Thursday, February 29, 2024

If You Want Peace and Stability in the Middle East, There is only One Choice for POTUS: Joe Biden

The Israel-HAMAS War has created another divisive issue in the 2024 United States presidential elections.  Following the brutal HAMAS attack on Israel on October 7, 2024, Israel immediately began a huge bombing of Gaza which has resulted, at the time of this writing, in deaths of over 30,000 Palestinians and the destruction or significant damage of over 80% of its infrastructure and buildings. 

The Benjamin Netanyahu's government's response to the HAMAS attack, which resulted in over 1200 Israeli deaths, has infuriated large swaths of the global community, including thousands of Americans.

A key question is how the ongoing Israel-HAMAS War will affect this year's elections.  As the recent Michigan Democratic Party primary indicated, many of Joe Biden's supporters are highly disappointed with his Gaza War policy.  They feel he has been too meek in his criticism of Netanyahu. The Israeli leader seeks to continue the war to prevent elections which he would lose and also possibly face jail time due to his ongoing corruption trial.  Will the Israel-HAMAS War cause Biden to lose the presidential elections?  

The answer to this question depends on whether Biden can reenergize the base which allowed him to win in 2020.  This coalition will need to mobilize young voters in the 18-30 demographic, people of color, union members and, in Michigan, a key battle ground state, Arab-American voters who are several hundred thousand strong.  Biden won Michigan in 2020 by 150,000 votes. If Arab-American defect die to their anger at his Gaza War policy, they could hand the election to Donald Trump.

Arab-American anger, as well as that of African-Americans who identify with the Palestinian cause, young people, including many Jewish youth, and large numbers of Americans more broadly who are revulsed by the daily images of death and destrcution in Gaza, is understandable.  I count myself among those who find Netahyahu's policies in Gaza reprehensible. 

These considerations notwithstanding, let's return to the Trump presidency to see what American policy towards Israel and the Palestinians looked lime then.  First, Trump appointed David M. Friedman ambassador to Israel, a post which won narrow US Senate confirmation. 

A founder of Americans Friends of Beit-El Institutions and a columnist for the settlement news website, Arutz Sheva, Friedman has been a supporter of the Israeli far -right, raising funds for settlements, and actively involved in preventing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. He had no diplomatic experience prior to being appointed ambassador.

David Friedman with far-right Minister of
Finance, Bezalel Smotrich

Breaking with a tradition of both Republican and Democartic presidents, Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  He did nothing to stop the rapid growth of settlements in the West Bank whose construction on occupied territory is considered illegal under international law. Indeed, the Trump administration gave the Netanyahu government a green light to pursue whatever policies it wanted in the West Bank and Palestinian East Jerusalem.

The Trump administration implemented the Abraham Accords in September 2020 which normalized realtions between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.  In October, Morocco and Sudan, which was removed from a list of states supporting terrorism and received a $1.2 billion loan from the United States, joined the accords. 

While the Abraham Accords constituted a step forward in reducing tensions between the Arab world and Israel, there was a noticeable absence of any reference to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as stipulated by the United Nations which it approved the partition of Palestine into two states - one Arab and one Jewish - with Resolution 181 of November 1947.  Clearly the accords were an effort to consolidate ties between Israel and the Arab Gulf at the expense of the Palestinians.

Trump's return to office would see an intensification of his support for the Israeli settlement movement, if not the expulsion of Palestinian from the West Bank. It could possibly entail support for Israel settlements to be built around Palestinian cities, tons and villages so that life within them would become untenable. One way ot another, Palestinians would finally be fully evicted from their homeland, as the far right seeks to achieve.  Is this what supporters of a two-state solution want to see happen?

If he is reelected, Trump has threatened to reconfigure the Department of Justice by firing all its employees and replacing them with his own loyalists. Despite being illegal, he has indicated that he will use US troops to prevent demonstrations against his administration.  Such action would certainly include demonstrations protesting the removal of Palestinians from the West Bank, Wast Jerusalem and Gaza. In other words, the ability of those who are protesting the Biden administration's policies in the Gaza War would have no ability to public express their displeasure with Trump.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A Clear and Present Danger: How Benjamin Netanyahu Threatens Peace in the Middle East and Global Stability

Itamar Ben-Giver, Benjamin Netanyahu and Bezalel Smotrich 

Four months after the brutal HAMAS attack on southern Israel, it is clear that Benjamin Netanyahu represents a serious threat to Middle East peace and potentially to global stability as well. The list of Netanyahu's political sins is a long one.  It begins with his lifelong effort to prevent the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living peacefully side-by-side with Israel. What are the implications if the current prime minister remains in office and the Israel-HAMAS war continues?

First, it has become clear that Netanyahu wants the current war to continue. He doesn't care about the over 100 Israeli hostages still held by HAMAS.  All that concerns him, as myriad political analysts have argued, is to keep his hold on power and avoid the playing out to the end of his current trial for political corruption. Netanyahu Puts Political Survival Ahead of Tough Decisions on Gaza

Second, it was Netanyahu who ignored numerous warnings from Mossad, Israel's main intelligence organization, and members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), that HAMAS was planing an attack on Israel.  It has been noted that he refused to read a report on the terrorists' plan of attack in July 2023 when delivered to him by a high ranking military officer. 

As a result of the massive security failure on October 7th, more than 40 former high ranking army officers and intelligence chiefs signed a petition saying that Netanyahu's rule constitutes a "clear and present danger" to Israel and that he can no longer remain Israel's prime minister.  Although he doesn't have the right to do so, the petition asked Israel's president Isaac Herzog to remove Netanyahu from office. Netanyahu must be removed, top former Israeli national security officials say

To retake the office of prime minister in 2022, Netanyahu's only option in forming a cabinet was to include far right extremists, the most notorious of which are Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Giver, and Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich.  All the far right cabinet ministers seek to expel the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. 

Smotrich created a domestic controversy by diverting large amounts of funding to expand illegal West Bank settlements while Ben-Giver has given arms to settlers with the implicit message that using them on Palestinians won't result in repercussions. Because after Netanyahu returned to power in 2022, attacks on Palestinian farmers, especially in remote areas of the West Bank, created a Palestinian backlash, IDF troops were moved to the West Bank leaving the Israel-Gaza border only lightly patrolled.

Third, in another ploy to please his far right cabinet ministers, Netanyahu initiated a plan to strip the Israeli Supreme Court of its powers to overrule laws passed in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Arguing that the Court was too "liberal," Netanyahu provoked 33 weeks of demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Israelis demanding that his withdraw his effort to undermine Israel's democracy. 

While the October 7th attack brought national unity against the HAMAS terrorists, Netanyahu's effort to turn Israel into an authoritarian state had many consequences prior to the attack. One was that a 100,000 air force reservists, and those in many other parts of Israel's reserve sector (designed to supplement the small IDF in times of need), refused to report for service. As many analysts have argued, this emboldened Israel's enemies, such as Iran and its proxies, including HAMAS, to increase their military pressure on Israel.

