Sanctioning Saudi – 1973 revisited?

In October 1973, Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia cut off oil sales to western states in retaliation for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. It was one of the most significant economic shocks to the global economy since the end of the Second World War.

The Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and tipped the US and states across Europe into painful recessions. Some argue that it even helped wreck the credibility of centre-left governments in the 1970s, ushering in the neoliberal revolution of the following decade.

The extrajudicial murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by perpetrators allegedly linked to the Saudi ruling family, and particularly the ambitious and overweening crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, has introduced discussion of possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia – a scenario that Saudi’s brutal war in Yemen has not to date precipitated. I empathize “discussion” because there is a many a slip twixt the cup and the lip – Saudi’s western allies have long been complacent about and at times complicit in the kingdom’s many misdeeds in the interests of intelligence, security, and contracts; and also, in opposition to their  mutual Iranian enemy, and the ambivalent, and in practical terms, tepid support for the US’ quixotic ‘war on terror” (in conflicts that Saudi Arabia has in many instances fermented with its export and funding of fundamentalist Islam and its support for Islamist groups worldwide.

The kingdom has threatened retaliation in the (unlikely) prospect that sanctions are indeed implemented – the USA and its western allies are reluctant to take such a big stick to this strategically important ‘partner in freedom”.

Predictably, commentators, and presumably policy-makers, are asking whether therefore we’ll see repeat of 1973. Many observers of a certain age recall the pain of what was to become a great economic and political re-calibration – of kowtowing to Gulf tyrants, and of  endeavours to reduce dependence upon the old producers of the Middle East.  But few tend to focus on the gains to economies and corporate bottom lines during the years that followed.

The massive increase in oil revenues flowing into Gulf coffers kick-started a veritable “gold rush” as westerners beat a congested path to the open doors and chequebooks of the kings and emirs who now sought to “modernize” their medieval backwaters with industrial plants, high rises and condos, conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, and more weapons than countries of their size and population could ever require or use.

For over four decades, it was party-time for consultants, fixers and arms manufacturers as democratic governments turned a blind eye to the repression, intolerance and inequity that prevailed among these valued customers. As was said about Catherine the Great and the partition of Poland, they weep as they take.

Visitors and expats sing the praises of these “miracles in the desert”, with their highways and shopping malls, but the kingdoms and emirates are still governed by medieval mindsets in which autocracy, patronage, patriarchy and misogyny, and religious intolerance and obscurantism contradict the values of the western nations who regard them as indispensable allies in their quixotic defense of democracy and freedom.

So, how much economic and political disruption would a Saudi oil embargo actually do today?

The global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century. Western countries have strategic reserves of oil and a wider range of suppliers. Recent years have highlighted the market’s resilience in the face of handbrake supply and demand turns. The “West” is not as dependent on Gulf oil as it was in the ‘seventies. A surge in domestic and non-Mid East sourced oil and gas, and in renewables has reduced Saudi Arabia’s economic clout.

Meanwhile, the autocratic kingdom is feeling the pinch of diminishing revenues, royal drones, growing populations, youth unemployment, and economic recession. An act of economic warfare as hinted by Saudi insiders, like an extreme oil production cut, would have but a limited impact upon the global economy, and  would destroy Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” economic reforms. His signature $500 billion dream of a high-tech city in the desert will never materialize without tapping western expertise and materièl, implying a free flow of knowledge, people and investment. And Saudi will not become a tourist destination, as the current leadership fervently hopes, if relations with the west utterly disintegrate. Saudi Arabia itself has the most to lose economically, politically and diplomatically in any standoff.

For other articles on the Middle East in Into That Howling Infinite, see: A Middle East Miscellany

The West should be careful over sanctioning Saudi Arabia – but not because of fears over oil prices

The 1973 Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and caused painful recessions, but the global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century, writes Ben Chu in The Independent, 29 October 2018

How important is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the global economy? Does Riyadh hold the world’s economic destiny in its hands?

These questions are not academic given the profound uncertainty over how the Jamal Khashoggi case will play out in the coming days and over how western governments could respond if credible evidence emerges that the dissident Saudi journalist’s killing was not a “mistake” made by “rogue” operatives but was, in fact, explicitly ordered by the all-powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.

Donald Trump has threatened “very severe” consequences under those circumstances. And, for their part, the Saudi government also last week made it clear they would not passively soak up western sanctions or other forms of punishment.

“The kingdom emphasises that it will respond to any measure against it with an even stronger measure,” its Foreign Ministry said in a defiant statement. “The kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”

Oil was not specifically mentioned. But then it doesn’t really need to be.

The Saudi-led oil embargo of 1973, when Gulf states stopped sales to the likes of the US, the UK, Canada and Japan in retaliation for western support of Israel, was one of the most significant economic shocks to the global economy since the end of the Second World War.

It is branded in the memory of politicians and civil servants of a certain age, but also on the inherited folk memory of the current generation. The Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and tipped the US and states across Europe into painful recessions. Some argue that it even helped wreck the credibility of centre-left governments in the 1970s, clearing the way for the neoliberal revolution of the following decade.

So would we be going back to the 1970s? How much economic and political disruption would a Saudi oil embargo actually do today?

The global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century.Western countries have strategic reserves of oil and a wider range of suppliers. Recent years have highlighted the market’s resilience in the face of handbrake supply and demand turns.

The recent spike in oil prices in 2010, when prices hit $125 a barrel, stimulated the domestic US shale oil and gas production sector. The industry grew so fast that domestic energy production today is almost 90 per cent of US consumption. A decade ago the US had net daily imports of 10 million barrels of oil and petroleum products. In 1973 it was 6.4 million. Today that is down to just 2.3 million.

Indeed, the US this year, thanks to shale, overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest daily crude oil producer.

It’s true that the UK and western Europe are still heavily reliant on imported energy and therefore appear particularly vulnerable to a sudden jump in global oil prices. But the European share of renewables as a source of final energy consumption has also been rising rapidly, hitting 17 per cent in 2016. A spike in oil prices would be likely to accelerate this switch away from fossil fuels (just as the 1973 embargo encouraged western energy conservation measures such as the Nixon administration’s 50mph US highway speed limit). Again, while this could actually be beneficial in the medium term for the west, it would hardly be in the Saudi economic interest.

The oil price has been rising since the middle of last year and is now close to a four-year high at $80. One Saudi newspaper columnist has suggested that, if faced with severe western sanctions, Riyadh could slash its roughly 10-million-barrel-a-day production by two-thirds, sending the global price back to $100, or perhaps even on to a record $400 a barrel.

Yet there was little of that kind of sabre waving at the Saudi “Davos in the Desert” business investment event in Riyadh last week. The Saudi business folk to whom I spoke were, instead, keen to see western alliances preserved and almost desperate for the present crisis to dissipate.

It’s clear why. An act of economic warfare like an extreme oil production cut would destroy Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” economic reforms. The crown prince’s $500bn dream of a high-tech city in the desert will never materialize without tapping western expertise, implying a free flow of knowledge, people and investment. And Saudi will not become a tourist destination, as the current leadership fervently hopes, if relations with the west utterly disintegrate. Saudi Arabia itself has the most to lose economically in any standoff.

There are certainly reasons why the west should tread carefully with Saudi Arabia, from state-to-state co-operation on terror intelligence, to considerations of geopolitical stability. But fears of a repeat of the 1970s oil embargo should not, whatever folk memory holds, be high on the list.

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When Freedom Comes

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
Bob Dylan, Chimes of Freedom

Hear the cry in the tropic night, should be the cry of love but it’s a cry of fright
Some people never see the light till it shines through bullet holes
Bruce Cockburn, Tropic Moon

When Freedom Comes is a tribute to Robert Fisk, indomitable, veteran British journalist and longtime resident of Beirut, who could say without exaggeration “I walk among the conquered, I walk among the dead” in “the battlegrounds and graveyards” of “long forgotten armies and long forgotten wars”. It’s all there, in his grim tombstone of a book, The Great War for Civilization (a book I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century – but it takes stamina –  at near in 1,300 pages – and a strong stomach – its stories are harrowing).

The theme, alas, is timeless, and the lyrics, applicable to any of what Rudyard called the “savage wars of peace” being waged all across our planet, yesterday, today and tomorrow – and indeed any life-or-death battle in the name of the illusive phantom of liberty and against those intent on either denying it to us or depriving us of it. “When freedom runs through dogs and guns, and broken glass” could describe Paris and Chicago in 1968 or Kristallnacht in 1938. If it is about any struggle in particular, it is about the Palestinians and their endless, a fruitless yearning for their lost land. Ironically, should this ever be realized, freedom is probably the last thing they will enjoy. They like others before them will be helpless in the face of vested interest, corruption, and brute force, at the mercy of the ‘powers that be’ and the dead hand of history.

The mercenaries and the robber bands, the warlords and the big men, az zu’ama’, are the ones who successfully “storm the palace, seize the crown”. To the victors go the spoils – the people are but pawns in their game.

There goes the freedom fighter,
There blows the dragon’s breath.
There stands the sole survivor;
The time-worn shibboleth.
The zealots’ creed, the bold shahid,
Give me my daily bread
I walk among the conquered
I walk among the dead

Here comes the rocket launcher,
There runs the bullets path,
The revolution’s father,
The hero psychopath.
The wanting seed, the aching need
Fulfill the devil’s pact,
The incremental balancing
Between the thought and act.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass

There rides the mercenary,
Here roams the robber band.
In flies the emissary
With claims upon our land.
The lesser breed with savage speed
Is slaughtered where he stands.
His elemental fantasy
Felled by a foreign hand.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On heaven and on earth,
And each shall make his sacrifice,
And each shall know his worth.
In stockade and on barricade
The song will now be heard
The incandescent energy
Gives substance to the word.

Missionaries, soldiers,
Ambassadors ride through
The battlegrounds and graveyards
And the fields our fathers knew.
Through testament and sacrament,
The prophecy shall pass.
When freedom runs through clubs and guns,
And broken glass.

The long-forgotten army
In the long-forgotten war.
Marching to a homeland.
We’ve never seen before.
We feel the wind that blows so cold amidst
The leaves of grass.
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass
When freedom comes to beating drums
She crawls on broken glass

© Paul Hemphill 2012

From: Into That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill Volume 5. See also: East – An Arab Anthology , and: A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

Islam’s house of many mansions

Islam, the faith of some two hundred million souls, has a long and well-documented history of pluralism and tolerance, and indeed, learning. But in recent decades, the faith has been hijacked by the punitive and literalist proclivities of the Salafis, condoned, coopted and championed by the conservative, corrupt, brutal, patriarchal and misogynistic autocracies of Saudi Arab and other Gulf States and ostensibly Islamic states like Iran. If ever there were exemplars for the “religion of peace”, and followers of a “merciful and compassionate” God, these are certainly not. To borrow another faith’s noun, theirs’ is in so many ways a gospel of bondage. [read Alastair Crooke’s excellent article on the history of Wahhabism]

[This, by the way, is a book review and not a theological critique. I neither profess nor profane, although my personal opinions might occasionally intrude. I admit to a sound but not specialist familiarity with and knowledge of Islam and Muslims, and a wide but not expert knowledge of the Middle East]

In The House of Islam – a global history  offers the potential for a softer, kinder, spiritual  Islam.  Author Ed Husain, British-born of Indian heritage, wears his Sufi heart on his sleeve.  “Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.”

Little wonder that in many rooms in the House of Islam, Sufis are suspect, sanctioned and silenced – often brutally. As are many “heterogeneous” offshoots of this one true faith, including for many,  more than two hundred million Shiah.

It is the authoritarian, mediaeval Salafi-Wahhabi Arabian Peninsula theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity and has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – notwithstanding the historical preeminence of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as centres of Muslim learning – and even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.

This “Arabization” and indeed, “Saudification” of Islam has colonized, distorted and, indeed, contorted and corrupted the spiritual message of Islam, and with the concurrent attractions and challenges of westernization, has, in Husain’s words, “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, and brought forth jihadi abominations like al-Qaeda and Da’ish.

With the spread of ultra-conservative Salafi theology in many parts of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, Muslims are expected to dress in accordance with “modest” traditional Arabic attire and women are under pressure to wear the headscarf and other more extreme coverings – the latter never sanctioned by either Qur’an or Hadith writ. The writ runs deeper than outward appearance, as exemplified by the subordinate status of women in most Muslim societies. Moreover,  Arab and non-Arab Muslims are also expected to abandon their pre-Islamic history and culture – derided as remnants from pre-Islamic ignorance. In its most extreme manifestation, this saw the destruction of humanity’s priceless heritage at Palmyra and Nineveh. Some salafis call for the razing of Egypt’s pyramids.

Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, multitudes have returned there, helped in no small part by their more atavistic coreligionists who see salvation, wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a medieval ethos and lifestyle of some golden age of faith which most scholars maintain never existed.

Islamists are intolerant of anything resembling a free exchange of ideas and information – the very concept of democracy is haram as the Prophet and his successors never thought of it – and possess a cultural antipathy, and iconoclastic rage for all things western, including, in some places,  western education (the derivation of the name ’Boko Haram’  for Nigeria’s ISIS franchise). The fundamentalist mindset in all its patriarchal intolerance, prejudice and misogyny is itself often embraced by the ignorant and the uneducated, the downcast and dispossessed, the bitter and the bigoted.

Husain points out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis“, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities. There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.

This said, there are many more Muslim-majority states such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Tunisia – countries that were conceived as secular states, and have largely remained secular or quasi-secular) , and indeed, have and made considerable democratic breakthroughs via the ballot box. Indonesia (the most populous Muslim-majority country) and Malaysia (one of the most industrialised Muslim-majority countries) are not located in the Arab Middle East. And yet, as events in Turkey and Indonesia have shown, the lure of radical Islam and its cultural and moral strictures is an attractive one to would-be authoritarians and to governments fearful of rising populist and nationalist tides.

