The Signal and the Noise in the Barghouti Op-Ed

April 20, 2017 § 3 Comments

On Sunday, Marwan Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times. To read it without being versed in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, one would be forgiven for thinking that Barghouti is the Palestinian Martin Luther King writing his equivalent of the letter from the Birmingham jail. Barghouti used the op-ed to announce that he is leading a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners to protest their treatment by Israel, wrote eloquently about the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and dignity while implying that he has been imprisoned for political reasons, and was identified in his byline as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” For those who know that Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences after having been convicted by an Israeli civilian court for murder and terrorism in his capacity as orchestrating suicide bombings as the founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, this was outrageous, and the anger directed at the Times resulted in a clarification and a brushback from the paper’s public editor.

The bulk of the focus – including from Prime Minister NetanyahuYair Lapid, and others – has been on the fact that the New York Times gave Barghouti a platform to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and misleadingly portray himself as something he is not. This anger is in no way misplaced, and it is helping shine a light on the fact that opponents of Israel are often granted a benefit of the doubt with regard to their motives and a whitewash of their histories to an alarming degree. But the import of Barghouti’s op-ed is not the revisionist history treatment of his biography; it is rather the fact that he chose to write it now and what it says about Palestinian politics going forward and the American effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Barghouti is a legendary Palestinian prisoner in a society where Palestinian prisoners are granted exalted status. His leadership of the latest prisoners’ hunger strike comes on the heels of his finishing first in the Fatah Central Committee elections in December, cementing his status as the most popular Palestinian political figure, while being sidelined two months ago by the current leadership as Mahmoud Abbas chose Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first vice president. The jockeying to replace Abbas began in earnest some time ago, but Barghouti deciding now to take up the mantle of prisoners’ rights while making as public a splash as possible in the U.S. paper of record seems like one of the clearest signal from him that he intends to be part of the future leadership conversation.

Barghouti has in some ways had it easier than most despite being in prison, as it has insulated him from having to make any decisions or engage in the daily compromises that are involved in politics. He has been able to sit back and bask in his growing popularity as current Fatah leaders walk the fine line between security coordination with Israel and maintaining their power on one side and popular will and maintaining their grassroots legitimacy on the other. He has not had to navigate the minefield of dealing with Hamas rule in Gaza and playing the game of proclaiming national unity while taking steps to use the power of the Palestinian Authority to choke Hamas. The longer he is in prison, the greater the myth that surrounds him, and should Israel end up granting prisoners any concessions as a result of this hunger strike, it will make Barghouti’s power and influence greater. That he is taking this step now indicates that he thinks a leadership transition is coming sooner rather than later, and he wants to get ahead of the internal Fatah machinations that are designed to sideline him.

The repercussions of this are not limited to Barghouti and internal Fatah jockeying for position. Leading a movement of Palestinian prisoners is guaranteed to lead to wider West Bank foment, and it will not make the IDF or Shabak sleep easier at night. I am not suggesting that this will spark an intifada, but it could lead to an uptick in violence and further support for the position that compromise or even engagement with Israel sells out the Palestinian national cause. Palestinian politicians are bound to follow public sentiment, and nobody will want to be forced to take a backseat to Barghouti on the issue of resisting Israel. It will create a wider radicalization within the Palestinian political arena, and undermine any politicians who take a more moderate tone while perhaps undermining Fatah itself in relation to Hamas.

