North Korea Is Not Iran

The drama around North Korea and Donald Trump took another bizarre twist last week, with the sudden announcement that Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would meet sometime before May. Reaction was as swift as it was diverse. The confusion deepened when the White House quickly walked back from its commitment, reassuring critics that there would be preconditions beyond those to which North Korea had already committed. Spokespeople later walked back the walkback.

Once again the Trump administration seems to be trying to extricate the country and the president from a situation he impetuously created. It is impossible, with a stripped-down and inexperienced staff in both the White House and the State Department, for a summit between two leaders to be ready in less than two months. That’s especially true with these two leaders.

This latest comic opera, however, allows us to take a snapshot of what’s wrong with the Trump administration’s entire approach to foreign policy and the U.S. approach to North Korea more broadly.

The Pros and Cons of the Proposed Meeting

It was not so long ago that Kim and Trump were trading childish insults, ramping up the rhetoric, and raising fears of a confrontation. Since then, tensions have mostly simmered, moving away from the most dangerous rhetoric. But until recently Trump had repeatedly dismissed talking with Kim, opting instead for aggressive posturing and increasing sanctions. Given that a new flare-up is possible at any moment, a meeting between the two leaders is a much better option.

But as is so often the case, Trump’s ignorance of diplomatic process and his refusal to listen to anyone but himself limits the good and increases the potential pitfalls of such a summit. From all indications, Trump agreed to this meeting in the spur of the moment, without consulting anyone. That’s a problem.

Meetings between adversarial leaders generally require months of talks by lower-level diplomats to set up a basic framework. The failure of such talks generally sets back diplomatic efforts and increases the risk of confrontation. And such an outcome is far more likely when there is no clear agenda. In this case, it’s not clear that Trump even has an idea of what a desirable, and realistic, outcome might be.

Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011-2017, wrote this week:

The White House is unable to hide its contempt for experienced public servants. But the base of knowledge of these servants—not just of technical details, but of the political and psychological interests of Kim Jong Un—is the foundation necessary for successful negotiations, no matter how good a deal-maker the president believes himself to be. This isn’t a reality show: The president will need to be prepared with all the facts and understand the history between our nations if he is to make progress toward brokering an agreement with North Korea.

Trump also needs to have a clear goal at such a meeting. It will be trouble if he believes that he can sit down and quickly reach a deal on North Korean denuclearization. Trump will likely hit a wall, and given his volatile personality, move to a new level of belligerence.

Obviously it’s better for Trump to be talking across a table rather than taunting on Twitter or engaging in any sort of military action. But the chances of this ending well are astoundingly thin. If the meeting never happens, as seems possible, the United States, the world’s only superpower, has reinforced an already frighteningly strong reputation for dissembling and unreliability. If it does happen, and Trump leaves dissatisfied, which is at least a very strong possibility, he is very likely to ramp up the Twitter insults.

A Trump-Kim meeting could end with some sort of framework to move forward. That’s really a low bar for a head-of-state meeting. That’s why countries have professional diplomats. Yet even that outcome seems a very remote possibility. In the Trump era, though, that qualifies as hopeful.

North Korea Will Not Denuclearize Any Time Soon

Although talking is a remedy to potential violence, Trump’s impetuosity in agreeing to talks gave Kim Jong-un a big victory. Because Iran had nothing to gain from fruitless meetings with the United States, just agreeing to talk was worthless as a bargaining chip. Kim has never been accepted by the international community. Even agreeing to this meeting gives him a legitimacy he craves deeply. This meeting was something that needed to be sold, not given.

This is where the North Korean situation differs from that of Iran, though both disputes center around nuclear weapons.

Iran was a country that, at worst, was moving haltingly toward a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran’s actual acquisition of a weapon, while supported by some of its most conservative quarters, was highly controversial domestically. The Iranian theocracy could excuse and explain much of what it had done to the people, but actually developing a nuclear weapon would have directly violated a fatwa against such weapons. Kim faces no such domestic issues.

More to the point, however, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, much less one small enough to be mounted on a warhead. North Korea, by contrast, certainly has nuclear bombs, and missiles on which they can be mounted. They claim to have mastered the process by which they can make the bombs small enough to mount. Though some outside observers doubt this capability, the US reportedly concluded in August 2017 that North Korea could indeed miniaturize and mount their bombs. In any case, they have nuclear weapons and can certainly threaten South Korea with them, if nothing else.

