The PA, the UN, Egypt and the flotilla: no help for the Palestinians

Two states?

In September of 2011, the Palestinian Authority will approach the United Nations for a resolution recognising Palestine as a new member state. Against the backdrop of what are still hopefully being called the Arab revolutions, much of the world believes that UN recognition will force Israel to follow suit and recognise, and thus leave in peace, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The government of Israel often warns that a sovereign Palestine would mean Hamas’ taking power, probably violently, and then using a new state as a launching pad for the destruction of Israel. However, one must doubt that Hamas is so irrational. Its leaders are well aware that they would be blown to dust if they initiated a war with Israel. Their being religious does not change that. Religious governments are not crazy, and are as likely as non-religious ones to make war. Iran, for all the Israeli and US rhetoric attacking it, seems to have no intention of starting wars. Why would a poorly-armed, dishevelled group like Hamas?

However, with a state, a legitimate government would set up legitimate defense forces against Israeli aggression. It would enable Palestine’s acceptance as a member of the UN. It would also mean the possibility of self-reliance for its citizens, instead of depending on foreign aid under the constant threat of land expropriation and housing demolitions. Finally, it could end the Palestinian refugee issue (though not satisfactorily, as many insist on the “right of return” of all refugees to their previous homes and parents’ and grandparents’ homes, which could be anywhere in Israel or the Palestinian territories). Of course, given Israeli government interests in the status quo in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and its continual proving its ruthlessness in pursuing those interests, all these hopes are mere hopes. After all, asked one West Bank resident, “who cares if we get recognised as a state if the Israelis can still block the roads?”

If Palestinians want a state, international law states that certain conditions must be met. First, it must have a stable population. Check. Second, it must have a government. The Palestinian Authority is not great, but it has the necessary institutions of a government. Check. Third, it must have a defined territory. This issue is contentious, to say the least. It is hard to know exactly where Israel begins and Palestine ends; but the hope is that a Palestinian state would be built on the pre-1967 lines: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. More recent negotiations (not to mention the settlements) have reduced the size of the West Bank that could belong to Palestine but have partly compensated for the loss of territory with the idea of land swaps between the two states. The solutions are on the table, though the current Israeli government continues to require conditions that make reaching those solutions all but impossible. Fourth, it must have the capacity to enter into relations with other states. That requires recognition by other states. Most of the world’s states now recognise Palestine as sovereign, with the exception of the most powerful ones. But some governments do not recognise Israel as a state either, and some of its territory is considered illegal (the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem were annexed and settled—an unequivocal violation of international law) and yet it is obviously sovereign. But getting and holding a state will not be easy for anyone.

First, the Security Council needs to recommend statehood to the General Assembly, which might not happen. The US government, which can veto any Security Council resolution, has always vetoed resolutions that are not in the Israeli right wing’s self interest, and has done so recently. In doing so, it goes against the international consensus; but the powerful are not constrained by others’ opinions. Despite its posturing for decades, the US government has done little to promote peace and allow the recognition of a Palestinian state. It is possible that the PA can use General Assembly Resolution 377, which can be invoked to bypass the Security Council when it fails to act to maintain international peace and security (its main function), though it may not be valid for the purpose of recognising a new member state. Second, Israel’s diplomats are flying around the world to drum up support for the Netanyahu government’s Bantustan vision for Palestine. The US, of course, supports Israel in this endeavour, as does Germany.

Third, if somehow Palestine is recognised, the US government will not be its friend. The US senate voted unanimously last week that statehood should (a non-binding resolution) be obtained through negotiations and not unilateral declaration. In fact, not only will the US not negotiate with Hamas, whose participation in talks is just as legitimate as that of any other party, the PA opted to approach the UN because there was no peace process to speak of. The resolution consists entirely of conditions directed at the Palestinians (eg. “any Palestinian unity government must publicly and formally forswear
terrorism, accept Israel’s right to exist, and reaffirm previous agreements made with the Government of Israel”, including, presumably the humiliating Oslo Accords), as the US government never puts any pressure on Israel. Susan Rice, White House ambassador to the UN, has also threatened to suspend all aid to the PA if it gains statehood. Though much of that aid goes into the pockets of the corrupt PA, some of it is nonetheless recycled back into the economy. If a sovereign state will lead to rapid growth in the private sector, Palestine has a chance for self-sufficiency. If not, the Palestinians might be worse off than before. Do the Palestinians have any powerful friends?

