Vice interview about Ben Zygier, Israeli spying and Western acceptance

I was recently interviewed by Lily Jovic for Vice magazine:

Last month, Israel struck a 1.2 million dollar deal with the parents of Melbourne-born Mossad agent Ben Zygier, as compensation for his death in prison 3 years ago. The payout seemingly marks the end of the Prisoner X case, a case which despite having serious national security implications, did little to capture the attention of Australia’s government or the people it protects.

We had a chat with Antony Loewenstein, author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, to help us understand why an Australian man turned Israeli spy, jailed without trial and eventually found hanging in a cell while under 24-hour watch, didn’t become the news story of the year.

VICE: Hi Antony. What did you think of the payout?
Anthony Loewenstein: The payout is unsurprising; it’s something governments do pretty commonly as a way to bring silence to the family, who in this case are principally based in Melbourne. They’ve pretty much said nothing the whole time, and generally speaking, members of the Zionist community/lobby have remained silent the whole time too. Countless journalists have tried to speak to them and gotten nowhere. Israel investigated itself and they essentially found that they have no responsibility over what happened, but here’s a million dollars to shut up; it’s a payoff to buy silence.

That’s probably what is most peculiar about this case, the absence of any public discourse, particularly from the Jewish community in Melbourne.
What needs to be understood here is that the Zionist lobby works within the shadows. So when a story like this happens, which is rare, about something that has the potential to embarrass them and Israel, their response is either to say nothing or to deny there is a problem in the first place. It’s a “nothing to see here, move it along” situation, and a damage control approach that is very much supported by both sides of Australian politics. In terms of Zygier, the response of most people in power is: bury it, don’t respond, don’t give it oxygen and hopefully it will go away. Israel’s payment to Zygier’s parents is yet another attempt to make that happen.

What are some questions which, in your mind, the Australian government could press Israel with? If not to bring closure to the family then to at least address security concerns.
How many Australian Jews are going to Israel, taking citizenship and working for the Mossad? What are they doing with the Mossad? The enemies that Mossad sees are the enemies Australia sees, because Australia is a client state of America and Israel. That’s how it works, that’s what real politics is about. How does the Australian government feel about Israeli Australian citizens who undertake potentially illegal behaviour? That’s an important question, the Australian government had no interest in finding that out, they didn’t really care and evidently don’t care because they turn a blind eye and support it.

I think we really have to separate between public statements and private realities. The assassination of a Hamas weapons dealer in 2010 obviously got exposure because the Israelis, in a remarkably stupid manner, were caught on CCTV cameras. The Australian government was publicly pissed off with the fact that Australian passports were used, but I understand privately that this sort of thing happens all the time.

So, Australia isn’t privately concerned with what happened to Zygier or Israel’s austere censorship measures?
Well there’s been a remarkable lack of curiosity, in fact a ridiculous lack of curiosity. The report that the Australian government released after the Zygier incident, was complete bullshit, whitewash. Basically saying yes there were some issues with overall security but Israel behaved fine.

Publicly when something of that nature happens, they have to say something. The idea that Australian passports are being forged for the use of assassination and covert operations is a pretty bad look. Privately, that’s not seen as a major problem and I understand the relationship between both countries is largely unaffected by it all.

In the case of Zygier, the relationship between the two governments has certainly worked more in Israel’s favour. In your opinion, is it more mutual than it appears?
Ultimately the relationship with Israel is fundamentally based on a question of intelligence sharing over issues like Iran and Hezbollah. Bob Carr’s comments in past six months expressing that all the Israeli colonies in the West Bank were illegal, has caused apoplexy. The Jewish community was incredibly pissed off with that, and the result was that they would much rather have had an Abbott government, and here we are. Not to say that was because of them of course, but they are much happier with that kind of governance.

One that props up the image of Israel?
Precisely. The Zygier case feeds into that image paranoia the Jewish establishment has. It looks as if Israel essentially abused or assaulted Zygier in some way, and when Israel is already perceived to be under attack for its countless, daily human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, this is merely one more stake in the heart. If there’s a sense somehow that there beloved Israel could end up killing one of us, either through suicide or murder, that’s not a good look. It’s led to the shift of Israel’s image from this wonderfully social, left wing country to an occupier and brute.

There’s a real sense that the Zygier case, for a lot of people, was very clarifying and actually confirmed the belief that Israel is a rogue state that treats its own citizens badly. Zygier was an agent, yes, but with dual citizenship.

That’s all we really know about Zygier, could more information ever emerge?
Obviously a lot has emerged this year, and he was probably involved in some kind of covert action in relation to Hezbollah, and potentially monitoring in Europe what Iran was doing in relation to its nuclear program. It appears that he may well have committed suicide, and it’s far from impossible that he did so, we just don’t know. That information may come out at some point, but not for a long time.

Any information you could divulge from your own research that tells us of Zygier’s involvement in Mossad and his apparent suicide?
In terms of the actual details of what he was doing and how he died, I don’t know. That is far too difficult to discover from here. What I have investigated is the constipation of the Zionist establishment towards this kind of case. They’re embarrassed that it will be seen that an Australian citizen has essentially become a traitor to his own country and undertaken activities by a foreign country, which in Australian law could well be illegal, that is the fundamental point.

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How Israel and the Gulf states maintain repression in the Middle East

The idea that the Western powers want freedom and democracy in the Middle East is a joke that’s not lost on the Arabs living there.

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books, outlines brilliantly today’s messy region:

One evening in January at a hotel bar in Manhattan, I tried to ingratiate myself with an officer from Bahrain’s mission to the United Nations. Munira (not her real name) was a former student of a friend of mine. She was also a regime insider, close to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, one of the royal family’s more reform-minded figures. I thought she might help me land a visa to Bahrain, which had all but shut out Western journalists since the crackdown at the Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. I can’t have been very persuasive. She promised to ‘assist your quest in any way’, but soon stopped replying to my emails. My visa application was never answered.

The protesters at the Pearl Roundabout, Munira told me that evening, were not fighting for constitutional reform or democracy; they were agents of Iran and Hizbullah. When they called for a republic, they meant an Islamic republic along Iranian lines where drinking would be banned and modern women like her would be forced to cover themselves. Fortunately, she had been rescued by troops from a country where drinking is already banned and women like her are forced to cover themselves. For Munira, the arrival in March 2011 of more than a thousand soldiers from Saudi Arabia, via the King Fahd Causeway between the Eastern Province and Bahrain, was a humanitarian intervention. Thanks to the support of its neighbours – and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain – her tolerant, cosmopolitan, pro-Western kingdom had narrowly foiled a plot hatched in Tehran and Beirut’s southern suburbs.

