6/6/07

Geopolitics or Human Rights?

By: Judith Blau

Human Rights & Human Welfare Roundtable, May 2007
George Soros’ article, "On Israel, America and AIPAC" in the April 12, 2007 issue of The New York Review of Books serves as sobering reminder that the human rights revolution is constantly being scuttled by geopolitics that not only sideline human rights but more devastatingly, undermine their premises. I happen to agree with him that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a major obstacle to the US’s normalizing relations with any country in the Middle East, including, and even especially, Israel.

AIPAC is something of a misnomer because it is a coalition, not a committee, and some of its key members include neocons, as he mentions, as well as Christian evangelicals. AIPAC has long been powerful in influencing American foreign policy with respect to Israel and the Middle East, but never as powerful as it is now with the Bush Administration. To criticize Israel, from the perspective of AIPAC, is tantamount to being anti-Semitic, and for that reason, Soros (who is Jewish, but not religious) is going out on a limb. In the end, I am not optimistic that Soros will be persuasive. But by focusing on the victims (or at least those in the Occupied Territory) I will propose another strategy that could be pursued that simply bypasses entrenched allegiances, perhaps undermining them altogether.

Soros contrasts the failure of the Bush Administration to facilitate a unity government between Hamas and Fatah with the efforts underway led by Saudi King Abdullah. Since Soros wrote his article a unity government has been put into place and it is led by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. Cabinet positions are split between Hamas and Fatah, with a few representatives of smaller parties. The economic boycott imposed on the Occupied Territory after the sweeping victory of Hamas in 2006 remains in place in spite of the fact that the EU and the US had earlier suggested a unity government would be acceptable. The EU and the Soros’ main point is that AIPAC has fundamentally stymied the US from playing a useful and even sane role in facilitating a process that would lead to peace between Israel and the Occupied Territory, if not a two-state solution. Since it was published, the Soros piece has been both praised and condemned in subsequent exchanges in the pages of the New York Review.

These exchanges follow on the heels of others set off about a year earlier, in March 2006 in an article published in The London Review of Books by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, entitled, "The Israel Lobby". The response to the article prompted the LRB to hold a debate under the heading 'The Israel lobby: does it have too much influence on American foreign policy?'. The debate took place in New York on 28 September at Cooper Union. The panelists were Shlomo Ben-Ami, Martin Indyk, Tony Judt, Rashid Khalidi, John Mearsheimer and Dennis Ross, and the moderator was Anne-Marie Slaughter. Click here to view the debate.

It is not as if these articles and live debates take place in a vacuum. Over the past year there has been an acrimonious fight between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein involving similar issues (see Frank Menetrez ‘s April 30th article in Counterpunch for a recent summary). And it is important to stress that there is a long history in which criticisms of Israel are interpreted as criticisms of Judaism. Hannah Arendt was accused of being an anti-Semite (see Commentary Magazine ) in 1963 when she published Eichmann in Jerusalem.

The truth of the matter is that Americans do not use the same standards for the state of Israel that they use for every other state, including their own, and since the invasion of Iraq, this has been exacerbated. This has had devastating consequences for Palestinians. But in this regard, the US is not alone. In April 2006 the European Union and the US both announced suspension of aid to Palestinian Territories, with the EU announcing that it would only give need based assistance, and the US and announcing that it would only provide aid that “both protects and promotes democratic alternatives to Hamas. “ (It should be noted that the 2004 election was considered by election observers to be democratic and fair.)
What is truly tragic is revealed by UNICEF's March 2007 Humanitarian Monitor for the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Regardless of what the US State Department and the EU External Affairs Office believe, there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding: The details reported by UNICEF are tragic beyond comprehension:

#The Palestinian Authority can no longer pay salaries of health care workers
#Immunization programs and most drug dispensing programs for chronic illnesses have ceased
#There are no elective surgeries and outpatient clinics have closed
#There is a ban on the importing of many drugs
#In March 07, homes, olive tree groves and buildings were destroyed
#In March ’07 schools, including kindergartens, were destroyed
#The Beit Lahia wastewater treatment plant, consistent with warnings issued in 2004, overflowed in March ‘07, displacing more than 2,000 residents
#In March ’07, over 67% of children between 9 and 12 months were malnourished
#Food commodity imports declined appreciably in March 07
#17 children under 18 killed or injured in armed violence in March 07
#384 children under 18 held in detention by Israeli authorities in March 07

What can possibly be done? It might be assumed that eventually the US and the EU would normalize relations with Israel, which in turn would mean more sensible thinking in the US and the EU regarding the Occupied Territories. But in the meantime a “humanitarian crisis” is unfolding according to the United Nations in a February 2007 report. Eventually is too long to wait for residents of Gaza and the West Bank.
I have been impressed with the determination and effectiveness of citizen-actors when they mobilize around human rights campaigns. Internationally, the consumer boycott of goods and services produced by apartheid South Africa was an extraordinary success, and there is now a boycott getting underway of companies that have operations in the Sudan. There have been effective boycotts of particular companies – Taco Bell, Nike, Starbucks, Coca-Cola - and, also just getting underway, a boycott of Wal-Mart. Outlets. As consumers have become more savvy about campaigns and mobilization, they have become more effective. For example, United Students Against Sweatshops mobilized initially, and increasingly successful for “sweat-free campuses” and now chapters of USAS have launched related campaigns, including for a Living Wage, and Workers’ Rights to Organize. That is to say, students in the United States have become increasingly skilful in mobilizing around human rights, and, in making connections involving different ethical issues.
I would propose that we could start today with a campaign against multinationals headquartered in any EU country, the United States or Israel. This may appear to be logistically complex, but waiting for heads of state to recognize how their decisions are harming Palestinians has taken far too long, and, besides, the human rights revolution belongs to the people.

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