Bipartisan Assault on Middle East Peace

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed a dangerous piece of legislation (H.R. 4133) which would undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, weaken Israeli moderates and peace advocates, undercut international law, further militarize the Middle East, and make Israel ever more dependent on the United States.

The margin was an overwhelming 411-2, with eight abstentions.

House minority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in co-sponsoring the bill, an indication of how closely the Democratic Party leadership aligns with the most right-wing Republicans when it comes to U.S. Middle East policy.

Indeed, the way the Democratic Party is now allied with the Republican Right could not be more obvious than the fact that the resolution passed on a “suspension of the rules,” a legislative procedure reserved for legislation on non-controversial topics requiring little debate and allowing for a quick vote.

Exempting Israel

A number of provisions in the bill are highly disturbing to those who support Middle East peace, justice for Palestine, and genuine security for Israel.

The “Findings” of the bill, rather than praising the growth of democratic movements in the Arab world, bemoans “the fall of some regimes long considered to be stabilizing forces,” indicative of how little either party cares for democracy in the Middle East. Similarly, rather than praise the grassroots pro-democracy movements and their strategic nonviolent action, the bill blames Iran for “seeking to exploit the dramatic political transition underway in the region to undermine governments traditionally aligned with the United States.”

United in the belief that U.S. allies should somehow be exempt from accountability under international law, the bill calls on the United States to veto any “one-sided” resolutions at the United Nations Security Council directed at Israel, even those that are reasonably critical of Israel’s ongoing violations of international humanitarian law and previous U.N. security Council resolutions, or for possible future crimes against humanity and related war crimes, such as those documented by reputable human rights groups during Israel’s recent military assaults on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

As an indication of how the Democratic Party is now even further to the right than former President George H.W. Bush, the bill also calls for additional unconditional loan guarantees to Israel, which the former Republican president tried to make conditional on a freeze in construction of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

Although there has never been any real debate regarding the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security, this resolution takes the unprecedented step of insisting that that commitment be within the context of defending Israel as an explicitly “Jewish state.” The Israeli government certainly has the right to identify itself as a Jewish state or anything else. But this clause not only demonstrates a lack of concern about the security interests of the more than 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish and the millions of Palestinians who are effectively under Israeli military control. This resolution appears to be making an unprecedented commitment by the United States to guarantee the religious, ethnic, or cultural identity of a foreign country.

Similarly, although the Palestine Authority (PA) and virtually every other Arab government has pledged to make peace with Israel, including strict security guarantees, in return for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territory, the bill insists that the United States not just “encourage Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” but its “right to exist as a Jewish state.” The PA and other Arab states — noting that no peace treaty in history has ever required recognition by one state of the other’s religious, ethnic, or cultural identity — have therefore rejected such a prerequisite. By including this new provision for Arab-Israeli peace in this resolution, which was not required of Egypt and Jordan in their peace treaties with Israel, it appears to be designed to sabotage any possible additional peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Arms Up

With this bill, Congress has made peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors all the more difficult. It has also created a situation requiring increased U.S.-Israeli military cooperation and increased profits for U.S. arms manufacturers. Indeed, the bill calls for dramatically expanded U.S. arms aid and arms sales to Israel.

For example, instead of simply providing Israel with enough deterrent capability to ward off any potential combination of threats, the legislation calls on the United States to ensure that Israel maintains a “qualitative military edge,” presumably in order to have such a dominating military presence that the right-wing government can maintain its ability to invade, occupy, and subjugate its neighbors — in effect, to keep Israel in a constant state of war and increasingly dependent on the United States. To make sure President Obama takes this clause seriously, the bill requires the White House to put together a report every year detailing how the United States is ensuring that Israel’s superiority is being maintained. No such requirement is made in regard to any other country.

The legislation calls for dramatically increasing U.S. military aid to Israel over this year’s record of $3.1 billion in order to ensure Israel right of self-defense. The bill radically redefines “defense” to include military equipment that has generally been seen as offensive in nature, such as tanker aircraft, which are only necessary for offensive military operations like bombing raids and troop deployments in far-off countries such as Iran.

U.S. military aid to Israel is already higher than the foreign aid programs to all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. With overall foreign aid already being reduced, this bill will translate into even deeper cuts in international assistance programs that aid the poor — such as vaccinations and other disease prevention, clean water initiatives, food aid, sustainable development projects, and other programs that save countless lives.

Some “progressive” organizations like MoveOn and Democracy for America have endorsed and are raising money to support a number of the right-wing Democrats who co-sponsored and voted for this extraordinary dangerous legislation. Unlike previous periods, when liberal groups stood up against both Republicans and Democrats who supported repressive right-wing governments and increased militarization in Central America and Southeast Asia, liberal groups today have no problem working to re-elect Democratic hawks who demonstrate a similar hostility to human rights, international law, and demilitarization in the Middle East.

Without such pressure from the left, the Democrats have little incentive to change their right-wing foreign policy.