Egypt

Egypt’s revolution held promise not only for Egyptians, but for Palestinians as well. In 2007, at Israel’s behest, Egypt blocked all access to the crossing at the town of Rafah that straddles the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. In post-(or mid-) revolutionary Egypt, under pressure from the people, the transitional government promised it would open the crossing. A legitimate Israeli fear was that the crossing would become the transfer point for masses of weapons, but it was to be screened for such things like a normal national border. But since the Egyptian junta’s announcement, little has changed. Palestinians applying to leave Gaza—some 20,000—are being told to come back in September. Aside from a few hundred travelers (on a good day) and a mere two truckloads of exports a day, mostly only journalists and ambulances can leave the Strip. One official said it might take months for the Egyptian government to send enough personnel to man the border. Perhaps they are walking there. It has also been reported that, despite pledges of independence from the US and Israeli governments, these two have been reportedly pressuring Egypt not to ease restrictions. Disappointing, to say the least.

The flotilla

The Freedom Flotilla of over a dozen ships is headed for Gaza. The purpose of the flotilla is partly to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza but mainly to bring international attention to the terrible plight faced by the Strip’s inhabitants. It is carrying three thousand tons of aid and its members are from dozens of countries. It is easy to understand why so many people feel strongly about Gaza. Gaza is the most crowded area on earth, with 1.5m people crammed into 360km2. Four out of five Gazans rely on humanitarian aid; 40% of Gazans are unemployed; 80% live in poverty.

Given the impossibility of legitimate trade with the outside world, Gazans long ago resorted to transporting goods by tunnels, which are sometimes bombed by Israel (see here and here for two articles on the latest such attack). Middle East Online says that “[p]rior to Israel’s ‘easing’ of the blockade in 2010 [following the first flotilla debacle], an estimated 80 percent of goods in Gaza’s stores were smuggled through the border with Egypt. Now most consumer goods in the markets and corner shops come from Israel.” Gazans are as enterprising and rugged as anyone else. They do not really need humanitarian aid; they need the ability to trade. According to deputy head of the ICRC in Gaza Mathilde De Riedmatten (and everyone else who has been there), the Strip, essentially a large prison camp, continues to experience crises in health care, water and sanitation. Agriculture has suffered, not only because fertilizers are on the long list of items banned under the blockade, but also because the IDF periodically levels the land and uproots trees. Construction materials cannot enter the Strip, and since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, they have been needed to repair all manner of buildings. God knows what would happen if Israel repeated its indiscriminate slaughter of Gazans from two years ago, with Gazans still unable to leave. But despite implausible claims that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the powerful do not want the flotilla to continue.

Professor Stephen Zunes said in a recent piece on the flotilla that “nothing frightens a militaristic state more than the power of nonviolent action.” Israeli newspapers have printed the foreboding words of many Israeli officials that Hamas is involved in the organisation of the flotilla, that its intent is to smuggle arms, and that its members plan to attack Israeli soldiers, while others have ridiculed such claims. In his inimitably clever way, Christopher Hitchens attempts to take apart the members of the flotilla. He assumes that the humanitarian convoys will bolster Hamas, rather than help the people; and he questions the motives of the organisers by implying they are associated with the regime of Bashar al Assad of Syria and Hezbollah, which seems, I think any reasonable reader can agree, a stretch. Then he mentions al Qaeda, having learned from George Bush that saying two words in the same speech (“Saddam” and “al Qaeda”) forces listeners to associate the two mentally, when of course they have nothing to do with each other. Despite their use of words such as “proof”, there is little reason to take anything these people say seriously.