Both North Korea and Iran surely understand the lesson of Libya. Whatever Muammar Qaddafi may have been, and he was certainly a horrifyingly brutal dictator, he gave up his nuclear weapons, was eventually ousted from power with large-scale US assistance, and was killed. Iran has a long and bitter history with the United States. But North Korea’s outlook is shaped by the near-total destruction of the country by international forces led by the United States in the Korean War.

Under Donald Trump, the United States has routinely violated its commitment under the nuclear deal to refrain from discouraging companies or other countries form doing business with Iran. Combined with North Korea’s history of blatant violations of agreements, there is far less trust here than there ever was with Iran during the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

So, North Korea will have a far higher bar for giving up their nuclear weapons than Iran did for its more modest nuclear ambitions. Specific peace treaties, international guarantees, military partnerships, and a great deal of economic support will all be required for North Korea to even consider giving up its nukes.

The threshold may be too high. In any case, the negotiations will need to involve the entire international community, including China and with South Korea playing a key role. When South Africa sacrificed its nuclear weapons, it reaped great benefits and, nearly three decades later, has had no reason to regret that decision. That is the counter-example to Libya. But realistically, Kim Jong-un is more likely to look at the world through the prism of Tripoli than Pretoria.

The only way forward is to recognize that denuclearization is a very long-term goal. Along the way, the international community can begin the long, difficult process of reducing North Korea’s isolation. A North Korea that is not threatened will either give up its nukes or not be a threat with them.

This path is much longer than the one with Iran. Negotiators cannot afford to be frustrated by the fact that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons until it is much further along this path. For a president ignorant of history, current realities, and diplomatic processes, a president moreover who demands instant gratification, the prospects of engaging with North Korea over the long term are bleak.

The Palestinian Refugee Issue is Not Going to Resolve Itself

When I started getting serious about action on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the associated US foreign policy, I found it imperative to Talbieh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordanconvince people that the Oslo Accords were doomed to fail. There were the obvious critiques of the accords: the lack of any sort of human rights framework, the absence of consequences for failing to abide by conditions or fulfill agreed upon commitments, and the formal recognition of Israel without any mention whatsoever of a potential Palestinian state. But I saw an even bigger obstacle.

Conventional wisdom has it that Jerusalem is the most difficult stumbling block. But I have always maintained that it is the Palestinian refugees that were the most serious obstacle to a negotiated solution.

When various compromises were discussed about Jerusalem, they were always regarded as controversial and difficult to sell. Yet in my experience, people on both sides saw pretty clearly how a compromise could be crafted. Israel was willing, at least in the past, to permit the Islamic Waqf to continue administering the Temple Mount while official sovereignty would belong to both sides–the Old City would be divided and the border of East and West Jerusalem would be part of the agreement on borders more broadly. No one thought this would be easy, of course, but Israel appeared willing to compromise on this issue, in part because it understood that this was not just a Palestinian issue, but one that the entire Muslim population of the world had a stake in. The parameters of an agreement were visible.

When the matter of the Palestinian refugees came up on the other hand, there was a visible disconnect between the sentiments among the Palestinians, both in and outside the Occupied Territories, and the diplomatic framework that was being discussed. Many observers believed that the path forward on the refugees was clearer than that for Jerusalem, even though this was an area that Israel, no matter who was in the prime minister’s office, was going to be a lot less flexible on.

They believed that to be the case because, from available evidence, it seems that Yasser Arafat was assuring the Israelis and Americans that he was prepared to essentially sacrifice the refugees’ right of return settling for some token number returning to Israel while the rest would get some sort of compensation package and some limited option of returning to the presumed Palestinian state. This was, of course, not what he was telling the Palestinian people, to whom he continually pledged that he would not compromise on the right of return.

While many hold Arafat responsible for the disconnect between diplomacy and reality, obviously not without some justification, the real problem was the disinterest that Israeli and US diplomats routinely showed toward the Palestinian people. One need go no further than to read books by key figures such as Dennis Ross or Aaron David Miller. While the complexities of Israeli politics were always dealt with in careful detail, the Palestinian side was ignored to such an extent that virtually everything you see in the writings of these and other diplomats of the day about Palestinian opinion was obtained simply by asking the Palestinian leaders. Can anyone imagine Israel being approached that way?