The ill-conceived Israel attack on Gaza began immediately after the HAMAS terrorist attack. Rather than develop a strategic plan, the IDF was sent to bomb the small Gaza strip (about the size of New York City). Using 2000 lb. "bunker busting" bombs and "dumb" (unguided) bombs, Israel has killed over 26,000 Gazans (many buried under building rubble), and wounded more than 62,000.  Many women and children have been killed while amputations and permanent physical and psychological ailments among children provide fertile soil for a new generation of extremists. Palestinian death toll in Gaza surpasses 25,000 while Israel announces the death of another hostage

Netanyahu's refusal to consider a permanent ceasefire in exchange for Israeli hostages held by HAMAS has severely damaged Israel's international standing and largely wiped out the sympathy people throughout the world felt for the victims of HAMAS' brutal October 7th attack.  

Even the United States, Israel's strongest ally, has decried the large number of civilians casualties in Gaza.  The Biden administration has called for establishing a Palestinian state when the war ends - an outcome abhorred by Netanyahu and his far right supporters - and is considering slowing arms deliveries to Israel to pressure Netanyahu to wind down the war. US mulling using arms deliveries to Israel as leverage to pressure Netanyahu: Report 

Netanyahu's failure to delineate when the war will end and detail a post-HAMAS Gaza and who will govern it, together with the large numbers of civilian deaths caused by Israel's bombing and shelling of northern and southern Gaza, has incentivized Iran and its local proxies to enter the fray. This has taken 3 forms: 1) constant shelling of northern Israel by Lebanon's powerful Hizballah militia; 2) attacks by Iranian trained and funded militias in Iraq on US forces stationed there; and 3) attacks by Iranian funded Houthi forces in northern Yemen on ships navigating the Gulf of Aden, the Bab al-Mandab entrance to the Red Sea and the southern Red Sea itself.  

The Hizballah shelling has taken a social psychological and economic toll on the residents of northern Israel and increased the desire of hawkish members of Netanyahu's cabinet to attack the militia and push it back from the Israel-Lebanon border.  However, others Israelis remember the fiasco which resulted from Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the human and material losses it suffered until it withdrew its forces in 2000.

Hizballah today is a very formidable military force. Both Iran which funds it, and the militia, seek to avoid an all out war with Israel.  Lebanon suffered greatly during the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war with much of its infrastructure damaged by Israeli air raids. Today, Lebanon is a failed state, with its economy in shambles and 40% of the population living in poverty.  But an Israeli ground attack seeking to push Hizballah forces back into Lebanon would leave the militia no choice but to respond.  

With over 150,000 missiles supplied by Iran, many with precision targeting capabilities, no place in Israel would be safe from Hizballah missiles which could overwhelm Israel's "Iron Dome" anti-missile system.  Under such circumstances, the United States would feel pressured to intervene in the fighting. Such an eventuality could bring Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in neighboring Syria into the conflict leading to a regional war in the Middle East.

Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping is causing serious economic damage to global shipping.  Insurance rates for ships passing through the Bab al-Mandab en route to the Suez Canal have skyrocketed.  Many shipping companies are rerouting their cargo around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid Houthi attacks. This decision increases travel time from the Gulf of Aden to Europe and the United States by 40 days, adding millions of dollars to shipping costs, constraining supply chains and raising prices to consumers.

Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international effort organized by the Pentagon to interdict Houthi drones and missies and to destroy their caches of arms, has thus far been unsuccessful. An invasion of Yemeni territory held by Houthi fighters - battle hardened, by years of fighting with Saudi and UAE forces - would embroil the US and Western partners in yet another unending military adventure. 

The continuing attacks by Iranian funded militias in Iraq and Syria on US forces forces stationed in the region finally resulted in the deaths of three service members at Tower 22, a base at the intersection of the Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi borders. The Biden administration has promised a strong military response to these deaths. 

Meanwhile, GOP hawks in the US Senate, including Lindsay Graham (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Tom Cotton (R-AK), have called for the United States to strike Iran inside its borders. However, such a strike could lead Iran to close the Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, thereby choking off much of the world's oil supplies.  Such action in response to an American attack on Iran itself could provoke a regional war in the Middle East.

As I argued in an earlier post, all the problems mentioned above, including the HAMAS attack, could have been avoided if Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to establish an independent Palestinian state. There are numerous moderate Palestinian leaders who, since the 1990s, have recognized Israel's right to exist as a sovereign state. Among the most prominent are Mustafa Barghuti, Salam Fayyad (a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Princeton University's School of Public and International Studies this academic year), and Sari Nusseibeh.  Establishing an independent Palestinian state under the control of secular moderates would have helped marginalize terrorist groups such as HAMAS, which is really more loyal to Iran than it is to the Palestinian people. Beyond Historical Amnesia, Revenge and the Good-Evil Binary: Solving the Israel-Palestinian Conflict Once and for All

The question now becomes: when will rational, solution-oriented leadership on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute take control of the process to bring this 75 year old conflict to a final, peaceful resolution?






Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Day After: Israel at the Crossroads after the Gazan War

The brutal attack by HAMAS terrorists on October 7 dealt a body blow to Israeli society.  Perhaps the most damaging aspect for the long-term was to have burst the bubble of Israeli exceptionalism.  The dramatic failure of the Israeli army underscored that Israel's security cannot be built on border walls, high tech armaments and ignoring the Palestinians' desire for their own state. Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood which won't change even with the defeat of HAMAS.

What position will the Israeli government take after the war with HAMAS ends?   The policies followed what ever political coalition is in power following the war will most likely decide Israel's future. Its forst gaol must be to stop the march towards a "Torah state."  

Politicized religion, in what ever country it has appeared, invariably leads to extremism. Because the so-called religious precepts invoked by those who use religion to achieve political ends are said to be the "will of God," they can't be challenged.  If they are, those who mount. such challenges are attacking God and religion.

The phony religious extremists in Israel who continue to push for more settlements, while they seize Palestinian land and attack Palestinian farmers and destroy their crops, are building an ever stronger power base.  This increased power is evident in the most right-wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which has ever ruled Israel since its founding in 1948.  

The government's  promoting of violence has created an "open season" on Palestinians as Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Giver, has distributed 10,000 rifles to settlers in the West Bank. Over 300 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since October 7th.  While some have been youth in refugee camps who have fought with IDF soldiers, most have been unarmed farmers, often in remote villages, who lack any protection.

Settler attacks offer only one outcome - the spread of violence in the West Bank.  Such violence will only lead to more deaths and cries for vengeance.  In effect, what Ben Giver and the far-right extremist settlers policies are promoting is the opening of another front in the ongoing war with HAMAS. Further violence strengthen HAMAS' argument that armed conflict is the only option open to Palestinians to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The Torah or theocratic state option will transform the Israel-Palestine struggle into a religious one when in reality it is a struggle over land.  Iran would like nothing more than to frame the Israel-Palestine dispute as one between "Muslims."  As it designation of the so-called Quds (Jerusalem) Force, a wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran focuses on "liberating Jerusalem," the third most holy city in Islam," rather than supporting the creation of an independent democratic Palestinian state.

In ideological transforming the the Israel-Palestine struggle to a pseudo-religious conflict, Iran can appeal to Arab Muslim youth throughout the Arab world who are angered by Israel's treatment of Palestinians in occupied territories in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Netanyahu's policy of continuing the war in Gaza for "several months" and creating a security zone along the Gaza-Egyptian border is certainly to be rejected by Egypt.  Keeping Israeli troops in Gaza is a recipe for continued guerrilla attacks against them and counter-attacks which will further inflame public opinion throughout the Middle East and beyond.


