The Breath of Idols

by mgopin on May 14, 2010 · 5 comments

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“Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge;
Every metalsmith is put to shame by an image;
For his molded image is falsehood,
And there is no breath in them.” Jeremiah 10:14

I am most definitely not Moses: I bear no resemblance (I hope) to Charleton Heston and I have no mountain to return from with no new commandments for the people of God. Yet I find myself amongst a diverse group of people that are echoing Moses’ sentiment upon his return from Mount Sinai at seeing his people abandoning the religion they once adhered to for that of a man made metallurgic bovine. It is a collective sense of bewilderment and frustration. Despite decades of international consensus, the two-state solution in Israel-Palestine as a key element of Middle East peace is facing a growing threat, not just from the Israeli far right or militant Palestinian groups, but from a core group of diplomats and intellectuals in the United States.

The Next Golden Calf?

The sorrowful confession of State Department veteran Aaron David Miller in Foreign Policy Magazine is perhaps the greatest, and most literal, example of religious-like conversion [1]. Though he is not declaring his lost faith in the rightness of a two-state solution, he is nonetheless grim on what the future holds for it. Its not too far a jump from his article to the startling, if perhaps predictable, declaration of famed American Israeli critic Professor John J. Mearsheimer, in an April 29th speech that Israel will not let a Palestinian state come into creation, rendering the two-state solution a “fantasy” [2].  Notable Muslim scholar and commentator Dr. Reza Aslan gave a similar prognosis to National Public Radio, declaring it “dead and buried” [3]. These views aren’t exactly new, but their group does seem to be gaining new supporters as of late and it is yet to be seen just how many more will follow them into this new wilderness.

Putting the Old Testament metaphor aside for moment, in these assessments of our status quo there is a lot of validity. Yet, as acute as their analysis is, I can’t help but feel they’ve fallen into a trap of sticking to an increasingly outdated vision of Middle East peace, which truly is dead, and short-changing the potential of alternative structures in bringing about a resolution to the conflict.

A Better Dogma

I share a lot of the expressed cynicism when it comes to states and diplomacy: states are representations of their people, or at the very least, representations of a specific elite structure. The difference is that I can’t talk about policy change without acknowledging the potential of non-governmental structures. Community-based organizations, religious associations, political groups, and various social good campaigns are just as vital to conflict resolution as state actors and international bodies. Without actively engaging them, there can be no change in any sector of life.

As Americans for Peace Now’s spokesman Ori Nir stated so bluntly in a recent op-ed for the Washington Jewish Week, “Yes, there are partners for peace”[3]. Though his article is specifically referring to Palestinian partners for Israel, the American government and public need to recognize that even though current leaders in the Middle East have become much tougher to negotiate with, there are still partners for peace in the populations they represent. I would further qualify that there are nonviolent civil resistance partners for peace, and they, more than anyone, are the best chance for success. Given the conflict’s history, it appears that recognizing and engaging the Palestinian partners more than their Israeli counterparts is the better strategy, as many times external assistance given to nonviolent Israeli campaigns can have a detrimental effect on their local legitimacy.

If you want specific current examples of these Palestinian partners, look no further than the subject of Just Vision’s recent film Budrus, Ayed Morrar and his daughter Iltezam, who founded the Popular Committee Against the Wall in the West Bank which brought together Palestinians of all political affiliations as well as Israelis and Americans, renouncing violence as a means to achieve their goals. And guess what? It worked. The wide praise for Budrus the film, which has yet to premiere stateside, is quickly compounding their success, changing the way people think about resolving the conflict.

On the Israeli side, Peace Now and Just Jerusalem are also heavily involved in cultivating a nonviolent campaign in Sheikh Jarrah, standing in solidarity with Palestinians who have been evicted from their homes in order to move Israeli settlers in. Though its too early to declare this campaign a success, it is still proof that the commitment to nonviolence is real and that it can greatly benefit from more international awareness, if not assistance.

Even if we were to dismiss the cases of Budrus and Sheikh Jarrah as isolated incidents, there is no denying  that nonviolent civil resistance is the best method of conflict resolution.  In a recent study conducted by Dr. Erica Chenoweth, director of the Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research at Wesleyan University, and Maria J. Stephan, author of “Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East”, entitled “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance”, it was shown that, overall, major nonviolent campaigns are 53% more likely to succeed than their violent counterparts [4]. There are many different factors that go into making a successful nonviolent campaign, though it is important to recognize that not all are appropriate for the various circumstances in which change is needed. One example, that I touched on earlier, is that of external assistance which can make accusations of treason much harder to dismiss. Another is sanctions against the offending regime, which vary greatly in implementation, but can become counterproductive in aiding nonviolent opposition.

