66th Memorial Day in Safed: Israeli youth in northern Galilee hold flags at attention near a memorial to casualties in the Israeli state's 1948 War of Independence. Demotix/Dave Bender. All rights reserved.
Israel Independence Day took place earlier this week. As usual my village celebrated with a short ceremony to end Israel Memorial Day followed by song and dance and a big village cookout. The festivities went on until about midnight with the younger crowd continuing into the night. I came home to find three new articles on openDemocracy and I couldn’t think of a better post-Independence Day activity than to sit down and compose a response to them.
My first response is to "New Media and the Changing Narrative on Palestine" by Victoria Brittain dated May 5, 2014. She divided her article into four parts and I will divide my response accordingly.
In the first part she noted “the great strategic importance placed on media by Israel’s government and its allies.” Though the author presented this as something new, I do not see anything particularly new in this either for Israelis or Arabs.
When I was in university and engaged in Israeli oriented activities on campus in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I enjoyed reading the publications distributed by the Arab Student Association. I especially liked their characterisation of the Zionists as a well-coordinated highly financed and extremely effective propaganda machine. My response to such descriptions was, “Well, at least we have the other side fooled.” Ms. Brittain has carried on this tradition of painting the other side in heroic proportions and in truth, reading her comments was an enjoyable experience for me because it brought back fond memories of an earlier time. It has always seemed to me that the most successful example of presenting the case for Israel was not an academic study or any particularly clever propaganda strategy but a novel; Exodus by Leon Uris which sold tens of millions of copies and was made into a popular movie. Its effectiveness was best summarised by a whimsical comment made by a friend during a discussion about American Jewish opinion when he prefaced his remarks with, “Since the publication of the sixth book of Moses (Huh?) “Exodus” by Leon Uris…”
In the Second part of Brittain’s article, she discussed the intellectual guerrilla war carried on in the new media in the Anglophone world. Once again this type of thing is not something particularly new but rather an extension of the 'guerrilla warfare' that has been going on for decades. Back in the 50’s and 60’s the Arab petroleum-producing states spent large sums of money on financing Middle East Institutes in various prestigious universities and near the centres of political power. These regularly promoted the Arab line (there was no Palestinian narrative in those days) and could be counted on to recruit scholars and retired diplomats; the former by financing academic research and the latter by providing well-paying post retirement positions. In exchange these individuals possessing credentialed eminence, were ready to give credibility to the argument that support for Israel was detrimental to American national interests. One example of such an individual with whom I was personally acquainted was Harry Howard. I met him while doing research at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. and his opinions were quite predictable.
It has been a very long while since I was a graduate student involved in American academia but there are reports that Arab oil money still plays a leading role in the sort of intellectual guerrilla war that takes place on American campuses.
In the third part, Brittain focused on the Middle East coverage of the New York Times. Here she argues that the most prestigious institution in American journalism is shifting from an exclusively pro-Israeli to more of a pro-Palestinian editorial position. Though a content analysis of New York Times articles comparing past with current writings would have been appropriate, Brittain chooses to cite personnel changes and the appearance of what she deems significant opinion pieces to substantiate her claim. I will leave it for regular readers of the NYTimes to decide the accuracy of Brittain’s description. However, a study reviewing NYTimes content by a pro-Israel media monitoring group comes to a very different assessment of NYT bias than does Ms Brittain.
In the final part Brittain examines what she describes as “the rising tide of activism on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in US campuses and the role of the new media’s fearless and professional Palestinian writers in creating this new moment of global popular struggle”. I find Brittain’s applauding of the rise of the BDS movement on campus more than a little ironic. However, I have no doubt that when the dynamic of what is actually happening becomes clear in a few years, we will probably be told that the BDS movement was a clever part of Zionist conspiracy. While claiming a success or two, it has by and large been ineffective in generating the kind of anti-Israel boycott of Israeli products and businesses that was organised by the Arab League in the early 1950’s.
But there is something much more important happening. Brittain noted that Netanyahu has devoted much time and effort to raising the BDS into the limelight. Netanyahu realises that BDS is a gift to Israeli propaganda. If it didn’t exist he would probably invent it, and I suppose at some point he will be accused of doing so. The BDS movement in so many words calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. There are quite a few Israelis and liberal Jews who oppose the occupation of the West Bank, but only a small minority of them seek the destruction of the Jewish state. This should be clear through an examination of the comments made by Norman Finkelstein about the BDS movement. I think this is the reason why Netanyahu has become a major publicist for the BDS movement. We shall see how this plays itself out in the future, but I have a strong suspicion that Ms. Brittain will not be happy with the outcome.
Though Victoria Brittain’s article basically dealt with advertising strategy, she had very little to say about the product being promoted. This was handled in the two other articles, which, if examined closely, do not paint a very positive picture of that product.
Let us begin chronologically with "Palestinian Reconciliation and the Future of Israel-Palestinian Negotiations" by Omar Ali, dated May 3, 2014. After expressing doubts about the probability of the Hamas-Fatah peace agreement actually being put into effect, the author makes an interesting observation about what brought about the agreement. As he put it:
“…both groups signed the agreement in the midst of experiencing serious crises and have an interest in its implementation. For Hamas, various factors have intensified the Israeli siege of Gaza, such as the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt, the loss of its operations in Syria, reduction of Iranian support, the Saudi-led suspicion of everything related to the Muslim Brotherhood and especially the closure of the tunnels leading into Egypt. They simply need to find partners for existential reasons.”
