Obama’s Palestine Problem, and Ours
It is shocking, but not surprising, that in the US, the primary way of understanding and analyzing the debate at the United Nations over Palestinian statehood is in terms of its effect upon American politics.
More specifically, the main focus in the US media has been on how the Obama administration would handle the “crisis” at the UN, inevitably described as one aspect of the supposed "roiling tensions in the region." Very little thought is being devoted to the question of whether the move by the Palestinian leadership is part of a larger strategy for escaping from the disastrous stasis of the Oslo framework, or to what possibilities might arise from potential outcomes at the UN. The preferred questions have to do with the effects on the 2012 US Presidential election, including the famous question of the “Jewish vote,” variations of which seem to remain eternally fresh and interesting to American journalists and editors. Even the role played by the UN debate in the outcome of the recent special election in the Congressional district of Brooklyn previously represented by the hapless Anthony Weiner seems to be of more interest to the US media than the potential effect of that debate upon the lives of Palestinians.
Shocking, but not surprising; the long struggle for Palestinian self-determination and justice has never played much of a role in the dominant narrative of the “conflict” as it gets told in the US. As Joseph Massad put it recently, “the only game in town has always been Israel's interests,” and these interests are simply and unquestioningly linked, in this narrative, to the interests of the US.
The point, at this moment, is not simply to express indignation at this state of affairs. For this moment offers some opportunities to take stock of the current status of this dominant narrative of “the conflict,” and ideally, for those of us interested in questions of justice and solidarity, to re-think our strategy accordingly.
One striking aspect of the coverage of the UN debate is the way that it has been folded into a larger situation in which the state of Israel is described as “besieged” and “isolated.” The title of Ethan Bronner’s recent New York Times article, which brings the UN debate together with the protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the diplomatic steps pursued by Turkey in the wake of the recent Palmer Report, is explicit about this supposed state of siege: “Beyond Cairo, Israel Sensing a Wider Siege” (it may be worth noting that the article was published on September 11). John Heileman, in a New York magazine article, uses language almost identical to that used by Bronner: “With the Middle East apparently hurtling headlong into crisis, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, beleaguered, and besieged: its embassy in Cairo invaded by Egyptian protesters, its relations with Turkey in tatters, its continued occupation of (and expansion of settlements within) the Palestinian territories the subject of wide international scorn.”
Does it really need to be pointed out that the state being described metaphorically as under “siege” is in fact a state that has been carrying on an illegal occupation for more than sixty years, and indeed is enforcing a very real state of siege in Gaza? Or that the state being described as “isolated” is in fact protected unconditionally, in the military, economic, and diplomatic sphere, by the world’s lone superpower?
Such linguistic inversions and perversions sent me back to the point expressed so beautifully by Mourid Barghouti in his memoir I Saw Ramallah:
It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from “Secondly.”…Start your story with “Secondly,” and the world will be turned upside-down. Start your story with “Secondly,” and the arrows of the Native Americans are the original criminals and the guns of the white men are entirely the victim. It is enough to start with “Secondly,” for the anger of the black man against the white to be barbarous. Start with “Secondly,” and Gandhi becomes responsible for the tragedies of the British. You only need to start your story with “Secondly,” and the burned Vietnamese will have wounded the humanity of the napalm, and Victor Jara’s songs will be the shameful thing and not Pinochet’s bullets, which killed so many thousands in the Santiago stadium. It is enough to start with “Secondly,” for my grandmother, Umm `Ata, to become the criminal and Ariel Sharon her victim.
Barghouti is here referring to the speech made by Yitzhak Rabin at the White House on the occasion of the signing of the Oslo Accords, and he sees Rabin’s speech as a particularly brilliant example of the reversal of reality effected by starting the story with “Secondly”:
The Israelis occupy our homes as victims and present us to the world as killers. Israel dazzles the world with its generosity toward us….The houses built on top of ours gallantly declare their willingness to understand our odd predilection toward living in camps scattered in the Diaspora of gods and flies…Their generous guns in Deir Yassin forgive us the fact that they piled our bodies high at the sunset hours there one day. Their fighter jets forgive the graves of our martyrs in Beirut. Their soldiers forgive the tendency of our teenagers’ bones to break. Israel the victim polishes its hot, red knife with the sheen of forgiveness.
