More Jerusalem for Dummies

The legal and political standing of Jerusalem remains unclear and subject to confusion. Recall from last week’s post that when the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state Jerusalem was not included. It was to be administered by an international group until some equitable agreement could be reached as a result of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Some such third-party administering unit is still a viable idea that may be a part of an end-of-conflict solution. It recognizes the importance of the religious sites for all groups and keeps the various sides engaged with one another. Still, the likelihood that Israel will forgo sovereignty over the old city is slim.

But the Arabs did not accept the partition plan and war was the result. At the end of the war in 1948 Israel had taken West Jerusalem and Jordan East Jerusalem including the old city, the center of the religious life. During the 19 years that Jordan occupied East Jerusalem the Palestinians grew into a nationalist movement and made increasing demands on Jerusalem as a future capital. But after 1967 Israel expanded the city’s borders and added Jewish residents to the neighborhood. As of 2015 Arabs made up 38% of the population (Central Bureau of Statistics) of Jerusalem.

The incorporation of Arab neighborhoods into the municipality of Jerusalem has created a regular tension between Palestinians and Israelis. For example, the Palestinians do not participate – or participate minimally – in civil society governance and therefore suffer from poor services with respect to roads, schools, garbage collection etc. The Palestinians are designated as permanent residents but such a status can be revoked at any time.

In East Jerusalem Israel has also incorporated some neighborhoods that were never a part of Jerusalem in the first place, and has built new neighborhoods intended for Jews only. This, of course, is the settler problem along with the aggressive appropriation of land designed to create “facts on the ground.” Interestingly, much of this policy has made things even worse as it becomes increasingly difficult to divide Jerusalem and assign sections of the city to the Palestinians and others to the Israelis. And Palestinians consistently maintain that there will be no Palestinian state that does not include Jerusalem as its capital.

Finally, any future Jerusalem that has the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and Israel’s capital in the West must be the result of mutual agreement and acceptance because there cannot be a dividing line strictly separating the two sides. There must be free and easy movement if the religious sites of the old city are to be available to everyone.

The notion that the two state solution is dead because the United States will move (not until 2020) its embassy to Jerusalem is indefensible. A two state solution with Jerusalem as a capital for both sides has been a part of just about everybody’s proposal from Clinton, to Barak, to Olmert.

Trump’s speech did recognize a reality that negotiations and discussions between Israelis and Palestinians are still viable. And, on the contrary, this move by the United States does not distort the peace process but stimulates it.

 

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Jerusalem for Dummies

The essay title “Jerusalem for Dummies” has been taken (go here) but I thought it was sufficiently descriptive so I appropriated it. There are of course any number of places where one can read about the history of Jerusalem and its various twists and turns with respect to legal standing, cultural icon, religious center, and capital. But below is a brief overview that helps place Trump’s announcement in context. You can listen again to Trump here: Trump’s bold statement about Jerusalem and the Jews.

Historically, Jerusalem was a small town on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire. It was mostly significant for religious reasons as water and natural resources were scarce and not particularly strategically located. But as time went on Jerusalem became symbolically more important and a tense mixture of politics and religion. One of the nearby hills in Jerusalem was called “Zion” and it became the term to refer to the entire area and the base of the word Zionism which is the modern movement calling for the reestablishment of the Jewish people and state.

Still, Jerusalem was never automatically assumed to be “Jewish” because of its significance for both Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem is significant to the three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is believed to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. There is no denying the significance and importance of these religious sites and whatever ends up happening Jerusalem must ensure access to these holy places.

The Zionist leaders were mostly secular and were unsure about the significance of Jerusalem Or, shall we say, they were uncomfortable with the power of the religious connection to Jerusalem and did not want a future Jewish state to be overly religious.

