tunis had been taken by surprise when the intifada began and struggled to control it.

The first intifada was also relatively non-violent in character, and pragmatic in that its leaders pushed Arafat to accept the principle of statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. Critically, it awakened the consciences of Israelis to the reality of occupation. What is needed is a national effort that re-animates that spirit and applies it to the practical tasks of nation-building—creating institutions and nurturing enterprise.

07 March 2007 - Escaping unreality

The following is an excerpt from an article I am writing for a new journal at Harvard, New Society: The Harvard Middle East Review, due out in April. The goal of the article is to sketch what a positive Palestinian nationalism would look like. I begin with an analysis of the mistakes of the past and present, and move to recommendations for the future. I’d appreciate any feedback people wish to offer.


Palestinian intellectuals have spent a great deal of energy and ink over the years to rescue Palestinian identity and the Palestinian historical narrative from the obscurity to which it had been consigned after 1948. But a successful Palestinian nationalism must also reckon with the many lost opportunities, strategic blunders and self-destructive ideologies that continue to frustrate national ambitions today.

Almost from the very beginning of the conflict, Palestinian leaders have rejected reasonable compromises and hewed to radical, all-or-nothing demands. An offer by the British for full Arab sovereignty in 1939 was rejected because of a provision for the immigration of Jewish refugees. After the war, when left-wing Jews proposed a binational state, they found no Arab leader willing to publicly join their campaign.

Then there were the partition plans. The Peel Commission of 1937 recommended 75 percent of the land be reserved for an Arab state; the UN partition plan of 1947 offered roughly 45 percent; and UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967 gave the Palestinians about 22 percent of the land. Palestinian leaders rejected each of these in turn (though 242 was finally accepted in 1988), resulting in further losses.

Along the way, Palestinian leaders made a series of disastrous alliances with autocratic powers that promised to wipe Israel, and Jews, off the map of the Middle East. Amin Al-Husseini sided with Hitler and the Nazis; Yasser Arafat backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War; today, Hamas receives funding and weapons from Ahmadinejad’s Iran. All of these have hurt Palestinian credibility.

The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt supported the binational option, and backed a “confederation” of two independent states after 1948. She did so because she believed that if Israel did not reckon with Arab claims, it “would lead the Jews out of reality once more” and back to the “unreality” she felt had prevented Jews from understanding the precariousness of their situation in prewar Europe.

Today it is the Palestinians who are trapped in “unreality.” While Israel has begun to accept the limits of its national boundaries, to evacuate its settlers and to accept the necessity of Palestinian statehood, Palestinian leaders still deny Israel’s right to exist and refuse to abandon terror attacks against it. The “dream” of annihilating Israel persists, and is echoed by pro-Palestinian activists in the western world.

Though Arendt was a critic of Zionism, she believed one of its greatest achievements was that “it tried to teach the Jews to solve their problems by their own efforts, not by those of others.” Palestinian nationalism still lacks this critical ingredient—what the early Zionist leader Leon Pinsker called “auto-emancipation.” Instead, it is dependent on the benevolence and attention of the international community.

Rather than become the author of its own history, the Palestinian cause borrows its narratives from others. The Hamas charter, for example refers to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an old European anti-Jewish screed. Pro-Palestinian activists have begun to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa—a false analogy, aimed solely at delegitimizing Israel. These are no substitute for serious political strategy.

06 March 2007

06 March 2007 - Cut-and-paste at Electronic Intifada

Today’s Business Day features the following letter from Arjan El Fassed, one of the co-founders of Electronic Intifada (where El Fassed’s letter is also featured), responding to my article from last week about John Dugard’s biased UN report:

Joel Pollak wants people to believe comparisons between Israeli policies and apartheid are nothing but a fraud, The trouble with the apartheid analogy (March 2). He castigates former US president Jimmy Carter for quoting a six-year-old letter from Nelson Mandela to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman making the apartheid comparison, and accuses me of perpetrating a hoax and admitting I made the whole thing up.

