Category Archives: Political Owl
Secrecy still shrouds events from six decades ago. What does the Israeli Government hide, and why?
This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post
In late October, the Israeli Knesset witnessed one of its ugliest moments.
The assembly hall was relatively empty; the only coalition member in attendance was Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the government’s parliamentary liaison. Stepping to the podium, MK Taleb Abu Arar (Joint List), asked the delegates to observe a moment of silence for the anniversary of the Kafr Kasim massacre, triggering a wild row in the hall.
On October 29, 1956, 60 years earlier, border policemen, led by Lt. Gabriel Dahan and PFC Shalom Ofer, shot and killed 48 innocent Arab citizens near the entrance to the village of Kafr Kasim.
That was the day that the Sinai Campaign broke out between Israel and Egypt. Fearing that Jordan would join the fray, the IDF high command imposed a curfew on Israeli Arabs who lived near the Israeli- Jordanian border to keep them from collaborating with the enemy.
Brigade commander Col. Yissachar Shadmi was notified that many local Arabs who worked outside the villages did not know about the curfew, and yet, according to reports, he ordered border police members to shoot all returnees. His subordinate, the battalion commander Maj. Shmuel Malinki, compounded the severity of the order by instructing that women and children should be shot as well. The wounded, he hinted, should be “finished off.”
Most officers in the field found ways to circumvent the order or, in one notable case, to refuse it outright. But in Kafr Kasim, Dahan and Ofer implemented their orders to the full. The perpetrators were condemned by a special military court to severe prison sentences, but were pardoned a relatively short while later.
Their trial engendered the famous doctrine of “manifestly illegal commands,” criminal orders that a soldier has to disobey, though that did little to console the bereaved families.
Sixty years later, when MK Abu Arar asked members of the Knesset to stand in a moment of silence to honor the victims, Minister Yariv Levin erupted in shouts.
“This is not a mosque!” he yelled. MK Esawi Frej (Meretz), an inhabitant of Kafr Kasim who lost family members in the massacre, confronted Levin. Undaunted, the minister called the massacre “a controversial event” and “a lie.”
A day after that stormy debate, Frej and Levin confronted each other again on the radio. Frej said something additional that leads us toward an even more interesting angle of the affair: he called upon the government to expose all secret documents on the Kafr Kasim massacre, many of which are still kept under lock and key.
After all, what is there to hide 60 years later? Details of the massacre, embarrassing as they might be, can hardly compromise state security. Levin openly admitted his fear that the massacre and its memory will be used by the Arabs “to smear the Israeli government and army.”
In a sense, Levin’s fear is justified. There is something truly embarrassing at stake, and it may be related to an abortive military operation from that period, indirectly connected with the massacre. That operation, codenamed Mole, is still shrouded in mystery.
Until the 1990s, almost nothing was known about it, though some bits and pieces were inadvertently exposed during the perpetrators’ trial. One officer mentioned in an interview “a certain vermin” (sheretz mesuyam). The linguist and investigative journalist Ruvik Rosenthal, the one to uncover the story, received another hint from a dying witness who gestured him to “follow the mole.”
With the help of more witnesses and some of the confidential trial protocols, Rosenthal was able to establish that Mole was a plan to “secure” the Arab sectors of central Israel by occupying the villages and cutting them off from one another. One of these villages was Kafr Kasim, and the perpetrators of the massacre, at least some of them, were well aware of these plans.
But there were additional, darker possibilities stipulated by Operation Mole.
The author of the plan, Gen. Avraham (Abrasha) Tamir, claimed later that one such possibility was to evacuate the Arabs of Kafr Kasim and neighboring villages to “enclosures” in central Israel, a plan similar to the infamous internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Historians from the radical Left, such as Gazi Algazi, argued that Tamir lied, and the truth was even more terrible. Mole, Algazi claimed, was in fact a plan to ethnically cleanse the border villages and expel their inhabitants to Jordan. The government planned the massacre as a trigger, provoking the Arabs to revolt in order to justify their expulsion. It was not an aberration, but a war crime planned by the Israeli government itself.
Although there were indeed rumors in the Border Police, especially in lower echelons, that the real object of Mole was to expel the inhabitants of Kafr Kasim to Jordan, there is no real evidence that the government planned such a thing. Certainly, a massacre was neither planned nor wished by the higher echelons. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his ministers were shocked and disgusted by the massacre – a fact exposed by the minutes of the cabinet meeting after October 29.