It is significant that when the United Nations divided Palestine into two states (one Arab, one Jewish) in 1947, it left Jerusalem out of this equation. Jerusalem and its surroundings were designated as a separate territory to be overseen by an international body. Many Jews were unsure about this but were satisfied with relinquishing Jerusalem in order to establish the state. But when the Arabs rejected the plan to divide Palestine and attacked Israel Jews considered themselves no longer bound by the UN partition plan and moved in on Jerusalem militarily. At the end of the war of independence Israel had taken the Western part of the city, the Jordanians the Eastern part including the old city and significant religious sites. By now the significance of Jerusalem was increasingly apparent and Jews fixated their identities more on Jerusalem. The city was divided by the new state of Israel and Jordan.

Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital after annexing West Jerusalem. The Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem and there were two capitals up until the Six-Day War in 1967. For 19 years, 1948-1967, tensions between Israel and the Arab world remained and no progress was made on the status of Jerusalem or its unification. The city was not recognized as either Israeli or Jordanian. During the Six-Day War Israel captured East Jerusalem along with a few neighborhoods that were not historically in Jerusalem. Israel has moved all of its government offices to Jerusalem including the Knesset and has consolidated their presence in the city.

Israel’s position is that they are not bound by the UN partition plan or the original partition of Palestine because they acquired Western Jerusalem while defending themselves. The two sides have hardened their position as Israel would now never give up Jerusalem as its capital and the Palestinians maintain a belief in their rights to the city also. Very little progress has ever been made on the status of Jerusalem and the city remains confused according to international law as well as the contradicting claims of each side.

For these reasons official recognition of Jerusalem has been moot for most countries. But Donald Trump changed all that.

Incomplete Theorization: A New Way to Think about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Some problems can’t be solved. The fundamental assumptions and philosophy of two competing sides ensnared in the problem cannot be reconciled. Let me elaborate with an example:

There is a concept used by myself and conflict resolution specialists, a concept in particular associated with work by Cass Sunstein, called incomplete theorization. Sunstein, as a lawyer, is concerned with constitutionalism and how you write such constitutions that are effective when people disagree about so many things. Here is how Sunstein poses the issue. Again, he is talking about constitutions but tell me whether or not incomplete theorization sounds like the primary conundrum for the Israelis and Palestinians.

Incompletely theorized agreements help illuminate an enduring constitutional puzzle: how members of diverse societies can work together in terms of mutual respect amidst intense disagreements about both the right and the good.

People often agree on practices but not on theories. Therefore many problems have to be solved as incompletely theorized agreements. Sunstein continues:

The agreement on particulars is incompletely theorized in the sense that the relevant participants are clear on the practice or the result without agreeing on the most general theory that accounts for it. Often people can agree that a rule—protecting political dissenters, allowing workers to practice their religion—makes sense without entirely agreeing on the foundations of their belief.

Incomplete theorization has the advantage of turning attention away from difficult philosophical issues which are typically a combustible mix of foundational beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Moreover, attention to concrete practices has a better chance of success and acceptance which can likely lead to other areas of agreement as participants practice the habits of agreement.

So, let’s incompletely theorize an issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The division of Jerusalem into municipalities will not be solved by weighty discussions of Jerusalem’s history and who has rights conferred by kings or gods. But East Jerusalem neighborhoods are home to 300,000 Palestinians–and no Jews. The parties can’t wait for philosophical issues to be solved about historic Jerusalem. Separating the neighborhood would reduce the number of West Bank Palestinians subject to direct Israeli rule and remove a serious point of contention. Also, it would lighten Israel’s economic burden. Moving the security fence away from a hostile population, rather than moving people, would certainly be easier and less traumatic. Both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit without agreeing to any kind of philosophical supporting rationale.

Here’s another incompletely theorized condition.

Israel has serious security issues and must remain in control of the “West Bank.” However, Palestinians should have full autonomy as an “unincorporated territory.” Until the Palestinians agree to peace with Israel, they could be welcomed as partners in the Israeli economic system and should be able to fully participate in Israel’s commercial and creative life. Even without statehood, in less than a generation the Palestinians could become more prosperous and prepare one day for peace.

