Archive | July, 2014

Hi, my name is Benjamin and this is why Palestinians have to die.*

28 Jul

Hi, my name is Benjamin and I am a political bruiser. Israeli politics are tough and I am the toughest of the tough. Don’t get me wrong: I am a nice guy, but you have to be tough to survive. The past few years have been very tough: I have to work very hard to keep together a coalition containing quite a few nutters; there have been cost of living protests, and scandal is never far away. Just don’t mention my current wife and her shouting at the household staff. And her spending.

Generally though things are good. The economy is going well. Obama may not be the lap dog I want, but I can handle him. John Kerry comes over every few months and talks about ‘peace’ and we just laugh at him. In fact I love it when he comes over to announce talks – we just use that as a springboard to announce a new settlement building programme and make the Palestinians accept it as a preconditions for talks. More talks, more settlements – it’s a fantastic strategy. The Europeans are useless but we have access to their economy and that is all we need. Thank God there is no democracy anymore in Egypt (that was pretty scary), and those Turks have enough on their own plate so they need not worry about anything else. The situation in Syria suits me just fine. And Tony Blair – he is the best. He’ll do anything for that burial plot on the Mount of Olives.

But most of all, the Palestinians are brilliant! They make my day – everyday. Hamas are the most wonderful useful idiots. They fire a few rockets now and again, but the rockets almost never kill any of our own people. Thanks to those rockets, we have the perfect excuse to knock the shit out of the Palestinians every few years, while generally keeping them down and out. Their heads should be one inch above the water – no more.

I do not dislike Palestinians. I have nothing against them – except that they want rights and make noise. But they are incredibly useful. They and their pathetic rockets allow me to continue my political narrative and stay in this nice job. They allow me to get behind the Army, and to show the Americans that we have our backs to the wall. It doesn’t take much to convince the Americans to give us more cash and arms. The Israeli public are fickle. They need a project, and the project is securing the survival of the state. They probably know it is bullshit (we have won long ago), but they love it: support our sons and daughters in the IDF; we are a tiny country surrounded by hostile neighbours; we need to stand up for ourselves; we have an expanding population to accommodate; we are a special people. I am bored with it myself, but the people love it.

Every few years we bash the Palestinians, kill a thousand of them and hurt Hamas. But we must be careful not to kill off Hamas. We need them (same with Hezbollah and Iran – we need them too). It is not my fault. It is this stupid political system we have. I cannot be seen to be weak (look what happened to poor old Olmert). Instead, I have to mobilise people, tell them that those crazy Palestinians are terrorists and want to kill them, and generally stir things up. But it is win-win-win – for us. The more those European liberals criticize us, the more we can use this ‘backs to the wall’ narrative. Accuse the Europeans of anti-Semitism and they shut up. The more the Palestinians fight back, the more we can bash them and call them terrorists. The more the Americans say ‘something must be done’, the more we can ask them for.

So life is good. I may have to kill hundreds of Palestinians, but it keeps me in a job. It is the system that kills them, not me. They are collateral damage. I just deepen my voice, look serious, sound sententious and talk about Israel’s security. If Palestinians have to die – so be it. My successor will understand. It is more or less cost free. Yes, we take a few casualties, but we need to do that to keep the narrative going. Anyway they take many more casualties so we can always say that we won.

Yours truly,
Benjamin

* Fiction, as not told to Roger Mac Ginty

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Why I will be voting YES in the Scottish independence referendum

23 Jul

Because government should be as close to people as possible.

Because I believe in a written constitution where I can see my rights.

Because I believe the National Health Service and the Welfare State will be better protected.

Because I believe in free Higher Education (it was good enough for a cabinet of Tory millionaires so it is good enough for you and me).

Because Scotland can be plural, inclusive and welcoming to minorities.

Because the debate on Scottish independence is entirely peaceful.

Because an independent Scotland would not have nuclear weapons.

Because the current constitutional settlement is broken.

Because London-based parties really don’t give a stuff about you or me.

Because I simply don’t believe that the sky will fall in if there is independence (sorry Gordon Brown but you are wrong).