It is true that Ben-Gurion later pardoned the criminals, but only after they were punished and disgraced. At the cabinet meeting after the massacre he even implied they should be executed. Even Maj. Malinki, the man whose orders led directly to the massacre, could not have believed that he was implementing a governmental plan by killing 48 innocent Arabs. In fact, when he heard in the military radio that the sporadic killings he ordered had turned into a large-scale bloodbath, he ordered the shooting to stop. The massacre could not have been the first stage of Operation Mole, also because this operation was canceled by the higher echelons on October 28, one day before the killings took place.
And yet, even a secret report of the Border Police recognized at the time that Operation Mole “had considerable influence on the Kafr Kasim [Affair].” Malinki, the battalion commander, told his subordinates that the operation was canceled, but it would still serve as an organizational blueprint for the imposition of the curfew.
The summary minutes of the meeting, taken by Malinki’s adjutant a few hours before the massacre, stated that the “division of the [operational] sectors [covered by the troops is] according to ‘Operation Mole’… the boundaries of the sectors will be established according to ‘Mole’… road blocks and patrols according to ‘Mole.’ All other existing tasks are no longer valid, unless ordered otherwise by the battalion.”
As some officers and soldiers believed, wrongly, that Mole was a plan of expulsion, they might have thought that by provoking the Arabs they were following the unstated will of their superiors.
This, however is only an educated guess, based on hints, partial illustrations and a handful of documents exposed by scholars. The full truth about Operation Mole, and its precise relationship with the Kafr Kasim Massacre, will become fully known only when the government releases the secret files. After 60 years, the time is ripe to open the dark closet and face the skeletons lurking inside.
One month after the failure of the coup on July 15, Turkey decided to invade Syria. The historical record suggests this is a very bad idea. Here is why.
This article was originally posted in War on the Rocks
On August 24, 2016, 450 Turkish troops, supported by tanks, armored trucks, air, and artillery support, crossed the Syrian border as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Initially, things seem to go well, though ominous signs already loom on the horizon. Pushed by Erdogan’s pride and anger, nationalist public opinion, and a strong urge to justify sunken costs, the Turkish army may get entangled in an endless counterinsurgency campaign. Unfortunately for Turkey, its military forces are undergoing a severe crisis that undermines its capacity to conduct such warfare. After the abortive military coup in July, the government engaged in a series of sweeping purges in its armed forces. More than 2500 officers, including at least 119 generals and admirals, were arrested or discharged, in addition to sweeping purges in the judiciary, police, schools, and universities. The regime also purged MIT, Turkey’s national intelligence agency, and as Gönül Tol maintained, its remaining agents are likely to invest more resources in fighting the elusive “Gülen conspiracy” than real terrorist threats.
The connection between the coup attempt in July and the military adventure in August is quite direct. One Turkish observer wrote that the anger on the coup brought Erdogan the public support needed for such an adventure. In TheWashington Post, Erin Cunningham and Liz Sly offered convincing evidence that the operation was delayed for almost one year by officers who eventually participated in the coup. If this information is true, then their purge enabled Erdogan to overcome remaining resistance and launch the invasion. Unfortunately for Turkey, the ramifications of the coup on the future of its Syrian intervention may be even bigger. Turkey is going into a military adventure in Syria precisely when its army is least prepared for such a task. As we shall see below, purges and coup-proofing treatments might be dramatically detrimental to military effectiveness, both in counterinsurgency and conventional wars. To use a medical metaphor, they are similar to chemotherapy treatments: very effective in fighting cancer, but at the same time ruinous to essential bodily functions.
Coup proofing and its ramifications: the historical experience
As a historian, the Turkish case tempted me to draw some comparative insights. I opened Caitlin Talmadge’s seminalThe Dictator’s Army, which examines the influence of coup-proofing on military effectiveness. Three of Talmadge’s case studies —South Vietnam (1965-1975), Iraq, and Iran (1980-1988) — faced considerable threats of military coups and therefore subjected their army to rigorous coup-proofing treatments. The results were disastrous. In all three cases, officers were usually promoted based on political or personal loyalty. Sometimes, talented officers were purged or marginalized if they were seen as lacking the requisite loyalties. Because maneuvers could be used as a pretext for military takeovers, the three armies were poorly trained. Further, their command systems were both centralized and convoluted to ensure control and allow governments to spy on units. Finally, there were considerable deficiencies in intelligence and dissemination of information: pessimistic or critical reports might have branded an officer as disloyal. These deficiencies were usually absent in armies unafraid of coups (i.e. North Vietnam), as well as Iraqi, Iranian, or South Vietnamese units exempted from coup-proofing treatments (In the case of South Vietnam, some units were far away from the capital and therefore deemed unthreatening. Iran only gradually coup-proofed the remnants of its old army. In Iraq, certain units were exempted after the war with Iran took a disastrous turn).