Thursday, November 30, 2023

Blowback! Israel and the United States' Self Inflicted Harm by not Establishing an Independent Palestinian State


If Israel, with the assistance of the United States, had created an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank following the 1993 Oslo Accords, there would be no war today between HAMAS and the Israeli army. The wind would have been taken out of the extremists' sails once an independent Palestinian state existed and controlled most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

What follows is an analysis of how both Israel and the United States have engaged in self-inflicted harm by not establishing an independent Palestinian state as was agreed upon in principle with the signing of the Oslo Accords by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 1993. 

Because radical Islamists, whether Palestinian (i.e., HAMAS), or non-Palestinian, reject democracy and the nation-state, they are the enemies of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its dominant faction, Fatah. Had the Oslo Accords led to the establishment of a Palestinian state under the aegis of the  PLO, Israeli and Palestinian forces could have joined in a common effort to eradicate the rise of radical Islamist extremists, if they did find a foothold among some sectors of Palestinian society. 

A far fetched idea? As of today, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmud Abbas (who should more correctly be referred to as the PNA's ruling autocrat) provides policing services to Israeli security forces in the West Bank in return for not being pressured to hold elections and being allowed to engage in large scale corruption.  As a result, Abbas is reviled by Palestinians and would be thrown out of office if he did allow the elections which he has prevented from taking place NGO Report Exposes Corruption Within President Abbas’ Inner Circle, Prompting PA Backlash

The threat posed by illegal settlements in the West Bank A second way in which both Israel and the United States are guilty of self-inflicted wounds is to have allowed illegal settlements in the West Bank to proliferate. Since Benjamin Netanyahu and his right wing Likud party took power in the early 2000s, we have seen "creeping annexationism," namely the speeding up of building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, often on land seized from Palestinians living there. To add insult to injury, most of these settlements have been built with Palestinian labor.  The situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories

Netanyahu and Israel's far-right belive that there will be a "tipping point" at which time there will be so many settlements in the West Bank, that it will be impossible to establish an independent Palestinian state.  Because of the number of settlements is already so large, and Palestinians must drive hours to complete an automobile journey that normally would take 15-30 minutes. Palestinians must use special roads which circumvent settlements and which now prevent the creation of a state with a contiguous area. Land Grab: Israel's Settlement Policy in the West Bank 

As the settlement movement has grown, recently exponentially, the United States has looked the other way.  At most, presidents from George W. Bush to Joe Biden have issued only tepid criticism of settlement expansion, which is illegal under international law, or politely asked that it be curtailed. However, no president has enacted any policy to sanction Israel for building these settlements.  

Knowing that there are no consequences for building new settlement, Israel 's settlement movement has created a powerful political bloc in Israeli politcis comprised of the 700,000 settlers, who live in the West Bank, often with low interest mortgages and generous government subsidies. Under Belalzel Smotrich, Israel's far-right Finance Minister, huge amounts of funds have been designated for settlement expansion. Israel's finance minister defends settlement funds in budget row

The Israeli economy is under threat Israel's economic growth to slow to 2% in 2023 due to war -finance ministry. Already, Israel's Central Bank and Ministry of Finance project a decline in the GDP for 2024.  Despite the large amount of reserves Israel possesses from several years of rapid economic growth, the problem is deeper that just the GDP.  Israel has had to move large numbers of citizens from both the northern and southern borders due to Hizballah shelling, on the one hand, and the war with HAMAS, on the other. 

Many Israelis who have been moved from the north have indicated that they don't want to return to the area because they fear Hizballah shelling. Not only could this "shrink" the size of Israel as Thomas Friedman argues, but it will come with a negative economic cost. Not only will production in the vacated areas be lost, but Israels moved to other areas will need new housing and upkeep until able to reestablish themselves and their families Understanding the True Nature of the Hamas-Israel War

When HAMAS terrorists attacked the south on October 7th, they massacred 23 Thai and Nepalese farm workers, leading foreign farmworkers to leave Israel. Many former farmworkers have indicated that they don't want to return to Israel.  At the moment Israel needs 10,000 farm workers to help harvest crops. While many volunteers have stepped in, this can only be a temporary solution. Israel receives 15% of ots revenues from agricultural production. How the war with HAMAS will affect Israel's agrarian sector in the long term has yet to be seen, especially it it continues for several more months.

Post-war governance in Gaza Who will govern and what nation-states and agencies will rebuild Gaza?  These are key questions  The Gaza Strip was already poverty stricken before the HAMAS-Israel War.  Now most of the population lacks any means to support itself.  Two-thirds of Gaza's buildings have been damaged or destroyed and most of the businesses which functioned before October 7th are no longer operational.  

How will Palestinians living in Gaza rule themselves? Benjamin Netanyahu wants Israel to maintain an "indefinite presence" in the enclave. The United States and the global community strongly oppose this proposal.  Further, who will rebuild Gazan society?  With homes, businesses and infrastructure seriously damaged or destroyed, there is no way for Gazan Palestinians to sustain themselves.

If Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states are to contribute funds to rebuild Gaza, there must be some sort of Palestinian state under the auspices of the PNA/PLO.  The United States and its Western allies support the idea of revitalizing the PNA (read rid ot of the sclerotic and corrupt leadership of the aged Mahmoud Abbas).  

However, an expanded PNA which would control a post-war Gaza is certainly going to be opposed by the far-right members of Netanyahu's current government.  That Netanyahu's Likud Party has lost a third of its members and the Prime Minister himself only enjoys ratings of 25% among Israeli voters, suggests that a new government more favorable to the Biden administration's initiative might take office after the war ends and agree to a revitalized and expanded PNA.  

In my following post, "The Day After: Israel at a Crossroads after the Gazan War," I will explore the challenges Israel faces when the war with HAMAS ends.

The Biden administration's foreign policy team is already overwhelmed. It is helping Ukraine fight a war against Russia, seeking to assure sanctions imposed on Russia are applied globally, working to keep China from acquiring advanced technology which could put it on a parity militarily with the United States,  and struggling to contain a migrant crisis at the southern border caused by authoritarian rule and climate change in Central and South America.  Now the Gaza crisis looms large and must be addressed.  Will the US' foreign policy and intelligence communities be overwhelmed?

Ever since Bill Clinton tried to translate the 1993 Oslo Accords into an independent Palestinian state which would have solved the Israel-Palestine dispute, subsequent administrations have ignored. Donald Trump poured oil on the fire by not including the dispute in the Abraham Accords and by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Each administration thought that the dispute could be ignored and would somehow magically disappear.

The Israel-HAMAS War could cost Joe Biden the 2024 presidential election. If Arab-American voters in Michigan fail to vote for Biden and the 18-30 voter demographic-the demographic which put Obama in office in 2008-Biden may lose to the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump. Trump would certainly favor the Israeli far right which would preclude any solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and harm Israel by encouraging more secular Israelis to leave the country. 

Israel Is Silencing Internal Critics




Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Beyond Historical Amnesia, Revenge and the Good-Evil Binary: Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Dispute Once and For All

Israeli Personnel Recover Bodies of civilians killed 
by HAMAS during its October 7th attack

The barbaric October 7th HAMAS attack on Israel placed the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in center stage of Middle East politics once again. After 75 years of conflict, including wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006 and now 2023, it's time to end the dispute once and for all.  How can that be accomplished? 

