Romney on a “United Jerusalem”, and why you’re a bit thick for freaking out about it

Yes, Romney has made statements about keeping Israel the united Capital of Jerusalem. Yes, the comments are unacceptable. And the internet has been experiencing a proverbial freak-out over them, with lots of all-caps action of the “HOW CAN HE SAY THIS?” variety. But, seriously, calm the [expletive] down; these comments are in line with what every American president has claimed openly since he 1980s. Don’t believe me?

Reagan, 1981

Carter, 1987

Bush Sr. 1990

Clinton, 1994

Bush Jr. 2000

Obama, 2008

While all those presidents have given vocal support for a “united Jerusalem”, none of them has moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, and none have recognized “Israel” as the country in which Jerusalem lies on US passports (Americans born in Jerusalem simply do not have a country of birth listed on their passports), despite pressure from the Senate and Congress to do so. It is unlikely Romney will change the US administration’s position on Jerusalem because it is what Israel needs – America’s maintaining that Jerusalem is a final-status issue makes negotiations between the Palestinian leadership and Israel possible even when both sides have recognized that the Palestinians are not strong enough to negotiate for anymore than a token portion of Jerusalem. America’s current position on Jerusalem will probably remain the same until the final political defeat of the Palestinians in a final status agreement that relegates them to second class status on part of their homeland and exclusion from the rest. Or, if the Oslo process fully collapses and the PLO is expelled from Palestine, and Palestinians return to a revolutionary phase of their struggle, in this case as well America will likely change its position on Jerusalem as part of recognizing Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

What’s more, when you stand against a “United Jerusalem”, who exactly are you standing with? The US public is to the right of the administration on this – they want a United Jerusalem. The Blue-Card Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem? But only 30% of them prefer to be Palestinian than to be Israeli. The Palestinian leadership which needs East Jerusalem to make its statehood? But the existing leadership already offered to allow Israel to annex virtually every Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, save a few which are far outside the Jerusalem Municiple Boundary, marking the boundary of Jerusalem annexed by Israel back in the 60s. And remember, Abbas is facing pressure from the right, from those who want negotiations while settlement building goes on. And those to his left – how many of them are today calling for a return to a hardline position of no or little compromise on the ’67 line as it runs through Jerusalem? I don’t know of any, I’m under the impression that those who reject the Abbas leadership of Fatah mostly want a return to the pre-1988 position, and claim all the land as Palestine. They want a United Jerusalem as well – a Palestinian United Jerusalem.

The debate over Jerusalem at this point has become a complex mix of international law, Oslo negotiations, and disillusionment on both sides with any possibility of territorial compromise which would meet anyone’s national aspirations. It has become the terrain of intellectuals arguing over details, rather than the expression of the general will of any people.

The Enlightenment commitment to Public Reason

In a text which is famous (but perhaps not quite famous enough) Kant discusses the topic “What is Enlightenment“. Written during “The Enlightenment“, Kant is not giving a sociological or historical account of the the age he lives in, but concerns himself with the topic of enlightenment itself – what is it to become enlightened?

For Kant, enlightenment is not a state which you might reach but a process in which one ought be constantly engaged. Kant calls this “Sapere Aude!” or “the courage to use one’s reason”. The operative term here is “one’s”, the key is that one ought have the inner strength to appeal to and use one’s own sense of reason, rather than accept and repeat the reason of another, thereby submitting to an authority. Enlightenment is about becoming one’s own authority on matters of consideration and thought, becoming the master of one’s own mind.

We might find this obvious – if one does not appeal to one’s own reason, can one properly be considered free? To be the sovereign of one’s own will seems a precondition to taking responsibility and being taken as responsible by others. But in fact, there are many situations where we do not appeal to our own reason, and for Kant we can even be justified in not doing so. For example, Kant says that” it would be disastrous if an officer on duty who was given a command by his superior were to question the appropriateness or utility of the order”. And while I’m not one to directly support the blind authority of the police, the argument that at least some such institutions are essential for a well ordered society is something accepted by all major political frameworks, anarchism being the only exception.

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SOPA/PIPA Blackout

While this blog is not blacked out today, I support the protest that wikipedia and other prominent sites are engaging in by blacking out their services today. The blackout is in protest against the SOPA initiative, an American bill that threatens the freedom of the internet. The wikipedia site on the SOPA initiative is not itself down today, so I suggest you read it to inform yourself of the situation.