The only argument they have worth considering is that any feeding of the people of Gaza bolsters the Hamas government. However, that is only true if the blockade of Gaza had any hope of turning the people against Hamas, and so far it has not worked. How could it? History suggests that people punished collectively for supporting a certain group do not turn on the group but on their punishers. It is obvious that the true oppressors are the ones turning the screws on Gaza: Israel, and to a lesser extent the US and Egypt. The stated goal of the siege of Gaza has not and will not work. The inhumanity of punishing 1.5m people for 44.45% of voters’ electing a terrorist group when their alternative was a corrupt, unresponsive, collaborator party also escapes those who insist on maintaining the blockade.

All manner of coercion is taking place to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza. The Greek government, in a move that presumably will not make it any more endearing to its people, banned all ships in the freedom flotilla from leaving its ports. When a Canadian ship left Crete, Greek authorities intercepted it and took all 50 people on board into custody. Israel’s government threatened to jail any journalists found covering the flotilla for up to ten years. It dropped the ban not long after, though having changed their minds so quickly, one wonders if they might change them back. There is evidence that Israelis had sabotaged some of the flotilla ships.

However, there is no evidence any of the ships that are attempting to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza have been found to contain weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes. No evidence was found for the claim that the flotilla organisers have links to Hamas or other terrorists. In fact, flotilla organisers have likely done everything they can to assure there is no legitimate cause for Israel to attack any of its members, as it did last year when nine activists died in a confused fracas. Their non-violent resistance seems in line with the thinking that produced the phrase “If you want to beat Mike Tyson, you don’t invite him into the ring, you invite him to the chessboard.”

Though there is no real evidence the flotilla poses any threat to Israel, the US government has stated it is not willing to protect the US citizens on board against an Israeli attack, and that such an attack is well within Israel’s right. The ships will not be passing into Israeli waters but international waters, followed by the coast of Gaza, which is only blockaded by Israel. It seems unlikely any state has the right to attack unarmed people in international waters; either way, it leaves the Palestinians and those who want to help them find justice without a friend or saviour.

How about one state?

Does all this mean the only hope for a Palestinian state for the PA to take matters into its own hands? Much has been made of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, with its possibility of integrating Hamas into a new PA. But not only will such a government be rejected by Israel and the US, Palestinians do not seem to hold out much hope for it either. The PA, set up by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, is seen by many in the West Bank as collaborators: the police of the occupation. The two parties presumably feel the need to work together to obtain statehood, but where would they go from there?

Another question that others have asked is, is a Palestinian state the best way to achieve freedom? Again, if Israel is still in the neighbourhood, still wary to the point of paranoia about any Arab provocation, still hungry for land based on ancient myths of an Eretz (Greater) Israel, an independent Palestine will mean little. One often hears the phrase “facts on the ground”, usually used to imply that settlements have changed Israel’s requirements since 1967, but which obfuscate the issue by making the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem seem irreversible, when the settlements of the Sinai and Gaza were not. In spite of the mess on the ground, it has been said since the beginning of the Arab Spring that Israel will have to make peace sooner rather than later. I do not share this optimism; but since many of the people who do are people who know the issue better than I, let us consider an audacious, less realistic but vastly improved possibility: the one-state solution.

Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, writes in his book One Country: a Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, “There is no credible ‘peace process’ to provide hope that the misery on the ground is merely a transitionary phase on the way to deliverance, and the one big idea that is supposed to save us—the Palestinian state—lies in tatters.” His thesis is that, if the inhabitants of the Holy Land can just learn to share, they would all be far better off. It is hard to escape his logic. Jews and Palestinians boast roughly equal numbers in Israel and the territories (6m each). They both claim ownership of the land on which they live. The fact that the West Bank and Jerusalem are so important to both Palestinians and Jews alike provides legitimacy to the claim that they should be shared. One state could mean the true right of return that gives all Palestinian refugees a place to live outside the squalid camps so many still inhabit. The two-state solution may in fact be the movement of the old guard. Fatah and Hamas may become (even more) irrelevant as the one-state cause picks up steam among young people in the Palestinian territories.

