The Palestinians have been politically dominated by two organizations. Fatah is a secular liberation movement that has had the most influence on Palestinian politics. The other group is Hamas and they are an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas became more popular in the 1990s and had a very successful winning election season in 2006. Hamas is violent and has a tense and difficult relationship with Fatah. There have been other political movements but none have been successful. Hamas is governed very poorly in the Gaza Strip and has little confidence from the public. But the public does appreciate Hamas’s aggressive and challenging stance toward Israel.
A poll reported in an article on Palestinian political rejuvenation (available here), which asked participants what party they would choose in a parliamentary vote, indicated that 32.1% of the Palestinians preferred Hamas, 36.9% preferred Fatah and a full 24.1% said none of the above. These data illustrate how “stuck” the Palestinians are. Minor parties have no traction at all and a significant portion of the population is unsatisfied with either of the two major parties.
Progress toward political legitimacy and independence is hindered by the authoritarian nature of both parties. Both parties have the mechanisms of failing political machinery built into their structure. Unfortunately, these mechanisms include control over government institutions, patronage, and the suppression of dissent. Human rights organizations report that both the PA and Hamas have fashioned the politics of failure by creating standard structures of corruption which include unlawful arrest, poor court systems, suppression of expression, and patronage.
One serious problem is that the PA and Hamas define themselves as liberation movements rather than political development movements. Even after all these years, the PA still uses the language of struggle and presents a narrative rooted in oppression and vulnerability. Clearly, oppression and vulnerability are characteristic of the Palestinian political situation but focusing on these things and ignoring all attempts at genuine political reform is the reason for stagnation when it comes to possibilities for new Palestinian politics. Both Hamas and the PA define the occupation as definitionally tied to the Palestinian identity and anything that does not address the occupation directly is misguided or irrelevant. Those Palestinians attempting genuine change (e.g. Salam Fayyad) are quickly marginalized and labeled as stooges of the United States or Israel.
Moreover, the PA cares more about international attention – and the accompanying international condemnation of Israel – than it does about internal reforms. Such international attention would wane if the PA were focused on building institutions and structural change. In fact, progress in those areas is almost discouraged because it would give the impression that the occupation is less important.
Opinion polls in Palestine show support in the public for change but as of now the support has not been converted into political authenticity. Although the international community is sympathetic toward the Palestinians, they too want change. It does not seem like internal political reforms will be a successful platform for a new Palestinian politics. A solution to the problem will require not only outside help but progress on the key contentious issues between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinian leaders are probably correct – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must come first.
I recently returned from five months in Israel where I did many things but also had a chance to refine my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this trip I spent a little more time trying to understand Palestinians – their wishes, goals, mentalities, and political aspirations. Below I say a few things about what I concluded. I know, and one hears this refrain regularly, that the Palestinians do not need one more Western academic, or any Westerner, telling them what to do. But I am going to offer up some observations anyway.
In short, the evidence seems to indicate that the Palestinians have missed opportunities, squandered finances, and generally failed to build institutions and infrastructure. Again, I understand that these are complex issues with complex explanations, and the Israelis are certainly not innocent. Let’s take a look at some specific points that I believe undergird this argument. There is a short informative reading on the state of the Palestinians here.
- The Palestinians have been governed by Fatah and Hamas. Fatah is secular and Hamas is a creation of the Muslim brotherhood. The competition between these two organizations has not served the Palestinians well. Neither Fatah nor Hamas governs in an effective and transparent manner. There has been no emergent collective political ideology and the divide between the two parties is wider than ever.
- Both Fatah and Hamas rely on authoritarian governance which alienates them from large sections of their population. The use of violence, patronage, and general corruption is a conservative influence and makes change difficult.
- The Palestinians have not moved beyond” liberation” as their primary agenda item. The two political parties spend little time on the challenges of governing because liberation from the occupation remains the central animating force. Although this is understandable, it remains the case that alternative narratives or workable pathways to liberation have eluded the Palestinian leadership.
