Category Archives: Political Parties and Elections
The problem of polarization continues and is likely to be the defining political characteristic of contemporary United States. The US populace has been polarized before but it is typically over a single issue. Slavery, for example, in the 19th century. Below is some data from the Pew Foundation on the increasing tendency toward rigid opinions and polarized values.
As the Pew report concluded, the fault is structural; it is not the sort of problem that can be solved by an individual or piece of legislation. Political parties are more ideologically coherent than they’ve been probably at any time since the Civil War. As citizens spend more time talking to those who are like them – which is intensified in the current social media environment – they become more easily reinforced for their particular perspective. The literature by Sunstein and others conclude that this mediated world of interaction with others who hold the same opinion as you do causes those opinions to become rigid and increasingly unmovable. And the dynamic of polarization is increasing. But with the realignment of ideologies that started over the issue of civil rights in the 20th century, ideological purity became a bigger factor in American elections.
Ideological purity is a dangerous form of essentialism. One’s beliefs become so strong, and the sense of ingroup and outgroup become so clarified, that perceptions of the outgroup are assumed to be biologically natural.
The Table above shows that from 1994 to 2014 a larger percent of Republicans became consistently conservative. And a larger percent of Democrats were consistently liberal. The two groups – liberals and conservatives – consistently drifted toward more rigid ideological opinions that do not vary and are less subject to moderation and persuasive influences.
The data reflected in the bar graph above shows that the two parties have increasingly unfavorable attitudes about the other. From 1994 to 2014 the unfavorable attitudes about the other party has more than doubled. I don’t need to reiterate the danger of these data. They make working together and solving problems in any sort of bipartisan way almost impossible.
Watching citizens yell at one another during debates and political discussion has reminded me of something more than the loss of civility. It prompts me to recall the distorted communication that occurs so often during political conversation. These distortions in meaning and argument result from the ingroup mentality of belonging to a particular political party. People cling to their own beliefs as driven by reasoned analysis of the real world while the beliefs of others are the result of ideology, emotions, and biases. We easily divide political rivals into simplistic binary categories: red states or blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Add to this the combustible mix of bloggers, talk radio hosts, and TV pundits and political discourse becomes hot and hostile rather than deliberative and respectful. Actually, labeling oneself as a member of a preferred group (e.g. “I am a conservative” or “I am a Democrat”) is dangerous and results in information distortions.
Party identifications are the result of people categorizing themselves as a member of an ingroup defined by certain characteristics. By categorizing myself as say “a Republican” I adopt characteristics of similar others, and embrace a list of appropriate beliefs and behaviors. I start to speak and behave in ways that I believe are consistent with my membership in this group called “Republicans.” When my group membership is coupled with motivations to enhance my own group’s self esteem, then I will produce favorable judgments and evaluations about my own ingroup, and unfavorable evaluations about outgroups. Thus, as a Republican I would consider myself a patriot and Democrats as socialists. This is a dangerous situation that produces serious errors and failings in political discourse. Let’s examine a few.
One thing that happens with strong group identification is that the social norms of that group become overly influential. If I identify as a “Democrat” then I will be more than usually influenced by how I imagine Democrats think and behave despite the merits of an issue. I will be more influenced by party membership than policy. In one research study Democrats and Republicans were given a policy statement and told that the policy was supported by either a majority of Democrats or Republicans. Subjects in the study disproportionately favored a policy when it was identified with their own political party. This means that political judgment is too influenced by group identification and not sufficiently the results of objective consideration and analysis.
Secondly, being a member of a political party causes partisans to make biased conclusions. People explain and judge political behavior on the basis of their own political worldviews. Hence, a conservative when confronted with someone from poor economic circumstances will easily attribute this to laziness or lack of ability where a liberal will cite unfavorable social circumstances. Again, the explanations for political events should be based on deep consideration of issues and more complexity (many things explain poor economic circumstances), not simply on consistency with my own group’s ideology.
Excessive suspicion and negativity toward politicians is a third bias of political party membership. During the healthcare debate Obama was called a socialist and even likened to Hitler (a strange confluence of political ideologies!). These extreme negative judgments about a politician’s character result when a politician from the other party (the outgroup) presents a position inconsistent with your own group’s position. Under these circumstances there is a tendency to exaggerate differences and attribute personal blame to the other.