“As for Fatah, its policy of negotiating with Israel has led to another dead-end especially with the US supporting the new Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas’ leadership has suffered a serious decrease in popularity, and by signing this deal he stands to cement his place as the legitimate Palestinian national leader. So, unlike previous agreements which did not lead to any concrete steps because both parties viewed compromise as a loss in their power, both Hamas and Fatah stand to gain from this agreement.”
In short, both sides were under severe pressure to reconcile their differences. This flies in the face of much of what is written about ways to encourage the Palestinians and Israelis to reconcile their differences. What we hear are mostly calls for increased American pressure on Israel. Perhaps what the Hamas-Fatah agreement teaches is that increased pressure in the form of monetary losses should be applied to the Palestinians because such negative sanctions are the only things that seem to work toward reconciliation at least in the Palestinian internal political context.
Another observation by Omar Ali that may have relevance to Israeli Palestinian negotiations is:
"Another factor that gives cause for some optimism relates to the PLO’s official recognition of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as legitimate actors within the Palestinian political spectrum."
Could it also be said that a Hamas official recognition of Israel as a legitimate partner in negotiations might also lead to those negotiations having a more successful outcome? My guess is that Omar Ali might not agree with the implications I have drawn from his description of the Palestinian domestic reconciliation process.
Omar Ali sees the creation of a Palestinian state as the consequence of international action or alternatively some sort of Palestinian protest movement. This issue of strategies for creating a Palestinian state leads us to the third article "If Kerry fails, dissolution or collapse of the Palestinian Authority becomes inevitable" by Khalil Shikaki dated May 4, 2014.
Summarising the findings of a Palestinian civil society taskforce report published in February this year, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah makes some pertinent observations with what seem to me to have significant implications. First he examines the failure of the Palestinian Authority to deliver on statehood. He identifies two elements to this failure; the inability to build state institutions and the failures on the diplomatic front. Other significant failures include failure to achieve reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and the increasing economic collapse on the West Bank and Gaza.
Shikaki identifies two avenues of Palestinian reaction to the current situation. The first involves diplomatic warfare against the State of Israel which has already begun. The second is to end the existence of the Palestinian Authority and return the keys, so to speak, to the Israelis.
Shikaki acknowledges that the second action will have a profoundly negative impact on the Palestinian population.
"Similarly, PA disappearance will make life difficult for Palestinians. Indeed, it will dramatically affect Palestinian society in the West Bank. It goes without saying that the worst domestic consequences are likely to be triggered by the combined effect of the anticipated collapse of law and order and the disappearance of more than 3 billion dollars of current PA public spending.
This development will deliver a severe blow to the private sector and will lead to the gradual collapse of the justice system as well as service delivery in most sectors from health and education to communication, water, and energy. Poverty rates, crime and lawlessness are likely to increase dramatically. Armed militias are likely to take the law into their own hands, creating a greater potential for domestic and Palestinian-Israeli violence."
His suggestion to ameliorate the resulting catastrophic domestic Palestinian situation resulting from a PA dissolution is to form a Palestinian government in exile and have local community and economic institutions take charge of Palestinian society. One aspect of his proposals, not apparent to Shikaki, is that with relatively minor alterations it happens to be an excellent blueprint for the continuation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank without the necessity of either officially annexing the territory or extending Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians living there. It is quite close to Menahem Begin’s idea that he proposed over three decades ago of keeping the territory but providing some level of autonomy to the various Palestinian communities.
Looking over the analyses and proposals of Shikaki and Ali, I cannot help but recall one of the serious disputes that divided the Zionist movement prior to World War I. In those days there was a great deal of debate within the Zionist movement about the goals of Zionism and how to achieve them. The discussion centred on the dispute between what were referred to as the Political Zionists versus the Practical Zionists. The Politicals insisted that authorisation in the form of a charter from the international community or the great powers had to be obtained before Jews could return to the homeland and begin building the new society. The Practicals argued that the way to an independent future for the Jewish people was to return the Jews to the homeland and build the economic, social and political institutions of a state which, once in place would be recognised and granted statehood by the international community and the great powers.
As history played itself out both avenues were followed simultaneously. The Zionists obtained international recognition through the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations Mandate and the 1947 UN Partition Plan. At the same time the nuts and bolts of a state were created as the Zionists built agricultural villages, universities, industries and political institutions. Looking back we can see that both the Political Zionist and the Practical Zionist paths were absolutely essential to the successful achievement of Jewish statehood. Had either one been absent, there would have been no Jewish state.
The Palestinian national movement, since its early days under the leadership of the Mufti of Jerusalem, through Shukieri, Arafat and Abbas have restricted themselves to following the kind of political course of action advocated by the Political Zionists and have totally ignored the practical job of building state institutions. The one exception to this was the period when Salam Fayyad was Prime Minister.
The proposal to close down the Palestinian Authority as a stepping stone to statehood sounds totally illogical to Israeli ears. Perhaps the Palestinians know something that we Israelis don’t. However they are still looking for an independent state while the citizens of the State of Israel this week celebrated the state’s first day of its sixty-seventh year of independence.