If one thought this through I would expect there are many practicalities that could be achieved without the burden of deeper philosophical rationales.

 

Democracy under Siege: Modern Stresses on the Power of Political Talk

Democracies are rooted in communication and citizen talk is the most fundamental form of that communication. But I have noticed in the last couple of years that talk has become more difficult, more contentious and impatient. I spend a lot of time talking politics but I have noticed increased levels of anger and recalcitrance. I suppose this is all an easy reflection of our national discourse and polarization.

But citizen communication should be treated as a national inheritance. It is still important and too precious to let wither; democratic talk has been called by various communication scholars the “soul of democracy.” Citizen talk is associated with sharpening political opinions, motivating engagement, contributing to social integration, and improving decision making. As Mutz and others have demonstrated, the opportunity for exposure to cross-cutting perspectives is crucial to quality deliberation.

But there is growing evidence that democratic practices such as citizen talk are breaking up with an increase in animosity and retreats to highly circumscribed ideational enclaves. Again, this fractured talk is correlated with similar processes in society; that is, economic inequality has produced more divergent lifestyles and limited exposure to opinions outside a narrow range of preferences. Talk and general social interaction is supposed to transcend and overcome these differences but it is proving too difficult. Talk seems to be losing the battle to establish more integrated cohesion to the muscular forces of anger, tribalism, and general contentiousness.

In an article by Wells et al., in the Journal of Communication (vol. 67, 2017, pages 131-157), they pose the direct research question: “Can talk and its benefits tolerate fierce partisanship and contentiousness…” The authors find that talk struggles against the influence of elite rancor, and everyday communication fails because of simmering historical divisions, resentment, economic crisis, and elites pushing their partisan advantage. You might ask “why doesn’t political talk increase during times of engaged political differences?” Wells et al found that some groups did, in fact, increase their political talk and others decreased. But in either case the increased communication made it difficult to continue when disagreements increased.

Moreover, the increased political tension was responsible for politicizing identities which inserted more subjective and emotional attachment into the discussion which makes it more difficult to compromise and generally consider the side of the other. So you have the interesting conclusion that contentious issues both increase and decrease the politicization of one’s interaction environment such that politics is still pretty invasive.

Social media does not contribute much to the solution because it exacerbates political enclaves. In other words, those on social media are typically like-minded and messages are “preaching to the choir.”

Depressive effects on citizen political interaction are a reflection of social problems that must be addressed. Quality political talk is associated with cultural integration, tolerance, and civic participation. These are not pleasant generalities that simply “sound nice.” They are central to a pluralistic society composed of the politics of difference because it is just that form of communication that manages the politics of difference. Through a combination of new media and cultural cleavages American citizens are less exposed to others, and less capable of the sort of communication that serves both a personal and political culture.

Finally, it’s important to understand that the existential life-world of the individual is different than the larger divides that circulate in the media. There must be an interaction between the individual life-world and the macro social world such that one does not overwhelm the other. For now, the battles between Fox News and MSNBC are defining and damaging the organic democratic culture that emerges from citizen contact.

The NRA is a Domestic Terror Organization

I rarely devote this blog space to domestic political matters. But every once in a while I am just compelled to comment on some absurdity or outrage in our political sphere (Trump has widened this Lane). I have convinced myself that this is a matter related to international terrorism so I’m not too far from my normal concerns which are more international in nature.

I’m talking about how the National Rifle Association (NRA) should be officially designated as a domestic terror organization, listed by the government as a terrorist organization subject to the same treatment as any terrorist group. This argument is not so unique with me. The Daily News is called for the recognition of the NRA is a terrorist organization. They make the argument that the NRA is responsible for the death of many citizens and, interestingly, is equivalent to a state-sponsored organization because of its powerful lobbying, finances, and influence. Guns don’t kill people, our elected officials do. In other words they are not sufficiently engaged in the identification and capture of threats to society in particular limiting gun use and availability. For another article making the case for terrorism look here.