Israelis would need to abandon their unswerving claims to a purebred Jewish state in all the land of Israel/Palestine, which at the moment seems more distant than ever. Hamas would need to permanently abandon its rhetoric and violence. But if the flotilla achieves its PR goal, if non-violent Palestinian resistance continues to succeed, if the two-state bid fails and if international pressure on Israel increases, one state for Jews and Arabs might be the answer to the question of peace that everyone claims to want.

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Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"

Iran is Nazi Germany and other fairy tales

Benny Morris is one of Israel’s so-called “new historians”, a group of relative misfits in Israeli academia who dared, in the 1980s, to contradict the traditional narratives about the birth of Israel. He was one of the first to shatter the once widely accepted belief in Israel that hundreds of thousands Palestinians had left their homes in 1948 (the Nakba) because invading Arab armies told them to (when in fact, it was because of Zionist violence). He has written several books since then and generally stuck to the facts. He has been considered pro-Palestinian and left-wing (refusing to serve in the West Bank during the first Intifada), but for the past decade or so he has become more of an ideologue, showing his true nationalist credentials.

Most recently, Morris wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times called “When Armageddon lives next door“. In it, he argues that President Barack is turning his back on Israel at a time when it is in mortal danger from Iran. Because Iran’s president has announced publicly that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and because Iran seems to be building a nuclear bomb, Morris concludes that the US and Israel must attack Iran.

As with many like-minded people, Morris likens Iran with Nazi Germany. He reminds us that the international community did not take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late. Barack is too busy “obsessing over the fate of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and not spending enough time threatening Iran with military force. He says that Iran’s primary goal with its nuclear weapon is to destroy Israel. Engagement with Iran has failed and the US must either attack Iran itself or at least give Israel the green light to do so. “[T]he clock,” Morris warns us, “is ticking.”

Unfortunately, Benny Morris has been spending too much time reading Israeli newspapers and not enough time studying Iran. Morris’s article was written not by a historian but by an ideologue attempting to scare Americans into favouring war on Iran. His first mistake is his belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the power to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. As Reza Aslan, who does study Iran, asserts, the president of Iran is effectively powerless. It is not the president but the mullahs who will decide on the use of Iran’s nuclear weapons, or any weapons. The president talks tough about Israel, but given the menacing climate among the Israeli press, Israeli public opinion and Israeli government statements, he would look cowardly not to. Iranians presumably voted for him (at least the first time) because hardliners are the choice of people who feel under threat of war. Moreover, Morris has committed the Poli Sci 101 fallacy in believing that, because a politician says something he is bound to put it into action.

Second, comparing Iran with Nazi Germany is slimy, populist rhetoric with no basis in fact. Nazi Germany was a racist regime that continuously fed its people with anti-Jewish, anti-communist, anti-everyone propaganda. Iran is multicultural, and has no record of turning on its ethnic minorities. There are over 10,000 Jews in Iran, and they are allocated one seat in the Iranian parliament. Nazi Germany was, at its height, one of the major military powers of the world. Iran will probably never be one. It is relatively small, a middle-income country, a third-rate military power that has never expressed irredentist territorial ambitions. It is rife with internal dissent and any major actions that would lead to war would be unpopular enough at least to unseat the government.

Third, Morris claims that Barack’s attempts at engagement with Iran have failed. However, the Barack administration has not tried to appeal to Iran. Barack has generally kept Iran in a headlock and called it reaching out. I think we can forgive Iranians for not taking, say, a flurry of effort to impose sanctions on Iran as engagement. Real diplomacy is not all sticks.

