Monday, February 21, 2011

Beyond Poster Rhetoric

When I see someone at a major intersection holding a sign that is not a plea for a handout, I am interested. That happened a while ago when I found an earnest young man and woman at a busy nearby traffic signal. He was holding a sign that read “End Israeli Apartheid” and hers said “AIPAC Funded Obama Veto.”
The first was fairly easy to figure out, although I had not seen the term apartheid, Afrikaans in origin, applied to Israel. The second was somewhat more cryptic, until I figured out that AIPIC means American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the U.S. pro-Israel lobbying organization. To be fair, the poster wasn’t big enough to explain the detail. On Friday, Feb. 18, as The Washington Post described it, “The Obama administration cast its first-ever veto in the United Nations Security Council, blocking a a Palestinian-backed draft resolution that denounced Israel's settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to peace efforts in the Middle East.”
Now you might think that not everyone who holds up signs at traffic on a cold Sunday evening really understands what the signs mean. But these folks were refreshingly well informed. “Apartheid in this sense is the effect of continuing to economically isolate and discriminate against the Palestinians who are still being displaced by Israeli settlements even after years and years of promises,” the young man told me. And the poster about the UN Security Council resolution was really more a matter of informing those who might either not know or think otherwise, that AIPAC’s lobbying effort was responsible for a puzzling shift in U.S. Middle East policy. I don’t know for sure that AIPAC actually bought what amounts to a historic isolation of the United States in the 14-member Security Council (all the other members supported the resolution.). Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the veto “should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity,” and explained that although Washington strongly opposes Israel’s settlement policy, which encroaches further into what is regarded by most as Palestinian territory, the U.S. believes that the UN resolution could harden positions and encourage Palestinians and Israelis to resist negotiated solutions. So I think the young lady was being too generous with her sign. I would encourage her to make a new poster declaring, “U.S. Middle East Policy is Bullshit.”
But that’s stating the obvious. The Israeli version of apartheid opposed in the young man’s sign has been the focus of violence and bloodshed from ancient times. I suppose it would be just as easy to blame the Obama administration or the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995, or any previous U.S. president’s diplomatic policies or maybe the British for partitioning the area, or why not the Mesopotamians?
Modern Israel has grown out of United Nations-sponsored division of the territory into Israeli and Palestinian areas based upon a 1947 General Assembly resolution. The Israelis have turned their assigned chunk of land into a relative paradise, while much of the Palestinian portion is pretty much the same gravel-intensive pesthole it has been for centuries. When the Israelis want to plant olives and asparagus, the Palestinians want to throw rocks and blow up buses. Is it a good thing for Israel to put up what amounts to a low-grade version of the Berlin Wall to separate the two as it seeks to expand its olive groves and asparagus farms? Probably not. Do Palestinians have a right to strap C4 and roofing nails to themselves and blow up buses in Jerusalem? I don’t think so.
My point, and I’m not sure if this matches what the two sign-holders were getting at, is that the United Nations is an international forum for dealing with conflicts. It’s not a very effective forum, to be sure, but it has done some good in brokering agreements that have brought, if not peace, at least the absence of war in many parts of the world. The exercise of U.S. veto power in this case is not helpful at all.
But then U.S. policy is often not very helpful. This is ironic, perhaps, since the United States was itself established by violent, bloody revolution. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, our country was formed in the late 18th century out of 13 British colonies in which the residents basically got tired of being taxed by the profligate empire 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers) away. That led to war on our own soil, but it did bring the right to self-determination that we cherish as a fundamental freedom in our country.
I would not want anyone to think I’m advocating bloody conflict anywhere. I do think that if the Palestinians covet self-determination, they might start by actually doing something positive, something good, with the territory they have. What is the Palestinian equivalent of an Israeli Kibbutz? Even with Israeli economic and technical support, the economy of the West Bank and other Palestinian areas is still in much worse shape than that on the other side of the fence. If it is true that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, the best way to get greener grass is to do whatever the guy on the other side of the fence did to make it happen, not throw rocks at him.
I don’t think the U.S. should try to solve all the problems of the world. I wish I could believe our interests are purely altruistic. It would be nice if our diplomatic efforts, such as they are, could encourage nonviolent self-determination. That does not necessarily mean other countries will necessarily like us more, but it might lead them to dislike us less. Despite all the conferences and assurances given by President Obama and his predecessors back to Harry Truman and in ways even further back, the Middle East (and northeastern Africa) is still unstable. Will Egypt be able to stabilize after the military relinquishes interim control? Will Libyans finally decide they have had enough of their nutball leader? What about the growing dissatisfaction and outright resistance building in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen? Will something similar bring change Iraq, Kuwait, Mauritania, Oman, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Sudan? Maybe something good will come of the unrest; then again maybe not. If there is revolution in any of those countries, the eventual outcome may not be “pro-American” or even necessarily “pro-Democratic.”
When we talk about peace, what we’re really talking about is an economically stable environment that is not oppressive. Remember America’s own revolution was about outrageous taxation. Too often, and despite what were probably good intentions, the United States (just as colonial powers before it) has sought to achieve stability by supporting what amounted to dictatorships. We obviously have good reason to be wary of what tin-pot leader emerges to succeed toppled tin-pot leaders. We need to figure out a way to encourage self-determination in a way that also promotes economic growth in an environment of social stability. I think one way to help make that happen would be to ensure that our foreign policy is consistent. We sure dropped the ball with the UN veto.