Thursday, March 31, 2011

Palestinians in Kuwait: The Greatest Story Rarely Told

In 1990, there were between 400,000 and 500,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, who represented approximately 40% of Kuwait's population. By 1998, that population was below 30,000 as the Kuwaiti government expelled or pressured the Palestinians living in Kuwait to leave the country after the PLO openly backed Saddam Hussein during his 1990 invasion, eventually leading to the Persian Gulf War. Since 1991, very few Palestinians have returned to Kuwait, less than 30,000 Palestinians live in Kuwait today.

On the surface, this is yet another case of the Western media ignoring the history of the Palestinians and their antagonistic behavior in the countries they have lived in. The PLO in its "representation"  of the Palestinian people, have made enemies of the Kuwaitis, the Jordanians, the Lebanese and, of course, the Israelis. The majority of countries that support the Palestinians happen to be those without any Palestinian residents. The media silence on the Palestinian expulsion from Kuwait is pretty surprising considering that, from a numerical standpoint, the severity of the expulsion was almost as significant as Palestinian movement from Israel after the 1948 War. In fact, the Kuwaiti narrative indicates something deeper about the Palestinian situation that is frequently overlooked by the Western media and the anti-Israel groups out there: the vast majority of a Palestinians have gone through a variety of migrations since the 1948 War that make proving who lived where when the Mandate ended very difficult.

If there were 400,000 Palestinians in Kuwait, where did they come from? The vast majority of Palestinians in Kuwait, as well as those living in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, have lived there either since the end of the 1948 War or at least since the Six Day War. In all of these countries, there has been a marked lack of Palestinian integration in those countries. In nations like Syria and Lebanon, Palestinians are kept in separate refugee camps to this day. The Kuwaitis have a very rigid society that prevents non-Kuwaitis from being citizens, owning real property or exercising political rights.

Why have the Palestinians remained in refugee camps all these years? The Palestinian refugee problem is unprecedented in that it has never taken this long to address a refugee problem. The emphasis today is on Israel's addressing this problem, but the fact that Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Kuwait kept over one million Palestinians in refugee camps (Egypt should be included in this until 1967) without allowing them to integrate into society is puzzlingly not discussed. The political agenda in this case is twofold: (1) resolving the Palestinian refugee crisis would substantially benefit Israel and (2) integrating a large population of Palestinians into any other Muslim nation has proven to be a very dangerous prospect, as the PLO has attempted to undermine every host country they have ever occupied.

This is especially true of Egypt and Jordan, which occupied the majority of land that was given to the Palestnians in the Partition. Of course, nobody looks to the history of the situation and heaven forbid someone consult a map of the Partition before making blanket accusations of "occupation," as though Israel has always been responsible for the West Bank. The simple fact is that from a historical perspective, the Jordanians and Egyptians were more responsible for extinguishing Palestinian national ambitions from 1948 to 1967. When the Arabs fled the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War, nations like Jordan, Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon, fearing their nationalist ambitions, repressed the Palestinians and deprived them of political rights. While the Jordanian security forces killed 30,000 Palestinians in Black September, Israel provides electricity and supplies to Gaza even though the leadership of Gaza (Hamas) makes it an explicit goal to kill every Jew they encounter.

And that's really the point. There's no question that the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank live less than ideal lives. But, when the news coverage stops there, we need to sit back and ask how the Palestinians are treated in other countries, by their Arab brothers. Then, we need to take it a step further and look at why Black September happened and why the Kuwaitis expelled the Palestinians before judging Israel's response to Palestinian terror and desires for nationalism.

If the Jordanians and the Lebanese wouldn't tolerate a Palestinian state on their land, then why should Israel?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Israel's New Citizenship Law & The Need for a Jewish State

Knesset Passes Citizenship Law

Today, the Knesset passed a law that is, of course, under attack by leftists within Israel and abroad. The law requires that anyone seeking citizenship in the State of Israel to swear loyalty to the state as a Jewish and democratic state and revokes citizenship for anyone who commits treason. The man who in many ways motivated this law was Minister Azmi Bishara, who was an Arab Knesset member from 1996-2007. In 2001, Bishara went to Syria and gave a speech at Hafez al-Assad's memorial indicating his support for Hezbollah and its operations in Southern Lebanon. After the Shin Bet began investigating his terror ties and in 2007, he remained in Cairo after the Israeli government accused him of passing government information to Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War. Bishara has not returned to Israel to face treason charges.

The current law is a compromise from Israel Beitenu's original proposal: a law that would require the swearing of loyalty oaths to Israel as Jewish and democratic state, a proposal that was strongly condemned by the left as being hostile to Arabs. The current law is aimed at stripping citizenship from Israeli citizens who act against the interests of the state of Israel. The idea that there are persons within the Israeli government who oppose such a law is truly indicative of how self destructive certain elements of Israeli political society are. The refuse to condemn persons who commit treason against the State of Israel because to do so would acknowledge the fact that a substantial number of Israel's Arab citizens would and do aid groups dedicated to Israel's destruction. Israel's leftist politicians are so concerned about how they appear to the rest of the world that they would let Israel be destroyed so long as they looked moral.

And therein lies the dilemma and, in my opinion, Israel's greatest weakness. When the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tamil Tigers and ended the Sri Lankan Civil War, nobody in the Sri Lankan government apologized or cared when the West said. Israel is not even attempting to be as comprehensive as the Sri Lankans, it is taking the fairly small step of condemning traitors within its borders. Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz opposed the bill because he thought it would unfairly target Arab citizens of Israel. Of course, that is only the case if it is true that Israel's Arab citizens have a tendency to commit acts of treason, a fact repeatedly proven to be correct. Why does it make sense to allow Arabs to remain citizens of the very country they want to destroy?

Consider this law in the context of the bloody crackdowns in Bahrain, Syria, Libya and Jordan. Those nations have anti-blasphemy laws that make insulting Muhammed an offense punishable by death and criticizing the government has gotten dozens of protesters killed in Syria and Bahrain just this week. Israel seeks only to strip them of their citizenship. 

International criticism is not even the most unsettling aspect of the reaction to this law. Israel's greatest enemy is its own citizens who do not understand the mindset of its Arab neighbors and many of their citizens. Palestinian negotiators have sought and continue to seek peace with "Israel" on the condition that Arab refugees be allowed to return to Israel and destroy Israel as a Jewish State only to have some within the Israeli government seriously consider such a proposal. Yasser Arafat famously said that they could call the country whatever they wanted once the Arabs had taken it over and that "our basic aim is to liberate the land from the Mediterranean Seas to the Jordan River...The Palestinian revolution's basic concern is the uprooting of the Zionist entity from our land and liberating it."

If Israel is to continue as a Jewish state in a sea of Muslim nations, it must do everything in its power to retain its demographic majority and require its citizens to support that purpose. Israel is not so secure or so powerful that it needs to start putting the interests of others ahead of its own. The current citizenship law is a single step in that direction, and more such steps need to be taken. The Knesset also recently passed a law requiring the investigation of the source of funds for certain non-profits within Israel, many of whom undertake activities to undermine or destroy Israel. This law too was the subject of much criticism from the Left, but the government passed it anyway.

I do not necessarily believe that the new law will lead to treason convictions or that the non-profit finance law will lead to any significant revelations. What I do believe is that the Knesset has an absolute imperative to pass laws that frighten and intimidate persons who seek to undermine and destroy the State of Israel, whether those people are Jewish, Arab, Turkish or American.