And herein lies another portend. Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so do an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists who often do not hesitate to use religion as a blunt instrument of groupthink. I am thinking here of Russia and its Othodox Church, and of Polish Catholicism, but even ostensibly democratic USA and Israel are subject to the overweening influence of powerful evangelical and Haredim interest groups that endeavour to stamp their moral code on the more temporal majority. As radical British playwright Dennis Potter once remarked, “religion is the wound, not the bandage”.

Academic Lily Rahim notes in he review, published below, that this calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fueled the ascendancy of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. And that is a huge, multifaceted project, taking in the economic and social inequality that persists in countries rich and poor, the gap between the few ‘haves’ and the many ‘have-nots’, the power imbalances between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’, the pernicious rise of sectarianism and ethnocentrism, the mirage of ‘manifest destiny’, and the historical habit of the strong to bomb the weak and the poor to blazes.

Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and co-religionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris and Brussels, Istanbul and Baghdad, Jakarta and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, the longest war in the 21st Century, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to what Rudyard Kipling called these “savage wars of peace” a forlorn hope.

“In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History”.

Two other reviews of Ed Husain’s informative and illuminating boo follow.

For other posts regarding the Middle East in Into That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany.  And, for a long view, read: A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West.

The House of Islam by Ed Husain.


The House of Islam by Ed Husain review – a powerful corrective

Boys prepare food for devout Muslims to break their day-long fast on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in Mumbai, India.
         Boys prepare food for devout Muslims to break their day-long fast on the last Friday of  Ramadan in Mumbai, India ( Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims a very large number – perhaps a majority – observed the Ramadan fast last month. This doesn’t simply mean abstaining from food and water during the hours of daylight (as well as sex and cigarettes), but in many cases involves a deliberate reappraisal of one’s relation to God and the world, with more prayers and philanthropy and less shopping.

Of all the obligations that define Islam, Ramadan arouses perhaps the most irritation among some outsiders. A practice that places such a strain on the body is surely an affront to reason. Nor does it seem to make economic sense for workers to be tired and unproductive while declining to perform their allotted roles as consumers with credit ratings. And yet the west has absorbed Ramadan, if uneasily, with supermarket promotions for dates (the Prophet’s favoured breakfast), school assemblies on the subject and “What is Ramadan?” features even in the Sun.

Knowledge about Islam may have improved, but the speed with which relations are changing between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between Muslims, necessitates a constant reassessment of different worldviews and the way they interrelate. Isis’s defeat in Mesopotamia has not led to any meaningful dialogue between cultures. On the contrary, with Gaza aflame, the Iran nuclear accord uprooted and Sunni-Shia tensions at an all-time high, the prospects for detente have rarely been bleaker.

An airstrike on Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya in 2016.
                      Airstrike on Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya in 2016 )Manu Brabo/AP)

It’s an illustration of the insincerity of many world leaders that more than 250 French public figures, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and three former prime ministers, recently demanded that Qur’anic verses endorsing the killing of non-Muslims be “struck down” – just as the Second Vatican Council expurgated elements of Catholic doctrine in the early 1960s. This meretricious proposal affects to assume that Islam is a centralised religion like Catholicism (it isn’t), that the Qur’an can be snipped and remain the Qur’an (it can’t), and that because they recognise the same holy book the Islam of the jihadi is the same as that of the Sufi or the Europeanised Muslim with his Qur’an on the top shelf and his bottle of burgundy on the bottom. When will someone put these contradictions of text, practice and culture into terms accessible to the layperson? Who will speak across the divides?

Enter Ed Husain. A Briton of Indian parentage, a Muslim whose bestselling book, The Islamist described his temporary embrace of the values of global jihad in the 90s, Husain retained his religious faith even after he became a government adviser on deradicalisation. Since then he has lived off the fat of the neoliberal establishment that ran the world before the age of Trump, working for Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation as well as several other well‑heeled thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic. The anti-extremism organisation he co-founded in 2007, Quilliam, is considered by many to be hopelessly compromised by its support for government efforts to squeeze Muslims into the corset of “British” values.

Ed Husain in Brick Lane, London, May 2018.
                            Husain in Brick Lane, London, May 2018 (Andy Hall, The Observer)

Husain’s politics and the company he keeps may be questioned, but they evidently haven’t stopped him from thinking productively about Islam as a force for good in the world. An account of the compassion, reason and wonderment that Islam has exhibited for much of its history, this book is a powerful corrective to the widespread perception, fostered by jihadis and Islamophobes alike, that it’s a belief system for misanthropes.

Ever since its inception Islam’s ethos had been contested, but a disastrous turn came with rejection of the printing press and the triumph of scholasticism over independent reasoning, exacerbated by a morale-sapping struggle against European expansionism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Husain rightly says that the root of much Muslim confusion is a sense that a glorious past has soured into defeat and humiliation, but fallen prestige is hardly the monopoly of Muslims. The West has also lost ground, particularly its white males; dealing with changes in status is a part of being human. In general, Husain is too apt to view Muslims and their dignity as qualitatively different from those of other people. His modern politics can also be sketchy. With justification he criticises Saudi Arabia for its promotion of bigotry – less understandable is his soft spot for the  Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan –  less a paragon of generous Islam than thuggish majoritarianism. His insistence that Muslim nations accommodate the tiny Jewish state in their midst is common sense but a suggestion of a Middle Eastern union including Israel reads somewhat grotesquely in the light of the recent carnage in Gaza.

For all that, Husain has written a valuable book, full of suggestions for Islam’s implementation from a position of magnanimity and love. Then the confidence will return.

 The House of Islam: A Global History is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Muslim pilgrims pray on the Mountain of Mercy during The Haj. Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.
Muslim pilgrims pray on the Mountain of Mercy during The Haj. Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is where Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite ( Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

In The House of Islam, Ed Husain affirms the centrality of the pluralist foundations and principles of Islam. Pluralism has also been rooted in Husain’s “lived reality”. His book opens powerfully, with Husain affirming his plural identity: “I am a Westerner and an observant Muslim. Caught between two worlds, I have learnt to dovetail the two facets of my identity. This book is a reflection of that inner bridge between Islam and the West”.

Yet, as the inflections of this superbly written book suggest, Husain’s “inner bridge” extends beyond “Islam and the West” and incorporates “the West” (Britain where he was born and raised), Islam (his faith) and India, his ancestral homeland.

A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
A Turkish Muslim woman prays inside Hiraa cave, where Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God to preach Islam, on Noor Mountain, on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.Photo: AP

Husain’s Indian heritage comes across in his whimsical ruminations of Mughal Sufi history, in particular the riveting narrative of Jahanara Begum – the complex and colourful Sufi-inspired daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1592–1666), who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife.

Hussain’s Sufi proclivities are apparent in the chapter “Who is a Sufi”, arguably one of the most engaging chapters. Husain describes the Sufi as one who “seeks only to please God, and does so in secret as often as possible”, grapples with “the heart and soul of Islam” and strives towards “maintaining equilibrium while swimming in deep oceans of spiritual awareness, and the ways in which the human ego could be crushed”.

Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.

In contrast to the rigid, punitive and literalist tendencies of Salafi Islam, as promoted by the conservative monarchies in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and supposed Islamic states such as Iran, Sufi Islam’s leanings are inclusive, compassionate and speak to the complex yearnings of the human soul.

These leanings are evident in Rumi’s message of learning, hope and redemption, as the renowned Sufi poet ruminated: “Come. Come, whoever you are./ Wanderer, worshipper, lover of learning./ It doesn’t matter./ Ours is not a caravan of despair./ Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times./ Come, yet again, come, come.”

Husain’s considerable insights on the house of Islam, made up of more than 1.5 billion Muslims, have been shaped by his lived incarnations as an Islamist, Salafist and current abode in mystical Sufi Islam. His destiny within Sufi Islam culminated after many years of study under the guidance of Islamic scholars and living in the Middle East.

Enriched by these experiences, Husain notes that he has the “rare privilege of being an insider both in the West and in the Muslim World”. Yet, it could also be deduced that his acute insights have been cultivated by his status as an “outsider” in both the West and the Arab Middle East – stemming from his minority Indian ethnicity in both domains.

The House of Islam is understandably concerned with authoritarian and Salafi-Wahhabi Gulf Arab theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity. This peculiarity has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.

Husain insightfully asserts that Arabisation as well as Westernisation has “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, as manifested by the rise of Salafi jihadi groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda.

With the spread of ultra-conservative Salafi theology in many parts of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, Muslims are expected to dress in accordance with “modest” traditional Arabic attire and women are under pressure to wear the headscarf and other coverings. Arab and non-Arab Muslims are also expected to jettison their pre-Islamic history and culture – derided as remnants from pre-Islamic ignorance or jahiliyya.

Husain reminds us of the paradox of the current Salafi dominance by noting that in the 1790s, Salafis were not even considered Muslims by the chief qadi (cleric) of Mecca; indeed, for several years Salafis were kept away from the holy cities and The Haj.

He highlights the theological ties between Salafi Islam and jihadi Islamists, such as Isis and al-Qaeda, by pointing out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi…. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis”, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities.

There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.

The House of Islam is a valuable read, particularly for those with some understanding of Islam and the Muslim world. Husain is a gifted writer and perceptive observer particularly of the Arab Middle East.

That said, the book makes minimal references to the more dynamic and democratising Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Tunisia – countries that were conceived as secular states (have largely remained secular or quasi-secular) and made considerable democratic breakthroughs via the ballot box. Instructively, Indonesia (the most populous Muslim-majority country) and Malaysia (one of the most industrialised Muslim-majority countries) are not located in the Arab Middle East.

Instead of pointing to Israel as a source of emulation for the Muslim world, Husain could well have highlighted these consolidating democracies. All three countries boast a vibrant civil society, coalition governments based on power-sharing and political systems based on secular constitutionalism.

Despite the penetrating insights in The House of Islam, Husain’s narrative of the myriad hurdles confronting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and Israel’s role in this struggle, is somewhat disappointing.

Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so does Israel and an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists. This calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fuelled the ascendency of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History.

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-house-of-islam-review-ed-husain-on-the-history-of-a-welcoming-religion-20180809-h13r0w.htm

Lily Rahim is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where she teaches Political Islam and Southeast Asian Politics. Her more recent books include Muslim Secular Democracy and The Politics of Islamism. Ed Husain is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival (mwf.com.au).

Throwing Abbas Under the Bus

You’re sposed to sit on you ass and nod at stupid things
Man that’s hard to do
But if you don’t they’ll screw you
And if you do they’ll screw you too
And I’m standing in the middle of the diamond all alone
I always play to win when it comes to skin and bone
Warren Zevon, Bill Lee

The details of US President Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal” for resolving the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict have been leaked, surmised or imagined – no one can be sure at this stage – for a while now. And it is one that the Palestinians would never agree to.

We provide below a selection of articles that discus the intimations, imperfections and implications of the plan that will ostensibly succeed where all other efforts have foundered because as Donald Trump has stated many times, “that is what I do”.

The US has lost its credibility as an “honest broker”, if it ever was one, that is. It is impossible to be a mediator in a conflict or develop a credible peace plan when one side refuses to even talk to you. Palestinian leaders have not met with senior U.S. officials for the past six months, not since Trump announced that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Move, it did! And now there are hints that the plan actually takes Jerusalem off the negotiating table.

The Palestinians are in a bind. If they reject the deal, especially one accepted by Israel, the Israeli government could once again argue that it has no partner on the Palestinian side, and move towards annexing large parts of the West Bank, which indeed a number of Israeli openly advocate, rendering the ever-receding prospect of the two-state solution impossible. The end result would push the sides even further apart.

The dice are loaded and the deal is rotten in what is a win-lose game. The nationalists and settlers would would be delighted, and the Palestinians on one hand and the Israeli opposition on the other would be simultaneously cut out and boxed in.

Veteran Middle East correspondent and long time Lebanese resident Robert Fisk pulls no punches. “Is there no humiliation left for the Palestinians?” he asks. Soon to be granted the ultimate deal that, in Jared Kushner’s word, “will give them and their future generations new opportunities, more and better paying jobs and prospects for a better life.” Is Trump’s son-in-law – “adviser” on the Middle East, real estate developer and US investor – delusional? After three Arab-Israeli wars, tens of thousands of Palestinian deaths and millions of refugees, does Jared Kushner really believe that the Palestinians will settle for cash?… How can he humiliate an entire Arab people by suggesting that their freedom, sovereignty, independence, dignity, justice and nationhood are merely “politicians’ talking points”. “ The Palestinians, he states, will not be bought for a fistful of dollars Saudi, US or EU.

Yes they can, and maybe, they will …Maybe the prospect of a quiet, normal life with jobs for young (important given the depressingly high youth unemployment) and old and brass in pocket, might persuade ordinary Palestinians to accept the political and economic normalisation of what would be occupation-lite.

Meanwhile, there are reports that”moderate” Arab countries are supporting the US’s diktat. The current US-Gulf-israel nexus was a work-in-progress during the Obama years and whilst Donald Trump was but a candidate, and now he has delegated carriage of the “ultimate deal” to his neophyte, demonstratively pro-Israeli son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The plan is to remove the Palestinian problem off the table so that they can concentrate on their real enemy, Shiite Iran.