With respect to the failures of diplomatic negotiations in bringing about a solution in the Arab-Israeli context, perhaps its greatest strength is the fact that it “takes place outside traditional political channels, making it distinct from other nonviolent political processes such as lobbying, electioneering, and legislating”[5]. Echoing this statement is senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, Dr. Stephen Zunes, writing that the “pro-active ingredient in nonviolent resistance, the creation of alternative structures provides both a moral and a practical underpinning for efforts aimed at bringing about fundamental social change”[6].

Greater Acts of Faith

There are a number of different ways the US can work to help catalyze this kind of change. The first is presence, Americans need to be physically alongside nonviolent activists. Whether it be humanitarian aid workers or journalists, the mere presence of these actors changes the way the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) behaves. Ayed Morrar is also a propenent of this scenario, noting the effectiveness of international solidarity activists armed with cameras that can combat the propaganda supporting the Occupation [7]. If they deny these people access, as is the case in Gaza, the American government should make sure that this becomes a source of embarrassment for Israel.

Furthermore, as a recourse for when Israel’s government refuses to comply with urgent peace initiatives, as they are wont to do in the case of halting settlement construction, a certain form of sanctions can be powerful leverage. Americans for Peace Now specifies such activism in the form of efforts aimed at highlighting the point of origin of products originating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank or Golan Heights; efforts to raise awareness about companies based in or operating in settlements; efforts to raise awareness of opportunities for people to “invest for peace”  through Israeli companies who are consistent with the goals of a two-state solution; efforts to raise awareness about private US funds flowing to settlers and settlements and to explore ways to curb such funding; efforts to exempt products originating in settlements from US preferential trade benefits; and efforts to bar US government purchase of products originating in settlements [8].

We’ve seen sparks of it in the Arab-Israeli conflict over the last hundred years, but there has never really been a smart and sustained effort to keep the flame alive. Denying the possibility or efficacy of the two state-solution as part of a Middle East peace deal without careful examination of the potential of nonviolent civil resistance is a grave mistake to make. I am not making the case that nonviolent civil resistance is the sole means of reaching a just and sustainable peace. What I am stating is that getting state actors to work with them, at the very least to solidify their own legitimacy, is. Before sharing the terrible cross that figures like Miller have chosen to bear, we should all take part in a little heresy and question whether or not we first interpreted the dream of Middle East peace correctly.

Christa Blackmon is a graduate of American University’s School of International Service where she concentrated on Peace and Conflict Resolution in the Middle East. She has worked for esteemed anthropologist and ambassador Dr. Akbar Ahmed, Just Vision, and most recently, Americans for Peace Now. The views she expresses are her own and are not necessarily representative of any organization she may be associated with.

Citations

[1] Aaron David Miller, “The False Religion of Middle East Peace,” ForeignPolicy.com, May/June 2010 (accessed 1 May 2010).

[2] John J Mearsheimer, “The Future of Palestine: Righteous Jews vs. the New Afrikaaners,” The Jerusalem Fund, 29 April 2010 (accessed 8 May 2010).

[3] Reza Aslan, “For Israelis and Palestinians, Two-State Dream Is Dead,” NPR.org, 26 April 2010 (accessed 1 May 2010).

[4] Ori Nir, “Yes, there are partners for peace,” PeaceNow.org, 23 April 2010 (accessed 1 May 2010).

[5] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance,” International Security 33, no. 1 (Summer 2008) (accessed 1 May 2010).

[6] Chenoweth and Stephan, p.10

[7] Stephen Zunes. “Recognizing the Power of Nonviolent Action,” Foreign Policy In Focus, March 2005 (accessed 1 May 2010).

[8] “Interview with Ayed Morrar,” JustVision.org (accessed 1 May 2010).

[9] Ori Nir, “APN Weighs in on BDS, Criticism of Israel,” PeaceNow.org, 23 April 2010 (accessed 1 May 2010).

© Marc Gopin

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