The massacre of Israeli citizens in southern Israel by HAMAS terrorists on October 7th was especially tragic given that many of the Israelis who were killed (including a number of Palestinian Israelis despite the fact they were Arabs) had been working for many years to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute.  Some Israelis who were killed or kidnapped had been transporting Gazan Palestinians who had serious illnesses to Israeli hospitals for treatment.

How can the conflict be solved? The first order of business is to confront the main drivers of the conflict. These include what I call the historical amnesia surrounding the conflict, the tit-for-tat revenge that follows each flare up of violence, especially the killing of over 1400 Israelis and more than 9000 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (as of this writing), and the reduction of the conflict to a binary of one defined by the juxtaposition of "good vs. evil." 

al-Jabaliya Refugee Camp in northern Gaza after
Israeli bombing on October 31st
Following the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israelis and Palestinian negotiators, the policy suggestions offered here, discussed later in this post, call for a two-state solution. The accords must be implemented after the current Israel-HAMAS War ends. What would this agreement look like? It would entail a peaceful (demilitarized) Palestinian state, occupying most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip living side by side with Israel. Both Israel and the Palestinian state would share Jerusalem as their capital. 

HAMAS is not a Palestinian nationalist organization What do I mean when I argue HAMAS is not Palestinian nationalist organization? Simply put, HAMAS, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, rejects the idea of democracy and nationalism.  Aligned with Iran, Lebanon's Hizballah, and financed by Qatar, the so-called "Axis of Resistance," HAMAS seeks to create an Islamic state in the Middle East, echoing the goal of the Islamic state's so-called "Caliphate" which controlled much of Syria and Iraq from 2014 to 2019.  

HAMAS' acronym denotes the Islamic Resistance Movement (Harakat al-Muqawwama al-Islamiya).  The term Palestinian is absent from its title. Its name stands in sharp contrast with the secular Palestine Liberation Organization which seeks to establish a democratic state in Palestine in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and has recognized Israel.

HAMAS, like other radical Islamists (often referred to as jihadis) states that God is the only source of mankind's laws. To vote on laws, as occurs in democratic states, is to contravene the Islamic religion. Further, the nation-state is a Western creation which seeks to divide and weaken the Muslim world. Thus, the all Muslim majority countries need to disavow secular nationalism and join to create a global Islamic umma, or political entity.

The core problem with the political system HAMAS' advocates is its rejection by the overwhelming majority of Muslims.  In a poll conducted in July, 2023, 62% of Gazans rejected HAMAS's rule in Gaza. Because the organization is extremely repressive and tolerates no dissent, the poll undercounted the true number of Palestinians in Gaza who reject HAMAS rule. 

Ironically, while HAMAS' popularity has grown among West Bank youth who have clashed with Israeli settlers, the Palestine Liberation Organization which controls the Palestine National Authority in the West Bank is the preferred form of rule by Gazans. With the horrors of Israel's bombing of Gaza, there is little doubt that HAMAS' popularity has reached a new low.

Three Palestines The Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem differ significantly from the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and from Israel's Palestinian citizens.  Much of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is dominated by families, mostly Muslim but many Christian as well, who trace their roots back 100s of years in cities such as Jerusalem, Hebron (al-Khalil), Nazareth, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jericho.  Many of these families and highly educated and well-to-do.

The Gazans, on the other hand, are largely comprised of Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes along the Mediterranean and move south into the densely populated Egyptian controlled Gaza Strip during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.  

Most Palestinian Israelis are deeply sympathetic with their fellow compatriots in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.  However, in many conversations I have had with these Israeli citizens, none expressed the desire to renounce their Israeli citizenship and become citizens of a newly established Palestinian state. Palestinian Israelis, 20% of Israel's population, resent their second class status but prefer the political freedoms and education and employment opportunities they enjoy in Israel.

Overcoming historical amnesia: Arab-Israeli wars Most of the world lacks understanding of the Palestinian conflict. Simply put, it is a dispute between two people over one piece of land.  To solve that problem, each party to the conflict must be able to exercise its legitimate rights to territorial sovereignty, political stability and prosperity.

After World War I, the newly formed League of Nations awarded the two most powerful colonial powers, Great Britain and France, "mandates" (colonial control) over territories formerly part of the now defeated Ottoman Empire. Britain received a 30 year Mandate in Palestine during which time its task was to "teach" the local populace how to become and administer a modern-nation-state. 

With the end of the British Mandate over Palestine in 1948, the newly formed United Nations voted to approve Resolution 181 in November 1947 which divided Palestine into Palestinian and Jewish states. Neither the Arab Palestinian population nor the surrounding Arab states accepted the UN resolution. Once Israel declared itself an independent state on May 14, 1948, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq invaded Palestine.

The war did not go well for the Arab armies. They had been sent into battle not to help the Palestinians but rather to prop up weak governments, especially the Egyptian monarchy, and to seize land designated as part of the UN mandated Palestinian state.  To call the Arab forces "armies" requires a stretch of imagination. They possessed limited and often defective arms and should be more accurately described as a glorified local police force.  They lacked the capacity to conduct a military campaign beyond their national borders.

Zionist forces, on the other hand, had better training and motivation and did not suffer from lengthy supply lines. In contrast to the Arab armies, the newly constituted Israeli army was much more egalitarian in terms of the relationship between officers and enlisted fighters and ideologically unified. Some members had experienced combat in WWII. It later became clear that the new Israeli government had been in contact with King Abdullah of Jordan whose army was led by a British officer, Sir John Glubb.  

Commenting on Iraq's army which fought under Jordanian command (both Iraq and Jordan were at the time ruled by Hashimite monarchies), Iraqi General 'Abd al-Karim Qasim indicated that, despite making significant gains against Israeli forces, Glubb Pasha told his Jordanian and Iraqi forces to cease fighting when they reached the city of Hebron (al-Khalil) in the West Bank.  

Qasim asked why their military advantage was not being pursed but received no answer. He later concluded that Jordan's monarch King Abdullah had cut a deal with Israel to seize Palestinian land which it later did when annexing the West Bank and East Jerusalem after the 1948 war ended in a truce.

In 1952, a group of Egyptian officers overthrew the monarchy of Kinq Faruq.  The monarchy, which was established in the early 1800s by an Ottoman officer, Muhammad 'Ali Pasha, was despised by Egyptians.  It was highly corrupt and seen as subservient to Great Britain. 

In 1882, British troops invaded Egypt, ostensibly to assure that the Ottoman Viceroy Ismael repay the bonds which Egypt had contracted with European banks to build the Suez Canal.  It also helped suppress an army uprising where mid-level Egyptian army officers sought to rid the country of corrupt foreign rule, namely the Muhammad Ali dynasty. 

European powers had pressured the Khedive to build the Suez Canal which placed severe constraints on Egypt's finances. There was no Western banking system in the Middle East and thus the interest rates charged on the bonds issued by Western banks were exorbitant. When British forces invaded Egypt, the real purpose was to gain control of the recently constructed Suez Canal, insuring their access via the Canal to the East India Company which exercised control over India and the South Asian continent.