The Evolving Role of (Trans)Jordan in the Israel/Palestine Conflict

I recently saw an advertisement link on the Jerusalem Post that connected to a Jewish group that was petitioning the King of Jordan to acknowledge that Jordan is the homeland of the Palestinian people and that Jordan would take on the Palestinian population of Gaza and the West Bank.

Nice idea, but wishful thinking. Jordan's relationship with the Arabs in Israel's lands goes back before Jordan's (then Transjordan) independence in 1946. In fact, one of the forgotten aspects of the 1947 Partition Plan and Britain's departure from the Middle East was the creation of Jordan. In the original Balfour Declaration, a 1920 document in which the British government expressed its desire for the creation of two states: one for Jews and one for Arabs in the area under its control. The original distribution was to have Jordan as the homeland for Arabs and Israel (including Gaza and what later became the West Bank) included. However, the UN Partition Plan proposed the creation of a separate state in about 45% of the remaining territory that was under the British Mandate, aka Israel.

When the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine rejected the Partition, igniting the Israeli War of Independence, Jordan invaded the area and took control of large swathes of territory. The majority of land it took over became the West Bank (a term that originated during Jordanian control referring to the West Bank of the Jordan river). From 1948 to 1967, Jordan controlled this territory and a substantial number of Arabs who lived in Israel migrated to Jordanian controlled territory in the new "West Bank" and to Egyptian controlled Gaza.

As a result of the 1948 War,  a substantial population of Palestinians were under Jordanian sovereignty. Jordan's ruling family, were from the minority Hashemite tribe and so were not included to become a Palestinian homeland. Many Arabs living in the West Bank at that time were deprived of their political rights as the Jordanian government sought to retain control, thinking the Palestinian population would be politically destabilizing in large numbers.

King Hussein's fears proved to be prophetic after the Six Day War, when Israel took control of Jerusalem and the entire West Bank after Jordan's initial attacks on June 6. Afterward, about 300,000 Arabs from the West Bank resettled in Jordan, which soon after led to extreme hostility between the Hashemite government and the PLO, which began to run Palestinian refugee camps and began to become a state within Jordan with groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine openly calling for the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. In 1970, this led the Jordanian monarchy to undertake a campaign, later called Black September, to evict the PLO and some of the more radical groups like the PFLP. This campaign ended with substantial clashes between the PLO and the Jordanian security forces, with the Jordanians killing thousands (some estimating up to 30,000) Palestinians during the campaign, despite attempts by Syria to aid the Palestinian guerrillas who were not actively trying to overthrow the Hashemite king.

After Black September, the PLO took its activities to Lebanon, creating a state within a state in southern Lebanon under the auspices of the leftist Lebanese government, eventually leading to the 1982 Lebanon War, in which Israel invaded Lebanon up to the Litani River to evict the PLO from southern Lebanon. The PLO then began its exile in Tunisia, before eventually returning to Israel after the 1994 Oslo Accords.

Jordan's role in the evolution of Israel's conflict with Palestine cannot be overstated. From 1948 to 1967, a time in history when nations all over the world were becoming independent, Jordan stifled any chance for "Palestine" to become independent. The fact that Egypt controlled Gaza certainly did not help, but Jordan controlled the majority of territory that given to Palestine had its leaders accepted the Partition.

Today, Jordan's popular is estimated to be between 30 and 55% Palestinian, the largest such population outside of Gaza and the West Bank. However, Jordan has so far refused to take any proactive steps to make itself a beacon of Palestinian statehood, knowing from its own history that Palestinian nationalism is and has been a politically destabilizing force in every country where the PLO has existed. Although Jordan was instrumental in suffocating Palestinian nationalism in 1948, few now remember its crucial role and even fewer are pushing for Jordan to take on its responsibility as the originally designated homeland for Arabs in the British Mandate of Palestine.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why exactly does the United States fund the Palestinian Authority?

Today's terrorist attack in Jerusalem is another in a long line of attacks targeting Israeli civilians. The person who committed this terrorist attack came likely came from the West Bank or East Jerusalem, areas nominally under the governance of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority, the new name for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization has terrorist roots far deeper than Hamas'. It was the PLO that hijacked airliners in the 1970s, killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and started both Intifadas that led to the death of hundreds of Israeli civilians. The PLO's activities in Jordan and Lebanon got it kicked out of both countries. While the PLO has subsequently disclaimed its terrorist ties, with figureheads like Salaam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas condemning terrorist attacks to the Western media, their lip service denouncements are fairly meaningless when taken in the context of their continued material and monetary support for groups like the al-aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Even if one could contend, against the weight of historical evidence, that Abbas and Fayyad had in fact renounced terrorism, they have, from an operational standpoint, failed miserably to reign in terrorist activity in their midst. In 2008, the US Government gave the Palestinian Authority more than 450 million dollars in aid. In 2010, the U.S. gave $150 million in direct aid to help the cash-strapped the Palestinian Authority close its budget deficit, even though the PA had just walked out of negotiations with Israel, using the unbelievably brazen tactic of refusing to negotiate until the Israelis already agreed to their terms on a halt settlement activity. For decades, negotiations with the PLO and then the PA have yielded essentially nothing. The PA is a corrupt, ineffectual organization that continues to exist only because Israel views its alternative, Hamas, to be far more dangerous. The PA, despite being entrenched in Gaza for decades, was run out by Hamas within a matter of weeks after the 2006 "elections" there. Attempts at reconciliation between Hamas and the PA have failed, despite substantial prodding from other Muslim nations seeking to present a united Palestinian front in the court of public opinion.

So why does the United States, seeing how the PA operates, continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the organization? Since my childhood, I remember seeing presidents like Clinton, Bush and now Obama using one phrase that always sticks in my head: a partner for peace. The problem for the Israeli government, in negotiating peace agreements, was that no single group could legitimately claim political control or authority over all Palestinians. When Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1994 on behalf of the PLO, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Islamic Jihad all immediately announced that they were not bound by this agreement and would continue their struggle against Israel. The  Oslo Accords were meaningless in the long term because Yasser Arafat had no control over those groups.

Fast forward to 2006. George W. Bush's drive for democracy is in full swing as Iraq and Afghanistan are transitioning slowly to becoming representative democracies. The 2006 Palestinian Legislative election saw Hamas take control of governing the Palestinians and in 2007, Hamas successfully evicted the PA (now called Fatah), from Gaza, relegating them to control of the West Bank. When Hamas took power, it offered Israel a one year truce coupled with a complete renunciation of all treaties negotiated with Fatah. Thus, decades of negotiations with the PLO/PA/Fatah all went out the window over the course of one week in 2007.

Today, the PA is hugely unpopular, even in the West Bank and Israeli military presence in the West Bank is largely responsible for Abbas' continued hold on power. Israel's need for someone to negotiate with has led it to prop up the PA and the West's unrelenting need for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians requires that someone, essentially anyone (except Hamas, though even that opinion is slowly changing) be thrust into meaningless peace negotiations that sometimes end with pretty words but the same ugly results. The PA's failure are its own fault, its members are corrupt, ineffectual and clearly the people of Gaza and the West Bank did not believe that they were fit to rule. Perhaps it is time for Israel and the West to realize that Abbas and his comrades are not the politically viable moderate negotiating party that Israel is looking for. After all, the U.S. has seen no return on its five year, billion dollar investment in the Palestinian Authority, as we are no closer to lasting peace than we were in 2000, 1994, 1982, 1973, 1967, 1956 or 1948.

