The Tsunami of Arab Nationalism

It still remains unclear whether or not the phrase “tsunami of Arab nationalism” is justified, but with the astonishing image of perhaps 2,000,000 Egyptians all walking calmly through Tahrir Square, “tsunami” is beginning to sound about right. One wonders if we will see soldiers fighting against police goons, one begins to start looking for the next regime to be fired, and one seems justified in asking if demands for liberty will translate into a full-blown Arab nationalist movement.

Freedom for Gaza is the natural next step following freedom for Egypt, but in Gaza, where the whole population has been tortured by Israel’s inhumane collective punishment policy, people are not waiting for the victory of the Egyptian people.
Under Mubarak, Egypt has cooperated closely with Israel in penning Gazans into their ghetto, but, as a result of the revolt in Egypt, Egyptian prison/border guards fled their posts, and it is now Hamas that is keeping Gazans from crossing into Egypt. Gaza’s busy tunnel import operation has also been disrupted, further strengthening Israel’s ability to cause pain with its collective punishment policy. Could Hamas, fearful of getting out in front of Egypt and perhaps even becoming worried about maintaining its own control, get caught on the wrong side of the sudden wave of Arab nationalism? Netanyahu and Lieberman must be laughing hysterically at the thought of Hamas doing Israel’s dirty work by guarding itself, but if Hamas is in control of the Gaza-Egypt border, that should send everyone a very clear message: Hamas is in control. Food for thought in Tel Aviv and Washington, still pretending that Hamas is the one guilty of terrorism.
Cairo sent additional troops to guard the Gaza border, but with the political position of the Egyptian army now questionable, those troops could as easily be used to protect Hamas as to imprison it. Israel should not take too much comfort from their presence.
A rational policy on the part of Washington, if not Tel Aviv, to deal with what is almost surely a new crisis in the making in Gaza would now be in order, but there is, so far, no sign of creative thinking on the part of officials who appear to be in shock and denial, rather than “shock and awe.”
Imprisoning Gazans while freeing Egyptians is a contradiction that will surely become obvious to everyone if the Egyptian people indeed win their battle not just to fire Mubarak but to overthrow the repressive, pro-Israeli ruling elite now symbolized by the newly appointed vice president Suleiman. Yet Egypt is not the only link to marginalized and victimized Gaza, the ultimate symbol of Western oppression of Arabs.
The other link is Jordan, whose population is now at least half politically marginalized Palestinians. A revolt in Jordan will be difficult to organize because the population is, conveniently for King Abdullah, split between Jordanians who hold political power and Palestinians who fled from their land when the European Jewish immigrants formed Israel through the barrels of British-supplied guns. But the Jordanian people succeeded over the weekend in getting their king to fire his whole cabinet and order his new prime minister to pursue a policy of “reform.”
In Egypt, the people’s momentum continues to build. If we have not heard the last of the Arab revolt in Gaza, we have not heard the last of the Arab revolt in Jordan either. If Washington fails to understand this, other countries are perhaps more observant, as suggested by Russian President Medvedev’s January visit to the West Bank and Jordan—but not to Israel, where pugnacious Russian immigrant Lieberman apparently tried to prevent his trip. The lack of initiative and creativity in Washington is opening the door for other countries to exert influence. Washington could save itself enormous difficulty by calling immediately and forcefully for removing Gaza from Israeli control and opening negotiations with an Hamas that is now behaving very conservatively. But no, it will not do so; rather, it will wait until forced by events, and then take steps both too little and too late, trying to block the tsunami of Arab nationalism with rowboats.

National Security: U.S.-Israeli Tipping Point?