As for those ostensible “Moderates”, the term is an oxymoron. Saudi and the Gulf emirs are tyrants, autocrats and complicit lick-spittles who’d sell out the Palestinians (and the Israelis too, if they could) if they could conscript American blood and treasure in their perennial Sunni grudge match with Shi’a Iran. King Abdullah of Jordan is wise not to trust this shady bunch. With domestic troubles of his own, and over half of his subjects of Palestinian descent, he has good reason to be careful. Dependent on foreign aid, however, he would be vulnerable to US and Saudi pressure. Pressure is also being exerted on Egypt’s dictator al Sissi. Whilst needful of US and Saudi cash, he is probably wary of stirring up further trouble at home with the economic situation still dire, the Islamist threat in the Sinai unabated, and Gaza presenting a clear and present powder-keg on the eastern border. He has enough stuff to deal with without buying into an anti-Iranian alliance and a deal that the Palestinian will not accept. Neither Trump, Israel nor the Gulf plutocrats are popular on the Arab street.

There is talk of Saudi Arabia pumping money into a resurgent, potentially Singaporean Palestine (they do gild this hallucinatory lily). But this doesn’t gel with reports that the kingdom is in financial straits and has enough trouble at the moment at home, with Yemen, and with an ascendant Iran. Overweening crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, however, often ventures where angels fear to tread. That he has peremptorily “summoned” King Abdullah and Abbas to Riyadh with no apparent success (much like that farce with the Lebanese prime minister), might suggest that he has less influence over his fellow Arabs than he or his American pals imagine.

Meanwhile, corrupt, coopted and ailing old Abbas and his very unpopular PA, watching the Kushner caravan bumping over the rocky ground of Middle Eastern politics, would perhaps be wise to hang out for a fairer deal – should that deal ever come along.

It’s going to be an interesting journey.

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/palestine-jared-kushner-ultimate-plan-israel-donald-trump-jerusalem-right-to-return-a8420836.html
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/18/donald-trumps-new-world-order
Kushner’s Peace Plan Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen
https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/jared-kushner-latest-middle-east-tour-180624111143134.html
Mohammed bin Salman Has Thrown the Palestinians Under the Bus

Read other posts about Israel and Palestine in In The Howling Infinite in A Middle East Miscellany:

https://howlinginfinite.com/eastward-aye-he-wandered-reflections-on-the-middle-east/

Author’s Note: 
Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   
The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
So what happens next?
I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
October 8th 2017

 

Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land

Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Celebrated Israel author Amos Oz argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking, reflecting on the rise of fundamentalism, and how, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanatic­ism, and isolationism. He argues against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion, celebrating the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion and discovering an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement as the perfect antidote to dogma.

Some people argue that Israeli commentators like Amos Oz, David Grossman, Gideon Levi, Uri Avnery, Ari Shavit, and Sarah Tuttle-Singer are cliche-bound idealists who love the Israel they wish to see, and not the one of a real, mutable and dangerous world. Fanatics and zealots themselves, indeed.  It is a valid if over-the-top criticism, but does not detract from what they are telling us. They, like their critics love their country with all their hearts. But they and ourselves all have our idealized homeland, a Dreamtime of our memories and imaginations, and it is, in a way, a kind of “magical thinking”. The irony is that the outside, “western” world often appears to share the same, romanticized, idealized and unrealistic concept of what Israel was, is and ought to be, and harshly holds it to that lofty standard regardless of the fact that no nation , however heroic and  glamourous its creation story, is pure and innocent.

Nevertheless, Australian publisher Louse Adler distills perfectly the message of this timely, perceptive book:


Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, by Amos Oz
Louse Adler, The Australian May 26, 2018

Writing about the Middle East may be considered timely, given the latest battles between the Israeli military and the citizens of Gaza. Yet this impasse has been in urgent need of resolution for 70 years.

Whether you celebrate the establishment of the state of Israel or mourn it as the Nakba, what remains a tragedy is the lack of a just solution that brings peace to the region and recognises the equally rights of competing claims.

Dear Zealots: Letters From a Divided Land, the 40th book from Israeli writer Amos Oz, ­offers the slimmest hope that peace may be possible, and a dire warning about the unholy coalition of anti-democratic forces that may thwart progress. Criticism of Zionism and contemporary Israeli politics is de rigueur in ­Israel, often cited as a testimony to this democratic island isolated in the midst of a fundamentalist Middle East. It is a truism that debate in Israel is robust and that critics of the state are afforded the right to dissent.

Despite treason accusations and the issuing of death threats, writers and journalists such as Oz, David Grossman, Etgar Keret and Gideon Levy continue to identify the moral malaise infecting Israeli society while the occupation of Palestine continues and settlements increase.

But these longstanding and courageous oppo­nents of the government’s attitudes to its neighbours have had little impact, ­despite their oratorical skills, international visib­ility and credibility. Great writers continue to write, speak out, sign petitions and ­demon­strate to no avail. Paradoxically, beyond Israel it is almost impossible to speak about governme­nt policies without inciting the wrath of its loyal defenders.

Into this seemingly intractable quagmire Oz has lobbed his latest literary missile. He argues against religious fundamentalism, political cynicism and wishful thinking. In three powerful essays he reflects on the rise of fundamentalism and why, in an increasingly complex world, we take cover in xenophobia, religious fanatic­ism, isolationism.

Winston Churchill defined the fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Dear Zealots is an argument against fanaticism and for the acceptance of differences of opinion. Only Oz could include Israel’s “hilltop thugs”, Islamophobes, the Ku Klux Klan and Islamic State in one sentence; adding veganism, smoking and breastfeeding to this catalogue of zealotry. Against the rise of the zealot Oz celebrates the Jewish tradition of disputation, interpretation and persuasion. His discovery of an “anarchist gene” that thrives on disagreement is the perfect antidote to dogma.

Oz loves Israel. He tends to romanticise the place, pointing to the country’s eight million prime ministers, eight million prophets and eight million messiahs. However, a cacophony of voices­ and opinions doesn’t ensure­ a genuinely democratic state. A state that does not offer full rights to all citizens, a state in­extricably bound by religious authority, where there is no separation of church and state, imperils democracy.

The conflation of Israeli political practice and Jewish heritage makes it difficult to prise apart the state, the residual impact of its eastern European founders, religious influences and the challenging ethnic demographics of the polity.

Oz rages against Halachic Judaism, a form of religious piety demanding blind faith, investing God with supreme authority and believing the Torah protects Jews from assimilation. In Halachic Judaism, the history of the Jewish people is an unchanging story of sin, suffering and ­repent­ance. According to this logic, the innocent victims of the Holocaust, like those killed in Israeli military service, are martyrs sanctifying God’s name. Where else do we hear this today?

Who is a Jew remains a fundamental question. The answer delivers remarkable consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the most Jewish Jews are the “black hats”. Next are the settlers, then the trad­itional Jews who drive to synagogue but don’t eat prawns, then the Jews who are lost. The worst are the Jewish anti-Zionists, lefties who go on about human rights and peace.

Oz argues Jewish identity does not derive from holding fast to religious orthodoxy but is

amassed over generations, customs absorbed from outside which become part of the family, perhaps a certain type of humour, an inclination to be critical and sceptical, to be ironic, self-pitying and sometimes self-righteous, pragmatism tinged with fantasy, ecstasy diluted with scepticism, euphoria blended with pessimism, melancholy cheerfulness, a healthy suspicion of authority and a stubborn resistance to injustice.

The summation by Oz, often described as the secularists’ rabbi, of the commandments is the exhortation “to cause no pain”. That humanist ethos insists on the right of all to equal rights and a dignified life. That principle is disappearing from the fabric of Israel and the moral lacuna­ is being filled by pieties and pessimism.

Fundamentalism in Israel has brought ­together an unholy alliance between the ultra-Orthodox Haredim (anti-Zionist) and the (pro-Zionist) Messianic Jews of the settlements. Neither recognise the authority of the state of Israel. Fortress Israel is also the binding idea for Israel’s religious fundamentalists and political right; they perpetuate the myth of Is­rael being forever in conflict with the rest of the world.

The Israeli left’s attempts to resolve the conflict imply the terrifying prospect that Israel’s exceptionalism will evaporate, its identity will be lost, with assimilation an inevitability. Oz proposes instead that the focus should be on the future, forgetting the border fetishes of both the left and right along with the flags and holy sites.

In the final essay, Dreams Israel Should Let Go of Soon, Oz argues that Israel hasn’t won a war since 1967 and that, after 100 years of ­struggle, the Palestinian aspiration to self-determinat­ion has not been vanquished. There is justice and injustice on both sides in equal measure, and a two-state solution is the only way to ensure the continuation of a Jewish state and justice for the Palestinians. This will require compromise from both, and compromise is the antithesis­ of zealotry.

Dear Zealots is a passionate polemic against dogmatism and defeatism. Viscerally angered by the idea of irreversibility, Oz rejects as ­irrevocable the settlements and occupation. Religiou­s fanatics demand a theocratic state; the right continues to ignore international ­pressure; the left argues that the status quo is apartheid and the only solution is one state. Oz, a left-wing Zionist, opposes occupation but defends­ the historical right of Jews to statehood. He refuses to give up on democracy, on Israel or on justice for Palestinians.

Jews and Arabs are Semites, sharing more than they have chosen to remember, including a sensibility tinged with pessimism. Perhaps we should keep in mind the story of the Jewish optimist­ and the Jewish pessimist. The Jewish pessimist turns to the Jewish optimist and says: “Oy, things can’t get any worse for our people!” The Jewish optimist turns to the Jewish pessim­ist, smiles, and says: “Sure it can!”

It is the oblig­ation of all of us with a social conscience to wish Oz all power to his pen.

Louise Adler is chief executive of Melbourne University Publishing.

Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land, By Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus, 224pp, $29.99)

See also, in In That Howling Infinite:  A Middle East Miscellany

 

The man with the plan

All that was old is new again with the potential re-emergence of the US’ Cold War strategy of “offshore balancing”
Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading. Here is his latest piece  for The Australian on this subject.
It is a well-tried and well-documented strategy whereby an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of ­strategic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover), and using proxy military muscle, regular and irregular, to prevent any one rival dominating the region.

Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding ­decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.

This comes in the wake of hugely expensive and largely unsuccessful efforts by the US to dominate a region directly through direct military intervention – and subsequent entanglement that left it ‘neck deep in the big muddy’ to quote political activist and balladeer Pete Seeger. It was a maximalist approach that had ad­verse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of ­action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of ­occupation).

But, offshore balancing requires a cool nerves, a steady hand and deft footwork.

Bad timing and miscalculation can increase the risk of wars that the US neither wants or is prepared for. And in inexperienced, needful, and impetuous hands, it could render the US vulnerable to being played by its partners. Kilcullen notes that a body of opinion in the US intelligence community,  and also, within Israeli intelligence,  holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, that Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and that no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.

But it would appear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince Muhammed bib Salem have successfully sold Donald Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.

Moreover, with regard to US foreign policy generally, one size does not necessarily fit all. Taking a strategy like offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula, to Russia or China  where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.

Read on…

Donald Trump: The man with the plan

David Kilcullen, Contributing Editor for Military Affairs, The Australian, May

Donald Trump welcomes home three Americans released by North Korea. Picture: AFP
         Donald Trump welcomes home three Americans released by North Korea. Picture: AFP

    This week, as Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and start reimposing sanctions on ­Teh­ran, a chorus of condemnation broke out on both sides of the Atlantic. European politicians condemned the decision and began working on ways to keep Iran in the deal, while in the US former secretary of state John Kerry engaged in last-minute direct negotiations with Iranian leaders.

    Fred Kaplan of Slate penned a piece that was typical of the mainstream media reaction, arguing that Trump withdrew “because of spite, ignorance, or both”.

    There is no doubt that the US President’s decision reflected animus toward his predecessor’s signature achievement in foreign policy. It also highlighted president Barack Obama’s self-­inflicted vulnerability over the deal, which he approved personally as an executive agreement rather than submitting it to the US Senate for formal ratification as a treaty. His administration also voted for a UN resolution lifting sanctions on Iran before congress had properly begun its review of the agreement. These ­decisions, over near-un­animous Republican opposition, made the deal a bone of partisan contention from the outset, a pro­blem Obama’s staff exacerbated through a manipulative media campaign that drew harsh criticism when disclosed in 2016. All this made it easier for Trump to leave the deal with just a stroke of the pen.

    Yet there’s reason to believe Trump may be acting from more than political spite. Indeed, it’s possible we might be witnessing the early signs of a new approach with the potential to transform America’s overseas military posture, though also carrying enhanced risk of war and other unintended consequences. The new approach may signal the re-emergence of Washington’s former strategy of working through regional coalitions to counter rivals in the ­Middle East, thereby enabling US military disengagement from the post-9/11 wars.

    The decision to dump the deal is far from the only indicator. Other recent signs include statements by Trump to the effect that he seeks to withdraw from Syria while sponsoring an Arab coalition to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State. Under this scheme, Washington would support allies (including, potentially, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a coalition of local Kurdish militias) but end combat troop deployments.

    Last month’s coalition strike on Syria sent a similar message in that it avoided targeting the Assad regime’s leadership or Russian and Iranian assets in Syria. It was also accompanied by clear statements that the US did not seek regime change — effectively acquiescing in Bashar al-Assad’s victory, moving away from Obama’s goal of regime change and further disen­gaging from involvement in the Syrian conflict.