Mali’s Struggle: Not Simply of Their Own Making

In examining the political crises which have gripped Mali in recent months, it is important not to fall into simplistic analyses of dysfunctional or “failed” African states. Indeed, the Malian people have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to mobilize civil society and build stable democratic governance despite a history of enormous poverty, ethnic divisions, and foreign intervention.

In 1991, more than two decades prior to similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Mousa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others — supported by griots (traditional singing storytellers) who would sing allegorical songs regarding historical freedom struggles — created a mass movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.

Despite corruption, poverty, and a weak infrastructure, Mali was widely considered to be the most stable and democratic country in West Africa. In order to educate and promote the rights and duties of its citizens, the government implemented a program called the “Decentralization Mission” in 1993 to encourage popular participation in local and regional elections. Independent radio stations and newspapers emerged and the country experienced lively and open political debate.

The events surrounding the nonviolent revolution of 1991 were regularly commemorated, with the anniversary of the March 26 massacre a national holiday. A series of monuments in the capital of Bamako also commemorate the pro-democracy struggle.

In the years since the 1991 revolution, even contentious politics was expressed largely nonviolently. There were several periods of student-led protests in the 1990s against high unemployment and other negative effects of structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions, contributing to the fall of one government through a no confidence vote in parliament. The tradition of nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism came to the fore in 2001 when a proposed constitutional referendum put forward by President Alpha Oumar Konaré was called off after a series of protests by those fearing it would have threatened the country’s independent judiciary and effectively make the president immune to prosecution. Additional protests against neo-liberal economic policies erupted in 2005. Hundreds peacefully demonstrated against the 2006 visit by then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in protest at his tough policies against immigrants. That same year, Mali hosted the World Social Forum, a mass gathering of thousands of activists from hundreds of civil society organizations.

A number of studies have demonstrated how dictatorships overthrown through largely nonviolent civil insurrections are far more likely to evolve into stable democracies than dictatorships ousted through armed revolution or foreign intervention. Mali appeared to be a prime example of this phenomenon.

Indeed, soon after the March Revolution of 1991, the Malian government negotiated a peace agreement with armed Tuareg rebels in which they agreed to end their rebellion in return for a degree of autonomy. In March 1996, there was a massive ceremonial burning of the rebels’ surrendered weapons in Bamako.

So, what led to the coup d’état and secessionist crisis?

Unlike the positive contagion from Tunisia’s nonviolent insurrection, neighboring Libya’s armed insurrection appears to have launched a far more negative trend. Indeed, a major reason for the African Union’s opposition to the NATO-led war in Libya was out of concern for the risk of spreading instability to neighboring Africa countries.

When last year’s initially nonviolent uprising in Libya against the Gaddafi regime turned to armed struggle, resulting in even greater government repression and thereby prompting NATO intervention, disparate armed groups — including Tuareg tribesmen — ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, resumed their long-dormant rebellion under the leadership of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Charging that the civilian government was not being tough enough against the rebels, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and other officers staged a coup on March 22 and called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the “war on terror.”

Sanogo’s training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of U.S. training of armies in the Sahel, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders. Gregory Mann, writing in Foreign Policy, notes how “a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”

Rather than responding violently to the coup, thousands of Malians in Bamako and elsewhere took to the streets demanding a return to democracy, members of the deposed civilian cabinet went on a hunger strike, and many civil servants and others refused to cooperate with the military regime. Meanwhile, both western and African countries imposed sanctions against the illegitimate government.

Most problematically, however, Tuareg rebels, taking advantage of the political divisions in the capital, consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country by capturing its remaining towns and declaring an independent state. The MNLA’s victories also led various Islamist militias, including extremists allied with Al-Qaeda, to seize a number of towns and impose their rigid ideological agenda.

The combination of internal and external pressures led Sanago to agree to step down and allow for the restoration of a civilian government in early April. The deposed president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who had become increasingly unpopular and whose term was set to expire in a few months, had agreed to step aside in favor of National Assembly president Dioncounda Traoré. Despite formally handing over power on April 12, however, the junta continued to arrest opponents and still wields considerable influence. Scattered fighting between rival armed forces erupted in the capital last week. Meanwhile, extremist Islamic militias in the north, taking advantage of the country’s chaos, have reportedly been destroying historic shrines and other cultural landmarks they consider idolatrous in Timbuktu and other northern cities.

The question now is whether the Malians can build upon their rich history of democratic governance and nonviolent resistance to regain their country’s once admired stability and freedom or whether the recent tragic events, fomented in part by misguided western policies, will be too serious from which to easily recover. In any case, Mali serves as yet another reminder of both the power of strategic nonviolent action and the consequences of foreign powers seeking to impose military solutions to complex political problems.

University of California Takes Aim at Human Rights Activists

From the Vietnam War to the Central American revolutions to apartheid South Africa to the East Timor occupation to the invasion of Iraq, university campuses have been an important venue for concerned scholars and activists to raise issues regarding human rights, international law and US foreign policy.

However, in an effort to stifle this tradition, University of California President Mark Yudof has launched a campaign targeting human rights activists and others challenging the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank and other policies of the right-wing US-backed Israeli government.

