Showing posts tagged human rights

The Paradox of Israeli Discrimination

In the last three weeks, two ostensibly contradictory rallies were held in Tel-Aviv.

First, on May 23rd, more than one thousand Israelis gathered, calling for the expulsion of African migrants from the country. Many African asylum seekers, primarily from South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, were beaten in the streets. Politician Miri Regev from Likud, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political party, referred to them as “infiltrators” and “a cancer in our body.” Subsequently, the Israeli Knesset passed a law permitting authorities to detain migrants without charge for up to three years. In response, a Human Rights Watch official said that “Israeli officials are not only adding rhetorical fuel to the xenophobic fire, but they now have a new law that punishes refugees in violation of international law.”

Two weeks later, in the same city, tens of thousands marched in Tel-Aviv’s annual Gay Pride Parade. The event attracted LGBT tourists from around the world. Earlier in the year, Tel-Aviv was rated the world’s best destination for gay travelers. In a blog post for the Huffington Post, Sharon Segal of the Israel Project wrote that “Israel has become one of the most progressive countries in the world and is recognized as the most tolerant country in the Middle East in legislating equality for sexual minorities and ensuring their civil and personal rights.”

This obvious asymmetry of civil and human rights begs the question: how can Israel be so progressive in its relations with the LGBT community yet so discriminatory to its racial and ethnic minorities?

In examining this phenomenon, it’s helpful to examine the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In its Declaration, Israel’s founders promoted a vision of a “Jewish and democratic” state. This conflict between Jewishness and universal equality has been embedded in the fabric of Israel’s political culture ever since.

This dichotomy is enormously ambitious. To create a state that must, by definition, give preference to one religious and ethnic majority (Jewish) while maintaining equal rights for its minority citizens (democratic) requires a delicate balancing act on par with a tightrope walker.

Lately, the Israeli state and, arguably, many of its citizens, have been performing this balancing act with the grace and subtlety of an elephant. Not only are members of the Prime Minister’s party referring to African migrants as “a cancer,” but a majority of the Israeli Jewish public feels the same way. A third of Israeli Jews condone anti-migrant violence. The priority of maintaining equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities has been subjugated to the professed urgency of protecting Israel’s Jewish character and majority.

It is the preeminence of Jewish Israel over Democratic Israel in the Declaration’s dichotomy that explains why Israel is the most gay-friendly countries in the Middle East even while it coterminously espouses quasi-fascist rhetoric towards African refugees. It explains how another Likud MK can say that “an enemy state of infiltrators was established in Israel, and its capital is south Tel-Aviv,” the same city that was overwhelmingly voted the gay capital of the world.

To date, Israel has succeed in creating a society with a free market and a free press, but failed to engender true equality for its racial and ethnic minorities. In another recent event, Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam, the binational Israeli-Palestinian village in which I lived for six months, was attacked by right-wing Jewish settlers, who spray painted slogans such as “Death to Arabs” and “Kahane was right” on homes, schools and cars.

Supporters and lovers of Israel the world over need to ask themselves some serious questions: why have Russian Jewish immigrants been welcomed into Israeli society much more than Ethiopian Jewish immigrants? Why is it OK for Israel to grant citizenship to any Jew who wishes to make aliyah while it continues to build settlements—against the opposition of the United States, European Union and United Nations— on occupied Palestinian land, disenfranchising 3.5 million people?

Why has discrimination in Tel-Aviv against the LGBT community been successfully eliminated, while racism against Palestinians, Ethiopians Jews and African migrants is mainstream and ubiquitous? Quite possibly, the Israeli LGBT community would not be accepted with the same openness if its members weren’t Jewish and white.

The extreme polarity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often prevents supporters of Israel from seeing the State’s shortcomings, and critics of Israel from seeing the State’s genuine accomplishments. It’s important to realize that the two events in Tel-Aviv—the ethnocentric and xenophobic treatment of African migrants and the open and progressive Gay Pride Parade—are equally prevalent threads of Israeli political culture.

The balanced vision of a “Jewish and democratic state” has yet to be realized; Jewish Israel is trumping Democratic Israel. The status quo in Israel today is closer to an ethnocracy, or in other words, “a democratic state just for Jews” and it’s time to correct this before Israel’s reputation as a liberal democracy is completely eroded.

 

 

Four Lessons to Learn from Khader Adnan

The case of Khader Adnan doesn’t seem to fit into the mainstream narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The popular conception of the conflict is that an Israeli state must restrict liberty in order to protect its security against violent Palestinian resistance. But Mr. Adnan’s method of resistance creates more headaches for Israeli authorities than bombs or rockets. Detained on December 18th, Mr. Adnan has refused to eat until he is charged or released.

Mr. Adnan’s case has brought attention to the practice of administrative detention, under which a suspect can be detained indefinitely without charge or trial. The practice is not limited to Israel and the Occupied Territories but has been used in Northern Ireland, South Africa, the United States at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Mr. Adnan’s case has garnered extraordinary attention on Twitter and social media, yet on the 65th day of his hunger strike, he remains in administrative detention. His case has been appealed to the Israeli High Court, and is slated for the docket on Thursday.

He may not live long enough to have his case heard, and even if he does, the Court may send him back to prison, upholding the precedent set in 1967 that suspects can be held without a charge as long as there is secret evidence indicating that the suspect presents a present danger to national or regional security.

Mr. Adnan has survived so far but his death is imminent. A charge or his release does not appear forthcoming.

There are at least four important lessons to learn from Khader Adnan, who has vowed that his “dignity is more precious than food.”

1)      Administrative Detention must end: Legal or not, administrative detention is a deplorable and amoral practice which allows for anyone to be arrested and held so long as evidence is presumed to exist. Mr. Adnan’s case is reminiscent of K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, in which a man is arrested and must mount his own defense without having any idea of what he is being accused of. Mr. Adnan is purportedly a high-ranking member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and has been arrested several times previously. A spokesman for the Israeli military said that administrative detention “is a tool used when information pertaining to a case is based on sensitive sources that cannot be released.” It’s not difficult to see how this authority could be abused. Perversely, in recent days, Israeli authorities have used the United States’ practices at Guantanamo Bay as justification for the detention of Mr. Adnan and 306 other Palestinian prisoners. That precedent, along with dozens of other reasons, makes it difficult for the United States to pressure Israel to treat Mr. Adnan fairly and justly. If Mr. Adnan is, in fact, a criminal, the Israeli authorities should charge him. If there is no charge, he should be released. Mr. Adnan’s bravery and steadfastness has brought heretofore unseen attention to the practice of administrative detention and if Adnan dies before he is charged or released, Israel will have brought much more pressure on itself as a result of its own intransigence.