    Iranians burn US flags and makeshift Israeli flags in Tehran. Picture: AFP
                         Iranians burn US flags and makeshift Israeli flags in Tehran. Picture: AFP

    Alongside an Arab coalition, ­Israel seems ready to step into any gap created by US withdrawal, while cheering Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal. Indeed, an undeclared low-level air battle has been going on between Israel, Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria since February. Israel decided to retain its advanced fighter aircraft in-country rather than send them to a scheduled exercise in Alaska last month and this week it raised military forces to their highest alert level, called up air defence and intelligence reservists, and opened air-raid and missile shelters for Israelis living within range of the Syrian border. If anything, Israel’s willingness to directly engage Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria has only increased after since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

    At the same time, statements by Saudi Arabia and the UAE indicate that the Sunni monarchies and their Gulf allies would consider participating in an Arab stabilisation force in Syria. Saudi leaders also have expressed a willingness to participate in strikes within Syria (making Saudi Arabia a de facto coalition partner with Israel, a tricky political position for Saudi leaders).

    Overtures by the US towards Egypt suggest Washington also is seeking ­Egyptian support for the same Arab coalition.

    All this may be evidence of an emerging post-deal strategy, whereby the US works through ­Israel and Arab partners in the region to weaken and contain Iran. For political reasons, Israeli and Arab components would operate separately, but Washington would co-ordinate with each and support both to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State while containing and undermining Iran, ­Hezbollah and Russia (with the emphasis very much on Iran).

    As part of this strategy, US ­forces may launch periodic operations (missile and drone strikes, air raids or special forces operations) to preserve their preferred balance but would avoid protracted commitments, and troop numbers in Iraq and Syria would be drawn down. Washington would operate with allied support where possible, but strike unilaterally if needed.

    Provided Turkey can agree on a ­demarcation line with US-backed Kurdish groups — probably somewhere near the present line of control along the Euphrates river — the US also might support Turkey’s buffer zone in northern Syria. In that case Turkey, too, would play a role in containing Iran and preventing the re-­emergence of Islamic State — the two paramount US objectives.

    This approach, if it does emerge, would be a classic instance of offshore balancing, where an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of ­stra­tegic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover) to prevent any one rival dominating the region.

    Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding ­decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.

    One of the strategy’s key attractions would be that it might restore a critical strategic distinc­tion: the difference between hugely expensive (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to dominate a region directly, and the far cheaper and more achievable goal of merely preventing a rival doing so.

    In the post-Cold War era of liberal and neo-conservative interventionism, US leaders often con­flated the two, as if preventing a hostile power from dominating a region necessarily implied dominating it themselves.

    This maximalist approach had obvious ad­verse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of ­action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of ­occupation).

    Trump has been railing against these overseas commitments for years. Indeed, one of his themes on the campaign trail was the need to get out of overseas commitments, bring troops home, force allies to commit their own resources to their defence, cease putting American lives at risk to provide security guarantees for countries (in Europe, Asia or the Middle East) that were unwilling to pay their fair share, and stop spending money on nation-building that would be better used at home.

    An offshore-balancing strategy offers a way to do this while still acting tough and reserving the right to intervene unilaterally (another key Trump theme).

    Offshore balancing does not preclude periodic interventions to restore a favourable balance of power in a given region, but it does tend to rule out long-term occupation or decisive commitments of the post-9/11 kind. It also implies holding military power back, over the horizon or outside the region, rather than establishing permanent bases.

    As such, naval forces (including warships, expeditionary marine units, carrier-based aircraft and submarines) are the key assets needed for such a strategy — and for now, at least, the US leads the world in these capabilities, giving it a comparative advantage.

    The strategy’s other key benefit is its low cost and ability to preserve (or, in this case, restore) strategic freedom of action. Its disadvantage is that interventions, when they do occur, can be extremely costly.

    Britain’s approach to Europe from the 1680s to 1945 — periodic interventions to prevent any one power dominating the continent but reluctance to create permanent alliances or bases — is one ­example of offshore balancing. Another was the US strategy for the Middle East from just before the end of World War II (when Washington first became concerned about the strategic centrality of the region) until the Gulf war in 1991.

    From 1944 to 1992, despite periodic interventions (a CIA-backed coup in Iran in 1953, brief engagements in Lebanon in 1958 and 1983, bombing Libya in 1986) the US generally kept its military out of the region, preferring to counter Soviet influence through partners such as Israel, Turkey, the Arab monarchies, the Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s and, until 1979, the shah of Iran.

    After 1991, everything changed: permanent US bases in Saudi Arabia (plus no-fly zones over Iraq, and the Clinton administration’s policy of “dual containment” towards Iraq and Iran) committed the US directly to the Middle East. US bases in Saudi Arabia, in particular, created intense grievances that led in part to the 9/11 attacks. After 2003, the Iraq war mired Americans in a full-scale military occupation. Successive presidents have sought to extricate themselves, but to little avail, proving what advocates of offshore balancing long have argued: hard though it is to avoid being dragged into permanent commitments, it’s far harder to ­extract yourself once committed.

    It’s unclear whether Trump knows any of this history; Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt argued last month on Foreign Policy’s website that he probably does not.

    This may not matter, though, since offshore ­balancing so closely aligns with Trump’s instinctive preferences. Despite his surface volatility, Trump consistently follows certain patterns of strategic behaviour. His two main (and apparently contradictory) urges — the desire to appear strong, while disengaging from post-9/11 commitments in the Middle East and lopsided (“unfair”) treaty arrangements in Europe and Asia — would be well served by an offshore-balancing strategy, so he may consistently follow it, consciously or otherwise.

    A more serious criticism, from the few analysts who have yet commented on the emerging strategy, is that Trump is too mercurial and strategically illiterate, and his administration too incoherent, to enact this kind of strategy. These criticisms, too, are overblown. The sacking of secretary of state Rex Tillerson and national security adviser HR McMaster in March has removed competing power centres in US foreign policy, while former CIA director Mike Pompeo (Tillerson’s replacement as Secretary of State), and Defence Secretary James Mattis appear more than capable of executing an offshore balancing strategy.

    New national security adviser John Bolton is from the neo-conservative tradition that led directly to the post-9/11 wars of occupation and to the invasion of Iraq, and he will have to modify his views to be able to support this kind of strategy. Likewise, independent-minded UN ambassador Nikki Haley will need to collaborate more closely with the State Department and the White House than she has done to date.

    But neither Bolton nor Haley are likely to oppose the strategy if it appears to be succeeding.

    If it does succeed — a big if — offshore balancing may become a de facto Trump doctrine to be applied elsewhere. Opportunities to apply it include the Korean peninsula, where Trump seems willing to agree to partial US withdrawal and a permanent peace treaty in return for North Korean denuclearisation and enhanced sponsorship of Japan and South Korea to balance China.

    Another possible opportunity is eastern Europe, where Washington may continue arming Ukraine, and support the Baltics and Scandinavia to balance Russia while stepping back from permanent NATO commitments (or making them more conditional on European ­defence spending.)

    Africa, where efforts to work through regional coalitions against terrorists are already well advanced, naturally lends itself to this strategy, which could be further enhanced through France and its G5 Sahel regional coalition, which is already operating against Islamic State in northwest Africa.

    Likewise, in Southeast Asia, enhanced support for Vietnam and The Philippines may combine with existing US relationships with Australia, India and Japan to balance China.

    Whatever its possibilities, offshore balancing does carry significant risks. The most important is proxy conflict, which can spiral out of control when more than one external power backs local actors, drawing them into confrontation. This risk is severe in the Middle East, where Iran and Russia are sponsoring their own proxies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already fighting a proxy war against Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen, from where conflict is spilling into the Horn of Africa and bringing missile strikes to the heart of Saudi Arabia (most recently, this past week after the nuclear deal announcement).

    Internal conflict in Saudi Arabia is also a risk: a recent incident where a drone flew into the royal compound in Riyadh triggered a coup scare and highlighted nervousness within the Saudi royal family about opposition towards Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms. Co-operation between Saudi and Israeli forces (even tacit) would be highly controversial within Saudi Arabia and could prompt sharply increased internal unrest.

    For its part, given this week’s series of strikes and the ongoing air campaign, Israel appears to be posturing for imminent war against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and possibly Lebanon too. This could draw Israel into more direct conflict with Iran — indeed, one possibility here is that Israel is deliberately escalating conflict with Iran in order to increase its leverage in post-nuclear-deal Washington.

    In the same region, a US exit from Syria (a key element of a balancing approach) would remove deterrents on Turkey’s ability to attack Kurdish groups, heightening conflict risk between Ankara and the Kurds.

    Besides enhanced war risk, the other important concern of an ­offshore-balancing strategy is that it leaves Washington vulnerable to being played by its partners. A body of opinion in the US intelligence community (and also, ironically, within Israeli intelligence) holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.

    But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince seem to have successfully sold Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.

    Likewise, taking a strategy such as offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula or in Europe, where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.

    Still, despite the ongoing condemnation from the policy establishment and allies alike, Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal may indicate something deeper than mere ill-informed petulance — and if a strategy of offshore balancing does emerge, it just may point the way to disengagement from the post-9/11 wars, a goal that every president since 2001 (including George W. Bush himself, since about five minutes after his “mission accomplished” speech in May 2003) has sought but failed to achieve.

    O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…

    Poets and painters have long been drawn to Bethlehem, and to the birth that may or may not have taken place here some 2,018 years ago. Even agnostics among them have been moved by the myth and magic of the place: the advent of that auspicious “star in the east”, the fulfillment of prophecies of old, wise men journeying on camels’ back from the exotic and mysterious “orient are”, angels heard on high, shepherds watching their flocks, and the well-loved dramatis personae of the classic manger scene.

    The Christmas Story, the Crucifiction and the Resurrection, is at the heart of the Christian creation myth. Like Jerusalem, its sacred. senior sibling, just ten kilometres away as the crow flies (and much, much longer by road due to the impositions of the occupation), the “little town of Bethlehem”  is as much a city of the mind and heart as one of bricks and mortar and of ordinary people with myriad preoccupations and passions.

    British author and screenwriter Nicholas Blincoe has now written an affectionate and informative biography of a town that is as close to the heart of our culture as any town ever was, and yet one that is almost unknown. Whilst “the hopes and fears of all our years” abide with this town of some 27,000 souls, it has a story of its own that reaches back eleven thousand years.

    Ballad of a border town 

    Blincoe’s story is part history, part travelogue and memoir, the past intermingling with the present in informative and ofttimes entertaining anecdotes and interviews, memories and personal experiences, as he takes us on a journey from the stone age to the stone wall – one that is in places eight metres in height.

    Bethlehem has since the beginning of recorded history been a border-town on a physical and metaphysical borderland.

    A borderland between “the desert and the sown”, the Judean Desert with it’s sheep-herding nomads and Bedouin bandits, and the orchards and vineyards in the fertile wadis that for centuries had supplied world-famous wine and olive oil.

    A borderland between the Christians who once constituted a majority, and who for generations have tended to the churches, shrines, and monasteries that were drawn to the holy ground around the Church of the Nativity, and the vast Muslim hinterland from whence over the centuries have come traders and invaders, missionaries and marauders, tourists and tanks. For two thousand years, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been one of the world’s preeminent destinations for religious tourism, and over two million tourists and pilgrims visit the town each year.

    Bethlehem’s location has given it a social, political, economic, and strategic significance disproportionate to its size. It grew the confluence of the springs and aqueducts that have supplied nearby Jerusalem for millennia. “All ittakes to conquer Jerusalem is to seize its water supply…This is what every future invader did.” It was close to the historic trade route between the Kings Road that linked the Hijaz to the Hauran, Damascus and the north, and the ancient Palestinian ports on the Mediterranean.

    Its importance as a Christian island in a sea of Islam saw it serve as a refuge for the oppressed and dispossessed of Ottoman pogroms and genocides and also of the Nakba, it has earned a reputuaion as a haven for the more secular and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement their struggle with more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries.

    But over the last half-Century, it is town that is increasingly cut off and isolated by the Separation Wall, encircled and encroached upon by the ever multiplying and expanding Israeli settlements (forty one at the last count with well over 100,000 inhabitants), hostile and acquisitive settlers, and the daily impositions and injustices of the military occupation with its restricted roads, armed soldiers and border police, checkpoints and the Kafkaesque permit system.

     

    A cultural caravanserai

    For most of his historical narrative, Blincoe maintains a degree of scholarly detachment with regard to the serpentine history and politics of the region, and  crafts a captivating tale of warlords and adventurers, of soldiers and saints,  as a parade of foreign armies pass through. Egyptians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, Arabs, Franks, and Mamluks, Turks, Brits, and finally, Israelis. There is a great picture of a group of Anzacs from the far side of the world in their winter coats emerging from the cave of the nativity in December 1917. Rulers and rebels have passed this way, and many, like mad, bad King Herod, Bar Kokba’s Jewish fighters, and the Shabab of the Palestinian Intifada-t have died nearby.

    Given its religious significance, Bethlehem has forever been a focus and at times, a flash-point for events that have enmeshed the Holy Land and its Holy Places, from the fossicking of Emperor Constantine’ mother Helena and the self-imposed exile of estranged Empress Eudocia, through the Muslim conquest, the Crusades and Mongol raids to the Crimean War, the Palestine Campaign of WW1, and the Arab-Israel conflict. Bethlehem’s history has been one of civilization, colonization and conquest.

    As a former scholar of philosophy, Blincoe seems particularly at home amidst the theological disputes of the early Christian, Byzantine period, and brings to life a host of passionate, idiosyncratic, adventurous, and infuriating men and women – the wandering saints and scholars, clerics and ascetics, wealthy widows and society matrons of the Middle Ages, and an unending caravan of pilgrims, tourists, evangelical adventurers and amateur archaeologists that have walked these hills and valleys for centuries. As with Jerusalem, seekers of the numinous could never get enough of the place.

    He doesn’t shy away from the social, theological and political complexities of his chronicle, but his objectivity is severely tested in his final chapters when writing of Bethlehem and the occupation.