Maybe it's time to cut the cord on the PA and resign it to its fate. At least Hamas doesn't deceive anybody about its intentions, they will come out and say they want to destroy Israel to the Western media and don't compromise. How many more innocent Israelis need to die before an Israeli government (and for that matter, the U.S. government) realizes that waiting for a Palestinian peace partner who can enter into a peace agreement on behalf of all Palestinian groups to emerge is a pointless exercise? I hope the answer is sooner than later.

Thank you to Anna Frid for supplying two excellent articles detailing U.S. funding the Palestinian Authority for the past decade.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Nakba Law in Context

The Nakba Law in the Knesset

The Knesset is considering passing the "Nakba Law," which makes it illegal to deny Israel's existence as a Jewish, democratic state, a law pushed forward by members of the Yisrael Beitanu Party in response to Arab celebrations of "Nakba Day." The word Nakba means "catastrophe" in Arabic, and is a term that is used in association with the Arab defeat in the 1948 War of Independence. The creation of the State of Israel at the supposed expense of the Palestinian state is considered a catastrophe, one which many of Israel's Arab citizens and residents of Gaza and the West Bank (as well as other Arab nations) celebrate to this day. Nakba Day is, of course, celebrated on Israel's Independence Day and involves substantial rallies and anti-Israel speeches.

Nakba Day is not a condemnation of Israel's takeover of Gaza, the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, that conflict is called an-Naksah (the setback). It is not an indictment of Israel's expansion beyond the 1947 Partition, nor is it a criticism of any particular Israeli policy. Nakba Day, is an unequivocal statement by the Arab citizens of Israel that they see Israel's very existence as a catastrophe for the Middle East. The context under which this bill is being considered cannot be more appropriate. A grad rocket just hit Beersheva (a major Negev population center) today and several other rockets were launched from Gaza into Ashkelon, Ashdod and Sderot. Of course, Israel continues to supply Gaza with electricity and the majority of its humanitarian goods (while Egypt chooses not to, but that is a discussion for a separate post).

The most ridiculous aspect of Nakba Day is that no one in the Arab Israeli community pretends it is anything but an indictment of Israel itself, not of its policies or expansions. Yet, the Western media and Western leaders ignore this discourse and contend that if only the Israelis did this or did that, they would have peace. Certainly, even if Israel existed within the 1947 Partition, Nakba Day would still be celebrated. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama truly believe that the mindset of the Arabs in Israel will change based on incremental changes in Israeli policy.

The hard truth is that since Israel left Gaza in 2005, Hamas has taken over and launched rockets into Israel, killing dozens of civilians. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah (a group whose original mission was to get Israel to leave Lebanon, which it did) began a systematic campaign to build up its weaponry, take control of the Lebanese government, and conduct a campaign of terror and political assassinations within Lebanon. Changes in "policy" have never been sufficient to placate Israel's enemies, and there is no reason to believe it will now. One of the few reasons the West Bank has been relatively calm is that the IDF continues to control the area and prevent the kind of civil war that rocked Gaza after the 2006 "elections."

Opposition to the Nakba Law from other Muslim countries always astounded me when considering the strict blasphemy laws in place in nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. I am always amazed how the leaders of a nation like Sudan can criticize Israel's actions toward the Palestinians while Sudanese militias slaughter Christians in Darfur. In many Muslim nations (some of which are Israel's strongest critics), any perceived criticism of Islam is punishable by death. One of the primary opponents of Pakistan's blasphemy law was recently assassinated, leaving that country's Christian community without political representation. Muslims nations banded together to pass UN resolutions condemning blasphemy and the slander of religion, a resolution motivated to prevent criticism of Islam post 9/11 and to lend credibility to national blasphemy laws.

Whatever one may think of the Nakba Law, I for one think it is a fairly unproductive exercise, what is interesting is the Western media's silence about Nakba activities in the Israeli Arab community and their significance to any potential peace agreement.

As long as Israeli Arabs celebrate Nakba Day, how can Israeli Jews believe that their Arab counterparts will recognize the validity of a Jewish State in any form?

I did not plan this...

After commenting that the Libya intervention is not tied to Israel, the Jerusalem Post comes up with a pretty plausible theory of how it could be (to Israel's detriment of course)

More proof that everyone wants to make everything in the Middle East about Israel, even when it's not.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Libya 2011 or Somalia 1992?

The Libyan Civil War has begun. With UN backed intervention enforcing a no fly zone, Col. Quaddafi's air force has been reduced and his military capacity is now much weaker. So what next? Assuming the end game is Quaddafi's removal, what happens next? There has yet to be a successful democratic transition in the Arab world. The military has thrown its lot in with Quaddafi, and so is not a candidate to foster a transition assuming he is ousted. Libya is facing major changes, but what are they and are they good for the Libyan people or anyone else?

The rallying cry of self determination goes up, with President Obama calling for global support to help Libya's rebels fight off Quaddafi and establish some presumptive new regime that will (eventually) be  democratic. While this is all well and good, it's pretty much unprecedented in the Muslim world. While cases like Iraq and Afghanistan provide good examples of why getting involved in Libya's internal struggle may be a bad idea, the real parallel is to the UN intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. For those who haven't seen Black Hawk Down, the UN got involved in Somalia in 1991 after rebels ousted President Siad Barre, who had conducted increasingly brutal crackdowns against opponents of his regime. His ouster led to a civil war, which, for those with short memories, is still going on 20 years later. There is no effective government in Somalia, the "provisional" UN-backed government controls a few neighborhoods of Mogadishu, Somalia's de facto capital. Puntland and Somaliland, two semi-autonomous provinces in the north, operate essentially as independent nations with no affiliation with the Somali central government.

With Barre removed, the Somali factions that opposed him reverted to their largely tribal affiliations and began to fight one another, and continued to do so for years, with no single party able to assert control over Somalia, and none of these factions dared oppose the sovereignty of Puntland or Somaliland, which had been seized by local warlords who found regional autonomy a favorable alternative to central governance.

After 9/11, Somalia came to the forefront in 2005 for one reason: its civil war now involved a confederation of secular warlords who were fighting the Islamic Courts Union, an organization that had gained substantial power in Somalia while campaigning to instate Sharia law. During this time, ICU controlled territory became a hotbed of al-Qaida activity, making it a target for U.S. actions. Conflict with the ICU eventually caused Christian Ethiopia to invade Somalia and push back the ICU, but little was achieved in the long term. More recently, the lack of central control in Somalia has led to significant piracy in nominal Somali waters and has led to dangerous development.

Flash forward to Libya 2011. Everything, from the manner of allied-UN back intervention to the similarities between Barre and Quaddafi points to a disastrous outcome for the West should Quaddafi actually be ousted. We have no idea who in Libya is competent to take control of the government should the rebellion succeed. There is nothing about the rebels that indicates any unity, singular vision or operational transition that could succeed in controlling all of Libya. Unlike the rebellion in Egypt, the military is not on the rebels' side, meaning that the military apparatus will likely be dismantled in the event that Quaddafi is successfully overthrown. 

