Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Movement and Stillness

Last week, a close friend of mine published an article in the Carleton Progressive about Barack Obama -- a small portion of which dealt with his position on Israel/Palestine. The thesis of the article is that Obama doesn't have the stones to really go to the mat for progressive principles. With regards to Israel/Palestine, he contrasted Obama's famous remark that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinians, to his more recent demand that the UN unequivocally condemn rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip as evidence of selling out progressivism in favor of...what? Zionism I guess, though I hate it when these are considered to be in opposition.

But I have to say, I find that whole argumentative sequence bizarre. I've noted before that I -- resolute Zionist that I am -- have no serious problem with the "nobody is suffering more" statement. People are acting as though Obama was claiming that the Palestinians are objectively worse than Darfuri Africans. But Obama was speaking in the context of a) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and b) failures of leadership -- nobody suffers more than the Palestinians from the failures of their own leadership. And that's true (as was quipped, the Palestinian leadership "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity"). Tragically, I can't say that nobody would be so rabidly anti-Israel as to think that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is worse than the Sudan's treatment of the denizens of Darfur, because that appears to perfectly characterize the UN (more on them in a minute). But it's clearly not Obama's position.

So, the original statement -- supposedly proof of Obama's bold progressive independence from the clutches of The Israel Lobby (or whatever) -- is perfectly consistent in my mind with mainstream pro-Israel politics and practice. Then, we move to the betrayal: Obama's demand that the UN unequivocally condemn rocket attacks coming out of Gaza.

Knowing my friend, the problem here isn't (I don't think) that the rocket attacks are not important or condemnable. Rather, I suspect his concern is that Obama didn't nod strongly enough towards the suffering of the Gazans. But anyone who even casually observes the UN knows that their problem is not that they're insufficiently attentive to the plight of the Palestinians. The UN is perfectly able and willing to launch an infinite amount of fusillades regarding the horrific Israelis and their bloody imperialist wars of domination. What's missing is any substantive counter-weight -- that Israelis are suffering too, that Palestinian terrorism is a significant issue, a (if not the) primary obstacle to the peace process, and utterly unjustifiable to boot (as opposed to "resisting the occupation"). Criticizing a speaker for being insufficiently worried about Palestinians getting their due account in UN resolutions is like criticizing the NAACP for not showing enough concern about White people's rights in 1935 Mississippi. That isn't the problem -- Jim Crow Mississippi didn't due anything else but concern itself with the rights of White people.

I remember once being in a practice debate round in which the other team ran a plan by which the US would become more "balanced" in its voting on UN resolutions concerning Israel. "More balanced" was left incredibly vague, but I noted that the US already has a well-delineated criteria, the Negroponte Doctrine, determining whether we will support a given UN resolution regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (this was in July of 2002):
For any resolution to go forward, the United States — which has a veto in the 15-nation council — would want it to have the following four elements:

* A strong and explicit condemnation of all terrorism and incitement to terrorism;
* A condemnation by name of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, groups that have claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on Israel;
* An appeal to all parties for a political settlement of the crisis;
* A demand for improvement of the security situation as a condition for any call for a withdrawal of Israeli armed forces to positions they held before the September 2000 start of the al-Aqsa intifada Palestinian uprising in which 1,467 Palestinians and 564 Israelis have died.

Precisely which of those four elements is an unreasonable demand for inclusion? But yet, they consistently fail to be met, so the US consistently vetoes SC resolutions. It is extraordinarily depressing to me that this is considered some sort of capitulation away from progressivism.

So getting back to the original point: Obama really hasn't moved at all. There is no tension between noting that Palestinians suffer greatly in the I/P conflict, particularly from being constantly betrayed by their leadership, and demanding that the UN take a time-out from single-minded blasting of Israel to remember that Jewish lives matter too. Both are crucial insights that all progressive parties need to keep in mind when viewing this conflict.


Anonymous said...

The full text of the Obama memo is here:

It essentially makes three arguments:

1) The UN Security Council should unequivocally condemn rocket attacks against Israeli citizens. I think this is obvious; I do not think the UN thinks this is obvious so I do not fault Obama for saying it.

2) That Palestinians are suffering and that upsets everybody. (dubious)

3) That Israel is simply exercising its "right to respond", has been "forced" to pursue it's current policy in Gaza, and that any statement which does not reflect this "common sense" position is better not made.

The third point, if given a weak reading, could just mean that the UNSC should not contest Israel's right to defend itself. But the reading I think is more accurate is that the UNSC should not contest Israel's current methodology of defending itself, which obviously is controversial (in my opinion, a severe abridgment of human rights, but lets leave it at "controversial"). That Obama remove criticism of Israel's Gaza policy from the table suggests he is not an ally of the Palestinians.