The Hypothesis.
National security has arguably not been at the core of Washington’s attitude toward Israel since Israel’s 1956 attack on the Suez Canal with the French and British was stopped cold by Eisenhower (a paleo-con Republican with a real sense of national security). But now, with a decade-old global conflict against extremist/radical/reformist Islam (three very different though overlapping groups that no one in Washington can tell apart) threatening all the gains of America’s Cold War victory, the dangers of blind subservience to Israel’s expansionist right wing are finally causing some nervousness among Washington national security thinkers.
Several points here may be worth spelling out:
  • By “Paleo-con,” in case it is not obvious, I mean a traditional conservative who seriously tries to put the emphasis on U.S. national security, without getting swamped by either fundamentalist myths or unbridled greed.
  • As for the distinctions among extremist, radical, and reformist political movements within a Muslim tradition, think of the differences between Cheney, William Lloyd Garrison, and Dennis Kucinich. In 1825 the idea of eliminating slavery from the U.S. was radical, but Garrison’s carefully reasoned and peaceful approach meant he was no extremist. Kucinich is the classic American reformer who makes the special interests very nervous. A Washington serious about defending U.S. national security would be focusing very hard on finding common ground with political Islamic radicals and reformers to isolate the violence-prone extremists.
  • It is the “conflict” with Islam that threatens the U.S. more than the existence or behavior per se of America’s Muslim adversaries, i.e., the danger lies not in them so much as in U.S. attitudes and behavior toward political Islam.
  • It is not the existence of an alliance with Israel but the subservience of U.S. decision-makers to the extremist factions that constitutes the problem.
To the degree that this national security hypothesis is correct (more precisely, is now emerging as the dominant explanation for U.S. behavior toward Israel), the media focus on perceived “insults,” on day-to-day shifts in settlement policy, on the emotions of this or that official miss the point completely. We are not seeing a “misunderstanding,” a “miscalculation,” or confusion about Netanyahu’s “direction.” We are seeing the exposure of the fundamentally divergent world views (e.g., FM Lieberman’s ravings about an “Islamic tsunami”) and national security interests of the U.S. and a Zionist Israel.
According to the “national security hypothesis,” the issue is the degree to which Israeli policies (such as preventive war, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, the combination of having a regional nuclear monopoly and using it to threaten non-nuclear states, and–most of all–the Israeli right’s advocacy of a hard-line, uncompromising, and unsympathetic attitude toward any sort of reformist Muslim political movement) collectively undermine the global U.S. position.
The Evidence.
I penned this hypothesis only yesterday, but already today interesting support has appeared for it in the form of a Haaretz commentary (March 26, 2010) by Akiva Eldar, who asserted that:
As far as President Barack Obama and his senior advisers are concerned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to blame for nothing less than damaging the standing of the the Middle East and the Muslim world.
Eldar put Washington thinking about Israel in the context of the upcoming Arab League meeting, a perspective that assumes Arab regimes are starting to take the Palestinian situation seriously, perhaps thinking that Iran is scoring some telling points. Eldar claims:
The messages coming to the White House from Riyadh and Amman, then, were starkly clear: If you don’t rein in your Israeli friends, Tehran won’t be the only Middle East capital where American flags will burn.
Unfortunately, he presents no evidence to support this claim that Riyadh and Amman are getting serious, but an article in the LA Times recently did, arguing that Riyadh is reevaluating its own national security perspective and coming to see Israel as a greater threat to its stability than Iran. (More later on that report.)
As Eldar also noted, paleo-(?)con Robert Gates has also supported the idea that Israel undermines U.S. security, as reported by Qatar News Agency on March 26, 2010:
The lack of progress toward Middle East peace clearly is an issue that is exploited by our adversaries in the region and is a source of, certainly, political challenge….Whether it has a direct impact, I’m not entirely sure. But there is no question that the absence of Middle East peace does affect U.S. national security interests in the region.
Eldar concluded that “Obama decided his moderate Middle East coalition is more important than Netanyahu’s extremist one. This is a point of no return.” It may be a point of no return, but Obama hardly has a “moderate Middle East coalition.” A bunch of Arab dictators desperately holding on to power they do not deserve does not constitute a moderate coalition. But Eldar has a more significant point because a “moderate coalition” is exactly what Obama needs. If he worked with Erdogan and met with Palestinian/ Israeli civil society to work out a fair compromise, he might just be able to forge one.

Question: Can the Arab dictators afford to appear less critical of Israel than Washington?


  • For an eloquent summary of the background to the current debate, see Uri Avnery on Hagada Hasmalit (3/23/10).
  • For a view of unofficial American thinking on this issue, see the National Journal‘s National Security discussion of 1/5/09.
  • For an ominous warning against continued American involvement in what is turning into “unendable Israel-Muslim religious war — now in the hands of violent zealots on both sides,” see Georgetown professor and former CIA manager Michael Scheuer in the National Journal of 3/22/10.