Because there is less likelihood of becoming embroiled in stupid unwinnable overseas wars.

Because I will no longer have to listen to a British Foreign Minister chiding Palestinian ‘terrorists’ while Israel kills hundreds of Palestinians.

Of course, I am not so naïve to believe that the sun will shine every day – this is Scotland after all. But I am confident that this is not the nationalism of violence and exclusion. Instead it is chance to re-calibrate a series of relationships between citizens, and between citizens and government. It is a chance to be open, plural and progressive.

Is it time to question Israel’s right to existence?

15 Jul

This is not some sort of Ahmadinejad-style rant. This blog is not going to advocate driving anyone into the sea. It is hugely aware of the sensitivity and symbolism associated with the Jewish peoples having a ‘homeland’ – especially after the history of persecution they have experienced. It is also aware that recognition of Israel has long been a totemic precondition for Israeli participation in negotiations with its enemies.

At the same time though, it is impossible not to be aware that the existence of Israel – as currently constituted – means misery, death, humiliation, and poverty for many others. As discussed in a previous blogpost, Israel is structurally given to conflict. The veneration of militarism in its political culture, a rising right-wing, a cowed peace movement, a massive military subvention from the US and a political economy of conflict all mean that Israel finds it much easier to maintain its ‘war’ with Palestinians than to investigate serious and meaningful peace.

Just by existing, Israel costs lives

This leads to the arresting question that serves as the title of this blog piece: Is it time to ask about Israel’s right to exist? The question is posed on the assumption that just by ticking over, just by existing, Israel depends on the misery and death of others. It sees its security in existential, zero-sum terms. As a result, it imprisons thousands of Palestinians, and subjects the Palestinian population to systematised degradations worthy of any apartheid system. Every few years it bashes Gaza. Every few years it invades Lebanon. Every few months it annexes more Palestinian territory. It is a system predicated on an exclusive binary worldview in which one group of people are privileged over others purely on the basis of their perceived ethnic origin. It is able to act as the regional bully because of the diplomatic, economic and protection given to it by other states.

The simple equation is that the existence of Israel costs many lives, and spells misery for many more. Is there another way?

Israel, like other states, has a right to exist. But it is worth asking if it has a right to exist in its current formulation? The current formulation is deeply dysfunctional – not only for the obvious victims of Israeli state violence, but also for many Israelis too, and for the wider world. The right to statehood should not be a carte blanche for the unfettered use of power politics. It should come with (and often does in the letter of the law) responsibilities to those within its territories, and those in the neighbourhood too. Israel has very clearly failed, and is systemically programmed to fail, this responsibility test. In its current formulation it cannot be a good neighbour. And it is not going to change any time soon meaning that we will see other upsurges in conflict in coming years, along with the permanent grinding down of Palestinians.

A rough neighbourhood

Of course, we cannot see Israel in isolation of its neighbours, and the wider international system that underpins Israel’s war system. Israel exists in a rough neighbourhood. Egypt is a military dictatorship (something that suits Israel). Lebanon is a sectarian tinderbox. Jordan’s squalid monarchy cares for little other than its own survival. Syria’s continued civil war defies description. And that is only Israel’s near neighbours. The wider region is full of regimes that are strangers to human rights, democracy and tolerance. So any response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must also address the region. Large-scale map-redrawing exercises have a poor history; indeed much of the current configuration and woes of the Middle East stem from just such an exercise. And map-redrawing begs all sorts of questions: By whom? On what basis? Is it permanent? What if demographics change?

Any response to the Israeli war system must realise that this is a deeply dysfunctional region with vested interests in Tel Aviv, Cairo, Damascus and Amman supportive of more of the same. Meaningful change would mean big losers among the kleptocrats, clientelists and militarists in these capitals. But given that none of them are interested in democracy, emancipation and listening to people then they should not be taken seriously. Their legitimacy comes from might.

What can be done?