Finally, political party favoritism has a strong emotional reaction because partisans are so motivated to favor their own group. For Democrats, their strong negative emotional reaction to George W. Bush diminished their ability to arrive at logical conclusions. If Bush was for something, Democrats were against it.
The healthcare debate, for example, has to be won on its merits. The above problems can be overcome by increased communicative contact with members of the other party and a widening of goals such that people see themselves more interdependently. Proper political communication is difficult and challenging but given the alternative it is a challenge we must meet.
Donald Trump is leading this country into a dark place. Let us remember what Sinclair Lewis said in the 1930s: when fascism comes to America that it will be wrapped in the flag, sing the national anthem, carry a cross and be called, “Americanism”. But I won’t even use the loaded word “fascism.” We can just go down the list of typical qualities associated with the nativism and corruption of justice associated w1ith such political philosophies. Many points in Trump’s “State of the Union” signal a dangerous conservative trend and potential constitutional crisis.
- Powerful and Continuing Nationalism.Trump makes use of patriotic mottos and symbols. Trump’s phrase “make America great again” is the most typical example and seeks to capitalize on the sense of decline in America, a decline that is mostly indefensible..
- Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights.Trump fears enemies and has simplistic categories of either “loyalty” or “disloyalty” and everybody must be fit into one category or the other. And if you are in the disloyal category then your human rights get compromised.
- Identification of Enemies as a Unifying Cause. Trump’s base of supporters are unified over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat which is typically either someone from a different ethnic or ideological group, or some enemy actual or perceived.
- Supremacy of the Military. Soldiers and military service are glamorized. This glamorization is different than paying respect and recognizing sacrifices made by veterans. Trump prefers military people and is in the process of directing massive increases in funding to the military, money that will not be available for health care subsidies.
- Sexism. Need we say much more about this. His crudity with respect to women knows no boundaries.
- Controlled News. His labeling of the news as “fake news” is an attempt to muzzle the press and control the information environment. His effort to delegitimize the most basic sources of information necessary to a democracy is unprecedented.
- Obsession with National Security.Trump uses fear and the threat of criminal immigrants to scare people into stricter immigration laws.
- Religion and Government are Intertwined. Surprisingly, and even though Trump is far from an upright religious person, he has the support of Christian groups partially because of his willingness to blur the line between government and religion.
- Corporate Power is Protected.The industrial and business aristocracy in Trump’s world often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite. Note his tax bill which is more beneficial to the wealthy than the average citizen.
- Labor Power is Suppressed. to corporate greed. He opposes labor unions because they are the only real threat to corporate greed.
- Rampant Cronyism and Corruption. Trump’s appointment of groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability is blatant. He perhaps will not appropriate national treasures but has begun the process of appropriating the legal system (e.g. tax laws) in order to benefit himself.
- Fraudulent Elections. Again, we need to say little more. Talking with the Russians about dirt on Hillary Clinton is about as debased as you can get with respect to election fraud.
Even at the risk of exaggeration, which I prefer to avoid, Trump “bumps up against” fascist qualities rooted in right-wing nativism. His criticism of law enforcement agencies is unprecedented and a potential danger of considerable importance. All the signs were in his State of the Union speech and should be a serious warning about the real “State of the Union.”
It is quite interesting how just a few short months ago we were burying the Republican Party. They were in a state of disarray with a crowd of presidential contenders each of which seem to be more flawed than the next. And Trump was the worst of the bunch. As his momentum grew there were more and more articles and analyses decrying the state of the Republican Party explaining how Trump was going to destroy it. The reliable sensible old guard (Romney, McCain, Bush) were not only abandoning candidates but actively working against them. Romney’s pointed and vitriolic attacks on Trump were shocking coming from the cool businessmen Republican. So what happened? How did one of the worst candidates who is the least prepared and lacks the basic manners for the job get elected?