The Palestine Liberation Organization leadership (PLO) under Arafat was neither prepared to hold the difficult national dialogue about possible compromise on the refugee issue nor to admit to their Israeli and US interlocutors that the right of return was as core a national Palestinian value as the land itself and that public sentiment strongly opposed the sort of compromise that Israel had, not without reason, come to expect.

This held true after Arafat’s death and Mahmoud Abbas’ assumption of the leadership. In truth, even Hamas has not specifically spoken about the refugees very often, although that is largely because its agenda, unlike the PLO after the mid-1970s, remained focused on liberating all of Palestine, which would mean the refugees could simply return. The result is that the national conversation on this issue never occurred, and all through the Oslo talks, even if one believed they had any chance of going anywhere, the refugee issue hung over the table like a pendulum with a razor-sharp blade, coming nearer to splitting the table with every passing swing.

The biggest danger was that, in the case of a miracle where Israel and the Palestinians were able to agree on a lasting peace deal, the refugee issue would shatter it. In several incidents, most recently with the revelations contained in the “Palestine Papers,” confirmation of the framework around the refugees caused great concern among Palestinians.

It is not always easy for others, including myself, to fully grasp the importance of the refugee issue to Palestinians. Nor is it fully understood by others how deeply Israeli Jews fear this issue. For the Palestinians, refugees are a deeply personal as well as a national issue. After all, the accepted estimate of the number of Palestinian refugees is approximately five million, and the total global population of Palestinians is eleven million. So, pretty much every Palestinian has refugee relatives, many of them living outside the Palestinian Territories. Families, in other words, have been sundered for 66 years.

Palestine-Refugee-KeyThen there is the reality, often vastly underestimated, of how central the refugees are to Palestinian nationalism. They are as core a value as the land, Jerusalem, anything. The key to the lost home in Palestine is the overriding symbol of Palestinian nationalism, and it is the symbol of the refugee.

This is not to say that some practical and negotiated agreement cannot be reached on the issue. But thus far, that hasn’t been even remotely attempted. Instead, Israel has insisted that the right of return be forfeited and their Western allies have concurred, as have, in a more circumspect fashion, many of the regional Arab leaders, Lebanon being the main exception. That makes the issue even more sensitive, if that is possible, because for most Palestinians, the framework in which the refugees have been discussed is a surrender, and one that they do not believe the PLO leadership has the authority to make (many Palestinians argue that the right of return is an individual as well as a collective right and as such cannot be negotiated away in a collective bargaining framework. There is considerable basis for this argument).

What is needed is a national conversation, and that will take time. The debates need to happen in communities, in coffee shops and in mosques as well as on the internet and in the halls of the Palestinian Authority. Over time, a general consensus of what is and is not going to be tolerable for the majority of Palestinians, including the refugees themselves, will emerge. From there, realistic negotiations on the issue can manifest.

This needs to happen because it is the only way to turn the refugee problem from a poison pill that would almost certainly torpedo any agreement into part of the solution. The Israeli public also needs to know what the Palestinians want from the right of return.

There is no subject that the Israeli Jewish public is more united and rejectionist on than the refugee issue. Outside of the radical anti-Zionist left–a small portion of the population–you will be hard pressed to find an Israeli Jew who would agree to any significant return of refugees. You’ll find it equally difficult to find an Israeli who would acknowledge any right of return. The refugees, you see, touch on the most intimate identity crisis for Israeli Jews: the fact that Israel could have only come into existence by forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out.

This “original sin” is not something that Israelis can simply live with as we in the United States can live with the legacy of slavery and the genocide of the native population here. In the US, we have left too few natives to be worried about any claims to the land, and they are far too disempowered. Slavery is considered a historical shame, but the ongoing issues of racism are largely seen by whites as the legacy of Jim Crow laws (read: apartheid) rather than of slavery. These horrific crimes are regarded by most of the white US as history, however sordid.