I mentioned that the government-sponsored Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, in its report to King Hamad, had explicitly rejected claims of Iranian involvement in the protest movement. Whether or not they were directed from Tehran, Munira replied, the protests represented a Shia bid for power, and therefore a threat to the Sunni-led kingdom. Now that she had seen ‘terror’ in Manama – her word for the largely non-violent campaign of civil disobedience – she understood Israel’s need for stern measures. She had outgrown her youthful infatuation with the Palestinian cause, especially since Israel had proved itself a friend of Bahrain: ‘Our relations with Mossad are very good.’ Together, Israel and the Gulf monarchies were defending the region not only against Iran, but against the no less insidious influences of the Arab Spring.

Munira may have been overstating things for my benefit: what better way to win over an American Jewish journalist than to praise the Jewish state? Still, recent developments in the region – from the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt to the impending strike against Syria – have confirmed that she was saying openly what many leaders in the Gulf privately believe.

Israel and the Gulf states do not have official diplomatic relations, but they have been developing closer ties over the last two decades. After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, the Gulf states lifted their boycott of countries that traded with Israel; a few years later, Israel opened trade missions in Qatar and Oman. The two top exports from Israel to the Gulf – sold through third parties and shell companies – are security equipment and technology. When Aluf Benn published a report in Haaretz of Israeli arms sales to Arab and Muslim countries earlier this year, there were ferocious denials from Egypt and Pakistan, but not a word from the United Arab Emirates over its buying of drone technology.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed a two-state settlement based on Israel’s 1967 borders, in return for full economic and diplomatic normalisation. This spring, Riyadh reaffirmed the 2002 proposal, even accepting the need for land swaps, a further concession to Tel Aviv. Israel has never responded to the proposal. Nor did it show much sensitivity to the amour propre of its friends in the UAE when Mossad assassinated Hamas’s security chief in a Dubai hotel room in 2010. But Israel has relaxed its opposition to arms sales from Washington to the Gulf states, and shared intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities – the concern which, along with the insurgent force of Arab populism, has sealed their alliance.

That alliance has deepened since the fall of Mubarak. No one was more furious at Obama’s betrayal of a loyal client than the Israelis – well, no one except the Saudis. Not only had Mubarak been a redoubtable ally against Iran and Hamas; he had protected Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation seen by Riyadh and the UAE as a force of subversion throughout the Gulf. The Saudis are religious but they are not sentimental. Given a choice between a dependable secular autocrat like Mubarak and an Islamic populist movement with regional ambitions that might challenge their own, they have always chosen the former. Since the fall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, the Saudis have fought the wave of insurrectionary movements by supporting conservative religious forces, particularly Salafi groups, and by stirring up sectarian tension.

Israel, too, prefers autocratic neighbours: countering Arab populism has been a pillar of its foreign policy since 1948. It has also tried to stoke sectarian tension in the Arab and Muslim world, supporting Maronite influence in Lebanon and encouraging irredentist groups in Iran and Iraq. But Israel’s ability to influence the domestic politics of Arab countries is limited. It cheered on General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi when he threw out Morsi, suspended the constitution and accused Hamas of trying to destabilise Egypt – as the Americans discovered when they tried in vain to restrain the Egyptian army, the generals and Israel were in constant contact during the coup – but couldn’t offer much in the way of material support. It was left to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to step in with extravagant offers of assistance, while urging Sisi to show the Brothers no mercy. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, pro-Israel lobbyists fought any attempt to suspend military aid to the Egyptian generals. One former American official with excellent ties to the Saudis called it a ‘game of charades, with communication between the players by mime’.

The Israelis and Saudis played the game well – much better than Obama, whose grudging acceptance of the coup has not prevented him from being vilified in Cairo by the military regime’s supporters. (The posters in Cairo of Obama with a jihadi beard look much like the racist caricatures of ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ that used to run in right-wing Israeli tabloids.) Indeed, one could argue that Israel and Saudi Arabia are now closer to each other in their views of the region than either of them is to the United States. The Saudi-Israeli support for the coup in Egypt challenges a central tenet of American policy in the Middle East: that stable government and peace depend on democracy. US support for democratisation is of course limited, and contingent on alignment with American objectives, but in principle the US has supported the integration of Islamist parties. The Americans were not in cahoots with the Brothers, contrary to the rumours in Cairo, but they fear that Sisi’s crackdown will drive Egypt’s Islamists toward violence, and that America might become a target. It is not an unreasonable fear.

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While BDS surges globally, Murdoch’s organ in Australia fiddles

While Israel continues daily to brutalise Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Stephen Hawking’s decision to back BDS causes waves around the world, it’s comical to read Rupert Murdoch’s Australian desperately hoping that the Zionist state would just get some love. After praising Israel for singing lullabies to Palestinians recently, today’s editorial merely deepens the level of delusion. Long may it continue:

An outbreak of common sense at the University of Sydney is welcome. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has rejected support from the student council (and one of his own academics) for the anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaign.

“I do not consider it appropriate for the university to boycott academic institutions in a country with which Australia has diplomatic relations,” said Dr Spence. As it should, one of our premier seats of learning is standing up for freedom of expression, democracy and liberal intellectual engagement. The BDS push came from Associate Professor Jake Lynch – a paradoxical show of intolerance given he heads the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Student activists and Greens MPs who have given succour to the often anti-Semitic BDS campaign should pause to think. Incongruously, these pro-Arab demonstrators focus on one of the few Middle Eastern countries where Arabs have a free vote and hold seats in a democratic parliament. We could take their commitment to human rights more seriously if occasionally they protested against atrocities inflicted upon Arabs by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, or blood-letting between Hamas and Hezbollah, or, in the past, the cruelty of Saddam Hussein. But on Arab aggression the protesters see, hear and speak no evil.

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Israel desperate for regional war?

Savvy piece by Larry Derfner in +972 magazine. The lack of mainstream criticism over Israeli actions against Syria reveals the agenda; install a pliant thugocracy in Damascus. Good luck with that:

People in this country [Israel] have been worried that the fighting in Syria is going to “spill over the border,” and now Israel, unprovoked, unattacked, has gone and bombed Syria twice in the last 72 hours. Is anyone in this vibrant democracy protesting? I haven’t heard it.

That’s because the missiles from Syria and/or Hezbollah haven’t started falling here. So far so good, people figure. As long as we get away with it, hooray. If, however, our neighbors to the north start retaliating with some of their tens of thousands of rockets and missiles on the Israeli home front or other targets, maybe then people here will wonder why we decided now of all times to punch Syria and Hezbollah in the nose.

What was the Air Force trying to do – stop Assad’s chemical weapons from falling into the hands of global jihadists, the same ones who supposedly can’t be deterred because they have no address? No. Both times, the Air Force reportedly hit not chemical weapons but caches of long-range, accurate, conventional missiles that came from Iran and were meant not for “undeterrable” global jihadists without an address, but for Hezbollah, which has an address and is being deterred very nicely by Israel – so far.

