Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A week of speeches

Khatami, Halper and Loewenstein ... three public speakers at Australia's main political university, the Australian National University (ANU), in a week.

I went to see them all, and nothing much out of the three surprised me. Many Israeli and Jewish critics of Israeli policy only seem to be repeating what Arabs have been saying for 60 years, but we're never going to convince the Israeli or Jewish public on our own. Indeed, a solution will never be found unless Israelis and Jews participate in finding a just peace.

Mohammad Khatami was eloquent and insightful about his program for dialogue among civilisations, and the need for the various civilisations to respect each other, something which he insists the West does not do vis-a-vis Islam or other cultures of the Third World.

He was able to steer clear of being dragged into discussion about the more controversial issues dominating Iran today, such as its stance towards Israel, the rights of women and minorities in the country etc.

The former Iranian President made the point that dialogue between civilisations had to be conducted by those that represent culture ... artists, scholars, academics, scientists and not politicians. However, he managed the questions as professionally as a politician could. He retorted narrow questions that specified on a certain point by fluffing about grand schemes. For example, several Bahais in the audience repeatedly quizzed Khatami on the rights of the sect in Iran, and Khatami brushed them off as matters of crime and governance.

Having said that, those who posed such political questions could only have expected a political response. Anyone who attended the public lecture (and there were several hundred in the audience) and anticipated a Khatami tirade of his theocratic regime were kidding themselves. Khatami eloquently distanced himself from some of the harsh measures of the theocracy, whilst maintaining its integrity and dignity in his responses.

I enjoyed watching Khatami, it is always enjoyable to watch a statesman at his best, regardless of his political affiliation. Khatami was followed by Australia's own statesman and former conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser - a harsh critic of Israel and Australia's blind support for the country - who welcomed Khatami's initiatives, and urged the West to open its eyes and do away with its superior-inferior complex when it comes to non-Western cultures. Indeed, perhaps their shared ideas of dialogue among civilisations and cultural co-existence might come into fruition some day.

Jeff Halper, the pro-Palestinian rights Israeli academic, was outstanding to say the least. Nothing he mentioned differed very much from the traditional Arab perspective, which is that the Palestinians have no rights, live in hell, and need help. The charismatic academic did well to outline the facts of Israel's colonisation of the West Bank, and its intentions. What he revealed matched everything of what I and others have previously said about Israel's strategy vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Halper is now championing a one-state solution, something I too have long supported. I never considered the two-state solution to be feasible, essentially because it didn't take into consideration all of the Palestinian concerns, which meant conflict would always result. Even when the Palestinian leadership seemed willing to accept this half-arsed compromise, the Israelis had no intention of giving an ounce of territory to them.

Although Halper did step a bit further by privately stating to me that Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan should move to create a single economic unit that mirrored the historical unit of the Levant. I put the question to him, "you mean a Greater Syria?", followed by a few laughs. An Israeli advocating a Greater Syria? Who would've thought?

His essential point in the lecture was as follows: "For there to be a one-state solution, that would mean an end to the Jewish state. What's wrong with that?"

Exactly! What is wrong with that? Why can't Jews, Muslims and Christians share what is essentially the same country? If we are to approach this conflict from a human rights angle, there is nothing wrong with this proposal at all.

As for Antony Loewenstein, the Jewish-Australian and fellow pro-Palestinian rights activist/blogger/writer, I do feel for this guy. He is relatively young and has devoted an extraordinary amount of talent and effort to stand up to the Zionist powerhouse of his own community. He contributes far more to the Palestinian and Arab cause than do many of our own people. Activists like Loewenstein and Halper really put the Phalangists, Samir Geagea and their likes to shame.

Loewenstein also audaciously mentioned (to the humming of the audience) what is on all of our lips in the West that is seldomly spoken aloud ... our entrenched racism.

A brilliant remark he made, something which even I have dared not mention, was a reference to Western attitudes reflected in the military's treatment of indigenous populations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon/Palestine.

He stated that the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Lebanon 2006, and Gaza 2009 were not simply lapses of military discipline, but rather a result of a widespread lack of "rules of engagement". Western militaries, Israel included, have no rules of engagement, and often do not distinguish between occupied civilians and combatants. The recurring abuses and massacres perpretrated by Western armies and Israel is a consequence of our underlying racism, and the fact that - as Loewenstein beautifully put it - the West views the indigenous peoples of these countries as inferior, akin to German perceptions of the inferior and expendable Jew prior to and during WWII.