Fourth, Iran is trying to position itself as a protector of Muslims in the Middle East. Given that 16% of Israeli citizens are Muslims, and that a nuclear bomb would almost inevitably strike Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, how could Iran attack Israel with indiscriminate weapons and continue to hope for support from coreligionists?

Finally, as I have said repeatedly, Iran poses little military threat to Israel. All the people worrying about one or two bombs that could be fired at Israel ignore the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, most of which is likely aimed at various Iranian hotspots. Israel has one of the best trained and equipped militaries in the world. And it is close partners with the preeminent military superpower of our time. A nuclear strike on Israel would be justification enough for the US to join in Israel in attacking Iran, which would soon be reduced to rubble.

Alarmist rhetoric like Morris’s shows that he has strayed from a critically thinking and sober historian to a media hack that advocates the worst policies for Israel and the world. One thing he does know, however, is that fear is a powerful lever under the feet of those unacquainted with the facts.

More settlements will lead to more anger

The Israeli government will approve the building of 1600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem. This move is another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel today and criticised the move by Israel. However, his words will go unheeded. The settlement building will continue, illegal but unabashed. Palestinians will get angrier. They will throw stones. The Israeli Defense Forces will strike back with tear gas, bullets, even tanks, like in the first two intifadas. Binyamin Netanyahu will continue to demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state, much like the Spanish Inquisition whipping a man into confessing his sins, except that the Palestinians will refuse and this will be taken as proof that they reject peace.

The United States government will continue to pay lip service to ending settlement construction while doing nothing to intervene. “A historic peace is going to require both parties to make some historically bold commitments“, he said in deliberately vague terms. What did he have to lose by saying it? Even while condemning the settlement plan, Biden stressed the US’s commitment to Israel’s interests, and praised the “constructive discussions” he had had with Israeli leaders.

Jews will move into the homes in East Jerusalem and the new settlements will, like the biggest settlements in the West Bank, become part of the status quo. In other words, Israel will be unwilling to uproot people living in them. Ten years down the road, calls to dismantle those settlements will be called insulting. Peace proposals will include them as part of Israel, just as such proposals now mostly include the big West Bank settlement blocs as part of Israel.

The settlement issue must be dealt with if there is to be a peace treaty. But how to deal with it? A 2008 survey found 66% of Israelis opposed withdrawing from the West Bank, which would mean leaving the settlements behind. There is little appetite for giving any concessions. As an example, the Israeli media often refer to “illegal outposts” in the West Bank, meaning small, outlying settlements, when in fact all settlement of conquered land is illegal. There is little support (29%) for a divided Jerusalem, which is another condition of a real, lasting peace. So settlement building in Jerusalem will continue.

Israel is too powerful to care what Palestinians think, and if the powerful, the US and EU, do not intervene, Israeli policy will not change. The settlement question will remain unresolved, and Jewish Israelis will strengthen their hold on all of occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. Palestinians will throw rocks, perhaps even start another intifada, and peace will slip ever further away.

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity

Paving the Road to Gaza: Israel’s National Role Conception and Operation Cast Lead

On December 27, 2008, the Israel Defense Forces began their assault on the Gaza Strip in what they called Operation Cast Lead. 13 Israelis and as many as 1400 Palestinians were killed in the three weeks of fighting. The war enjoyed wide support among Israelis: according to the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, 94% of Jewish Israelis (76% of Israel’s population) supported the attack. Operation Cast Lead caused enormous suffering in Gaza and has been a thorn in the side of Israelis since its commencement. Numerous human rights organisations have issued reports on the conflict accusing both sides of war crimes, and the Israeli government has denied any but the noblest intentions. How did we get here?

This essay uses national role conception theory to explain how Israel’s political culture approved of Operation Cast Lead and permitted the latest brutal attack on the Palestinians. You can find it at the following link.