Why did Israel take out these missiles? The Israeli official quoted after Friday morning’s attack said it was to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining “game-changing” weapons. Which game was in danger of being changed? The game of Israeli military superiority, of the Israeli “qualitative edge.” The rules of this game are that Israel continually flies spy planes over Lebanon, bombs Syria now, and may bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities later, secure in its belief that the targets can’t do much in return – like bring down Israeli spy planes over Lebanon with anti-aircraft missiles (which were hit in January), or terrorize the home front with long-range, accurate missiles (which were hit Friday and yesterday).

In other words, Israel’s air strikes in Syria were meant to maintain its ability to carry out continued acts of aggression against its enemies without fear of challenge. This is the game, and this is what Israel doesn’t want anyone to change.

The strange thing, though, is that Hezbollah and Syria, as noted, already have tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, some of which can hit anywhere in Israel. How much of a difference would these Fateh-110 missiles that Israel destroyed in the last couple of days have made in Hezbollah’s hands? It doesn’t seem there was anything so urgent about bombing them; it seems Israel did it because it believes there was no real risk involved, as former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told Army Radio, as quoted in Haaretz.

Yadlin said that he doesn’t expect Syria to retaliate. “A confrontation with Israel would bring more danger, not responding would let Assad maintain the upper hand in the fight against the rebels.”

So far, there are no reports of people being killed in the Israeli attacks, although there are reports of injuries from last night’s strike on a military research center. But how long can Israel’s luck hold out? How many more times can it attack Syria without Syria or Hezbollah hitting back?

(UPDATE: The New York Times on Monday quotes a doctor at Syria’s military Tishreen hospital saying at least 100 soldiers were killed and dozens of people were injured. It also quotes a senior military official saying dozens of elite troops were killed.)

Could that be what Israel wants? Could Israel also be trying to draw Iran into the fray and give it an excuse to hit Tehran? At any rate, is the possibility of a regional war something that doesn’t scare Israel, so it sees no risk in taking out a few batches of advanced weapons before Hezbollah gets them?

One thing is sure – Israel is provoking a war. (Imagine what this country would do if some enemy attacked its weapons sites.) Meanwhile, the Obama administration is backing Netanyahu and the generals 100 percent. As for this country, there isn’t a word of protest from anyone, certainly no one who matters. Israel may or may not be at war in the very near future, but if it isn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.

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Inside the mind of Hamas leader Khalid Mishal

Australian journalist Paul McGeough travels to Doha, Qatar for Fairfax Media to interview the Hamas head. What follows is a fascinating discussion about the future of Palestine. Read the whole thing. What remains deeply concerning is the apparent desire of Hamas to embrace the failed two-state equation that will never happen in reality with any justice:

The Hamas leader doesn’t like the term, but in coming to that edge, Mishal has been burning bridges. Incredibly, Hamas has quit Damascus. The Syrian capital became the movement’s headquarters in exile after Jordan’s naive new king, Abdullah II, cast out the Hamas gang in 1999. As an Islamist organisation rooted in the then sinister-sounding Muslim Brotherhood, the movement was alert to the possibility that Damascus could turn on it – the Assad regime had done so brutally in 1982, virtually flattening the city of Hama to choke a brotherhood uprising.

But Hamas had nowhere else to go. And locked in its own conflict with Israel, the ruling Assad family saw strategic good sense in giving shelter to what were called the ”rejectionist” Palestinian factions – those who refused to buy in to the Washington-backed peace process.

This Assad-Hamas relationship was a pact between a minority, Shiite-aligned dictatorship and a Sunni resistance movement. It endured despite the re-emergence of the Sunni-Shiite schism in the Muslim world, but it could not survive the Arab Spring, which has embroiled Syria in sectarian chaos, with an estimated 70,000 civilians dying.

As the Hamas leader tells it, even before the first protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, he had urged the mercurial Bashar al-Assad to opt for reforms that might head off any revolt by his own people. ”I alerted him to the likelihood of the Arab Spring coming to Syria,” Mishal says, adding by way of a rebuke to the translator: ”I did not warn him.”

Hamas hung in for another 10 months. But that encounter in which Mishal urged Assad to act pre-emptively, was their last. Over the years, they had met regularly, enjoying each other’s company. ”There were no more meetings,” says Mishal. ”It was clear that we differed in our opinions on what would happen. We wished they would meet the aspirations of their people – regrettably, the Syrian leadership took the other option.

”That made it impossible for us to maintain a presence there – with such brutality and bloodshed. And once we felt our presence was being sought after as a justification for what was happening, we had to leave. [Syrian officials] were demanding that we openly support their policy – they wanted to know why we did not [publicly] express solidarity. We were left with no choice.”

This was bigger than merely offending an embattled dictator, because other powerful parties would take deep offence at Hamas abandoning Assad. Guardedly, Mishal lifts the veil, ever so slightly: ”Our assessment of Syria was a source of disagreement with a number of people.”

Hamas’ abandonment of Syria ”soured” the movement’s relations with Tehran, he confirms. There were ”areas of agreement and disagreement” with Moscow and ”it had an impact on our relations with [the Lebanese Shiite militia] Hezbollah, because our stand on Syria was different to theirs”.

After reports that Tehran had punished Hamas by chopping a funding deal worth an estimated $25 million a month, a movement spokesman in Gaza said Hamas would not do the bidding of the Iranians in any military conflict between Iran and Israel: ”If there’s a war between two powers, Hamas will not be part of such a war.”

During more than six hours of interviews with Fairfax Media in Doha, Mishal sets out the departure from Syria only in terms of needing to be on the right side of history: ”We had to stand with the people, to support their calls for freedom and economic reform … we would never support bloodshed and brutality when the people rise peacefully to demand change.”

Mishal has announced he is quitting as supreme leader of Hamas – his replacement could be confirmed by a vote of the Hamas shura, or top council, any day now. But Fairfax Media was assured, too, that Mishal aspires to a bigger brief, as leader for all Palestinians.
By coincidence, the 74-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he will not seek re-election as head of the Palestinian Authority – although it’s not clear if he also intends to relinquish his posts as head of Fatah and of the PLO. There is speculation – read that as hope – in some Palestinian circles and in Israel and Washington that Abbas, jaded as he is, might not follow through on quitting the PA.

Unlike Mishal, Abbas is seen as a moderate, a staunch advocate of non-violent negotiation with Israel who only recently has revealed himself capable of independent or determined action – such as his bid for Palestinian membership of the UN and his faction’s in-principle agreement to join Hamas in a new unity government.