It turns out that the Republicans can’t take credit for getting Trump elected, but the Democrats can take some blame. And it wasn’t Hillary’s fault either. Her campaign made mistakes but it was not the technical and strategic components of the campaign that made the difference; it was the smug identity politics of the left; it was that sense that if you disagree with me (a good liberal) you must be some simplistic uneducated fool who is racist and sexist. And I am equally guilty.
Liberalism is a political ideology fundamentally concerned with inclusion, rights, and individual freedom. In recent years it has become associated with sharp group identities demanding recognition and a tension between “celebrating differences” and seeking the commonalities that bind us together as a nation. Our history of privatizing ethnicity and religion, and using the overarching American national ideals (democracy, individual rights, etc.) as common factors has served us well. It has meant over the years that our personal identities are not wrapped up in religion and ethnicity but in political philosophy designed to treat each other equally. But as those “rights” became increasingly group identification rights such that groups were clamoring for distinction and difference rather than commonality the differences and cleavages amongst us became the focal point. Consequently, as the title of this essay indicates, public argument and deliberation to solve problems receded into the background as individuals foregrounded their personal identities and private pain.
Liberal activism in the service of identity politics – to the exclusion of other issues – has been making progress along with a smoldering grassroots reaction and intensifying disdain for the other side. Finally, we ran into Trump who was equally as skilled at a self-righteous and aggressive style of discourse and thereby became the voice of the disenchanted. It’s important to underscore that the liberal group agenda is responsible for improving group political rights and battling the racism and discrimination it is so recognized for. The “group rights” agenda is responsible for reshaping civic life and addressing inequities burdening minorities as well as other segments of society. But the evolution of those rights into an arrogant identity politics rather than a unifying political agenda has left us with the contentious group distinctions we are experiencing and its accompanying polarization.
The recent presidential campaign was a despicable display of politics that was almost free of discussion of issues, uncivil, tacky, shallow, and polarizing. It failed its responsibility to our foremost political requirement, which is to use democratic means to shape a society into a fair and governable unit. This of course includes respect for individual group identities but in the future might require more emphasis on those things we need to do together rather than separately.
Have you noticed that it’s the left end of the political spectrum that is now defending the status quo. Obama and Hillary supporters are the establishment and described as a continuation of the past and the mainstream of politics. It’s the Trump supporters and those on the right who are the critical outsiders. They are the ones who want to take down the “establishment” and remove the government. It used to be that the left had an oppositional relationship with society, and the right was mainstream conservatism and the defender of national values; it used to be the left that engaged in cultural terrorism, and the right was associated with maintaining American values and traditions. So, what happened?
I will tell you what happened. The left has made serious progress on its goal of creating the “culturally correct” man. This was accomplished methodologically by the process of criticism of society with the goal of transforming the historical power structure of American society. The angry, violent, and revolutionary voices come more from the Trump camp than the Hillary camp. Even Bernie Sanders’ liberal constituencies quietly and obediently returned to their lives rather than organize and revolutionize. What is this methodological process that creates the “culturally correct” man? It is commonly known as political correctness. The angry American (of which angry white males are the most typical) feels oppressed by political correctness such that he or she is now in a more radicalized oppositional relationship with the political process. It’s the right that is intensely and more violently critical of American society.
Political correctness has its roots in Marxist social theory and the goal of revolutionary transformation. Detailed examination of Marxist criticism is beyond our concerns here but suffice it to say that a whole line of destructive criticism – emanating mainly from the Frankfurt School – challenged the fundamental elements of American society such as patriarchy, capitalism, patriotism, morality, family, gender, and religion. The transformations of the economy and the changing nature of work and manufacturing have combined with cultural criticisms to position a significant segment of the right into a revolutionary stance.
Working class white males, exemplified by what has become known as the typical Trump supporter, have suffered the most from pressures to upset the patriarchal order (e.g. intense demands to change gender reference language; acceptance of same-sex marriage), change the Christianity-capitalism authoritarian structure (ordination of women; the misguided belief in the efficacy of their own individualism), and the steady substitution of white males by women, immigrants, and the government.
The pressure on middle-class white males has been relentless. The culture increasingly speaks a new language that has been stripped of its traditional power and substituted by a neutral and more inclusive vocabulary that clearly does serve the goal of diversity but at the expense of the traditional institutions of authority.