Such practices might be efficient to prevent coups, but at the same time they reduce an army’s capacity to fight external foes. As both Caitlin Talmadge and Stephen Biddle maintain, the “modern system” of conventional warfare is based, among other things, on merit promotions, small-unit initiative, complex training, decentralized control, and information sharing. These are precisely the functions that coup-proofing harms the most.
Studied the effects of coup-proofing: Caitalin Talmadge
Next, I examined the cases of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, familiar to me from my own research. The Japanese case adds a new dimension to Talmadge’s conclusions, as it shows how coup-proofing treatments might result in factional strife and distorted decision making. During the 1930s, a pervasive fear of coups inside the Japanese high command was a serious obstacle for merit-based appointments. Often, officers were appointed and demoted according to political allegiance alone. Kanaya Hanzō, a useless alcoholic, was commissioned in 1930 as the chief of the general staff for purely factional reasons. Lt. Gen. Nagata Tetsuzan, one of the most brilliant strategists that the Japanese army ever had, was declared by his factional rivals an “evil genius” and cut down in his office by a military assassin.
Following a failed revolt on February 26, 1936, the Imperial army had undergone extensive coup-proofing treatments. Scores of officers who belonged to the faction sympathetic to the conspirators were fired, including talented professionals. This infighting did not only preclude merit-based promotions but also distorted strategic decision-making. Recently, Andrew Levidis discovered new evidence on this that he discussed at a lecture at Harvard University in November of last year. He found that the decision to expand the conflict with China in 1937, a major cause of the Pacific War four years later, was strongly influenced by post-coup factional calculations. One faction was afraid that if it let troops out of southern China by downsizing the conflict there, its adversaries might use them to attack the Soviet Union instead. The war in China was therefore perceived as the lesser of two evils.
prompted an extensive campaign of coup-proofing: The February 1936 Incident
Nazi Germany is an interesting and different case in point. For most of the Third Reich’s history, Hitler and his minions had used relatively mild coup-proofing techniques. As Jasen Castillo and Dan Reiter both note, Hitler blunted the army’s teeth without excessively undermining military effectiveness. Unlike in the countries studied by Talmadge, German soldiers were thoroughly trained. Inter-factional rivalries, though present, were never as acute as in Japan. Apart from several top-brass positions, promotions in the Wehrmacht were largely based on merit and battlefield performance, not on loyalty to the Nazi Party (though “National-Socialist attitudes” did play a certain role). Hitler placed some limits on field initiative of top commanders through his famous “no retreat” orders on the Eastern front, but lower commanders had a larger degree of operational discretion. Commanders were usually unafraid to report delicate information, and many criticized Hitler’s decisions, sometimes to his face. The historian Harold C. Deutsch noted that between 1939 and 1940, for example, many top commanders criticized the impending attack on France. None of them was harmed, and many were even promoted. Instead of engaging in coup-proofing treatments likely to reduce military effectiveness, Hitler “vaccinated” his army through other means: bribery of generals, ideological inculcation, and establishment of parallel military organizations such as the SS.
That, however, changed after the abortive coup d’état on July 20, 1944. That coup could happen, as a high Gestapo official complained, only because the conspirators were sheltered by their peers. “The army”, he bemoaned, “operated according to its own rules.” This document, found in a collection of Gestapo documents that were published in 1961 by Seewald Verlag, reveals that after the coup, hundreds of officers were purged by “honor committees” and many were executed, even if they had no links with the conspirators. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the noted Panzer leader who served as chief of the general staff after July 20, openly declared that future commissions to the General Staff would be based on National-Socialist convictions. Had the Wehrmacht not collapsed within months for other reasons, these coup-proofing treatments might have seriously reduced its war-making capacities.