But Barghouti also offers a grudging tribute to the larger international effects achieved through such linguistic violence as that found in Rabin’s speech: “This leader knew how to demand that the world should respect Israeli blood, the blood of every Israeli individual without exception.”
This is much the same point as that raised by Massad in talking about the context of the current debate at the UN: “It is important to stress at the outset that whether the UN grants the Palestinian Authority the government of a state under occupation and observer status as a state or refuses to do so, either outcome will be in the interest of Israel. For the only game in town has always been Israel's interests, and it is clear that whatever strategy garners international support, with or without US and Israeli approval, must guarantee Israeli interests a priori.”
The principle that underwrites all discussions of “the conflict” in US discourse is the notion of Israel’s security. This emphasis on security has two unspoken aspects: that such security is constantly under threat, constantly “besieged” (despite Israel’s incontestable military superiority in the region), and that such security is the paramount concern of the US. It is never directly stated that Israeli lives, in this narrative, are given more value than Palestinian lives. It is just that in discussions of Israeli security, Palestinian security never seems to come up as an issue.
The second key aspect of this narrative is the taken-for-granted place of the United States at its center. After all, when Rabin and Arafat had their famous handshake, it was at the White House, with Bill Clinton grinning in their midst. Likewise, the equally famous Sadat-Begin handshake overseen by Jimmy Carter, and even the (admittedly less frequent and less friendly) Netanyahu-Abbas handshakes, marshaled by a clearly strained Obama.
One possibility raised by the current debate at the UN, whatever its outcome, is the challenging of this taken-for-granted role of the US at the center of all things. The absurdity of this perceived centrality has beenbrought out quite nicely by Mouin Rabbani, who notes that in the dominant US media discourse, the Palestinian leadership’s decision to go to the UN, which is “the very definition of multilateralism,” has been portrayed again and again as “a unilateral move, and therefore illegitimate.” Through the same twisted reasoning, as Obama’s speech to the UN made clear, the only viable alternative to this supposed “unilateralism” on the part of the Palestinian leadership was the form of “bilateralism” represented by direct negotiations. It never even needs to be said out loud that such negotiations (part of the “peace process” that is constantly invoked, although no such process currently exists) would be conducted under the aegis of the US government.
My purpose is not to take a position on the UN debate itself. I agree with those who suggest that UN recognition might present certain strategic gains, particularly in the realm of international law (although, as Massad notes, the problem in the past has not been with a lack of international legal instruments with which to challenge Israeli actions, but rather with the failure of international institutions to enforce any sorts of legal sanctions against Israel, largely because of the intervention of the US to ensure Israeli impunity). But I also agree very strongly with Noura Erakat’s suggestion that the UN strategy is being put forward by a Palestinian leadership that, while purporting to represent the Palestinian people as a whole, has refused to be part of any sort of truly democratic process that would allow for popular participation in these sorts of strategic decisions. So the real question, whatever the outcome at the UN, will be, as it always has been, the nature of the ongoing popular struggle of the Palestinian people for justice and self-determination.
It is in this context that I would like to see a reinvigorated discussion of the forms of solidarity that will be required in the days to come. In particular, what sort of solidarity can begin to work against the twin bulwarks of the dominant narrative of the “conflict” in the US: the emphasis on Israel’s victim status and thus of the primacy of its security needs, and the taken-for-granted role of the US as central to the situation of Israel-Palestine?