The bills would affect pretty much anyone using the internet, because it puts the responsibility on someone linking to another site to verify that all the content on that site is not in copyright violation. So, if I liked to a webpage, and then copyright infringing content were put up on that webpage, my website could be in jeopardy. Moreover, it puts the burden on the party which a complaint is lodged against to prove that their site is not in violation – and in the meantime their internet provider can be asked to take down the site. This is striking because it is a violation of the basic western principle of innocence until guilt is proven.

Wikipedia has asked non-americans to contact their ministry of foreign affairs and asked them to oppose the SOPA/PIPA legislation. I will be sending DEFAIT an email to this accord. You can also call them at 1-800-267-8376.

On the Prisoner Exchange and the Recognition of War

So, it looks like the prisoner exchange is going to happen – the famous Israeli detainee will be released in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners. Currently Israelis are appealing to their supreme court to try to block the deal, but the Israeli supreme court does not like intervening in military affairs, so I think it’s unlikely that these citizen’s appeals will come to anything.

People are upset because Palestinians who are serving life sentences for killing Israelis will be released. This is, given the way Israelis tend to understand the conflict, very understandable. But, the way Palestinians tend to look at the situation is that these acts of violence are part of a war. And Israelis know very well that killing in a war is not the same as murder – which is why Israeli soldiers who steal property from Palestinian houses are more likely to be reprimanded than those who kill civilians during a military operation (of course, I might disagree that this isn’t murder – but that’s beside the point here).

Essentially, the prison swap is a victory for the Palestinians, and specifically for Hamas, not only because many families will be re-united – but also because the swap is an act of recognition of the war taking place between the two parties. This is what Oslo failed to do – in the Oslo peace accords the Israelis refused to release any Palestinian prisoners who killed Israeli soldiers. That’s wrong – in the peace process at the end of a war, the prisoners of war on both sides must be released, and their “Crimes” must be interpreted as acts of war. Israel has consistently refused to do this because they practice the same tactic as the British used against the IRA – criminalization. However, in the prisoner swap, there is implicit recognition of the war, and therefore of the right to have waged war, and the right to have the war which was waged recognized as a war and not as seperate acts of criminality.

The way the Israeli press talks about “the terrorists” is very revealing. First, they are almost always called terrorists rather than soldiers or rebels – this is an attempt to de-politicize the war, to refuse to grant it any propaganda value. Moreover, when the acts of violence are referred to, they are often called attacks against “israelis”, rather than distinguishing between Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilians. One reason for this might be that basically all Israelis are soldiers, but I don’t think that is the reason. I think the real reason for not making a distinction is that if a distinction were made between attacks on civilians and attacks on soldiers, this might imply a possible validity to attacks on soldiers as an act of war against an occupying army, and attacks on civilians.

To be clear, honest and serious about acts of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many distinctions need to be made so that the moral judgements are not proscribed in advance. Distinctions not only between attacks on soldiers and civilians, but also between attacks on soldiers inside and outside the green line. If we recognize Palestinian sovereignty over the occupied territories, there is some basis in international law for the legality of armed insurrection against an occupying force. Moreover, we should make a distinction between attacks on civilians inside ’48 Israel, and attacks on settlers or civilians driving through occupied territory. The settlements have military purposes – at least their purpose is to grab land from the occupied territories, and these blocks of land are almost always justified in the secular media with the logic of defence against possible invasion from neighbouring Arab states. An argument could be made that if the settlements serve military purposes, then the settlements are military instillations, and their occupants should be classified with non-combattent troops like cooks or teachers in the army. This classification should be independent of the motivations of the individuals living in settlements or travelling on occupied land – they are part of the military defence project not on the basis of their own knowledge, but on the basis of the state objectives which their subsidization furthers.