All said, what makes the letter the more dubious to me is that it's addressed to Khalilzad. So your argument about how the UN is pretty good at condemning Israel and doesn't need any help seems less convincing since Khalilzad is quite oppositely situated. Did Obama really think there was a chance Khalilzad would not go to bat for Israel?

My fear is that Obama's decision to make any statement - one which conveniently gets publicized despite ostensibly being a one-on-one communication - was motivated by a desire to appease a particularly hawkish brand of Zionist. The type that would pre-empt any criticism of Israeli policy with the claim that it's hand was "forced" and that any civilian casualties suffered in Palestine must be understood, perhaps regretted, but never truly challenged as necessary or justifiable in pursuit of Israeli security.

Anonymous said...

"A demand for improvement of the security situation as a condition for any call for a withdrawal of Israeli armed forces to positions they held before the September 2000 start of the al-Aqsa intifada Palestinian uprising in which 1,467 Palestinians and 564 Israelis have died."

You don't find that just a little bit silly?

David Schraub said...

I think you're being a bit uncharitable, on two levels:

1) I'm not sure I buy your decision to take the "strong" reading, particularly since the UN(SC, or otherwise) hasn't exactly shown an inclination to be particularly solicitous of Israel's right to defend itself in any way whatsoever -- regardless of whether we're talking about air strikes on terrorists or closing border crossing (it's worth noting that when they open the crossings they're immediately hit by terrorist strikes). So it'd hardly be redundant to demand that the UN take account of that fact, particularly while also emphasizing the need to "minimize any impact on civilians." At best, you don't have any substantive policy objection to anything Obama wrote, you just object to a potentially-existent sub-text about whether a three-paragraph letter is significantly nuanced to maintain the degree of critique you'd like of Israel's Gaza policy -- thin gruel IMO. Even under the strictist reading imaginable, Khalilzad would still be able to urge Israel find a security posture that enabled the opening of border crossing ASAP.

The fact is that Israel's existence is "controversial" (and to many, inherently "a severe abridgement of human rights"). Likewise, the prospect of Israel (I'd argue Jews, but let's stick with Israel) defending themselves is also "controversial" (and often conceptualized as a violation of human rights); and consequently any and all Israeli security tactics and postures will be "controversial" (or "Severe abridgments of human rights").

2) The bit on it being a letter to Khalilzad. While I wouldn't discount the tremendous international pressure on the US to let these sorts of resolutions through, I'll buy that Khalilzad probably would "go to bat" here (if for no other reason than it's a straight-forward application of the Negroponte Doctrine). So to some extent, it's signaling -- albeit not just to Jews. Presidential candidates don't send letters to the Chinese envoy to the UN. We go through our channels to make our public statements. And whatever you think US policy should be in bilateral negotiations with Israel (if this was a letter to our ambassador to Israel, I'd be at least a little more sympathetic), in the forum of the UN our primary concern should be counterbalancing the outrageous anti-Israel bias that runs rampant through Turtle Bay.

PG said...

There's the specific problem in the current situation that the Palestinian territories are ****ing themselves over because of the division between Fatah and Hamas. No government is taking responsibility for what comes out of Gaza. There are two options for Palestinians: 1) have their own government that is responsible for providing for their needs and policing their actions both internally (domestic crime) and externally (cross-border assault, property destruction and murder); or 2) be ruled by Israel. I'd really hoped that the unity government would work and that Palestine would have a coherent, responsible government -- but that's not what's happened.

No one at the UN seems to be offering an alternative to the steps Israel is taking to try to shut down the violence emanating from Gaza. Do they want Israel to take responsibility for Gaza, which would give Israel the authority to march in and do what was necessary to restore order? Do they want Israel to pretend that the Palestinian Territories are governed by Hamas, which apparently is at war with Israel, and which war would authorize Israel to do what was necessary -- within the laws of war -- to win?

The Palestinian Territories have long existed in a twilight zone of quasi-self-government with no actual responsibility for what "militants" do. If these militants act without the Palestinian government's sanction, they should be punished by that government; if they act with approval, they are effectively soldiers engaging in acts of war.

Having said all that, of the four conditions of the Negroponte Doctrine, I actually do think "a condemnation by name of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, groups that have claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on Israel," isn't necessary. The fourth is absolutely necessary -- it is the one with force, because it says X won't happen until Y does. (Though I could wish that Y was a bit more specific; what level of improvement is necessary for withdrawal?) The other three are rhetorical, and I think we need to pick our rhetorical battles carefully.