Libya's current predicaments creates many of these same risks. As we have seen over and over again, democratic governments have struggled mightily to take control in many nations. The only governments that exist in the Arab world are either secular dictatorships (Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan) or religiously oriented autocratic states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates). The only thing remotely resembling a democracy, Lebanon, has been torn by continuous civil war and political assassinations. Unless Egypt and perhaps Bahrain prove differently, this is not likely to change. In Egypt, we are relying on the military to step down from its interim power and facilitate democracy. Call me a cynic if I have heard many militaries promise to transfer power only to hold it for decades (Burma, Argentina). 

So if all this is known, why do we get involved? Some say we must, as humanitarians, help the people of Libya who are being killed by Quaddafi. That argument was not persuasive when the Rwandan government orchestrated the slaughter of its Tutsi inhabitants, when the Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil rebellion and ended the Sri Lankan civil war or during Jordan's campaign against the PLO during Black September. Obviously, prior non-intervention does not justify continued non-intervention if one truly believes that U.S. or other Western involvement could bring about a favorable outcome in Libya.

Looking at the regional history, the current intervention risks plunging Libya into a civil war from which it may not emerge for years and that may leave Libya far worse off than it is now. Many of the problems the interim Somali government faced (and why the Islamic Courts Union was publicly popular) was that the Somali government looked like a puppet of the West because UN intervention brought it to power. Now, the Arab League has flip flopped (shockingly) and called for a halt to UN enforcement of the no fly zone. The end result of the Arab League's sudden about face is that any provisional government that does take control of Libya will be covered in the proverbial stench of Western intervention. As a result, such a regime will face biting criticism as a Western lackey, emboldening anti-Western elements to try to overthrow that government. While this may seem speculative, one need only look at the problems that the Iraqi and Afghan "Western backed" governments face in gaining credibility with the populace. Those governments are held up by the U.S. military and are still very shaky. The Somali government was not so back and collapsed almost at once. President Obama has said that the U.S. will not play a central role in Libya's conflict, putting Libya on the fast track to a civil war.

Western nations are foolish to believe they need to intervene to promote democracy in Arab states. Any government they back has minimal credibility amongst the populace. We let most countries sort out their own conflicts, there is no reason to view Libya any differently.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Great Article on Israel's PR Struggles

Thanks to Lev Leytes for sending this to me:,7340,L-4026143,00.html

Hypocrisy in the Maghrib

We are in a place whose political status is undetermined. The country is controlled by its more powerful neighbor, which asserts control over the territory. The people's national consciousness awakened only in the 1970s, after a series of wars between the original colonial master and two of the territory's neighbors. The political leadership of the territory lives in refugee camps across the border, in a neighboring nation. The inhabitants of the territory lack political rights and standing in the country that controls them, and their right to movement is restricted.

For many people, the only giveaway that we are not talking about "Palestine" is that the national consciousness arose in the 1970s, while many Palestinian leaders assert that their national consciousness contemporaneously with  Israel's, if not before. The place I described above is called Western Sahara, and if you haven't heard of it, it's not a big surprise. Western Sahara is a large territory that previously controlled by Spain, then was subjected to invasions by both Morocco and Mauritania before coming under Moroccan control in the 1970s. Today, the Polisario Front, a movement for Western Saharan independence and self determination, operates in exile from refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

So why haven't you heard of Western Sahara? Why is Morocco's control of Western Sahara not the subject of continuous coverage in the Western press? Why are there not mass protests against Morocco and calls by UC Berkeley students to divest from Morocco? As I read what little I could find about Western Sahara, I was struck by the hypocrisy of coverage about the 30 year war that has been going on there. Morocco's grip on Western Sahara is far firmer than Israel's grip on the West Bank or Gaza, and Sahrawis (the demonym for people from Western Sahara) have fewer political rights than Arabs in Israel. Moreover, even when the Western Sahara situation has come before the United Nations, Morocco's behavior in Western Sahara has largely flown under the radar or the international press.

At this point, we take for granted that Israel/Palestine is considered the foremost conflict in the Middle East and has been considered by many to be the key to stabilizing the region. While the recent revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain have changed that somewhat, most people assume that Israel/Palestine gets the most media attention because it is the most important conflict. Taking this for granted whitewashes over several of the other internecine struggles such as Lebanon/Syria and, receiving even less coverage, Morocco/Western Sahara.

There are two great ironies about this. The first is that Morocco is a significant Western ally and is considered a "moderate" country because it is a secular dictatorship. I have never heard any U.S. president make any public statements demanding a resolution of the Western Sahara or putting pressure on Morocco to resolve the situation, give Sahrawis the right to self determination or negotiate with the Polisario Front. George W. Bush, the many who foolishly tried to spread democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, never mentioned Western Sahara is a candidate for democracy. The obvious answer and the most common response is that Morocco is too important an American ally for the US to put pressure on it to resolve the conflict. But then, Israel is an important American ally but that has not stepped successive American presidents from demanding that Israel give up its land and security to aid the Palestinians who call for Israel's destruction.

There is no substantive treatment for this difference in treatment when viewed from the standpoint of Western nations. The major difference arises when one looks at the perspective of Islamic media outlets, which view conflicts very differently when they perceive non-Muslims oppressing Muslims. Just look at the difference in treatment of the Israel/Palestine conflict (non-Muslim Jews in control at the perceived expense of Muslim sovereignty), Morocco/Western Sahara (Muslims controlling other Muslims and denying them self determination) and Sudan/Darfur (Muslims controlling and oppressing non-Muslims). The difference in treatment is stark and, from the substantive nature of the conflicts, completely unjustified.

So, what to draw from all this? I make it a habit of always mentioning Western Sahara to anti-Israel advocates I meet and asking them why they are not boycotting Morocco for its continued denial of Sahrawi self-determination. I am usually greeted with a mix of confusion and suspicion. If they allow me to engage them, I tend to ask whether they believe that Israel's actions should be judged differently from other nations' because they are Jews. I find it important to highlight this point because nobody as of yet can explain to me why Israel gets all the media coverage and Morocco gets none.

Maybe some day, someone will.

Lastly, here is a good article discussing the Western Sahara conflict.

Time to put the United Nations out of its misery...

The United Nations finally agreed to enforce a no fly zone over Libya, two weeks after Libya's rebels were within hours of ousting Muammar Quaddafi from Tripoli. By the time the UN approved the no fly zone, Quaddafi's troops were closing in on Benghazi, the rebel capital in the east. The UN's delay in deciding what to do sets the stage for what may be a protracted Libyan civil war that has the potential turn Libya into another Somalia. Libya could easily divided amongst warring factions with both sides entrenched on their side of the country. For my part, I was not so much surprised by the delay in imposing the no fly zone, but the fact that it was passed at all. The UN's history is rife with examples of non-intervention into unbridled humanitarian disasters, Darfur and Rwanda being some of the most recent ones. A familiar sight is of the UN Secretary General condemning a government committing a crime against humanity (like Sudan, Rwanda) and then seeing the Security Council voting against intervention. In my mind, this frequent scenario reflects a fundamental flaw in the UN: it is trying to be a democratic organization where a large number of its members are not democracies.

When the Chinese government's representative votes at the Security Council, he is representing the Chinese government, which does not represent the Chinese people by any stretch of the imagination. Given the current state of Russian society and the widespread corruption in its elections, one could readily argue that the Russian government is not the true representative of the Russian people. Arguably, 1/3 of the Security Council and 2/5 of its permanent members are not democratic or flawed democracies, and each of those countries have veto power.

