Strategies of Solidarity: Israel/Palestine and the Empire

A young Pales­tini­an boy in a joint demon­stra­tion with Israeli Jews protest­ing house demo­li­tions, evic­tions, and set­tle­ments in the East Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood of Sil­wan, Sep­tem­ber 23, 2010. Oren Ziv/ActiveStills Col­lec­tive

Palestine today is per­haps the lead­ing inter­na­tion­al issue evok­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty on a glob­al scale. Nonethe­less, the “com­mu­ni­ty of nations” appar­ent­ly remains help­less to address the Pales­tini­an-Israeli con­flict. Despite esca­lat­ed expres­sions of con­cern, offi­cial and unof­fi­cial inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions failed to halt or sub­stan­tial­ly mod­er­ate Israel’s third assault on the Gaza Strip in the sum­mer of 2014 or impose any sanc­tion for it. Strain­ing the lim­its of creduli­ty, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, its inter­na­tion­al allies, and the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal class con­tin­ue to prat­tle about the “peace process” as if it were more than a pro­pa­gan­da term. The widen­ing gap between glob­al pub­lic opin­ion and the inef­fec­tu­al­i­ty of the inter­na­tion­al state sys­tem in the face of the ever-wors­en­ing con­di­tions of Pales­tini­an lives oblig­es glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty activists to deep­en our under­stand­ing of the con­flict, recon­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ties for its res­o­lu­tion, and reflect on our strate­gies.

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

For­mer­ly, most of the inter­na­tion­al (but not Arab) left saw the con­flict as on between two nation­al move­ments. Today, the left, and even some lib­er­als, increas­ing­ly under­stand the con­flict as one between set­tlers (Zion­ists) and an indige­nous peo­ple (Pales­tini­an Arabs) and char­ac­ter­ize Israel (or at least its set­tle­ment project in the West Bank) as an “apartheid state.” His­tor­i­cal­ly, both con­cep­tions have ele­ments of truth. How­ev­er, the set­tler colonial/apartheid aspect of the con­flict fig­ures more promi­nent­ly as Israeli Jew­ish polit­i­cal opin­ion has become more assertive­ly right wing since the demise of the Oslo “peace process” and the erup­tion of the sec­ond intifada in 2000.

The frame­work of set­tler colo­nial­ism and apartheid has been pop­u­lar­ized by the glob­al cam­paign for boy­cott, divest­ment, and sanc­tions (BDS) again­st Israel in respon­se to the 2005 call from over 170 Pales­tini­an orga­ni­za­tions. Many cam­paign activists recall the role a sim­i­lar move­ment played in the demise of apartheid South Africa.

BDS is a strat­e­gy (or a range of strate­gies), not a uni­fied move­ment or a polit­i­cal plat­form. There is a Pales­tini­an Boy­cott Nation­al Com­mit­tee, a Pales­tini­an Cam­paign for the Aca­d­e­mic and Cul­tur­al Boy­cott of Israel (launched a year ear­lier than the broad­er BDS call), a U.S. Cam­paign for the Cul­tur­al and Aca­d­e­mic Boy­cott of Israel, and sev­er­al sim­i­lar nation­al orga­ni­za­tions. But BDS cam­paign par­tic­i­pants have no elect­ed cen­tral lead­er­ship or demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion-mak­ing mech­a­nisms. Nonethe­less, they have made a major con­tri­bu­tion to trans­form­ing sup­port for Pales­tini­an rights from a bare­ly dis­cernible blip on the mar­gins of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life to a vis­i­ble polit­i­cal force.

The polit­i­cal com­plex­ion of BDS ranges from lib­er­al Zion­ists who gen­er­al­ly do not iden­ti­fy with the inter­na­tion­al cam­paign and tar­get only set­tle­ments in the occu­pied West Bank (although the set­tle­ment project is inex­tri­ca­bly con­nect­ed to the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of Israel), non-Zion­ists, anti-Zion­ists, and pro­po­nents of both one- and two-state solu­tions to the con­flict. Res­o­lu­tions of church­es, stu­dent unions, and aca­d­e­mic asso­ci­a­tions vary wide­ly in their polit­i­cal import and prac­ti­cal scope. Orga­ni­za­tions and coali­tions have select­ed tar­gets and adopt­ed tac­tics that they have deemed most appro­pri­ate to their local con­text – an approach approved by lead­ing Pales­tini­an BDS activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In prac­tice, this means that most BDS cam­paigns in the Unit­ed States are direct­ed again­st Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, not the state of Israel itself.