2)      The Palestinian government looks just as bad as the Israeli government: It may be difficult to fathom, but the Palestinian Authority is as wont to stand up for Adnan’s rights as the Israeli government is. Mr. Adnan’s previous detention was administered by the Palestinian Authority, not the Israeli government, under starkly similar terms. In fact, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Mr. Adnan’s arrest in December was carried out in conjunction with Palestinian security forces. One of the most abhorrent myths that has been maintained over the last decade is that the Palestinian leadership is violent and obdurate towards Israel. Quite the contrary. The Palestine Papers leaked last year show that the Palestinian Authority was willing to make compromises that the vast majority of Palestinians found to be undignified. The Palestinian Authority managed to recover its popularity after the UN bid in September, but its legitimacy among Palestinians has been diminishing for quite some time. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad don’t have the revolutionary street cred of their predecessors, despite their state building efforts. It’s important to understand that criticism of the Palestinian Authority comes from two sides. Some think that the Palestinian Authority is violent and stubborn, refusing to negotiate with Israel—a position held by many Israelis and their supporters abroad. On the other hand, many Palestinians feel that the PA has sold them out. They feel that the PA pursues reconciliation deals and negotiations which inevitably go nowhere while settlements expand throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In light of Mr. Adnan’s detention, it’s important to understand this criticism of the Palestinian Authority as well.

3)      Palestinian non-violent resistance is alive and well: An even more destructive meme/myth relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that all Palestinian resistance is violent. Frequently, discourse relating to the conflict arrives at the question: “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” The answer is that there are many of them, yet they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. Gandhi’s hunger strike in 1932 lasted for 21 days. Adnan’s has already lasted three times as long. There are weekly non-violent protests in Sheikh Jarrah and Beit Umar, and have been for years. More famously, a village called Budrus staged numerous peaceful protests against the construction of the separation wall through their town—and emerged successful. A slew of Palestinian political prisoners went on a hunger strike last September and many of the other prisoners held under administrative detention have launched hunger strikes and fasts in solidarity with Mr. Adnan. In the twenty years between 1967 (when the practice of administrative detention began) and the outbreak of the First Intifadeh twenty years later, the majority of Palestinian resistance was non-violent. There was little bloodshed in the post-Oslo years as well. In the ten years since the Second Intifadeh, resistance from the West Bank has largely been civil and non-violent. The world and the main stream media must pay more attention to Palestinian non-violence and extirpate the tendency to perceive Palestinians as terrorists and suicide bombers.

4)      Social media can’t do everything: Assuming that Mr. Adnan’s hunger strike kills him before he is charged or released, his death will be a tragedy. It will also highlight areas of activism which social media has difficulty promoting tangible change: criminal justice, national security and foreign policy. For the last week, information and awareness about Khader Adnan has been ubiquitous on Twitter, often attaining the status of the highest trending story worldwide. Yesterday, information was aggregated using the hashtag “#KhaderExists.” Today it is “#HungerStrikingFor65Days.” While the attention Mr. Adnan has garnered on social media is vital, it is unlikely to change the outcome of his case. Only on the 65th day of his hunger strike did the New York Times run a story on Adnan mentioning him by name. While trending hashtags might help to answer the question about where the Palestinian Gandhi is, Mr. Adnan is much more likely to become a Palestinian Troy Davis. Over the last year or two, social media campaigns have been instrumental in ousting dictators, uncovering corruption and winning elections. Most recently, social media and digital activism were paramount in pressuring Congress not to adopt SOPA/PIPA and lobbying the Susan G. Komen Foundation to reinstitute its support of Planned Parenthood. However, it seems that social media is less successful at promoting change in individual criminal cases and on foreign policy. It’s much easier to use social media to change Congress than the State Department. For better or worse, legal proceedings and foreign policy are mostly conducted by unelected and materially disinterested bodies, which aren’t as elastic when there’s a public outcry. As our understanding of the political power of social media evolves, Khader Adnan’s story could well become a case study.

UPDATE: Perhaps due to the increasingly fervent attention to his case, the Israeli authorities have moved Khader Adnan’s appeal up two days, from Thursday to Tuesday. Hopefully his urgent petition to be either charged or released will be met.

 

The Fallacy of Applying the ‘Turkish Model’ to Egypt, Arab Spring

As the Arab Spring enters its second year, democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya are still evolving towards uncertain ends. One of the most ubiquitous hopes for these countries in metamorphosis, expressed especially in the case of Egypt, is that they develop the “Turkish Model” for democracy. However, the construct of the “Turkish Model,” especially as a prototype for fledgling Arab democracies is fallacious and a naïve oversimplification, demonstrating a misunderstanding of Turkish history. The Turkish system has evolved over many years because of circumstances endemic to Turkey, and cannot simply be applied overnight elsewhere.

The allure of the “Turkish Model” is self-evident. Turkey, like the Arab countries in transition, is a majority Muslim nation. For centuries, there was (and in some places, there still is) a belief that democracy was incompatible with Islam—that Muslims were not civilized enough for representative government. The Orientalist myopia of the past still frames how the Middle East is seen. Thus as Egypt seeks to evolve into a democracy, its model is thought to naturally be the Muslim country that has achieved the most advanced democratic system.

To be clear, if Egypt could become as progressive and prosperous as Turkey, it would constitute an unquestioned victory for the Egyptian people and the Arab Spring. Turkey is a regional powerhouse. Its leaders have set the goal of making it one of the world’s ten biggest economies by 2023, the Turkish state’s centennial, and they might just achieve their goal. Turkey holds free and fair elections, has a robust parliamentary system, and peaceful transitions of power. These are all accomplishments which Egypt should aspire to.

However, Egypt’s path to success must be different than Turkey’s because the two countries have vastly different political cultures and histories. Furthermore, the “Turkish Model” is an artificial construct—it doesn’t exist. Turkey’s democratic system is 89 years in the making. It developed in an unplanned and unexpected fashion. Moreover, there are several aspects of the “Turkish Model” that Egypt and other nascent Arab democracies should not seek to emulate.

First of all, Turkey, despite being a majority Sunni Muslim nation, is not an Arab country. It emerged from the vestiges of the Ottoman Empire and was established in 1923. To properly understand Turkish political culture, it’s essential to understand how the state was established.

The Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe,” was carved up after its defeat in World War I. During the War, the Arab population of the Ottoman Empire revolted against the Turkish center with the assistance of the British, most famously depicted by the movie Lawrence of Arabia. After the Ottoman defeat, the Arabs broke away from the Empire under Western mandates, eventually forming independent sovereign states.

All that was left was the Anatolian Peninsula, which was chopped up and divided as stipulated by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres between Greece, France and Britain, leaving an independent Kurdistan and Armenia and only a truncated Turkish state. Most of this territory was gained back through the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal and enshrined in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

But the decline of the Ottoman Empire, World War I and the Treaty of Sevres left an indelible mark on the Turks. These events have shaped Turkey and continue to today. They represent the aspect of the elusive “Turkish Model” that cannot be replicated in Egypt or elsewhere, even though Egypt’s colonial past and the Suez crisis in 1956, among several other events, have also left a deep-seated distrust of the West.