Israeli Jews cannot do that. No doubt, the leaders of the Zionist movement in the 1940s believed that, by now, the Palestinians would have resettled in various Arab countries and that Israel could make peace with that past in a similar way to the United States. But that view did not take into account the fact that Palestinians were going to be in refugee camps nearby, would refuse to assimilate (or be barred from it) into the countries they fled to, and would maintain a sense of national identity that kept them–much like Jews throughout the centuries–as strangers in strange lands.

The reality of the Palestinian exodus from Palestine from 1947-49 was largely known in Israel all along. In the late 1980s, Israel’s “New Historians” produced controversial, but generally accurate tomes documenting that the Palestinians did not leave of their own volition or in response to broadcasts from Arab leaders telling them to do so. They either fled or were very frequently driven from their homes.

Many Israelis are aware of all this. But, as with most nations, the people of Israel want desperately to believe in the righteousness of their country’s creation. Moreover, there is enormous fear of what the world would think if this history became more commonly known, especially in the United States and other friendly Western countries where, among supporters of Israel, this history is largely unknown or papered over with some rather incredible myths (e.g., the Palestinians of 1948–all 800,000 and more of them–just picked up and left). Even acknowledging the Palestinian right of return threatens this, creating a situation where history, even when known, produces a visceral discomfort and threatens the Jewish self-image of a just and decent people trying to finally create a home for ourselves.

By itself, that could be overcome. But for Israelis, that sensitivity is piled on top of a fear of Palestinian return that borders on hysteria. And this fear is greatly exacerbated by the lack of clarity about Palestinians’ ambitions regarding the right of return. Israeli Jews treasure, more than anything else, having a homeland where they are the majority. Having such a homeland is also very important to many Jews living in the diaspora. That importance is every bit as strong as worldwide Muslim concern over the fate of Jerusalem.

Israelis are desperately afraid that if they cease blocking the right of return, even to the extent of merely acknowledging the existence of such a right, there would be a massive influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel, which would ultimately make Jews a distinct minority. True, many argue, Jews are doing pretty well as a minority in many countries; but many countries in the world are completely bereft of any Jewish population, especially in the Arab world. And, while they won’t name it, Jews also have the same visceral fear of Palestinians that white South Africans, whites in the US and in other places have had of those they oppressed: the fear that anger over those years of oppression will result in yet another incident of Jewish persecution.

It’s easy for me to say that the fear is born only out of prejudice and misplaced feelings, that the truly hateful among the Palestinians, like the truly hateful among the Jewish Israelis can be dealt with much more efficiently when Palestinian grievances, so long left to boil, are finally addressed. But for most Israelis and Jews in many other places, they look at the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, places where the cycle of oppression kept spinning with death greasing the wheel. Given Jewish history, it’s an understandable fear.

But it’s also a fear that must be dealt with, not pandered to. When Arafat convinced Israelis that the PLO had backed off liberating all of Palestine and would settle for the lands Israel conquered in 1967, it made a big difference in Israeli perceptions of Palestinians. Even in the toxic atmosphere of 2014, such clarity from the Palestinians on refugees would have a similar effect. This would be true even if the Palestinians’ stance turns out to be (as I believe it would if the popular will was reflected) that each and every refugee should be offered the options of return, return to a Palestinian state (if a two-state solution is ever reached) or compensation, and it is up to each to choose for her or himself. At least Israel would know what the bargaining position is.

The International Crisis Group undertook what I consider to be the first serious effort at finally taking the veil off this critical issue by releasing a report entitled, “Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question,” on Oct. 9. It is a serious and pragmatic analysis of what Palestinian leaders and people can do to begin to bring this question out of the shadows and, crucially, to the center of diplomatic efforts. The recommendations include renewing and revitalizing local leadership councils in refugee camps, improving conditions for refugees as well as supporting refugees in building lives wherever they are without worrying that they are sacrificing their claims as refugees, and beginning the sort of national dialogue I have been discussing.

Now is the perfect time for such efforts, although Israel and the United States will oppose them. Even Abbas has realized that his old strategy has failed and he needs a new one. Refugees, long marginalized, have an opportunity to raise their voice and have it impact Palestinian negotiators in the future. And, despite the fact that Israelis would be vexed by such a development, it is an absolute necessity if there is ever to be a resolution to this conflict, be it one state, two state or whatever else.

This strategy will be uncomfortable for the Palestinian Authority. But it must materialize for the region to move towards substantive rather than illusionary visions of peace. We must hope that good sense can overcome fear.

