Arabs in the Middle East should learn the lessons of Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Day is celebrated. Barack Hussein Obama is inaugurated. The confluence of dates at the beginning of this week seems a culmination of hopes from the past, an auspicious omen for those with even greater hopes for the future. And in a general sense among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East (whose satellite channels delight in using the new president’s middle name) there is a shared sense of new possibilities opening up. This, even though their attention—their fear, their anger—has been focused on the carnage in Gaza these last three weeks.

What the vast majority of Arabs have been slow to realize, however, is the profound connection that exists between the history of the struggle that opened the way for Obama to become president, and the future of their own fight for freedom and dignity, and not only in the face of Israeli occupation, but under the tyrannies of so many Arab dictators. We talk about remembering Martin Luther King because of the power of his vision, of his language, of his morality and of his faith. But mainly we remember him because he adopted a strategy of nonviolent confrontation with an insidious and pervasive system of repression—and broke it—and broke through it. We remember him because his way worked. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Resistance — whether it is violent or non-violent — carries the same message. It says: we cannot be crushed. The problem with violent resistance aimed at civilians (aside from its questionable morality) is that it allows the oppressor to cast himself as the victim. But the choice between violent and non-violent resistance should not be reduced to observations about which approach appears to be more effective.

In Gaza and the West Bank, a non-violent resistance movement — even if it springs up from the grass roots — will succeed or fail depending on its ability to establish itself as a mass movement that truly expresses Palestinian solidarity. That requires political leadership and Israel has demonstrated again and again its willingness to imprison or murder defiant Palestinian national political leaders.

From the perspective of Israel’s political leadership, Palestinian solidarity threatens Israel much more than Palestinian violence.

So, the question is not whether Palestinians can mobilize a non-violent resistance movement; it’s whether they can develop a robust solidarity movement and whether Israel will continue to succeed in thwarting such an effort. United we stand, divided we fall, is a timeless truth.

U.N. chief tours Gaza Strip, Israel town

As residents of the Gaza Strip continued to sift through the rubble and mourn their dead, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toured the seaside Palestinian enclave Tuesday and declared himself “deeply grieved by what I have seen today.”

Ban entered Gaza from Israel in a convoy of armored vehicles. Speaking to reporters in front of the smoldering remains of a U.N. food warehouse set ablaze last week by an Israeli tank shell, a somber Ban said he had witnessed “heartbreaking” scenes of destruction.

“I have seen only a fraction of the damage,” he said. “This is shocking and alarming.”

Ban later visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot, long a target for rockets fired from Gaza by Palestinian militants. He called the attacks against Israeli residents “appalling and unacceptable.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Suppose that for the last eight years, an underground militia in Sderot had been contructing homemade rockets and firing them into Gaza. And suppose the firing rates and casualty and property damage rates on both sides were roughly the same.

In such a situation, neither Ban Ki-moon nor any other international political leader would be travelling to Sderot and saying how appalled they were at the suffering being inflicted on the residents of Sderot. Instead there would be a collective shrug as everyone wondered why this seemingly futile exchange of fire persisted.

What the UN Secretary-General and others do when they visit Sderot is to serve as Israel apologists who validate the sense of self-righteousness that provided the moral driving force that has been used to justify the massacre of Palestinians. When Ban goes to Gaza and says how appalled he is and then for the sake of diplomatic “balance” matches his response to the suffering of Israelis (real but miniscule in comparison), all his words end up ringing hollow.

Hard truths at the outset

The great danger for Barack Obama, with his natural charm and grace, is that he will try to please everyone. But he began his presidency with no glad hands — avoiding the easy applause lines and instead telling people things they might not want to hear.

The new president opened his inaugural address by reminding us how bad things are. He spoke not of sunny skies and amber waves but of “gathering clouds and raging storms.”