Dubbed “Sevres syndrome,” the first several decades of the Turkish Republic were marked by extreme paranoia and xenophobia directed at the Great Powers. For the vast majority of Turkish history, Turks have not trusted their Arab neighbors because of their treachery during World War I, thinking of themselves more on the level of sophisticated Europeans than ‘inferior’ Arabs. The Turkish state has also, for most of its history, been virulently secular. Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, is reviled by some pious Muslims for abolishing the Caliphate, the Sunni Muslim version of the papacy.

The political culture of the burgeoning Turkish Republic was a reaction against Ottoman multiculturalism, as well as state religion. Having lost the vast majority of its non-Turkish territory and population, the state hunkered down in a bunker of Turkish ethnocentrism. Despite Turkey’s progress over the years, its relationship with its Kurdish minority should not be duplicated as an archetype for Egyptian Sunnis treatment of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. As evidenced by the strong Islamist showing in Egyptian elections, the country is moving in the opposite direction, regarding the relationship of mosque and state, compared to Turkey in 1923.

Partly due to the legacy of the War for Independence and Ataturk himself, and also unique processes within the Turkish body politic, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) had significant autonomy and power over foreign policy, arguably up until the last year or two. Even though it was trusted as one of Turkey’s most democratic institutions, the TAF overthrew three civilian governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The clandestine influence of the TAF and the unelected elite in Turkish politics earned the name the “deep state.” Needless to say, this should hardly be a model for Egypt, whose Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is trying precisely to secure analogous independence from civilian oversight.

In 1997, the army and the secular elite forced out Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan. In power for a year, he was repeatedly embarrassed, forced to sign legislation banning headscarves in schools and pledging military cooperation with Israel.

Turkey’s geography has also shaped its identity and prevents parallel comparisons. Turkey sees itself as Western and Eastern, European and Asian, and Middle Eastern and Central Asian. Egypt, with the Suez Canal, is the gateway to the Mediterranean and a bridge between the Levant and Africa. But this geopolitical reality is unique from Turkey’s. In fact, perhaps the most influential process in the last two decades of Turkish politics has been its quest for European Union ascension—something that is irrelevant for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries. 

The urge to call for Egypt to adopt the Turkish model rests on the fact that Turkey is a majority Muslim country with a functioning democracy and impressive economic growth. Both Egypt and Turkey are built on the ruins of once great empires. The similarities end there. Egypt’s first elections have given Islamists an overwhelming mandate to rule. Turkey has been ruled by “Islamists” for only 11 of its 89 years.

Turkey’s electoral system is also unfit for Egypt. Turkey’s system has always favored and cultivated strong executives, which may not be best for Egypt after decades of Nasser and Mubarak. Turkey also has an especially high threshold—a party must win 10% of the vote to be represented in parliament. This may work for Turkey but would be poisonous for a young democracy like Egypt. Egypt has numerous small political parties and, more importantly, will develop more in the coming years as its democracy evolves and different political groups become more organized.

It has taken almost a century for Turkey to reach the high stature it has today. But the state still has issues. A lasting reconciliation with the Kurds has proved elusive. Turkey is one of the more dangerous places to be a journalist (on par with Egypt). The so-called Ergenekon case, which was launched after an alleged coup plot by the army against the ruling AK Party, has been a labyrinthine tragedy for the rule of law.

Driven by healthy domestic demand, low interest rates, economic liberalization and innovative industry, the mildly Islamist AKP has turned Turkey into an economic power. The AKP has piggybacked on the growth of Turkish city centers that started in the 1980s, expanding the economy far beyond Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The development of the “Anatolian Tigers,” Denizli, Gaziantep, Kayseri, Bursa, Kocaeli, and Kahramanmara, should be a model for reforming the Arab world’s sclerotic and corrupt economic systems that have stagnated under autocratic rule.

Turkey’s democratic credentials are very impressive but the “Turkish Model” is a fallacy—a phantom which cannot be so easily applied to Egypt or other Arab Spring countries. The Turkish system is a product of the country’s unique history, political culture and 89 years of development. Turkey’s legacy of militant secularism, martial autonomy, and ethnic marginalization cannot and should not be a model across the board. Many in the Arab world admire Turkey and view its Prime Minister, Recip Tayyep Erdogan, positively. Turkey will be a vital partner and ally for Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as they develop.

But politically, what’s needed for Egypt is not a Turkish model, but an Egyptian one—a strong legislature, low threshold, weak executive, full civilian control and a strict commitment to minority and human rights. Egypt can learn lessons from Turkey, but needs to blaze its own trail.

The Day After the Two-State Solution

There has been much debate in Israeli and American media during the last year about whether or not the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead. Most of these analyses miss the point: that a two-state solution, even if it were forged tomorrow and agreed upon by both sides, would present significant future challenges for both Israel and the nascent hypothetical Palestinian state it would be living alongside.

If a political deal were to (miraculously) be struck to create a Palestinian state, newspapers around the world would doubtless celebrate the end of the tumultuous Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But they would be wrong. Here’s the letter I would write to the Editor:

Dear Editor,

Today, will always be remembered—and for good reason. It has produced an iconic photograph, of the Israeli Prime Minister and Palestinian President shaking hands to mark their historic agreement, which will finally establish a sovereign Palestinian state. However, your article referred to the accord as the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I would aver that this is the end of the territorial conflict between governments, but not the end of the psychological conflict between peoples.

Today’s events have not ended the conflict, but have reframed it. Our political, civil, and religious leaders now have a new set of challenges to face. The physical separation barrier dividing Israelis from Palestinians has come down, but the real obstacles have always been the intangible ones within our hearts and minds.

The two biggest impediments to Israeli-Palestinian peace have been insecurity and segregation. Israeli insecurity, founded on two thousand years of persecution, drove the occupation. Israelis felt threatened, despite having asymmetric power. Palestinian insecurity has prevented activists from seeking cooperative projects with open-minded Israelis for fear of normalizing the occupation.

Insecurity has begotten segregation, institutionalized and self-executed. The physical separation of people precipitated the segregation of narratives, histories, and identities. The ‘other’ became the enemy. When Israelis and Palestinians couldn’t meet each other, demonization and stereotyping flourished. Parallel narratives—one Israeli and one Palestinian—were perpetuated in each society’s newspapers, textbooks, and culture, never meeting in the middle.

True stability has not been achieved yet. Israelis and Palestinians must not seek recluse in their respective states. This will only exacerbate insecurity and segregation, resulting in real instability and a renewal of hostilities. Both sides must take care to meet one another and recognize one another’s side of the story before a new chapter of peace and security can begin in earnest.

Bashar al-Assad’s Speech and What’s Next for the Syrian Revolution

This morning, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave his third public speech since the revolution against his rule began 11 months ago. Unsurprisingly, the mustachioed dictator unleashed all of the most hackneyed themes from the Arab Tyrant’s Manual, emphasizing repeatedly over the course of his brutal 90 minute filibuster foreign interference in Syrian affairs should be blamed for the protracted political crisis.