However, if one were not to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the ’48 borders, which is an altogether understandable position for refugees in camps to hold, none of these distinctions would allow Israelis to be considered as civilians. One could in this case argue that they are all occupying Palestinian land, and are all part of the military project of seizing land for a zionist state. It is therefore entirely understandable that for Palestinians taking this anti-zionist position, that they would not recognize any difference between acts of “terror” and acts of “war”. Ironically enough, in the full scale anti-zionist position we end up with the same non-distinction between acts against soldiers and acts against civilians practiced by the Israeli media – but for the opposite reason. Except, it’s not ironic – this epistemic chasm between the sides is simply part of the conflict. If the different sides could agree on terms, and could agree what was legitimate and what was not, there wouldn’t a conflict – there would be a peace process. And today, despite what we’re told, there isn’t a peace process – there is a process of the continuation of war by other means, by both sides, under the language of “peace process”. (But, maybe that’s always what peace processes are right up until the moment they become viable).

The solution to the conflict will not involve the colonists telling the refugees that they are wrong about their own past. The war will end only if the war is recognized as a war, and treated as a war, and combatants are treated as combatants – as prisoners of war, and as participants in a conflict for which they are not personally responsible. Anything short of Israeli recognition of Palestinian soldiers as soldiers fighting for a cause and not as individualized criminals will produce only untenable peace agreements. Perhaps the implied recognition in the prisoner swap can be a symbolic event over which people can argue – and by this argument move towards the recognition that the situation requires if any real peace is wanted.

Report Back: Moshe Hirsch on the ICJ’s advisory opinion on the security barrier

Today I attended a lecture at the Munk Centre by Mosche Hirsch, an Israeli scholar visiting from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of the Halliburton exchange program. The lecture was part of the Munk centre Israeli studies program, but open to the public.

Hirsch’s presentation of the ICJ’s advisory opinion emphasized the role of the Israeli supreme court, who by accepting the ICJ’s normative rulings but basing their decisions on a “more intimate understanding of the facts”, was able to partially implement the ICJ ruling. He argued that the ICJ has no legitimacy in the eyes of the Israeli public, but their surpreme court does, and therefore the supreme court was able to bring the principles of the ICJ’s advisory opinion to the Israeli situation in such a way that some change could be effected.

Hirsch emphasized that “compliance” with the ICJ ruling could not be interpreted as a binary, in fact there are gradations of compliance. Personally, I found this a bit strange – if the law is clear, then isn’t it possible to say that a state or person either does or does not obey the law? Also, the means he suggested for measuring compliance was a bit absurd – he said that because the original plan for the security barrier would have separated Palestinians from 16.6% of the West Bank, the barrier was revised as a result of international pressure and the Supreme court decision, and in fact the barrier now takes only 5% of the Palestinian land. I don’t understand why it is called partial compliance to steal less than you originally planned to steal. By this logic, if Israel had originally planned to take 50% of the West Bank, then reducing to 5% would have been much more complete compliance, which obviously makes no sense.

During the talk the idea that the wall was built for “security concerns” went mostly unquestioned. I raised a question afterwards about whether it was actually the wall, or the negotiated end of the 2nd intifada, amnesty for al-aqsa martyrs, and the re-institution of collaboration between IDF and PASF that was actually the cause of the end of terrorist attacks. Hirsch responded that “everyone says they stopped the terrorist attacks, if you ask the Mossad they say it was them, if you ask the IDF they say it was them, if you ask PASF, they say it was them”. To me this wasn’t a satisfactory answer – if the legal justification in the eyes of the Israeli supreme court for building the security barrier on the West Bank side of the green line is “security concerns”, then the security concerns have to be actual – they can’t just be part of public perception.

It is my suspicion that many of these “security concerns” really only concern the security of settlers, which since the settlers are illegal under international law, it is no justification to assert their security as a justification for breaking international law.

In general, the talk was interesting and comprehensive, and went into detail into different interpretations of international law and showed why they are descriptive and complementary rather than having to decide which interpretation is correct. The talk was certainly not like an event on Israel I would normally attend – (for example the first question was, “But isn’t it true that the Arabs want to drive the Jews into the Sea!”), but this isn’t a bad thing.

What does worry me about attending Munk talks is the implicit validation of the Munk centre. To be clear – the Munk centre is funded in part by mining companies who kill union activists. And this talk was made possible by Halliburton – I don’t need to explain why they are not a neutral party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, the talks are “free” to attend, and they happen close to my house. So, while it is a strange privilege to attend them, I think I will continue to do so.