But the Security Council is not the only UN body that has this problem. The UN Human Rights Council, whose goal is to protect human rights around the world, includes nations like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Cuba, China, Bahrain (currently killing protesters seeking democracy), Burkina Faso (which has the highest rate of female genital mutilation in the world) and Libya (which was suspended about one month ago). What we are left with is an organization that should be at the forefront of protecting human rights whose members are among the worst human rights abusers in the world. This is truly a case of the fox guarding the henhouse and also undermines the Human Rights Council's decrees and statements. After all, why would any country listen to what Cuba tells them about human rights?

In 2007, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning "the defamation of religion," a resolution spearheaded by Islamic nations and strongly opposed by Western democracies (primarily because it was totally inconsistent with Free Speech ideals). The very premise of this resolution reflects a fundamental difference in how societies view themselves: Western societies protect individuals and allow them to believe what they will, while many Islamic and developing countries prioritize protecting systems of belief and preventing individuals from questioning or criticizing those beliefs. What was even stranger was the fact that many of the nations pushing this resolution severely mistreat their religious minorities, with certain countries treating their Christians as second class citizens, requiring them to pay special taxes and confiscating their churches.

However, where the UN really shines is in its treatment of Israel. Since its founding, Israel has been the repeated target of resolutions condemning any action it has taken and its right to exist. The UN passed a resolution condemning "Zionism as racism." The UN set up an entire body to deal only with the Palestinian refugee problem, but refuses to recognize the plight of 800,000 Jews who were evicted from Israel's neighboring Arab states in 1948. More significantly, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has, since 1949, targeted Israel for condemnation while largely ignoring the role Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon have had in the Palestinian refugee problem. The very idea that the Palestinian refugee issues deserves its own UN body (while the refugee situations in Sri Lanka, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia and Western Sahara do not). The UN, through the 57 Muslim nations that have pushed hard for anti-Israel resolutions, has adopted the anti-Israel mindset and criticizes everything the country does. Of those 57 nations, a handful (Turkey, Indonesia) can be said to be actual democracies with some level of functionality. 

A few weeks ago, the British government made a splash by saying it would cut funding for a few minor UN organizations it felt were not worth the funding. This is a good start. At this point, the UN does not represent or promote the values of Western democracies and there is little reason to believe they will suddenly start to do so. Between its inaction in response to great atrocities and promotion of values that can be seen as antithetical to the values of Western society, it is clear to me that the UN experiment has failed and it is time for the United States to divest itself from the United Nations and shut down the New York Headquarters. The UN serves little purpose at this point beyond being a forum for dictators to attack Western society (see Ahmadinejad, Mahmoud) and sit around while members of the UN Human Rights Council violate their citizens' human rights (Libya, Bahrain, Cuba etc.). These events are likely to occur no matter what, but there seems to be little reason why we should be giving them a a forum and billions of dollars to operate.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A fantastic article about Israel's critics

Discussing the hypocrisy of many of Israel's critics and many of their connections to Libya's Muamar Quaddafi, who is not busy slaughtering those who rebelled against his regime.,7340,L-4043008,00.html

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Itamar Massacre and the Game of "Who Started It?"

The killing of an entire family of Jews in Itamar is another example of the appalling violence in Israel. The situation is a particular tragedy because innocent children are among the dead, their only crime is that they were Jews who lived in the West Bank.

This tragedy is another unfortunate installment in an almost 90 year conflict between Jews and Arabs, going back to the days of the Old Yishuv and the Jaffa riots of 1923. The situation has now turned into an intractable question of "who started it?" with both the Arabs and the Jews claiming the moral high ground over the conflict. To be sure, neither side is morally blameless and to some extent, the quest for moral superiority in this conflict has become a moot point because facts on the ground no longer resemble the situation that originally gave rise to the conflict. We cannot go back in time to 1947 and undo the Partition or go back to 1967 and undo the Six Day War. From this standpoint, we need to look at the present facts on the ground and current behavior if we feel compelled to make a moral determination.

Israel has long been accused of expansionism. Every attempt to make peace with the Palestinian generally calls on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders (or occasionally and more spectacularly, the 1947 Partition borders). Syria demands the return of the Golan Heights, Lebanon demands the Shabaa Farms back. Peace with Egypt required Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. In the mid-1990s, "land for peace" became Yasser Arafat's calling card, and eventually Israel withdrew from Gaza, gave the Palestinian Authority substantial sovereignty in the West Bank to generally negative results. Israel got a "cold peace" from Egypt in exchange for the Sinai, where Israel received occasional and usually secret Egyptian support while still being skewered in the Egyptian media. Perhaps the most successful peace Israel has is with Jordan, which coincidentally (or perhaps not) did not involve "land for peace." Despite the fact that Israel has returned the Sinai and withdrawn from Gaza, it is still expansionist.

Which of course begs the fundamental question, would there be peace if Israel withdrew to the pre-1967 borders? There is certainly no reason to believe so. If you go to any Palestinian rally in the US, you will hear the phrase "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." What does that mean? It means Palestine will be "free" only when its territory is from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea (aka all of Israel). Hamas and other Palestinian groups like the al-Aksa Martyrs' Brigades have made it clear that the "Two State Solution" is an interim step to the eventual takeover of all of Israel. There is historical precedent for this mindset. The Ottoman Empire was famous for refusing to negotiate permanent peace treaties with European powers because they believed that a Muslim state could not make peace with a dhimmi state, that the only options for Europe were to eventually convert or die. It was not until the 1800s that the Ottomans negotiated the Treaty of Karlowitz, the first permanent treaty with the European powers.

So what does this mean? The question is ultimately not whether Israel has a right to exist in the 1967 or 1948 or any other borders. The question is purely existential for Israel in terms of making its decisions vis-a-vis the Arab states: does Israel have a right to exist and act accordingly or not? At some level, contending that Israel has no right to exist is the equivalent of saying the United States has no right to exist because it was established at the expense of the territorial claims of the Native Americans and Mexico. Pretty much every nation was created at the expense of another's territorial ambitions and to go back to sort these matters out becomes a futile and ultimately useless exercise. Whatever one believes about what happened in 1948, Israel exists and it is a legitimate territorial entity.

The Itamar massacre is a reminder of just how intractable things are when your "peace partner" does not recognize the right of your nation to exist. No matter how much George Bush or Barack Obama or Tony Blair or even Ehud Olmert have tried to paint the Palestinian Authority as more "moderate," their rhetoric is very much to the contrary. Both Yasser Arafat and Mahmud Abbas have repeatedly called for Israel's destruction and the al-Aksa Martyrs' Brigades have carried out dozens of terrorist attacks (including Itamar). The primary difference between Hamas and Fatah at this point is ideological but not practical, Hamas is driven by Islamic ideology while Fatah is more driven by its nationalist beliefs.

The conclusion I come to is pretty simple. There is no reason to believe that withdrawing from the West Bank will resolve any problems or prevent future attacks. After all, there were terrorist attacks in Israel between 1948 and 1967, when Israel controlled neither Gaza, the West Bank or the Golan Heights. We have a 20 year empirical study that shows that the composition of Israel's territory did not encourage the Arabs to make peace. To the contrary, only when Israel was operating from a position of strength because it holds territory, could it extract any form of peace from its neighbors. If Israel gives up the land, it loses its leverage. It's much easier to renege on a peace agreement, call for Israel's destruction and commit acts of terrorism than it is for Israel to reconquer territory that it gave up in any peace agreement. After all, Arabs have never been willing to offer land for peace with Israel. Leverage by territory is the best bargaining chip Israel has, and it would be wise not to give it up for empty promises.