And he told us that it was partly our fault. The economic crisis wasn’t just a result of “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” but a consequence of “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

We all know the Pogo line about how “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Obama implicitly seemed to embrace it. We have been an immature country; we want things that are in conflict. We favor lower taxes and more services; we want balanced budgets and more spending on entitlements. We want progress, so long as it doesn’t threaten the status quo. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — As much as Obama’s arrival in the White House marks a genuine turning point in not only America’s history but also the history of the world, as Americans we should restrain ourselves from using this as an opportunity for undeserved self-praise.

America did not quite evolve to reach this point – it got lucky. Had the economic crisis struck a mere three months later, America in its collective wisdom could easily have put McCain and Palin in charge and made yet another catastrophic miscalculation of Titanic proportions.

In as much as such a mass of hope and optimism is currently being invested in Obama as he presents himself as a man exceptionally suited to this moment, his arrival does not represent the awakening of American consciousness. Can he become the catalyst for that to happen? I certainly hope so. But we aren’t there yet.

As Obama said, “the world has changed, and we must change with it.” We need to change because we haven’t changed yet.

Obama should tell Israel to face facts

For the past year the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas has negotiated with Israel on a peace settlement, knowing full well that nothing would come out of it. Why bother? Palestinian officials insisted a “process” was worth pursuing if only to hand the new American administration something to work with as soon as it takes office.

Barack Obama will be dragged into the Middle East conflict from day one. Unfortunately, before he picks up a peace process, he has to manage the aftermath of a devastating Gaza crisis, where a fragile ceasefire needs urgent American attention, an enraged Middle East urgently needs calm, and America’s sinking image needs urgent damage control. [continued…]

Few Israelis near Gaza feel war achieved much

The wheat and potato fields of this kibbutz, or communal farm, in southern Israel stretch right up to the Gaza border fence. In almost surreal proximity on the other side rise the apartment buildings, water towers and minarets of the Palestinian village of Abasan.

Israel’s deadly offensive against Hamas in Gaza ended on Sunday, with each side having unilaterally declared a cease-fire. Yet there was little sense of triumph here in the days after, more a nagging feeling of something missed or incomplete.

Elad Katzir, a potato farmer, was nervous as he drove through the lush fields, agreeing to stop the car only behind clumps of trees or bushes as cover in case of sniper fire. By one thicket, nestled among wildflowers, was a memorial to a soldier who was shot dead here while on patrol seven years ago.

“I do not feel any victory,” Mr. Katzir said. “I still do not feel safe.” [continued…]

Israel slows withdrawal from Gaza

Israel slowed its withdrawal of forces from Gaza on Tuesday as the two-day cease-fire with Hamas suffered its first violations. Israeli troops twice came under fire, and eight mortar shells were shot at Israel, all falling short. Israel responded with airstrikes on launching sites.

Thousands of Palestinians supported Hamas at four rallies here while the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, visited to express support for those who had suffered in the war. An Arab meeting in Kuwait aimed at helping Gaza ended in disarray.

Israel would not comment on the pace of withdrawal, but Israel Radio’s military affairs correspondent reported that some soldiers held positions in northern Gaza to make sure Hamas did not retake rocket-launching sites. [continued…]

Hurray! We lost!

Johann Cruyff was born in Amsterdam in 1947 and is still considered the best football player Holland ever produced. His name can be mentioned in the same breath with Beckenbauer, Pelé and Maradona. The Dutch honor him even today not only for his swift legs, but also for his original turns of phrase. When he was the coach of Ajax Amsterdam, he reportedly told his players before a match against a weaker team: “They cannot win against us, but we can lose against them.”

Israel finds itself in exactly this type of situation when it comes to Hamas. The Palestinians militants are never going to defeat the Israeli military. But the end of “Operation Cast Lead” has confirmed that Israel can lose to Hamas. By waging a war that has killed 1,300 Palestinians and wounded several thousand, Israel has not only succeeded in turning global public opinion against itself; it has also invited sanctions that will be much heavier than a few negative editorials in the New York Times or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. [continued…]

The world must forge a new order or retreat to chaos

An international order will emerge if a system of compatible priorities comes into being. It will fragment disastrously if the various priorities cannot be reconciled.

