Saturday, May 16. 2015
Googling "FLAME" (caps intended) I see the noun first defined as "the visible, gaseous part of a fire . . . caused by a highly exothermic reaction taking place in a thin zone." Next result is a rapper I'm not familiar with, then a piece of computer malware. Before we get to the group whose acronym stands for Facts and Logic About the Middle East, we're offered a steakhouse, a band, an online paint program, another restaurant, and an article about "cancer-linked flame retardants." I was aware of FLAME before, but was still taken aback by their full-page ad in the May 10, 2015 Nation. Title: "Can the U.S. -- Can the World -- Afford a Palestinian State?"
Now, The Nation is a famously (some might say "notoriously") left-liberal weekly, and they take great pride in appealing to readers who know more than a little about world affairs, and who have some level of commitment to peace, equality, and broadly shared prosperity. Hence, you can expect that most of those readers are aware of Israel's numerous wars, of the second or third class treatment it accords non-Jews who live on land it occupies. Admittedly, even some Nation writers, like Eric Alterman and Michelle Goldberg, have sizable blind spots re Israel, but wouldn't you expect someone who advertises in The Nation to at least make some effort to build on what readers there know rather than spout "facts" that are plainly false and "logic" that makes no sense? But FLAME's ad is nothing more than the discredited talking points that obsessive hasbarists have been telling one another for years. Whereas hasbarists once sought to explain Israel, increasingly they only speak to themselves, to keep convincing themselves that Israel is in the right even when it plainly isn't.
Consider, for instance, this little historical paragraph (my comments in brackets and italics):
The inescapable conclusion is that Israel never has wanted peace and normal relations, least of all with the people who lived in Palestine before the Zionists came. They won't allow any form of Palestinian state because they fear that might legitimize claims on the land they took, mostly by force. But they also won't allow it because practically speaking it would be the end of settlement building -- the unifying purpose of Zionism from its founding in the 1880s up through the latest hilltop outposts in the West Bank. That sense of mission is reinforced by the deep-seated fear that anti-semitism is so endemic around the world that Jews will always be endangered, and that only strong militarism stands between Jews and doom. Four books together give you a coherent picture:
But the main point of the ad wasn't to explain why the Palestinians didn't have a state. The main point is that we shouldn't entrust them with a state now or any time in the indefinite future. The reason has something to do with the assumption that anywhere Arabs (or Iranians -- still Israel's biggest bugaboo) get the chance they jihadist terrorists, thereby increasing the danger to "Israel, the Middle East's only democracy and bastion of Western freedoms." Their conclusion (originally italics):
As the books cited above show, Israel has never acted "in good faith" to allow the creation of a Palestinian state. (In 1948-50, Israel made sure that the sections of mandatory Palestine not under Israeli military control would be controlled by foreign powers -- Egypt and Transjordan -- and not recognized as Palestinian. In 1967 Aziz Shehadeh advanced a plan for an independent Palestine that would recognize Israel, but Israeli political leaders buried the idea. In Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Menachem Begin promised to allow Palestinian "autonomy" but never did anything to implement it. The 1994 Oslo Accords did set up a framework for limited Palestinian self-government, but Israeli leaders -- especially Netanyahu and Sharon -- repeatedly reneged on promises and denied autonomy. Please forgive the Nazi analogy -- variations on occupation governments come from a limited palette -- the present Fatah government in Area A of the West Bank is about as autonomous as the Quisling and Vichy regimes in Norway and France, while Gaza is little more than an open-air prison, not unlike the Warsaw Ghetto.)
Most recently, in Netanyahu's latest campaign he made a big point of insisting that if elected he would never allow a Palestinian state to come about. Israeli politicians have rarely come out so explicitly -- indeed, Netanyahu started walking back his statements as soon as the votes were counted -- in large part because American politicians are so attached to the idea that Israel/Palestine can be partitioned into two independent states (the so-called "two state solution"). The good faith of those Americans is harder to judge: they seem to be less cynical but are so gullible to the Israeli's arguments that they not only invariably fail, they sometimes wreck their own professed plans. (See Rashid Khalidi: Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East for many examples.)
Most often this has to do with Israel's "requirements that would assure Israel's security and survival" -- most notably presented as planks in the 2001 and 2009 "offers" that were effectively "poison pills" (items inserted into a bill or proposal that are so unpalatable they lead to rejection of the whole deal). For example, Israel often insists its security depends on keeping control of the Jordan Valley, but that would not only impinge on Palestinian independence, it would isolate Palestine from Jordan and the world, effectively leaving the country under Israel's thumb. If the US were at all an "honest broker" Americans would flag such debilitating planks as unserious, yet you almost never see evidence of that.
Likewise, Israel's oft-repeated claim to be "the Middle East's only democracy" is worse than a cliché: nearly half of the people living within Israel's effective borders are not allowed to vote or accorded civil rights -- a minimal definition of a democracy -- and even when some "Palestinian citizens of Israel" are allowed to vote, an informal cartel of Zionist parties makes sure that they will never participate in an Israeli government.
Admittedly, evidence from Arab implementations of democracy isn't very inspiring. Lebanon has been democratic for a long time, but the French left a system of "confessionalism" there meant to enforce ethnic power-sharing but often conducive to civil war. The US imposed a less explicit but effectively equivalent system on Iraq, with comparably bad effects. The Palestinian Authority's elections up through 2006 were relatively competitive, but when the wrong side won in 2006 the US and Israel effectively scuttled the system. Similarly, Egypt's democratic experiment was prematurely squashed by a US-backed (Israel-friendly) military coup.