I truly hope the Fogel family did not die in vain and leads the Israeli government to realize that it's not about particular territory, about borders or anything like that. It's purely a question of life and death: will Israel exist in any form or will it cede so much land to the Arabs that Israel is no longer the master of its own fate. Never again can Jews allow themselves to live by the grace of another, we have been down that road too many times and have seen where it leads us.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What if Israel had lost the 1948 War of Independence? Part II

The previous post discussed why I think Palestine would never have survived the inevitable invasions by Egypt, Jordan and Syria had Israel lost the 1948 War of Independence. But from the perspective of the Jews, what would have happened had Israel not prevailed in its war and established itself as Jewish homeland?

I have heard many answers to this question, and the one I hear most from the anti-Israel circles is that Israel's creation was very negative for the Jews because it inflamed anti-Semitism in Arab countries that had heretofore not existed. When I first heard this claim, I was really surprised because it so flew in the face of everything I knew about Jewish history. Jews never needed political power or sovereignty to have people hate them. The response I usually got was that there was no anti-Semitism in Arab countries until Israel was born and that the primary perpetrators of anti-Semitism in the diaspora were the Europeans.

That answer took me by surprise, so I decided to do some more reading about how Jews had historically been treated in the Middle East. It was a mixed bag to say the least, Jews were certainly dhimmi in Muslim societies and were treated variably based on who was in power. Ottoman Sultans who controlled the Holy Land generally tolerated the limited Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Tiberias while figures such as Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini openly collaborated with Hitler against the British during WWII and incited riots in 1929 to oppose the idea of a Jewish homeland. The lesson here seems pretty simple: the Muslim nations tolerated Jews so long as they remained a powerless and insular minority.

After doing that reading, the whole picture became leader. Anti-semitism in Muslim countries was born the way it was born in Russia and in Western Europe: distrust of Jews because of their difference and fear that they had power and control despite being a stateless people. When the idea for a national homeland for Jews began to gain serious traction in the 1920s, riots began across Palestine even before it was clear which territory would be taken as a Jewish homeland, 27 years before the partition and before any idea of national statehood existed in that part of the world (since Transjordan and Syria did not become independent until 1946). The primary problem was the influx of immigrant Jews into the region, which the Mufti of Jerusalem took steps to stop with help from the British.

So the question comes back to this, what if Israel had lost the 1948 War of Independence? Aside from some inevitable backlash against the region's Jews for their abortive attempt at statehood, I do agree with many anti-Israel activists in believing there would be less anti-Semitism today in the Arab world. But, that decreased anti-Semitism would be at the cost of controlling our own destiny in the form of a state. The logic of the anti-Israel crowd would apply similarly in many other situations. One could say that there would be far less hostility between Indians and Pakistanis if Muslims living in the British Raj had been satisfied to live in a Hindu controlled India. No one now makes the assertion that Pakistanis were wrong to insist on their own state because it created tension with India. Similar stories can be told about Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and Kurdistan. No one requests that these nations forego their nationalist ambitions for the sake of better relations with others because we believe that peoples have the right to self determination.

If Israel had lost the War of Independence in 1948, Muslim-Jewish relations might be much better today, but Jews would still be a stateless people living at the whim of other peoples who could treat them well or treat them badly as they pleased. I would rather have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ismail Haniyeh call us pigs or dogs (as they are prone to do) while we have a state of our own then pray that some benevolent country take us in. Better to control one's destiny than rely on the kindness of others.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What if Israel had lost the 1948 War of Independence?

One of the central theses of many anti-Israel groups is that if not for Israel's existence (for the more radical ones) or Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, there would be peace in the Middle East. This assumption is central to the anti-Israel agenda and supports the idea that Israel's Arab neighbors were provoked into violence by the colonialist act that was Israel's creation.

So let's take this as fact for a moment. Let's say that after the Partition failed in 1947, that Israel had lost the war, meaning that Israel never came into existence as a functioning state. Let us further assume that neither the UN nor any other organization or nation intervened to enforce the partition. And let's even ignore the strong possibility that anti-Jewish pogroms would likely take place all over Palestine, putting the 600,000 Jews that lived there in 1947 at imminent risk. And let us further assume that the 800,000 Jews living in Middle Eastern countries would not suffer any adverse government or public action because of their coreligionists' abortive attempt at statehood.

So, what would happen? Considering that the West Bank was occupied by Jordan and Gaza was occupied by Egypt at the end of the War of Independence, the opening question would have to be this: would "Palestine" exist as envisioned in the partition of 1947? Given the geopolitical ambitions of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, these nations would have likely have continued their push to conquer all of the disputed territory. Jerusalem stood as the ultimate prize for whoever emerged as the victor. It would be difficult to believe that Jordan and Egypt would stand up for Palestine's territorial integrity since those states never once acted to promote Palestinian statehood between 1948 and 1967, when they controlled the West Bank and Gaza, respectively.

Would there be peace? Well, that depends on what you view as the most likely scenario in that region after the abortive attempt to establish Israel. If "Palestine" did somehow survive, one could easily see it being under threat by its neighbors, who might want to take control of Jerusalem. Some pundits might contend that there would in fact be no internecine conflict between nations, but this largely ignores the belligerence in the Middle East that has no relationship to Israel at all. Prime examples that come to mind are Syria's constant interventions in Lebanon's internal affairs, the Iran-Iraq War and a variety of border wars between Libya and Egypt. To somehow presuppose that all belligerence would cease is difficult at best. Palestine would be a prime target of aggression given its possession of Jerusalem and the fact that the state would lack substantial natural resources which could make it wealthy enough to field a significant military force. Truly, Palestine's prospects would be grim...

So what is the point of this question? I ask this question because I am completely uncomfortable with the idea that Israel is the center of Middle Eastern conflicts. The revolutions in Egypt and Libya have finally awakened some people to this reality, because Israel or its policies are rarely seen as an impetus or cause of these revolutions (quick aside: I do not consider Colonel Quaddafi's assertions of Israel's involvement in his country's civil war to be very relevant for obvious reasons). The Middle East was a violent place long before Israel came into existence in 1948 and long before Zionism was born in the 1880s.

Would Saddam Hussein have not invaded Kuwait had Israel not existed? Would the Hashemite kings of Jordan have treated their "Palestinian" citizens better had Israel not existed? Would Lebanon's Muslim, Druze and Christian populations cease fighting each other just because Israel was gone? I doubt it very much.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Israel Apartheid Week...a nice mix of hypocrisy, ignorance and propaganda

Israel Apartheid Week: 3/7/11 - 3/11/11

It's Israel Apartheid Week, weeklong series of boycotts and attempts to delegitimize Israel. Activists from around the world will combine misinformation, hypocrisy and some outright lying to draw a link between Israel and Apartheid South Africa. While such comparisons are very convenient because of their simplicity and powerful imagery, they are also rife with inaccuracy.