Historically, Hamas has spurned the PLO because of the latter’s renunciation of armed struggle and its recognition of the state of Israel. Hamas and Fatah fought a bloody civil war in 2007 – when a Fatah force failed dismally in a bid to dislodge Hamas from the Gaza Strip, despite arms, funding and co-operation from the US and Israel. Under Israeli occupation, in the case of Fatah in the West Bank, and locked in by Israeli forces, in the case of Hamas in Gaza, the factions have been at daggers-drawn since. But in renewed unity talks sponsored by the new Cairo regime, they have agreed in principle that Hamas will join the PLO.

PLO membership for Hamas would serve as a launch pad for Mishal to seek to head the PLO. Given the enmity between the factions, it comes as no surprise that the latest round of unity negotiations, in Cairo in mid-February, is deadlocked on the issue of election rules that would determine the degree of difficulty for Mishal to take leadership of the PLO.

There’s a question here, too: if Hamas folds itself into the PLO and Mishal makes a bid for the top seat, how does the movement stick to its refusal to abide by previous deals between the PLO and the international community? Some Arab-language media reports speculate that Qatar and others have hit on installing Mishal as leader of the PLO precisely because such an appointment would back him in behind those deals.

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Rise of Sunnis in the Middle East and the decline of Iran in 2013

Juan Cole offers some predictions:

2013 will see Iranian influence in the Middle East continue a decline that began with the Arab upheavals of 2011. Iran’s two major allies in the Arab world are Syria and Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran arms the Shiite party-militia Hizbullah, and does so overland through Iraq and Syria. Since Israel controls the Mediterranean off Lebanon and can, when it wants to, control Lebanese air space, the land corridor for Iranian supplies to Hizbullah is key to the latter’s ability to confront Israeli expansionism into Lebanese territory.

Hizbullah could well have its Iranian lifeline cut. Its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrullah, has come out strongly in favor of the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, because both of them are Iranian clients. If Syria falls to the Sunni Arab revolutionaries, the latter will have a grudge toward both Iran and Hizbullah for supporting the Baath government, and will likely cut the latter off from resupply through Syrian territory. Instead, Syrian support will go to the Sunnis of Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli, Akkar and the Biqa Valley.

Between 2003 and 2012 the United States, in a fit of absent-mindedness, made Iran a regional hegemon. Washington overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and delivered it into the hands of the Northern Alliance, a set of strong Iran allies. A brake on Iranian influence in Afghanistan was removed. Then the Bush administration overthrew Saddam Hussein, the Sunni ruler who subjected the Shiite majority and stood as a barrier to Iranian penetration of the Middle East. Without meaning to, the US brought to power a religious Shiite government that naturally allied with Iran. Then the US Congress targeted Syria for deep sanctions and the Bush hawks drove it firmly into the arms of Iran. The Bush administration backed Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, which strengthened the Shiite party-militia Hizbullah, which now is a key backer of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati. The pro-Iran capitals stretched from Kabul to Beirut (light blue in the map below), and Iran suddenly became a much bigger player in Levantine affairs than it had been in the 1990s. The Israeli security establishment, indeed, fingered Tehran as their most pressing threat. Iran was lionized in the Arab world for supporting Hizbullah against Israel in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War.

If al-Assad falls in Syria and is replaced by a Sunni government of revolutionaries, they will be beholden to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey (and Libya), all of them Wahhabi or Sunni powers. They will likely punish Hizbullah for its support of the Baath government, and will support Sunni forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in Lebanese politics. If Hizbullah can’t replenish its stock of rockets, its geopolitical significance could decline, even as that of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood rises. The partitions in the following map, of Iraq and Afghanistan, are meant only to depict the regional divide over foreign policy, not to suggest an actual break-up of these countries (but who knows?)

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How lobby trips to Israel and beyond pollute political and media culture

Far too many reporters and politicians take free trips to Israel, America and elsewhere. In the vast majority of cases they’re little more than propaganda exercises. When it comes to Zionist lobby visits to Israel, I can count on one hand the number of returnees who write or say anything independent instead of mouthing Israeli government talking points. The Zionist lobby is pleased.

There’s a piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age about this trend:

The shouting had gone on long enough. “The problem is, the microphone is shoved in front of the face of some person who is going to yell in either broken English or Arabic,” despaired Moammar Mashni.

“When was the last time you saw an articulate, educated Palestinian – who there are millions of – before the cameras?”

No issue sparks more anger and argument in international politics than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even in far-off Australia, thousands of kilometres from the fighting, few foreign affairs questions excite such community passion, condemnation and debate, demonstrated once again after the latest flare-up surrounding the killing of a Hamas leader in Gaza by an Israeli missile strike. Protesters took to the streets, letters poured into newspapers, local online forums buzzed with strong opinions.

Long before the latest outbreak of violence, Mashni worried the mainstream debate in Australia had been too one-sided, dominated by supporters of Israel, with the plight of Palestinians poorly understood.

“The stereotypical picture of a Palestinian is that they have got to be a man, a Muslim, have a beard and he’s got to be screaming at the television camera in Arabic. Now there are plenty of people who are not like that. I’m not like that.”

So, in 2006, after Israel and Hezbollah went to war in Lebanon and another battle erupted in Gaza, Mashni abandoned more than a decade of work in retail. Inspired by his father, a Palestinian refugee who fled to Australia more than 50 years earlier, Mashni decided to create a full-time body to get the message out. A lobby group, in other words, an organisation that became known as Australians For Palestine, founded with money Mashni earned from his family business. The motto: Providing a Voice.

“That is exactly what we’ve been doing for the past six years,” he says, “providing a voice for the Palestinian narrative to the Australian public, via members of Parliament, unions, universities, church groups, community groups, wherever we’ve been provided that forum.”

An end to the shouting may be the aim but, in the corridors of power, Australians For Palestine is barely heard as a whisper. The competition is vastly more organised, better funded and connected.

“What I’ve struggled to understand, there seems to be this fear of offending Israel,” Victorian Labor MP and chairwoman of the Palestinian friendship group, Maria Vamvakinou, says. 

“To be honest with you, I don’t get it. This is an international issue and if you take an intellectual approach to it, it’s about an ongoing occupation that goes to the question of justice, one people being subjugated by another.

“I can’t see how my colleagues can’t see this. I don’t understand how you can refuse to see what is happening to the Palestinian people is wrong.”

Mashni claims MPs are intimidated, fearful of being tarred as too pro-Palestinian. “Quite often we will find there is strong support for our message, but have been told in no uncertain terms that strong support is only behind closed doors,” he says.

“Unfortunately the narrative created by the other side is that if you are pro-Palestinian, it automatically means you are anti-Israel, and nothing could be further from the truth.”

The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director, Colin Rubenstein, dismisses claims – such as by Zionist critic and author Antony Loewenstein – that these trips amount to mere propaganda missions that reporters should never accept. ”It would be useless if this was a propaganda tour. The idea is to expose our participants to a whole range of views on the Israeli front, on the Palestinian front, of non-Jewish Arab Israelis,” he says.

