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Rosen in Middle East Forum: ma’essalama to the last fig leaf of impartiality 3, December 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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It can be difficult to say or write anything regarding the surprising power of the Israeli lobby in America (and specifically their affect on American foreign policy) without being lambasted as a pinko lefty or, at worst, an anti Semite. Look at two of America’s most respected academics, John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt, and their attempt to engage with the topic. They wrote the imaginatively titled “The Israeli Lobby” to much opprobrium and outrage. I think that when academics of this calibre write a book as meticulously researched and seemingly as scrupulously honest as this book happens to be, and yet they still receive such heated criticism, there is, as one might say, a cat away with the pigeons (i.e. something is not right).

I can understand it, to some degree, when people come up against the irascible Norman Finklestein. His book, The Holocaust Industry, is interesting, thought provoking and generally a good read, though perhaps a claim or two too far. Either which way, it simply does not convey anything like the academic authority as does the Mearsheimer-Walt effort. This is not to mention, of course, the combative nature of Finklestein. I saw him give a lecture in Edinburgh last year and whilst his typical spiel was utterly convincing (as you might expect) and generally well articulated, after an hour or so of this and with the q and a at the end, his bristly, angry and polemical self came to the fore. His scathing, vicious and obviously deep seated hatred of the American and Israeli elite was all too visible to see. He is, therefore, something of an easier target. 

So, having pinned my colours to the wall somewhat, I come onto the case of Steven Rosen and his new job in an influential Middle East Forum think tank. Some background first. Steven Rosen was the head of policy development in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the top Israeli think tank-cum-lobbying group in the States. Whilst in this position he was accused of stealing highly classified information from sources within the America government and passing it on to the Israeli government. Indeed, he is still technically on trial at this point.

It is alleged that Rosen and Keith Weissman groomed one of the Pentagon’s top Iran experts, Larry Franklin, and got him to pass some 83 classified reports onto them and AIPAC and, therefore, Israel, over some three decades. The FBI eventually caught up with this alleged spy ring and arrested Franklin who was sentenced to a reduced sentence of 12 years in jail for his cooperation. Despite his testimony indicting Rosen and Weissman, the case has still never seen a court of law, owing to – it is suggested – delaying tactics by the defending lawyers.

The defence of the accused was not that they were not involved in the alleged activities, for they admit that they were, but they maintain that they were simply engaging their first amendment rights and doing the job of a good journalist. Need I point out that there was not, however, a newspaper as the end-user of this information, but the Israeli government? This, it seems to me, would make a difference, but then again, I am not immersed in the nuances of this case.

Yet despite ipso facto admitting that he was indeed committing a crime – but for “good” reasons – and indeed being quickly let go by AIPAC, Rosen has now been hired by a think tank whose mission is – like all think tanks – to inform, educate and suggest policy. Rosen, it seems to me, whether you think that he was morally right or wrong, is an unsuitable candidate for such a job. His position on Middle Eastern issues is painfully clear – he has committed a federal crime to support them – so how can he possibly be expected to undertake balanced research or reach balanced policy recommendations? He is in fact going to join Daniel Pipes’ think tank, which is already placed firmly on (the right hand of) the  ideological scale. Yet even for Pipes himself, surely this is an egregious example of flagrant bias so as to not even cast a vague, half-hearted nod to any pretentions of equality or impartiality whatsoever?

I do not claim to be an expert on this situation. I have only been reading about this story specifically for a few days now, but the evidence seems to be just simply incontrovertible. Any dissenting opinions are welcome.


Finkelstein on the Israeli-Palestinian situation: it’s not complicated 26, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Media in the ME, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The soft spoken Norman Finkelstein took the stage some 15 minutes late: not so bad for a visiting lecturer. For the next two and a half hours he gave a professional and persuasive lecture entitled ‘Israel and Palestine: the roots of the problem and the prospects for peace.’ He was, of course, preaching to the converted. This event was the last of a five stop UK tour which began in Manchester and ended last night at the George Square theatre in Edinburgh. It was organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) and had the typical adornments of such events: the pro-Palestinian pamphlets, the selection of hippies, and the communists – literally – outside in the cold.

He began with the almost iconoclastic phrase that the Israeli-Palestinian situation was not, in any way shape or form, complex. It is not – he continued – controversial; too difficult to understand or comprehend; it does not defy analysis; and it is, above all else, quite simple. This was the theme throughout the lecture, and it was well argued.

He cites the four issues of the conflict, which are often said to be the most intractable:

1) the question of the legal borders of Israel and Palestine

2) the question of the legality of the Israeli settlements

3) the questions of East Jerusalem

4) the question of the Palestinian refugees

These are the four questions which are the kernel of the problem, he maintains, which are consistently portrayed as being so complex as to be nigh-on insoluble. However, they are not at all that controversial and this confusion is sowed specifically to muddy the issues, he continued.

