Khalidi: Peace Prospects Grim Despite Israeli Election

APTOPIX-Mideast-Israel-Election-voteThis article first appeared in the Morningside Post:

As results poured in Tuesday night in Israel’s general election, headline writers the world over rushed to announce the prodigious drop in support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. The unexpected success of newcomer Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party — committed to the two-state solution – inspired fresh hope for a resumption of peace talks with Palestinians.

Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi shares little of that enthusiasm. “The Israeli political scene is remarkable for creating newcomers,” he said, citing the Kadima Party, who won a plurality seven years ago but barely crossed the minimum threshold necessary to secure a seat in this new Knesset. While he admitted the election results were “a surprise” and represented “resistance to the right-wing anti-democratic… and anti-Arab trends” in Israeli politics, he remained skeptical about the bigger picture. “I don’t see that there’s a huge amount of hope [for final-status negotiations],” he said. Instead, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he anticipates more continuity than change.

“The vote is split 50-50 between Greater Land of Israel supporters [and their opponents],” Khalidi said. The 120-seat Knesset is divided down the middle between hard-line parties who he says are “over-my-dead-body against” Palestinian statehood, and another bloc dominated by centrists but including smaller left-wing and Arab parties whom he calls “positive but lukewarm” towards talks. Khalidi said the election result is “likely to create a logjam,” and discounted the possibility of a bold push toward negotiations.

The obstacles to peace, suggested the Palestinian-American scholar, are structural. He cited the “weakness of the Arab world, the inability of the Arabs to push for a settlement, division and weakness on the Palestinian side, and the feebleness of American policy.”  He described the United States as a “dishonest broker” for peace over the last 20 years, perpetually favoring Israeli positions. Indeed, while successive American administrations have adopted policies opposed the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, US officials have for the most part refused to pressure the Israelis to adopt a different tack.

Read the entire article here

Israeli Elections: Fresh Hope or False Hope?

Israel-election                                                                        No one doubted who the winner of today’s Israeli elections would be. The story was about which would finish second. In a surprising result, centrist parties outperformed potential runner-up, Naftali Bennett’s ultra-nationalist and religious Zionist HaBayit HaYehudi party (The Jewish Home).

According the Associated Press, the election results could positively change the prospects for Israel-Palestinian peace:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-line allies fared far worse than expected in a parliamentary election Tuesday, preliminary results showed, likely forcing him to reach across the aisle to court a popular political newcomer to cobble together a new coalition.

While Netanyahu appeared positioned to serve a third term as prime minister, the results marked a major setback for his policies and could force him to make new concessions to restart long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

His most likely partner was Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, a party headed by political newcomer Yair Lapid that showed surprising strength. Lapid has said he would only join a government committed to sweeping economic changes and a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.”

According to the Huffington Post, the unofficial results for major parties in the 120-seat Israeli Knesset break down as follows:

Likud Beiteinu, Benyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist party: 31 seats

Yesh Atid, newcomer Yair Lapid’s centrist party: 19 seats

Labor, Shelly Yachimovich’s center-left party: 15 seats

Shas, right-wing ultra-orthodox party: 12 seats

The Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett’s nationalist pro-settler party: 11 seats

Hatnua, Tzipi Livni’s ragtag centrist party: 6 seats

While the election results have provided fresh hope for peace, there are several reasons to remain skeptical. Labor and Yesh Atid were successful not because they emphasized the topic of Israeli-Palestinian peace but because they avoided it. Both parties provided refreshing takes on economic and social issues while skirting around political ones. Lapid campaigned primarily against the privileged status of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. Yachimovich is more opposed to neoliberalism than militarism.

With right-wing and centrist parties split almost exactly 50-50, a broad mandate for peace—or anything else—is absent. For Netanyahu to form a coalition, he will need to include strange bedfellows in his government. Yesh Atid and Shas hold irreconcilable views on welfare for the ultra-Orthodox. There is no middle ground between Labor and Likud on economic issues. The short-term is more likely to feature gridlock, internal dissent and coalition wrangling than bold steps towards the negotiating table.