The dull and monotonous Assad weaved indecipherably between blaming the West, “terrorists,” Gulf interference, the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel, Al Jazeera and Arab traitors for the injustice in his country which has seen more than 6000 people die since February. Assad brilliantly intertwined the same themes promulgated in the past by Saddam, Muammar, and Hosni into his marathon performance.

Users on Twitter commented that the members of the audience were being put to sleep by Bashar’s soporific invective, awakening only to rounds of applause that seemed to be issued by command.

His father Hafez would be proud.

Assad’s contradictions were numerous. His scapegoats were abundant. He pledged to reform but then said that “terrorists” must be crushed with an iron fist. He belittled the Arab League for “betraying” Syria, the “heart of the Arab League,” while still welcoming an inter-Arab resolution to the conflict. He blamed all of the West and Arab hypocrites for the conflict before asserting that Syria was secure and had “many friends.”

He used many common platitudes from the Arab dictator playbook—so much so that it seems entirely possible that Bashar’s father Hafez or the late Qaddafi could’ve written his speech. He numerously returned to the topic of the Palestinians, trying to take ownership of a cause he’s never genuinely championed while disparaging Israel. Ostensibly this tactic was an attempt to attract broad appeal from the rest of the Muslim world. Too bad that trick has been tried time and time again to no avail.  

He spent much of the speech attempting to construct an Arab and Islamic legitimacy that he’s never truly had. Any pedigree he did have surely disappeared during the perpetual violence of the last year, at least in most people’s consideration. He spoke perplexing about “Arabism,” insinuating in ultra-nationalist terms that Syria was the paragon of Arab honor and culture and that the Arab League and critics of his regime were non-Arabs and Orientalists.

At one point, Assad praised Syria’s burgeoning olive harvested industry. Later, he ridiculed the opposition for destroying the world renowned Syrian education system’s attendance rates. He said that a government of national unity was not needed because Syria was not divided. It seemed that his accusations and logic were so ludicrous that no one, not even Assad himself, could possibly agree with it in earnest.

From his circuitous diatribes and steadfast commitment to his own innocence, it is now clearer than ever that reform is not an option in Syria. Activists reported that during Assad’s speech, a handful of protesters had been killed. Assad left no room for his own exit, making vague references to allowing more parties into the system and a constitutional referendum in the spring. So far the only registered party other than his own is another Baathist party. His ramblings validate the unfortunate fact that the Arab League observer mission served no other purpose other than to buy him more time.

He framed the crisis as being a race between “terrorists and reformists.” He claimed that he’s been opening up the country since he came to power in 2000. Most of the Syrian protesters would say that they are the ‘reformers,’ the government the ‘terrorists.’

So what does this all mean? Essentially, that nothing has changed. Given Assad’s bombastic pontifications, few are likely to have changed the perception they had of him this time yesterday. Assad won’t back down. Peaceful protesters will continue to die. And Assad’s doctrinaire commitment to his categorical rightness suggests that the violence will escalate.

It’s hard to see how the speech could have helped Mr. Assad. Similar speeches by his colleagues, Mubarak and Qaddafi, rallied more support for the opposition against them. The hope is that the actors who have the power to change the tide of the crisis will realize once and for all that Bashar has no motivation to negotiate or forge a peaceful, political solution to the crisis. In essence, he has said that the only way he will leave power is by taking the Qaddafi option.

An inter-Arab solution is undoubtedly the ideal option. We can hope against hope that the Arab League has seen Assad’s speech and rethought their hesitancy to act. We can hope against hope that the Foreign Ministries in Moscow and Beijing are alight with activity. Perhaps there will be renewed expediency in the Security Council. 

A Kurdish activist, quoted in an article in Al Jazeera, put it well: “The president’s speech led Syria into a new era of bloodshed. From his words I understood that the coming days will be bloodier with even more security and military crackdown. I was gambling on a very small window of hope but now I can say there is no hope from the regime and no hope for Assad to make real reforms.”

Only minutes after Assad left the podium at Damascus University, Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, gave a press conference. Ghalioun, whose chairmanship of the opposition group had just been extended for another month, said in no uncertain terms that Assad was in denial.

The Paris-based activist said that Assad was attempting to divide Syrians, and that the faith the opposition had in the Arab League had evaporated. He vowed to bring the matter to the Security Council once again while the opposition persisted in popular resistance to the regime in cooperation with the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and the Free Syrian Army, a group of defectors from the army.

Expect more turbulence, because there’s no end in sight.

Why Sanctions Against Iran are Counterproductive

A new round of sanctions against Tehran, signed into law this weekend, have caused the Iranian rial to plummet to historic lows, depreciating 12% against the dollar. The conventional wisdom is that this is a sign that the sanctions are working. But this conclusion is a misconception given what the Obama administration and its European allies want to achieve.

Sanctions are an economic weapon for a political purpose. Hurting the Iranian economy is not enough when the goals of the sanctions are to destabilize the regime or at the very least force it to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. While the sanctions are undoubtedly affecting Iran’s economy, they are unlikely to achieve their political aims and will probably hurt Western economies in the process.

The biggest threat to the Iranian regime is not Western sanctions but its own citizens. The Green Revolution in 2009 posed the biggest challenge to clerical rule in 30 years. The Arab Spring has demonstrated the power of the people in deposing their autocratic leaders themselves.

US interference in Iranian affairs is only counterproductive. Western and Iranian leaders are equally blameworthy for the economic crisis, which has been a distraction from political activism instead of a generator of one. Iranians are running to trade rials into Swiss francs instead of planning revolutions.

The sanctions, which target Iran’s central bank (in some circles, an act of war in itself), effectively forces global actors to choose: Iranian petroleum or business with American financial institutions. Because of the fragility of the global economy, many US allies like Japan, India and South Korea face an impossible choice.

The sanctions will irk the Turks, Iran’s neighbor and trading partner, who have advocated for fuel swaps instead of aggressive sanctions in dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Ankara imports a third of its oil from Iran, which it sees as a hedge against dependency on Russian energy.

This says nothing of the irritation this will cause Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council, and critics of past rounds of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Middle East expert Juan Cole goes so far as to make the compelling point that while the sanctions, if effective, could reduce Iran’s income from oil and hurt the regime, the devaluation of its currency would help make Iran’s exports more affordable and attractive. Cole also points out that the US may grant exceptions to allies who are dependent on Iranian energy and that non-NATO members, primarily Russia and China, will be able to circumvent the sanctions, easing pressure on the regime.

Importantly, this round of sanctions had resulted from—and will perpetuate—a feedback loop of Iranian-Western confrontation that at worst will result in a catastrophic war. Case in point, in response to the new sanctions this week, Iran has test fired cruise missiles, launched naval exercises in the Gulf, and threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane through which a sixth of the world’s oil passes.

It’s also sad that Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the ire of the West for almost two decades, always takes center stage over Iran’s deplorable human rights record, the source of much more death and suffering. Fraudulent elections, violent repression of dissent and torture will continue to cause more injustice than an Iranian nuke ever will. In this sense, the aggression towards Iran is for all the wrong reasons. Like the Iraq War, which unseated a vicious and genocidal dictator, the campaign against Iran is really about Western self-interest, regional hegemony and power politics instead of human rights.