Turkey: Ominous Signs Ahead
No country is the same as another, and it would be a folly to assume that Turkish events will unfold exactly according to theory or past precedents. We are not yet sure, for example, whether the post-coup measures in Turkey will include restrictions on training and field initiative as in South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran.
We do see, however, ongoing purges in the armed forces. In its air force, the sheer number of the pilots purged may be causing severe personnel shortages. While, before the coup, Turkey had a normal 1.25:1 pilot-to-cockpit ratio, now they have a debilitating 0.8:1. The Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan assumes that it will take the air force at least two years to fill up the vacancies (or ten years, according to a more pessimistic assessment). The special forces were also badly affected. The picture is not as dire in the Turkish army and navy, and the second army, which bears the main burden of Operation Euphrates Shield, is reportedly the least affected. However, the pilot shortage could diminish air support capabilities for the Turkish ground forces in Syria, and corresponding shortages in the special forces could also create problems for Turkish military commitments and ambitions. This problem may worsen, because denunciations and the witch-hunt feel to the ongoing investigations are likely to result in more dismissals.
These purges are a painful lesson for the Turkish army. It is very likely that in the future, promotions will be based on political allegiance, not merit. True, politicization of promotion is not new by itself. Admittedly, the old officer corps strongly preferred Kemalist candidates for promotion. But as there was a large pool of such officers in the army, the high command could choose the more talented ones. Unfortunately, Erdogan’s definition of loyalty is much more capricious. “The uprising,” he said, “is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.” Defense Minister Fikri Isik openly admitted that the purges are not limited to participants of the coup or even to Gülenists: Anyone who did not oppose the Gülenists strongly enough is likely to be demoted. Even loyal officers who are too independently minded or do not share Erdogan’s vision for a “new Turkey” may fall under this definition. The term “Gülenist” itself is now a code word for anyone with insufficient loyalty, to include people with no plausible connection to this movement. At the same time, officers who showed strong personal loyalty to Erdogan were promoted, including to key roles in Operation Euphrates Shield. President Erdogan may also interfere in the military education system in such a way that will prevent the Kemalist elite from replicating itself. There is already talk on opening the military institutions to graduates of religious seminaries. That, by itself, does not exclude promotion by merit. In the current circumstances, however, such graduates could be slated for promotion based on religious commitments and loyalty to Erdogan, regardless of their professional performance.
Erdogan’s reforms are also likely to create a fragmented military structure with a convoluted chain of command, yet another common result of coup-proofing. As Metin Gurcan reports, Erdogan intends to subordinate different branches of the armed forces to different ministries and make the chief of the general staff a weak coordinator directly subordinate to the president. Obviously, this move is likely to increase civilian control and make it difficult for conspirators in different branches of the armed forces to cooperate, but it could also give rise to factional strife. The elevation of loyalty to Erdogan as the primary criteria for promotion may incentivize opposing groups to compete for the president’s favor, leading to Japanese-style factional infighting. Information flows in the army must suffer as well. Erdogan will have to closely supervise the different branches of the armed forces to forestall future coups and prevent “Gülenist” incursions, resulting in a rigid and convoluted command and control procedures.
Erdogan has an alternative. Instead of terrorizing his army officers, he can woo, bribe, and seduce them, providing a measure of coup-proofing without an excessive cost to battlefield effectiveness. The Turkish president, however, chooses to apply treatments similar to South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran’s. Tragically for Turkey, he also embarks on a dangerous cross-border adventure. Judging by the historical record, this is a very bad idea. If Turkey does not set modest goals and withdraw quickly after achieving them, the consequences might be serious indeed.
How horror and pluralism, wisely combined, gave rise to ISIS’ Empire in Iraq and Syria
The little town of Shariya, in northern Iraq, used to be an obscure, distant community, yet another Ba’athist experiment in social engineering. As part of his pet “Arabization project”, former President Saddam Hussein forcibly evacuated members of the Kurdish-Yazidi minority from their mountain villages and “resettled” them in planned communities under regime supervision. Normally, international attention was far away from Shariya and its inhabitants, but last summer things had changed.