- Related to all of these points, is the failure on the part of the Palestinians to build civil society. There is internal strife and dissatisfaction because basic governing structures don’t work well or exist at all. The world has poured money into Palestinian organization only to have little to show for it. True enough, that Palestinians have been successful at making their case on the world stage and garnering international sympathy. But this has all been at the cost of civil society and internal governing structure.
- Finally, I have come to the conclusion that political will and more attention by the United States is called for. The US must redirect some of its energy and resources toward the Palestinians and help work to develop their legitimacy in the context of their Israeli neighbors. Washington can directly support elements of civil society (schools, trade unions, community governance structures, medical and financial services) and contribute to the empowerment of Palestinians along with organizing them for civil political activity rather than “liberation.”
This week’s Jerusalem Post had a 25 page insert that was a political journal sponsored by the “Women in Green” who are a very conservative grassroots group concerned with advancing the interests of Israel. This is an interesting document and not something you would see in the United States, at least not typically. The entire document – or political journal as it is called – is devoted to the issue of declaring sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. Because the two-state solution is losing favor and fading in the eyes of some, the right wing has seized the moment and is trying to kill off the two-state solution once and for all. Moreover, the election of President Trump has empowered the right wing because he is seen as sympathetic to their issues and the best chance for the United States to be more aggressive in the defense of Israel’s conservative environment. The election of Trump is considered a game changer because he is perceived as willing to find alternatives to the two-state solution and will be “tougher” in his defense of Israel. Note the appointment of Friedman as the ambassador to Israel who is very conservative and pro-settler.
A proposed solution that is receiving increased talk time anyway is the issue of sovereignty. Political sovereignty is when a political authority has power over independent states. That power is established through some sort of enabling law or Constitution. Governments maintain the integrity of the sovereignty relationship and ensure that the administered groups keep their rights and cultural freedoms.
Now there are different types of sovereignty and numerous complexities but we don’t want to send everybody scrambling to find their old political science books. Go here for more on sovereignty. Suffice it to say that Israel would be the primary overseer of a collection of communities that maintain their independence but had limits on citizenship rights, military, and certain other conditions that might damage the standing of the primary sovereign. Here is an outline of the sovereignty plan.
- There would be the establishment of Arab “autonomies” subject to the rule of the Israeli sovereign.
- Security and national issues will be under the control of the State of Israel.
- The autonomies would be bound together in an infrastructure that supports water, electricity, and a host of municipal services.
- Members of the autonomies would be eligible for health benefits, insurance, education, and freedom of movement. This grants the right of permanent resident but not citizenship.
- Martial law will be canceled and normal government services will be returned to civil society.
- The Oslo Accords, which turned out to be unsuccessful, will be canceled.
- The UN refugee organization will be released and refugees will have the right to settle in any autonomy.
- Ultimate responsibility for the protection and maintenance of holy sites will be with the State of Israel. All holy sites will be accessible to believers of all religions.
- No foreign country would have special status over holy sites anywhere in the country.
- The Gaza Strip is part of historical Israel that would ultimately have to become part of the sovereign relationship with Israel.
Suffice it to say that reasonably fulfilling and satisfying relationships can develop under conditions of sovereignty. Still, the success of sovereign relationships is dependent on the history of the relationship between the dominant political authority and the weaker party. Why do those supporting sovereignty believe that the Palestinians will be any more accepting of a sovereign relationship than of outright Israeli control. This conflict has been complex and delicate for a long time. The Palestinians have honed their own consciousness into images of a cohesive collective with all the requirements of nationhood – ethnic identity, religious orientation, national boundaries and borders, and the possibility of a proper functioning political system. The proposal of sovereignty is subject to the same deficiencies of any other proposal – the Palestinians still end up in the weaker position. That’s why a two-state solution remains the only hope for a mature political relationship between Israel and Palestine.
