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What the Freedom Flotilla Was Really About: A Response to Christopher Hitchens

Last week, renowned author Christopher Hitchens published a column highly critical of those who attempted to sail to Gaza on the Freedom Flotilla earlier this month. In the article, he sharply questions the flotilla participants’ “political ambitions,” which he suggests are linked to those of Hamas, Hezbollah and even Osama bin Laden. Presumably, Hitchens would also claim that the International Committee of the Red Cross has ‘political ambitions’ aligned with Al Qaeda’s, because both groups support an end to the blockade of Gaza.

The column concludes with a challenge: “There is something about this that fails to pass a smell test. I wonder whether any reporter on the scene will now take me up on this.”

Challenge accepted. Although the flotilla was prevented from going to Gaza, this isn’t the end of activism to end the blockade, so Hitchens’ assertions about the true intentions of this activism are certainly still relevant. Let’s start with the first major claim he makes about the flotilla: “It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas.”

He Gets It, But He Still Doesn't Get It: Reading Ethan Bronner in Athens

If you share in the project of reforming U.S. foreign policy so that it reflects the values and interests of the majority of Americans, then you care about the New York Times. Because of its role in influencing the coverage of other corporate media, the Times is a key gatekeeper shaping not only what the broad majority of the American public know about what our government is doing in the world, but also in determining to what perspectives about these policies the broad American public is exposed.

As a corollary, if you care about reforming U.S. policy towards the Palestinians' quest for self-determination, then you care about Ethan Bronner, because Bronner is the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief.

It was thus with keen interest that, as a passenger waiting in Athens earlier this week to board the U.S. boat to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope, I read Ethan Bronner's "news analysis" Sunday of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, "Setting Sail on Gaza's Sea of Spin."

With continued threats to Gaza flotilla, State Department warns participants, not Israel

With continued threats coming from Israel, a complaint traced to an Israeli organization aimed at docking the U.S. boat indefinitely, and the reported sabotage of another flotilla ship, the State Department ought to say or do something to avert the possibility of undeserved violence toward U.S. citizens sailing to Gaza.

But, of course, to date, the State Department has done just the opposite.

Last week, the State Department issued a travel warning to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza that sounded more fit for the Democratic Republic of the Congo than a close U.S. ally and purported bastion of freedom and democracy. The warning states,

Press Release: JFP Policy Director to Board Gaza Flotilla, Available by Satellite Phone

Just Foreign Policy issued a press release earlier this morning regarding the impending journey of its Policy Director, Robert Naiman, aboard the U.S. Boat to Gaza and his availability for media work prior to and during this journey. Read the full press release here:

http://www.justforeignpolicy.org/pressreleases/gazaflotilla

Egypt Opens Rafah Crossing: This Is What Democracy Looks Like

There was a slogan on the streets of Seattle: "This is what democracy looks like." You can't love democracy and denigrate protest, because protest is part of democracy. It's a package deal.

Likewise, you can't claim solidarity with Egyptian protesters when they take down a dictator, but act horrified that the resulting government in Egypt, more accountable to Egyptian public opinion, is more engaged in supporting Palestinian rights. It's a package deal.

On Saturday, at long last, the Egyptian government "permanently opened" the Egypt-Gaza passenger crossing at Rafah. A big part of the credit for this long-awaited development belongs to Tahrir. It was the Tahrir uprising that brought about an Egyptian government more accountable to public opinion, and it was inevitable that an Egyptian government more accountable to public opinion would open Rafah, because public opinion in Egypt bitterly opposed Egyptian participation in the blockade on Gaza.

In addition, opening Rafah was a provision of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation accord brokered by the Egyptian government - an achievement facilitated by the fact that the post-Tahrir Egyptian government was more flexible in the negotiations with Hamas that led to the accord.

Mubarak had a deal with the U.S. government: I obey all your commands on the Israel-Palestine issue, and in exchange, you shut your mouth about human rights and democracy. Tahrir destroyed this bargain, because it forced the U.S. to open its mouth about human rights and democracy in Egypt, regardless of Egypt's stance on Israel-Palestine. When it became clear to Egypt's rulers that subservience to the U.S. on Israel-Palestine would no longer purchase carte blanche on human rights and democracy, there was no reason to slavishly toe the U.S. line on Israel-Palestine anymore.

Rep. Schakowsky, Am I a "Provocation"?

In the grand scheme of things, Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky is one of my favorite Members of Congress: progressive, smart, articulate, willing to stand up for what's right even when the pressure is on from the party leadership to go along with injustice, as when she worked to block the President's deficit commission from recommending cuts to Social Security.

But when it comes to U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians, Rep. Schakowsky not only fails to be progressive; she seems to go out of her way to sign onto the most outrageously right-wing "pro-Israel" initiatives imaginable, when she could just say: "let's let this one pass us by," as the vast majority of Democratic Members of Congress do, when confronted with the most outrageously right-wing initiatives of the "pro-Israel lobby."