Visiting the town in August this year, University of Chicago scholar Matthew Barber witnessed endless rows of cars and pickup trucks with Yazidi refugees from the Sinjar Valley. The cruel army of ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and A-Sham), flooded the valley with its troops, black banners, and intense firepower. Using American weaponry secured from the collapsing Iraqi Army, ISIS soldiers surprisingly defeated the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Sinjar, formerly known as one of the most efficient armies in Iraq. The Peshmerga (Kurdish: those who confront death) did not lack bravery, but its men and women’s old Soviet arms were no match for ISIS firepower. Sinjar is located outside of the Kurdish autonomy in Northern Iraq, but only 40 kilometers out of the Kurdish capital of Irbil, ISIS advance had put the Kurdish embryonic state in severe danger. Only US military involvement, both in aerial strikes and parachuted supplies, was able to avert this catastrophe so far.
What is the secret behind ISIS power? The answer is essentially twofold: horror and pluralism. Sounds contradictory? In order to understand this apparent riddle it may be instructive to look 800 years to the past, into the rise of the Mongol Empire. In the Thirteenth Century, this hitherto unknown confederation of nomadic tribes, led by the notorious Genghis Khan, was sweeping over large swaths of the globe and smashing formidable empires into pieces. The heirs of Genghis conquered China, laid waste to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, occupied Iran and reached the Western borders of Russia. The Mongols were able to rise so quickly partly as a result of their ethnic tolerance. The new conquerors were prudent enough to absorb warriors, scientists and intellectuals from a myriad of religions, colors and ethnic groups. Only through this relatively tolerant policy, they were able to amass talent internationally, thereby upgrading their mounted army into a global empire.
However, this ethnic pluralism was accompanied by a ruthless form of psychological warfare. The Mongol conquerors were able to convince so many talented subjects to join their ranks, only due to their ability to overcome countless kingdoms, city-states and other political entities without a serious fight. The reason they were able to proceed so smoothly was the horror they were spreading along the route of their advance. When Genghis Khan’s army fought in Khorasan (Eastern Iran), it imposed blood-chilling punishments on every city that failed to submit. The women and children were sold to slavery; some useful artisans were sent to the Empire, and the rest of the men were put to the sword. Sometimes the punishment was even more horrifying. After Genghis’ beloved son-in-law was killed in battle of Nishapur, the Great Khan and his men slaughtered all living souls in the city, including cats and dogs. Sometimes, the Mongols allowed refugees to escape and spread the word to cities and towns further down the road. Projecting the futility and the terrible price of resistance, many of these cities quickly surrendered to the advancing hordes. This paralyzing fear, further intensified by overblown rumors, was the Mongols’ most deadly weapon, even more than horses, swords, and bows.
Just like the Mongols eight centuries ago, the fighters of ISIS are using the twin strategy of horror and pluralism. The horror is evident for all to see. In his Sinjar report, Matthew Barber observed that many refugees were fleeing in circles, moving back and forth, from town to town, whenever they heard rumors (true or false) on ISIS military advance. And they had good reasons to flee, as mass media stories about slaughtered Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites, girls sold to slavery and mass massacres of prisoners had circulated far and wide. Many of these refugees fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, the only functioning quasi-state in the region and ISIS’ most formidable rival, thus burdening its economy to the breaking point. The waves of refugees are a highly useful weapon that ISIS utilizes against its rivals in Northern Iraq and elsewhere, and it begins to take effect even before real shots are fired.
However, and this is much less obvious, ISIS success cannot be understood without the other element in its strategy: ethnic pluralism. In Western imagination, ISIS and pluralism are far apart as night and day, but this is true only in regard to religious ideology. ISIS is highly intolerant to non-Muslims, Shiites and even Sunnis who do not share its hard-line ideology, but it is blind to class, color, nationality and ethnicity. In the new Caliphate, every radical Muslim can advance in the ranks, whether he is Iraqi, Chechen, British or American. Hence, ISIS can amass military talents from all over and beyond the Muslim world, fanatic volunteers able to build careers regardless of nationality, ethnicity, color or race. For Yazidis, Christians and rival Muslims, the name ISIS equals horror, but for numerous frustrated youngsters around the globe it signals opportunity and temptation. This sophisticated combination of seduction and horror is the true key to ISIS’ power.
Indeed, if the world lets this emerging empire gather strength, it will be increasingly difficult to stop it in the future. It is not enough to send supplies to besieged Yazidis; bomb sporadically or even commission military advisers. President Obama has to supply the Kurdish Peshmerga with cutting-edge weapons and support it with formidable detachments of US troops. Professional pacifists and isolationists should be ignored. Without American boots on the ground, no one else in Syria and Iraq will be able to stop the tide. And the massacres in Irbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kobani, crowded with horror-stricken refugees, can only be imagined. Action must be prompt, and it must come from the US and its European allies, not from the slow, ineffective UN Security Council. Now is the time to stop mass massacres in the making. One minute of delay and it may already be too late.
