Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Back Story to My Op-Ed “Mr. President, Give Mideast Peace One More Chance” in Open Zion/The Daily Beast

In “Mr. President, Give Mideast Peace One More Chance,” at Open Zion/The Daily Beast,  I respond to Tom Friedman, Peter Beinart and others who say that Obama won’t pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace during his second term unless there is a radical change on the Israeli or Palestinians sides.

1.  On the impact of a new Netanyahu/Lieberman right-wing government: 

A.    Lieberman’s “joining up with Likud's radical, anti-liberal wing…means that in the next Knesset, there will be an escalation of anti-democratic legislation. Minorities will be pushed down. The opposition will be silenced. The media will be exhausted, …” wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot last week.
B.     “From now on, all citizens should know that when they put the slip bearing the letters of the unified [Likud-Beiteinu] party in the ballot box, they are voting for a platform that seeks to hold onto the [occupied] territories no matter what, to perpetuate discrimination against the Arabs within Israel's borders, to reject any chance for reconciliation with the Palestinians, and to face off against the world on the false pretense of Israel's welfare. They are also voting to institute an anti-liberal regime within the state and a harsh occupation policy within the territories, and to steep Israel even more in an atmosphere of nationalist indoctrination,”  warned Uzi Benziman in Ha’aretz.
C.     Former Israeli intelligence officials and Middle East experts have informed Netanyahu that continued “construction in Israeli West Bank settlements without diplomatic progress” towards peace could “trigger a violent uprising in the West Bank.”
2.      How a center-left bloc, under the possible leadership of Olmert (or Peres), could end up drawing more Knesset seats than the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu union, with enough seats to form a moderate government that could revive moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, advance social justice, and halt the erosion of democratic values in Israel.
Even now before the new center-left bloc has been formed, center and left Zionist parties together have polled a total of 45 seats, while the new Likud-Beiteinu union has polled as low as 35 seats, down from its present 42.   A Channel 10 poll gave Labor 23, Yesh Atid 13, Kadima 5, and Meretz 4, totaling 45.  The Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc would receive between 35 and 42.    With Shas expected to receive 14 seats, under current projections, Olmert or Peres may well be able to coopt Shas under Aryeh Deri to form a 59-seat coalition, close but not yet enough to cross the majority threshold of 61.
But with the Arab parties, which are slated to receive 10 or 11 seats, the center-left could form a “blocking majority” that would be able to prevent Netanayahu and Lieberman from forming a government, enabling the center-left bloc to form the government.   In addition, the center-left bloc’s seats could grow and Likud Beiteinu’s may drop after the center-left parties and their leadership lists are fully formed, with Olmert’s return to the scene, and win the endorsement of a number of “security heavyweights” who will also help undermine confidence in Netanyahu.   (See also, “Haaretz poll: A Livni-Olmert-Lapid 'super-party' would outscore Likud:  If the center and the left together could garner 61 seats, it would deprive Netanyahu of the ability to form a majority government,” Ha’aretz, Oct. 18, 2012)
In fact, the most recent Channel 10 poll (Ha'aretz, Nov. 14, 2012) shows Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu dropping from its current 42 seats in the Knesset to just 36.
As Leslie Susser points out in the Jerusalem Report:  “Stav Shaffir, one of the [social] protest leaders, has already announced that she will run for a place on the Labor list. The big test for Yachimovich will be whether she can deliver a wider message, and bring in new high profile people, ex-generals or diplomats, to bolster her limited security-diplomatic credentials. Success for her, coupled with a strong centrist showing, could help the center-left together with the Arab parties achieve a blocking majority and a chance to form the next government. Together, they have 55 seats in the current Knesset, so it would take a six seat or five percent (around 200,000 votes) swing to obtain a blocking majority.”  (The Netanyahu Gambit,10/16/2012)
Of course, many things could go wrong to derail a center-left government from taking power under Olmert, such as the remaining corruption charges still pending against Olmert, or just plain old fashioned losing the election to Netanyahu and Lieberman.  See for example:  An Olmert comeback: The center-left cursed by a blessing:   Though the former prime minister has long been touted as the great white hope of the center-left, too many undecided factors blight his potential return,” Anshel Pfeffer, Ha’aretz, Nov.13, 2012.
But the center-left has a chance to win this time around, and President Obama should revive credible Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in the coming weeks to avert the crisis which is likely to follow Palestinian recognition as an observer state at the UN, because it is the best policy for the U.S. and for Israelis and Palestinians themselves.   By doing so, he might also give an inadvertent lift to the center-left parties in Israel’s upcoming election, without appearing to play a partisan role in Israeli politics, thus making it more likely that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will bear fruit this time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How Pinkwashing Critics Go Wrong: Why I oppose the new move to boycott Israel