Recently, an acquaintance sent me an article with the inflammatory title “Why Israel Should Not Exist.” My acquaintance sent it eagerly and mentioned how much he was awaiting my response because the article was so trenchant and challenging. You can read the article here. Upon realizing that it came from the publication “Counterpunch” I knew it was going to be pretty left of center but I read the article carefully and gave it its due. What a collection of nonsense and distortions! The article should be an exercise in a journalism class on recognizing bias and manipulating the readers. But let’s take a look at it point by point. Maybe somebody will learn something.
The text is full of clichés and politically loaded language and the author seems to flitter by them so easily I get the impression that they are common and taken for granted in his thinking. Single words or phrases are categories for entire spaces of reality and I can usually tell when someone has organized his reality according to some common clichéish categories. Here are just a few examples: the term “Zionist” in the numerous places below appears with frequency because the author imposes the normal caveat that he is not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist. I will give him this distinction just because it’s important to defend the difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist, but I doubt sometimes that people are really making a distinction. There is clearly anti-Zionism that is a cover for anti-Semitism. But we won’t go there today. The sections below in quotes are taken from the article in question. We start with the author’s conception of Zionism.
- “Zionism is for that sector of the Jewish people that believes it is their God-given right to establish a state of Israel in the holy land at the expense of the Palestinians who lived there for 2000 years” Zionism is about no such thing; it is nothing more than a concern for the care, cultural development, and security of the Jewish people. Zionism says nothing about Palestinians or God-given rights to land. These things happen to emerge but they are not part of actual Zionism. Zionism is philosophically rooted in the principle of self-determination – the same principle applied to Palestinians and other groups.
- “Zionism is a continuation of European colonialism.” The author and his minions better start following these issues a little more carefully. In fact, Israel was one of the first to decolonize the Middle East. The Balfour declaration helped Arab nations escape the colonial clutches of France and the United Kingdom. The Balfour declaration was good for the Arabs. Moreover, there were plenty of states that became colonies or protectorates but only Israel gets accused of being “colonial.” Here’s where you better be careful about claiming your anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. The colonial settler charges are rooted in the ideological denial of Israel’s connection to the land. And to continue if you need more arguments, the term settler colonization is only applicable if the population has no historical or indigenous relationship to the land, which clearly is not the case for the Jews. Calling Israel a settler state is nothing more than name-calling. Anyone who does it is already ideologically grounded and biased and simply interested in attacking Israel. Again, the “I’m anti-Zionist not anti-Semitic claim” gets a little unsteady. American racists always had it explained to them how they didn’t understand their own racism. Why would liberals critical of Israel be less subject to such influences?
- The author loves the phrase “Zionist project.” This is postmodern language for intentional hegemony and criticism. If you refer to it as the “Zionist movement” or “Zionist aspiration” it would not be so devilish sounding.
- Good God, the author quotes Ilan Pappe as an authorative of source. Don’t you realize man that he is the most discredited academic in Israel? The author’s bed table reading must be pretty scary. You might as well quote Chomsky on the American media.
- The source (quoting Pappe) says that Israel destroyed 400 Palestinian villages, massacred thousands of civilians and forcibly displaced almost 1 million Palestinians who ended up in refugee camps. He then uses the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe what the Jews did to the Palestinians. He even invokes the term Holocaust. The author of the article doesn’t even hint that other historians, far many more of them who are more credible, discount all of these numbers. Sure, there were some unfortunate circumstances of war and Israel is not completely innocent but most of the Palestinians fled and there are far fewer documented instances of wrongdoing than in most violent conflicts.
- The claim that the United States has used its veto power to prevent anti-Israel resolutions is a piece of circular reasoning that has nothing to do with the issue. Do you know how easy it is to gather up a few people who will sanction some Israeli United Nations act or support a resolution condemning Israel. All you have to do is go to a few of the Arab delegation and they will gladly condemn Israel. Nobody takes it seriously.