Another way to ask the question would be: what sort of solidarity can help to advance the goals that Rabbani sees as the most positive potential outcomes that may follow from the debates at the UN? As he puts it:
Two decades of negotiations have achieved nothing except the further consolidation of Israeli control over the occupied territories, in large part because of consistent American support for Israeli impunity.It is therefore high time for an alternative and more effective approach to resolve this conflict and achieve a credible two-state settlement. Given the systematic failure of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy under unilateral American sponsorship, returning the Question of Palestine—in all of its dimensions—to the multilateral forum of the United Nations is an essential first step. Serious questions can and should be raised about the manner in which this is being approached by the Palestinian leadership. But the era in which the US and other Western powers profess support for the principle of Palestinian statehood while thoroughly undermining it in practice must come to an end.
Speaking from within the US context, I would put this as the question of how we can work to most effectively remove US influence from the equation, or at the very least, lessen US involvement, especially when this involvement entails the ensuring of Israeli impunity and the funding of Israeli atrocities.
This means revisiting our intellectual and activist agendas and rethinking the modes of solidarity that will be most effective in the new struggles that will arise. For example, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been arguably the most exciting and effective mode of international solidarity over the past few years. One of the key accomplishments of BDS (among many) has been to raise the question of Israeli impunity, and to force individuals (particularly in their role as consumers) to address their own implication in the atrocities committed by the Israeli government and funded and enabled by the US and other governments.
In this, the BDS movement has been an unqualified success. But, at least in the US, these efforts have not (yet) effected any major changes in the workings of the dominant narratives about Israel-Palestine. I would also argue that they have to a great extent supplanted other sorts of actions aimed more directly at the US government’s role in underwriting Israel’s actions. I think Adam Shapiro’s description of the evolution of strategies of solidarity in the US over the past decade or so is largely accurate:
In the United States…lobbying elected officials seems both impossible and meaningless, given the vast support for Israel from the US government (and US taxpayer money). Whereas groups like Stop US Taxpayer Aid to Israel Now (SUSTAIN) emerged in 2000 and 2001 and ran out of steam by the middle of the decade, by 2009 there were vibrant and active boycott, divestment, and sanctions groups emerging in communities, cities, and on college campuses around the United States.
Without in any way wishing to suggest that the work of the BDS movement be curtailed, it may be time to revisit, at least in the US, some of those earlier strategies, particularly those aimed at US funding to Israel. Certainly the need to maintain international BDS actions (not to mention forms of international solidarity work in Palestine) is crucial. But it may be that the most effective acts of solidarity now, in the wake of the movements of the Arab spring and whatever forms of popular struggle will follow from the strategies of the Palestinian leadership at the UN, would take the form of directly addressing the US government’s role in the region, with the goal of neutralizing it as effectively as possible.
To be clear: this is not a matter of requesting that the US government take a more “positive” role in Israel-Palestine, or in the region more generally. It is a matter of working to remove US influence from the region, insofar as that influence has generally consisted of maintaining US interests at the expense of the interests and aspirations of the majority of the people living there. This process has, of course, already begun, thanks to the uprisings of the Arab Spring; thus the repetition of crisis narratives in the US media, the handwringing about the “tumultuous” changes ongoing in the region and the open expressions of fear regarding the effects these popular uprisings will have on US interests and influence. Solidarity, in this case, would consist of doing whatever is possible to speed this process along—to “expedite the day of liberation,” to cite the title of Shapiro’s essay.
As I was writing this, I learned of the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia, after his stay of execution was denied by the US Supreme Court and after President Obama refused to intervene in the case. According to a White House spokesperson, the President had determined that “it is ‘not appropriate’ to become involved in specific state cases.” It is telling that this horrific miscarriage of justice was carried out by the US legal system only a few hours after the President of the United States stood before the UN to lecture the world on the proper methods by which Palestinians should and should not pursue justice. To become involved in the “specific state case” of Palestine is, apparently, quite appropriate, in President Obama's view.
What will happen at the UN in the days to come remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the struggle for justice in Israel-Palestine, and throughout the region, continues. Here in the belly of the beast, as always, there is work to be done.