Unfortunately, this round of sanctions and the vitriol from the campaign trail fits into the Iranian leadership’s narrative perfectly. They see themselves as the heirs of the great Persian legacy, entitled to recognition as a great civilization. In this narrative, it has been Western intervention and power, from 17th and 18th century imperialism; to the 1953 CIA and MI-6 coup against democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddeq; to helping Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, which has hurt Iran. To the Iranians, they are under siege from the West. The West is doing little to refute that claim.

Iranians ask: if the Americans, Israelis, North Koreans and Pakistanis can have nuclear weapons, why not us?

Tragically, this Kafkaesque maelstrom of attrition could easily lead to war over Iran’s nuclear program. Many of the neoconservative advocates of the Iraq War, leading Republican presidential candidates, and Israeli leaders are calling for a preventative strike against Tehran.

While the Iranian regime may be brutal, it is not suicidal. The Ayatollahs aren’t crazier than the decision-makers in North Korea or Pakistan. Even Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that an Iranian weapon isn’t an existential threat to Israel.

Iran’s pursuit of a weapon is not based on a desire to annihilate Israel, which would in turn ensure its own destruction. Iran’s nuclear ambitions ostensibly stem from three things: national (and civilizational Persian) pride, preventing invasion and attaining regional hegemony vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Iranian nuclear program under the Shah (and revitalized in the 1980s partly by Green Movement leader Mir Hussein Mousavi) saw it as a counterweight to Iraq.

In effect, going to war with Iran would transform a situation which would cause zero casualties (a nonexistent, imaginary Iranian nuclear strike) into a war which would cause thousands of Israeli and American lives and possibly send the global economy back into the cellar.  Furthermore, war would be unlikely to prevent Iran from continuing or restarting its nuclear progress once the dust settled.

The Iranian nuclear program is spread throughout the country and located underground. American and Israeli officials have testified that it would be difficult, even in a full-scale invasion, to dismantle the entire program, especially while Israel would be absorbing thousands of rockets and long-range ballistic missiles fired by Hezbollah and the Iranian military.

Green Movement members have even stressed that a military attack would sideline the domestic opposition to clerical rule and help to solidify support for the regime.

What is clear (and also impossible in an election year) is that, if robust diplomacy fails, the US must be prepared for the eventuality that Iran will achieve nuclear breakout capacity if it wishes. War and sanctions won’t deter the regime. The clerics have seen what happened to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi after he surrendered his program. They have seen how the late Kim Jong Il successful outmaneuvered the West using enriched uranium as leverage. American aggression will only harden the theocracy’s nuclear resolve.

In short, sanctions will hurt the Iranian economy but not its leadership or its nuclear weapons and in the process, the US is further damaging the prospect of rapprochement with Iran, its relationship with key allies and its own economy.

The inflation and economic crisis in Iran is much more pronounced than it has been after other rounds of sanctions. Because of this, Tehran has simultaneously issued military threats and signaled that it was ready to resume talks on its nuclear program with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany that stalled in January. The economic downturn in Iran gives the 5+1 parties some moderate leverage, especially since Iran’s military threats are not credible. Yet the Kim-Qaddafi case studies demonstrate why it’s likely that Iran will stomach the sanctions and keep the centrifuges running.

These 5+1 countries should make a genuine diplomatic effort to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Fuel-swap deals proposed by Brazil and Turkey that were lambasted in the West should be reconsidered.

If diplomacy fails, cost of containing a nuclear Iran, in both blood and gold, are minimal compared to war. The United States’ best chance to bring down the Iranian regime is to step back, and let the Ayatollahs’ (and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’) mismanagement and repressive policies bring themselves down.

Iran has been a loser from the Arab Spring. There is little enthusiasm for the Iranian model in North Africa or the Levant. The massive anti-regime protests by the Green Movement in 2009 had nothing to do with sanctions or US pressure. If the United States and the Western powers are patient, the winds of change might just blow further East. Until then, sanction will prove counterproductive, despite being infinitely preferable to war. The Catch-22 with Iran is that Western efforts towards regime change fall into step with the regime’s narrative and make the Ayatollahs stronger.

Pettiness Personified: Palestine, the US and UNESCO

On Halloween 2011, something truly spooky happened: Palestine was recognized as a full member of an international body. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is responsible for maintaining world heritage sites (Palestine’s admittance would help with the upkeep of the Church of the Nativity), improving world literacy, providing access to education for young girls, distributing educational materials worldwide and promoting global cultural understanding. 107 nations voted to admit the Palestinians and only 14 nations opposed membership. Two of them, predictably, were the United States and Israel. Their votes will have a disproportionately negative impact on UNESCO’s future, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the United States’ global image.

The UNESCO vote, a small part of the larger Palestinian struggle for international recognition, has brought back many of the tropes and hackneyed expressions that were used by the US and Israel to oppose the Palestinian statehood bid in September. So the American and Israeli logic goes, “Palestine is acting unilaterally by going to the UN and bypassing direct negotiations with Israel.” This is wrong for two reasons: first, this campaign at the UN is not an attempt by the Palestinians to circumvent negotiations with Israel, as Palestinian President Abbas has repeatedly said to deaf ears, but to gain more leverage and international legitimacy in such negotiations and second, how can the Palestinians be acting “unilaterally” if 107 nations are behind them?

Matters are made worse by American legislation, passed in the early 1990s, which compels the US to cut off funding to any United Nations organization which recognizes the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Israel is cutting all of its funding to UNESCO as well. The United States and Israel contribute 22% and 3% respectively of UNESCO’s budget. An article in the New York Times mentions that this cut in funding will start next month. State Department spokeswomen Victoria Nuland announced that a scheduled $60 million payment to UNESCO in November will be withheld. The Times article mentions that “The Israeli ambassador, Nimrod Barkan, said that UNESCO had done ‘a great disservice’ to international efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. ‘UNESCO deals in science, not in science fiction,’” said Barkan. On top of this, The Israeli government, according to Ha’aretz, is strongly considering sanctions against the Palestinian Authority too.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement condemning the UNESCO vote. The Israeli Ministry stated that “This is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement. This decision will not turn the Palestinian Authority into an actual state yet places unnecessary burdens on the route to renewing negotiations.” In reality, UNESCO membership should have no bearing on a return to the negotiating table. The deadlock remains the same regardless: the Palestinians won’t return to the table unless settlement construction, which would erode the potential Palestinian state as the negotiating process was taking place, is halted. The Israelis insist on negotiations without preconditions.

Ms. Nuland announced the UNESCO bid and the US reaction at a press conference and was vilified by Associated Press reporter Matthew Lee. According to Mr. Lee, Palestinian membership in UNESCO does nothing to harm prospects for peace negotiations, as the Americans and Israelis adamantly claim.

US Spokesperson Victoria Nuland: We considered that this was, as I said, regrettable, premature, and undermines the prospect of getting where we want to go. And that’s what we’re concerned about.