Additionally, the relatively pro-peace Lapid does not represent a large deviation from Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue. While Lapid favors negotiations, he is notoriously distrustful of the Palestinian leadership. He penned a morose OpEd this summer in which he made the case that if the occupation ended, his entire family would be killed by Palestinians “within two or three months.” Lapid is no dove: “For every human group that has adopted a lofty cause, there are always the cynics like me who believe that these idealists don’t understand the real world,” he wrote. Hardly a breath of fresh air.

The elections do not represent a resurgence of the peace camp despite the unanticipated success of Lapid’s and Yachimovich’s parties. The newcomers’ professional backgrounds represent more novelty than their politics. Both are former broadcast journalists.

Don’t Censor Jodi Rudoren

Writing for the New York Times Public Editor’s Journal, Margaret Sullivan criticized her co-worker Jodi Rudoren, the Times’ Jerusalem Bureau Chief, on her social media use:

Start with a reporter who likes to be responsive to readers, is spontaneous and impressionistic in her personal writing style, and not especially attuned to how casual comments may be received in a highly politicized setting…

Now add Facebook and Twitter, which allow reporters unfiltered, unedited publishing channels. Words go from nascent, half-formed thoughts to permanent pronouncements to the world at the touch of a key.

The result is very likely to be problematic. And for that bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, who moved to Israel from New York earlier this year, and her editors at The Times, it has been…

Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.

The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts…

There is, of course, a larger question here. Do Ms. Rudoren’s personal musings, as they have seeped out in unfiltered social media posts (and, notably, have been criticized from both the right and the left), make her an unwise choice for this crucially important job?”

This is an unwelcome move from the Times. It has to be said that Rudoren’s reporting has been unaffected by her personal views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Crucially, her off-the-cuff comments have earned her criticism from both the left and the right, indicating that her personal views are relatively balanced. This provides a sharp contrast to Rudoren’s predecessor, Ethan Bronner, whose son was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces while he was Bureau Chief. But Bronner, like Rudoren, managed to keep his personal views from affecting his desk’s objectivity.

For many, Rudoren’s social media activity has provided a refreshing peak into the way she covers her beat. She should not be criticized for talking to, or sympathizing with, actors on the fringes of the Israeli-Palestinian political spectrum as long as her reporting remains unbiased. The Times decision to attach an editor to her desk to supervise her social media use will prevent its readership from gaining insight into its reporter’s true feelings.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent. In journalism and in social media, as in politics writ large, censorship has been delegitimized and transparency is the ideal. The Times should know better.

McCain Stuck in the Cold War

In a worrisome change of events, Egypt’s President, Mohammed Morsi, issued a decree granting him new and far-reaching powers, sparking fears that a new pharaoh will rule on the Nile. The specter of a cessation of western aid was enough to nudge Mr. Morsi to act as a go-between in the conflict between Israel and Gaza last week. In response to Morsi’s decree, Senator John McCain said that Washington should use its leverage to force Morsi to distance himself from his decree. But Egyptians themselves are doing a pretty good job themselves at forcing their President to moderate.

Morsi’s decree places him outside the jurisdiction of the Egyptian courts. It states:

“No judicial body can dissolve the Shura Council [upper house of parliament] or the Constituent Assembly. The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”

Morsi, only days after acting as a crucial mediator in the conflict between Israel and Gaza, is refusing to play mediator at home. Buoyed by his newfound political capital, Morsi is assuming the status of Guardian of the Revolution.

The Constituent Assembly, the body charged with drafting the constitution, is dominated by Islamists. Disagreements over the constitution’s drafting prompted many of the Assembly’s non-Islamists to walk out. The Egyptian judiciary, which has slowed down the transition significantly, was intimating that it might dissolve the Assembly. Instead of trying to untie the Gordian knot by negotiating with his opposition, Morsi has sought to cut it through extrajudicial fiat.

Enter: John McCain. The Arizona senator has pilloried the administration for not taking a tougher stance against Morsi’s decree. “Our leverage is obviously, not only the substantial billions in aid we provide, plus, debt forgiveness and an IMF deal but also marshaling world public opinion … against this kind of move by Mr. Morsi,” McCain said. The administration, according to McCain, should make it clear that “this kind of power is unacceptable to the United States.” To do so, McCain infers that the United States should hold Egypt’s fragile economy hostage.