- “Almost half a million Jews live in the illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem despite UN resolutions demanding that they be dismantled” Sorry my friends but the legal status of settlements is just not established. Painful as it is for you, you cannot simply and glibly point to illegal settlements. Nor can the movement of Israelis be regarded as violating the human rights of the occupied individuals. The situation is unlike that of the deportation of Jews to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps. The 1949 Geneva Convention was aimed at preventing in the future what had happened in World War II: the forced transfer of large numbers of Jews by Nazi Germany and associates to the extermination camps. It was never intended to apply to Israeli settlements.
- There is no international law to ban Jews, whether Israelis or otherwise, from settling in the area of the original Palestine Mandate established by the League of Nations. The Mandate clearly says, in Article 6, that the administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage … close settlement by Jews on the lands, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.” Eugene Rostow argued thirty years ago that “until the final status of a particular area is resolved, there is no legal basis for barring Jews from settling there.”
- “There is a disproportionate number of Palestinians killed in this conflict.” Call it what you like, but the Israelis have the right to defend themselves. They have been subjected to terrorism and a host of violent incidents all of which justify response. It’s unfortunate but these things are relational and the behavior of one side is dependent on the behavior of the other. This response is typically viewed as an excuse by those critical of Israel but there’s little more to say – it’s a simple fact.
- I will dispense with much of a response to “apartheid.” Apartheid is a political system that has nothing to do with Israel. Israel has no laws forcing its citizens into residences or legal restrictions. But remember, if he wants to use the word “apartheid” to describe the condition of Israel’s Palestinian Arabs—who enjoy rights denied to many ethnic and religious minorities throughout the Middle East and beyond—so many countries are going to quack that the term is going to lose any meaning. We should reserve “apartheid” for countries that deny an entire ethnic, racial or religious group the right to citizenship or the right to vote. Israel isn’t one of them.
- Finally, the author poses the standard “one state solution”. This is simple enough to respond to because it’s a nonstarter. It would mean the end of the state of Israel and the noble Zionist aspirations to simply find a homeland for the Jews would all be for nothing and make no sense. No Israeli, except in the most extreme case, supports a one state solution. Even if they are not religious or particularly nationalistic in the end they want a state of Israel, devoted in some way to Jewish particularity, to be standing.
I will stop here because there is always no end to these arguments especially when the participants would not recognize the end anyway.
A cultural logic is a constellation of beliefs, behaviors, practices, discursive routines, and communication patterns that are organized in a particular way. This results in a logical consistency and coherence for a group of people who classify themselves as a culture. The logic of one culture may be different than the logic of another, and these different logics make for gaps of indeterminacy. The more distinct the logics of two or more cultures the more alien the other culture seems to be. Cultural logics use scripts, behaviors, and communication practices to coalesce around the theme. So, for example, some authors have identified logics that result in cultures characterized as honor cultures, or dignity cultures, or face cultures. An honor culture values people who respect themselves and are respected by society. Shame is a powerful emotion that calls for retribution and interaction and exchanges in honor cultures have strong reciprocity norms which are potentially competitive and escalating. And increasing differentiation is the consequence of violating reciprocity norms. Insults are particularly pointed in honor cultures because they are challenges to the strength and individuality of the other person. Another cultural logic results in a dignity culture. A dignity culture is committed to the conviction that individuals possess intrinsic value. Each individual is considered to be of intrinsic worth and this worth is not dependent on other people and cannot be taken away from them. A person will behave according to their internal standards
There is a cultural logic that characterizes the Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives. Every aspect of the historical narrative of both sides is catapulted toward polarization on the basis of a cultural logic driven by differentiation, separation, and negative identity which means that each side’s identity includes the negation of the other. From the delegitimization of Judaism and Zionism to the difference between expulsion and the right of return, schismogensis has been the governing logic of response to historical and social issues. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered a prototype of a cultural logic driven by between-group differences and variation. Every comparison typically made between the two groups is the complementary extreme of the other. This is the result of group selection devices that reinforce within-group norms and prevent outside groups from influencing the culture of the other. There are three operational processes here (see Henrich, 2004) that have guaranteed escalating differentiation and continue to do so. These processes are first within culture pressures toward conformity. Palestinians and Israeli Jews, primarily through the military and educational systems, both press normative conformity that contributes to the coherence and stable transmission of norms within the culture. This contributes to incommensurability and makes it difficult to bridge cultures. And, secondly, there are various forms of nonconformist threats that must be confronted. Israel’s definition of itself as a security state justifies punishing within-group deviance as well as sharpening distinctions between groups and legitimizing extreme responses to existential threats. And third, persistent intergroup conflict over resources – both natural and symbolic – sets the two groups in competition with one another and exacerbates between-group social, political, economic, and nationalistic distinctions.