A Short History of the Six Day War, part 3

Causes

Finally, we come to the question, how did the war start? It is fair to say that the seeds for this war were planted in 1949, when the Arab armies trying to destroy the nascent Israel were routed, and that the Suez Crisis of 1956 raised tensions in the region even more. But to call those things causes of the Six Day War is like saying World War One caused World War Two; and since the Franco-Prussian War caused World War One, and the Napoleonic Wars caused the Franco Prussian War, we can say that the French Revolution caused World War Two. This is too much of a stretch. Without going back to far, the buildup to the Six Day War started three years earlier, in 1964.

In that year, Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister, and Yitzhak Rabin, its chief of staff agreed on the aims of Israel’s defence policy for the first five year plan for the military. The plan said that the State of Israel did not wish for more territory. Israel would not initiate conflict with an Arab state but if war were imposed on it, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would move swiftly into the enemy’s territory and destroy its war infrastructure.

More significantly, it was the year border clashes with Syria got deadlier. There were three sources of tension on the border: the demilitarised zones, water and Palestinian guerrillas. Moshe Dayan, Defence Minister during the Six Day War, said that in at least 80% of the clashes with Syria, “We would send a tractor to plow someplace where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarised area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot.” The Israelis were provoking the Syrians.

In addition, the water issue began in 1964. Israel began withdrawing water from the Jordan River. At a conference, the Arab League approved a $17.5m plan to divert the Jordan river at its sources, drastically reducing the quantity and quality of Israel’s water. Knowing that Israelis would not sit back while their country dried up, the same conference also created a United Arab Command to protect the project and prepare for an offensive campaign. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, or PLO, was yet another outcome of the conference. The Arab League began construction on its diversion plan the next year. The IDF attacked the diversion works in Syria in 1965, exacerbating the border tensions that led to the war.

In February 1966, an extreme left wing, anti-Zionist Baath regime took power in Damascus. It called for a popular war to liberate Palestine and sponsored Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israeli targets. These guerrilla attacks were not about to wipe Israel off the map, but they fanned the flames of mutual hostility between Israel and Syria.

Palestinian guerrillas, mainly Arafat’s Fatah, carried out 122 raids between January 1965 and June 1967. They were mostly staged from Lebanon and Jordan, but the guerrillas were largely armed, trained and run by Syrian general staff. In response to one such attack, the Israeli Defense Forces attacked the village of Samu on the West Bank. Dozens of Jordanian soldiers were killed. The attack shocked King Hussein and exposed his military weakness. On April 7, 1967, following a border skirmish, the Israeli Air Force shot down six Soviet-made Syrian MiGs in an air battle. The Syrian government was in a rage. The countdown to the Six Day War had begun.

Because the survival of the Baath regime was important to the USSR, the Soviets sent a report to Nasser that Israel was concentrating its forces on its northern front and was planning to attack Syria. The report was false. Some who were observing at the time said that, although the Soviet warning about Israel’s amassing troops on its northern border was wrong, the Israeli cabinet was planning to attack Syria and the Soviets had gotten wind. Nasser knew the report was untrue but he felt that, as the Arab world’s leadership was in question, he could not fail to act. Syria already had a defense pact with Egypt. There is general agreement among historians that Nasser neither wanted nor planned to go to war with Israel. What he did was brinkmanship: pushing Israel to the brink and hoping war would not be necessary.

He did so for several reasons. First, he could not afford to look weak in front of his restive public. A major share of his army was already in the Sinai, and it would have been humiliating to pull them back. Second, the other side of the coin, continuing the troop buildup would enhance his status at home and in the Arab world. Indeed, reactions to the move were, in Michael Oren’s words, “enthusiastic, even ecstatic”. Finally, if there was no imminent threat to Syria, Nasser could take credit for increasing Egypt’s troop presence in the Sinai without fear Israel would attack. After all, he had already been assured it would not.

Nasser sent a large number of troops into the Sinai, removing the UN troops already there, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The Straits were important because, although few Israeli vessels actually transversed the Straits, it was where Iranian oil tankers exporting to Israel sailed. But more importantly, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence, failure to act to end the blockade of the Straits would make Israel lose its credibility and deterrent capacity. These tools have been essential for Israel ever since.

