Monday, June 8, 2009

Building just and democratic institutions - but whose exactly?

When world leaders speak of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is of good form to ask a few things of the Palestinians, like building democratic institutions, strengthening the rule of law, and renouncing violence. Even Obama's speech (which was remarkable) did not fail to make those points.

Such requests are never made to the Israeli government.

The assumption is no doubt that Israel is "like us" (I'm not even sure we always meet our own standards by the way) -- except for this little problem of the occupation, settlements and of course being occasionally "heavy handed." As in 22 days, 300 dead kids. That's "heavy handed." Sometimes we even raise the tone and say "it's not helpful." Then Israel trembles. But basically, institutions are THEIR institutions and they are fine. Israel IS by nature democratic, and who are we to ask anything. And as for violence, well... one just has to defend oneself. (And were it not for the occupation and violation of international law, I would agree.)

Now, Obama told the Palestinians that violence does not resolve anything. (In this particular case, I agree. But I haven't seen the US, the UK, or Israel adopt non-violence as a national defense strategy yet. Calling for Gandhis and MLK's is nice, but I haven't seen the US name a Mennonite as head of the DOD either.)

When it comes to institutions, forget the fact that Palestine [did you notice that Obama used that State Department-forbidden word?] has had more successful free elections than any other Arab country around and that the opposition won the last one; forget the fact that we forced on them the institution of a Prime Minister then forced a reversal to a presidential regime by-passing the office of the Prime Minister (and pushed for a civil war in the process). Forget all these things. Palestinians need institution strengthening, well... because they are Palestinians and they can't be trusted to run their own country without our interference.(1)

When it comes to rule of law, let's not talk about the fact that the last Israeli President resigned under prosecution for rape. That would be rude and interfering. Let's not mention that Ehud Olmert had to resign because of charges of corruption or that the current foreign minister is already being investigated. We don't challenge allies with their petty internal problems. But of course Palestinian corruption is a "HUGE" problem and we--still "we"--must demand that they do something about it. Especially during an occupation - they should have plenty of time to deal with that after all.

What triggers this post is not just the constant irony and injustice of this maddening conflict, it is a little bit of news. Something only remarkable because it was caught on tape. It happens, not daily but weekly or monthly in the hills of Hebron, but usually there is no camera.

I invite you to read and tell me whether our concerns for the respect of the rule of law are well placed.

The Haaretz article is pasted below and can be accessed here online.

(1) Believe me, I'm well aware of the weaknesses of Palestinian national institutions. I just don't think that they are comparatively worse than any other place. It does sadden me that some ministers and bureaucrats dream of nothing more than being the equivalent of their Egyptian equivalent and fail to see the richness of Palestinian civil society. But that's a topic for another day.

Prosecution drops indictment against settler filmed shooting Palestinians

The prosecution has announced that it is dropping the indictment against Ze'ev Braude, the West Bank settler who was alleged to have shot two Palestinians at close range during the evacuation of a disputed house in Hebron in December 2008, and was caught on film doing so.

Ze'ev Braude, 51, of Kiryat Arba, is alleged to have shot two Palestinians at close range during the evacuation of a disputed house in Hebron.

Braude, a Kiryat Arba resident, turned himself in to police last week after an activist with the B'Tselem human rights group caught him on film shooting at Palestinians at short range and hitting two.

During the evacuation of the house in Hebron, Braude approached the Matriya family residence, drew his gun and shouted at the family members to go inside, the indictment says.

Hosni Matriya, 44, went up to Braude and told to leave. Braude struck him and aimed his gun at him, said the indictment. Hosni's father, Abed el-Hai, 67, walked up and asked Braude to leave. Braude pushed el-Hai. Other family members came to help push Braude away and he fired at them. The first bullet passed close to one man's head and the second one hit Hosni's chest. A third bullet hit el-Hai's arm. El-Hai and two family members attacked Braude and stopped him from again firing his gun. They held him until Kiryat Arba residents arrived and took him away, the indictment says.

Hosni, who was shot in the chest, is awaiting surgery to take out shrapnel that remains around the wound. El-Hai, whose arm was broken, has been operated on twice and his arm has been set with screws.

The prosecution said that the evidence proves that "Braude initiated the incident at the plaintiff's house, which was out of his way. During the argument with the plaintiffs he struck his fist into the face of one of them. At this stage none of the plaintiffs was acting violently. The father of the family wrestled with him to stop the shooting - during the wrestling the defendant shot him as well."

Jamal Abu Safan, a relative of the injured Palestinian, told Haaretz that the court's decision shows "how racist Israel and its justice system are." He demanded that an independent body investigate the case.

Braude's lawyer, attorney Ariel Atari, responded that the Palestinian claiming to have been injured can be viewed in the video getting up after allegedly being shot and continuing to hurl stones and strike Braude.

Photo source:

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama's Speech

My last post commented on some anticipation of Obama's speech. Here's the full text of this speech.

It may be optimism on my part, but if there is action behind those words, something good may come of it. Even a cynic like myself has to find some hope in the "leader of the free world" addressing the ills of the region in this manner.