These difficult conflicts continue to suffer from cultural logics that perpetuate the problem. For example, the Israelis and Palestinians continue to experience power imbalance which means that a dominant group (e.g., Israeli Jews) compete with the outgroup for definitions of morality, violence, and peace with one group maintaining more military, educational, and economic resources. Again, power asymmetries cause groups to differentiate and continue the cycle of producing incommensurability. Identity conflicts are a second characteristic of these difficult conflicts and they are not resolved easily or by negotiating about tangible resources. These identity issues are particularly intense and problematic because they are more abstract and psychological in nature and based in human needs. Identity conflicts are especially complex when the sides develop negative identities; that is, when the positive identity of one side such as a Palestinian is by definition the opposite of the other side then resolving these conflicts can only happen through deconstruction of this opposition and the construction of new identities. Third, the differences between the conflicting parties represent high levels of disagreement and polarization. This is typically the result of a lack of productive contact between the two sides which results in stereotypes and misinformation that exacerbates the perception of polarized opinions. Intense emotional issues are another quality of these conflicts. Palestinians, for example, feel humiliated by the West and Israelis in particular. The sides feel victimized, disrespected, and report humiliations that cannot be reconciled very easily. Finally, these ethnopolitical conflicts result in persistent trauma and even intergenerational trauma. Exposure to violence and regular tensions including images of horror and atrocities have traumatic effects on children and spawn long-term psychological problems.
Henrich, J. (2004). Cultural group selection, coevolutionary processes and large-scale cooperation. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 53, 3–35.
There is currently a court case in the United States about to be heard by the Supreme Court pertaining to Menachem Zivotofsky who was born in Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem – Western Jerusalem. As reported in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2014 Menachem’s parents are US citizens but when they went to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to apply for his passport they listed his place of birth as “Israel.” The consular officials said no. The case is currently under consideration and interestingly is a major issue in foreign policy. Let’s explain with a little background first.
Jerusalem from 1517 was part of the Ottoman Empire up until the First World War. It was an international city mostly of interest because of its religious sites traced to the Abrahamic religions. After World War I Jerusalem was part of the British mandate and in 1948 the United Nations partitioned Palestine and Jerusalem was declared a “separate body” with special political status. After the establishment of the State of Israel Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and Israel maintained control in West Jerusalem. Jerusalem was divided for 19 years and after the 1967 war, Israel retook the old city and declared Jerusalem united.
Status of International Law
UN resolution 181 in 1947 declared Jerusalem a “separate entity,” and would be managed on the bases outlined in the United Nations Proposal 181 which concerned the partition of Palestine. Israel has always considered the partition proposal null and void because the Arabs rejected the UN resolution and attacked the new state of Israel. Consequently, separating Jerusalem out as a separate entity was unjustified. Israel was again attacked in 1967 and as result of their victory in the Six-Day War Jerusalem was reunified, or reclaimed by Israelis, as a Jewish city. Since 1967 all residents including Arabs were offered Israeli citizenship, although most of them declined. The Palestinians argue that in violation of United Nations principles Israel acquired land by military means and the unification of Jerusalem was illegal.
Israel in 1980 declared Jerusalem as its eternal capital and made the argument that such claims are rooted in 3000 years of history citing King David, biblical events, the structure of Jewish prayer which turns toward Jerusalem three times a day, as well as the foregrounding of Jerusalem in the thoughts and liturgies of Jews everywhere.