Advocates of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) have ratcheted up charges that Israel and American LGBT groups are attempting to “pinkwash,” or deflect attention from, Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians by mounting programs in the US about the country’s many gay rights achievements.  BDS forces in the anti-pinkwashing campaign call for boycotting events with visiting Israeli Jewish LGBT activists, even succeeding in shutting down several recent events in Seattle.  
Arthur Slepian is a gay American Jew who founded a group called A Wider Bridge, which seeks to build stronger ties between the LGBT communities of Israel and North America.  A Wider Bridge was the lead sponsor of the Israeli LGBT leaders’ two-week West Coast visit with their American counterparts.
Slepian has just published a landmark essay in Tikkun,An Inconvenient Truth: the Myths of Pinkwashing,” now the single most-read article in Tikkun online.   Read it here

His essay explodes the top five myths of pinkwashing, sparking a volley of critical responses from four prominent pinkwashing opponents.  
But the critics miss the mark, misrepresenting Slepian's arguments, attacking easy straw man versions instead.  And some continue to show a blatant disregard for the facts, making leaps of illogic that would astound the trapeze artists at Cirque du Soleil.  

A few examples of how Slepian's critics get it wrong:  
1.   Pinkwashing as the new straw man of the BDS movement.  Columbia University professor Katherine Franke declares that not only the Israeli government and American LGBT and Jewish groups, but the Obama administration too is guilty of pinkwashing.  How so?  Because it supposedly uses its “good gay rights record” to deflect attention from its other “objectionable policies… like using drones to execute civilians.”  This only seems to confirm Slepian’s observation that anti-pinkwashers are reminiscent of those who once saw “communists” under every bed.  They see pinkwashing everywhere, even where it isn’t.
2.    Israeli gay rights can’t be separated from Palestinian human rights?  Slepian never suggests, as his critics suppose, there weren’t some connections between the African-American civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam war.   Saying the two can be separated isn't the same as saying that they have no relationship at all.  The disproportionate fatality rate among black soldiers in Vietnam, rectified only in the later phases of the war, reflected discrimination against African-Americans versus whites in the draft and in combat roles.  

Slepian did maintain that we were right to celebrate civil rights advances pushed forward by the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, even as these same administrations were prosecuting a war in Indochina that many considered wrong (if not immoral).  By the same token, we should celebrate gay rights advances in Israel even though its government is maintaining what many view as an immoral occupation, and committing human rights abuses against Palestinians.  Boycotting civil rights programs supported by the US government over Vietnam would have been a mistake, much it is equally objectionable to boycott gay rights programs supported by the Israeli government because of the occupation.
3.  The Israeli government doesn't fund visits to the US of Israeli speakers or artists who oppose the occupation and its mistreatment of Palestinians?  Then there’s Wendy Elisheva Somerson’s claim that it’s “unlikely that any of the [Israeli Jewish LGBT activists visiting the US] would speak out against the Occupation on a tour being financed by the Israeli government,” despite much evidence to the contrary.
A case in point:  In late June, anti-pinkwashing protesters disrupted the introduction to a San Francisco screening of Israeli filmmaker Yariv Mozer’s documentary “The Invisible Men,” which cast a critical light on harsh Israeli government policies towards gay Palestinian men seeking asylum in Israel.                                                                                                                                                    “When [Mozer] tried to say something counter to the protest, someone in the audience spoke up and said, ‘That wasn’t aimed at you.’ He very forcefully replied ‘Yes it was. My film was partially funded by the Israeli government, my visit here was funded by the Israeli government. I am a leftist and I oppose many of the policies of my government, but I am proud to be an Israeli, and calls for boycott are wrong.’”

Somerson assures us that “Anti-pinkwashing activists [just] want to include the voices of queer Jewish Israelis and Palestinians critical of the Occupation.”    Why then don’t they, together with the Jewish and Palestinian groups they support, help sponsor more events that highlight the lives and struggles of LGBT Palestinians, instead of working to boycott and shut down programs with visiting Israeli Jewish LGBT activists?    Why not build instead of tearing down?  