Actually, the NRA is particularly heinous when it comes to who they are responsible for. They are directly implicated in the murder of mothers try to protect their children, families praying together, innocent minorities, young people out for an evening of music, and first-graders learning to read in what they thought was the safety of the classroom.

The president and the NRA assume all responsibility is that of the individual. They believe that guns don’t kill people, crazy people do. They just refuse to accept the data that clearly support the argument that the simple availability of guns increases the likelihood of their use. Just look at the gun data. The United States has close to 300 million guns in circulation and more mass shootings by far than any other country. According to these data the correlation is clear. The only thing that explains the number of mass shootings is the availability of weapons. America is about 4.4% of the world population and has 42% of the guns. A particularly powerful statistic is that the likelihood of getting robbed in London, New York, or Paris is about the same. But the probability of getting killed or shot during that robbery in the United States is 54% higher. This is simply because of the availability of weapons. If I have easy access to a weapon I am simply more likely to use them.

The NRA should take its rightful place on the list of terrorist organizations. They are more of a threat to US citizens than ISIS. Increasingly, gun advocates argue that if more people were armed and legally carrying weapons in public they would be in a better position to protect themselves. So the NRA’s response to too many guns is – more guns! And these people carrying guns and stockpiling automatic weapons  usually have a swagger about them and certainly feel confident in their 2nd amendment rights. But the association of the 2nd amendment with individual constitutionally protected gun  rights is one of the most successful misinterpretations in  history. But we will save that argument for another time.

 

 

 

New Technology and Attacks on Democracy

Free expression, transparent information, and trustworthy and reliable elections are the hallmark of a decent democracy. And although the open and available nature of the Internet is democratizing, it is also easily manipulated in the service of inaccuracies, fake news, and inaccurately represented information. Russia’s full-on assault on American media and democracy is designed to weaken democratic processes and sow confusion. They have engaged in a sophisticated campaign designed to influence the operation and political processes of not only the United States but the Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Western Europe. Their goal is to shake the confidence of democratic institutions, exaggerate differences and divisions amongst groups, and use new technology to underscore a Russian frame and perspective.

This is a form of asymmetric warfare organized around weaker states using their available resources to combat stronger states. Theoretically anyway, it is the same principle as a less powerful ethnic group (e.g. Palestinians, Tamil, Rohingyas, Basques) using terrorist and guerrilla warfare techniques to combat a dominating ethnic group. The United States must now consider these threats as typical and persistent threats to its political existence. And, it is only a matter of time before other countries adopt these techniques and deploy them against other states.

Russia boldly used proxies to set up phony webpages, Facebook accounts, and Twitter messages designed to influence the public discourse surrounding the election between Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as social issues. The perpetrators of these phony web accounts met with little resistance and had their faith in their own hacking skills reinforced. The Russians would find a division in society and then try to exaggerate it for their own purposes. Such instability is very debilitating and contributes to what is most damaging which is a loss of confidence in the electoral process. Few things are more damaging to a democratic system than a widespread belief by participants that elections are not fair. Of course, the Russian goals were not to facilitate rigorous debate but to challenge confidence and maintain social strife. They had ability to manipulate voting patterns and electoral results.

The cybersphere is a perfect environment to operate an anonymous and clandestine project such as this one. Even if they fail to achieve desired results they can still do damage to the confidence and institutions as well as spread distrust and cynicism.

Some answers

First, the electoral process must be reviewed for security breach possibilities with checks and double checks that contain a complete review of the electoral process including access to machines, software, and computer security. This might include the use of paper ballots along with computers to ensure material backup systems.

Second, there needs to be more transparency with respect to funding elections and the nature and integrity of businesses hired to provide electoral services including machines and software.

Third, the tracking of foreign actors and their involvement in US companies should include more monitoring and oversight. This might include attention to various “media buys” and who is supporting them along with an examination of rules and regulations governing foreign control and ownership with respect to financial limitations and elections.