    But then he does after all have a lot of skin in the game: he is married to Bethlehem filmmaker Leila Samsour, dividing his time between London and Bethlehem. He is quite embedded with Leila’s Christian Palestinian family, one with deep roots in the town’s history and politics, and has often been in the thick of the crises, protests, incursions and violent clashes that periodically embroil his adopted home.

    He is not some desktop warrior, NGO apparatchik or “occupation tourist”. And whilst he deplores the actions of the settlers and the right wing politicians – Avigdor Leiberman and other nationalist MKs are virtual neighbours of his – and ascribes to revisionist Israeli historians like Ilan Pape and Benny Morris’ reading of the Nakba, he is not one of Israel‘s haters But he is disappointed, saddened, infuriated even by the Jewish state’s often cavalier and callous approach to its Palestinians who are its neighbours and also, its sullen, subject people.

    Banksy’s Bethlehem Bouquet

    Breaking the wheel

    Palestine, and with it, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have always been under strangers’ dominion. But in the past, the rulers largely left the locals to live their own lives and manage their own affairs in accordance with their own social, political, and religious ways, and in the fullness of time, they departed, ceding the land to the next despot. Until, that is, the Israelis. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen: “ We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

    Year by year, Bethlehem’s economy shrinks. Over two million tourists and pilgrims visit “Royal David’s City” annually, but its economically stressed, and it has the highest unemployment rate (nearly 30%) in the West Bank.

    Year by year, Bethlehem’s Christian population diminishes as people head overseas in search of a better life – and particularly its young folk. In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86% Christian, but by 2016, the Christian population was but 12%.

    Year by year, the settlements grow, and settlers, encouraged by an extremist, nationalist government and a seemingly compliant IDF, become more emboldened in their expansion onto Palestinian land. Considered illegal under international law, Israel regards them as legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem- a territorial fait accompli that is tantamount to de facto annexation.

    Year by year, Bethlehem becomes more and more cut off from the rest of the West Bank by walls, wire, and a web of “Israeli only” highways, and indeed from the world beyond the wall. Travel to Jerusalem and to the rest of the West Bank is severely restricted by roads, checkpoints and permits, whilst the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians that existed during the seventies and eighties, in workplaces, educational and health institutions, friendships and romances, ceased after the terrors of the second, bomb Intifada as israel and Israelis withdrew into their mental and physical fortress.

    A generation of young people on either side of the old and ostensibly moribund Green Line have grown up with negligible contact with their peers on the “other side” – and this is most likely to be limited to military service in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and confrontations with armed soldiers on the other.

    Writing of the 1948 war, Blincoe notes: “From their future actions it became clear that both Jordan and Israel saw the term “Palestine” as an empty tag: it was the name of a piece of real estate rather than the home of people demanding self representation”, this is how he sees the future for Palestine and for Bethlehem, his adopted home. He argues that the settlement project is first and foremost about land and cheap housing for middle and lower class Israelis pressed by rising property values and a shortage of affordable housing to rent or buy in Israel proper. it is real estate developers, he argues, with friends in high places, who are calling the shots, rather than the more visible and vocal Zionist nationalists. As the Israeli historian and one–time deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti puts it, the settlements are a “commercial real estate project that conscripts Zionist rhetoric for profit”. The story of Jesus and the money-changers somehow comes to mind.

    It is an intriguing argument that invites further research. it also echoes what would appear to be a similar patter in those parts of the West Bank that are under the direct control and administration of the Palestinian Authority, as we have reported earlier in Castles Made of Sand, an account of the land rush that is taking place in Area A.

    With this and all the other pressures in play, from Blincoe’s perspective, the future prospects of Palestine and the little town of Bethlehem not appear to be promising. Bethlehem – Biography of a Town does not have a happy ending.

    Synchronicity – a footnote

    A few days after this post was published, an article by Hillel Zand appeared in the Matzav Review addressing the settlements and the real estate argument:  “Israel’s right-wing has strengthened in recent years because it has promoted heavily financing the settlement project as a way to compensate for the not insignificant negative side-effects of neoliberal economic policy, especially rising housing prices and increasing inequality and poverty…In Israel, the “losers” are being compensated by the advocates of these policies with incentives, subsidies and entitlements that allow them to maintain, or even raise, their quality of life by living in West Bank settlements”.

    The Israel- Jordan collaboration referred to by Blincoe also raised its controversial head recently when Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked and her boss Naftali Bennett hinted, favourably, at the prospects of US’ impending “peace deal” that includes the West Bank being ceded to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt. Murmurings from US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also indicated support for such an idea.

    Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem

    Walls and wire define the brotherhood of man

     Some further reading about Bethlehem:

    There are the PLO’s official facts and figures, and the National Catholic Reporter on the declining Christian population. And there is always Wikipedia. There are a series of posts in In That Howling Infinite about Jerusalem and Palestine in: O Jerusalem

    Author’s Note: 
    Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
    With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
    I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
    I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   
    The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
    I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
    Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
    Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
    But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
    Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
    Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
    So what happens next?
    I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
    One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
    October 8th 2017

    The Church of the Nativity

    Adele at the Church of the Nativity

    Where Christianity began

    A fortress but not yet a home

    On the seventieth anniversary of the foundation of Israel and of the Palestinian Nakba, acclaimed Israeli author David Grossman reached out across the many seemingly irreconcilable, intractable, and atavistic divisions that sunder this tortured land, appealing to what Abraham Lincoln once called “the better angels of our nature”. 

    It carries a message for all of us, of a universal longing for a world beyond the reach of the long arm of history with its monuments, myths and memories:  “Home, where we will live a peace and safe life; a clear life; a life that will not be enslaved — by fanatics of all kinds — for the purposes of some total, messianic, and nationalist vision…That life in it would be measured in its humanity. That suddenly a nation will wake up in the morning, and see that it is human. And that human will feel that he is living in an uncorrupted, connected, truly egalitarian, non-aggressive and non-covetous place”.

    Israel Is a Fortress, but Not Yet a Home

    David Grossman’s Memorial Day Speech to Bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, Haaretz Apr 18, 2018   at the Alternative Memorial Day event in Tel Aviv, April 17, 2018.

    Author David  Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War and who on Thursday will be awarded the 2018 Israel Prize for Literature, addressed bereaved Israelis and Palestinians at an alternative Memorial Day event on April 17, 2018. Below is the full text of his speech

    Dear friends, good evening.

    There is a lot of noise and commotion around our ceremony, but we do not forget that above all, this is a ceremony of remembrance and communion. The noise, even if it is present, is beyond us now, because at the heart of this evening there is a deep silence — the silence of the void created by loss.

    My family and I lost Uri in the war, a young, sweet, smart and funny man. Almost twelve years later it is still hard for me to talk about him publicly.

    The death of a loved one is actually also the death of a private, whole, personal and unique culture, with its own special language and its own secret, and it will never be again, nor will there be another like it.

    It is indescribably painful to face that decisive ‘no.’ There are moments when it almost sucks into it all the ‘have’ and all the ‘yes.’ It is difficult and exhausting to constantly fight against the gravity of loss.

    It is difficult to separate the memory from the pain. It hurts to remember, but it is even more frightening to forget. And how easy it is, in this situation, to give in to hate, rage, and the will to avenge.

    But I find that every time I am tempted by rage and hate, I immediately feel that I am losing the living contact with my son. Something there is sealed. And I came to my decision, I made my choice. And I think that those who are here this evening — made that same choice.

    And I know that within the pain there is also breath, creation, doing good. That grief does not isolate but also connects and strengthens. Here, even old enemies — Israelis and Palestinians — can connect with each other out of grief, and even because of it.

    I have met quite a few bereaved families over these past years. I told them, in my experience, that even when you are at the heart of the pain you should remember that every member of the family is allowed to grieve the way they want, the way they are, and the way their soul tells them to.

    No one can instruct another person how to grieve. It’s true for a private family, and it’s true for the larger ‘bereaved family.’

    There is a strong feeling that connects us, a feeling of a joint fate, and the pain that only we know, for which there are almost no words out there, in the light. That is why, if the definition of a ‘bereaved family’ is genuine and honest, please respect our way. It deserves respect. It is not an easy path, it is not obvious, and it is not without its internal contradictions. But it is our way to give meaning to the death of our loved ones, and to our lives after their death. And it is our way to act, to do — not to despair and not to desist — so that one day, in the future, the war will fade, and maybe cease completely, and we will start living, living a full life, and not just subsisting from war to war, from disaster to disaster.

    We, Israelis and Palestinians, who in the wars between us have lost those dearer to us, perhaps, than our own lives — we are doomed to touch reality through an open wound. Those wounded like that can no longer foster illusions. Those wounded like that know how much life is made up of great concessions, of endless compromise.

    I think that grief makes us, those who are here tonight into more realistic people. We are clear-eyed, for example, about things relating to the limits of power, relating to the illusions that always accompany the one with the power.

    And we are warier, more than we were before the disaster, and are filled with loathing every time we recognize a display of empty pride, or slogans of arrogant nationalism, or leaders’ haughty statements. We are more than wary: we are practically allergic. This week, Israel is celebrating 70 years. I hope we will celebrate many more years and many more generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who will live here alongside an independent Palestinian state, safely, peacefully and creatively, and — most importantly — in a serene daily routine, in good neighborliness; and they will feel at home here.

    What is a home?

    Home is a place whose walls — borders — are clear and accepted; whose existence is stable, solid, and relaxed; whose inhabitants know its intimate codes; whose relations with its neighbors have been settled. It projects a sense of the future.

    And we Israelis, even after 70 years — no matter how many words dripping with patriotic honey will be uttered in the coming days — we are not yet there. We are not yet home. Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at-home-in-the-world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home.

    The solution to the great complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations can be summed up in one short formula: if the Palestinians don’t have a home, the Israelis won’t have a home either.

    The opposite is also true: if Israel will not be a home, then neither will Palestine.

    I have two granddaughters, they are 6 and 3 years old. To them, Israel is self-evident. It is obvious to them that we have a state, that there are roads and schools and hospitals and a computer at kindergarten, and a living, rich Hebrew language.

    I belong to a generation where none of these things are taken for granted, and that is the place from which I speak to you. From the fragile place that vividly remembers the existential fear, as well as the strong hope that now, finally, we have come home.

    But when Israel occupies and oppresses another nation, for 51 years, and creates an apartheid reality in the occupied territories — it becomes a lot less of a home.

    And when Minister of Defense Lieberman decides to prevent peace-loving Palestinians from attending a gathering like ours, Israel is less of a home.
    When Israeli snipers kill dozens of Palestinian protesters, most of them civilians — Israel is less of a home.

    And when the Israeli government attempts to improvise questionable deals with Uganda and Rwanda, and is willing to endanger the lives of thousands of asylum seekers and expel them to the unknown — to me, it is less of a home.

    And when the prime minister defames and incites against human rights organizations, and when he is looking for ways to enact laws that bypass the High Court of Justice, and when democracy and the courts are constantly challenged, Israel becomes even a little less of a home —for everyone.

    When Israel neglects and discriminates against residents on the fringes of society; when it abandons and continuously weakens the residents of southern Tel Aviv; when it hardens its heart to the plight of the weak and voiceless — Holocaust survivors, the needy, single-parent families, the elderly, boarding houses for children removed from their homes, and crumbling hospitals — it is less of a home. It is a dysfunctional home.

    And when it neglects and discriminates against 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel; when it practically forfeits the great potential they have for a shared life here — it is less of a home — both for the minority and the majority.

    And when Israel strips away the Jewishness of millions of Reform and Conservative Jews — again it becomes less of a home. And every time artists and creators have to prove — in their creations — loyalty and obedience, not only to the state but to the ruling party — Israel is less of a home.

    Israel is painful for us. Because it is not the home we want it to be. We acknowledge the great and wonderful thing that happened to us, by having a state, and we are proud of its accomplishments in many areas, in industry and agriculture, in culture and art, in I.T. and medicine and economics. But we also feel the pain of its distortion.

    And the people and organizations who are here today, especially the Family Forum and Combatants For Peace, and many more like them, are perhaps the ones who contribute most to making Israel a home, in the fullest sense of the word.

    And I want to say here, that half of the money from the Israel Prize that I will be receiving the day after tomorrow, I intend to donate and divide between the Family Forum and the Elifelet organization, which looks after the children of asylum seekers — those whose kindergartens are nicknamed “children’s warehouses”. To me, these are groups who do sacred work, or rather — do the simply human things that the government itself should be doing.

    Home.

    Where we will live a peace and safe life; a clear life; a life that will not be enslaved — by fanatics of all kinds — for the purposes of some total, messianic, and nationalist vision. Home, whose inhabitants will not be the material that ignites a principle greater than them, and supposedly beyond their comprehension. That life in it would be measured in its humanity. That suddenly a nation will wake up in the morning, and see that it is human. And that that human will feel that he is living in an uncorrupted, connected, truly egalitarian, non-aggressive and non-covetous place. In a state that runs simply on the concern for the person living within it, for every person living within it, out of compassion, and out of tolerance for all the many dialectics of ‘being Israeli’. Because ‘These are the living words of Israel’.

    A state that will act, not on momentary impulses; not in endless convulsions of tricks and winks and manipulations; and police investigations, and zig-zags, and flip-flops backwards. In general — I wish our government to be less devious and wiser. One can dream. One can also admire achievements. Israel is worth fighting for. I also wish these things for our Palestinian friends: a life of independence, freedom and peace, and building a new, reformed nation. And I wish that in 70 years’ time our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, both Palestinian and Israeli, will stand here and each will sing their version of their national anthem.