4.  Truth, and going too far.   Still, neither side in this debate has a monopoly on truth.   Anti-pinkwashing advocates do have important things to say about the suffering of West Bank Palestinians living under Israeli rule.  They offer reasonable and valid critiques of real, as opposed to imagined, misuses of Israel’s gay rights record and the demonization of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims by the Israeli and American Jewish right. 
But all too often they foul their case by painting with far too broad a brush, smearing everything in their path, doling out guilt by association.  Some of the key players who were involved in the cancellation of Israeli LGBT events in Seattle, and now participants in the Tikkun debate, are lead endorsers of the “Open Letter to LGBTIQ Communities and Allies on the Israeli Occupation of Palestine,” a manifesto for anti-pinkwashing activism released earlier this year.
Their appeals are burdened by extremist rhetoric, like calls for queer solidarity with the most radical, anti-peace factions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied territories.  These groups agitate for realizing refugee demands to return to Israel, and do not represent moderate Palestinian voices in the West Bank. 
American queer Palestine solidarity advocates defend BDS tactics that are at best symbolic and ineffectual, and at worst counterproductive, likely to drive a fearful Israeli public further to the right.  
They embrace a Palestinian radicalism that confuses “full self-determination for Palestinians” with boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, an end to all US security aid to Israel now, and fulfillment of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.  (See the “Open Letter” which links to The Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS - note especially the last three paragraphs.)  These are reckless steps which would undermine the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – two states for two peoples – and turn Israelis away from taking risks for the difficult compromises which will have to be made for any chance at peace.  
Much as progressive Jewish groups like J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund work to promote justice and peace for Israelis and Palestinians, while opposing calls to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel and those who do business with it, I believe that we can work for equality for Palestinians, Bedouin and Jews in Israel, for a just Israeli-Palestinian peace and an end to Israel’s occupation while resisting efforts to quash public dialogue with Israeli Jewish LGBT leaders visiting the US
Global BDS “tends to penalize collectively academics, artists and others who actually oppose the occupation, while leaving untouched those responsible for Israel’s most destructive decisions,” as the New Israel Fund so eloquently showed in A Leftist’s Critique of BDS.   Now add to that list the many Israeli Jewish LGBT heroes who are fighting for equal rights for gay Israelis and Palestinians.  
Anti-pinkwashers insist that they aren’t trying to silence Israeli Jewish LGBT leaders visiting the US or their American supporters.  They say they’re merely trying to broaden the conversation.   
But their actions are hard to distinguish from censorship, and the one-dimensional caricatures of Israel by many “Palestine solidarity” people, both straight and gay, are deeply troubling.   That’s why I can’t support so much of what the anti-pinkwashing Global BDS Movement says and does.    There are decent and effective ways to combat occupation and injustice.   This isn’t one of them.

I'm proud to stand with A Wider Bridge and its allies in the LGBT community in Israel in their struggle for equality and inclusion for LGBT Israelis. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Obama National Security Official: Drumbeat for war with Iran harms both Israel and the US, by Doni Remba

Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden, said last night in New York that the “drumbeat for war with Iran in the media is incredibly counterproductive” and “plays into the hands of Iran.”   It helps to further drive up the price of oil, undermining US economic recovery, and puts more dollars in Iran’s hands, explained Blinken.   The best policy is to “speak softly and carry a big stick, to be wise and strong.”

He spoke to group of about 100 people at the Harvard Club of New York, at an event sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum.

Blinken stated that the administration believes that Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear bomb, and stressed that the US and Israel are closely collaborating on assessing Iran’s actions and intentions.   He implied that this assessment was shared by the Israeli government, but neglected to mention recent press reports which indicate that Israeli intelligence too has concluded that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb.   According to these reports, this was the conclusion that Israeli officials presented to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US General Martin Dempsey on his recent visit to Israel, a conclusion also reached by US intelligence agencies.  

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported last month that “The intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to Dempsey indicates that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb.  The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon - or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.”  ("Barak: Israel 'very far off' from decision on Iran attack," Ha'aretz, Jan. 18, 2012)

When asked if US assessments on Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapon proved wrong, Blinken reaffirmed that “Israel has to make its own decisions” and that “we don’t tell our allies or partners what to do with regard to their own security.”   But he stressed the unprecedented close US-Israeli partnership on safeguarding Israel’s security and on the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.   He expressed confidence that “no predecessor has done more than the Obama administration has” to insure Israel’s security.

Blinken believes that the sanctions enacted by the Obama administration are placing heavy pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, and that there is still time for escalated sanctions, combined with diplomatic talks, to avert the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.   Iran is “struggling to buy refined petroleum,” and many major corporations in Europe, and foreign subsidiaries of US companies, now refuse to do business with Iran.