Even though more inclusive culturally sensitive language is a laudable goal, it resonates more with the cosmopolitan liberal than the traditional conservative. Multiculturalism is the true enemy of this group on the right and can be seen as breaking up traditional cultural values, taking jobs, and dismantling American society. Interestingly, this group values rugged individualism and small government but still expect government to provide social safety nets. Many of these working-class white males have roots in the Democratic Party and still retain some party identification but most of them fit into the Pew Research Center political identity category termed “hard-pressed skeptics.” They are low income and express negative attitudes toward immigrants and are distrustful of government. The combination of factors has resulted in a communal rather than ascribed identity makes them a politically critical outside group.
The video below is a dramatization (although not much of one) of “common sense” and part of its infrastructure, namely, “sincerity.” Donald Trump has been trying to capitalize on this deep-seated American value where “common sense” or “plain talk” or “telling it like it is” is glorified as the highest form of discourse. John McCain in 2000 termed his campaign tours as the “Straight Talk Express.” Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” and the rhetorical technicalities of Bernie Sanders continue this effort to convince people that they are authentic and lack any pretenses. The Norman Rockwell image of the common man standing up to speak plainly is burned into our psyches and is an iconic image of communicative authenticity.
Well, I’m here to point out the dangers and the potential damage of this rhetorical shell game called “straight talk.” Trump is the worst perpetrator of this myth and he is successfully fooling millions into believing he is actually worth listening to. The assumption that one is “telling it like it is” or doing nothing but “talking straight” is a dangerous myth that weakens the quality of decision-making and directs attention away from substantive issues. Of course, for Trump directing attention away from substantive issues is just the point. Since he does not know anything about foreign policy, governance, or macroeconomics he has to redirect the conversation. Thus, he has spent his time trying to convince the populace that he is “sincere”.
Political communication is organized around language and symbols of various types so it is particularly important that we attend to words, their meaning, and how they are used. Otherwise we are confused about the state of political discourse and are likely to come to poor decisions. The myth of straight talk directs attention to a preferred ethical stance related to sincerity rather than the quality of reasoning. Sincerity is, of course, important because we do not want to believe our leaders or communicative partners are lying or manipulating us. But sincerity doesn’t have anything to do with the quality or truth value of what we are saying. You can “sincerely” say something stupid and inaccurate.
But it gets worse. Performing sincerity is designed to convince the listener that the source of the message is not only being truthful but also complete. The implication is that everything of importance and relevance is being said and nothing is left out. The speaker is providing all relevant information and nothing else is pertinent. This blunts the listener’s responsibility to pursue additional information. So when Trump says, “the economy is in terrible shape” (which it certainly and clearly is not) he wants you to accept that statement on the basis of his sincerity and not facts.
And it gets worse again. Convincing someone you are being sincere and speaking “straight” is designed to relieve the source of the message of any further responsibilities. The implication is you no longer need to inquire any further or challenge anything I have to say because I have “laid it all out.” It’s a way of saying a speaker is not responsible for what he says, and thereby sealing him from criticism, because he has fulfilled his responsibilities.
More than a few times I’ve heard people whom I know can barely pay their bills characterize the billionaire narcissist Trump as “telling it like it is” and a “man of the people.” To describe Donald Trump as “like the average guy” – meaning a sincere absence of artifice and symbolic trickery – means you have been thoroughly co-opted by the candidate’s studied sincerity.
Language and symbols are central to political communication, but so is critical inquiry. If leaders and political figures are going to be held responsible for their words, which is crucial to the democratic political process, then the capacities of the subject population must not be limited; it must be possible for them to interrogate leaders and satisfy truth challenges. Trump has skillfully convinced many to substitute his calculated sincerity for thoughtful critical inquiry. This can be dangerous and we have seen historical precedents for this danger.
The Republicans have lied so systematically and pervasively that they now have created a new lying monster and it is loose in the streets and no one seems to be able to capture him. It’s Frankentrump. The fact checking websites are ablaze with Trump’s lies. Of course, no one expected Frankentrump to last this long, no one thought the little monster was anything other than annoying and while he might terrorize the streets for a few days he was mostly entertainment value.