As to the competing Palestinian lobby, Rubenstein doesn’t see a paper tiger. ”Individuals, people, academic organisations that have been anti-Israel have come and gone. But what’s disappointing to me, as an Australian, is I often find much more stridency and extremism and vituperation here, among Palestinian supporters, than you find among the real people living in the real world in the Palestinian community over there.”

I was interviewed during the week for the story but my quotes were excised. I argued that these Zionist lobby trips intentionally skew the truth on the illegal colonies in the West Bank and the supposed threats from Iran, Hizbollah and Iran.

In Britain, according to The Independent, the situation is little different:

Backbench MPs have gone on more than £1.5m of trips with all expenses paid by foreign governments, pressure groups and companies in little over two years, The Independent can reveal. Several MPs have spent months out of the country on foreign trips, sometimes while Parliament is sitting, while many of those funding the visits have a vested interest in lobbying MPs.

After the trips, a significant number of MPs have made speeches in the House of Commons supporting the political positions of the governments and countries they have visited.

The Independent’s analysis reveals that 242 MPs have declared “fact-finding missions” and visits worth an average £6,500 to countries including Sri Lanka, China and former Soviet States since the last election.

The highest-claiming MPs include the former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband who, since losing the Labour leadership to his brother, has gone on 14 foreign trips costing £47,600 and taking up 47 days – mainly to give speeches and attend conferences.

The foreign trips taken by Mr Miliband, who declared in the aftermath of his leadership defeat that “South Shields comes first”, have helped him to earn £400,000 in addition to his MPs salary.

The findings show that:

* One in five Conservative backbench MPs had been taken on trips to Israel and Palestine since 2010 – the majority paid for by pro-Israeli lobbying groups. In total 79 MPs have been funded to visit the region at an approximate cost to their hosts of more than £130,000.

* Saudi Arabia paid £36,000 to take 12 MPs on a four-day trip to Riyadh. MPs have also accepted £41,000 worth of trips to Azerbaijan.

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Does the European Left ignore Islamist violence in a mutual hatred of Israel?

It’s an interesting and long argued detail, here by Colin Shindler in the New York Times. He makes some disturbing points but ignores the elephant in the room, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and how that affects global attitudes towards Israel, Jews and Zionists:

Last week, Twitter shut down a popular account for posting anti-Semitic messages in France. This came soon after the firing of blanks at a synagogue near Paris, the discovery of a network of radical Islamists who had thrown a hand grenade into a kosher restaurant, and the killing of a teacher and young pupils at a Jewish school in Strasbourg earlier this year. The attacks were part of an escalating campaign of violence against Jews in France.

Today, a sizable section of the European left has been reluctant to take a clear stand when anti-Zionism spills over into anti-Semitism. Beginning in the 1990s, many on the European left began to view the growing Muslim minorities in their countries as a new proletariat and the Palestinian cause as a recruiting mechanism. The issue of Palestine was particularly seductive for the children of immigrants, marooned between identities.

Capitalism was depicted as undermining a perfect Islamic society while cultural imperialism corrupted Islam. The tactic has a distinguished revolutionary pedigree. Indeed, the cry, “Long live Soviet power, long live the Shariah,” was heard in Central Asia during the 1920s after Lenin tried to cultivate Muslim nationalists in the Soviet East once his attempt to spread revolution to Europe had failed. But the question remains: why do today’s European socialists identify with Islamists whose worldview is light-years removed from their own?

In recent years, there has been an increased blurring of the distinction between Jew, Zionist and Israeli. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant group Hezbollah, famously commented: “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice I do not say the Israeli.”

Whereas historically Islam has often been benevolent toward Jews, compared to Christianity, many contemporary Islamists have evoked the idea of “the eternal Jew.” For example, the Battle of Khaybar in 629, fought by the Prophet Muhammad against the Jewish tribes, is recalled in victory chants at Hezbollah rallies: “Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews, the army of Muhammad will return,” and the name Khaybar sometimes graces Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel.

Many contemporary Islamists see little difference between the Jewish opponents of the prophet in seventh-century Arabia and Jews today. Importing old symbols of European anti-Semitism — depictions of Jews as enemies of God or proclamations of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy — has helped cement such imagery. If there is a distinction between Islamic anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism, it has been lost on French Islamists.

The fear of Jewish domination of the Middle East has become a repetitive theme in the Islamist media — which has become more influential as religious parties have gained ground in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is a factor in the general refusal of the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas to publicly meet members of the Israeli peace camp — a far cry from when Palestinian nationalists willingly negotiated with dovish Israelis before the 1993 handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn.

Sometimes the left distinguishes between vulnerable European Jews who have been persecuted and latter-day “Prussians” in Israel. Yet it is often forgotten that a majority of Israelis just happen to be Jews, who fear therefore that what begins with the delegitimization of the state will end with the delegitimization of the people.

Such Israelophobia, enunciated by sections of the European left, dovetailed neatly with the rise of Islamism among Palestinians and throughout the Arab world. The Islamist obfuscation of “the Jew” mirrored the blindness of many a European Marxist. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of many Jews and Muslims to put aside their differing perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the offensive imagery of “the Jew” has persisted in many immigrant communities in Western Europe. Islamists were willing to share platforms with socialists and atheists, but not with Zionists.

The New Left’s profound opposition to American power, and the convergence of reactionary Islamists and unquestioning leftists was reflected in the million-strong London protest against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was organized by the Muslim Association of Britain, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain. When some Muslims voiced apprehension about participating in the protest with non-Muslims, the M.A.B. leadership decreed that it was religiously permissible if halal food was provided and men and women were given separate areas. Such displays of “reactionary clericalism,” as the early Bolsheviks would have called it, were happily glossed over.

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On tour: imagining “After Zionism” in Israel and Palestine

My following essay appears on the American website Mondoweiss today:

The drive from East Jerusalem to Tel Aviv takes around one hour. It’s a stinking hot day and I’ve come from Ramallah in mid-August 2012. Despite flying into Ben Gurion airport in the morning I am stopped and initially refused entry by the Israeli border guard police when trying to come back into Israel. I’m on a private Palestinian bus, taken at the Qalandiya checkpoint, and asked to get off to explain who I am.

I don’t have any Israeli stamp in my passport because I requested at the airport for the officials to stamp a separate piece of paper to avoid troubles when travelling around the Muslim world. A customs official took that paper as I exited and I’m told by activists that this is an increasingly utilised tactic that only affects people who want to travel back and forth between Israel and the occupied territories.

Even when I arrive at the airport I am held and questioned for more than one and a half hours and asked why I have recently visited places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and “how many Muslims did you speak to there?”