And finally, the detection of deception must be improved. This includes stories containing inaccurate information that seem to be designed to sow discontent and manipulate information. Twitter and Facebook are working on these issues trying to improve their ability to recognize questionable story structures including techniques for “re-informing” the public. Cyber attacks are a new form of threat in an asymmetric conflict that has revealed vulnerability in our democracy. It will require a concerted effort and some thinking “outside the box.”

 

How to Make Friends

Changing the attitudes, beliefs, or values of someone else has always been a central research concern in the social sciences. Theories of social influence, group decision-making, contact, and conflict resolution are all concerned with solving problems or getting one party to change in an effort to redress differences or keep the peace. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations, write about strategies for talking to one another when the subject is anything you find difficult to deal with. This could be political opinions expressed in a newspaper or relational issues between couples concerning gender, equity, or housework.

In my own book, Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, I write about difficult conversations between ethnopolitical groups where ethnicity and religion are implicated and the conflicts are contentious and intense with deep implications for identity and nationalism. So this issue of change or solving problems runs the gamut from mundane micro issues to politically significant macro concerns.

We see this distinction expressed in the realm of politics in the contrast between those with a slow hand and diplomatic sensibilities who search for common ground and invoke a strategy of engagement, compared to those who carry a bigger stick and keep an opponent in check out of fear or raw power. Scholars continue to argue over the basic theory here about whether or not reaching out to opponents and overtures of engagement and mutual reciprocity actually have any effect on adversaries, or whether or not a strong stance forcing adversaries into submission is more effective. This question is even more interesting when posed as an option for dealing with strong autocratic forces that have little history of democratization or facilitative engagement. The oppositional stance differences between Obama and Trump is an example.

But I would argue that the historical record, and the brunt of research efforts, clearly favors a strategy of accommodation rather than intimidation – a strategy of communicative contact and reciprocity. During the last few decades in the United States those with a more confrontational stance have claimed they favor engagement and reciprocity but demand conditions be met first by the other side such as democratization. Telling Iran or some ethnopolitical group they must democratize before the US will engage in respectful reciprocal relations is a grand goal but pretty unattainable. There are reasons to engage the other side without requiring them first to be more democratic.

For example, business relations and interdependent economic and financial exchanges are typically thought to be a form of rational engagement that promotes cooperation and has economic benefits. The standard thinking is that such economic arrangements promote peace and rapprochement, but there are arguments for the other way around that peaceful and cooperative relationships must come first and business exchanges follow. Clearly, a politician like Obama was attacked for referring to such a strategy and called “weak.” In fact, it went further than that because Obama was described as putting the country in jeopardy and subjecting us to disrespect.

But cautious engagement is better than mutual hostility that can escalate at any moment. Surely, cautious engagement requires the participation of both sides and reciprocity and this will take time. These “difficult conversations” must be developed and nurtured along a pathway to peace and their complexities are many. But still, by the standards of history and scholarship it is better than the alternative.

 

The Two-State Solution is the Only Answer? Palestinians Increasingly Say Otherwise

The two-state solution to the Palestinian problem continues to be a hopeful image and a rational solution that benefits everyone. Historically there was considerable popular support for the two -state solution but surprisingly enough it seems to be waning. The two-state solution is now in jeopardy. Mosaic, a magazine of Jewish thought, recently published a thorough article reporting polling results that serve as evidence for what Palestinians actually think of the two-state solution. The most common line of thinking has been that everyone supports the two-state solution but leadership and provocative actions from both sides threaten its possibilities.

And we don’t have to guess Palestinian opinions about two-states because polling the Palestinians is persistent and, according to experts, of high quality. Moreover, a variety of reputable organizations frequently poll the Palestinians.

So what do the Palestinians think of the two-state solution?