But it turns out that the monster Frankentrump has escaped from the laboratory and is staying alive by continuing to terrorize the streets with even more lies and unsubstantiated statements. In fact, Frankentrump is moving into the mainstream population. The village elders in the GOP are worried because they are losing control of him. And, he is upsetting the GOP establishment because his lies and misinformation are not being corrected properly which means this monstrosity continues to feed, grow, and is difficult to contain. How was Frankentrump created?
Frankentrump is the monster that was born of three maniacal mothers all related to the GOP. It’s common enough and facile to say that all politicians lie or that both Democrats and Republicans manipulate information but it does not mean that the two parties do it the same way or have equal skill. The Republicans are far more skilled at lying than the Democrats and they have now created this beast slouching toward the presidency.
Frankentrump’s three mothers are (a) the Republican reality bubble created by their own system of media ownership and think tanks, (b) the era of “post-truth politics,” and (c) new media. You can read more about Trump and the media here.
(a). It’s fairly common knowledge that in the last decades the GOP has successfully created think tanks, media outlets (Fox News), cable programs, talk shows, and publication opportunities all designed to perpetuate a conservative agenda. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except in the case of the GOP it has produced a toxic side effect which is that so many GOP candidates live in a bubble that is disconnected from reality. They have distorted the truth so frequently and so aggressively (e.g., Obama is a Muslim, Obama is not a citizen, veterans Swift-Boating Kerry, weapons of mass destruction, the Clintons killed Vince Foster) that they live in an increasingly insular world. Just look at this list of GOP presidential candidates – listen to how people talk about them as crazy, or scary, or embarrassing – and tell me they are not little monsters challenging conventions of evidence and reasoning.
(b). Post-truth politics is the fact that voters use crude heuristics to assess legislative proposals. This runs somewhat counter to the idealized Enlightenment view which to gather facts, draw conclusions, create policy on the basis of those conclusions, and implement. Post-truth thinkers identify with a group, adopt the position of that group, and then do nothing but seek confirmatory information. The Republicans have been particularly effective at finding heuristics. Every Democratic proposal is met with an unpleasant group identification. The proposal is socialism, or weak liberalism, or class warfare, etc. You can read more about post-truth thinking here.
(c). There is a loss of credibility and traditional media. The era when journalists were informed and asked tough questions and pointed questions designed to inform the public is slipping away. There is so much new media and user generated content that the power of the media has been drained in this sense. There are so many opportunities for expression that no one credible and respectable source can dominate the narrative. And most importantly perhaps is the strategy of simply accusing the other side of something outrageous, knowing it is false, but walking away from the accusation over time because the damage is done even though the accusation is false or constructed. Hence, Hillary Clinton is accused of negligence in Benghazi or inappropriately using a server in the State Department. These are non-issues that are blown way out of proportion and the goal is simply to make the accusation and damage the other person casting care about facts or truth to the wind.
And so the newest incarnation of this entire poison cocktail is the monster known as Frankentrump. The party elders have lit their torches and are trying to chase the monster from the village, but as of now they can’t catch him.
The “guide to parties” link is a clear guide to Israeili political parties and their position in Israeli politics. Click on Guide to parties. It is possible to see how Israel has moved to the center a little and the public is not as right wing as the world thinks. The “guide to parties” is a good and clear introduction to the political parties in Israel. It is also reproduced on my Facebook page. Of course, the surprising winner in the 2013 Israeli elections was the political party termed “yesh atid” (there is a future) headed by a newcomer to the Israeli politics Yair Lapid. Some background on Lapid is here: Yair Lapid background here. His victory was surprising to everyone and it will be interesting to watch him develop, or not, into a political leader. Lapid is considered a lightweight by many and as you can see from the background story he is currently fairly unprepared for serious national leadership.