In some ways, McCain’s condemnation of Morsi’s decree is welcome. During Israel’s crisis in Gaza last week, the threat of losing U.S. and IMF aid acted as a moderate influence on Morsi the Arbitrator. McCain’s logic is that by wielding its leverage, the United States can moderate Morsi’s potential power-grab at home.

But this retaliation would be premature. It is too soon to tell if Morsi is truly assuming long-term dictatorial powers. His decree is supposedly a measure to hasten the drafting a new constitution. If Morsi’s move acts as the catalyst for the drafting of a constitution that is acceptable to Islamists and non-Islamists alike, disaster and dictatorship will be avoided.

Moreover, this is not the first event in the tumultuous Egyptian transition that has elicited calls for a cessation of aid. Remember the hubbub surrounding the Egyptian crackdown on democracy promoting NGOs? Or when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) began to detain its opponents without trial while refusing to suspend the law of emergency? Or when, in June, the very judiciary that Morsi seeks to sidestep dissolved the democratically elected (but Islamist-dominated) parliament?

Indeed, if the US had cut off aid during any of the transition’s previous crises, there would have been no leverage on Morsi to play peacemaker instead of agitator in Gaza last week. McCain should realize that if the US were to cut off aid to Egypt, Morsi’s incentives to maintain the Camp David Accords with Israel would be greatly reduced. Furthermore, Morsi would lose all of his legitimacy if he kowtowed to U.S. threats and any changes imposed by Washington’s coercion would appear inorganic.

In fact, indigenous backlash is exerting a moderating influence on President Morsi. Significant protests against Morsi’s decree, the largest since the revolution, have already occurred. More are planned. It is not the opposition from Washington, but the opposition from Alexandria, Suez, Port Said and Cairo that have forced President Morsi into a stalemate. The latest reports even indicate that he is on the retreat.

Someone tell John McCain that the Cold War is over. Gone are the days, if they ever existed, when the United States could snap its fingers and impose its will in the Middle East. For better or for worse, Morsi and Egypt are actors, not objects. The United States should retain its bargaining chip but remain cognizant that Washington’s leverage is not as strong as it once was.

Petraeus, Drones and American Values

Writing for Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf asks: why does the sexual conduct of the CIA director generate dramatically more attention and opposition than his policies?

“The real scandal here is that when the head of the CIA sleeps with someone who is not his wife, it causes a national scandal, but when the agency manages a drone program that serially violates the sovereignty of nations worldwide, that it helps formulate and then execute “kill lists” that make James Bond’s most egregious sprees of violence look a kindergarten birthday party, it does not…

It has long riled some among us that Congress thought it appropriate to impeach Bill Clinton over trivialities associated with his personal missteps, while never once challenging George W. Bush for the far greater misdeeds and very likely crimes associated with America’s invasion of Iraq. We seem to be a nation that can tolerate the violation of the law, the deaths of innocents, and the gross misallocation of national assets without blinking an eye — provided that the architects of such egregious wrongs keep their flies zipped.”

Rothkopf makes a compelling point: what public officials do with their private sex lives should not matter to the public so long as their work remains unaffected. Petraeus is hardly the first powerful man to cheat on his wife–just look at Newt Gingrich.

In their critically acclaimed 2010 book on human sexuality, Sex at Dawnpsychologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá posit that monogamy wasn’t the natural state of affairs among prehistoric humans. Pair-bonding emerged only with the agricultural revolution and the development of private property, before which hunter-gather societies treated sexual interactions as a shared resource, much like food, water, child rearing and self-defense. In fact, it makes  biological and psychological sense why powerful men (and women) pursue extra-marital relationships.

Moreover, the drone strikes that Petraeus continued during his leadership of the CIA represent an affront to traditional American values. Drone strikes violate the right to defendants to a trial by jury and as many as 25% of their victims are innocent civilians, including children. If moral opposition weren’t enough, in practical terms, drones strikes against militants actually increase threats to America’s security by contributing to anti-American sentiment abroad and destabilizing the United States’ relationship with Pakistan.