When asked a direct question about their support for the two-state solution, over a two-year period (from 2012 to 2014), 52% of the Palestinians supported a two-state solution. That number dropped to just under 50% from 2014 to 2016. The average level of support by Israelis was 59%. Over time that number decreased slightly.

This general question about two states is by itself only minimally of interest but when it is converted into specific policy the results are very interesting. One polling study offered to Palestinians a solution package that was beyond what had ever been endorsed by an Israeli government. Palestinians were presented with a two-state solution in which the state was established in line with 1967 borders, East Jerusalem would be the capital and Palestinians would control the Al-Aqsa mosque, they would be allowed a strong security force, and provisions would be made for refugees. The solution package was considered to be acceptable to Israelis and include a generous response to all key issues.

This hypothetical solution was met with more opponents than supporters. There were more opponents 14 times out of the 16 times the package was presented to the Palestinian public. The deal was rejected about 54% of the time and decreased over time such that an average of 61% opposed the deal. Palestinian opposition intensified when they were presented with specific components of a resolution. They rejected the definition of East Jerusalem as their capital, did not think the proposal for refugees was sufficient, and strongly rejected the requirement that Palestine be a demilitarized state. Finally, only 39% of the Palestinians responded affirmatively to a statement that required the recognition of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

There are other responses to the specific planks of the proposal but the main point as of now is that the Palestinians generally indicate support for two-state solution, but continue to express opposition to the specifics of a generous offer available in the near future. I would add that a number of Palestinians (especially intellectuals) support a one-state or a binational solution, which has never been acceptable to the Israelis or discussed seriously as a political possibility.

But the most troubling finding reported in the Mosaic article is that there has been a regular increase (13% to 18%) in the number of Palestinians who support an “Islamic solution” which calls for a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. This is a position more in line with a “liberation of Palestine” perspective rather than a negotiated political solution. When polls asked Palestinians to make a choice between a single state, or a two-state solution, an unexpected 62% indicate their preference for a Palestinian single state in all of historic Palestine. Subsequent polls found that “reclaiming historic Palestine” was the first choice of 60% of respondents.

This more extreme position does not bode well for negotiations or solutions to problems. It indicates a radicalization that will only further divide the two groups. It represents a rejection of the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and polarizes the discourse by assuming positions that are untenable or considered extreme by the other side. The next post will explore in more detail the implications and the explanations for this liberation preference.

 

 

 

 

US Policy in Israel and Palestine Should Focus on Civil Society

 

Some believe things are quiet in the Middle East but actually they are stagnating. The governance situation in Palestinian territories is getting worse and both Israel and Palestine are facing untenable governing situations. For starters, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority remains limited. And these limitations will eventually affect US policy and interests with the US doing relatively little to influence Palestinian politics.

There is simply no substitute for strong political parties and institutions. Hamas is a terrorist organization that cannot be dealt with and should not be recognized. Then again, if Hamas were a genuine partner in the peace process (something, as of now, difficult to imagine), and they were truly committed to establishing some sort of stability, than they should be part of the process. Fatah, on the other hand, suffers from corruption, lethargy, and a general lack of professionalism. Some of these issues can be addressed by the United States but they also require a political will lacking in the PA.

It’s curious to note that the Palestinian Authority seems to respond more to local values and rhetoric than it does international influences. This limits the role of the United States. The US has negligible influence when it comes to the technical details of Palestinian governance and institutions. This leaves the US doing little more than publicly making statements about deficiencies and problems and subjecting the Palestinians and the Israelis to a discourse of criticism on the international stage. If there were actually consequences of this criticism that it might serve some productive value, but generalized statements criticizing the democratic behavior of the Palestinians or the Israelis seems to have little effect on either.

But as research in the peace and development process indicates, civil society is one of the most important entry points when trying to create new structures and improved relations. Civil society is that level of the polity that includes trade unions, professional associations, educational exchanges, mid-level business activity, and government exchanges. Here, the United States can maintain some influence and viability. It should support NGOs providing services to the public and require the PA to manage civil society effectively. Some NGOs have been controversial in the past with questionable goals and activities indicating that transparency is important.