The graph below shows the political blocs in Israel and their relative power in the new 19 Knesset. Netanyahu did not do as well as people expected and in general the Knesset moved to the center. Israelis have spoken and they are concerned with the right wing’s recalcitrant positions with respect to the peace process and settlers. One should not overstate Netanyahu’s loss. He will remain the most powerful person in the government and holds a slim majority of seats. But there will be more moderate voices and Netanyahu will now have to include and deal with political pressures from the center. The answer to Israel’s most basic problem, their relationship with the Palestinians, does not lie in the discourse of the far right. For the last few years the confidence and even arrogance of the settlers has been bolstered. But this election took them down a notch. Here are a few insights and suspicions I have about what will happen after the gritty work of forming a coalition is complete:
First, Netanyahu will try to form a stable coalition that will not fall apart if one group leaves the governing coalition. Pressure to do something about illegal settlements would cause Bayit Yehudi and its leader Naftali Bennett to bolt the coalition under such circumstances. The entire right wing bloc (see chart )is weaker than in the past and will not get its way very easily. Some of the power of the right-wing blocs will be redeployed to left of center Yesh Atid.
Second, the success of Lapid and Yesh Atid will be fascinating to watch and potentially important. Lapid has been clever so far and avoided alliances that might have hurt him. I spoke with some Israeli friends who think that Lapid will sell out to Netanyahu quickly and easily , and others who think he will remain more independent. In either case, he is in a position to form a powerful center bloc that can mediate some of the more conservative successes of the past. Lapid truly appeals to the Israeli center and is in a position to be very influential.
Third, the Arab parties continued to be a puzzle. Their turnout is low and their influence is less than it should be. If they were more engaged in the political process and had some increased respect for Israel’s democracy they would get more from their government. Of course, the Israeli right concludes that they are oppositional for a reason, which is to contribute to the failure of the political system and Israel in general.
Still, actual change will be slight. Netanyahu will form his third government and the coalition will be reasonably close to what it already is. We will have to keep our eye on Netanyahu to see whether he pivots toward the center or keeps his conservative coalition and moderates some of his positions. My guess is that there will not be much new under the sun.
Just in Final Results here.
One of the least defensible arguments levied against Barack Obama is that he is weak on Israel and does not properly support the security of Israel. This is simply an indefensible position. Essentially the Republican attack machine has made it its business to distort Obama’s record with respect to Israel in an effort to capture Jewish voters. As usual, the strategy has been to take Obama’s recognition of complexity, diplomacy, and slightly more complete understanding of the issues and turn it into a weakness. I grant you that Obama talks about Israel and the Middle East with greater nuance and understanding of what it will really take to solve problems but this does not detract from his support for Israel. He recognizes that Israel is essentially a mirror of the United States and, of course, the importance of security issues for Israel. Those who question Obama simply have to look at the record. Some months ago Obama said that “the United States will always have Israel’s back” and he meant it. I cite just some of the evidence below for how Obama has operationalized his support for Israel.
Apparently, those questioning Obama support for Israel missed the signing ceremony last week of the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act. This was a bill reaffirming the special relationship between United States and Israel and, more importantly, ensuring that Israel has all the necessary weapons and assistance to protect itself. The Enhanced Security Cooperation Act extends loan guarantees to Israel, boosts Israel’s credit rating, and authorizes the sale of $1.6 billion in US weapons available whenever needed. Moreover the law requires that Israel maintain its military superiority in the region and affirms US commitment to defend Israel in the United Nations Security Council.
Obama’s support for a two state solution, consistent with comments made by Netanyahu, is in line with the most prevalent thinking about how to resolve the problem with the Palestinians and maintain the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. The two state solution is increasingly problematic and difficult to impose but it represents strong support for the ethnoreligious core of the Israeli state.
The debilitating sanctions against Iran, who at this time represents the most direct threat to the State of Israel, are mostly the work of President Obama. Iran is now cut off from financial markets, cannot land in many airports around the world, and has oil sales that are a trickle compared to the previous flows. Obama has built an international coalition and stood on the world stage in defense of Israel’s security needs.
Obama’s presidential leadership and staff challenged the international community and prevented the statehood move by the Palestinians in the United Nations. This represented the correct argument that Palestinian statehood should be the result of negotiations between Israel and Palestine, that the establishment of the state through procedures separate from the political realities in which it is embedded would not be recognized by the other nor considered legitimate.
The Obama administration challenged the discredited Goldstone Report which was noteworthy in its biases against Israel and partially responsible for its author distancing himself from his own report. Obama stated clearly that Israel had a right to defend itself when Israel was criticized for its defensive actions off its coast.