Still, the Palestinian Authority claims all of East Jerusalem including the Temple Mount and maintains that West Jerusalem and its final status can only result from negotiated agreements between the two sides.
So What Is to Become of young Menachem Zivotofsky?
The United States prefers Jerusalem to remain an international city with final status to be the result of negotiations. It does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel according to international law. The United States position is specific in that it supported the partition plan but not UN control of Jerusalem. The US also objected to all unilateral action, including moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, that made decisions for Jerusalem outside the boundaries of negotiated agreements.
US foreign policy became entangled in this issue when Congress passed a law in 2002 that directed the State Department to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to identify “Israel” as their place of birth. This allowed people like Mr. Zivotofsky to self identify. But the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to implement the rule claiming their exclusive powers in foreign policy and avoiding antagonizing the Arab world by maintaining the international standing definition of Jerusalem.
As of now, Jerusalem remains a potentially contentious definitional issue with much of the world automatically associating it with Israel and other parts of the world refusing. It has found its way into a political battle between Congress and the presidency with respect to who is most authoritative when it comes to directing the nation’s foreign affairs. Can the executive branch just ignore Congress, and can Congress direct legislation over the head of the President. These are the matters influencing the Supreme Court decision while Menachem Zivotofsky waits to see where he was born.
We have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.
I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.
Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.
The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.
History As a Lump of Clay
History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.
These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.
Four years ago in 2010 Al Jazeera acquired a set of documents known as “The Palestine Papers.” These were classified documents characterizing behind the scenes comments pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as far back as the Madrid conference and the Oslo agreements in the early 1990s. They included emails, minutes, transcripts, reports, strategy papers, and draft agreements all detailing the US mediated negotiations. The Palestine papers can be accessed in English at this site: The Palestine papers. Moreover, a more detailed analysis of the Palestine papers and the issues discussed below appears in Zayani (2013) in the journal Media, War & Conflict.
Of course, the release of these documents can be and was hailed as a blow for freedom of information, greater exposure to the truth, and a gold mine for scholars. Al Jazeera began by holding the documents closely but then found it too overwhelming to deal with and decided to make them available on a website for all to examine. But what is the main news value of these documents? What information is truly relevant and informative? It was tantalizing to read some memos and examine what were thought to be private opinions, but what are the real political effects?
It turns out that the release of these documents was pretty damaging and just possibly might have set the entire negotiation process back. They are a good example of how media can reorganize relationships can cause changes in the issues. We can see this with respect to issues if we compare the state of negotiations in 2010 to the present. First, in 2010 the Palestinian Authority was trying hard to keep Hamas out of the picture. The Palestinian Authority was trying to minimize Hamas and establish themselves as the dominant Palestinian political unit. This was the preference of the United States and Israel each of which assumed that negotiations would be more middle ground and mainstream without Hamas. There was even documentation representing a covert operation between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority against Hamas and cooperation between the US, Israel, and the Mubarak regime.
The Palestinian Authority was under critical scrutiny and embarrassed by the state of affairs. There were additional revelations about the weak performance of the Palestinian negotiating team and the strength of the Israelis including Palestinian concessions that made them look like they were outmatched by the Israelis and the United States. The Palestinian community felt their pride was eroded and even perhaps their leadership was in an unhealthy collaboration with Israel.
The exposure of these issues has had the effect of hardening the Palestinian position and essentially made negotiations more difficult. The recent formation of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is probably in some way a response to the WikiLeaks documents. Behind the scenes the Palestinians were seeking to marginalize a more extreme group, but the presence of new media that exposes these behind-the-scenes strategies put the Palestinian negotiating team in the untenable position. They have incorporated Hamas into the negotiations, and even though as I argued in an earlier post this might have some salutary effect, it is also possible that it will push the Palestinian Authority into more hardened and extreme positions.
Al Jazeera played an important role in the release of these documents. Some accuse them of making a conscious attempt to embarrass the Palestinians and empowering Hamas. The documents reconfigured the relationship between the Palestinians and other Arab groups by taking backstage behavior and pushing it to the front stage thereby redefining everyone’s role. But then again, this is what media does.