Of course, none of this harassment comes close to what Palestinians and minorities face on a daily basis in Israel proper and Palestine.

I am in Israel and Palestine for an independently organised tour of my new book, After Zionism (co-edited with Ahmed Moor). It’s a collection of new essays on today’s reality and examines the ways in which a one-state solution could be implemented. It features chapters by John Mearsheimer, Sara Roy, Jeff Halper, Omar Barghouti, Diana Buttu, Joseph Dana, Jonathan Cook, Phil Weiss and many others.

The owner of East Jerusalem’s Educational Bookshop, Mahmoud, drives me to Tel Aviv. He tells me that the Israeli establishment is increasingly keen to censor views they don’t like. He recalls stories of having books briefly impounded at Ben Gurion airport, and some stolen, that feature examination of Hamas, Hizbollah and the armed Palestinian struggle. He laughs that sometimes the books are taken simply because there’s photo on the cover that features a gun. Mahmoud fears that outright censorship of books in English, currently an unknown factor, is likely in the coming years considering the amount of anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset.

The event in Tel Aviv has been complex to plan. The message of the book should clearly be heard by Israeli Jews – the destruction wrought by Zionism, the failures of the Israeli Left to bring justice for occupied Palestinians and the growing and blatant racism within Israeli society – but Ahmed and I wanted to make sure any event complied with BDS conditions.

Associating with any Israeli government organisation or one supported in any way by the Zionist state is frowned upon and I didn’t have any desire in discussing our book that backs BDS with an event that ignores its key points. This would be hypocrisy on a grand scale.

I emailed Palestinian Omar Barghouti to ask his thoughts. He said he wouldn’t personally appear in Tel Aviv and didn’t see the point anymore in engaging liberal Zionists but he suggested one venue, run by the feminist group and BDS national committee partner Coalition of Women for Peace, in the heart of Tel Aviv. It’s an organisation that has fought a long-running battle against Israel’s more draconian policies and paid a price for doing so. 

The event attracts a full house and features +972’s Noam Sheizaf and political activists Hadel Badarni and Yael Ben Yefet. It’s a humid evening with an engaged crowd.

I begin by explaining the rationale behind the project, a desire to move away from the tired and redundant arguments about one-state or two and instead provide concrete examples of why true justice for Palestinians and Israelis can only come through one state. More essentially, I argue that Zionism itself is the issue. It can’t be reformed, re-defined or re-imagined. From its beginning, it was about subjugation of the Arab, a desire to colonise as much land as possible in the name of Jewish liberation.

From that perspective, the ideology has been remarkably successful at achieving complete domination of the land and today’s reality, something I see during my visit with hours waiting at checkpoints and clogged roads waiting for teenage IDF soldiers to let us pass, is now irreversible. The occupation is integral to Israeli society and resisted by very few. I tell the audience in Tel Aviv that it’s now our responsibility to both acknowledge the crimes in 1948, 1967 and beyond and imagine an inclusive future for both Israelis and Palestinians. What that state or entity will look like is the challenge. In my own personal view, it must equally include Palestinian and Israeli (not Zionist or exclusionist) culture and history.

Sheizaf says that his political journey has brought him to confusion today. A supporter of Oslo, then the two-state solution and finally the one-state and now uncertainty. He recalls a recent survey of Israeli public opinion that finds a majority of Jews happy with the status-quo. That’s my sense of the vast bulk of the Jewish Diaspora. Some are undoubtedly pained by the ongoing occupation but do little apart from mouthing platitudes against it. No sanctions. No boycotts. No divestment. A plea for both sides to return to the negotiating table. Just empty words.

Sheizaf talks about the website 972’s attempt to broaden the conversation about questions ignored in the Israeli mainstream but there are lines (and laws) that will not be crossed. It is often a liberal Zionist site, not that this stops Sheizaf calling Israeli behaviour “apartheid” – and they clearly struggle ideologically and even legally to openly discuss some of the more controversial issues of the day, including boycotts, a one-state equation and de-Zionising Israel.

The conversation with all the speakers – the Israeli women articulate well the challenges in getting past the ingrained Israeli fears towards Arabs, Palestinians, Iranians and non-Jews and Badarni especially acknowledges the struggles within Israel to imagine a country that treats all citizens equally – is indicative of that rare thing in Israel today; deconstructing Zionism from the Left and wondering what could replace it.

The Q & A session is spirited. Many of the questions express despair at mainstream Israeli opinions and the disconnect between what’s happening down the road in Palestine and the desire for many Israeli Jews to simply not care. It’s less known that most Israelis continue serving in the IDF reserves until 45 years of age, often in the occupied territories, so a continual connection to the conflict is there every year.

One older woman says she’s been arguing for years that the Israeli Left has fundamentally refused to tackle the underlying issues here, namely that believing in a two-state solution paradigm has perpetuated the strife. Nobody with any power has ever had any serious desire to implement it. Up to 700,000 illegal Jewish colonists in the West Bank make that clear.

A number of audience members question the viability of the one-state solution, wondering how Israeli Jews will be convinced to give up their privilege. I respond that they won’t – white South Africans didn’t voluntarily end apartheid because they suddenly loved blacks – but increasing isolation and condemnation may well reveal to more of the world that a fundamentalist Jewish state is what the country’s leaders and many in the public have always wanted. Deciding between Jewish and democratic is easy; the former was the goal from day one.

It’s a fascinating evening, not least because I’m told such discussions are so rarely held here. The Palestinian issue has largely been pushed out of public discussion, a deliberate ploy by the government and Right, with the supposed threat of Iran dominating the media (a point I explained on BBC Persian TV recently). It could be argued that many in the settler movement are far more engaged in a future reality for themselves than the Israeli mainstream and Left. “Feckless” is the way a good friend describes the Israeli Left’s unwillingness or inability to challenge the pro-colonist reality in the last decades since the Oslo peace accord. Some anti-occupation protest here. Involvement in the Palestinian non-violence movement there. But virtually no differences on the ground itself.

The following evening After Zionism is discussed in East Jerusalem with independent journalist Joseph Dana and Palestinian Diana Buttu at the New Educational Bookshop. Before the event begins, famed nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu arrives, we make eye contact and he sits on his own in the back of a packed room. The audience is mostly Palestinians and foreigners. A few Israelis, too.

Dana argues that discussing one or two states ignores the broader questions, namely recognising the core of the problem, Zionism. “Israel long ago decided whether it wanted to be Jewish or democratic, it can’t be both.” It chose the former. Dana explains that spending any time in the occupied territories makes it very clear what Israel has had in mind since the beginning; colonisation, occupation and repression. Every Israeli leader has wanted the same thing and achieved its goal with perfection. The international community is neutered or complicit, including the EU.