It took tremendous courage for Obama to confront the Arab League in Cairo in 2009 and unabashedly declare US support for Israel. Obama told them our support for Israel was steadfast. Expressing some well-placed defensible criticism of Israel (e.g. with respect to the West Bank) should be viewed as part of our support for Israel and its future state; it is certainly no sign of weakness.
A variety of strong Israel supporters, Zionists, and political leaders, from Edgar Bronfman to Ehud Barack call Obama a friend and the leader who has deepened and strengthened the relationship between United States and Israel.
Israel is constantly plagued and harassed by terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and Obama supported Israel’s refusal to negotiate with such groups by announcing that “no country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.” Israel’s Dome Missile-Defense System was developed in cooperation with United States and is effective for intercepting Hamas and Hezbollah rockets. It is a security system received during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Obama is a thoughtful and decisive leader who recognizes the importance and cultural resonance of Israel. The argument that he insufficiently supports Israel simply does not hold water. The State of Israel is stronger and more secure today because of Barack Obama.
In May and June of 2011 I wrote about the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The two sides have been jockeying for political positions for the last few months and have not been able to agree on a structure for the new unity government. But just last week the two sides broke the political impasse and agreed to make Abbas that the head of the proposed unity government, a government that tries to join the secular Fatah party with the Islamist Hamas party. Abbas will be both president and prime minister and the current Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will move on because he is so disliked by Hamas who consider him to be far too pro-Western. There is much work to be done yet before these two groups actually reconcile or form what might be legitimately called a unity government, because these two groups have a history of disliking each other pretty intensely.
But a more intriguing question is “what should the role of Israel be or the attitude of Israel be about the proposed unity government?” Publicly, Israel holds its nose at the whole thing. They consider Hamas a terrorist organization and will have nothing to do with them. Netanyahu is on record as opposing the formation of a government reconciling Fatah and Hamas. In June of 2011 I wrote the opposite, that such a reconciliation might be a good thing because Hamas will be forced to moderate itself. Some certainly considered my position naïve but I will hold my ground by maintaining that no progress cannot be made without unity between Fatah and Hamas and without Hamas doing its share of moderating.
The received Israeli position is that Hamas is a radical movement guided by an ideology directed toward the elimination of Israel. Moreover, inclusion of Hamas in any negotiations would simply make it easier for them to reject a proposed resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is also fear that rather than Hamas moderate itself, Hamas will bore itself into the Palestinian authority and contaminate its ideology. If this happens there has been lots of saber rattling about what damage this will cause to the Palestinian Authority. But such damage will be minimal because there is no peace process anyway, and the maintenance of the Palestinian Authority is in the interest of both Israel and the United States.
There are some very good hard-core reasons to deal with Hamas: Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and if you want to do business in the Gaza Strip, if you want to sign agreements regulating political behavior, then you must do business with Hamas. Too, there is a good chance that the “Arab spring” will help usher in Muslim political parties and consequently enhance Hamas’s power. As more countries integrate Muslim political parties into the governing body, the more groups like Hamas take on legitimacy. Egypt has already taken a softer attitude toward Hamas and this is assumed to be the result of successful elections for the Muslim Brotherhood. Any movement towards solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to be gradual and include partial and limited agreements. A reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah will more than likely facilitate a gradual process, where small and limited agreements can flourish, rather than hinder conflict resolution. A unity government encourages progress – small as it may be – that does not require Hamas at this point to recognize Israel, nor Israel Hamas.
Increasingly analysts and pundits have argued that engaging Hamas will have the desired moderating effect. It will encourage moderates on each side and stimulate more debate. But Israel remains a problem, as does Hamas, because it still refuses to deal with Hamas. And this might be a particularly difficult problem because of Netanyahu who seems bent on preventing a two state solution and can use the recognition of Hamas to his advantage. This plays directly into the hands of the Palestinians who believe that Israel’s rejection of unity between Hamas and Fatah is part of a grander plan to prevent the two state solution.
Unity is still far off. And the loss of Mr. Fayyed is considerable because he was more oriented toward Western values. But a shift in the center of gravity for the Palestinians is coming. Let’s hope the shift is in the right direction.