    But there is one line that they will be able to sing together, in Hebrew and Arabic: “To be a free nation in our land,” and then maybe, at last, it will be a realistic and accurate description, for both nations.

    https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/full-text-speech-by-david-grossman-at-alternative-memorial-day-event-1.6011820

    See also: Is an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation possible?  and Oh, Jerusalem

    Author’s Note: 
    Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
    With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
    I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
    I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   
    The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
    I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
    Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
    Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
    But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
    Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
    Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
    So what happens next?
    I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
    One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
    October 8th 2017
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    Peace train, holy roller. Ride on the peace train

     

    Is an Israel-Palestine confederation possible!

    Every mind you change is one less on the other side
    Sam Merlotte, True Blood

    As partisans on both sides of the Israeli and Palestinian divide engage in denunciations and blame-shifting, pessimistic jeremiads, doomsday scenarios and lose-lose solutions, it is refreshing to read this thoughtful if perhaps optimistic article by economist, historian and academic Bernard Avishai.

    Avishai chooses not to linger on the current stalemate, the conflicting narratives, the one state and two state arguments, and the politics, polices and practices of the Netanyahu government and the PA, and the unique and deal-destroying status of Hamas. Otherwise he would never have been able to get to his thesis – which he approaches from the perspective of an economist and geographer. And his glass is imaginatively half-full rather than depressingly half-empty.

    In Israel and Palestine, and indeed in any country where conflict is historical and intractable, when the going gets rough, the mild get going, and tough call the shots. Blessed might be the peacemakers, but they lack political punch and the popular support. Avishai argues that “…an implausible image of separation—an idea of two states insufficiently sketched out – erodes the chance for people to look forward to anything other than stalemate, a situation that makes winners out of the extremists on both sides”.

    “A two-state solution” he argues, “can be preempted by catastrophe, inertia, demagogy, venal leaders, weak leaders – or it can be pushed off to another generation. But it cannot just be “over””. But a one-state solution is probably more chimerical. “In no conceivable peace process will civilians on either side, as if awakening to a revelation, abolish national affinities and seriously wish for a single state, with a single parliament. Such a state would notionally take the divided citizens of the Israeli state – which is democratic in many respects, but pampers rabbinic theocrats and nationalistic populists – and jam them together with residents of the Palestinian territories, also divided, with a majority too accustomed to authoritarian leaders, and who take the Islamic faith, clan loyalties, and regional Arabism for granted”.

    And so, he hypothesizes the potential for a form of confederation. The two countries are inextricably linked geographically (between the river and the sea), demographically (yes, the settlements), economically (notwithstanding the BDS), and strategically (security cooperation, that is). There is much common infrastructure, and the potential for a more equitable sharing thereof if the physical and social exigencies, inequities and indignities of the occupation were removed. “Ehud Barak, the former Labor prime minister, famously said, “we are here, they there,” channeling the strategies of old Zionist pioneering. But we are here, and there, and so are they. That is something to build on”.

    Thus is not to say that Avishai is a starry-eyed dreamer. “Talk of confederation, I know, sounds wistful in the current environment, with Donald Trump in the White House, Likud in power, and Hamas in Gaza. But any talk of peace does. What’s really naïve is to suppose that only bad faith or ideological fanaticism has caused the two-state solution to fall into disrepute. Perhaps a confederal solution will take another generation to be realized. But in the 1970s, it was the two-state solution that seemed fanciful. (Recent polling) has found that, just in the past year, support in Israel for a confederation quite like the one described here rose from 28 to 39%”.

    Avishai’s lengthy and wide-ranging discussion reviews how a confederation would work. Whilst he skirts around the highly problematical matter of government and governance within and between the two members the hypothetical confederation, and also the matter of the borders between them – he envisages that these would become less hard, more permeable (as in the EU, perhaps?) – he addresses those perennial and apparently insoluble stumbling blocks: Jerusalem, the Settlements, and the Right of Return. He lays out blueprints for security and law enforcement, the economy, finance, tourism, infrastructure and the environment. The building blocks for these, he argues, are already in place. It is a matter of will, decisiveness and common purpose, of dismantling the many roadblocks that stand in the way of his economically sound but practicably promethean vision, and encouraging and utilizing what he considers the substantial economic, technological and human potential of both Palestinians and Israelis to grow their shared economy domestically and internationally.

    This accords very much with my own view of how a confederal solution could be achieved if and when it came to pass. It would to a degree mirror the European Union insofar as member nations retain their individual governments, identities and cultures, and cuff cues should they so chose, and travel freely within and without for business and for pleasure – but without the stultifying, petrifying, self-perpetuating and disenfranchising bureaucratization that is debilitating that far from august body.

    The following paragraphs encapsulate my own thoughts on how it would all work…

    We would begin with an undivided Jerusalem as a federal capital with two seats of government, but under one municipality (as there is today) responsible for maintenance and essential services and financed by all ratepayers. Barriers and checkpoints would come down, and restrictions on movement and on building eased and ultimately removed. There would be shared responsibility for resources and infrastructure, including water, energy, natural resources, industry and commerce, with real and equitable access and participation for all. As a corollary to this, there  would be free and full transit of goods and services, investment, labour, ideas, and intellectual property.

    There would be separate legal and educational structures and institutions to accommodate different cultures, values and faiths, whilst safeguarding individual liberties, including freedom of movement, of speech, of assembly and of belief, equality before the law, and protection from arbitrary detention. This would include freedom from harassment, discrimination and domestic violence applicable to all regardless of age, faith and gender. There would be national education curriculum accommodating diversity and religious belief whilst proscribing hate speech and vilification. There would be an enforceable human rights regime to police and punishe oppression and discrimination according to faith, gender and political affiliation.

    A national Reconciliation Commission would be established like tha in South Africa to acknowledge if not redress historical wrongs done; and an anti-corruption agency exposing and punishing corruption and nepotism. Whilst the right of return of Palestinian refugee to their families’ former homes in Israel would not be possible, these refugees currently living in neigbouring Arab countries and the overseas diaspora would have the right to settle in Palestine. Financial assistance would be provided to the Palestinian government and also to the host countries by Arab and international donors to assist the resettlement and integration. Full citizenship rights would be granted to Palestinian refugees In Syria, Jordan, Lebanon who relinquish their right of return, and financial assistance would be provided to the host countries by Arab and international donors to assist the integration of new citizens

    A fund controlled by IMF or international body independent of both Israel and Arab countries, and provided by Arab and international donors would facilitate the transition outlined above, and also the upgrading of dilapidated and impoverished Palestinian institutions and infrastructures to levels comparable with those in Israel – very much like the assistance provided by the FDR to former East Germany.

    And the prospective partners would “hasten slowly” – a gradual implementation of confederation with confidence-building measures that would ease the path for future cooperation and collaboration, providing time for tolerance, familiarity, modernity, equality and equity to filter through.

    But, like Avishai, I do not place good odds on a confederation being considered in the current environment with extremists on one side calling for annexation, and on the other, for a third Intifada, and whilst the US administration is apparently attempting to bully the Palestinian Authority, itself an autocratic, corrupt and compromised body with little popular support, to a shaky negotiating table.

    Presently, both sides appear to have opted for the status quo, unsatisfactory as that is. Peace may only come when the costs of maintaining the status quo outweigh the benefits – or, to put it another way – somewhat accommodating Avishai’s thesis – when the benefits of a peace agreement outweigh the costs of maintaining the status quo. Hardliners might say “we are not there yet, so why make peace now, when you can wait until it is really necessary”. But it’s all in the timing. The trouble is that by then, things might be out of control. To quote JF Kennedy, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.

    And now, read what Aishai has to say…

    View Us Through the Eyes of Our Children

    Confederation: The One Possible Israel-Palestine Solution

    Bernard Avishai

    “The two-state solution is over,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters, responding to Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “Now is the time to transform the struggle for one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” As The New York Times subsequently reported, Erekat is hardly alone. The “over”-ness of “two states”- albeit with radical disagreements about the character of a hypothetical single state – has been claimed by ideological zealots, severe liberals, and exasperated peacemakers alike.

    On the Palestinian side, one hears about the almost 700,000 Israeli settlers’ making annexation an established fact; on the Israeli side, about preventing recalcitrant Palestinian terrorists from firing missiles at Ben-Gurion Airport. For those of us living in Jerusalem, just speaking of two states, implying two capitals – but also, vaguely, some redivision of the city – invites skeptical, or pitying, stares from most Jews, as well as from Arabs, over a thousand of whom applied for Israeli citizenship in 2016.

    The problem with “transforming the struggle” as Erekat suggests, however, is that every provisional argument against two states is an absolute argument against one. You can splice the word “solution” onto the words “one-state,” but this does not promise resolution of the conflict – certainly not in the way of South Africa, the model that seems to be in the back of many minds when a “one-state solution” is proposed (or, for that matter, when the term “apartheid” is thrown around). For all its trials, today’s South Africa emerged from a system of colonial racial enslavement in a country with a unifying language and a common, if tortured, history – white farm-owners, mine-owners, and industrialists lording it over black, native workers.

    Colonial Zionist pioneers, in contrast, harmed native Palestinians by working toward Jewish cultural and economic self-sufficiency, and thus the methodical displacement of the Palestinian peasantry – which is why, at least since the Peel Commission in 1937, an arrangement like “partition” could be entertained. The Israeli occupation may be, in its own way, as cruel as apartheid. But comparable cruelty does not necessarily entail a similar political architecture. (I suspect Erekat knows this, but was hoping to shake Israelis out of their complacency.)

    The justification for the two-state solution is rooted, after all, in two persistent truths: first, that two separate national communities, each with a different language, historical grievance, sense of identity in the wider world, and dominant religious culture, have been squeezed by tragic events into a single small space. Each wants “self-determination” (though anachronistic meanings for this term may be a part of the problem). Second, that a majority on each side prefers some form of compromise to a fight to the finish. Ideological rejectionists on each side number roughly a third of their respective populations—by no means a small number, to which I’ll return. But a constituency for peace remains and its numbers fall—as survey researchers Khalil Shikaki and Dahlia Scheindlin have shown—because moderate majorities “increasingly doubt its viability,” largely because they have grown jaded regarding the intentions of the other side, not because, in principle, they refuse the compromises two states would entail.

    This point needs emphasis because rash talk about one state has been obscuring it. Palestinian youth have told Shikaki of their growing interest in pursuing full civil rights in a single state, but this is really a sign of gloom and no small measure of spite—“the conviction that extremists run Israel, and a certain alienation from the corruptions of the Palestinian Authority,” Shikaki told me. His latest polling, conducted at the time of Trump’s Jerusalem statement, shows a depressing spike in the number of young Palestinians preferring “armed struggle” over the status quo—though they know that Israel, a nuclear state, cannot be invaded and destroyed by regional neighbors, and have witnessed the horrors of civil war in Syria. Israelis, for their part, may indeed be complacent regarding the status quo, but most understand that—even if the occupation can be walled off—violent polarization means that their children and grandchildren will be patrolling hostile streets, while over a fifth of their own citizens, Arab citizens, grow inflamed on their side of the wall.

    So, a two-state solution can be preempted by catastrophe, inertia, demagogy, venal leaders, weak leaders—or it can be pushed off to another generation. But it cannot just be “over.” In no conceivable peace process will civilians on either side, as if awakening to a revelation, abolish national affinities and seriously wish for a single state, with a single parliament. Such a state would notionally take the divided citizens of the Israeli state—which is democratic in many respects, but pampers rabbinic theocrats and nationalistic populists—and jam them together with residents of the Palestinian territories, also divided, with a majority too accustomed to authoritarian leaders, and who take the Islamic faith, clan loyalties, and regional Arabism for granted.

    This single state would have an economy, and presumably a social safety net, that would have to accommodate both Israelis, whose average annual income is (as of 2016) more than $37,000, and Palestinians, whose income is under $3,000. Imagine a parliament trying to budget low-cost Palestinian housing by reducing funds for the Hebrew University’s Law School. It is far easier to imagine continued occupation, insurgency, or, in the case of an explosion of violence, Bosnian levels of civil strife and ethnic cleansing. “The status quo is preferred only by a small minority,” Scheindlin told me. “As attitudes move away from the two-state solution, it’s peace against war—so we’d better find an acceptable peace.”

    None of which denies the need for “transformation.” The peacemaking of the Oslo Accords is stuck over the same linked problems that thwarted peacemaking during the previous generation: terrorism, settlements, Jerusalem, borders, the economy, and refugees. It seems vain to blame only leaders or “narratives” for the impasse, and not the way peacemakers have framed the peace that is notionally to be made. “One state” is a mirage. But so, now, is “two states”—unless this portends an overt structure of independence and interdependence: in effect, a confederation. No other arrangement can work. Talk of peace will seem implausible without a vivid sense of where two states must inescapably lead, and what confederation will look like.

    To their credit, two-state advocates on the Israeli left and Palestinian secular center have insisted on democratic norms: individual dignity, the rights of civil society, national sovereignty deriving from the consent of the governed. But most also frame the solution as separation—a “dignified divorce,” as the writer Amos Oz put it. They elide demographic facts, or imminent dangers, that critics of two states reasonably believe, most ordinary people see, and extremists on both sides shrewdly traffic in—none of which would disappear if these same extremists were forced to the margins. These facts, or threats, include the compactness of the territory, the vulnerability of any agreement to subsequent terrorist assaults, and the need for continued cross-border jurisdictional integration for many state services, a common administration of (at least) municipal Jerusalem, a now common urban infrastructure, and a common business ecosystem.