This ties in with, what I believe was, Khatami's comments today that the West must respect the cultures and civilisations of the Third World, and cease viewing all that is non-Western as inferior.

Discussion on this core matter is virtually non-existent in the West because, as Loewenstein added, we in the West do not dare question our moral right, nor the possibility that we are in fact racist. We like to view ourselves as liberators, the bearers of modern civilisation and democracy, the beacon of human rights ... not as racists.

Well if there was something glaringly obvious to me whilst in Lebanon 2006, it was that too few cared about 1200 civilians getting killed, or the fate of those stuck in the conflict. I recall clearly how there were many in Australia who called on the Howard Government to not send rescue ships to help us, thousands of Australian-Lebanese stranded in the conflict. The arguments ranged from 'we weren't Australian', or 'we were just using the country for its welfare benefits' and so forth.

Indeed, the pro-Bush conservative government at the time acted to the tune of these arguments. I rang the embassy in Beirut, I registered online countless of times, I went down to see them face-to-face, only to be told I couldn't see them. Nothing, there was no news, there was no action, no one from DFAT or the embassy bothered to contact me or my friends. The clear underlying belief from these calls and the subsequent lacklustre behaviour of the Australian Government was that we were inferior Arabs, we weren't white and we weren't worthy of rescuing.

Fortunately, my Australian-Lebanese friends and I organised our own sortie, and drove to Syria in a private vehicle, dodging Israeli warplanes, with two Australian flags on our vehicle. Funny that us so called non-Australians happened to have Australian flags on us at the time.

What appeared so clear to me from these three talks is that we are all speaking the same language. A former Iranian President, an Israeli academic, a Jewish Australian activist/blogger/journalist, me - a Lebanese Australian blogger - and hundreds, if not thousands, of others on the blogosphere, in academia, in refugee camps, are repeating the same lines:

- The Palestinians need to be given their rights, and Israel has to accept their existence and learn to share the land with them.

- The West must equally learn to accept and respect the many civilisations it once colonised. It colonises them no longer, and this century will see its former colonies rise above it.

Whilst all three speakers happened to be coincidentally scheduled in the same week, together they served a serious reality check for those who attended.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

National Unity Government? No thanks!

The election campaign kicked off for March 14 with a grande soiree hosted by Pamela Anderson. No better way to represent the Beirut supporters of Saad Hariri than with a blonde, plastic Hollywood babe to cheer for a plastic Lebanon.

But according to a sound assessment by Qifa Nabki, it doesn't matter who you vote for as both sides appear to be heading for a compromise national unity government.

Hizballah, and its March 8 allies, are favourites to win the 2009 parliamentary elections, which would place the resistance movement officially at the helm of Lebanese politics for the first time.

In the face of an obvious election loss, March 14 patron Saudi Arabia has been courting Syria in a bid to iron out a stabilising post-election solution that will ensure Hariri still has a role to play in a Lebanon firmly again in Syria's sphere of influence. Washington's move to re-establish ties with Syria is also a sign that Obama has no interest in tackling the Syrians in Lebanon, since his hands are already full with Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan and the global economic crisis.

Adjoining the conciliatory tone between Syria and the US/Saudi Arabia is Hizballah. The Shia party has been talking down reform and change, and promoting national unity and stability instead. There was a rumour circulating that Saad Hariri may be chosen as Prime Minister in a Hizballah-led government, but a counter-rumour on Friday-Lunch-Club has stated that Hizballah would prefer a low-profile PM from the March 14 camp.

The Prime Ministership is reserved for a Sunni Muslim in our warped, sectarian political system.

Hizballah could also take a low-profile in the government, handing many key posts to its allies to thwart any Hamas-style economic repercussions from the US and EU, or action from Israel.

False stability

But the change that opposition voters are hoping for remains elusive. There is no guarantee that the rampant corruption will be tackled, nor any national focus on lifting our economy out of the slums. Indeed, the long-awaited reform to our dividing sectarian political system will most likely remain on the backburner, despite Hizballah's alliance including two major proponents of secular change, the FPM and SSNP.

In other words, very little will change in the name of "stability". The focus of the current Opposition will be to maintain the status quo, form a national unity government with its rivals, and not risk any potential conflict. The other aim behind this is to prevent March 14 from forming a popular opposition to Hizballah-rule by including them in the decision-making process, as Hizballah has done to the leadership whilst in opposition.