When Great Britain invaded Egypt in 1882, it promised its troops would leave after several months.  This promise was disingenuous as British forces remained in Egypt and forced the Egyptian monarchy to sign a lease on the Suez Canal which would expire in 1964.  Throughout the period leading up to the 1952 coup d'etat, Britain played an outsize role in Egyptian politics.

How did this history affect the Arab-Israeli dispute?  The 1952 Egyptian coup was caused by the anger of the army at its defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It did not reflect anti-Israeli attitudes because Egypt had had an ambiguous relationship to the Arab world to that point, considering itself a unique country given its lengthy historical heritage, and thus unbeholden to any other culture.  

After the 1952 coup, President Gamal Abdel Nasser (Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir) focused exclusively on consolidating his power against Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood which tried to assassinate him in 1954.  Although no friend of the Jewish state, Israel wasn't on the Egyptian military regime's political radar screen.

Nationalist pressure had been building to expel the British from the Suez Canal during the 1950s prior to its lease expiration in 1964. Bowing to this pressure, which included violent confrontation between Muslim Brothers and other nationalists with British troops along the Canal, Nasser decided to nationalize it in July 1956.

Great Britain organized what became the Tripartite Invasion of Egypt in October 1956 - the second Arab-Israeli War.  British Prime Minister Anthony Eden sought France's assistance. France, like Britain, wanted to revive its colonial influence in the Middle East and thought Nasser was arming Algerian guerrillas in their independence struggle against France. Israel, which sought access to the Suez Canal, was also invited to join the coalition.

Israel began the attack on Egypt in October 1956. British and France forces soon joined the invasion. In a short time, Egyptian forces were defeated. However, the tripartite victory was a pyrrhic one. The United States and the Soviet Union, concerned that Great Britain and France sought to reassert their power in the Middle East, organized a United Nations Security Council vote which forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw from Egypt.

Nasser emerged a hero from the 1956 war.  Encouraged by this success, he soon began espousing a Pan-Arab ideology and overt hostility to Israel. In 1958, Egypt joined with Syria to form the United Arab Republic. His new Pan Arab ideology was reflected in the change of Egypt's name from the Republic of Egypt to the United Arab Republic, and in other aspects of Egyptian society, such as the Egypt Air becoming the United Arab Airlines.  Egypt and Israel had now become serious enemies as Nasser increased support for the Palestinian cause.

In 1967, Nasser began to be criticized for not forcefully supporting the Palestinian cause.  To create the illusion of support for the Palestinians, he removed the United Nations peacekeeping force along the Egyptian-Israeli border, which had been put in place after the 1956 war, and declared that the Gulf of Aqaba was now closed to Israeli shipping.  This closure was meaningless because Egypt didn't have the ability to prevent Israeli ships from entering the Gulf.  Meanwhile, Nasser sent a high level delegation to Washington to inform Lyndon Johnson administration that he was not going to attack Israel.

Israel, however, used Nasser's moves and accompanying harsh anti-Israeli rhetoric as an excuse to attack Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces on July 5, 1967. Its well planned military campaign quickly defeated Arab forces.  Egypt's army had not been put on a war footing.  Indeed, the air force high command had been at a Cairo party the night before the attack. The war ended in 6 days, humiliating Nasser and placing Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Syria's Golan Heights under Israeli control.

Palestinians realized after the 1967 debacle that Arab nations would not be coming to their rescue.  The Palestine Liberation Organization, and its dominant member, Fatah, increased its policy of armed struggle.  Attacks launched from Jordan led to severe counter-measures by Israel.  In 1970, the so-called Black September, Jordan's King Hussein, fearful for his monarchy, ordered the army to expel Palestinian forces from the country.

Moving to south Lebanon, an extremely mountainous region with few roads, Palestinian guerillas began to attack Israel from the north. In 1982, ostensibly to destroy Palestinian bases in south Lebanon, Israeli forces reached the outskirts of Beirut. This advance, which sought to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut, was far beyond the 35 miles that General Ariel Sharon had informed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would be the distance the Israeli army would penetrate Lebanon.

With Israeli forces in control of the area surrounding Beirut, right-wing Christian militias, opposed to a Palestinian presence in Lebanon, attacked the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September, 1982, killing over 3000 Palestinians and Shi'a Arabs during a 3 day period.  Because the Israeli army could have prevented the attack, General Ariel Sharon was blamed for the deaths.  The massacres spawned a new Israeli movement, Peace Now (Shalom Achshav), which organized large demonstrations against the war. Ultimately, the invasion of Lebanon brought down Mehachem Begin's government.  

Perhaps the most consequential war after the June 1967 war was the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973.  Egyptian and Syrian forces began a joint attack across the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights during the Jewish celebration of You Kippur, catching the Israeli army completely off guard.  Israeli soldiers captured by the Egyptian army created an image of Arab military success unseen to date. Nevertheless, the Israeli army was able to regroup and ultimately win the war by ousting Syrian forces from the Golan Heights and penetrating the Egyptian Delta.

The 1973 War ended in a number of positive outcomes.  The Camp David Accords of 1978 led Israel to withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.  Egypt became the first state to recognize Israel, followed by Jordan in 1994.  It can be argued that these developments set a precedent for the Abraham Accords, concluded in 2020, which led Bahrayn and the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic realtions with Israel followed by Morocco and Sudan as well.

Revenge and the Violent Tit-for Tat Throughout the period after 1948, Palestinians saw no progress towards establishing an independent state as promised by the United Nations in November, 1947.  During the 1970s, Israel began building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which were illegal under international law.  Large numbers of Palestinians displaced in 1948 and then more in 1967 saw little hope in the future.  This hopelessness motivated Palestinian youth to join extremist organizations which attacked Israelis inside and outside Israel.

In May of 1972, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) recruited 3 members of the Red Army to attack Lod (now David Ben Gurion) Airport, killing 26 people and wounding 80.  In September 1972, Palestinian gunmen from a faction called Black September attacked the quarters of the Israeli team at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany.  Eleven athletes died as well as 5 Black September attackers.

During the 1970s, a number of commercial planes were hijacked by the PFLP to free Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and highlight the Palestinian cause.  Subsequent attacks on Israeli civilians in restaurants and buses and Israeli West Bank settlements further hardened attitudes in Israel against agreeing to establish an independent Palestinian state.  Meanwhile, Israeli operatives from Mossad (Israel's equivalent ot the CIA) assassinated Palestinian leaders in Lebanon and elsewhere in revenge.

Israel became concerned in the 1970s when mayors were elected in West Bank cities who were supporters of the PLO.  In retrospect, Israel followed a flawed and counter-productive policy of supporting Islamists opposed to the secular and leftist PLO.  Viewing them as religious Muslims primarily concerned with studying the Qur'an, successive Israeli governments laid the basis for the rise of HAMAS by supporting its founder, the late blind shaykh Ahmad Yasin. When the PLO finally agreed to recognize Israel in 1990, radical Islamists, such as HAMAS vowed to keep up the struggle to eliminate what they call "the Zionist entity." How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas.

Israeli- Palestine relations post-2000 When the 1993 Oslo Accords weren't implemented and Israeli politics moved to the right, especially under governments where Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, settlements in the West Bank expanded and efforts were made to weaken the Palestine National Authority, controlled by Fatah, to avoid having to establish an independent Palestinian state and realize a two-state solution.