The US should direct its attention more to working with the legitimacy and effectiveness of Palestinian institutions, especially at the civil society level. The US can help encourage technically skilled reformers and stimulate improved stability and effectiveness. Assistance at this civil society level avoids the ceremonial and political trappings of negotiation among state leaders and still positively influences the institutional development of society. An emphasis on the negotiation communication process at the state level inevitably encounters the stagnation and recalcitrance of Palestinian institutions which makes it even more difficult to initiate new productive directions toward peace and stability. The civil society level makes for interactions that are rationalized through business exchanges and necessary governing processes but still require contact among citizens.

I’m referring here to the Palestinian Authority and the development of its institutions as opposed to the Israelis. Israeli institutions are of course well established within their culture and society but in the future this civil society level will apply equally to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Right now the US is in no position to create powerful conditions for change or improvement of prospects for peace. But they can still be influential in preventing the continued undermining of governance, and the development of the all-important civil society that provides a stable foundation for institutions.

The Kurds and the Jews: A History of Oppression and Unwelcoming Neighborhoods

A few weeks ago I published an article in the Jerusalem Post in support of the Kurds and their quest for independence. You can read that article here. And it remains the case that if you are generally supportive of states with democratic processes and cultures oriented toward mutually tolerant relationships, then you’re in support of the Kurds. Moreover, the Kurds have been good friends to Israel. Last week Prime Minister Netanyahu stated publicly his support for Kurdish independence and the referendum. The Kurds welcome Israel’s support but have remained quiet for fear of antagonizing the Arab world.

In Saturday’s edition of the New York Times there is a story on the relationship between the Kurds and Israel. It is a clear and well stated article explaining the relationship between the Jews and the Kurds, a relationship about which many people don’t understand or are unaware of. The Kurds and the Jews of Israel in particular share a history of oppression and both groups are minorities in an unwelcoming neighborhood. There are about 200,000 Kurdish Jews and a strong Kurdish presence in Israel. Most notably was the assistance from Kurds in helping Jews escape Baghdad in 1969 after a mass hanging of Jews.

Netanyahu’s support for the Kurds and the independence resolution was a gutsy move made in isolation, because most powers in the region including the United Nations and the United States either directly oppose or have reservations about the referendum. The Iraqis oppose it because they don’t want their nation to be broken up; the Americans oppose it for fear that it will interfere with the defeat of the Islamic State and complicate their mission in that area of the world; Iran and Turkey oppose the referendum for fear of stimulating separatist thinking and even potential violence.

But Israel is publicly supportive of the Kurds because Israel needs friends. The Kurds are potentially very useful friends and would be a valuable resource in the region. And to the joy of just about everybody, the Kurds don’t care about the Palestinians. They assume it is Israel’s problem and are willing to be helpful if possible but otherwise just stand aside.

The Kurdish Independence Referendum

On September 25th Kurds will hold a referendum that will not be legally binding but is a vote on whether or not the Kurds should be an independent political entity. The referendum is a payoff for the consolidation of external military successes and help with the fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish efforts to defeat ISIS have won the Kurdish leadership considerable praise and resources. But a cynical interpretation is that the Kurds are at the peak of their popularity and the time to declare independence is now. There have also been numerous reactions to the idea of a referendum. Some see it as a genuine deserving reward for the Kurds, others see it as a move by the old guard to cling to power.

In the end, a strong independent Kurdish state will certainly require help from the United States but also Kurdish attention to their own institutions and political trajectory. The Kurds have much work to do with respect to economic development and ensuring that institutions are a platform for democratic processes. There must also be a shared sense of Kurdish nationhood that unites the young and the old, the different localities, and final discussions about borders.

The referendum is generally a good idea and while it will interfere with the political maneuvers of some states the Kurds have to think about their own political future more than that of others.

 

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