But the truth remains ... nothing will be achieved with 10 factions in government. The political wrangling, threats and snipes will continue, meaning that Lebanon will be without an effective government for another four years. The Lebanese people will continue to lament, the only hope of change will disappear in the air, and many more Lebanese will scramble for visas to leave the country.

The Hizballah-led alliance has a major opportunity to form a government based upon Lebanon's national interest. Never has Lebanon been led by a leadership with a national focus, but Hizballah's alliance (otherwise dubbed the Shia-Christian alliance) could transform the political landscape if it were to tackle national issues head on and deviate from sectarian-based politics.

In order for the country to truly stabilise, all parties need to invest in centralising power into our national institutions, including the government and presidency. As it currently stands, the Lebanese parliament and government serves as a quasi-UN General Assembly that brings together various confederate states. Lebanon is at present a false amalgamation of a variety of sects and groups, each sectarian group a local hegemon in its own right. By pursuing a "national unity government" that will encompass all major sectarian groups - effectively creating a UN Security Council-like leadership - one is endorsing the status quo of decentralised power, with each fragment of Lebanon operating to its own interest.

The cause of our instability is due to our fragmentation and the competing sectarian interests in the country. A "national unity government" will only preserve this fragmentation, allow for the competition of sectarian interests, and maintain an air of instability.

Hizballah and its Christian allies must sacrifice short-term gains by making the move no Lebanese movement has made - the centralisation of political power and the defragmentation of Lebanese politics and society. Indeed, in order to centralise power, sectarian hegemons such as Hizballah, FPM, PSP, LF and FM would need to sacrifice some of their own power.

Whilst these groups may form competing alliances, they do agree on one fundamental point ... the preservation of the status quo that ensures they retain their individual power as sectarian hegemons.

This is why forming a national unity government will pose no problem for either coalition.

As I have stated all along, the entire Lebanese political establishment is guilty for our ineptness, misery and instability.

My advice to voters: Throw the ballot paper in the bin.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Who's Calling Who A Racist?

My article published in New Matilda.

Israel's former UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, has urged Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to "keep away" from the upcoming UN World Conference Against Racism to be held in Geneva in April.

Gillerman warns that the conference — commonly known as Durban II — will be used as a stage to condemn Israeli policies and equate Zionism with racism. He adds that "countries like Australia who, to my mind, represents the best of what democracy and civilisation can be, shouldn't take part in this charade".

For some time now Israel and Canada have indicated that they will be boycotting the conference, and on Friday the US State Department announced it will be following suit. After attending a series of discussions in Geneva ahead of the conference, the US decided that the process was "unsalvageable" from its point of view.

Israel's fierce opposition to Durban II stems from the discussion of Israel's controversial policies in the Palestinian Occupied Territories that is expected to occur there, and the declarations that may result. In 2001 the Israelis stormed out of Durban I, along with the US, describing the event as "anti-Semitic".

However, Israel's opposition to the forum is questionable. The purpose of the anti-racism conference is to highlight problematic areas in the world where racism is persistent and dangerous. Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a hot spot for ethnic, religious and racial tension — is an obvious focus for any discussion of racism globally. Despite being scathing of Israel's policies, participants at the previous Durban I conference explicitly denounced anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia.

Israel's bid to equate criticism of its policies to anti-Semitism is merely an attempt to deflect attention from its handling of the Palestinian question. No country likes to admit that its policies have traces of racism or they are committing fault. It took Australia seven decades to abolish the White Australia Policy, and it took years for us to even acknowledge that stealing Indigenous children from their parents was wrong.

What the conference does raise is the necessity to examine and question Israel's policies towards the Palestinians. Progress is impossible without self-reflection and global scrutiny, something that Israel desperately needs to help it move away from pursuing policies that — according to many participating states at Durban II — are racist.

Durban II will indeed include criticisms Israel would prefer to ignore. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the concrete wall imprisoning Palestinians in impoverished enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza, which arbitrarily bisects many Arab properties and separates them from other Arab and Jewish villages.

There is also the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, often serviced by roads that only Jewish people are allowed to use, while the Palestinian population must make lengthy detours. At the same time, Israel carries out a continued program of demolishing Arab homes and confiscating Arab property.

It is also likely that some participants at the conference will voice their objections to Israel's recent onslaught upon Gaza, where indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and the illegal use of white phosphorus caused 1300 deaths.