Reporter Matthew Lee: Okay, and how does it undermine exactly the prospect of where you want to go?

Nuland: The concern is that it creates tensions when all of us should be concerting our efforts to get the parties back to the table.

Lee: The only thing it does is it upsets Israel and it triggers this law that you said will require you to stop funding UNESCO. Is there anything else? There’s nothing that changes on the ground, is there?

Nuland: Our concern is that this could exacerbate the environment which we are trying to work through so that the parties will get back to the table.

Lee: How exactly does it exacerbate the environment if it changes nothing on the ground unlike, say, construction of settlements? It changes nothing on the ground. It gives Palestine membership in UNESCO, which was a body the US was so unconcerned about for many years that it wasn’t even a member.

UNESCO and 107 of its member states favored the Palestinian ascension process despite inevitable funding cuts by the United States and Israel. According to an article in the Huffington Post, “UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova welcomed the decision, but said that she worried it could put the agency in a precarious position. ‘It is my responsibility to say that I am concerned by the potential challenges that may arise to the universality and financial stability of the organization,’ said Bokova, who has led a drive to reform the institution. ‘I am worried we may confront a situation that could erode UNESCO as a universal platform for dialogue. I am worried for the stability of its budget.’”

This imbroglio says quite a lot about US Foreign Policy in the Middle East. It’s egregious that Palestinian membership in one of the most guileless international organizations will directly take books out of Afghani women’s hands, limit access to clean water, end sexual education programs in the developing world, obstruct activities promoting equal treatment for girls and women and harm some of the world’s most important cultural heritage sites. Furthermore it exposes US opposition to the Palestinians as being institutional. When Palestinian organizations turned to violence to advance their cause, the US and Israel condemned them—and rightly so. Now the Palestinians are turning toward the United Nations and UNESCO and the US and Israel is reacting similarly, as if the Palestinians are launching rockets and suicide terror attacks in Paris instead of attempting to join the UN Educational, Science and Cultural Organization.

The Israeli government would love there to be US Presidential elections every year. As the 2012 election gets closer, politicians in Washington have stepped up their pandering to Israel in order to get more votes, even if these actions embarrass the United States in the eyes of most of the world. Not only is this further evidence that the United States is not a neutral arbiter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it shows how little emphasis the United States places on education and science—cutting its own budget for such important sectors during the debt ceiling crisis earlier this year and now cutting global funding for them as well.

Of the US, it takes a special kind of childishness to cut funding to UNESCO’s global projects over a regional dispute, especially when only 13 other nations agree with you and 107 are against you. It takes a special kind of pettiness to cause such a diplomatic fuss over membership in UNESCO, going so far as to say it harms the prospects of peace negotiations. Finally, it shows a special kind of arrogance to call the Palestinian ascension to UNESCO, or into the international system as a whole, “premature,” which is exactly what Nuland and American Ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion did. The Palestinians have never had international recognition as a state, despite American and Israeli governments averring that they want a Palestinian state to exist. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been occupied by Israel for the last 44 years. Direct negotiations have accomplished little since Oslo 18 years ago—in fact Israeli settlement construction has made the status quo much worse. That is a long time to wait for progress. This action in an international forum is hardly “unilateral” or “premature.”

Fighting the Urge to Segregate in Israel-Palestine

As human beings, it’s very natural to fear what we don’t understand. Our cavemen ancestors who survived were the more cautious ones. Many of the cavalier risk-takers, unquestioning in their trust, were not naturally selected. In Israel-Palestine, neither side understands the other side very well, causing fear to permeate the Holy Land as a result. Much of the mutual distrust is a consequence of the infrequency of encounters between Israelis and Palestinians.

In Israel, segregation is pervasive. Within Jewish-Arab cities like Haifa, Acco and Jerusalem, there is a great deal of self-segregation—Arabs feel more comfortable living with Arabs and Jews with Jews. But the culture and politics of segregation run much deeper.

From a very young age, Jewish and Arab children are inculcated to distrust the other culture, which they rarely meet and later become unlikely to seek out. Israeli and Palestinian schools deliver completely opposite interpretations of history with no acknowledgement of the other narrative. This phenomenon is exemplified by the Israeli law, passed earlier this year, banning the mourning of the Naqba, or the Castrophe, in 1948 during which the State of Israel was declared and independence was achieved at the expense of dozens of Palestinian villages and over 700,000 Palestinian refugees. Israeli media perpetuates the national Jewish narrative, namely that Israel is “surrounded by enemies,” that Palestinians “don’t value human life” and that the United Nations is anti-Israel. Segregation is further institutionalized by checkpoints and restrictions on freedom of movement. Israelis cannot visit major Arab cities in so called Area A of the West Bank, which includes Ramallah and Nablus. Palestinians who aren’t citizens of Israel can’t leave the Occupied Territories without a permit. The latest segregationist project, called the separation wall or the security fence depending on who you ask, built by Israel in the last ten years, epitomizes the separation of the two peoples, at enormous cost to the Palestinians. In an article about the separation wall by Btselem, the Israeli human rights organization says:

“The construction of the barrier has brought new restrictions on movement for Palestinians living near the Barrier’s route…Thousands of Palestinians have difficulty going to their fields and marketing their produce…The restrictions on freedom of movement also impair access of rural Palestinians to hospitals in nearby towns, harm the educational system since many schools, primarily in rural areas, are dependent on teachers who live outside the community, and hamper family and social ties.”

With such rampant segregation, demonization and stereotyping flourish. There is little interaction with which to disprove myths and fears of the other.

Dr. Nava Sonnenschein of the School for Peace is a PhD in Psychology and has been organizing and facilitating dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians for 30 years at the School for Peace in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam, a binational Israeli village. Dr. Sonnenschein conducted her PhD research on the effect that these interactions have on the Jewish participants.

The members of the encounter groups at the School for Peace are 50% Israeli and 50% Palestinian. Within the vacuum of the group, the two sides are equal, which is anathema to the reality outside, where Israelis are stronger in terms of numbers, arms, resources, territory and wealth. By being lowered onto an even playing field in this regulated environment, the Israeli group feels threatened.

“The Jewish participants in the beginning of the encounter will try to make the Palestinians seem inhumane, in order to justify the unequal treatment they undergo,” says Dr. Sonnenschein. “Over the course of the interaction, the Jewish participants begin to slowly dissociate violence from Palestinian culture, and understand it more as a result of the political situation.” 

According to Dr. Sonnenschein, an Israeli Jew herself, the discrimination that Jews have suffered over the course of their history, culminating with the Holocaust, has been imprinted on the Palestinians. The insecurity that Jews feel, the sense of existential threat, is an indelible part of the Jewish identity, and a source of community and togetherness. The goal of the dialogues is to “break the tendency to resort to anger and victimization and to nurture feelings of empathy and compassion.”