The unity and reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas holds promise for the future. Clearly, we have to take a wait-and-see attitude. But I consider it potentially a turning point in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Israelis reacted negatively to the news and quickly assumed that Hamas would dominate. But let’s consider a few issues.
Hamas and the Theory of Contamination
The argument that this reconciliation will result in something positive is based on the assumption that the PLA will moderate Hamas rather than Hamas “contaminating” the PLA. The theory of contamination is based on the theory of disgust. Briefly, disgust is an evolutionary emotion probably related to knowing what to eat and avoiding food that is bad or contaminated. We always assume that contamination passes from the dirty to the clean and therefore “contaminates” the clean. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, the dirty floor contaminates the clean food. Nobody assumes that cleanliness passes to the dirty and purifies it; the “clean” food does not pass to the dirty floor and make it cleaner.
And so it is psychologically. Things that are considered dirty, harmful, or just plain “bad” are always assumed to contaminate the “good.” A racist will consider his or her neighborhood “contaminated” if a member of an undesirable minority group moves in. Most people assume that Hamas will “contaminate” the PLA. But in the realm of human interaction, in the socio-symbolic world, it is possible to avoid contamination and have influence move in the other direction. The normal theory of contamination would clearly have Hamas contaminating the PLA and making matters worse between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the extension of theories of contamination and disgust into the social world has its limits. It is not inevitable that desirable social processes be contaminated; in fact, contamination as a psychological construct is culturally created. It was learned, and that means it can be unlearned. Let’s hope the PLA can withstand the normal flow of contamination and have a positive influence on the culture of Hamas.
First, a united Palestinian people are going to be more responsive to the peace process. Did anyone ever really think the peace process would be successful with Hamas and Fatah separated and in conflict with one another? Did anyone ever really think a solution to the conflict would include a separate West Bank and Gaza, under separate political entities? The unity of Hamas and Fatah was inevitable. This will be especially true if the two groups unite on some fundamental issues regarding the peace process and international recognition. The United Nations and European Union welcomed the efforts toward reconciliation and the possibility for new dialogue.
Everybody with an opinion on this matter could turn out to be wrong. Two possibilities bound the ends of the continuum. The worst-case scenario is Hamas overtaking the PLA and the government and security services. Hamas maintains its rigidity and continues to call for the destruction of Israel. Hezbollah continues to prosper in Lebanon and the Islamic Brotherhood gains a stronger foothold and provides support for a Hamas driven Palestinian Authority. This scenario will guarantee war, not peace.
The best case scenario, and the one that I think is most likely, is that Hamas is moderated by the PLA and becomes more normally integrated into a Palestinian governing body that realizes the need for certain practicalities. The new Palestinian unity government gains credibility and brings a fresh voice to the peace process. It will take some time for the Palestinian unity government to prove itself to the Israelis. Netanyahu will not go gently into a relationship with Hamas. The Israelis and PLA currently share certain security responsibilities, and it’s hard to imagine continuing this shared security relationship with Hamas. But a Fatah Hamas reconciliation is necessary to a successful peace process. It solves the problem of Israel needing someone to talk to who represents all of the Palestinians.
Hamas is an Islamic militant group and Fatah is a secularist party. The two groups have always opposed one another with respect to tactics and their relationship to Israel. They have separate security systems and there are plenty of stories of Palestinians who are arrested one day by the PLA and the next day by Hamas. But the unity arrangement will strengthen the Palestinians in their quest for a Palestinian state – not two states (Gaza and the West Bank) but one state. This unity agreement could be a new era for the Palestinians.
According to some analysts, it was Hamas who made most of the concessions that enabled the unity agreement. They are perceived as weak and known to have difficulty carrying out legitimate elections. The reconciliation between Hamas and the PLA will present a unified stance for the Palestinians. There is a clever sleight-of-hand operating here also. The United Nations will undoubtedly support a Palestinian state and this will confer legitimacy on Hamas. Hamas will go from a militant Islamist party steeped in violence with extreme political attitudes that are unsustainable in any context, to an internationally recognized political operation that represents the Palestinian people. Although there is an irony to this, it does pressure Hamas to yield to international demands.