If the existence of Israel in its current formulation is the problem, what can be done about it? An initial answer is to say ‘Very little’. Israel holds all the cards. The costs of standing up against Israel are high, especially as it plays the ‘anti-Semitism’ card as a default, and uses violence first and doesn’t bother to ask questions later. But sometimes the activities of people, institutions and states are unacceptable. Israel’s behaviour has been, and is, unacceptable. There is a substantial transnational, and growing, civil society campaign against Israel’s bullying behaviour towards Palestinians and its neighbours. The failure of this movement, however, has been to convince those states that constitute ‘the international community’ to overcome their support for Israel. If ‘the international community’ (a self-appointed group of western states and the international organisations they dominate) identifies Israel as part of the problem then something will be done about it. As a result, it seems that the BDS and other anti-Israeli apartheid protest movements need to refocus their efforts not on Israel but on their own governments. Israel is largely immune from what it likes to dismiss as ‘the haters’. Israel’s unpunished 2010 murder of peace activists sailing towards Gaza tells us all we need to know about its attitude towards civil society. But western governments are not quite as immune, especially European governments. By attempting to mainstream the Israeli-Palestinian issue in European national politics, governments and the EU would be forced to take the issue seriously. An upsurge in interest every few years when there is yet another crisis is not enough. The problem is structural and requires a long-term, permanent response. Otherwise it will just repeat itself every few years.

The movement against South Africa’s apartheid did, eventually, gain popularity and took root in almost every aspect of life in the UK, Ireland and other European countries. Banking, shopping, holiday destinations, popular music and sport all became embroiled in the apartheid controversy. People talked about apartheid in streets, workplaces and students’ unions. The anti-apartheid movement was peaceful and legitimate. It is worth repeating that: peaceful and legitimate. So many foreign policy responses reinforce Israel’s war system and derive their legitimacy from an inter-state stitch-up rather than popular endorsement.

A reinvigorated Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions strategy and a host of other peaceful acts can have an effect on western governments’ support for Israel. In an age of social media and fast paced consumer and market intelligence, the economic effects of boycotts will probably be reasonably minimal. The bigger effect would be in preventive action by companies as they react swiftly to protect their market share. And as we know western governments and political parties listen to the corporate world. For real change to happen in the relationship between Israel and Palestine, action has to occur in towns and cities across Europe. It has to be reflected in how we shop, consume, save, invest and interact with our politicians and institutions. Governments under sustained public pressure do act (sometimes).

Otherwise, we are condemned to see Israel bash Gaza in 2016, 2019, 2021, 2024 …..

Should we ever use the word ‘peace’ in relation to Israel-Palestine?

7 Jul

With regret the answer seems to be no, or at least, not very often. This is not because Israelis and Palestinians are somehow naturally given to violence, or that they are incapable of tolerance and justice. Instead it is due to deep structural factors that militate against any serious moves towards peace. By peace I mean efforts to work out a long-term accommodation between the peoples, identities, claims and aspirations of the region. I do not mean short-term ceasefires brokered by the Egyptian junta’s military intelligence between Israel and Hamas. Nor do I mean the utterly pointless spasmodic attempts by successive US Secretaries of State to ‘jumpstart’ the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. That process does not exist. There is more chance of jumpstarting a melon.

The Israeli state is just not designed for peace

So what are these structural factors? First and foremost we must look at the nature of the Israeli state. It is structured and operated in such a way that means that a just accommodation with Palestinians is an irrational goal. This is not an Israel-bashing exercise. Israel is culpable of mass human rights abuses and is a regional bully, but this blog posting wants to look beyond that to examine the structural factors that sustain conflict and make genuine reconciliation a near impossibility. The Israeli state is a war system. It is a national security state with enormous vested interests in the perpetuation of its conflict. It has an existential narrative (“Israel’s very survival is at risk”) that gives it a raison d’etre for a permanent war-footing (whether this existential narrative has basis in fact is a very different matter). It has a $16bn annual defence budget, a political culture that venerates military ‘heroics’, national service, and an enormous number of jobs, mortgages, careers and livelihoods bound up in the security sector. It has a thriving business of selling arms and expertise to other repressive states. The United States pays about a quarter of Israel’s defence budget.