Finkelstein explained that in July 2004 the highest judicial body in the world, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave an advisory opinion as to the legality of the wall that the Israelis were (and are) constructing. In order to render this opinion, the court had to consider preliminary questions which correspond to the first three questions above.

On the question of Israeli borders the ICJ was unequivocal. Since, according to international law, land may not be acquired by force, and since Israel acquired land in Gaza and the West Bank this way, it is, ipso facto, illegal. There is, therefore, in effect, no dispute regarding the disputed territories: international law is clear and straight forward – the land does not belong to the Israelis. Therefore, following on from this judgement, Israeli settlers are settled on land that was obtained illegally, and are thus in flagrant violation of international law.

On the question of East Jerusalem the court is similarly unambiguous. It was acquired during the 1967 war and thus, again, because land may not be seized by force according to international law, this is Palestinian land and Israelis have no title to it.

However, the crucial aspect is how many judges voted on or for the above arguments? The final tally was a resounding 14:1. This is where Finkelstein gets his ‘there is no confusion or complexity’ notion from: it has already been overwhelmingly decided upon by the ICJ. Even the one vote against the motion from the American judge was not a rejection but a more neutral lack of acceptance, and furthermore, he did accept the notion that the wall that the Israelis are building was illegal because they had acquired the land illegally and thus, on that specific question, the vote was 15:0.

The second theme that he addressed was around the issue of terrorism semantics. A crucial difference, it is often claimed, is that the various Arab terrorist groups strive to maximize civilian fatalities, where as the Israelis, whilst killing three or four times as many people, at least do not have this as an avowed aim. Finkelstein defines terrorism as ‘the targeting of civilians to further a political end’ and retorts that if the Israeli army launch artillery into a town or spray a crowd with bullets then the “inevitable and foreseeable consequence” of this is the deaths of civilians and therefore, these actions are ipso facto purposeful and intentional. Israeli actions are thus the intended targeting of civilians. The stated Israeli aim of many such actions (eg. the shelling of a village) is to put pressure on the leaders to do x and y, which is wholly political. Thus, Israel are pursuing a political end by the specific targeted killing of civilians, which is terrorism.

In order to answer the fourth ‘intractable’ question, he used his own situation as an analogy to good effect. When he was denied tenure at his former university, he firmly believed that had he gone through the court system, he would have won eventually. However, he was told that this would take around six years and would cost an exorbitant amount of money. He said that whilst he will always believe that he does have the right to tenure at the university, just as the Palestinians have the right to return, in terms of practicality, for him it was just not feasible to pursue it, just as he believes, the Palestinian right of return is not feasible.

He also eloquently argued against several other perceived injustices surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Returning to his central theme, he pointed out that every year the UN security council vote on a resolution on a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The vote is typically utterly one sided. E.g. 1981: 151:3, 1997: 155:2, 2002: 160:4, 2007: 161:7. Although the numbers of dissenters appears to have been rising in recent years, it must be forgotten that one is always the US and the other Israel, whilst the others are states such Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Federal States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

Another interesting point that he made was about the comparison of the conflict with others in the past. Whist to some there seems to be an apt comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa, such notions, if they make it to mainstream media are drowned out in a sea of vitriol and outrage. This was the case when former American President Jimmy Carter released a book titled ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’ to considerable opprobrium .Those defending Israel from this comparison, inevitably end up discussing the holocaust and using it to garner sympathy and obfuscate generally. However, the list of people who do think that such a comparison is warranted is lengthy and impressive, including Jimmy Carter, Haaretz the leading Israeli newspaper, Israel’s former attorney general, education minister and even Ariel Sharon.

Finkelstein concluded by saying that all is not lost. Much or even most public opinion is against Israel in this situation and that while the Israeli lobby may be strong; those fighting for the Palestinians have truth on their side.

Overall, Finkelstein was impressive, but there are, without doubt, several points to be raised with Finkelstein’s argument. The ICJ is a famously toothless body, rendering opinions for those that want to hear them. There is no coercion there whatsoever. Israel can ignore their injunctions and motions continually. They will have to be made to adhere to such motions by some other source. Also, in his section comparing Palestinian and Israeli terrorism, he defined terrorism in a self-serving manner, referring to it as ‘targeting of civilians for a political end.’ Whole books (and not small ones) have been written discussing the difficulties of defining terrorism. However, the vast majority these definitions include some notion of a sub-state actor in the definition. This would, thus, exculpate Israel from committing terrorism in a semantic way. I am not sure if simply glossing over this is the way to deal with this particular argument. Israel will simply refer back to the semantics which are in their favour. However, if – somehow – a concerted effort could be made to change the definition to one that included actions of states against civilians for political ends, then this would be enormously fruitful.