Religions and Secular Ethics as Psycho-Technologies

In A Preface to Morals, Walter Lippman makes the point that religion doesn’t merely give people an ethical theory which describes how they ought to act, but also creates the motivational structures which elicit them to act according to the theory. In other words, religion is not merely a how-to manuel on how to act, to be evaluated alongside other how-to manuels, but is something more akin to a piece of magic – a psycho-technology which bores into people, spreads through groups, and tends to propagate itself while motivating certain individual and social actions for the group.

Post-religious ethics is only a few hundred years old. Immanuel Kant is often recognized as the first philosopher to take seriously the need to create a new ground for ethical motivation and moral choice after believing in God is no longer unquestionable enough to motivate moral choice unequivocally throughout a society. Kant may have written before the death of God was complete, but his project of creating a theology-free ground for ethical action is motivated by the warning signs that Christianity is on the decline in Europe. Moreover, it is motivated by Kant’s cosmopolitanism – his desire for different nations to live in peace, and he thought that if ethical action was no longer based on one’s particular God, but on one’s universal humanity, genuine respect for people outside the in-group was more possible. And, that’s still a good idea today.

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Palestinian “Statehood”: the UN bid, the Stages plan, and the rights of refugees

The Palestinian National authority is in the midst of a bid to acquire for the occupied Palestinian territories the status of “statehood” at the United Nations. How should we interpret this situation – who’s interests are served by the current plan, and how does it fit into the regional and historical context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

There seem to be three basic narratives we can tell about the statehood bid.

First, we could see it as an attempt to put pressure on Israel to agree to a settlement which could bring about an end to the conflict. In Taba, while it is very difficult to know what was actually proposed, it does seem that what are generally thought to be acceptable solutions on final status issues were reached, but the settlement was rejected by both sides. Since Taba, Israel has not come anywhere close to offering the deal which was offered there – and why should they, since there is no pressure being put upon them. Perhaps the PA today wants to accept what Arafat rejected in 2000, and the statehood bid is an attempt to do this through international pressure.

The second is, we could see it as a fulfillment of the first step in the “phased” plan adopted by the PLO in 1974. According to the phased plan, the first stage of the liberation of Palestine is to establish some form of statehood over Palestinian territories liberated from Israel through armed struggle, and to use that territory and authority over it as a base to pursue further armed operations against Israel. It is true that the PA authority over portions of the West Bank and Gaza was achieved through armed struggle, and it is true that PA authority over this territory enabled the resistance to be effective during the 2nd intifada. However, the PA’s authority over the West bank and Gaza is limited – they do not control the borders, and much of the West Bank remains under Israeli military control. A Palestinian state on the ’67 borders would greatly enhance Palestinian independence from Israel. However, it would change the character of the resistance – as a State it would be forced to take on the responsibility to “fight terrorism”, i.e. control its militias – and if it did not, Israel could consider further terror attacks against it as grounds for a full scale invasion of the Palestinian state. If Palestinians want to continue to pursue armed struggle against Israel, they would be forced into conventional military operations, which would be impossible as Israel will remain by far more militarily powerful, and an ally of the strongest military country in the world. The advantage of the Palestinians – their skill at asymmetric warfare, would be lost.

The third seems the most likely to me. It is an attempt of the current leadership of the PA to maintain power and prestige, at the expense of the needs and interests of most Palestinians. The settlement of the conflict by a two state solution is in conflict with the fundamental desire of the Palestinian refugees – to return to their ancestral lands. The PA does not represent the Palestinian people, at best it represents the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But, in effect, it does not very much represent them either – since Hamas won the general election in 2006 and Fatah remains in power as a result of a Palestinian civil war, not an electoral mandate. It is essential here to understand the difference between the PLC (palestinian legislative council) and the PNC (palestinian national council). The PLC is made up of the members of the PNC elected within the occupied territories. So, for the PLC to replace the PNC as the main governing body of the Palestinians means for the refugees voices to be ignored.

Any way you cut it, the basic problem with the statehood bid is the perception that it means recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over most of historic Palestine, and thereby recognizing the right of Israel not to allow refugees to return. Fatah certainly wants to avoid this perception, but I have not heard a PA representative speak effectively on the relation between the statehood bid and the right of return.