Once Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, elections held in 2006 placed HAMAS in control, largely because the PLO's Fatah organization lacked historical roots in the region.  After the election, PLO members of the Gazan parliament were killed, often by HAMAS members throwing them off the top of the parliament building. Other PLO members fled Gaza in fear and HAMAS was now in complete control. No elections have been held in Gaza since 2006.

Rather than trying to undermine Gaza, Israeli governments allowed Qatar, a supporter of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist groups, to donate large amounts of funds to Gaza which only strengthened HAMAS control.  Some Gazan residents were allowed to work in southern Israel and elsewhere, especially in the agricultural sector.  

At the same time that HAMAS was consolidating its hold over Gaza, and ending elections, a new and powerful movement, Hizballah (Party of God) was developing among Shi'a who comprise the majority of the population of southern Lebanon.  Angered at the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon from 1982 until Israel withdrew in 2000, the Shi'a supported Hizballah which became a new supporter of the Palestinian cause.

With military and financial support from Iran, which became the so-called "champion" of "liberating Jerusalem," Hizballah's attacks on northern Israel led to another war in 2006.  Hizballah rockets rained down on Israeli towns and villages forcing a large scale evacuation of civilians to areas farther to the south.  The war ended with a large scale destruction of southern Lebanon, but not the defeat of Hizballah.

A solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict - the need to end the cycle of violence and revenge. There is only one way to end the Israel-Palestine conflict and that is to enact the Oslo Accords negotiated in secret between Israeli and Palestinian representatives in Norway in 1993. Although the Accords failed to mention an independent Palestinian state, that was the assumption underlying the Accords. I Have Never Been to This Israel Before

Establishing an independent Palestinian state will require a strong coordinated international effort. In addition to Israel and the Palestinians, the United States, the European Union and Saudi Arabia will need to play major roles. Pressure will be required to force both parties to the negotiating table.  It is in the international community's interest to begin peace negotiations once the current HAMAS-Israel war ends. Risk of a Wider Middle East War Threatens a ‘Fragile’ World Economy 

First and foremost, Israelis will need to vote Benjamin Netanyahu and his current far-right cabinet out of office.  As of this writing, Netanyahu enjoys a 20% approval rate among Israelis.  After an independent commission reviews the disastrous security failure which enabled HAMAS terrorists to slaughter Israelis, Netanyahu and his far right supporters will constitute even greater tarnished political goods.

Because the United States will face opposition from the right wing of the Republican Party and Christian evangelicals if it tries to pressure Israel to establish an independent Palestinian state, Saudi Arabia will be needed to play a central role in support of the two-state solution.

In 2022, the Israeli economy was ranked by the OECD as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Now Israel's economy is predicted to shrink 10% during the remainder of 2023.  A number of firms in Israel's tech industry had already been leaving Israel due to Netanyahu's campaign to strip Israel's Supreme Court of its power and centralize control of the government in the Knesset's majority coalition. Israel economy grew 6.5% in 2022, seen near 3% in 2023

The expected investment from the United Arab Emirates after the Abraham Accords and the financial benefits of officially establishing diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia are now on hold.  With 360,000 men and women mobilized for military duty during the current war with HAMAS, many employees are no longer reporting for work in Israeli companies. Ultra-orthodox men don't serve in the military and lack the professional skills to fill the jobs lost while IDF soldiers are in the front line. ‘Start-Up Nation’ Is Tested as Israel’s Reservists Leave Their Desks

Agricultural workers from Thailand have left the country and large numbers of civilians have been evacuated from the southern and northern parts of Israel.  As an Israeli colleague in Tel Aviv told me recently, foreign investment is drying up.  Clearly, Israel will be hurt economically by the war with HAMAS.

Saudi Arabia wants access to high end American arms, nuclear power technology and a defense treaty to assure it protection from Iran.  Possessing one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, and a desire to reduce its dependence on the United States, and recently turning to China for economic development assistance, the United States has every incentive to accommodate the kingdom's goals. China and Saudi Arabia are getting closer. Should the US be worried?

Here's where a three way accord could lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  The United States would meet Saudi Arabia's needs but with the proviso that it establish formal ties with Israel. Israel, for its part, would receive a large influx of Saudi investment designed to link emerging Saudi tech firms with Israeli tech firms, which are among the most advanced in the world.  

Israel would be flush with funds and Saudi Arabia could make a major leap forward in implementing Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's Vision 2030 which seeks to diversify the Saudi economy away from dependence on oil. If the UAE joined a Saudi-Israeli technology and financial nexus, that partnership could become one of the most powerful in the world.

However, Israel would have to agree to establish a Palestinian state, granting Palestinians the right to have East Jerusalem as their shared capital with Israel and receive land in the Negev Desert in exchange for allowing settlements near Jerusalem to remain under Israeli control.

A new Palestinian leadership would need to replace the corrupt and inept administration of the Palestine National Authority (PNA) currently run by President Mahmoud Abbas, who is reviled by most West Bank Palestinians.  Returning the former PNA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to office, a Palestinian leader who is highly respected for his competence and lack of corruption, both among Palestinians and the international community, would lay a solid foundation for a peaceful Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace. (Among his bona fides, Fayyad has been a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Foreign Affairs at Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs). 

Israel and the new Palestinian state could work together to prevent the return of HAMAS or other radical Islamist groups to Gaza and the new Palestinian state. Members of Israel's highly educated Palestinian citizenry (20% of Israeli university students are Palestinian Israelis) could help to build the new Palestinian state and provide an important professional and cultural bridge for Israel to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states.

In summary, the two-state solution would allow the Israel-Palestinian dispute to be settled once and for all.  The road to a settlement would not be an easy one. But it would remove one of the greatest ongoing threats to international political stability and security.  Most important of all, a peace treaty would end the cycle of violence which has plagued the Israeli and Palestinian people for the past 85 years.




Saturday, September 30, 2023

Reflections on Edward Said's Orientalism after 25 Years

The cover of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978)

It has been 25 years since Edward Said published his groundbreaking study, Orientalism.  Twenty years ago this month, the world lost Edward Said to leukemia. Said, one of the 20th century's most prominent public intellectuals, combined political activism with writing. His writings shook up Middle Eastern studies in the West, brought the Palestinian cause to the world's attention and had a major impact on the development of the field of post-colonial studies.  

With the failures of the Arab Spring, the spread of violence, instability and failed states throughout the MENA region and the signing of the Abraham Accords, it may be time to take stock of Orientalism, Said's most important academic and political contribution.  The book earned him numerous accolades but much criticism as well. What was Orientalism's contribution and has that contribution been preserved over time? 

Said's juxtaposition of Occident and Orient has a long historical pedigree. For at elast 2 centuries, the study of the "Orient" has been central to university academic units in the West whose concern is the MENA region.  In Said's framing, the Occident and Orient have been pitted against each other along a vertical cleavage which has overtones of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations." This cleavage funds its origins in the struggle between Europe and the Arab world after the spread of Islam beyond the MENA region to Europe in the 7th century CE. 