Placing ‘All Options’ on the Palestinian-Israeli Negotiating Table

Were Washington truly to consider “all options,” it would revolutionize Mideast affairs.
Washington should consider “all options” toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (see OpEd News, March 16, 2010), reject the irrational extremes that relate to instigating violence, and then start a zero-based review of its enormous array of logical policy options. The graph below puts in context a select set of moderate steps Washington could take now to break the logjam.
The eight selected exemplar options in the “space for a moderate U.S. policy shift” constitute an incremental series of policy steps to include all relevant actors in the dialogue and enable everyone on the two sides to begin to take ownership of the conflict resolution as it becomes defined. These steps have the additional virtue of enabling the average Palestinian on the street to see with his or her own eyes substantive progress right from the start rather than just hearing promises about some indeterminate future while at the same time laying out a schedule for Israeli actions to facilitate the readjustments that the Israeli public will have to make. This approach may minimize violent protest and public fears.

Israeli Extremists Challenge the World

Levantines getting a bit of backbone as Washington gets cold feet.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, running a country that is half Palestinian and living very much under the shadow of the IDF, takes great care to present an extremely understanding and submissive public face to the Israeli superpower next door. Yet here is what he had to say about Jerusalem to the EU’s visiting foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton:
Jerusalem is a red line and the world should not be silent about Israel’s attempts to get rid of Jerusalem’s Arabs residents, Muslims or Christians…[Jordan] demands the international community take a firm, swift, direct and effective action to stop Israel’s provocative measures in Jerusalem, that seek to change its identity and threaten holy sites there.
First, what did he say? “Attempts to get rid of” Arabs means “ethnic cleansing.” That is hard to retract, hard to negotiate about. (“Mr. Abbas, what degree of ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem would be acceptable to your side?”) 
[“Ethnic cleansing” charges are of course high-powered armaments. For those utterly new to this but serious, Israeli Ilan Pappe is the place to start. Lawrence of Cyberia has an extremely informative blog post with the numbers.]
Second, what is the significance of anything a conservative Arab leader says about Israel? That is harder to answer, but in the current context of Palestinian protest riots, Washington political claims of having been insulted by Israel, and Washington military warnings that Israel is putting U.S. troops in danger, might one reasonably conclude that this represents another piece of evidence that the political ground may be shifting under the feet of Israel’s right wing leadership? I am, in brief, suggesting that it may be hard to return from this to business as usual.
Meanwhile, Lula, wearing the new badge of having been insulted by the Israeli government himself, visited the grave of Arafat and struck a Martin Luther King pose with his “dream” of Palestine-Israeli peace. One wonders if Lula and Erdogan are coordinating a tag-team approach to introduce the new concept of moderation to the Mideast.
Even Abbas, now “demanding” some rather logical and moderate preconditions for talking without sitting down together (Israel should keep commitments made by previous regimes), is finding backbone. But mostly, the politicians are diving for cover, Obama apparently planning on taking a trip rather than face Netanyahu when he charges into town next week, Mitchell’s trip off, Palestinian presidential advisor Sahib Oreikat‘s trip to Moscow on hold, and Biden…well, exactly where is Biden and exactly what did he say and does he still believe it? Hillary, no surprise, is losing backbone as fast as Abbas gets his. Not a word has yet been heard from Washington about something even so timid as “fully supporting the security of the Israeli people but hoping for an Israeli administration that will work sincerely with the U.S.” Oh, no. Perish the thought of any “space” between the Israeli “obstructionists”–the nail Judah Grunstein so neatly hit on its head–and Washington pols. These guys (the Washington pols) are not exactly big strategic thinkers.
A more cynical and, frankly, probably more accurate assessment was given on March 14 by the Jews Sans Frontiers website:
It does not signal a breach in the relations between Israel and the U.S. The problem for American dominance is not Israel, which is and will remain a valuable ally, but the out of control populist right wing in Israel which has developed a sort of bulimic land eating disorder, and needs to feed more and more often on Palestinian land to feel satiated. That populist right wing is also a problem for the Israeli ruling class, but primarily to the extent that it matters to the US. As long as the US allows it, the Israeli ruling class would rather not confront it. Let the fanatics, as far as the Israeli center is concerned, get their daily nibble at the Palestinian expense. The predatory relation is already deeply institutionalized; the whole Israeli military apparatus is organized around the colonization process; it can be slowed down or sped up, but it cannot be dismantled with serious damage all around. The US will not risk serious damage to Israel, unless it is pushed really hard by its Arab clients. They, in their turn, couldn’t care less, except occasionally when they fear that things have gone too far and they need to get a bone that they can hang on their breast as proof to their people that they are not totally venal but can get some respect from Washington. It’s a political game whose object for all the players is none other than the ultimate goal of politics according to Raymond Aron, “to make things last.” In its Middle East version it is often known as the bicycle principle, in the words of former Israeli FM Meridor: “the peace process [is] like being on a bicycle; one must keep pedaling lest you crash and fall off.” Except it is cycling on training rollers and need not actually go anywhere.