Second, Israel has created facts on the ground that mean that there are few incentives to talk to Palestinians. It has physically withdrawn from its most vulnerable colony: Gaza. It has built its separation wall to more or less eliminate suicide bombings. It controls virtually everything in the Palestinian Authority: arresting elected politicians at will, controlling the budget, and the water and electric supply. It has made sure that the Palestinian Authority has no defensive or offensive capability: the PA’s main role is to police militants. It has fractured remaining Palestinians lands to make a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible. It has immiserated Palestinians: 43 percent of men in Gaza are unemployed. The United States will take Israel’s side every time, and on every issue. Arab states have no love for the Palestinians. Given that Israel holds the upper hand, why should it talk to Palestinians? There is absolutely nothing in it for Israelis.

Third, many Israelis are prosperous. Certainly there have been cost of living protests, and poverty is especially acute among the incoming population, many of whom are Eritreans (Israel awards refugee status only in truly exceptional cases – successful claims for asylum run in single figures per year). With US subvention, preferential access to European markets, a booming hi-tech sector, and safety from Palestinian attack (due to the separation wall and other security measures) most Israelis do not feel seriously threatened – in an existential way – by Palestinians. This is despite the political narrative of an existential threat. So again, why engage with your ‘enemy’ if your enemy is not in a position to harm you, or is not even visible? Polling shows that serious engagement with Palestinians is simply not an issue for the vast majority of Israelis.

Fourth, ‘peace’ has little traction in domestic Israeli politics. There was a sizeable peace movement in the 1990s, but that has fallen away quite dramatically. The real political action is to be found on the right where political leaders seek to exploit the security dilemma and accuse each other of being soft on security and ‘terror’. Demonising Palestinians, Arabs, Iran and ‘haters’ wins votes. Talking up the long, expensive and frustrating road to peace wins few. Right-wing and Jewish fundamentalist constituencies are growing rapidly, and political parties are alive to this.

Fifthly, ‘the international community’ (in other words the United States and its European clients states) gives Israel a clear run. It might occasionally chide it for building a few thousand settler houses or for a particularly gratuitous human rights abuse (unhelpfully caught on camera) but the Israeli state is made from Teflon in terms of international condemnation. There are no good reasons in international law to deny Palestine statehood, yet last year the US and UK mobilized other states to block such a move at the UN. The paucity of arguments against Palestinian statehood was revealing. Hillary Clinton and William Hague looked more vacuous than usual with their justifications for vetoing statehood. ‘Er, the time is not right’ was the height of their rhetorical flourishes. It points to grubby realpolitik being the reason for the use of the veto.

Finally, the region is a mess and is incapable of putting pressure on Israel. Lebanon is regularly bashed by Israel in punitive raids and wars. It is sinking under Syrian refugees and its own confessional tensions. The squalid monarchy in Jordan is compliant. Syria is engaged in cannibalism. Egypt is back to Mubarak regime, only this time with a different Mubarak. Turkey is, perhaps, the only state in the region that can influence Israel – through sheer force of its dynamic economy but it is otherwise occupied, not least with the rise of Kurdistan.
All of these factors coalesce to mean that Israel has no incentive for peace. This applies internally and internationally. It would be irrational for an electorally-minded Israeli political leader to engage in a genuine peace process that would involve serious concessions of land and rights to Palestinians.

And the Palestinians

Of course, Palestinians are not entirely without power and agency. It has to be said that this power and agency is hugely constrained by Israel and its backers. But where they do use it, they either use it poorly or are up against such insurmountable barriers that it is few opportunities for success. A great example of Palestinians using their few cards poorly is in the representatives they put forward for the western media. The Israelis are masters of this: American accented, calm individuals with very European or American sounding names. They appear extraordinarily reasonable as they justify the unjustifiable. Just last week a reasonable sounding Israeli Defence Force spokesman described the massing of Israeli forces on the border with Gaza as an act of ‘de-escalation’. It was pure Orwellian doublespeak but said in the bed-side manner of a seasoned medical practitioner. Contrast this with Palestinian spokespeople who are usually enraged (justifiably so) and often with poor English. They were probably appointed to the media presentation gig because they are someone’s cousin. Palestinians can complain that they have poor access to education and the outside world, but they have had generations to get wise to the importance of cosying up to the western media. This is only an example, but it is telling of how poor they are at
playing ‘the game’.