Orientalism's conceptual framing is based in culture and hence ideas.  While this approach yields great insights into the thinking of many Orientalist thinkers, it ignores other aspects of the relationship between the West and the East.  One core relationship is the powerful economic ties which developed in the beginning of the 20th century after the discovery of massive oil reserves in Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse In an important but long overlooked critique of Orientalism, the late Syrian philosopher, Sadiq al-'Azm, argued that Said was guilty of what he called "Orientalism in reverse." In his article published in the Arab-Israeli journal, Khamsin, al-'Azm views Orientalism as replacing Western Orientalism with an Arab Occidentalism.  He also argues that Said's use of culture prevents him from breaking conceptually and hence epistemologically with Western Orientalist modes of thought Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse – Sadik Jalal al-‘Azm 

Of particular concern to al-'Azm is Said's failure to theorize the political economy of relations between the West and the MENA region. Despite the negative views of Islam and Muslim majority countries generally, he points out that the sociocultural cleavage on which Said focuses hasn't prevented Western nation-states from developing alliances with Arab oil-producing states and benefitting from their energy supplies. Arab oil-producers and other Arab regimes, such as Egypt, have historically been major purchasers of American, British and French weaponry.

Here al-'Azm changes the conceptual focus to social class. Instead of a vertical sociocultural cleavages between Occident and Orient, al-'Azm substitutes a horizontal cleavage based in mutual financial and security interests between many Arab states and Western powers, especially the United States.  

While true that many Westerners view the "Orient" as an exotic and irrational region, and that many, e.g., many Republicans in the United States, view Islam as an "ideology," not a religion,  the main drivers of realtions between the East and West are those based in powerful political and financial elites, i.e., what al-'Azm considers the ruling classes. 

Implicit in al-'Azm's critique of Orientalism is a critique of post-colonial discourse.  Rarely does this discourse engage the concept of social class.  While al-'Azm never denies the importance of culture, religion and ethnicity, Orientalism as defined by al-'Azm becomes a hegemonic trope used in the modern period to divert attention away from the cross-regional collaboration which serve the ruling classes of the West band the MENA region but not subaltern groups's interests in the two different areas of the world.

The Abraham Accords al-'-Azm's analysis was prescient in predicting the establishment of clser ties between ruking elites in the MENA region. Alredy in the 1970s, after the October 1973 War, Egypt and the United States, together with Saudi Arabia and Jordan,  began informal consultations with Israel on regional security, especially threats posed by Iran and, later, terrorist groups. Once the Palestine National Council was formed in 19xx, Palestinian intelligence joined this security group as well.

The September 2020 "Abraham Accords," which were signed between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrayn and Israel during the Trump administration, represented a codification of the informal consultation and coordination among Israel and the Arab world.  The accords broke another barrier in Arab-Israeli relations because it sharply divided the UAE and Bahrayn, and later Morocco and Sudan, which joined in December 2020 and January 2021 respectively through formal recognition of Israel.

Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, Qatar, Iraq, Libya and Yemen refused to join the accords.  One of the key criticisms of these Arab states (in Libya's case, 2 ruling groups competing for control of the country) because they failed to address the issue of Palestinian self-determination.  Nevertheless, what the Abraham Accords demonstrated was that political-security and financial interests trump Arab ethnic solidarity.

Israel turn to the far-right and the Occupied West Bank The extent to which Said's model suffers from conceptual shortcomings is seen in the recent efforts of the Biden administration to create a tri-partite defense pact between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

Despite the aggressive effort by the far-right religious nationalist government of Benjamin Netanyahu to seize and occupy as much as possible of the Palestinian National Authority (West Bank), the Biden administration and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) have failed to prevent the progressive ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population.  MBS has sent a Saudi diplomatic representative to the PNA, but nothing has come of it that can be viewed as postive for the Palestinians

For Biden, Israel's far-right government's policies are highly distasteful. Creating an Iranian defense alliance, however, is much higher on his foreign policy priorities list than reigning in Netanyahu's effort to transform Israel into an autocracy and end Palestinian hopes for an independent state. The proposed alliance will shut down the GOP howl when and if Biden can entice the Tehran regime to enter a new JCPOA and become serious about reigning in its nucelar weapons ambitions.

MBS wants to develop Saudi Arabia as an economic powerhouse whose economy is not dependent on oil production and revenues. Israel can play a central part in his Vision 2030.  Its high tech sector can help Saudi Arabia develop a more diversified economy and, as the Israeli firm NSO has demonstrates in multiple nations around the world, help the Saudi regime use its Pegasus spyware to more efficiently police its citizens.

Orientalism and the Palestinian future Clearly, the Arab-Israeli dispute and the question of Palestine were key subtexts to Edward Said's Orientalism.  His subsequent study, Covering Islam (1981), was, with its double-entendre, an attack on the rage at the time resulting from the so-called 1978-79 Islamic revolution in Iran, that Islam was a religion of extremism, violence and irrationality. The book's title also hit the bias of many Western journalists in covering Islam for their respective news outlets. 

No one would argue that culture no longer plays a key role in relations between the West and the MENA region.  Radical Islamists like Sayyid Qutb, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and many others of their ideological ilk claim that, ipso facto, Western culture in its current form constitutes an attack on Islam.  Indeed, the recent banning of the film Barbie in most MENA region countries - with Saudi Arabis being a notable exception - was based on the corrosive effect of Western culture on Muslim youth.  

Orientalism has allowed many Westerners to question how they think about the Arab world, Islam and the larger MENA region. Its impact on younger scholars in the West has been profound. In Gramscian terms, it has helped the Palestinians develop a more effective "war of position" in winning over the support of the inter national community.

Still, at the end of the day, difficult political struggle is required if the Palestinians are to achieve their goals of national self-determination, namely a state of their own, and socila justice.  Changing the way the West thinks about Arab culture, the Palestinian people and Islam is core to Edward Said's legacy. Now the powerful political economic ties which bind the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf present a much higher mountain for the Palstinians to climb 



Wednesday, August 30, 2023

East Meets West: The Rise of Far-Right Religious Nationalism in Israel and the United States

Demonstrations against crippling Israel's Supreme Court

In 1975, Dr. Ralph Coury wrote an article entitled, "Why Can't They Be Like Us?"  Published in the first issue of the Review of Middle Eastern Studies, edited by Talal Asad and Roger Owen, Coury offered a critique of the Orientalist view that, for the peoples of the MENA region to "modernize," they needed to accept the culture and values of the West.  Thankfully, this perspective, propounded by classic Orientalist texts and the modernization theory of the late 1950s and 1960s, has been thoroughly debunked.

Nevertheless, it may be important to revisit this approach to understanding the MENA region by turning Orientalist and modernization theory on their heads.  In 2023, the decline of civic nationalism in the West and MENA region and the concomitant rise of politicized religion in the two regions has been pronounced.  An argument can be made that each of the 3 Abrahamic religions have developed an intolerant and violent form of xenophobic religious nationalism which completely contradicts the messages of their prophets. 

What then is happening to traditional forms of religion which encourage the ideas of brotherhood/sisterhood, tolerance, respect for cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on social justice?  Perhaps we can find some answers by comparing recent political developments in Israel and the United States.  Israel’s Crisis Has a Distinctly American Flavor

Let's begin by recognizing that neither Israel nor the United States is comprised of a majority of citizens who accept religious nationalism. The problem is that sizable numbers of Israelis and Americans do reject civic nationalism (or what they call secular nationalism).  

All too often viewed through the eye of religion, this form of nationalism constitutes a political commitment more than a religious one.  In fact, it really has little to do with religious belief. Rather, politicized religion is a cover for reconstituting society along far right-wing lines.