    Just consider the scale of the two states. From Beersheba in the south to the northern border with Lebanon, Israel and Palestine together constitute a territory and population roughly comparable to greater Los Angeles: perhaps 7,000 square miles, in which about 13 million people live—8.5 million citizens in Israel (about a fifth of whom are Arabs), and a little under 5 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza. (Except for the Red Sea tourist port of Eilat, most of what’s south of Beersheba is unpopulated, if picturesque, desert.) The parts of Israel and Palestine that are populated and urbanized are roughly equal in size: two arcs of cities and towns facing each other, completing an ellipse of roads and bridges. (Israel’s half also includes high-speed trains, and is far more developed.) The distance from Herzliya, Israel’s high-tech zone, to Nablus—one of Palestine’s two industrial centers, and home of its securities exchange—is about twenty-five miles, roughly the distance from Santa Monica to Long Beach. Palestinians claim that, in accepting the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line) as a border, they are resigning themselves to just 22 percent of historic Palestine. This is true but misleading, especially if it is meant to imply correspondingly reduced economic prospects (to which I shall also return).

    The most populous parts of Israel and Palestine are comparable in area and population to greater Los Angeles

    Living cheek-by-jowl has important implications for the security environment. Ben-Gurion Airport is, indeed, about eight miles from the 1967 border; planes circling from the east virtually overfly it. Irrespective of settlements, Israeli security hawks are hardly wrong to infer that one shoulder-fired missile could impair Israeli international commerce and tourism for months—or that, when one third of Palestinian society supports Hamas, there would be no lack of candidates to fire one. Likewise, about a third of Israeli Jews suppose the whole Land of Israel to be their divine patrimony; in the dozen or so yeshivas established on the plaza facing the Western Wall—a few hundred yards from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Mosque of Omar—one often hears exhortations to clear the site and build a Third Temple. Jewish fanatics already killed a prime minister of Israel.

    Peace, Spinoza famously said, is not the absence of violence but the presence of justice. But the presence of justice does not portend the absence of violence. Suppose 1 percent of each no-compromise third of their populations is inclined to ideological fanaticism; suppose only 1 percent of those would entertain an act of terror. That’s more than 2,000 Israelis and 1,500 Palestinians. The sides, in other words, exhibit what Nassim Nicholas Taleb (himself once a youth in war-torn Lebanon) has termed “fragility”: a system of interdependencies so dense that one rare terrorist act—a “black swan” event—will collapse any peace by pulling people away from a hopeful center to cynical extremes.

    Indeed, if self-determination means national autonomy in security matters, it is a recipe for disintegration. Israeli and Palestinian governments would be seen, respectively, as accountable for the actions of people acting from their territories—“You’re sovereign, so you’re responsible.” They would make themselves hostage to extremists. Any sustainable solution would entail security cooperation—conspicuous security cooperation—making plain the two states’ reciprocal responsibility for the entire environment. The failure to prevent a terrorist atrocity, which will almost certainly come, must be seen as a joint failure, not one side’s bloody-minded effort to gain advantage over the other.

    Yet security is only one jurisdiction where scale and demography force a high degree of collaboration—borders that are more or less permeable. The two states would be drilling into the same water table in the Judaean Hills, using the same desalination plants to preserve the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea Basin, and managing sewage treatment from Jerusalem into the Jordan Valley. They would be sharing much of the same electrical grid and, more important, the distribution of limited telecommunications frequencies necessary for streaming mobile data. They would be sharing environmental regulations dealing with air quality and the management of public health risks, especially epidemiological risks. (“When there is plague in Qalqilya, there are patients in Kfar Saba,” General Yoav Mordechai, coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, recently told the Globes business conference.) They would have to coordinate the extension of roads and bridges and train systems. They would need to coordinate forest-fire management (when fires broke out in the Carmel Mountains in 2010, and again in 2016, Palestinian Fire and Rescue sent mobile teams).

    Such cautionary reasons for political integration portend inevitable—and promising—economic integration. Jerusalem draws about three and a half million tourists a year. This is far less than its potential—Prague gets seven million, Florence, nine. Four million more tourists a year would add, on a recurring basis, about $9 billion to the two states’ common GDP; indeed, tourism, especially from the Gulf, would become one the biggest drivers of Palestine’s economy, as well as boost incomes for Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods, just under half of whose children (especially those of the Ultra-Orthodox community) are under the poverty line. But allowing tourists to move about freely is hardly just a matter of making checkpoints perfunctory.

    The banking system would need to be highly integrated, so that tourists’ credit cards could operate everywhere—so that Israeli shekels and Palestinian cash (now mainly shekels and Jordanian dinars) could be accepted and parked in banks across the border. Sales tax collection would have to standardized, so that neither side’s retail stores and restaurants would race the other’s to the bottom. International hotel chains, tour guide, car rental, and insurance companies would expect to contract with, and meet the standards of, a single tourism agency for both states; they would expect unimpeded access to customers moving, say, from West Jerusalem to Jericho and Masada.

    What’s true for tourism would be true in many other sectors. Right now, two thirds of Palestine’s imports come from Israel; four fifths of its exports go to Israel. In the event of peace, Israeli construction companies—also hauling, plumbing, logistics, food processing, and technical infrastructure companies—would be drawn into a huge building and training effort. There would have to be a common streamlined authority for forming partnerships and enforcing supplier contracts.

    There would need to be common free-trade regulations complying with European Union and American regulations currently applied to Israel alone—and common tax-free investment zones to promote direct foreign investment. There would need to be cooperation on engineering and biopharmaceutical standards. There would need to be cooperation on immigration and labor standards, to keep the larger Israel-Palestine zone from becoming a magnet for impoverished laborers from the Nile Delta or sub-Saharan Africa.

    The inference for action should be obvious. To defend, or even entertain, any two-state solution we must presuppose a collective security apparatus, shared government jurisdictions, and a common market (possibly including Jordan, where much of the Palestinian bourgeoisie lives). Each side wants, and deserves, freedom for cultural development, its own passport, its own special ties with people outside the state—a place in the sun. But an implausible image of separation—an idea of two states insufficiently sketched out—erodes the chance for people to look forward to anything other than stalemate, a situation that makes winners out of the extremists on both sides.

    We hear much, in this context, about Jewish extremists, the settlers, as much for their encroachments on Israeli democracy as on Palestinian farmers. Many of them see themselves as a messianic vanguard and pour salt on longstanding Palestinian wounds. Grotesquely, they rally much of West Jerusalem to theocracy and treat Arab neighbors with contempt. (There are, as I have argued elsewhere, sound reasons to subject the settlements to an international boycott.) But settlers have also worked to interrupt Palestinian “territorial contiguity,” and so, presumably, to foil independent Palestinian economic prospects (the Likud rank-and-file recently voted to annex much of Area C, the roughly 62 percent of the West Bank where the settlements are, and which, owing to Oslo, was left under exclusive Israeli control). To assume they are succeeding in thatmission is to attribute too much power to the settlers. We are no longer living in the period of the 1948-9 war, when about a million people on each side fought for hilltops to control the agricultural land in the valleys.

    Roughly 70 percent of Palestinians live in cities; agriculture is under 5 percent of Palestinian GDP, and declining. The median age in Palestine is twenty-one. Olive oil and tangerine production cannot absorb this youthful population, over 25 percent of which is unemployed (in Gaza, unemployment is over 40 percent). For both sides—over 92 percent of Israelis live in cities, and perhaps three percent of GDP is agriculture—expansion depends more on urban entrepreneurship (and therefore also on elevators, trains, and parking garages) than on more exurban territory.

    Which returns us to the settlements. Growing among alienated Arab towns and villages, with no local economic resources (other than a pool of desperate Arab laborers), most Jewish settlements would, with peace, be surrounded by expanding Palestinian urban centers. They would come to resemble ectopic pregnancies. More to the point, they would be unlikely to prove serious economic burdens on Palestinian cities—not, that is, if transportation corridors between Palestinian cities could be freed up, the Israeli market opened, and the repressive occupation that was installed to protect the settlements (and favor them with water, telecommunications, access roads, and so forth) removed by common agreement.

    Drive to Nablus and you see a half-dozen big-box factories, much like those in Hebron, occupied by Palestinian contractors that employ—so veteran West Bank analyst Danny Rubinstein reckons—perhaps 150,000 Palestinian workers in Israeli traditional industries such as furniture manufacture, plastics, quarrying, paper-milling, and glass-making. The hilltop settlements surrounding Nablus are far less consequential to that city’s future growth than the reviled expressway, Route 5, that connects Tel Aviv to the settlement city, Ariel, where, in fact, shipping containers from Nablus factories change trucks. (By the same token, if one drives from the Israeli city of Afula to the Israeli city of Hadera, ones passes for virtually the road’s entire length through a series of Israeli-Arab rural towns in Wadi Ara. Nobody assumes that these Arab towns thwart either city’s economic development.) Rawabi, a planned-town north of Ramallah, has been strangled by occupation authorities refusing to build an access road through Area C. But Rawabi, like Israel’s Modiin, is building up, not out; and its future growth depends on a commercial and high-tech core, including branch-plants of global and Israeli software companies to employ some of Palestine’s thousands of computer-science graduates. (Israel’s Mellanox is already committed, Bashar Masri, Rawabi’s chief executive, told me.)

    So, settlements disrupt free movement and fair terms of trade. If these market distortions ended, the importance of “territorial contiguity” will seem exaggerated. The half-billion-dollar Palestinian stone industry employs over 13,000 workers and exports about 65 percent of its products, including luxury polished marble, to Israel. (Its products are even found in San Diego’s airport.) To build a supermarket chain (like Palestine’s fledgling Bravo chain), along with its attendant food-processing and personal care companies, investors need to know that logistics systems will not be fouled up by checkpoints everywhere in Area C.

    Palestine’s dominant telecom company, Paltel, has net assets of over a billion dollars and employs 3,000 people, but it is also being stifled. To compete on wide-bandwidth infrastructure, as Jawwal (Paltel’s mobile division) has tried to do, it must not be preempted by rival Israeli telecom operators using settlements as placement for transmission towers to which Jawwal has no access. With peace, Paltel and Israeli telecommunications companies could partner in the Gulf.

    Israel and Palestine, in other words, now live in the same commercial network and—assuming an end to occupation—both sides would benefit greatly from an exchange of intellectual capital. Israeli “know-how,” its technologies and strategic investors, would prove extremely valuable for Palestinian entrepreneurs. Palestinian partners have “know-about” that would prove indispensable in bringing Israeli companies to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates. Palestine’s private sector, by my estimation now worth $9 billion, could grow quickly owing to construction and consumer ventures, capable of competing in regional and even global markets. Israel’s economy has become an urban hub, not an agricultural fortress, as Erel Margalit, head of Jerusalem Venture Partners, puts it. Palestine’s economy will have to be the same.

    Clearly, Israeli (and some Jordanian-Palestinian) companies will at first seize dominant positions in the region’s business ecosystem, as will global companies tentatively setting up operations in Palestine proper. But this initial economic asymmetry will not permanently disadvantage Palestinian entrepreneurs—not when wealth depends simply on learning how to make what the world needs. Unlike financial capital, intellectual capital gets shared between two parties and neither winds up with less. In this sense, at least, Nablus is luckier to be growing between Amman and Herzliya than, say, between Cairo and Benghazi.

    Confederal relations had better not mean any false hope for affectionate ones. It is hard to remember a time when, on the surface, political attitudes have been warped by so much antagonism. But then, look at the joining of Upper and Lower Canada in 1867, Germany and France in the Steel and Coal Community in 1951, Belgian Flemings and Walloons in various arrangements—all of these began with populations that had emerged from vicious conflict. Nor are confederal institutions new to Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, though these have never been acknowledged as such. As I write, the Israeli military and the Palestinian authority engage in “security cooperation,” which at times has included the PA’s cracking down on Hamas operatives in the West Bank and sharing intelligence, some provided by Israeli-controlled informants.

    Two states must mean police cooperating on joint command and control. When Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas negotiated a solution for Jerusalem, they assumed a capital for each state, a Palestinian one in East Jerusalem and a Jewish one in the West, but a common municipal administration, and a new international committee, in which they would jointly participate, to act as custodian of the “Holy Basin,” in effect, the whole of the Old City. What are these—the municipality and the custodian—if not confederal institutions?

    A truly dignified divorce, in other words, means joint custody where what’s held in common—often what’s most precious—cannot be divided. Jerusalem is an obvious case, but the city is also a working model for what a larger confederation might look like, including a solution to the conflict’s most vexing problems, the Palestinian right of return and the fate of settlements. Jerusalem’s Palestinian inhabitants are not citizens of Israel, but have legal residency rights in the city, where they pay taxes, and enjoy health and welfare benefits; tens of thousands work and shop in the Western part, especially in the Talpiot industrial and retail quarter, but also in hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and taxis. Thousands of settlers work in and around Jerusalem; residents of Maale Adumin live less than a ten-minute drive to the Hebrew University in Mount Scopus. Beneath the surface, on a personal level, relations between Jews and Arabs are often surprisingly cordial.

    A larger quid pro quo suggests itself here, assuming that two states could adopt a confederal approach to residency. Many Palestinian families—in 2003, Shikaki put their number at about 10 percent of refugees in camps in Jordan, the West Bank, and Lebanon—not only claim lost property from 1948, but also say they would prefer residency in Israel over compensation. Correspondingly, many Israeli settlers are so attached to their homes in what they term “Judaea and Samaria” that they would rather become residents of Palestine than give them up. A confederal system modeled on greater Jerusalem, but without the repression mobilized by Likud governments, could allow an agreed number of Palestinians to return to Israel—a healing symbolic act—and become permanent residents but not citizens. Similarly, Israeli settlers determined to stay in their homes might become residents of Palestine, but remain citizens of Israel.