For all their recent suc­cess­es, BDS cam­paigns are not dri­ving Israel to a South African style col­lapse in the fore­see­able future. That day may come when the glob­al and region­al bal­ance of forces changes (and BDS cam­paigns are part of bring­ing this about) and if Pales­tini­ans devel­op an effec­tive and suf­fi­cient­ly uni­fied polit­i­cal lead­er­ship. In that event, Pales­tini­ans and Israelis will have to address their polit­i­cal future more seri­ous­ly and con­crete­ly than cur­rent for­mu­laic state­ments do.

One State, Two States

What­ev­er the res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict and how­ev­er long it takes to achieve it, one fact on the ground will not change. Absent a cat­a­stroph­ic region­al war, two peo­ples who see them­selves as nation­al com­mu­ni­ties – Pales­tini­an Arabs and Israeli Jews – are des­tined to inhab­it the land between the Jor­dan River and the Mediter­ranean Sea. Many Israeli Jews would like noth­ing bet­ter than to see Pales­tini­ans dis­ap­pear from the coun­try alto­geth­er. But in the face of repeat­ed efforts to intim­i­date them and over­bur­den their lives, the great major­i­ty of Pales­tini­ans have qui­et­ly cho­sen to remain in their home­land. Inter­na­tion­al opin­ion will not tol­er­ate mass expul­sions like those of 1948 and 1967.

As for Israeli Jews, no Alge­ri­an-style solu­tion (colons and indige­nous Jews emi­grat­ing to France) is pos­si­ble. Most have nowhere to go. West­ern coun­tries are already wel­com­ing edu­cat­ed Jews with high-tech and oth­er busi­ness skills. But none would accept large num­bers of refugees from the work­ing and low­er mid­dle class­es. In this sense Israel does resem­ble South Africa – two nuclear-armed set­tler com­mu­ni­ties pre­pared to fight to the death. The South African case teach­es us that it is pos­si­ble to dis­arm a set­tler com­mu­ni­ty in favor­able cir­cum­stances and com­pel it to embark on a tran­si­tion towards a demo­c­ra­t­ic regime (even if we may dis­agree on the terms of the deal between the ANC and white South Africans).

A viable polit­i­cal strat­e­gy must offer a vision of the future that can, at least in prin­ci­ple, be embraced by the great major­i­ty of the inhab­i­tants of the land, regard­less of their nation­al or reli­gious iden­ti­ty. This must entail the full for­mal and sub­stan­tive equal­i­ty of both peo­ples and coex­is­tence rather than sep­a­ra­tion (the tra­di­tion­al left-Zion­ist solu­tion), regard­less of what polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions are estab­lished. This means a rad­i­cal demo­c­ra­t­ic acknowl­edg­ment of nation­al, eth­nic, and reli­gious diver­si­ty. Unlike the South African ANC, the major­i­ty of Pales­tini­an nation­al­ists, like most Zion­ists, do not advo­cate such a vision.

The tra­di­tion­al slo­gans of the left are inad­e­quate for resolv­ing the con­flict. The his­toric Trot­sky­ist approach, which sim­ply exhort­ed Arab and Jew­ish work­ers to repu­di­ate their respec­tive nation­al move­ments and unite on a class basis, failed long ago. In the late 1960s Fatah raised the slo­gan, “a sec­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic state of Mus­lims, Chris­tians and Jews.” More recent­ly, Pales­tini­ans, sol­i­dar­i­ty activists, and a grow­ing num­ber of left­ist Israelis have embraced the slo­gan, “one per­son, one vote.”