None of this portends well for President Trump’s efforts to push the two sides toward his ultimate deal, and if the prisoner strike is not quickly resolved, it will also make for a difficult Abbas White House visit the first week in May. Abbas proved to be a difficult interlocutor for President Obama, famously not responding to Obama’s Oval Office presentation of a framework for a final status agreement in 2014. Abbas is coming to DC this time to meet with a president whose vision is not nearly as fully formed on the details, but he will undoubtedly be asked by Trump to commit to something more specific than being willing to talk. Against the backdrop of hungerstriking prisoners and Barghouti trying to force him into a corner, it will be a particularly inauspicious time for Abbas to return to Ramallah and announce that he has agreed to return to talks with Israel without first winning any significant concessions. While the sense of gloomy fatalism that enveloped the Palestinian leadership at Trump’s election may have dissipated given his apparent willingness to push Netanyahu and the Israeli government on settlements and Jason Greenblatt’s praiseworthy performance in the region last month, it does not mean that Abbas is going to suddenly give Trump anything he wants. Abbas’s politics back home are still difficult, and having a friendlier White House than he anticipated does not change the fact that he is a weak political leader without the legitimacy or the chits to say yes to any comprehensive peace deal. This Barghouti move makes that even more of an entrenched reality.

Barghouti’s New York Times byline was the type of thing that drives Israeli politicians and American Jews up a wall with frustration. The byline, however, is just a distraction in this case from everything else that is going on. If Barghouti ushers in a new era of Fatah radicalization, we will look back at the focus over the byline rather than the underlying political move as the true outrage.

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The NYT Editorial Board Needs A Political Science Lesson

November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday entitled “Tunisia’s Challenges” that dealt with the tensions between Tunisia’s Islamist government and the secular opposition, and more broadly attempted to grapple with the role of Islam in a nascent democracy. The gist is that Ennahda has promised to respect liberal values and not impose its own views of morality on the rest of the county, but has also tried to engage Tunisian Salafis, and in so doing has imperiled Tunisian democracy and not shown enough commitment to moderation. In the words of the Times,

Ennahda has also drawn fire for allowing the introduction of constitutional proposals that would enshrine Shariah, or Islamic law, and compromise rights for women. The party eventually backed off those positions and the constitutional draft before the assembly omits Shariah and endorses gender equality. Ennahda leaders may have been maneuvering to draw the Salafis into the process, while maintaining their political support, but it gave the secularists another reason to doubt Ennahda’s commitment to moderation…

The pressure is on Ennahda to deliver a Constitution that protects the rights of all Tunisians under a system of equal justice and to create jobs so educated but unemployed young Tunisians are not drawn to the Salafi movement, which would try to exploit their disillusionment. The pressure is also on the secularists to find ways to work with Ennahda to build a better state. That will require more compromise and commitment to the common good than either side has been willing to show so far.

This all seems like a plausible argument, but it also demonstrates that the Times editorialists have a misinformed and naive view of how democracy works and what brings it about. Let’s start with the glaring contradiction in this editorial, which is that on the one hand the NYT wants Ennahda to speak for all Tunisians but on the other seems to want to cut the Salafists, who last time I checked are Tunisian citizens, out of the process altogether. Tunisian Salafi groups espouse extreme and retrograde positions on all sorts of subjects, including women, secularism, and Jews, to name just a few. The problem is that Ennahda cannot just make the Salafists go away. They are a force to be dealt with, and Ennahda’s determination seems to have been to try and co-opt them in order to reduce their capacity to make mischief. In many ways this has been a bad strategy, and the violence carried out by Salafists on university campuses and against television stations is deplorable and has often been ignored or downplayed by the government. There is no good excuse for this – or, for that matter, Ennahda leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s encouragement and advice to Salafists on how to eliminate secularist power – but what the NYT misses is that Tunisia is not a country with decades of liberal tradition. The Salafists are not committed democrats willing to work within the confines of the political system, and so Ennahda has been trying to figure out a way to bring them in with as little chaos as possible. Yeah, the initial constitutional proposals were pretty bad, but like anything else this is a game of back and forth, and the current draft constitution is largely where it should be.