Okay, it's words for now. But eight years ago, the words (implied) from the man in the same seat were essentially, "hunting season is open -- shoot at will" followed by the blessing of Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace" (which even the Israelis laughed at) and culmination in a letter providing cover for settlement expansion. We've seen what followed.

Dreyfuss in The Nation provides a good analysis of the speech and I make mine his conclusion: "Okay, it's a speech. But it's a good start." I scrolled down and looked at some of the comments on Dreyfuss' text. I found one that is illustrative of the challenges ahead. Here's what that reader wrote:

"This was pure political spin in an art form. Obama ... will even help with the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people if it will draw him acceptance among those who are in greater number (the Muslims) ...Christians and Jews should be concerned about what levels this man will sink to, in selling out to Islam."

I'm not naive about where Islam is at in its history and the diversity of expressions it has found and--let's face it--as other religions have in the past and still do, it is faced with a few monsters it hasn't tamed yet. Yet, to hear/read Obama's speech and come out with the sense that Obama "will help with the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people" shows a degree of paranoia which is dangerous and pathological.

Unfortunately, this paranoia still exists and it drives a pathological action-reaction downward spiral of death and hopelessness. (See past blog entry.) This is why the US has such a role to play as the foremost ally of Israel in forcing change in Palestine and reassuring Israel. But reassuring does not mean enabling or legitimizing every crazy impulse.

For today however I will take this speech as a small possible sign of hope.
And pray that hope becomes reality.

Salaam - Shalom.


A Palestinian shop owner displays mugs for sale with portraits of US President Barack Obama at a souvenir shop in Gaza City on Sunday (AP photo by Hatem Moussa). Source:

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Obama's coming speech in Cairo: Words and Deeds

President Obama is going to Cairo to pronounce a speech.

His fine oratorical skills not withstanding, and even possibly his good intentions cannot change the reality of power politics in the US. When President Bush (the statesman) put pressure and led to the Rome Conference on Israel/Palestine and then the Oslo agreement he was staunchly warned of the risk to become a "one term president." Whether his status as a one-term president had anything to do with this, or was the fluke result of Ross Perot is another discussion topic, but merely the threat that was made to him shows something of the sensitivity of the topic in American politics--I've commented before on the US Congress voting 90% in favor of resolutions which had no weight, except to make a statement of support against very questionable policies and actions. (When else does the Congress vote 90% in favor of anything?)

Robert Fisk writes a good column about the low expectations from the Arab world of Mr Obama's speech. What is needed is action: while comforting Israel that its core ally will remain its core ally, exert strong pressure to force a change of course--and by change I mean 180 degrees. The end of the deadly illusion that the Jewish State is mandated to rule the lives of Arabs on their own land, and ultimately to take that land.

Below are the concluding paragraphs from Fisk--you can read his full column here.
"Arabs, I find, have a very shrewd conception of what goes on in Washington – the lobbying, the power politics, the dressing up of false friendship in Rooseveltian language – even if ordinary Americans do not. They are aware that the "new" America of Obama looks suspiciously like the old one of Bush and his lads and ladies. First, Obama addresses Muslims on Al-Arabiya television. Then he addresses Muslims in Istanbul. Now he wants to address Muslims all over again in Cairo.

I suppose Obama could say: "I promise I will not make any decision until I first consult with you and the Jewish side" along with more promises about being a friend of the Arabs. Only that's exactly what Franklin Roosevelt told King Abdul Aziz on the deck of USS Quincy in 1945, so the Arabs have heard that one before. I guess we'll hear about terrorism being as much a danger to Arabs as to Israel – another dull Bush theme – and, Obama being a new President, we might also have a "we shall not let you down" theme.

But for what? I suspect that what the Arab world wants to hear – not their leaders, of course, all of whom would like to have a spanking new US air base on their property – is that Obama will take all his soldiers out of Muslim lands and leave them alone (American aid, doctors, teachers, etc, excepted). But for obvious reasons, Obama can't say that.

He can, and will, surely, try his global-Arab line; that every Arab nation will be involved in the new Middle East peace, a resurrection of the remarkably sane Saudi offer of full Arab recognition of Israel in return for an Israeli return to the 1967 borders in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 242. Obama will be clearing this with King Abdullah on Wednesday, no doubt. And everyone will nod sagely and the newspapers of the Arab dictatorships will solemnly tip their hats to the guy and the New York Times will clap vigorously.

And the Israeli government will treat it all with the same amused contempt as Netanyahu treated Obama's demand to stop building Jewish colonies on Arab land and, back home in Washington, Congress will fulminate and maybe Obama will realise, just like the Arab potentates have realised, that beautiful rhetoric and paradise-promises never, ever, win against reality."

It's counter-intuitive, but in the big scheme of thing, this American disconnect between words and deeds (not an American exclusive, but an exceptionally weighty disconnect given the place of the US in today's world) will have far greater consequences than the bankrupcy of GM.

Until the moment of their crash, however, empires tend to concern themselves with things which cease to matter the minute after the crash.