Fatah’s mul­ti-reli­gious call ignores the rights of the few Baha’is, the many (most­ly Jew­ish and more recent­ly Rus­sian non-Jew­ish) athe­ists, and the 100-200,000 Bud­dhist Thai migrant work­ers who inhab­it Israel/Palestine. More fun­da­men­tal­ly, both slo­gans ignore the nation­al dimen­sion of the con­flict. “One per­son, one vote” is root­ed in the kind of lib­er­al uni­ver­sal­ism that most of the inter­na­tion­al left has repu­di­at­ed. In addi­tion to ignor­ing eth­no-nation­al issues, it is blind to the inter­sec­tions of nation­al and class ques­tions, which might require, for exam­ple, a com­pen­sato­ry devel­op­ment plan for the Arab major­i­ty regions of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

The 2004 Olga Doc­u­ment of anti-Zion­ist Israelis and the 2007 Haifa Dec­la­ra­tion of Pales­tini­an-Israelis pro­posed very sim­i­lar prin­ci­ples for resolv­ing the con­flict in Israel with­in its 1967 bor­ders: “The coun­try belongs to all its sons and daughters—citizens and res­i­dents, both present and absen­tees (the uproot­ed Pales­tini­an cit­i­zens of Israel in 48)—with no dis­crim­i­na­tion on per­son­al or com­mu­nal grounds, irre­spec­tive of cit­i­zen­ship or nation­al­i­ty, reli­gion, cul­ture, eth­nic­i­ty or gen­der.” The Haifa Dec­la­ra­tion envi­sions an inde­pen­dent Pales­tini­an state alongside a demo­c­ra­t­ic Israel; the Olga Doc­u­ment is non­com­mit­tal on this point. Pales­tini­ans, Israelis, and inter­na­tion­als seek­ing to break out of the straight­jack­et of two states – but not real­ly, and not yet – fash­ioned dur­ing the post-1993 Oslo process have offered addi­tion­al approach­es since then: alter­na­tives to par­ti­tion, par­al­lel states, etc. Oth­er ideas are cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble and worth con­sid­er­ing. How­ev­er, argu­ing about whether or not it is “too late” for a two-state solu­tion or whether it was ever a good idea is large­ly a waste of time and ener­gy and often evades the key ques­tions of equal­i­ty and coex­is­tence.

Mustafa Bargh­outi, one of the most astute Pales­tini­an polit­i­cal lead­ers with a dis­tin­guished his­to­ry of strug­gle begin­ning in the Palestine Com­mu­nist Par­ty in the 1970s, is now the lead­er of the Pales­tini­an Nation­al Ini­tia­tive and a mem­ber of the Pales­tini­an Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil. Although long a pro­po­nent of two states, he now effec­tive­ly finess­es the issue, argu­ing that “the two-state solu­tion is dying.” But he has refrained from pro­claim­ing it dead because, “We will not fall into the … trap … of allow­ing them to accuse us of destroy­ing the two state solu­tion. If Israel real­ly does leave the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, then we can talk about a two-state solu­tion and talk about a fed­er­at­ed agree­ment between states.” But that, he said, would be a “mir­a­cle.” Bargh­outi under­stands that remain­ing with­in the exist­ing inter­na­tion­al two-state con­sen­sus (delud­ed as it may be) puts Pales­tini­ans on the moral high ground.

In fact, nei­ther one nor two states are on the hori­zon. The esca­lat­ing pace of Israeli set­tle­ment in the West Bank and the right­ward lurch of Israeli-Jew­ish polit­i­cal opin­ion near­ly guar­an­tee that Israel will not agree to a two-state solu­tion that amounts to more than Ban­tus­tans. There­fore, the focus should be uphold­ing the rights of the Pales­tini­an peo­ple, enhanc­ing their capac­i­ty to remain on their lands, and stand­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with non­vi­o­lent acts of resis­tance.

In prin­ci­ple, Pales­tini­ans have the right to resist occu­pa­tion by armed strug­gle, and there is no deny­ing the his­tor­i­cal role of vio­lence in both col­o­niza­tion and decol­o­niza­tion. Hamas and Pales­tini­an Islam­ic Jihad rep­re­sent this prin­ci­ple today. Despite their regres­sive ide­olo­gies and prac­tices, they are part of the Pales­tini­an peo­ple. Ignor­ing or demo­niz­ing them as “ter­ror­ists” con­tributes to block­ing a res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict. How­ev­er, armed strug­gle in Palestine/Israel has failed. More­over, the form it has often tak­en, includ­ing many indis­crim­i­nate attacks on civil­ians, is both moral­ly dubi­ous and poor strat­e­gy if the goal is to cre­ate the basis for a demo­c­ra­t­ic, mul­ti-eth­nic, mul­ti-reli­gious future.