This brings me to the crucial point here, and the one on which the New York Times needs some schooling. Democracy does not just emerge from the mist, and leaders in a newly post-authoritarian state cannot just close their eyes and tap their heels together and create a democratic political system. Democracy has been aptly described as a second-best solution, because it results from a stalemate in which no side has the power to fully impose its will and thus everyone becomes willing to roll the dice and take their chances with democratic politics in order to win something. Essentially, democracy is installed by non-democrats who have no other choice, and over time democratic politics become habituated and the system (hopefully) becomes self-perpetuating. If this does not describe what is going on in Tunisia, then I don’t know what does. Tunisia is not filled with committed democrats, but is instead a combustible mix of parties that would all like to impose their will. The Salafists would like to create a pure Islamic state, Ennahda likely wants something closer to what the Muslim Brotherhood wants in Egypt, and the secularists want Ben Ali’s Tunisia without Ben Ali. Make no mistake though; the secular parties would just as soon impose their vision of society on everyone as the Salafists would if they had the strength to do so. The fact that none of these factions are able to carry out their will unimpeded is what gives me hope that Tunisia will emerge democratic.

This is precisely how democracy comes about, and yet the New York Times seems to think that democracy is not the end result of a difficult and torturous process. Let’s remember that the United States went through slavery and a civil war, so it’s not like we had an easy time of it either. When the Times editorialists talk about the need for more compromise, the maneuvering around the constitution is exactly that. Parties in a newly democratizing state are not going to compromise out of the munificent goodness of their hearts, but out of the need to break the gridlock, and that is what’s going on here. It may seem counterintuitive, but in new democracies the process is more important in some ways than the substance. Tunisia still has a long way to go, and Ennahda has displayed plenty of disturbing behavior to make doubts about a successful democratic transition perfectly legitimate. I don’t in any way mean to give Ennahda a free pass or to minimize the serious concerns everyone should have over the party’s flirtation with extremely illiberal and violent elements within Tunisian society. But in fretting over the haggling surrounding the constitution and sermonizing about commitment to the common good, the New York Times is missing the point about how democracy is born and demonstrating why taking an introductory course to comparative politics might be a useful thing to do.

Israel’s Odd Couple

March 28, 2012 § 4 Comments

The New York Times has a story this morning on the relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Israel’s version of Oscar and Felix. The piece does not cover much, if any, new ground, and regular readers of this blog (to the extent that there are any!) will be familiar with the politics and current whip count in the security cabinet for a strike on Iran. Two brief thoughts come to mind for me after reading the piece.

First, Netanyahu and Barak’s strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities have always been evident. Despite serving as a commando and being the brother of Israel’s most famous soldier, Netanyahu does not have lots of military street cred, and indeed has been more reserved on that front than any other prime minister of the last two decades. He has avoided conducting major military operations in Gaza or Lebanon and seems risk-averse, which is what makes his banging the drums of war on Iran such an interesting anomaly and leads to speculation on the influence of his father and the role that he sees for himself as preventer of another Holocaust. He relies on Barak’s presence at his side to give him cover in making a momentous military/security decision, since nobody questions the credentials of Israel’s most decorated solider. In light of this, the reporting and guessing about what Netanyahu wants and the efforts to convince him to wait are probably a waste of time, since the person who really needs to be influenced is Barak. Without Barak, Netanyahu cannot in all likelihood advocate for or carry out a strike, so any pressure the Obama administration or Israelis opposed to a strike are exerting should be aimed squarely at the defense minister rather than at the prime minister.

Second, and related to the first point, the fact that Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in Sayeret Matkal – which is the Israeli equivalent of the Navy Seals, and which was also commanded at various points by all three Netanyahu brothers and new Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz served in – takes on outsized relevance. I have never served in the military nor have I studied psychology so I make no pretense of being an expert on this topic, but I’ve got to imagine that it is a tough thing to disagree with or even override your former unit commander on military issues. Netanyahu is going to do what he thinks is best for Israel, but his decision must be that much easier for him to come to grips with when the commander of his extremely tight-knit military unit under whom he served agrees with him and backs him up. If that element disappears, I don’t know what it does to Netanyahu’s calculus, but surely it would have some effect.

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