Iran: Mideast Model of Reform?!?

Is Iran the model for reform in the Mideast? To anti-democratic regimes, is Iran frightening not because of its nuclear ambitions but because it offers a model of, by regional standards, a relatively moderate, modern, democratic state?

Consider: despite all the viciousness of the regime toward mostly very peaceful and very moderate protestors expressing very minimal demands, the fact remains that by the standards of Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Israel (as far as Palestinians are concerned), Iran looks very modern and democratic.

  • In Iran, intense criticism of the regime and of individuals is printed in the mass media.
  • In Iran, there are a parliament, elections, open organizations that while not quite modern political parties nevertheless express political positions.
  • In Iran, checks and balances against dictatorship are assiduously built into the state structure.

It is wonderful to measure countries against the standard of perfect democracy and not so bad to measure the laggards against the high achievers, either. But let’s be a little more fair about our day-to-day metric for judging a country that has only been allowed to figure things out for itself for a generation. Compare Iran to the U.S. if you wish, but the relevant comparison might be Iran today vs. the U.S. a generation after it was formed. Does anyone remember the Alien and Sedition Laws, slavery, or the vote for men only? Or perhaps we should compare Iran today with the U.S. today: say, treatment of protestors in Iran jails today vs. treatment of prisoners at Bagram or Guantanamo.

But much more relevant would be to compare neighbors. Compare the treatment of elite dissenters in Iran with Egypt’s treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood or Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the leaders of Riyadh Spring or Jordan’s treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood. Compare Iran’s treatment of Majlis criticism with Israel’s treatment of Palestinian members of Knesset.

And while you’re at it, compare the number of people in Iran willing to put their personal safety on the line by going into the streets unarmed and peaceful to protest injustice with the number of Saudis or Egyptians or Jordanians…or Israelis or Americans willing to protest the faults in those countries.

The Jordanian Option

Two-state solution unfeasible? Zionist expansion the road to endless war? What about the Jordanian option?

It may well be that the two-state solution has been overtaken by Israel’s apartheid scheme for the West Bank and simply will not work. On the other hand, continuation of the Zionist plan for ethnic cleansing of Palestine and constant expansion of Israel may well be the road to insecurity for both Israelis and their neighbors, endless war, and the transformation of Israeli democracy (for Jews) into a garrison state dictatorship. An idealist might counter that a secular, multi-ethnic democracy in which Jews and Palestinians relearn the art of living together (something that actually occurred before WWII) is the solution. If you don’t believe that the extremists of Hamas and the Zionist movement can be persuaded to accept such a compromise, there is still…the Jordanian option.

The problem with the two-state solution is the difficulty of finding room in the small land area available to construct a viable Palestinian state. Admittedly, there are also several additional problems. The whole nation-building process sounds a lot more feasible if Jordan, already half Palestinian, merges with the West Bank – not under its current leadership but as a genuine Arab democracy. Instead of two poor countries (Jordan and the new Palestine), there would be one country – and one that already has structure, armed forces, etc. Ambitious? Yes. But unlike the first three options, the Jordanian option sounds feasible. At least, it is worth a look.

A few people have actually begun to consider this idea. Richard Chesnoff has written a persuasive argument but omitted what to me is a critical point: only via union with Jordan are the Palestinians likely to have any immediate hope of being able to defend themselves against an Israeli state addicted to war. Perhaps settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute will transform Israel; after all, that would be one of its primary purposes. But “perhaps” will seem on day one of Palestinian independence, slim consolation. It is critically important to grant a new Palestinian state sufficient defensive capacity to reassure them. A demilitarized Palestinian state facing the Israeli superpower, which will no doubt contain many very angry extremist ex-settlers and many politicians very willing to exploit their anger, will be desperate for support. There is only one practical place from which a new Palestinian state might get such support: Iran.

Surely it must be obvious to everyone that setting up a Palestinian state bereft of friends and the ability to defend itself will only open the door to further Iranian-Israeli tensions and thus accomplish exactly the opposite of what Israel, the U.S., or the Palestinians would want. The first two obviously won’t want to make Iran an even greater champion of Palestinian rights. But relying on militant Shi’ite power Iran would hardly be an appetizing road for religiously moderate, Sunni Palestinians either.