This past week, Rep. Schakowsky signed a letter signed a letter to the Turkish government "Urging Turkey to Stop Another Flotilla from Departing for the Gaza Strip." The letter slammed the upcoming Gaza freedom flotilla as a provocation.

Anyone who knows anything about the region knows that a letter from these Members of Congress urging Turkey to stop the flotilla is likely to have about as much influence in Turkey as a group of Turkish parliamentarians would have in Washington if they urged President Obama not to veto a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.

The feedback that Turkey got from the region following last year's flotilla was: you rock. Arabs were coming to demonstrations carrying pictures of the Turkish Prime Minister.

Can the US Support UN Resolution on Israeli Settlements? Yes We Can!

Can the US Support UN Resolution on Israeli Settlements? Yes We Can! by Robert Naiman

A key resolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict is now before the UN Security Council. Largely echoing stated US policy, the resolution embraces negotiations, endorses the creation of a Palestinian state, and demands an immediate halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But even though the resolution echoes US policy, President Obama is under pressure to veto the UN resolution from forces in Washington who want to protect the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Can President Obama say no to this pressure? Yes, he can! Urge him to do so.

Prominent former US government officials, including Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Ambassador James Dobbins, have written to President Obama, urging him to instruct our Ambassador to the United Nations to vote yes on this initiative, noting that it echoes US policy.

It's not an immutable law of the universe that the U.S. has to veto U.N. resolutions critical of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Indeed, last year, the U.S. promised the Palestinians to "consider allowing UN Security Council condemnation of any significant new Israeli settlement activity," the Guardian reported.

Some DC conventional wisdom suggests that there is no way politically that President Obama can fail to comply with any demand from the "Israel lobby" to veto the UN resolution.

But there are reasons in this case to doubt whether this conventional wisdom must necessarily be right.

Iran Sends Aid Boat to Gaza, Risking Exposure of Hyped Israel-Iran Conflict

With all the ballyhoo about the alleged "existential" conflict between Israel and Iran, you might think that the news that Iran is trying to send an aid boat to Gaza, in the wake of the Israeli military attack on the Turkish aid boat that killed eight Turks and an American, would occasion a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the American media. But the American reaction so far seems rather muted, and Iranian government officials, who in the past have at times seemed followers of the Saddam Hussein school of propaganda ("you will be buried in the sand while your wives sleep with rich Arabs,") now seem more loyal to the Maz Jobrani school ("I am Persian, like the cat. Meow!")

CNN reports:

 

Iran's Fars news agency also reported that top Iranian officials will allow two other ships to leave, but its navy will not escort them.

"Maj. Gen. Salami, deputy commander IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps), discussing the humanitarian aid ships to Gaza, said that protecting these ships is not on the agenda of the IRGC," Fars said.

You may have heard that the IRGC has a force called the "Qods Brigade." It's a provocative name - Qods is the Arabic name of Jerusalem. Imagine if, during the struggle against apartheid, the government of Angola had an elite fighting force called the "Johannesburg Brigade." Presumably some white South Africans might have regarded that as provocative.

Brave words. And yet: now that the Iranian aid ship could clearly use a bit of protection - if it truly intends to sail to Gaza, as opposed to just claiming that it will do so - the bravely-named "Qods Brigade" apparently has other business to attend to.

Reset: Stephen Kinzer's Vision of a New U.S. Relationship with Turkey and Iran

Until quite recently, it seemed that Turkey had a clearly defined role in the Middle East, from the standpoint of U.S. policy. They were the "good Muslims," who were part of NATO, who contributed troops to U.S. wars, and who had good relations with Israel.

In the past few weeks, therefore, some Americans may have been startled to see the government of Turkey seemingly playing a very different role. First, together with Brazil, Turkey negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran to defuse the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and forestall a controversial U.S./Israeli push for new sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Although the deal was very similar to one proposed by the Obama Administration - and Brazil and Turkey had a letter from Obama encouraging them to press forward with the deal - Obama Administration officials dismissed the deal, and far from being grateful to Turkey and Brazil, made a show of being angry. But instead of being chastened, Turkey and Brazil insisted their deal was good - invoking their letter from Obama to demonstrate their case - and insisted that the U.S. should pursue it.

With "Linkage," Turkey and Brazil Can End the Siege of Gaza

In the past few weeks, Turkey and Brazil have elbowed their way to the Big Table of international diplomacy: first by negotiating a nuclear fuel swap agreement to try to push the US back towards diplomatic efforts to resolve its conflict with Iran, and then - in the case of Turkey - by its support of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla's efforts to break the Israeli-Egyptian-US siege of Gaza's civilian population - efforts that continue today as the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie proceeds towards Gaza, amid silence - not enough protest, apparently - from the Obama Administration.

But it appears that if Turkey and Brazil want to have effective input at the Big Table, they are going to have to play hardball effectively with the United States: they have to continue to show the U.S. that they have the power to obstruct the U.S. from getting what it wants if the US continues to ignore their concerns.