Some of their diplomats are in the audience, including a senior one from Holland, who tells me afterward that the issue of Zionism never enters discussions with Israeli officials though the EU is trying its best to provide assistance to the Palestinians. I say that the EU is far too often happy to economically boost the Jewish state, including the recent news to upgrade Israel’s special trading status.

Buttu explains how the Oslo period has entrenched the rot inside the Palestinian Authority and allowed a Western and Israeli backed entity to manage the occupation for the Zionist nation. She offers no particular solution to this issue but states that the challenge for Palestinians especially is to create and imagine a different political reality where dignity and self-determination are central. She implies that neither Hamas or the PA will ever be able to prove this. The need for an independent Palestinian political movement, with mass appeal, is surely desperately needed. Buttu continued her arguments on a recent Al Jazeera English program filmed in Ramallah.

During the Q & A, a number of people questioned the viability of a one-state solution and Israel and the West ever allowing it to happen. The obstacles, detailed in After Zionism, are undeniably great, but the first step is once and for all excising the two-state equation as either feasible or just. It’s then the responsibility of all major players, both inside and outside of the region, to forge a future that brings peace with justice through a political framework.

Vanunu asks one of the last questions. “Tell me”, he says, “where is this conflict going?” Tough question. We all argue that that until there’s acknowledgement that the status-quo isn’t working, we’ll be stuck in the same tired formulations. A solution won’t come through a sound-bite or a return to “negotiations” with two unequal sides. Dana is perhaps the most pessimistic about the future, believing that any serious talk about one-state today is pointless when this falls into the trap of a paradigm that is tired and favours the more powerful entity, Israel. Besides, he continues, we haven’t even admitted what’s been happening since 1948, ethnic cleansing by force and stealth. With Israel’s huge natural gas reserves, its economic stability will need to be challenged in a variety of creative ways.

I disagree with some of Dana’s points, as surely it’s important to imagine a different, more just outcome. After Zionism offers some practical examples.

Speaking personally, I believe that until there is less ignorance in the West about Israeli behaviour – how often do we continue to hear talk about “democratic” Israel and its striving for peace in the region? – the responsibility of writers and other engaged parties is to remind the world that the Oslo rules were broken from day one and benefitted the occupier. If the idea of being an “intellectual” means anything substantial, it’s about not accepting the frame given by a state and its proud adherents and offering an alternative vision.

Speaking to The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) founder, Jeff Halper, during my stay confirms this paralysis. He, like so many other people I see, realise that there are increasingly limited spaces for any interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, as the anti-normalisation movement deepens.

***

A few days after the East Jerusalem event, I watch with Dana the wonderful new documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon and his controversial visit to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s to record Graceland. It’s mainly about the glorious music but the issue of Simon breaking the cultural boycott of the country is canvassed. It’s relevant today, in the context of Israel, where Simon played last year, because the film reveals Simon to naively believe that music and art can overcome oppression and boycotting South Africa was not something Simon, without consulting the ANC, who strongly backed BDS, had any intention of following.

I find the film moving on a number of levels; being in Palestine and Israel and talking about the ways in which today’s deadlock can be shifted. BDS is one way of pressuring Israel and it’s already having a major psychological effect (with minimal economic pain, thus far). The black South African musicians were desperate to be heard internationally, despite the cultural boycott technically blocking locals playing outside the country. Their position was understandable, if still contentious. But Simon, who speaks the language of reconciliation, admits to arriving in South African with no real understanding of apartheid. He soon becomes an unlikely critic of the regime but willfully ignores the demands of the cultural boycott movement because he believes he’s more important than the wishes of an oppressed people’s leadership who were calling to completely isolate a repressive state.

Similar arguments are made today by musicians and artists who want to come to Israel. Talking will help. Understanding can only come when both sides get together. But this fundamentally ignores the inherent power disparity in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Intellectual independence is vital in any political struggle but individuals don’t have the right to oppose a liberation movement with clear political goals if they believe that collective action is the only way to bring down oppression.

Simon’s recent visit to Israel shows he understands nothing more today than in years past, completely oblivious to the solidarity required. Any cultural association with the Israeli government (Artists Against Apartheid explain) must not happen because Palestinian civil society has demanded it. Groups under occupation are in a far better position to dictate these rules than (sometimes) well-meaning people in the Diaspora. However, it would be wrong to say that there aren’t Palestinians who challenge BDS dictates, including at the movie theatre in the West Bank town of Jenin.

***

The final event for After Zionism is in Ramallah at the Quaker’s Friends Meeting House with Omar Barghouti and Joseph Dana. Being the last night of Ramadan, the space was still quickly filled with a smattering of Palestinians, Western aid workers and writers. Barghouti explains how the challenge for a democratic future is to decolonise Israel both ideologically and practically. There needs to be a just way to compensate all citizens, Jews, Palestinians or others, who have been expelled since 1948. He says that a distinction between public and private land and property would be taken into account in one, democratic state. Barghouti’s chapter in After Zionism outlines how this could happen.

His key point is that colonial privileges currently enjoyed by Jewish colonists in the West Bank must stop immediately, like at the end of apartheid South Africa. I like his line that Jews living in Brooklyn can’t behave in a brutal way towards Arabs as they do if they move to the occupied territories. Barghouti sounds an optimistic tone by arguing a combination of the Arab Spring, BDS and a multi-polar world is making it easier to imagine the end of Zionist exclusion. It will be increasingly hard to maintain a ghettoised Jewish state in the heart of a democratic region.

I’m encouraged to hear Barghouti say that in the last 12-18 months, BDS is suddenly taking off across the world. He says he can’t keep up with the number of university campuses wanting to initiate programs against Israel firms and campaigns to convince Western musicians and artists not to play Israel. I’m told that Israeli music promoters are paying 2-3 times the normal rate to convince foreigners to come because the political price for doing so is growing.

Cultural isolation for Israelis is far from complete but it’s undeniably on the rise. For example, the fact that Madonna recently felt the need to try and bring peace activists from both sides during her show - Israeli liberal Zionists came while anti-occupation activists refused - shows the campaign is starting to bite.

During the Q and A – many in the audience were Westerners working for Western NGOs in Palestine – there was a palpable frustration with the role of these organisations in perpetuating the conflict rather than solving it. “Are we helping manage the occupation for Israel?”, one Australian asks. Some Palestinians, while liking the idea of a one-state solution, wonder how it will be achieved with such a powerful Zionist state next door. Dana says that now is not the time to be talking about the composition of a future state but rather we should better understand today’s reality and act accordingly. I say that Western audiences are yet to be seriously exposed to the idea of a anything other than the two-state equation and a “peace process” so if not now, when? Similar discussions occur during book events in London, including at the Frontline Club and SOAS.