My personal contribution to this year's Israel Apartheid Week is to make two relatively direct attacks on the message of these groups. The first focuses on why Israel is not only completely dissimilar from Apartheid South Africa, but how it in facts leads the way in human rights amongst its neighbors (though not according to the UN Human Rights Council, which Libya was a member of until two weeks ago). The second is to focus on the treatment of Jews in many Middle Eastern countries and most notably, how the PLO and Hamas view Jews and how their views and government policies have a lot more in common with apartheid.

So let's begin. Israel faces a major problem these days that is not often reported in the Western media. Israel has a significant illegal immigration problem. These immigrants are not Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians or Syrians, in fact, they do not claim any connection with Israel at all. They are black Africans who come from places like Sudan and Eritrea. The problems this creates and the ways the Israeli government has responded are not at issue here. What is at issue is the following: why would African refugees want to come to Israel, a state that apparently is very racist and acts only to favor its Jewish population? These immigrants must pass through Egypt, but they do not wish to stay there. They could enter Gaza, but choose not to. The could try to flee to any number of countries, but choose not to. While the Israeli government has decided to undertake a variety of civil actions to deport many of the immigrants, they do not shoot them on site (as was common in Egypt) or torture them. People vote with their feet, and a large number of African refugees vote for Israel, despite cries of racism and apartheid in the international community.

Which brings us to issue number two. One need not think back far to recall the horrific mistreatment way the Arab Muslim Sudanese government mistreated the primarily black Christian Africans of southern Sudan. The massacres in Darfur and general mistreatment of Christians in Sudan is the direct impetus for Southern Sudan's secession. Egypt too, has a staggering history of mistreating its Christian and Jewish populations. While most of the Jews of Egypt has left for Israel, Coptic Christians face government persecution, church bombings by Muslim suicide bombers (including one on New Year's eve that killed 21 people in Cairo) and the constant threat of violence from other Egyptians. Lebanon has had decades of ethnic strife as Muslims, Christians and Druze have battled in several civil wars.

But let's not forget some of the biggest culprits of all: the Palestinians. Hamas has done everything in its power to drive Christians from Gaza, from destroying and/or converting churches to demanding that Christians in Gaza accept Islamic law under penalty of death. Ah, but let's not stop there. Fatah, while more tolerant of Christians than Hamas, has also passed some laws that illustrate their mindset. In the West Bank, selling land to a Jew is punishable by death.

One of the great ironies of all of these facts is that the groups that support events like Israel Apartheid Week are groups that suffer greatly at the hands of Hamas or Fatah. In the Bay Area, I never cease to be amazed by the existence of the following groups: "Queers for Palestine" and "The Women in Black." The queers for Palestine are members of the LGBT community who support Palestinians attempts to destroy the Israel, or at the very least demand that Israel return all of the West Bank and allow all Palestinian refugees to resettle in Israel (thus destroying Israel as a "Jewish" State). The existence of Queers for Palestine is unbelievably ironic because Hamas has openly called for the immediate killing of all homosexuals in its domains. To say that homosexuals have no "rights" in Gaza is a gross understatement since being a homosexual in Gaza carries a death sentence.

The Women in Black are a group of older, mostly Jewish women who protest against Israeli military actions in response to rocket attacks from Gaza or Lebanon. The rights of women in Gaza are well chronicled, since Gaza operates under Sharia Law. Gaza is well known for its high incidence of honor killings. The idea of Jewish women supporting the existence of a government who seeks to exterminate them is also quite bizarre, again considering Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to give women the right to vote and affords women all the same civil and political rights as men.

But there is one other group to discuss: Israeli Arabs. If one only read the press and never visited Israel, one would believe Israeli Arabs live terrible lives. But this begs the question, why don't they leave? Why do Israeli Arabs not move to Gaza or Jordan or the West Bank? If they wanted to live there, it is likely that their Arab brothers in those places would welcome them. But they don't leave, and the Arab population in Israel continues to grow. Why? Maybe life in Israel isn't quite as bad for the Arabs as we are made to think they are. After all, Arab women can vote in Israel, but they can't vote in Gaza. They can't even go outside without a male escort in Gaza.

The point I take from this is that while Israel is not a perfect country by any means, comparisons to Apartheid South Africa should be reserved for places like Gaza, Egypt or Sudan that have specific policies in place discriminating against Christians, women, Jews and homosexuals. Israel is a democracy that lives under constant existential threat. Despite this, it grants Arabs living in the country, many of whom are opposed to the very existence of Israel, more political rights than they receive in the Palestinian territories.

Lastly, I want to encourage everyone who reads this to take an active stance and fight back against Israel Apartheid Week. DO NOT be afraid to engage people in discussion, challenge their beliefs and give them some new facts. Many anti-Israel activists have dogmatic beliefs backed by very superficial knowledge. Tell 'em Jabotinsky sent you...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Quandary of Settlements

Ah, settlements, the eternal sore spot in Israel. Or so, one would think if one only read the articles on CNN, the BBC and, of course, al Jazeera, for the last five or so years. "Settlements," frequently defined as Jewish communities within the West Bank, are apparently a major hurdle to peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. Everyone is talking about settlements, from President Obama to President Ahmadinejad, and all seem to conclude that they are the major barrier to a lasting peace agreement.

The first thing that bears mentioning is the term itself. Arab villages in Israel are not called settlements. Only Jewish villages in the West Bank get this special designation, with the obvious connotation that they are illegitimate and not to be considered part of Israel. The implication of this illegitimacy is that Israel is encroaching on areas that do not properly belong to it because those areas rightfully belong to the Arabs. The "settlement" imagery is used to conjure up images of Israel evicting Arabs, stealing their land and replacing them with Jews. This imagery further fosters the Israeli colonialism myth (discussed at length in my prior post). Furthermore, the Fatah "peace" negotiators contend that the presence of these "settlements" precludes a lasting peace agreement with Israel because...(well, I'm not totally sure why).

In reality, the settlements issue is an artificial condition, created in the last 10 years as a barrier to the peace process. But before I get to that, a brief history of how the settlements issue came about is necessary. When Israel won the Six Day War, they took control of Gaza, Sinai (previously Egyptian), the Golan Heights (previously Syrian) and the West Bank (previously Jordanian) and took over the Arab populations living in those areas. Even after the Sinai was returned to Egypt, Israel controlled substantial areas that had Arab majority populations. Although many Arabs fled to neighboring countries, especially Jordan, many stayed in the areas now under Israeli control.

So what happened? Arabs had always lived in Israel and constituted about 20% of its population in the areas Israel controlled before 1967. Jews moved to Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank and Arabs lived in villages all over Israel and primarily in East Jerusalem. Israel now faced quite a quandary: should it retain control over the territories won in the Six Day War and keep a strategic buffer zone in case of invasion by Egypt, Jordan or Syria or should it return those lands to the defeated countries and avoid having to administer a large and hostile Arab population. Israel chose the former except as to the Sinai and some limited areas in the North. Which brings us to today...with Israel exercising political and military control over some of these areas. 

In 2005, Israel unilaterally left Gaza, removing all of its Jewish citizens who lived there. Following the 2006 "election," Hamas took power and evicted Fatah (aka the PLO), which retained control of the West Bank. Hamas tells anyone who will listen that it plans to annihilate Israel and push the Jews into the sea, Fatah only says this to the Arab press. The demographic situation that exists can be broken down into three sections:

1) Gaza = All Arabs, no Jews
2) Israel = 80% Jews, 15% Arabs, 5% Druze, Samaritans and others
3) West Bank = Mostly Arabs, some Jews living in isolated places, also known as "Settlements"

I do not even consider it to be of particular relevance that Jews lived in many of these so called "settlements" before the Six Day War and so can claim a historical right to the land, because that is not particularly relevant. What is relevant is that the call to dismantle or halt "settlement construction" is absolute hypocrisy given the current political/demographic situation in Israel.