Israeli historian Michael Bar-Zohar has also advocated this idea and makes the important point that the kind of defenseless and impoverished rump state that seems to be on the minds of short-sighted (my word) politicians in Israel and Washington is highly likely to induce Palestinians to turn with a vengence on Jordan, since taking over Jordan will be the drop-dead obvious solution to everyone in Palestine. Much better to figure out a way to pull off such a deal by agreement and peacefully right up front.

How on earth might this be accomplished? Well, there are half a million Israelis to be moved out. That will take time. Simultaneously, with the wheels well greased by U.S. and Saudi taxpayers, one could imagine a slow process of offering Palestinians new homes in open Jordanian land. Perhaps some deal could even be achieved that would persuade Palestinians to sell certain territories to Israel in return for a generous quid pro quo. The point is simple: once you accept the concept of transforming the situation, detailed steps toward that transformation suddenly become visible…

There is a larger point here: the whole enterprise of creating a Palestinian state must not be just for show. It must be a real state, able to stand on its own outside of Israel’s orbit, or the exercise will become a disaster, not just for Palestinians but for Israel as well.

Marc Lynch presents a dissenting view. I concur that the Jordanian option will mean the end of the kingdom. But this is not about whether or not a particular individual gets to be king. What does Lynch mean by “Jordan is bitterly opposed?” The pertinent question is not what certain politicians currently in office think. I suspect no poll of the whole Jordanian population on this subject exists. I suspect he is referring to the political crowd currently in charge. This is not about the politicians: they always prefer to be big frogs in a small pond. This is not about the king. That king has the option of making the most inspired decision of his life: giving up his kingship for the opportunity to create something new. All this definitely requires opening one’s mind…

And then, there’s the “Jordan option.” Everyone I spoke to seemed highly agitated about and adamantly opposed to any suggestion of Jordan returning to the West Bank. Almost everyone thinks that the Israelis want Jordan to do this, and almost everyone says that Jordan is bitterly opposed. One of the officials went on at some length explaining that the idea was not being considered by Jordan, was not acceptable, was rejected, was a non-starter, was not on the table, would be refused if put on the table (and so on).

But nevertheless, talk of the Alternative Homeland (al-Watan al-Badil, “Jordan is Palestine”) was everywhere – fueled by Gaza, Netanyahu, and fears for the future of the two-state solution. Most journalists and political commentators brought this up at the top of their list of concerns, that even though everybody in Jordan (sic) opposed the idea, the government might be forced into it by Israel and the U.S. and that would mean the end of the Kingdom. They really do mean this – this is deeply rooted in Jordanian political identity and has been for many years dating back to the 1988 severing of ties with the West Bank. I was told one anecdote (which I can’t verify) that late last year a leading Jordanian politician infuriated the King by telling him that going to the West Bank could cost him his throne. I heard lots of identity talk: one journalist, for example, explained that the problem with democracy was that Palestinians represent a majority in the Kingdom and thus democracy would lead inevitably to the Alternative Homeland… a retrograde view which I associate with a much earlier period in Jordanian politics.

I think everyone in the U.S. would do Jordan and the Palestinians alike a serious favor if they would stop talking about the Jordanian option.

International Law…Israeli Version

The new Israeli warning that it has the right both to violate Lebanese airspace and to attack Lebanon if it attempts to protect its airspace comes on the heels of Defense Minister Barak’s February 2 assertion of the right to attack Lebanon if it imports weapons not approved by Israel.

Israel asserted the right to control Gaza and the West Bank after conquering those regions and got away with it. Now it asserts the right to sovereignty over Lebanon, which is recognized even by the U.S. as an independent country. Israel, it seems, has the right to violate Lebanon’s territory, attack it if it tries to protect its territory, and even attack it if it imports weapons that are not authorized…by Israel.

How long will Washington continue to provide the weapons that Israel uses to bully its neighbors? If Israel is allowed to get away with telling Lebanon what to do, what country will be next? Syria, which it recently attacked…for having technology not approved by Israel? Jordan, if the horrors of the recent Gaza campaign provoke a change in Jordan’s pro-Israel policy?

Then, of course, there is Iran. Iran makes unauthorized comments about Israel. Iran develops unauthorized technology. No need to argue about the likelihood of Iran actually building a nuclear weapon or using it. According to the principles of international relations in Israel’s part of the world, Iran has already broken two rules.