Palestine is a contradiction. Dana and I hang out at a public pool in Ramallah. It’s full of parents with their children swimming in the cool water. There’s a pool bar serving beer on tap. Palestinian women are sitting in skimpy bikinis. This is not the image of Palestine that we’re used to seeing. Ramallah is a relatively liberal and Christian-dominated city and it’s unlikely many other places in the West Bank, and certainly not Gaza, would allow such behaviour, but despite growing conservatism, liberal life goes on. It’s yet another example of the Ramallah bubble.

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Israeli racism and inequality in its DNA

My following article appears in Lebanon’s Al Akhbar:

“Moshe was simply not willing for the State of Israel to run him over anymore.”

Moshe Silman, a son of Holocaust survivors, was an Israeli man who died last week after suffering second and third-degree burns on 94 percent of his body. In an Israeli first, a week earlier he had set himself on fire during a large protest in the heart of Tel Aviv. He was desperate, poor and felt ignored by the neo-liberal, Israeli state.

But don’t tell the New York Times that editorialized recently how Israel is a “democratic state committed to liberal values and human rights”.

The reality for an increasing number of Jews is the exact opposite. A fellow activist told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that, “Moshe chose to harm himself in protest. It’s terrible when a person has to commit an act like that to explain their situation to people”.

The facts are stark. Israel spends only 16 percent of its GDP on public services compared to an average 22 percent across the OECD (http://www.oecd.org/). After Silman’s self-immolation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the act a “personal tragedy” but in reality Israel is increasingly withdrawing welfare, education and employment opportunities and a safety net for Israeli Jewish citizens.

2011’s J14 protest movement was designed to highlight the growing inequalities in Israeli society, though demanding justice for Palestinians and ending the occupation were notably excluded from the list of demands.

Last year, at least 400,000 Israeli Jews took to the streets to demand a fairer society. It was a middle class revolt against the rising cost of housing and living. But in 2012 organisers are aware that the corporate media, many very close to Netanyahu himself, are far less sympathetic to their message.

Daphni Leef, the initiator of the protest, told the New York Times in mid-July that, “I do not feel that we live in a democracy,” she said. “I feel we live in an oligarchy. A few wealthy families control this country.”

The one group excluded from this conversation are the Palestinians, on both sides of the green line. Their views are largely ignored in the Israeli mainstream and yet they’re expected to serve in the IDF. It is a fanciful idea that most Palestinians are dismissed from a state that clearly sees them as a demographic threat to a majority Jewish population.

What has focused the mind of many Zionist lawmakers is a recent report by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy who found that the occupation isn’t in fact an occupation and the Israeli presence in the West Bank is legal. Despite the fact that every respected international legal body decides that Jewish colonies are against international law, the Israeli government now has a document that merely confirms its belief that ever-expanding settlements can be covered by a legal document.

Levy’s decision has caused heartache in liberal Zionist circles. However, a curious response from JJ Goldberg in the Jewish Forward newspaper wasn’t so worried about the occupation as upsetting allies against Iran’s nuclear program. Rather than condemn the Zionist state for attempting to legitimize the over 600,000 Jewish colonists in the West Bank, Goldberg was scared that Levy’s decision would anger Washington when “Israel is threatened with extinction” from Tehran.

This is ludicrous hyperbole and reveals the dishonesty in supposedly serious journalistic circles. But it’s little different to mainstream Israeli media pundits who simply don’t bother talking or thinking about the Palestinian “problem” but obsess over Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The occupation can be ignored until tomorrow, next week or forever. Soon enough, a person like Levy will create a legal fiction and legalize what the whole world knows to be illegal. The US issues muted criticism and colonization continues apace.

What remains fascinating about the Levy findings – American Zionist organizations still can’t bring themselves to speak clearly and honestly about Jewish housing in the West Bank – is what it means for Palestinian rights under occupation. If there’s no occupation, then surely there would be no problem granting full voting and civil rights to all citizens of the West Bank and Gaza. If that happened today, Jews would soon find themselves a minority. It’s called democracy and it’s something the Zionist leadership fears.

In the meantime, Israeli politicians and most commentators are wondering what the Arab Spring does to their country’s bunker mentality. In short, old friends are now seen as potential enemies (Egypt and Jordan) and allegedly ongoing threats, such as Syria, Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas, are in a period of transition. The Palestinian Spring has yet to happen, not least because the Palestinian Authority is an extension of the Israeli occupation, but Israel is today paying the price for years of seeing itself, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak one quipped, as a “villa in a jungle”. Such attitudes are increasingly challenged in elite political circles, including Britain.

Zionist supremacy and nationalist fervor has convinced many Israelis that the bunker is a comfortable place to reside. Unrivalled military might has allowed this delusion to grow to the point where, according to Israeli historian Tom Segev, “Israelis tend not to be interested in Arabs as people but as enemies. Sure, people will be pleased when Assad falls, as we were when Saddam went. But it won’t make any difference to the cost of renting an apartment in Tel Aviv.”

A viable alternative is the one-state solution, a state in which Israelis and Palestinian live equally. These views, once residing on the fringes on the debate, are increasingly going mainstream. Even a British conservative MP, Bob Stewart, who spent 28 years in the UK military, visited the West Bank and said he was “deeply upset by what I saw.” His response? “Unless the settlements stop, there can be no chance whatever of a two-state solution, and the only alternative … is a one-state solution. One state where Jews and Palestinians recognize one another as equals.Surely that is not totally utopian.”

Zionist fundamentalists also talk today proudly of a one-state equation but a reality in which Arabs remain second-class citizens.

In a new book I’ve edited with Ahmed Moor, After Zionism, we explain both the justice and sense of imagining a one-state future. One chapter, by Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook, highlights the case of Ahmed and Fatina Zbeidat, a Palestinian couple who face systematic discrimination simply because they’re not Jews. It is one case but its message is universal. A partition of land to entrench division in a nation that has spent over six decades of Zionist leadership determined to separate Jews from Palestinians has caused nothing other than pain and racism.

The Israeli social justice activists highlight key concerns of many middle class Israelis, but it will remain a blind movement unless it tackles the historical injustice of Jewish privilege over democratic equality for all.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author and co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books)

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Assange interviews two culture warriors for 2nd TV interview

After last week’s interview with the Hizbollah leader, Julian Assange returns to his series The World Tomorrow with philosopher Slavoj Zizek and hardliner conservative David Horowitz. It’s all rather chaotic but fascinating nonetheless:

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First Julian Assange TV interview is with Hizbollah leader

A brave first call. Julian Assange speaks to Hassan Nasrallah and doesn’t take the position, as so much of the corporate media, that he’s one of the world’s greatest terrorists (which he clearly is not). They discuss Syria, Assad, Israel, Palestine, religion, God, technology, Wikileaks and the US. Assange could be more forceful with his questioning but it’s an encouraging start. And frankly, Nasrallah hasn’t done a Western interview for years so it’s a real coup:

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