In one fascinating exchange that Dr. Sonnenschein oversaw, an Israeli Jewish participant was trying to construct this threat, in order to paint the Palestinians as violent and inhumane, which would thus strengthen her own identity. A Palestinian participant was commenting that he could understand Palestinians who would resort to violence, but he didn’t justify it. “They have no past, and they have no future, so they have nothing to lose,” he said. “Terrorism is the weapon of the weak and the disenfranchised.”

The Israeli participant pushed. “If you understand it, why don’t you justify it?”

“I won’t justify it,” the Palestinian said. Dr. Sonnenschein explained that if he had, the Israeli participant would be able to take the moral high ground.

For Dr. Sonnenschein, these facilitations are crucial in combating the social and political ill that are enabled and exacerbated by segregation. They allow Israelis to hear the Palestinians’ story, to hear about their suffering, and to see that there is remarkable collateral damage in the Israeli security campaign against Palestinian militants, who represent a small minority. For their part, it’s important for Palestinians to see that there are some Israelis willing to listen to them, willing to find a way to end the occupation and bring peace.

Dr. Sonnenschein concluded by commenting that Israelis are taken through a painful process. The dialogues deconstruct their identities, which she says are based to a large extent on a threat that, while having a tangible basis in reality, is hyperbolized by the government, the media, the educational system, and Israeli society as a whole.

It is remarkably rare for Israelis and Palestinians to sit together and discuss their fears and concerns. In addition to the dialogues conducted by Dr. Sonnenschein at the School for Peace, there are other projects and organizations which create independent pockets of integration, such as Wounded Xrossing Borders, an Israeli-Palestinian initiative that emerged from the People’s Peace Fund. Far from a leftist hippie peacenik get-together, Wounded Xrossing Borders brings together people from both sides that have been wounded in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of the Palestinian participants have served prison sentences for fighting against the Israeli occupation. An Israeli warden who directed the prison in which many of the Palestinians served is also a member of the group. Most of the other Israelis were wounded in army service, or lost loved ones in terrorist attacks. The Palestinian co-founder of the organization, Suleiman Khatib, served over ten years in an Israeli prison for throwing rocks at soldiers during the First Intifadeh in the late 1980s. He was 14 when he was imprisoned.

Wounded Xrossing Borders is not an unadulterated success story or a manifestation of unfettered hope and optimism. Members of the group fight often. They’ve been trying to draft a group constitution since 2008 when the group was formed, and to date they have been unable to reach a consensus. Many people who attend a meeting are unable to return for another one, wholly unable to sit in the same room as a former Israeli soldier or an ex-Palestinian militant. But they talk. They sit at the same table over lunch. They listen, and come to understand, if not condone, the culture and policies of the other.

In Israeli and Palestinian society, attending such meetings with the other side is considered borderline treasonous. When asked how other Palestinians reacted when they heard he was attending these meetings with Israelis, a Palestinian participant, Jamal, responded that “my wife didn’t agree. My parents, my uncles, all didn’t want me to go. My own children were against it.”

Jamal was in and out of prison in his teenage years for protesting the Israeli occupation during the First Intifadeh. He was imprisoned as a youth three separate times for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

“When I first came to the meetings, I thought I would come once or twice and then stop. But it was the first time I had met Israelis that weren’t soldiers [in uniform]. I didn’t know that there were Israelis who were willing to listen, Israelis who wanted peace and felt that there was something wrong happening to the Palestinians.”

Since he was last released from prison in the early 1990s, Jamal has settled down, started a family, opened a business and turned to non-violence and reconciliation efforts. It’s a story worthy of mainstream media attention which it doesn’t receive, since Jamal’s metamorphosis doesn’t fit into the violent narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which most consumers want to read, and which most Israeli and Palestinians are ironically more comfortable believing. “I’ve lost business and I’ve lost friends because I go to this group [Wounded Xrossing Borders]. But now, after two years, my wife attends meetings with me sometimes.”

The implications of this separation of Israelis and Palestinians—physically, psychologically and historically—are substantial. If an eventual two-state solution further separates Israelis and Palestinians, it’s possible that suspicion and distrust will remain constant. Without perceived security, there may not be genuine stability.

Tunisia the Torchbearer: Elections and the Arab Spring

On December 17th, 2010, a young Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire after his unlicensed street cart was confiscated, protesting the economic malaise and rampant corruption which left him destitute. The story has become legend, as his suicide as set a chain of events in motion which is far from over. His death sparked massive demonstrations in his hometown of Sidi Bouazid. Sidi Bouazid led to Tunis, Tunis became Cairo, Cairo moved to Tripoli. The phenomenon could yet in earnest spread to Damascus and Sana’a (or maybe even Tehran or Riyadh).

But on Sunday, October 23rd, Bouazizi’s mother cast her ballot in a free election in Tunisia. “Now I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice,” Manoubia Bouazizi told Reuters. “I’m an optimist, I wish success for my country.”

The above quote, from an article in al-Arabiya, noted another upbeat fact: the official count put the turnout at over 90%, which confirms the legitimacy of the results and the general faith in the electoral system. In a week in which Israel and Hamas’ prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit and the death of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya stole the headlines, the elections in Tunisia are going to have a much more tangible impact on the future of Middle East peace and the Arab Spring than either. Just as Tunisia’s revolution was a forbearer of events across the Middle East, its election and its aftereffects will tell us a lot about what’s to come.

Some alarm bells have been ringing about the election, however. Will the new 217-seat Constituent Assembly have trouble finding a consensus? Will the new government be unable to fix the severe structural problems of the Tunisian economy? Will there be acute divisions between secular and religious parties? Will there be actors in power with connections to the despised Ben Ali regime? Will Ennahda, the Islamist and overwhelmingly dominant party as a result of the election, have a cooler relationship with the West than its predecessor, Zine Abidine Ben Ali?

In the short-term, the answer to all of these questions is ‘probably yes.’ But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is democracy. Get used to it. As Erik Churchill wrote in Foreign Policy last week, “Many now fear that the elections will fail to resolve deep societal divides, or will even make things worse by empowering Islamists or restoring former regime figures. But those fears should not overshadow the hope that Tunisia has a chance to get things right and once again set an example for the Arab world.”

The is a lot of worry about Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that will take somewhere between 43%-48% of the seats (official results to be announced later today) and may have gotten more than 50% of the vote. While their closest challengers, the Progressive Democratic Party, might not even take 20% of the spoils, the Tunisian system was designed to make it nearly impossible for any party to receive more than half the seats. Some consensus will be needed.

Ennahda’s success shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a moderate Islamist party in a country full of, well, moderate Islamists. The fact that Ben Ali waged war on Ennahda for the past 20 years did nothing to hurt its popularity. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda also has the advantage of having had an organizational structure and fundraising apparatus in place before the Arab Spring.

The West should regard Ennahda with restrained optimism. The party was democratically elected and is representative of the values of the Tunisian majority. An eye needs to be kept on the party’s approach towards women’s rights, for example, but the West need not impose its cultural standards on Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, sees himself as a more soft-spoken version of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s policies may clash with some Western values and interests, but this has not prevented economic cooperation with the EU or political cooperation with the United States. Moreover, Tunisians will hold Ennahda accountable not for its piety, but for its ability to improve the economic situation that sparked the revolution in the first place.