As Israel is showered with rockets and its southern towns are threatened with assault tunnels, the war in Gaza escalates by the day. A premature ceasefire, however, may be only the prelude for a more devastating round in one year or so. How can we use the current crisis to produce a better reality for Israel and Palestine? Political Owl with a bold proposal to break the impass.
This Article was also published in Compress
On July 17, IDF troops opened the heavy gates of Gaza, clearing the way for armour and infantry forces. This land operation, the second of its kind since the Israeli disengagement from the Strip in 2006, has relatively limited ends: to block the assault tunnels and to destroy rocket depots in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the operation is causing vast suffering in Gaza, with heartbreaking pictures of dead and wounded men, women and children. Most Israeli citizens feel that the IDF must obliterate the rockets and the assault tunnels, each and every one of which is designed to perpetrate a mass massacre in Israeli towns and villages. A volatile “ceasefire” (such as in 2012) may provide a temporary relief for both sides, but in all probability it will ensure another round of death and destruction in two years or less. We and the Palestinians are both trapped in a bloody, vicious cycle, a Middle-Eastern version of “catch 22”. How do we get out of this cycle, for the benefit of both sides? This is the most important question we face at the moment.
In my opinion, In order to reach an enduring settlement in Gaza, Israel should take advantage of Hamas’ own demands: “Do you want to lift the siege, build a nautical port and an airport and have prisoners released? We are ready to comply, as long as you give us something in return.” The Israeli Prime Minister should declare that Israel is ready to lift the siege, release the prisoners arrested in Operation “Brother’s Keeper” (June 2014) and allow generous international assistance for Gaza’s reconstruction, in return for full demilitarization of the strip from rockets and assault tunnels, supervised by Cairo, Ramallah and Washington. The lifting of the siege must be gradual, simultaneously with the disarmament process, but, I believe that Israel must declare this initiative as clearly, simply and publicly as possible. Thus, even the Palestinians and their allies in the international community may understand there is a hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. They must trust that Israel is ready to lift the siege completely as long as its security is ensured. It is important to emphasize, that the aforementioned plan does not include ideological demands from Hamas, that are unreasonable. The Gaza government will not be forced to recognize Israel, nor prior agreements or even the Palestinian authority in Ramallah. They will only be forced to disarm themselves from their rockets (an ineffective weapon, good for nothing but terrorizing civilians). Such a bold solution, which will probably require intense military pressure on Hamas, is already supported by leading experts in Israel and abroad, including Yuval Diskin, the moderate, creative and thoughtful former head of Shin Bet (General Security Service).
However, in order to leverage Operation Protective Edge to a durable political solution, Israel has to launch an equally dramatic initiative in the West Bank. The truly difficult question is “how”? How could we avoid another round of futile negotiations with the Palestinian Authority? As it is well-known, the Palestinians are highly skeptical about negotiations with Netanyahu and his government, and rightly so. The last round failed not only due to differences in essence, but also because the Israeli side refused to submit maps and wasted time in lengthy squabbling on agendas, time tables and other minute technical details. The Palestinians, not without justice, came to believe that such negotiations were merely an Israeli maneuver to drag time and divert attention from further settlement buildup. Therefore, the new initiative proposed here is designed to break the impasse, surprise the other side and spare us a new round of futile talks.
The first steps have to be initiated by Israel, again – as simply, clearly and dramatically as possible. Prime Minister Netanyahu has to declare his willingness to immediately recognize a Palestinian State with “temporary” or “controversial” borders. Only then can we negotiate the rest of the problems at hand. At the same time, Israel shall submit the Palestinian side a map with Israel’s vision for its future borders. Further buildup in the settlements would be put on hold as long as the talks are going on, in return for Palestinian refrain from hostile moves, such as approaching the International Court in Hague.