On the other hand, the Arab nations that the US counts as its allies are dictatorships -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf emirates, and Egypt (now that dictatorship has been restored): clearly we are more comfortable dealing with oligarchs, even fanatically Islamic ones (like Saudi Arabia) provided they (mostly) control their people and keep them from attacking Americans. FLAME's pitch, like most Israeli hasbara, is aimed at stoking American prejudices although it reveals more about Israeli ones. We are encouraged to take democracy as a common bond between civilized Israel and America, but also as something Arabs can't be trusted with: give them the vote and they'll just vote for someone who doesn't like us (like Hamas, or the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, or ISIS in Syria/Iraq). Of course, you've heard that line before: from every colonial power in history, as well as the segregationists in South Africa and Dixie. In other words, the whole pitch reeks of racism.
Worse than that, it doesn't allow for any improvement. The old saw is that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest" -- I recall this attributed to Churchill (who won when he seemed to be most useful, and lost when he proved to be most useless -- but at least democracy saved the British people from having to kill him off, and gave Churchill yet another chance). Democracy can certainly be perverted, but it is a resilient system that allows for non-violent change, adaptation, and evolution. Had democracy been allowed to continue in Egypt, it's likely that Morsi's abuse of power (if that's what it was) would have been curbed by various checks and balances. (Of course, they could have been better designed into the constitution, but virtually no one has gotten it all right out of the box.)
Aside from its intrinsic racism, FLAME's argument suffers from two fatal flaws. One is that with few exceptions the most violent strains of jihadism were directly created by war and/or repression. Zawahiri and his pre-Al-Qaeda group, for instance, were forged in Egypt's jails, and the same was true of Zarqawi in Jordan and many others. I figure Osama bin Laden to be an exception: a man of great wealth and standing, what turned him was his sense of the hypocrisy of the Saudi royals. The ability of Al-Qaeda and ISIS to generate independent cells all over the Sunni Muslim world is a result of Saudi-exported salafism on top of political systems that do not allow non-violent reform. Democracy is the antidote here: extremism isn't worth the trouble if a non-violent path to reform is possible.
Secondly, democracy is the great moderator of extremism. Israel should have been delighted when Hamas decided to participate in elections -- even if that decision did not coincide with one to forswear violence, the net effect was to move toward positions which would be more reconcilable, not least by gaining more of a stake in the status quo. Same with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel and the US have partially undone Hamas' move toward moderation by rejecting Hamas electoral wins and by continuing to demonize Hamas as a terrorist group. But the fact is that the only way to end a "war on terrorism" is to convince the "terrorists" to give up armed struggle and to participate in the political system.
Israel has its own reasons -- its own logic and, if you look at FLAME, evidently its own facts -- here. They don't want to end their "war on terrorism," so they'd rather keep Hamas as an enemy than work with them. (A policy which, by the way, may change if Israel can replace Hamas with a more villainous enemy. I read a recent piece where an Israeli general argues that Hamas may be the most effective means to fighting ISIS, which is starting to appear as a problem: the point being that Israel will still have enemies, even if they change -- as happened before when the PLO ceased to be Israel's main enemy and gave way to Hamas.) Militarism has become a way of life in Israel, and they're enjoying it way too much to let a few rockets and an occasional stabbing bother them.
Then there's the whole identity question for Israel. David Ben Gurion famously decreed that "only what the Jews do matters." Nearly every nation in the world includes a mix of peoples and has to figure out some way for them to coexist, but Israel is close to unique in how the political, economic, and military dominance of its Jewish population allows it to set up and maintain a closed caste system. Those privileged by this system see and feel no need to dismantle it -- at least unless they realize how out of step it is with the rest of the world, and how counterproductive and dehumanizing it is.
As you should be able to see from this ad, Israel has developed a powerful, systematic, and seductive (for some people, mostly white Americans and Europeans) ideology which only serves to perpetuate inequality, injustice, hatred and belligerence in the Middle East. For Israeli Jews such arguments are merely self-serving, like the stock line that "God gave us the land of Israel." American interests aren't so narrow, and Americans don't get sucked through a draft where the "chosen" are indoctrinated in their specialness and the belief that their survival depends on fighting forever. One thing we should have learned by now is that life under war is vastly more difficult than life under peace. Also that peace is achievable through mutual respect, economic fairness, and a willingness to participate in a just order. And that such a society is capable of benefiting far more people than one that lapses into war.
Unfortunately, the political people in the United States who are in policy positions seem to be incapable of thinking beyond the old games of factional division of power relationships. (Not coincidentally, many of those people are effectively on Israeli payrolls.) In doing so they've made the Middle East a much more dangerous and destructive place than it needs to be. They are, at present, responsible for a number of civil wars that should be resolved in democratic power sharing agreements. And they are also responsible for a number of dictatorships that are future civil wars in the making. Their wars and their economic inequities have produced millions of refugees and have depressed the entire region for the benefit of a few ridiculously rich individuals and corporations. And they've left millions of people with little or no hope -- including a tiny percent so disaffected they're willing to kill themselves to register an objection. While many of "us" are so insensitive (or desensitized) we'll never even notice, nor understand if really bad luck means we do.
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