In all countries, the masses were whipped into a war frenzy. They heard about the hourly radio reports from Arab countries about Israel’s impending doom, and the general feeling was of a noose tightening around the nation’s neck. Israel’s Holocaust survivors were particularly scared when Israeli newspapers likened Nasser to Hitler. According to Charles Krauthammer, “It is hard to exaggerate what it was like for Israel in those three weeks [before the war]. Egypt, already in an alliance with Syria, formed an emergency military pact with Jordan. Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco began sending forces to join the coming fight. With troops and armor massing on Israel’s every frontier, jubilant broadcasts in every Arab capital hailed the imminent final war for the extermination of Israel. ‘We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants,’ declared PLO head Ahmed Shuqayri, ‘and as for the survivors–if there are any–the boats are ready to deport them.'”

Everyone predicted a war. Eshkol was expecting a war; Cairo Radio said “our forces are in a complete state of readiness for war”; Syria’s government said “The war of liberation will not end except by Israel’s abolition.” Israel’s preemptive strike on its enemies was justified to end the tension and the fear–to stop waiting to die and start fighting to survive.

On May 12, in a newspaper interview, Rabin said “the moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government”. On May 19, Rabin told his generals, “[t]he politicians are convinced they can solve the problems through diplomacy. We have to enable them to exhaust every alternative to war, even though I see no way of returning to things the way they were. If the Egyptians blockade the Straits, there will be no alternative to war.” Nonetheless, Rabin also did not think Nasser wanted war.

On May 30, King Hussein flew to Cairo to sign the mutual defense pact with Nasser. An Egyptian general was appointed commander of Jordan’s army. On June 3, two Egyptian commando battalions were flown to Jordan, and on the following morning an Iraqi mechanised brigade crossed into Jordan and moved to the Jordan River. Egypt and Iraq, traditional enemies, signed a mutual defense pact.

Israel attacked when it did because it obtained approval from the US. Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence, gave Israel a green light to attack Egypt. However, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, said he was outraged that Israel attacked at all.

What was the most important factor in starting the Six Day War? At a glance, it would appear to have been Nasser and Egypt’s amassing of troops in the Sinai and closing of the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Eliat. The closing of the Straits was an act of war in itself. But historians disagree with this explanation. First, there is evidence that Nasser did not want war. His public was highly belligerent but he knew Egypt could not simply defeat and occupy Israel. He had learned from the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Second, there are alternative explanations. Avi Shlaim says that border skirmishes with Syria were the main cause of the war. “Israel’s strategy of escalation on the Syrian front was probably the single most important factor in dragging the Middle East to war in June 1967”. Israel had been forced to abandon its plan to divert water from the Jordan in the central demilitarised zone to the Negev desert (southern Israel) in 1953. The Arab states, led by Syria, poked and prodded Israel by diverting the Jordan River. Israeli and Syrian troops clashed and Israel gained the upper hand. “Having been defeated in the water war,” says Shlaim, “the frustrated Syrians began to sponsor attacks on Israel from their territory by Palestinian guerrilla organisations.” The violence escalated.

Michael Oren believes that, because (arguably) water politics led to fighting on Israel’s northern border, more than anything else, “the war would revolve around water.” The Arab League’s plans to take most of Israel’s water was provocation bigger than its threats, and the dry noose was the catalyst for Israel’s decision to strike.

Diplomacy came to naught. Tempers were not defused, the noose was not given any slack, and the push to war continued. At 07:45 on June 5, Israel attacked Egypt, beginning the Six Day War and setting in motion all the conflicts and killings Israel has suffered or delivered since.

Bibliography

Oren, Michael: Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Finkelstein, Norman: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Shlaim, Avi: The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
Morris, Benny: Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001
Charles Krauthammer: Prelude to the Six Days: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/17/AR2007051701976.html

The complete Short History of the Six Day War can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/22787004/A-Short-History-of-the-Six-Day-War.