Myth-Making and Obama’s UNGA Speech

Once again, in his speech Wednesday at the United Nations, President Obama revealed the reduced importance of the Israeli-Palestinian

Obama speaking at last year's UNGA

Obama speaking at last year’s UNGA

conflict on his agenda. He also revealed just how out of touch his entire country is with respect to reality.

The Israel-Palestine conflict was the last specific global issue mentioned by Obama in his address to the UN General Assembly, and his wording was straight out of the playbook. It was also only mentioned briefly and without any hint that the United States would be taking any action at all on the issue.

Here’s what he said:

Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace. But let’s be clear: the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable. We cannot afford to turn away from this effortnot when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis, or the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza. So long as I am President, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the world will be more just with two states living side by side, in peace and security.

Could this have been any emptier? Just last month, Israel and Hamas were engaged in the biggest uptick in violence since the Second Intifada was in full swing.

The message from Obama comes through, though: We’re no longer interested in forcing the parties to the table. The subtext behind that is a US surrender to the stubbornness of the far-right wing government running Israel these days. The US will stop pressuring Israel for talks, and indeed, it already has. The question this raises, of course, is how the Obama administration will respond when and if the Palestinian Authority makes good on its repeated threats to bring this issue to the UN and the International Criminal Court.

In such a case, Obama will undoubtedly condemn the Palestinians’ “unilateral action”de facto US policy dictates that when the Palestinians take action, it is to be condemned, but when Israel does the same thing, it is, at worst, “unhelpful.” Yet the real question for the Palestinians is whether the United States will have any other response outside of some pro forma public statement. Obama’s hands-off approach seems to imply that it will not, though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be unwise to count on that.

But there’s another piece of this statement worth examining. Obama said, as he has many times, that the situation is unsustainable. He also notes that one myth that has long been held by many has been exposed as false by recent events: the notion that Palestine is the key source of instability in the region.

Obama is correct about the exposed old myth, but he merely spouts another in its place. Of course the occupation will not remain the same as it is today. It has changed some of its characteristics, almost always to the detriment of the Palestinians, many times since 1967. But the essence of the matter, the relationship between an occupying power and an occupied people locked in a conflict over land, rights, narratives, nationalism and competing claims of justice, has endured quite well over those years.

The Israeli right-wing was long aware, and often stated, that their subjugation of the Palestinians was not the main cause of instability in the region. Of course, there was a time when there was a much stronger argument for that myth. When the many Arab regimes, throughout most of the 20th century, were comfortably entrenched in power, things were pretty stable, as they often are under dictatorships that maintain their control. Under those circumstances, the cry of “Free Palestine” was heard much more loudly, as it was the only one the dictators would permit. Due to many factors (especially the US invasion of Iraq), that stability was shattered and, as one would expect, much of the Arab world, while not forgetting the Palestinians, demonstrated a focus on the miserable conditions they themselves were living in, and conflicts within their own countries. Thus, the myth was exposed.

But we don’t need a shakeup like the Arab Awakening to see that the claim that the occupation is “unsustainable” is a myth. We really need only see that it has endured for more than 47 years, and when circumstances did threaten the status quo, Israel adapted its occupation to meet those circumstances. The most obvious example of that is the massive tightening of the occupation and even more massive expansion of settlements that constituted Israel’s response to the Oslo Accords.

It’s a truism that any oppressive regime eventually meets its demise. That is clearly not what Obama means when he calls the occupation “unsustainable.” Rather, he means what so many others mean: Israel cannot continue to hold millions of Palestinians without rights. But, like so many other myths around Israel-Palestine, this one doesn’t bear scrutiny. Israel has done this for 47 years, and can do it for the foreseeable future. The demise of the occupation regime will come, as the demise of all regimes eventually come. But there is nothing particularly unsustainable about this one.

The Israeli right has become the Israeli mainstream, and they are busily coming up with ideas for how to sustain this occupation or, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman likes to put it, “manage” the conflict. They recognize that the fear, ingrained in the thinking of many of the early Zionist philosophers of a Jewish Israel ruling over a majority of disenfranchised Muslim and Christian Arabs is unfounded. It turns out that contrary to the expectations of the early Zionist thinkers, Israelis can live with denying rights to Arabs, and the world is prepared to tolerate it, despite the clucking of tongues it evokes.