Main­tain­ing ambi­gu­i­ty on one/two states does alien­ate many Zion­ist lib­er­als, like those of J Street, who envi­sion no solu­tion but two states and who explic­it­ly reject equal­i­ty and coex­is­tence. How­ev­er, J Street and its co-thinkers are part of the prob­lem, not the solu­tion. First, because they sup­port an Israeli state in which Jew­ish suprema­cy remains legal­ly entrenched. Sec­ond, because they embrace seg­re­ga­tion. Final­ly, they imag­ine that the Unit­ed States must play a lead­ing role in achiev­ing a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict. The his­tor­i­cal record sug­gests that this is most improb­a­ble.

Debat­ing whether Israel and/or the occu­pa­tion regime in the West Bank and Gaza Strip does or does not meet the inter­na­tion­al legal cri­te­ria of apartheid is large­ly an aca­d­e­mic exer­cise. An ICC judg­ment find­ing Israel guilty of apartheid would influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion and car­ry weight in inter­na­tion­al venues where the Con­ven­tion on the Sup­pres­sion and Pun­ish­ment of the Crime of Apartheid has some stand­ing. But in and of itself it can­not deter­mine the out­come of the strug­gle. That depends on a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy and pro­gram.

Most of those who use the term “apartheid” mean that the Israel as cur­rent­ly con­sti­tut­ed is pred­i­cat­ed on expul­sion and expro­pri­a­tion of the Pales­tini­an peo­ple, sys­tem­at­ic denial of their nation­al and human rights, and an increas­ing­ly vicious racism. That much is self-evi­dent. As Ariel­la Azoulay and Adi Ophir argue, there is one sov­er­eign regime between the Jor­dan River and the Mediter­ranean Sea – Israel. It is a well-entrenched and fun­da­men­tal­ly anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic regime that can­not be undone sim­ply by Israel with­draw­ing from the ter­ri­to­ries occu­pied in 1967. Ran Green­stein pro­pos­es the term “apartheid of a spe­cial type,” which leaves suf­fi­cient room to acknowl­edge the speci­fici­ties of the sit­u­a­tion while unequiv­o­cal­ly brand­ing it as moral­ly and polit­i­cal­ly unac­cept­able.

The ene­mies of the Pales­tini­an peo­ple remain those iden­ti­fied in the late 1960s, when Fatah and oth­er armed orga­ni­za­tions emerged to revive a nation­al­ist move­ment that had been defeat­ed in 1948, mis­led by its own elites, and coopt­ed by Arab neigh­bors who posed as allies. They are Zion­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, and Arab reac­tion.

Zionism

There are many dif­fer­ent forms of Zion­ism. Today, the dif­fer­ences are most­ly of his­tor­i­cal inter­est. Labor (or social­ist) Zion­ism, the hege­mon­ic form until 1977, was more effec­tive in set­tling the land of Palestine and uproot­ing its indige­nous Arab inhab­i­tants than the Revi­sion­ist Zion­ist move­ment, the pre­cur­sor of Israel’s Likud Par­ty, or the mod­ern Ortho­dox reli­gious forces that emerged as the van­guard of the set­tle­ment move­ment in the 1970s. Set­tle­ment and estab­lish­ing a Jew­ish major­i­ty in the coun­try was the com­mon pro­gram of all ver­sions of Zion­ism. Today the heirs of Labor Zion­ism – the Labor Par­ty and the much small­er Meretz to its left – are defen­sive, timid, and inde­ci­sive in their nom­i­nal oppo­si­tion to Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. More­over, they avoid address­ing issues like sub­stan­tive equal­i­ty and refugees. No form of Zion­ism today con­sti­tutes an effec­tive oppo­si­tion to Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or its oth­er increas­ing­ly anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic poli­cies.

The great major­i­ty of those who now call them­selves Zion­ists sup­port more or less egre­gious forms of Jew­ish suprema­cy in Israel/Palestine. That is the oper­a­tive mean­ing of Zion­ism for Pales­tini­ans. But there is no rea­son to object if the very small num­ber of Zion­ists who abjure Jew­ish suprema­cy, like Charles Manek­in, a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish stud­ies and phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land who blogs at The Mag­nes Zion­ist, wish to define Zion­ism as a Jew­ish cul­tur­al revival and con­tin­ue to iden­ti­fy with it as such.