Israel can hardly expect the conference to ignore that over the last 60 years the Israelis have imposed a multi-layered social reality based upon racial and religious discrimination. A Jewish Israeli citizen enjoys the privileges of social freedom, economic prosperity and access to Jewish-only enclaves. A Jew who arrives tomorrow from Russia with no historic or family attachment to the land will immediately receive citizenship and government assistance. A Palestinian in their own home with roots to the land going back centuries risks having that home bulldozed or shelled.

The racism Palestinians experience under the Israeli system is so entrenched that in one way it defines the whole issue. In contrast to the first-world living standards of Israeli Jews, many Palestinians within the Holy Land are forced into squalid refugee camps. While new illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank are plush with tree lining, new roads and essential services, Arab villages languish in squalor and few if any Israeli public works efforts ever reach the occupied villages that they are required, under international law, to administer.

Palestinian movement is severely restricted, and if travel permission is granted, it's often conditional upon humiliating checkpoint inspections. In many cases Palestinians wishing to move from one part of their own personal property to another are required to have the approval of Israeli military personnel manning the many military checkpoints scattered across the Occupied Territories.

In Israel, this massive gap in people's quality of life is decided for them by the Israeli Government on the basis of race alone.

The everyday racism of Israeli political discourse took a turn for the worse after the recent electoral victory of the far-right party led by Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's campaign caused uproar when he proposed a "loyalty oath" whereby Arabs would have to sign a pledge to Israel as a Jewish state or risk being stripped of citizenship.

Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper has criticised Lieberman in an editorial likening the extremist leader to Austria's infamous Nazi sympathising politician, the late Jörg Haider, and to France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now Lieberman looks likely to take his place as part of a new right-wing government in coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

But, as Michael Brull has recently discussed in newmatilda.com, racism is a fundamental part of the Israeli politics across all the main political parties. The difference between Israel's main parties is more in style than in substance. No main political party has shown any inclination to break from traditional Zionism, an extremist nationalist ideology that aspires to create a Greater Israel within the boundaries of historic Palestine.

Israel's Prime Minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, has rejected conceding land to the Palestinians in a peace deal and favours the expansion of illegal settlements. He also prefers a military hardline answer to the Palestinian problem, and has expressed his opposition to peace talks with Syria.

His main rival, Kadima's Tzipi Livni, also offered nothing that demonstrated a will to break from Zionism, but instead called for the removal of Israel's 1.3 million Arab citizens into the Occupied Palestinian Territories in order to ensure Israel's Jewish purity.

Nor has there been much sign that Israel's Labor Party is prepared to push a meaningful peace agenda and break with its history of furthering the Zionist program, which even under the relatively moderate Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin did, by his own account, more than anyone to build Jewish settlements on Arab land.

The UN conference is one forum that can and should make the point that Zionism is inherently racist in its drive to create a Jewish-only homeland. It is an attitude that systematically denies the human rights of the indigenous Palestinian people and identifies them as an enemy to its aims because of their very existence, whether or not they engage in armed resistance to their ongoing dispossession.

Israel is by no means the only state in the world to have engaged in racist policies, particularly concerning indigenous peoples. For the better part of the 20th century, Australia's engagement with Aboriginal peoples was also clearly racist, defined by a familiar story of land grabs, restriction of movement, forced impoverishment etc.

Gradually, Australia has made an attempt to come to terms with the consequences of its racist history. This is the painful journey that led to Kevin Rudd's official apology to the Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations in 2008. On that day the nation acknowledged error in its racist approach to Indigenous people. The idea of racial purity is nonsensical, and most of Australia realised as much decades ago.

Contrary to Dan Gillerman's idea that strong democratic nations like Australia should steer clear of the anti-racism conference in Geneva, countries like Australia and Israel both have a lot to gain from attending a forum dedicated to addressing the persistent issue of racism across the world. Within such a forum, and after it, Australia can make a valuable contribution by helping Israel to move away from policies that inevitably cause racial hate, violence and failure. As a friend to Israel, Canberra must make it clear that the country's pursuit of the racist path will not result in a peaceful solution for either side.

Attending Durban II will send Israel the message it needs to hear from its closest friends in the world: Tel Aviv must abandon its racist approach to the Palestinian conflict. And we, with recent experience in taking a pivotal step in racial reconciliation, are in a good position to help Israel accept its own indigenous population.