In March, Yudof posted a recent public letter in which he referred to protests on UC campuses against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as “hateful incidents” on par with defacing LGBT centers, hanging nooses to intimidate African-American students and painting swastikas on campus buildings.

As UC Davis Professor Bob Ostertag noted, under the University of California administration’s new criteria, “student protests against the segregationist policies of southern states during the civil rights movement would be considered ‘hateful events’ against whites, while protests against Serbian policies in Bosnia would be considered ‘hateful events’ against Serbs.” Indeed, the conflating of the right-wing Israeli government with the Jewish people is dangerous on a number of levels, including its apparent objective of invalidating any criticisms of any policies of this key Middle Eastern ally of the United States.

This campaign is already having an impact. UCLA Professor David Shorter, who teaches a course in Indigenous Studies, had curated on a course site available only to students in his class scores of links to possible references for a number of proposed topics for term papers. They included links to essays and other reference materials supportive of various indigenous struggles as well as some that were in opposition, including essays critical of the BDS campaign (boycott/divestment/sanctions) over Israel’s occupation policies. However, because it included a link to a group supportive of BDS, Professor Shorter was publicly reprimanded by the chair of the Academic Senate. This is believed to be the first time the University of California has ever admonished a professor for simply including a link by a human rights group.

One of the incidents which prompted Yudof’s initiative took place on the Davis campus when representatives of the Israeli military gave a public presentation during which they denied and rationalized for well-documented war crimes and criticized reputable human rights organizations. In response, a coalition of student groups – including Students of Justice and Peace in Palestine, Jewish Voices for Peace and the Latino/a student group MECHA – engaged in a silent walkout followed by “a small, peaceful discussion outside the building where they discussed the realities of life under occupation.” A university employee unaffiliated with those groups and their protest heckled the speakers and was appropriately removed from the room by campus security, but – according to faculty members present – the student protesters “did not disrupt the event, nor did any members of this diverse coalition interrupt the speakers.”

Yudof’s letter nevertheless characterizes the silent non-disruptive student protest as “verbal attacks,” comparing them to hate crimes against Jewish, African-American and GLBTQ students.

Yudof also announced that the university is now working with two organizations allied with the Israeli government – but notably no human rights groups or organizations supportive of the Israeli peace movement or the Palestinians – “to improve campus climate for all students and to take full advantage of our marvelous diversity.”

It is particularly ironic that Yudof has brought in the right-wing Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which – while originally a reputable civil rights group – has in more recent years placed much of its energy on defaming legitimate critics of Israeli policies. Given that the ADL has lost a number of court cases regarding spying, harassment and libel in recent years, the decision to bring them in as consultants on this sensitive matter is particularly disturbing. Those who have been victims of such ADL attacks have included scholars who categorically support Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and who have spoken out against unfair attacks against Israel, but happen to object to particular policies of the Israeli government which violate international humanitarian law. Other professors have been singled out simply for research which included evidence that happened to contradict positions taken by the Israeli government.

(For example, despite my consistent and categorical opposition to terrorism and advocacy of nonviolent forms of resistance, the ADL put out a widely circulated article about me entitled “professor justifies terrorism” following my 2005 article on the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Though the article fully acknowledged the group’s sordid history of terrorism and extremist ideology, I noted – based on reports from the US State Department and the Congressional Research Service – that they had not engaged in any terrorist attacks during the previous decade and had refocused their energies on their network of social services and on electoral politics.)

Despite personally informing President Yudof of the ADL’s lack of credibility on such matters, he has declined to reconsider the university’s decision to grant the right-wing group this important consultative role.

Yudof also organized a meeting with the Hillel Foundation directors from the UC’s campuses – who are generally acknowledged to be well to the right politically relative to most Jewish students in the university system – to discuss their “observations regarding how Israel is faring on campus, how the Jewish community perceives the university’s actions and inactions and, most important, how Jewish students are feeling about the situation.” It appears he has not made any comparable initiative to learn how Palestine is faring on campus, how the Palestinian or the human rights community perceives the university’s actions and inactions, or how Palestinian or other Arab students feel about the situation.
The University of California’s bias toward allied right-wing governments of the United States and opposition to human rights activists who challenge them is further illustrated by the university administration’s tolerance of actions by right-wing groups allied with the Israeli government, including attacking bystanders with pepper spray, wielding stun guns at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berkeley and fabricating quotes by moderate professors who support human rights in the Middle East to falsely depict them as anti-Israel extremists.

Anti-Jewish bigotry (“anti-Semitism”) – like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression – is unfortunately ubiquitous in contemporary society and sometimes does raise its ugly head among a minority of activists involved in movements supporting Palestinian rights. Whenever it does, it should be challenged forcefully and unreservedly condemned.

This is not what these recent actions by the University of California administration are about, however. These are nothing short of McCarthyistic attacks to suppress debate and free speech on human rights abuses by governments allied to the United States. And it is ironic that it this is taking place on university campuses, traditionally a center of such discourse – particularly at the University of California.