There is no possible basis for Pollak to say I intended people to believe the memo was written by anyone other than myself. At the time, Friedman, a staunch defender of Israel, was famous for writing mock memos in the voice of the US president. In a clearly labelled spoof, under my byline, I published a mock memo from Mandela to Friedman on March 27 2001. Unfortunately, someone forwarded it on the internet without my byline, as I explained to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

The point is: although the Mandela memo was only a piece of satire, it is not necessary to believe it to understand the Israel-apartheid comparison is grounded in an ugly reality.

In 2002 South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu made the analogy in The Guardian and The Nation. Other South African anti-apartheid activists who were struck by the similarities were Farid Esack, Ronnie Kasrils, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Allister Sparks, Arun Ghandhi, Dennis Goldberg and Breyten Breytenbach.

Former Italian prime minister Massimo D’Alema told the Israeli press in 2003 that in a visit to Rome, Ariel Sharon had “explained at length that the Bantustan model was the most appropriate solution to the conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert noticed the similarity in 2003: “We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say: ‘There is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote.’ The day they get it, we will lose everything.”

And warning that Israel could not remain both a Jewish state and a democracy if it held all the territories, Olmert said: “I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organisations that shouldered the burden of struggle against apartheid in SA will lead the struggle against us.”

Surely Pollak is not suggesting I made all this up?

Arjan El Fassed
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, The Netherlands

I began preparing a response and I almost immediately stumbled upon some rather damning evidence of El Fassed’s intellectual dishonesty.

The Wikipedia article “Allegations of Israeli apartheid” contains the following text (as of 06 March 2007):

In 2002 Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu wrote an op-ed for The Guardian titled "Apartheid in the Holy Land" and another in The Nation titled "Against Israeli apartheid" . . .

Other South African anti-apartheid activists have used apartheid comparisons to criticize Israel's policies in the West Bank, and particularly the construction of the separation barrier. These include Farid Esack, a Muslim writer who is currently William Henry Bloomberg Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School, Ronnie Kasrils, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Arun Ghandhi, Dennis Goldberg, and Breyten Breytenbach . . .

Former Italian prime minister Massimo D'Alema told the Israeli press in 2003 that in a visit to Rome, Prime Minister Sharon had "explained at length that the Bantustan model was the most appropriate solution to the conflict" between Israel and the Palestinians.

El Fassed has basically cut-and-pasted this text, without attribution, into his letter. Compare the Wikipedia text with El Fassed’s letter and you will see that aside from a few minor edits (done, perhaps, by the staff at Business Day and not by El Fassed himself), the text is the same. It is possible that El Fassed himself is the author of the Wikipedia text, but nevertheless he failed to cite his original source.

This sort of cut-and-paste fakery seems to be standard practice among Israel-haters. I was pondering the Wikipedia text when I suddenly realized I’d heard it somewhere recently. Of course!—Hadas Thier had recited chunks of it in her opening statement during our debate last week. Had I realized that, I would have called her on it; I will definitely ask future opponents about their sources.

Much false anti-Israel propaganda is circulated this way. People simply repeat what they find on various websites, without attribution, giving the impression they know what they are talking about when they are really peddling recycled garbage. False claims of Israeli “apartheid,” Jenin “massacre” and so on are given credibility in this way, proving Goebbels’s propaganda tactics remain potent in the Internet age.

It is interesting to note that Goebbels actually described the technique of the “big lie” not in describing his own methods but in attacking British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” (Other uses of the term “big lie” by Goebbels seem to be unreferenced.)

In the same way, Arab states accuse Israel of racism and apartheid when in fact their own discriminatory and repressive policies are more comparable to those of apartheid South Africa. Over time, the terms “racism” and “apartheid” are actually stripped of their meaning. And when words lose their meaning, as Moynihan and others have pointed out, human rights are in danger of losing their substance.

That’s why it is important to catch these propagandists in the act, as bloggers did last summer in exposing the Reuters fauxtography scandal. El Fassed’s made-up Mandela memo, and his cut-and-paste job in Business Day, also point to one of the fundamental problems plaguing the Palestinian cause: the pervasive use of false, borrowed, and self-defeating narratives that restrain true authorship and agency.