So why don't "settlements" matter? This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. The negotiating tactic that Fatah has used (with surprising success) has been to make certain issues "preconditions" to a negotiation rather than allow those issues to be negotiated. One would hope that the Israeli government would not be foolish enough to unilaterally remove its citizens from the West Bank in exchange for nothing like it did in Gaza. At the very least, the presence of Jews in the West Bank gives Israel some leverage over Fatah in any negotiations over a final settlement. This leverage is particularly important because Fatah has thus far refused to take the "right of return" issue off the table. To counteract Israel's leverage, Fatah categorically opposes any negotiations until Israel gives up its leverage over them. And, by couching this leverage in terms of Israeli colonialist and expansionist behavior, Fatah is able to get the Western media on its side.

Just imagine what the reaction would be if the situation were reversed. Imagine if tomorrow the Israeli government announced that it would not negotiate with the Arabs unless all Arab housing construction in Israel ceased and until all Arabs living in Israel moved out of the country. Israel would be accused of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, Nazism and every other terrible crime against humanity one can conjure up. Yet, Fatah makes the same demand on the Israeli government every day, and no one raises an eyebrow.

Two further points that I think are worth mentioning on this issue.

The first is one of irony. Many of the same people who demand that Jews be forbidden from living in the West Bank are the same people who accuse Israel of practicing "apartheid." I am pretty sure that saying "Jews should be forbidden from living in the West Bank" is pretty consistent with an apartheid ideology. Israel, on the other hand, has a substantial and growing Arab population and has also become a refuge for thousands of African refugees. Anyone who accuses Israel of practicing apartheid in the same breath that they say that people should not live in the West Bank because they are Jewish are hypocrites of the first order.

The second issue is that while I feel strongly opposed to the current rhetoric on settlements, I do think the Israeli government must make a decision on how to treat Gaza and the West Bank. One of the toughest issues Israel faces is how it will answer the question: "What are Gaza and the West Bank and what status do their residents have?" Most in Israel agree that they are not Israelis in that they are not Israeli citizens, but then, who are they? What political rights do they have?

The answers to these questions are very difficult because including those Arabs into Israeli society would, as a demographic matter, end Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Yet, leaving millions of people in a state of political limbo is not likely to bring any final resolution to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

I want to close this post with a challenge. and it is this: I challenge an opponent of "settlements" to answer me this simple question: Why can Arabs live in Israel as citizens but Jews cannot live in the West Bank? (Note: I do not accept "because Israel has no right to exist" as a feasible answer. Let's deal with geopolitical realities here).


Why Israel?

One thing I think is taken very much for granted these days is the amount of media coverage and scrutiny Israel gets. Israel truly is a country where building a house is a major event. The way that Palestinians and other Arab groups argue their case makes it seem like what is going on in Israel is a historically unprecedented and absolutely unique situation.

But is that so? Is Israel's situation so unique as to justify the media attention it receives? For me, this question came to my mind while reading about an absolutely unrelated historical event: the conclusion of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009. Until then, I had read intermittent articles in the American and European press about the conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. The conflict received fleeting coverage when the Tamil Tigers committed a terrorist attack and the Sri Lankan army responded with a show of force in Tamil areas, but these stories lasted but a day or two. So, when the Sri Lankan Army defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009, I expected a huge media outcry. And I got it...for about 3 days. But, as quickly as it came, the story was gone, and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers at the hands of the Sinhalese majority was taken for granted.

All this left me puzzled. Here was a situation that shared many similarities with Israel/Palestine, a dominant military majority that allegedly oppressed the rights of the minority group. Beyond that, we had a "terrorist organization" in the Tamil Tigers who sought to establish their own nation ("Eelam") in parts of Sri Lanka. We had deep seeded ethnic and religious conflict (Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist, Tamils are mostly Hindu). We have a conflict that had lasting power, the Sri Lankan civil war lasted for 26 years!

So why? Why do American liberals and intellectuals not demand boycotts of Sri Lanka? Why were there no movements to divest from Sri Lanka? Why did university students not boycott speeches by Sri Lankan speakers until the rights of the Tamil people were vindicated?

I left all this very unsatisfied, but decided to look into it more. I realized quickly that there were other situations like Sri Lanka as well. Indonesia has struggled with nationalist movements for decades and the Philippines have faced a Muslim minority that seeks to alternatively overthrow the central government or separate from the national government. Even a situation like Darfur, which differs substantially from any of the above situations in that it involved a wholesale slaughter of approximately 500,000 African Christians outright by the Arab government of Sudan, only got celebrities motivated to act to "Save Darfur" for about 2 months.

Reading about these situations, especially Darfur, made me re-examine the core issues of how the media portrays the Israel/Palestine conflict. From a substantive perspective, I could see very few differences until I remembered the core feature of anti-Israel propaganda: Israelis are Europeans.

The classic piece of propaganda portrays Israelis as foreigners and Europeans who have no connection to the land. Moreover, Arabs claim that the creation of Israel was Europe's payback to the Jews for the Holocaust (an act with which the Arab leaders at the time claim to have had no involvement). But fundamentally, Israelis are to be viewed as foreigners regardless of the fact that 55% of the Israeli population came to Israel from other nations in the Middle East, primarily because their host nations evicted them when Israel came into existence in 1948.

But, regardless of its factual inaccuracy, the portrayal of Israelis as European has powerful implications in the Western media. Words like "colonialism" and "apartheid" immediately enter the fray. I've never heard those words used to describe what happened in Darfur or Sri Lanka, however apt they may be. If Jews are European, then they are the colonizers in a situation that Westerners remember and abhor: "white" peoples oppressing "darker" peoples.

We in America and Europe impose our own imperial experience and the associated guilt on the Israelis because we have been convinced that Israelis are the same as us: they are a vestige of Europeans colonizing the lands of natives. This conveniently ignores the radical differences between the nationless, disenfranchised Jews and the powerful European (and American) nations. The sad fact is that the answer is racial, which unfortunately supersedes all other considerations when determining how a conflict will be portrayed.

And to remove any semblance of doubt, I offer one final comparable historical situation: the treatment of Palestinians in Jordan. I will never understand why to this day, the government of Jordan gets nowhere near the criticism that Israel does. Jordan has the following history: (1) occupied the majority of the land that was given to "Palestine" in the 1947 Partition in the 1949 Armstice (2) denied Palestinians in the West Bank political and economic rights from 1949 to 1967 (3) massacred 10,000 Palestinians in Jordan after Yasser Arafat's aborted coup in an event later dubbed "Black September." (4) decimated the Palestinian national movement by expelling Arafat and his allies from Jordan, eventually triggering the 1982 Lebanon War and their eventual explusion to Tunisia. So, why is it that Jordan is forgotten for what they did but Israel is not? Even though the Jordanians and Egyptians controlled the Arab portions of "Palestine" from 1948 to 1967 and tried to snuff out the Palestinian national movement, we hear nothing about them.

The reason? The answer, unfortunately, is as simple as black and white.