    Talk of confederation, I know, sounds wistful in the current environment, with Donald Trump in the White House, Likud in power, and Hamas in Gaza. But any talk of peace does. What’s really naïve is to suppose that only bad faith or ideological fanaticism has caused the two-state solution to fall into disrepute. Perhaps a confederal solution will take another generation to be realized. But in the 1970s, it was the two-state solution that seemed fanciful. Shikaki and Scheindlin found that, just in the past year, support in Israel for a confederation quite like the one described here rose from 28 to 39 percent.

    The most important means to confederation at this point are whatever can be done to open Palestinian cities to economic development, especially the free flow of talent and investment into West Bank and Gaza Strip cities—in support of which the American government has leverage, and to which only ideologically fanatic Israelis would object. Correspondingly, moderates on both sides should begin meeting again, but around a common agenda that fills in the gaps of a confederal framework. Ehud Barak, the former Labor prime minister, famously said, “We here, they there,” channeling the strategies of old Zionist pioneering. But we are here, and there, and so are they. That is something to build on.

    February 2, 2018

    Israeli political analyst and opinion researcher Deborah Scheindlin  has published a another cogent  argument for confederation  in Foreign Polocy, June 2018: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/29/an-israeli-palestinian-confederation-can-work/

     

     

    Other articles on federal solution provided by members of the FaceBook page Path of Hope and Peace:

    Author’s Note:

    Whenever I pen commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.

    With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archaeology, and of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.

    I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed – Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

    The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.

    I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.

    Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Pasionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.

    Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by John Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.

    But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.

    Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back – but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.

    Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.

    So what happens next?

    I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”. I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”

    One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.

    Paul Hemphill , October 8th 2017

    For more posts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East, visit:
    https://m.facebook.com/HowlingInfinite/
    https://m.facebook.com/hf1983/
    See also, my collection of posts about Jerusalem

     

     

    Ahed Tamimi – a family affair

    You’d have had to have been sleeping for most of December to have missed Ahed Tamimi, the sixteen (some say eighteen) year old, wild-haired, blonde heroine of the Palestinian resistance, the face that launched a thousand posts (more like a million, really) on the howling internet.

    I don’t know where he’s going
    When he gets there, I’ll be glad
    I’m following in father’s footsteps
    I’m following the dear old dad
    English Music Hall song by EW Rogers

    …we hold them by the balls, and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them, and they are trapped by us
    Avi Shalit, My Promised Land

    Ahed is no doubt “choleira”, Hebrew slang for bad (or worse), to the Israeli right, nationalists and settlers. But she’s catnip to the pro-Palestinian left, be they Israelis who would like to see an end to the occupation, mainstream socialists and social democrats, and  the acolytes, partisans and naïfs of the BDS who to greater or lesser degrees seek to delegitimize Israel, demolish the Zionist project, and replace it with a Palestinian entity.

    You can’t doubt her courage and her resilience, and her sharp eye for the photo-op and the “hilltop” soundbite. To borrow from Monty Python, she is not the messiah, but she’s certainly a naughty girl. Canny, bright, articulate, photogenic, and media-savvy to many; a puppet and a dupe to her detractors. And poster-girl for a family business that has been in the resistance game for near on a decade since Nabi Saleh became the tiny village with the big voice, and her father, Bassem, its international face. Read all about it in Ben Ehrenreich’s long travelogue in the New York Times: Is this where the third intifada will start? (there is a much less laudatory article in pro-Israeli The Tower). And Nabi Saleh is Tamimi country. Most of its (est. 600) villagers are related by blood or marriage, and many bear the same name. They originated a long time ago from the Abu Tamim, one of the largest Saudi tribes. Bassem Tamimi cut his teeth as a youth activist during the first Intifada, and a Fatah operative in the second.

    Nabi Saleh, 20 km northwest of Ramallah, is on the front line of resistance to the settlements, its campaign to reclaim from settlers a spring traditionally owned by the village, having transformed since 2009 into a weekly demonstration guaranteed to draw its young people, its shebab, into confrontation with the IDF, and hence a magnet for activists from Israel and overseas, and, of course, an international array of journalists and photographers – who always seem to be on hand when young Ahed, all blonde hair, blue jeans, sneakers and attitude goes mano a mano with heavily armed and befuddled soldiers.

    Ahed’s looks, her clothes, her forthrightness, and her chutzpah, are not those of the average Palestinian Muslim girl, and to present her as such is to gives uninformed outsiders an erroneous impression. Nor are her prospects. The average Muslim girl of her age in the villages of Palestine is covered and modest, engaged at 16, married at 18, and has had her first child at 20. Most girls of Ahed’s age don’t leave school to go to university – they are groomed for their husband’s kitchen. But not Ahed. She is presented as the feisty jack-in-the-box, the free spirit, who wanted to be a soccer player and now wants to be a lawyer to help her people. She is being groomed for show-biz and for jihad, and perhaps, even, for jail. She’s the public face of a successful family business – and that business is protest and resistance, with a media and public relations operation that rarely misses an opportunity to promote itself and its cause. The Tamimiyin are to the resistance what the Kardashians are to vacuity – masters of self-promotion, agitprop and political theatre. And can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

    International media have been drawn to Nabi Saleh and its unofficial “first family” since at least 2011 and eleven year old Ahed’s debut, shaking he tiny fist at a tall, bemused, confused infantryman. In August 2015, she hit the big time when she and her female relatives prevented a masked and armed soldier from arresting her little brother. That soldiers should arrest a wee lad with his arm in a caste might see, slightly incredulous to outsiders. But it was the scrum that ensued, a melee of flying fists, writhing bodies, shouts, screams and tears, as women and girls piled into the unfortunate soldier, recorded by convenient posse of professional photographers and handy smartphones, that sent images ricocheting around the world. And then, in December, there was the slap that reverberated across the globe. One thing for sure: this girl has really been trying hard to get herself arrested.

    Of course you can’t make such a splash without all kinds of opportunists muscling in on the act. Hamas has praised the heroes and martyrs of Nabih Saleh, whilst Abbas has commended Ahad and  her quasi fedayyin family. After her fist-waving defiance, she was invited to Turkey and feted by then prime minister Erdogan himself. Not everyone reacted so enthusiastically. One right-wing blogger dubbed Ahed “Shirley Temper.” The Israeli news site Ynet  saw the images as evidence that “Palestinian protesters use children to needle IDF soldiers in the hope of provoking a violent response.”

    A month after Ahed’s tiff wrestle with the soldier, Bassem was invited on a five-week speaking tour of American colleges and universities by a group of anti-Israeli organizations, during which he spruiked on behalf of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS). Read about it in The Times of Israel.

    The villagers of Nabi Saleh – and the Tamimis – have taken hits over the years, of dead and injured. Hundreds have been arrested, so many are familiar with the inside of Israeli military prisons – and this includes many of its youth who have been caught up in Israel’s controversial juvenile justice system – and now, so has Ahed. Her father has been jailed many times, as have other relatives, including her auntie, Ahlam Tamimi, imprisoned for her role in the horrific Sbarro pizza restaurant bombing in Jerusalem in August 2001 which killed fifteen Israelis including seven children. Ahlam was released in the prisoner exchange that secured Hamas’ release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit in 2011 after five years of captivity, and deported to Jordan, and is to this day, unrepentant, and proud of her part in this massacre of the innocents. She now hosts a radio show in Jordan, calling for the killing of Jews.

    Ahed therefore joins a long line of political prisoners. And that, of course, places the IDF and the Israeli authorities in a bind. the whole business of Nabi Saleh, and its latter-day Joan of Arc present a security and public relations nightmare. It draws an unwelcome spotlight on an occupation that most nations regard as illegal. It illuminates the inequities, iniquities and indignities of the occupation (see my post The View From a Balcony in Jerusalem, and also, the recent anthology Kingdom of Olives and Ash – writers confront the Occupation). If that wasn’t bad enough, the Education Minister of the most democratic country in the Middle East declared that Ahed and her ilk should be locked up for life, and a popular newspaper columnist suggested euphemistically that she be assaulted in jail whilst no one was watching (he later implied that the goyim didn’t get his joke!).

    Israelis on all sides are complaining that the lass made the soldiers of the vaunted IDF look like sissies. Others declare that the soldiers ought to be praised for their patience and forbearance at Ahed’s attempts to provoke a more violent reaction. Some say that a young person continually trying this stunt on an American, British, or Australian soldier or copper would not be let off so lightly. And yet others hope and pray that their soldier boys and girls show the same fortitude under pressure, and come home safe from their days in the badlands. And then there are those who declare that Ahed has been brainwashed, those who believe she needs counseling and psychological care, and those who believe that her unconscionable and manipulative parents have deprived her of a normal childhood.

    But how can anyone view as normal the lives of children in the often volatile West Bank, particularly in a hot spot like Nabi Saleh, with the separation wall, checkpoints, and the kafkaesque permit system, with youngsters’ perennial contact and indeed dangerous confrontation with army patrols and military vehicles, with armed men barging through the living rooms in the wee small hours, as Ahed herself has experienced, with parents and siblings, relatives and friends having endured fifty years of military rule, and with a school curriculum preaching martyrdom and hatred of Jews.

    Meanwhile, commentators the world over are asking what does the region’s most powerful, and in its own words, “most moral” army have fear from a mere slip of a girl?

    Under pressure from all sides, the IDF and the military justice system are caught between a rock and a hard place. Too harsh a judgement and world opinion is outraged; too soft, and the Israeli street is up in arms. Too harsh, and the easily incensed Arab street is again on the march; too mild, and the Palestinians and their Arab and other friends will be celebrating a rare victory. Sweets and happy shots all around as the mighty IDF is humbled by a brave girl – although how well this role model sits in a milieu of male machismo, who can say?

    The honour and reputation of the army is at stake, and yet, it was but a slap, albeit a very provocative one. And so, Ahed, blonde locks awry in brown prison garb and flanked by stout police women, is shuttled from jail to jail, court to court, judge to judge as the baffled authorities wrestle with a dilemma that they made for themselves when she was arrested at her home in the wee small hours three days after her famous fisticuffs, along with her mother and sister – and, naturally, it was all captured on smart phone and shared everywhere. Now, who’d’ve thunk it?

    Caught in the Middle are the Palestinians themselves, as full of conflicting ideas, opinions and positions as a warren is full of rabbits. And the Tamimi clan, treading a fine line so as not to incur the wrath, envy or enmity of the powers that be – the PA, its dominant and often unruly faction Fatah, its mukhabarat, and its blood enemy Hamas – and also to evade the strong arm of Israel’s Shabak state.

    It is a tenuous and torturous tightrope. Bassem Tamimi has estimated that some two-thirds of the villagers depend on the Palestinian Authority for a living [as its largest employer, the PA probably controls the livelihoods of a quarter of the West Bank population. see my post on the Palestinian economy and property boom, Castles Made of Sand]. He himself was once PA employee with an apparently flexible arrangement for working from home with time to organize and strategize, and to meet and greet the foreign journalists and visiting activists who dropped in for the Friday follies.

    Bassem Tamimi is no stranger to jail, and indeed, has good resistance cred as one of Amnesty International’s “prisoners of conscience”, But he is probably much more useful as Nabi Salih’s articulate and respected front-man and his famous daughter’s erstwhile agent and manager. His views are well-known. He is anti-normalization, and pro-BDS. He longs for the end of the occupation, and also, Inshallah, the end of Israel. He wants Nabi Saleh to be the epicentre of the third Intifada, but does not openly condone violence – and carefully avoids accusations of inciting it. For that way, danger lies. Whilst he might resent the endemic corruption of the co-opted and compromised PA, he does not come out against it. For that way too, danger lies too.

    His wife is not so cautious. When the so-called “stabbing intifada” began in late 2015, Nariman Tamimi shared graphic instructions on how best to stab a Jew. Nor does Ahed appear to be as savvy as her father. The Times of Israel quotes a family Face Book post of December 15 in which she says: “Whether it is stabbings or suicide bombings or throwing stones, everyone must do his part and we must unite in order for our message to be heard that we want to liberate Palestine”. Are her parents being reckless with their daughter, potentially setting her up for a life of jail?

    So, where to from here for Ahed Tamimi? as of today, January 1st, she has been formally charged with assault, but the case has yet to be heard. But  early indications are that the prosecutors would like to make an example of her, bulking up her charge sheet with prior altercations for which she was never cautioned let alone arrested. Left-wing Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz‘s editorial today concluded: “They are using Tamimi to placate a vengeful public, and send a determined message to young Palestinian men and women so they don’t dare rise up against the occupation. Instead of putting an end to this wrong, Israel perpetuates it. The problem is not Tamimi but the occupation. Not only was there no justification for indicting Tamimi, she should be released immediately”.

    Will she do jail time, joining a long line of Palestinian heroes, her travails at the hands of the occupier burnishing her resistance credentials. Will she be released on probation, free to continue her role as pop star provocatrice? If she is released on a good-behaviour bond, she could wind up behind bars again the next time she taunts soldiers or settlers. Will she complete her education and study law, perhaps overseas even, far from the Palestinian pressure cooker? Will she return home to be an advocate, a politician, a leader, a rebel or a shahida?

    And what of her prospects in a future Palestinian state should that indeed come to pass? Will she and her father have a part to play? Will their energies be directed against the PA and Fatah old guard and it’s families’ vested interests, inviting retribution and persecution? How would she fare if that Palestinian state was an Islamic one guided by the Sharia and controlled by the patriarchy? Would the straighteners try to put this fiery rebel back in their box?

     Postscript

    Meet Janna Jihad, Aheds young, and very photogenic cousin. Florida-born  Journalist, activist, and resistance icon.