Mahmoud Abbas has to be invited, as the president of the State of Palestine, to speak in the Knesset as a formal guest. This visit’s choreography must be based on the historic visit of the late Egyptian President Anwar A-Sadat. That visit, as we all remember, was made prior to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but its importance in paving the way and creating the atmosphere for the talks is undeniable. Only the optimistic atmosphere created by the visit allowed both sides, Israel and Egypt, to make considerable concessions contrary to their own professed ideology. Emotions are a very important currency in the Middle East. Such an initiative, based on prompt recognition of Palestinian independence, may leverage the Gaza crisis to solve our long-term problems by creating future horizons for a two-state solution. In addition, it may convince the Palestinians that their time is not wasted, that they achieved something grand before negotiations have even begun.
Such an initiative, simultaneously with a disarmament settlement in Gaza, presumes an Israeli coalition of a different sort, certainly without Naftali Bennet and his hardline Jewish Home Party. It may require a bold political move, similar to the establishment of Kadima during the tenure of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or at least an ad-hoc coalition with the Labor Party. Netanyahu will not go for such an initiative willingly. Only strong pressure by the centrist parties in the coalition may create adequate conditions for its commencement. In any case, the initiative proposed above may serve as a purpose, goal and guiding vision for moderates in Israel. Only such a vision, a light at the end of the tunnel, may save us from the hell of reoccurring violence and leverage the Gaza disaster to a durable political solution.
Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, would like to reconstruct Muslim identity in a humane way, free of colonialist exploitation and domination. As a byproduct, however, he and his likes destroy the mere foundation scholarship stands on. Is racism tolerated in Academia? Well, that depends on who is the speaker, and who are the victims. Academic Owl on hate speech, juicy red herrings and the ability to laugh and cry.
This post was distributed in the Mid-East Politics mailing list
A new book by Prof. Hamid Dabashi, a famous scholar of Iranian studies and comparative literature at the University of Columbia, is always noteworthy news for people interested in Middle Eastern history and culture. Therefore, when Dabashi published the introduction for his new book, Being a Muslim in the World, at his usual Aljazeera English opinion column, I have read it with great interest. Given my own preferences, it was no wonder that I personally disagreed with the analysis, emphasis and conclusions of Dabashi. However, the deep disappointment that I felt after reading the column went much deeper, because I found Dabashi’s approach harmful to the very idea of scholarship as I understand it. His polemic is so full with ad hominem attacks, irrelevant arguments, red herrings, glaring factual errors and logical inconsistencies, as to make one wonder, well, about the direction that some “intellectuals” are taking nowadays. In addition, the blatant, almost racial anti-Semitism he displayed in other writings, may make one wonder about the tolerance practiced towards hate discourse, as long as it comes from the radical left.
This is a very sad story, because Being a Muslim in the World could have been a very promising intellectual project. And indeed, Dabashi’s discussion of the construction of Muslim identity in both past and present is both interesting and highly useful in our era of journalistic simplifications. To make a long story short, Dabashi argues that the mere formation of the inner political debate in Egypt, for example, as a binary of “liberalism” vs. “Islam” is not only misleading, but also a sinister product of Muslim encounter with Western Colonialism. Muslim identity, he reiterates, should be determined not by specific religious leaders, scriptures or clerics, let alone by organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood, themselves a product of colonial encounters. Religious identity should instead be determined by the Muslims themselves, in fluid enough a way to co-opt different kinds of identities and beliefs. The Muslim people have to overcome colonialism and shape their own fate also in the realm of identity formation.
Though some reservations could be raised about this thesis (for example – is it not misleading to ignore the centrality of the Quran and its hermeneutic orthodoxy in the formation of Muslim identity?), these are issues which I want to leave aside for the moment. Instead, the problematic part of Dabashi’s argument begins when he confronts his Western “other”, and especially in his treatment of other people with whom he disagrees.
Take, for example, his discussion of Niall Ferguson, certainly a controversial historian, and his thesis of the “rise of the West against the rest”. Ferguson, an avowed opponent of the intellectual left, had argued that the West had won the global race of domination owing to certain cultural and technological developments, for example a unique ideology of free trade and the rule of law. I have read Dabashi’s article time and again, and could not find even one solid scholarly answer to Ferguson’s thesis. Instead, there were mainly insults and ad hominem attacks. Look, for example, at the following passage:
The British historian Niall Ferguson has made a reputation for himself for being blunt to the point of vulgarity with the crudity of his mental makeup when it comes to theorising “the West” as the defining disposition of humanity at large. But like many other latter-day ideologues of the beleaguered empire, Niall Ferguson is more a panegyrist of “the West” than its prognosticator. He is a Johnny-come-lately who has come too late and wants to pack and leave too early. His tiresome boorishness is self-revelatory for the historian of dead certainties protests too much.