U.S. Imperialism

The most con­stant ele­ment of the con­flict for the last half cen­tu­ry is that Israel’s over­whelm­ing region­al mil­i­tary supe­ri­or­i­ty, its sta­tus as a U.S. ally ben­e­fit­ting from extra­or­di­nary access to mil­i­tary aid and polit­i­cal sup­port, and a U.S. monopoly on the puta­tive “medi­a­tion” of the con­flict have con­struct­ed a polit­i­cal impasse that allows the sta­tus quo to con­tin­ue indef­i­nite­ly. Rashid Khalidi’s recent book, Bro­kers of Deceit, defin­i­tive­ly con­firms that the Unit­ed States has long been the main exter­nal force pre­vent­ing a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of the Pales­tini­an-Israeli con­flict (although there is room to debate his rea­son­ing for why this is so). The Unit­ed States has repeat­ed­ly blocked efforts by the Unit­ed Nations, the Euro­pean Union, and Rus­sia to break the diplo­mat­ic impasse. His­tor­i­cal­ly, Europe deferred to the Unit­ed States in the Mid­dle East, not least because for many years Amer­i­can-owned cor­po­ra­tions con­trolled Europe’s oil spig­ot. The EU and sim­i­lar for­ma­tions like the hap­less Quar­tet, which pre­tend­ed to be a rel­e­vant actor in the 2000s, are inca­pable of bring­ing about a just solu­tion to the con­flict unless the Unit­ed States autho­rizes them.

America’s Arab allies have long argued that if only Israel and its sup­port­ers had not hijacked its Mid­dle East pol­i­cy, the Unit­ed States would pur­sue a pol­i­cy of peace and jus­tice in Israel/Palestine. Some Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing The Coun­cil for the Nation­al Inter­est, If Amer­i­cans Knew, The Mid­dle East Pol­i­cy Coun­cil and the month­ly Wash­ing­ton Report on the Mid­dle East sup­port Pales­tini­an rights on that premise. Their lead­ers promi­nent­ly include for­mer diplo­mats who served in Arab oil states and for­mer mem­bers of Con­gress. Some of the­se groups have received fund­ing from Arab oil states that are essen­tial­ly pro­tec­torates of the Unit­ed States.

This posi­tion is not only asso­ci­at­ed with careers made in the Arab world. Phil Weiss, one of the Jew­ish edi­tors of the Mon­doweiss blog, has no such con­nec­tions. But he and oth­er con­trib­u­tors con­sis­tent­ly point to the Israel lob­by as the prin­ci­pal deter­mi­nant of U.S. pol­i­cy on Israel/Palestine. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, promi­nent schol­ars who long held con­sen­sus views at the cen­ter of real­ist inter­na­tion­al rela­tions the­o­ry, offer the most com­pre­hen­sive and rea­soned pre­sen­ta­tion of this posi­tion. They can think of no expla­na­tion besides the lob­by for why the inter­ests of a client state con­sis­tent­ly out­weigh the nation­al inter­ests of its great pow­er patron. Like all real­ist the­o­rists, they view “nation­al inter­ests” as an objec­tive fact, not an object of con­tention among dif­fer­ent social forces of a nation­al poli­ty. More­over, they some­how fail to notice that the Unit­ed States is an impe­ri­al pow­er in the Mid­dle East and beyond, a fact that inter­ven­tion­ist lib­er­als like Michael Ignati­eff acknowl­edge and embrace, in sur­pris­ing agree­ment with many neo-con­ser­v­a­tives.

Imag­in­ing that U.S. posi­tions on Israel-Palestine are due only to pres­sure from the Israel lob­by and have no sig­nif­i­cant geo-strate­gic com­po­nent requires ignor­ing the bloody his­to­ry of U.S. pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East. Its high­lights include the 1953 CIA coup in Iran and sup­port for a long list of Arab absolute monar­chies and civil­ian auto­crats begin­ning with Saudi Ara­bia, the first and most regres­sive of Islamist regimes. Those alliances, along with the U.S.-Israel alliance, were con­sol­i­dat­ed in the con­text of the Cold War.