So what is to be done?

Firstly, let us not further degrade this word ‘peace’ by using it in such an unpropitious context. Let us not use it in relation to temporary ceasefires and sham ‘peace processes’ that will not address fundamental issues. So let’s use this ‘peace’ word very carefully.

Secondly, we can continue to highlight the systemic nature of the conflict and how it is embedded in the political and cultural systems of the Israeli state. Many other actors are implicated in this system, including much of the ‘peacebuilding’ industry. So we need to look beyond ‘peace initiatives’ and responses to the latest crisis and instead focus on the structures and systems that allow war and repression to triumph over peace and genuine relations between equal peoples.

Third, the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) response is wholly legitimate. It provides a useful contrast to the violence, repression and exclusion that are the staple of Israel’s apartheid strategy. Indeed, Israel’s response to Palestinian activism is officially termed ‘sanctions’ so there can be no argument from Israel that sanctions are somehow ‘unfair’. There are arguments that sport, culture and academia must be exempt from BDS, but they don’t seem to have a basis in logic.

Fourth, there are signs that Israel’s apartheid is becoming internationally unacceptable just as happened with South Africa’s apartheid. Condemnations of Israel are beginning to come from sources (parts of the US media) that previously looked the other way. This can only be good and might lead to interesting places – such as the timidity of Israeli security personnel travelling abroad lest they are subject to human rights cases. Community punishments, detention without trial, house demolitions and many other indignities are justifiable in Israel, but increasingly less so abroad.

And a few concluding words

We must not be naïve enough to think ‘Palestinians good, Israelis bad’. The world is much more complex than that, and we cannot look across the Arab world and see it as a repository of calm and tolerance. But it is legitimate to ask: where does power lie? Power, ultimately, lies in Israel and its powerful patrons and it is towards these sources that the bulk of condemnation must be directed.

The basic point is that we must be very careful when using the word ‘peace’. It might seem defeatist to rule out using the word peace in relation to Israel-Palestine. After all, peace relies on imaginative, optimism and creativity. Situations can and do change for the better. In the grim days of the late 1980s, no one contemplated that the Cold War would end – and end quite abruptly. While political leaders and the military-industrial complex might not be in favour of peace, there are courageous individuals who show tolerance and non-violence in their every days lives. So yes we can use this word peace, but guardedly, and certainly not in relation to initiatives taken by politicians – at the moment.

Poking around a National Museum

4 Jul

I spent a few hours poking around the National Museum of Scotland. It is a difficult thing to get right: National museums. They are claiming to tell a story of a nation, and thus have to carefully choose their narrative. Sometimes it can seem too nationalist and defensive. A good example here is the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, with its permanent exhibition of the Soviet occupation. The evilness of the Soviet regime is undisputed, but the permanent exhibition comes across as an overly political project. Another example is the British Museum. It is an incoherent mess that is stuffed with plunder from the Empire and is unable to tell any story whatsoever. It is interesting to look at, but utterly bewildering.
The National Museum of Scotland gets it just about right. The story it tells is full of transculturalism, invasion and occupation, and international trade. Scotland does not come across as an isolated space. Instead, the story that is told is that of successive waves of influence: technological, religious, military, trade etc. This is a difficult story to tell: too much transnationalism and Scotland lacks a coherent story. It ceases to be the recognizable imaginary that is Scotland. Too much Scottishness and the territory will be portrayed as overly isolated and parochial.
The curators have got it just about right. They have largely avoided the Walter Scott ‘Scotchery’ of clichés (although there is a mannequin in full tartan in a dark corner). Even the building is a wonderful mix of the old (well, Victorian) and the modern. The story that is told is not one of glowing pride. Instead, there is a large emphasis on religion and especially its role in social control. The display of a hairshirt from the seventeenth century (to be worn as punishment for infidelity) shows how the moral horizons were enforced in the public sphere. In totality, it is a story that mixes Enlightenment with drudgery, murder and foul deeds with discovery and invention, and finely crafted artwork with the deadly functional. Well done to the curators.