As the reader may see, I have underlined all ad hominem insults – already six, and we are not even in mid-paragraph. If someone can find here an argument or an answer, he or she is probably much sharper than I am. When Dabashi does attack Ferguson’s ideas with more detail at the later part of the paragraph, there is a little resemblance between his subject of attack and the arguments Ferguson really makes. Dabashi argues that Ferguson “missed the boat” because the “West” is already bankrupt, financially, diplomatically and morally and is on its way to the dustbin of history. But the bulk of Ferguson’s argument is historical: not what the Western countries are, but what they were – and how they reached a position of world domination. In other words, he is interested in the question, why Egypt did not colonize Britain, while Britain did colonize Egypt. Scholars may legitimately disagree with the answers he gives, but the question is certainly worthwhile.
Dabashi does not really answer it – because he is not really interested in doing so. He builds a straw-man of a scholar who is his political rival, and then knocks it down. Dabashi says that one cannot speak about the “West” because such construct is not autonomous and independent, but even that is beside the point. Families, societies, nations, religious identities – all are imagined constructs, but still have much viability in the real world. The “West” is imaginary – just like the new “Islamic identity” offered by Dabashi. But it is much easier to point fingers at your rival than to critically examine the products of your own imagination.
That is interrelated with the second problem in Dabashi’s writing – political one-sidedness for which both facts and logic are unnecessary companions. For example, in a previous Aljazeera piece, he quoted a person named Gershon Baskin, an alleged “Israeli official” responsible for negotiating with Hamas. Then, he builds his conclusion upon this quote having been said by an “Israeli government official”. But a short googling would have taught him that Baskin is a private person, and certainly not an official of the Israeli government.
Such negligence in checking even the most basic facts upon which his arguments are based, is unfortunately accompanied by a racist demonization of Israel, verging on an old style racial anti-Semitism. For Dabashi, the Jewish state is nothing but a “settler colony” which is interested only (!) in maiming and killing more Palestinians. In another interview, he argued that:
Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.”
The Israelis, in other words, are ugly monsters whose viciousness is even evident in their distorted faces. They do not have fears, emotions. They cannot laugh or cry. They only want to kill because they enjoy it, something like vampires from cheap horror movies. And such a person is being hailed as one of the leading Middle-Eastern scholars of the age. I wonder what will happen to a person who dares to use such terms when speaking on Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians or blacks. How long would it take until he is kicked out of office, probably with two or three lawsuits trailing him like a shadow? My guess – three hours to three days until he is chased out of campus, but the readers are invited to offer their own speculations.
Dabashi’s essay is unfortunately also full of red herrings, irrelevant arguments and glaring logical holes. He writes, for example, that:
Niall Ferguson and his ilk come at the tail end of this imperial conquest, at the tail end of that narrative fiction – now hitting a cul de sac. Financially bankrupt (look at Greece, the fictive birthplace of “the West”), politically corrupt (look at presidential elections in the US), economically stagnant (look at the US debt to China), diplomatically inept (look at the Iranian nuclear issue), all signs indicate that this thing Niall Ferguson still calls “the West” has long since internally imploded – with postmodernism and poststructuralism as its paramount philosophical eulogies. “
And the reader may ask himself: If Greece is only the “fictive” birthplace of the west (a highly dubious argument, to my mind), then why is it important that it is economically bankrupt? Since when postmodernism became a signal of imminent collapse? Are most Western countries economically bankrupt, and aren’t many non-Western countries bankrupt as well? Is the US corrupted more than, let’s say, China or Egypt? From reading Dabashi, it seems that while US economy is stagnant, everything is going well with China. No word about systemic corruption, real estate bubbles, mass immigration to overcrowded cities, and the like. In other words, in order to prove that the “West” is on its way out, he cherry picks several problems, which exists, in a much larger scale, also in non-Western countries.
These are only few examples out of many. It is indeed distressing that such a famous scholar as Hamid Dabashi choose to attack and ridicule away his intellectual opponents instead of seriously confronting their arguments, and even more distressing to see him writing about Israel in terms reminiscent of racist propaganda outlets . A productive scholarly debate between left and right could be enriching for us all. Instead, with the style of debate that Dabashi represents here, we, the readers, are the only losers.