This issue can be traced back all the way to Theodor Herzl, and it was actively dealt with by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and, most notably, by the person in charge of land acquisition for the Jewish National Fund both before and after the State of Israel was established, Yoseph Weitz. In modern times, this notion has been expressed as a “demographic time bomb,” most notably by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

But there’s no reason to believe this is really a problem. After all, according to the February 2014 report of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are about 6,119,000 Jews in Israel and the West Bank. Between the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, there are some 5,894,631 Palestinians, according to the CIA World Factbook. Given the different population growth rates, Palestinians will be a majority very soon, but the day that happens, what is going to change? On the ground, in day to day life, what will be different than the day before?

The answer, of course, is that nothing will change and the Israeli right-wing understands this. The United States, on the other hand, apparently does not. More to the point, the many activists who believe that Jews going from 51% of the population to 49% of it will suddenly mean that Israel is an apartheid state, as both Olmert and another former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak warned, also do not understand that when that line is crossed, nothing will change. Nothing will change when that so-called demographic time bomb goes off.

So, while right-wing leaders like Naftali Bennett consider ways to continue to “manage” the Palestinians indefinitely, Obama and a great many others, in the United States, Israel, Europe and even some among the Palestinians, continue to engage in myth-making and wishful thinking.

If this conflict is ever to be resolved, the only path to it entails full acknowledgment of the realities, on the ground, in the international diplomatic sphere and in politics. Anyone who truly believes that the demographic counter clicking down to under 50% Jewish will somehow shock the Israeli people and their government into recognizing the injustice of the occupation is engaging in fantasy. Such demographic changes are gradual, and this cushions the change so it is not a shock. In 1960, Whites, who were always an overwhelming minority, made up less than 20% of the population of South Africa, and Jews are unlikely to ever be anywhere near that small a minority in Israel-Palestine.

This is only one of many myths that need to be abandoned for any kind of resolution to be possible. It’s no less important to dispel these fanciful notions than it is to counter the stereotypes of Palestinians that are so widely held in the United States, Israel and elsewhere (like “they just want to kill the Jews” for instance). One way we will know people are serious about taking on this vexing conflict is when we see them abandon false notions and recognize that Israel-Palestine can contribute to a better world simply by ending the injustice and violence. When that’s the motivation, and it is applied to both sides, we’ll be getting somewhere.

A Poison Pill For AIPAC

Today, I’m asking my readers to please support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group has been working hard on some new legislation and it’s really important to help get this bill to the floor of the Senate and the House.

According to a report in Buzzfeed, AIPAC has been working with congressional staff members for months on the bill, trying to find the formula for success. The bill would “…aim to prevent U.S. companies from participating in the (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) campaign without infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights to political speech. It would also try to make the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the U.S. and E.U. conditional on whether the E.U. takes action to stop BDS.”

And how would they prevent US companies from participating in BDS? By “…authorizing states and local governments to divest from companies deemed to be participating in BDS,” and by denying “…federal contracts to such companies.” This bill should be at the top of the agenda for American activists in the United States who wish to see our country change its policies towards Israel and Palestine.

AIPAC hasn’t been doing very well of late. Their attempt to weasel a provision into another bill that would have allowed Israelis to enter the United States without a visa while Israel refused to make the same arrangement for US citizens raised a lot of hackles on Capitol Hill, even in some offices that are very AIPAC-friendly. The proposed provision was killed. AIPAC was unable to sway the Senate against the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Nor has it been able to significantly impact the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

There have been a lot of failures lately, including the failure to get Congress to push hard for an attack on Syria last year. But this bill, if it ever reaches the floor, could be the biggest bust of all, with some serious ramifications for the powerful lobbying group.

Let’s just start with the First Amendment issues this raises. If this bill ever sees the light of day, AIPAC is going to try to convince people that it is similar to the laws passed forty years ago in response to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. Put simply, it isn’t.

Those laws–the 1977 amendments to the Export Administration Act (EAA) and the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act (TRA)–were drawn up narrowly, to apply only in the case of abetting or cooperating with a boycott directed at Israel by other countries. The mentions of boycott “by a foreign nation” or similar words are so frequent that the meaning cannot be missed. This is no surprise, of course; Congress is loath to dictate to US businesses, and it is especially tricky where a national interest is not clearly and immediately at stake. So these laws were contrived so that they only barred supporting boycotts by foreign countries against Israel.