The nadir of the international financial system coincides with simultaneous political crises around the globe. Never have so many transformations occurred at the same time in so many different parts of the world and been made accessible via instantaneous communication. The alternative to a new international order is chaos.

The financial and political crises are, in fact, closely related partly because, during the period of economic exuberance, a gap had opened up between the economic and the political organisation of the world. The economic world has been globalised. Its institutions have a global reach and have operated by maxims that assumed a self-regulating global market. The financial collapse exposed the mirage. It made evident the absence of global institutions to cushion the shock and to reverse the trend. Inevitably, when the affected publics turned to their political institutions, these were driven principally by domestic politics, not considerations of world order. Every major country has attempted to solve its immediate problems essentially on its own and to defer common action to a later, less crisis-driven point.

So-called rescue packages have emerged on a piecemeal national basis, generally by substituting seemingly unlimited governmental credit for the domestic credit that produced the debacle in the first place, so far without achieving more than stemming incipient panic. International order will not come about either in the political or economic field until there emerge general rules toward which countries can orient themselves. [continued…]

Five lessons in global diplomacy

The US is not just another country and its president is not just another politician. Who he is, the choices he makes, matter to billions of people around the globe.

There is no need to tell President Barack Obama that the world is messy and complicated or to list the many things that need to be done. We hope that Mr Obama and his team have also noted the places that have seen steady, sometimes dramatic, progress in recent years – China, Indonesia, Brazil and central Europe to name a few.

Successes can look after themselves. It is the problems and failures that he and others will have to focus on. In many cases, we understand the nature of the problem and even know what the solution looks like. Sometimes – in the Middle East, for example – we have known for years. The real question is how to implement it. [continued…]

The post-Gaza political battle

The distressed state of the Arab world was on full display last week on two fronts: The massive Arab emotional reaction against Israel’s ferocious attack on Gaza, and the slightly ridiculous holding of three separate Arab summit meetings — with not a single practical result expected from any of them. The deeper reality that plagues the Arab world is that the average Arab citizen faces an unsatisfying choice between a brand of Islamist-nationalist military resistance that triggers enormous Israeli attacks and Arab death and destruction, and a brand of Arab autocratic governance that breeds mediocrity, corruption and perpetual vulnerability and dependence.

The choice is stark: Hamas or Fateh in Palestine; Hizbullah or Hariri in Lebanon; Mubarak & Son or Muslim Brothers in Egypt — and the list continues through every Arab country. The slow gravitation and polarization of the modern Arab state system over the past three generations into two broad camps of status quo conservatives and resistance fighters is more apparent than ever, and equally frustrating.

The powerful Islamist-nationalist resistance and social-political movements that have come into being in recent decades are first and foremost a response to the poor performance and low credibility of the power elite that has dominated the modern Arab world. Movements like Hamas and Hizbullah have gained additional strength and legitimacy from fighting the Israeli occupation, which the established Arab power structure has not done very well in most cases, despite half a dozen wars since 1948. [continued…]

Turkey’s decisive role

Turkey’s value to Europe and the US as a close partner helping manage regional problems has been re-emphasised by the Gaza crisis. As the fighting threatened to spin out of control, Turkish diplomats showed they could reach parts other diplomats cannot by talking directly to the senior Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, in Damascus.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, personally consulted Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria as part of a wider mediation effort. And it was Erdogan, a careful cultivator of relations with Tehran, who kept open lines of communication to Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ardent Hamas supporter.

The successful expansion of Turkish influence in the Middle East and beyond under Erdogan’s moderate Islamist government has been dubbed “neo-Ottomanism”, suggesting a revival by other means of Turkey’s once extensive but now defunct empire. Hurriyet newspaper has claimed Turkish diplomacy has entered a new “golden age”, acting as a crossroads between east and west, Islam and secular Christendom. [continued…]

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