With the rising incidence of divorce and infidelity in modern America–as well as drone strikes and extra-judicial killings–the Petraeus affair should prompt a reexamination of both monogamy and foreign policy. But unfortunately, our Puritan sexual paradigms and violations of international law are likely to persist.

Israeli Likud-Beiteinu MK Thinks Arabs are the 47%

An article from Haaretz this afternoon quoted Likud-Beiteinu Knesset member Faina Kirshenbaum  Romneyesque’s diatribe against Israeli-Arab citizens:

“The Arabs are an economic burden on the state. They barely pay taxes and receive enormous budgets from the state,” Kirshenbaum told a German-Israeli sister cities conference held in Jerusalem by the Union of Local Authorities in Israel.

“The Arabs in the State of Israel pay NIS 400 million in taxes, but receive benefits worth at least NIS 11 billion,” she said.

“The Arabs in the State of Israel want equal rights, but they don’t contribute to the state. In order to receive equal rights, they must contribute to the state like every other citizen and serve three years, either in national service or in their communities.”

“Only 38 percent of Israeli citizens pay taxes, and a small portion of them are minorities. Tax-paying citizens of the state are carrying the rest of the population on their backs,” she added.

Kirshenbaum’s comments doubly mirror defeated presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who said both that a lack of Palestinian economic success vis-a-vis Israel was the result of cultural inferiority and that 47% of Americans were essentially moochers off of the state. What both Romney and Kirshenbaum miss, obviously, is that Israeli-Arabs are at best second-class citizens in the Jewish State. Israeli-Arabs, like African-Americans, are worse off than the majority because of historic discrimination, not laziness.

This racism and anti-Arab sentiment is typical of both Kirshenbaum and her party, Israel Beiteinu. Indeed, the same MK drafted a bill last year to restricting funding to human rights organizations operating in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, which she labeled “accomplices to terror.” However, derogatory comments like Kirshenbaum’s towards Israel’s Arab minority have taken on new salience since the Israel Beiteinu party merged with Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party in October. In fact, the biggest difference between Romney and Kirshenbaum is that Kirshenbaum actually has power. Unfortunately, her condescending attitude towards the minority accurately reflects the make-up of Israel’s current government.


Is Homeland Racist?

Originally posted in The Morningside Post

Showtime’s Homeland, the multiple-award winning drama about the politics and personnel of counter-terrorism operations, has rightly received critical acclaim for the outstanding performances of its lead actors and suspenseful screenwriting. However, as a socio-cultural commentary, Homeland is typically stereotypical in its portrayal of Muslims.

American pop-culture has not been kind in its portrayals of Muslims, well before 9/11. Even in a movie as innocuous as Back to the Future, Marty McFly and Doc Brown had to evade gunfire from Libyan terrorists.

Jack Shaheen, the author of Reel Bad Arabs and a former CBS News consultant in the Middle East, has studied how Arabs are portrayed in the media. According to Shaheen, Arabs are usually portrayed as “bombers, belly dancers or billionaires.” For the most part, those roles aptly describe Homeland’s Muslims.

The show follows Carrie, a CIA operative, who suspects that a recently rescued American POW, Brody, has “turned” and begun working for his former captors.  While Brody is a national hero, Carrie suspects—rightly—that he is a sleeper agent working for Abu Nazir, a fictionalized derivative of Osama bin Laden. Carrie, and the audience, develops further suspicions of Brody’s intentions upon the revelation that he has converted to Islam during his imprisonment.

The terrorist network that Sergeant Brody supposedly works for is remarkably diverse financially and nationally, if not religiously. In the Homeland universe, Iraqi prisoners, Saudi princes, Muslim-American professors, Palestinian extremists, Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah and Sunni Al Qaeda are all somehow linked in a grand pan-Islamic plot to attack American soil. By ignoring the very real differences within the Muslim world, Homeland tends to vacillate between political insensitivity and laughable unrealism.

Read more