In a statement after Tunisia’s election, US Secretary of State Clinton remarked that “The United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Tunisia as they pursue a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future.” I sincerely hope this remains true, even if there are divergences between the policies of Ennahda and the United States government. In the end, the same values that the US has espoused over Tunisia should apply to Bahrain and the Palestinian territories. Without consistency, there is no trust. The only way towards long-term stability for the United States in the Middle East is for it to embrace short-term instability.

The road from Ben Ali’s flight to Election Day was not smooth in Tunisia. Revolutions rarely follow direct paths. Tunisia has had an easier time of it than Egypt. Unfettered prosperity won’t come to Tunisia tomorrow, but as many citizens expressed fter casting ballots that actually matter, dignity has come today.

#OccupyTelAviv? The Fight for Social Justice in Israel

I want to discuss a different kind of ‘occupation’ in Israel in this post. Everyone who has been following Occupy Wall Street seems determined to compare the movement to another one. Is Occupy Wall Street the “American Autumn,” an allusion to the Arab Spring which has toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco? Is it the Tea Party of the left? The answer to both of those questions is certainly “no.” These comparisons make me sick, and I wish that people would just evaluate Occupy Wall Street based on what it is instead of trying to satisfy this innate human drive to organize novel information by connecting it to something we know well. However, I am still human, so I will offer my own comparison.

The other night, I and a few of the other volunteers here in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam heard that the village had some interesting guests. A group of Israelis, demonstrating for social justice, was going to spend the night camping out in the village. This movement has swept across Israel since the beginning of the summer, and is most easily associated with the image of young people pitching tents on Tel-Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

I met a few of the protesters, who were walking from a city in Northern Israel all the way to Jerusalem to champion the cause of social justice. But what is social justice? “It means something different to everybody,” one of them, Ido, told us.

What most of them agreed on was that there was a fair amount of social, political and economic inequality in their country, and that all of these things were somehow connected. Prices were rising as wages stagnated; a small number of families were controlling an ever-growing slice of the pie.

I wrote about these protests in September, but this group I met in the village was different. In a way they were protesters of the protesters, rebels among the rebels, an offshoot of the phenomenon that brought half a million into the streets of Tel-Aviv.

"Most of the protesters, when they see something is expensive, they complain to the government," said Yonaton. "We just don’t buy it."

Yonaton, Ido, and group of about 20 other Israelis were living more simply. On their march for social justice to Jerusalem, they’ve already been on the road for a month. “We don’t take the most direct route,” said Yonaton. Not in their protests, and not in their route.

"For us, social justice is about yourself, about how you live. If we vote someone out of office, someone will just take their place and nothing will change. We all have to look within ourselves, change how we act and how we think." Yonaton was doing just that. He moved to Israel from Sweden seven months ago. "I was supposed to work on a Kibbutz for three months. I left after six days, and joined this group of hippies traveling around and exploring Eretz Yisrael," he said, chuckling. Him and his fellow travelers were pursuing nirvana more than an equitable tax code.

All of those we talked to were so completely disenchanted with the political system in the country, they wanted nothing to do with it. They said they didn’t understand politicians, and that once anyone has money or power, they are changed. Their outlet for activism was their walkabout, by meeting new people and talking to them along the way, and undergoing a period of personal re-evaluation, they were advancing their cause.

I was excited to hear what the Israelis thought about Occupy Wall Street. “What? There are protests in America? We’ve been on the road this whole time!” We talked about it in depth and saw many similarities. Both OWS and the fight for social justice in Israel are relatively leaderless movements. The both emphasized social ills, painted by Occupy Wall Street as the 99% against the concentration of wealth of the 1%. They are aimed not at individual politicians but at politics and the political system itself. Both movements detest corporations. Most of all, protesters in New York and in Israel loathe the relationship between the two. Both movements feature many young people with dreadlocks. The Israeli protests have been going on much longer, and have more specific demands now (lower housing costs, free daycare, and a more robust social safety net). But a month into the “tent protests,” the Israeli protests were being criticized for their ambiguity and amorphousness.

One of the volunteers who I was with asked a more difficult question of the revolutionaries: “where are the Palestinians? I look around and I see only Jews.”

"We welcome everyone to join us, but for some reason, they don’t want to join us," said Ido, who was just out of the army. 

"If you want to be inclusive, and want to meet and talk to new people, and feel that we should all be equal, why don’t you go talk to people in Ramallah or Bethlehem?"

"We cannot go there. We will get shot. We are ready for peace, but most are not, on both sides." The other volunteers and I wondered when that time would come, since Jews and Palestinians meet so infrequently, and certainly have conversations about social and political philosophy even less often. We had a lengthy talk about the role of the media, how people around the world get their information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the (almost entirely negative) coverage they see on TV. However, it seems to me that this group, and most Israelis, was just as far from Ramallah or Bethlehem as Berlin or New York are. They couldn’t understand why Palestinians wouldn’t be interested in integrating the fight for lower housing costs and free day care into their struggle to end the occupation.

I ended up talking to Yonaton for hours. I learned a great deal from him, and we had a seemingly endless and enlightened conversation about everything from human nature, a utopian political system and our own journeys to achieve self-improvement. The people I talked to were about as peace loving, compassionate and leftist as they come. But it seems that no one in Israeli society can completely detach from their national consciousness.

At this point, the other twenty members of their group, who had been on the road for so long, disconnected from their everyday lives, burst into a cheer a few feet away. “They freed Gilad Shalit,” Yonaton said.

The Israeli human rights organization Btselem has issued a report about the Israeli government’s Civil Administration’s planned relocation of 27,000 Bedouins living in the West Bank in order to make room for the expansion of Jewish settlements, particularly Ma’ale Adumim.

Many of the Bedouins have been living in the area next to what became Ma’ale Adumim for generations. The video here shows the testimony of several of them. The Bedouins have lost access to water since the settlements were built and are cut off from the electricity grid. The Israeli government plans to relocate them next to a garbage dump.

Relocations and displacements like this are not new, nor are they rare. They represent discriminatory policies against non-Jews, both in the West Bank and in Israel proper.

In an article by Ian Buruma, a Professor at Bard college and author, he sums up exactly what I think about this, as a liberal Jew dismayed by the policies of the Israeli government which claims to speak for me:

"Putting pressure on Israel to stop building settlements and come to terms with a viable Palestinian state will be very difficult. But it is the only way to break the constant cycle of violence. Standing up to Israel, and its new fanatical friends, is not anti-Jewish. On the contrary, it is to uphold the liberal tradition in which many Jews continue to believe."

The Occupy Wall Street statement.

Courtesty of NOW Lebanon. To read the full article check out http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=318202. My take on the latest developments in Syria can be accessed here.

Courtesty of NOW Lebanon. To read the full article check out http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=318202. My take on the latest developments in Syria can be accessed here.