The United States and Israel should see this reconciliation as an opportunity. Hopefully, talks can continue and Hamas will find itself in a situation where it must cooperate and engage with United States and Israel. This will include stronger pressures on Hamas to maintain cease fires, eliminate rocket attacks into Israel, and control violence. There’s a good chance that any resultant political platform will be more consistent with the PLA than Hamas. The hope is that Hamas will not contaminate the PLA, but the influence will run in the other direction.
Revised slightly from May 8, 2011.
How Many More Decades Do We Have To Watch This Silly Shuttle Diplomacy between Israel and Palestinians? It doesn’t work!
How much longer do we have to watch an American diplomat shuttle back and forth between Israel and some neighboring country? From Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to John Kerry it’s all the same process. The tennis match image comes to mind and I would use it if it were not such a cliché. I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that it’s all pointless and that comes from somebody who believes in talk. Even though I recognize that talk is slow and there’s nothing magical about it, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself whether it’s all worth it.
When talk fails it is usually for one or a combination of three reasons. One, it’s the wrong kind of talk. Two, the wrong people are talking, or three the structural conditions are interfering. All three are at work in the Israel-Palestine shuttle diplomacy. It’s the wrong kind of talk because the two sides are unprepared to have serious political conversations when they need more authentic mutuality. The wrong people are talking because there should be more conversational work at the civil society and interpersonal levels. The structural conditions could be improved to increase democratic forms of communication, inclusion, and more creative and grassroots routes to problem-solving.
Palestinian supporters often boldly claim that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to bringing greater peace to the region and although this is an exaggeration supporters have been successful at turning the conflict into the symbolic prototype for all the world’s problems. I think about the ugliness in Syria, the savagery of militant groups, rising religious authoritarianism, escalating economic inequality, Iran and the spread of nuclear weapons, and then discover that serious people in Washington want to talk about West Bank Palestinians!
Of course the conflict must be resolved or at least managed into agreement. But the biggest beneficiary of any resolution is going to be Israel. How long can Israel continue to occupy the West Bank? How long can it remain a security state? How long can Israel maintain its successful democracy and market economy if it has to oversee 2 million Palestinians?
There will not be peace between Israelis and Palestinians – real peace when barriers can be removed – until it emerges from democratic impulses born in civil society. When Palestinians demand more of their own rights from their own leadership they will be in the position to demand rights from Israel. America should be supporting Palestinian political infrastructure by working on the economy, improving governance and civil liberties, and expanding business practices that can rationalize relationships and serve as a foundation for future democratic relationships. But the conflict remains intractable and diplomats like Kerry are operating at the wrong levels.
Muslims and the Jews tell two different stories both of which are fueled by media and policy decisions. Israel tells a story of historical oppression and discrimination culminating in the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. Jews feel vulnerable and threatened. Muslims feel disrespected by the West and the victims of media biases that portray them as fundamentalist and inherently backward, not to mention violent and religiously extreme.
These narratives produce tensions between Islam and the West and are decisive. They make for a cultural divide which results in polarization of identity issues, adversarial framing of historical matters, and rejection of any sense of shared responsibility for conflict. US policy and world media circulate these images and messages to the detriment of any sense of complementarity between the two.
In my opinion, there are two things that can happen: the differences between these stories can be emphasized, which will lead to increased intensification leaving the disputants to be trapped inside their own threatened identity. And the macro level of official contact will continue to founder. Or, these narratives can be reframed in order to seek points of convergence where it is possible to formulate cooperation and mutual affinities that direct them away from a “conflict-saturated” reality. Rather than rival narratives, Jews and Muslims can avoid the drift toward polarization and begin to tell a new story, one that affirms a distinctive identity while acknowledging the “other.” I choose this direction.