“The regime is feeling pressure.”   For those who still doubted this, Blinken cited a remark by President Ahmadinejad that “the West has imposed the most extensive and dastardly sanctions on Iran.  This is the heaviest economic onslaught on a nation in history.”   To illustrate how great the pressure is on the Iranian government, Blinken noted that the Iranian leadership is concerned about the possibility of losing public support for the regime.

While he acknowledged that “any country abiding by the nuclear nonproliferation treaty is entitled to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, Iran has lost the trust of the entire international community, and it has a long way to go to win back that trust,” if it wishes to do so.  For any diplomacy to have a chance of success after sanctions take an increasing economic toll on Iran, its leaders would have to show real seriousness, backed up by action, in any future talks to convince the US and other countries:   Iran would have to come “to the table in a serious way and show the world that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.”

When asked about the upcoming March 5 Obama-Netanyahu meeting in Washington, and expectations that the US and Israel would formulate an agreement on “what to do about Iran,” Blinken would not speculate, but affirmed the close US-Israeli collaboration, adding that “we may have some disagreements on tactics, but not on fundamental issues of Israel’s security.”   The US and Israel consult closely not just on Iran, but on the Arab Spring, the peace process, Syria and Egypt.

The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process:  When asked whether the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is moribund, Blinken drew upon the well-worn mantra of previous administrations that “we can’t want peace more than Israel does.”  “They have to want it and work for it. That’s where the decision lies,” he said.

But, he continued, “you have to have a partner for peace,” and the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, he stressed, is an obstacle.   "The Palestinians have to convince Israel that they accept it. They have to decide what their position on Israel is. The international community is united on the need for Hamas to renounce violence, affirm past agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority, and recognize Israel.”   Part of the reason for the fissure in Hamas is over these conditions, he explained, and while “some in Hamas know what they have to do and are considering it, they are not yet the dominant group.”

At the same time, Blinken stressed that the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace is close to President Obama’s heart, as he believes that creating a lasting peace will strengthen Israel’s security.  Blinken cited President Clinton who used to say that the US will do anything to help those who take risks for peace, and promised that the US will support “those who take risks for peace.”   The role of the US, he explained, is to minimize those risks.    But he was “skeptical that we can make progress this year because of politics in Israel and the US during an election year.”

He ruled out military intervention against Syria to accelerate the toppling of Bashar Assad, saying it “would not solve anything.”  He expressed confidence that Assad will go; the only question is how much damage he will do until that happens, as Assad is murdering his own people at a rate of 50, 60, 70 a day.   He believes that sanctions and isolation are having an effect, and alluded to the flow of business leaders moving out of the country with their families.

The November election, the Republicans and the Jewish vote:   Blinken felt that there was a “decent” chance that Obama and Biden would be re-elected in November for a second term.   When asked why the Republicans feel that they can pick off some of the Jewish vote in the upcoming election, Blinken responded that there has been a lack of factual basis in discussions about US policy on Israel.   Part of the reason, he acknowledged, is that the administration has “had some failure to communicate” as effectively as it should have, but there’s also “a noise machine that drowns out the facts.   Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.”   Clearly referring to the frequent Republican misrepresentations of the Obama administration’s policies towards Israel,  Blinken warned against allowing US-Israel relations to be exploited for partisan political purposes, suggesting that turning Israel into a political football during the election campaign could hurt those relations.  

When asked about Obama’s remarks about Israel and the 1967 borders, Blinken cited this as a classic example of the “partisan noise” on Israel, reiterating that Obama had restated long-held US and Israeli policy that in a final peace agreement Israel would return to the 1967 borders with mutually agreeable land swaps.   President George W. Bush too had taken the same position, as he did in a statement at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 2008 when he said that any peace agreement requires return to the 1949 armistice lines with mutually agreed land swaps, to take into account demographic changes and to insure that a Palestinian state will be territorially viable.

Blinken said that the pursuit of Israeli-Arab peace has been a priority of the Obama administration, and that the Obama administration supports a two-state solution between Israel as a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people, and a Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people.    As for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, Blinken emphasized that President Obama has been clear about the two-state solution, and that Israel as a Jewish state means that Palestinians will return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel.

Ha'aretz covered the event as well in a lead story on its English online edition, emphasizing several additional key points:   

Chemi Shalev, "US policy on Iran aimed at 'buying time' with Iran, says senior official," Ha'aretz, Feb. 28, 2012