What are the religious nationalists' goals in their respective societies? First and foremost, they seek to eliminate the constitutional rules of the game which constrain their ability to impose a new system of governance.  This means undermining or eliminating those institutions which stand in the way of their goals.  Hence, Netanyahu's far-right government's attack on Israel's Supreme Court and the MAGA effort to subvert the US Constitution through the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 to deny Joe Biden from being sworn in as presidento

Second, it's critical for far right religious nationalists to develop their hegemonic project by claiming that what they doing is to implement the Word of God.  Using interpretations based on fear and anxiety, they seek to take control of the public sphere.  Secular schools need to be closed and replaced by religious academies.  Socializing a new generation of youth according to their view is critical. 

Third, the far right seeks to suppress what they consider to be non-traditional understandings of the family and sexual identity. The idea of same sex marriage is rejected as is rights afforded to the LGBTQ+ community.  Laws legitimizing same sex marriage and offering protections to non-heterosexuals are thus targeted for elimination.

Fourth, both forms of religious nationalism situate women as second class citizens.  There are no female rabbis in the far right religious nationalist movement in Israel nor female pastors in far right evangelical churches in the United States.  Even in the more traditional, but not evangelical, Southern Baptist Convention, women were recently forbidden to hold positions of authority in the church, much less remain, as some have, as pastors.

Finally, liberal democratic governance is rejected.  In its place, authoritarianism becomes the new norm.  Far right religious  nationalists won't admit that this is true. Indeed, they argue the opposite. "We the People," who are divinely chosen, are the majority and thus democracy is being practiced on a daily basis as we implement God's Will.  Appeals are thus made to a majoritarian form of rule which the privileged majority imposes. 

This political ideology constitutes a form of religiously based populism.  It legitimizes what it claims to be a form of democratic governance by arguing that it is following God's laws.  As such, religious nationalism can;t be challenged because its mission stems from a higher power.

Religious nationalism has been able to make greater inroads in Israel because it is favored by demographic change. The ultra-orthodox community which provides the special base for the religious nationalism has been growing much faster than Israel's secular center right and center left.  Educated in religious schools, ultra-orthodox youth are taught that God has given the Land of Israel to the Jews, including the West Bank of the River Jordan where Palestinians seek to establish an independent state.

While demographics favor the far right religious nationalists in Israel, the opposite is true in the United States.  The Caucasian population is declining as is church attendance.  Many youth, both in religiously observant and secular families, refuse to accept the dictates and sociocultural constraints of religious nationalism.  Thus, the future of the movement is much mores in doubt in the United States than in Israel.

The problem with each of these movements is their ethereal approach to social, economic and political reality.  Far right religious nationalist may want to build a "Torah state" in Israel.  However, such a state doesn't address the sharp rise in income inequality in Israel. Neither does it address the discontent of secular Israeli society which rejects the idea of a pseudo-religious polity.

Further, the policies of the current far right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both infuriated and demoralized many secular Israelis.  Already we see some making plans to leave the country.  There already is a huge Israeli Diaspora, much of which doesn't want to live under the type of society being constructed by the far right religious nationalists. 28% of Israelis considering leaving the country amid judicial upheaval — poll

Equally ominous, Israel's economy has been adversely affected by the policies of far-right religious nationalists.  Considerable portions of Israel's technology sector, a major engine of growth, no longer view Israel as having a favorable investment climate, especially if the Supreme Court loses much of its authority under Netayahu's plan to strip it of many of functions.  Investment funds by Israeli entrepreneur's are being moved to other countries. Moody’s warns Israel faces ‘significant risk’ of political and social tensions that will harm its economy, security

What are the domestic challenges facing far-right religious nationalism?  A core problem is that the cultural wars of right-wing religious nationalism exclude any focus on the economy.  As the current economic crisis in China demonstrates, authoritarianism and a vibrant market economy don't mix.  Under the type of religious nationalist state advocated by Netanyahu and his far-right ministers, foreign direct investment (FDI) will decline and young, innovative tech entrepreneurs will be less willing to work in Israel.

In the United States, the need to develop a skilled work force which possesses the technical abilities required of the 21st century isn't a goal of the Christian nationalist right.  Christian nationalists focus on limiting the role of the federal government and circumscribing its ability to legislate.  We see this process currently playing itself out in the 2023 House of Representatives which has failed to pass any legislation addressing important issues, such as climate change, infrastructure development, health care reform or financially securing entitlements.

The far-right Christian nationalists also pose a threat to the security of Israel and the United States.  Apart from appropriating territory from Palestinians living on the West Bank,  religious nationalists in Israel show relatively little interest in the rest of the MENA region. Because many ultra-orthodox are exempt from serving in Israel Defense Force, many lack n understanding of serving in the military and respect for what s considered an important part of an Israeli's civic duty.

In the United States, religious nationalists likewise reflect an insular and isolationist world view.  Many public opinion polls indicate that religious nationalists oppose military aid to Ukraine and seem to have little concern about Vladimir Putin's illegal invasion and attempt to eliminate it as a sovereign nation-state.  In this context, international security and financial alliances fall by the wayside.

Finally, we may look to parallels between Iran and Israel.  In Iran, women have been protesting the forced wearing of the hijab (head scarf) by the so-called Islamic regime in Tehran.  In Israel, even religious women have expressed criticisms of Netanyahu's attack on Israel's Supreme Court. Many have argues that the rights they have as religious Jews, were curtailed before the Supreme Court intervened to declare the laws null and void. Women Will Be the Biggest Victims of Israel’s Judicial Reforms

Globalization is viewed as posing a threat to traditional norms and customs in many countries. It has been reinforced by neo-liberal state policies which have focused on individual achievement and profits to the detriment of promoting a national civic consciousness.  

Those who feel left out by processes of globalization have chosen to rebel. Far-right religious nationalists feel they have been excluded from what they consider an aloof and secular political culture. In some, the response has been the rise of an insular and intolerant form of politics, frequently cloaked in a politicized form of religion.

In summary, the question Ralph Khoury raised decades ago has now become a very different one.  Politcal developments in the West parallel, rather than differ from, political developments in the MENA region.  Sadiq al-'Azm's article in the journal Khamsin, "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse," also from the 1970s, springs true - there is much more in common between the "East" and "West" than many observers are willing to recognize. Authoritarianism comes in many forms - xenophobic religious nationalism is just one of them.

Indeed, it is important to recognize that the far-right Christian nationalist movement in the United States constitutes a strong supporter of Israel.  However, there is a major contradiction inherent in this support.  Based on the belief that the Return of the Messiah - Jesus Christ - will occur in the Holy Land, only true Christians will survive the Second Coming of Christ.   

In both Israel and the United States, the civic and secular center-right and center-left will need to engage in outreach to those who feel left behind by the rapid changes wrought by globalization. Those both in and out of power need to bring clerics and lay people together who reject far right religious nationalism to develop a new form of social democracy in which cultural diversity isn't swept under the carpet but occupies a central focus of national political discourse.  

Unless trust can be reestablished in liberal democracy, especially its social democratic variant, where citizens feel a meaningful connection to the polity and those elected to positions of authority, religious nationalism will continue to resonate with significant portions of the populace in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America