In the case of BDS, no government is running this program, not even the pseudo-governments of the Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has not endorsed boycotts of Israel and is, itself, completely incapable of boycotting Israeli goods and services. It is in most ways a captive market to Israel. Hamas has, frankly, paid little attention to such measures, though they have encouraged them rhetorically from time to time.

There is a call for BDS from Palestinian civil society, but that is not covered by the 1970s laws. Moreover, any law that would target BDS would need to be constructed in such a way so that it would not have made boycotts of Apartheid South Africa illegal. Those boycotts also came in response to a call from the African National Congress. If businesses could not engage in such activities, there would be great outrage.

So the Arab League boycott is moot as a basis for anti-BDS legislation. The right to boycott is also not limited by what the government decides is an acceptable boycott and what is not. People, and businesses, are free to choose with whom they will do business. Congress making such decisions violates the very essence of the First Amendment, and it is highly unlikely that such a law could pass as a result and, if it could, even less likely that it could withstand legal challenges.

The bit about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is even more toxic. The point of TTIP is to make international trade between the United States and European Union easier, to reduce tariffs and lessen bureaucracy. The idea is to significantly improve the speed, and thus the volume and value, of trade between the two economic giants. Adding stipulations like ensuring that EU states are working against BDS is precisely what TTIP is designed to avoid. Whatever my own objections to TTIP (and they are many), it clearly holds great appeal for businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is one thing for US citizens with influence in Washington to go along with the powerful lobbying forces defending Israel’s ability to act with impunity in the region; for the most part, that has not had a negative effect on trade. But this would be a very different matter. Now we are talking about AIPAC going up against powerful, domestic business interests. That is a whole new ballgame.

Even bringing the bill to the floor would demonstrate in a clearer way than ever before that AIPAC is willing to compromise US commercial interests and even one of the most cherished and basic freedoms the US prides itself on for the sake of Israeli interests.

Consider also that the overwhelming majority of boycott actions, divestment decisions and even popular proposals for sanctions against Israel have focused squarely on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They have not targeted Israel as a whole, with the exception of some of the attempts at cultural and academic boycott. But these are not major concerns for Israel nor do they have the same impact potential as economic boycotts and divestment. So, the threat to free speech and to international trade that this bill represents would be demonstrably in the service of the settlement enterprise, the siege of Gaza and the occupation regime more generally. The mask would be off.

In reality, I very much doubt any such legislation is ever going to move forward, at least not from AIPAC. They know the problems as well as anyone and, while I don’t doubt that they are working constantly with their closest friends in Congress to see if something could work, I don’t think they’ll be successful. But if you want to see AIPAC suffer major damage, such a bill would do it. I can’t think of a better strategy to oppose AIPAC than to do everything we can to make sure this sort of doomed anti-BDS legislation hits the floor in Congress with a resounding thud.

The Reprehensible Use of Mandela’s Legacy to Support Oppression

One of the greatest and most repulsive of tactics employed by repressive regimes and bigoted ideologues is the co-opting of the

Mandela's image on a bad held by a San Francisco protester against Israel's assault on Gaza in 2009. [Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes, published under a Creative Commons license]

Mandela’s image on a bad held by a San Francisco protester against Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009.
[Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes, published under a Creative Commons license]

legacies of great figures in the fight for justice and freedom. It never fails to happen, and it is never anything less than morally reprehensible. Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of it since Nelson Mandela’s passing, and equally unsurprising, Israel has been among the leaders in this practice.

Now, let me be clear, Israel is not unique in this regard. Indeed, the lunatic right wing in the United States which has been so influential in destroying US politics and the US economy, which has led the US into disastrous wars that have wreaked havoc on the globe but which, thankfully, is at least losing the social battles in the United States has raised this practice almost to an art form. Consider the recent statement of GOP congressional candidate from Illinois, Ian Bayne, comparing the anti-LGBT, racist and …well, the list of bigotries is too long, statements of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson to the actions of none other than Rosa Parks:

“In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians…What Parks did was courageous. What Mr. Robertson did was courageous too.” Continue reading