In the 1967 war, Israel igno­min­ious­ly defeat­ed the rad­i­cal Arab nation­al­ist states of Egypt and Syr­ia, which had (along with Iraq) out­bid each oth­er in promis­ing to lib­er­ate Palestine and trans­form their own coun­tries. The defeat of the Arab states allowed armed Pales­tini­an resis­tance orga­ni­za­tions to take over the PLO and reframe the Pales­tini­an cause as part of the glob­al anti-colo­nial strug­gle. Much of the Arab world, espe­cial­ly youth influ­enced by the New Left, saw the Pales­tini­an resis­tance as a new region­al van­guard. The Unit­ed States opposed the PLO and pro­pos­als for Pales­tini­an inde­pen­dence in the 1970s and 1980s as much for that rea­son as sup­port for Israel.

In Lat­in Amer­i­ca, Israel per­formed impor­tant proxy tasks in the 1970s and 1980s, when Con­gress refused to autho­rize arms sales or mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion (El Sal­vador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Hon­duras, Argenti­na), in some cas­es sell­ing more arms than the U.S. desired. Israel also col­lab­o­rat­ed with apartheid South Africa in devel­op­ing nuclear weapons. There were then, as now, occa­sion­al impor­tant pol­i­cy dif­fer­ences. But on bal­ance, since the mid-1960s, Israel has been a strate­gic asset for the U.S. empire.

In addi­tion to its over­ly ide­al­ized and his­tor­i­cal­ly blink­ered view of U.S. Mid­dle East pol­i­cy, the argu­ment that the Israel lob­by unique­ly influ­ences U.S. Mid­dle East pol­i­cy repli­cates the clas­sic anti-Semit­ic trope of exces­sive Jew­ish pow­er. There is no evi­dence that John Mearsheimer is an anti-Semi­te in any con­scious or overt way, unlike Gilad Atz­mon, who has been denounced as an anti-Semi­te by Pales­tini­ans, Jews, and oth­ers in the inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty move­ment. But Mearsheimer’s sup­port­ive blurb for Atzmon’s “fas­ci­nat­ing and provoca­tive book on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in the mod­ern world” The Wan­der­ing Who? betrays polit­i­cal naiveté, lim­it­ed knowl­edge of the issue, and polit­i­cal irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty.

Undoubt­ed­ly, the Israel lob­by exer­cis­es great influ­ence over U.S. Mid­dle East pol­i­cy, and per­haps even more so over domes­tic pol­i­tics. That influ­ence has been more vis­i­ble and more sub­stan­tial since the 1990s. The lob­by has expand­ed well beyond its his­toric Jew­ish core. Chris­tians Unit­ed for Israel has by far the largest mem­ber­ship of any pro-Israel lob­by­ing orga­ni­za­tion, although its annu­al bud­get is less than half that of the Jew­ish-based Amer­i­can Israel Pub­lic Affairs Com­mit­tee (AIPAC).

Nonethe­less, on mat­ters that are cen­tral to U.S. impe­ri­al inter­ests the lob­by gen­er­al­ly does not pre­vail: Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er demand­ed that Israel evac­u­ate the Sinai Penin­su­la and the Gaza Strip fol­low­ing the Israeli-French-British aggres­sion again­st Egypt in 1956; the U.S. sold weapons to Jor­dan in the mid-1960s over Israel’s objec­tions; the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion sup­plied AWACS sur­veil­lance air­craft to Saudi Ara­bia in 1986-87 despite the oppo­si­tion of Israel and the lob­by; Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush refused to autho­rize $10 bil­lion in loan guar­an­tees to Israel in 1991 as long as it con­tin­ued set­tle­ment in the West Bank and pub­licly crit­i­cized the Israel lob­by for oppos­ing him (he sub­se­quent­ly backed down); Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has crit­i­cized the lob­by and Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jam­in Netanyahu over their oppo­si­tion to the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear pro­gram in unusu­al­ly force­ful terms. Speak­ing at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty Oba­ma stat­ed, “as pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States it would be an abro­ga­tion of my con­sti­tu­tion­al duty to act again­st my best judg­ment sim­ply because it caus­es tem­po­rary fric­tion with a dear friend and ally.”

The Contradictions of Regional Politics

Do the friends of the Pales­tini­an move­ment for human and nation­al rights include puta­tive­ly anti-impe­ri­al­ist Arab states or the cler­i­cal regime of Iran? The Arab states that won inde­pen­dence from colo­nial rule and were iden­ti­fied with the glob­al anti-impe­ri­al­ist camp from the 1950s to the 1980s (which was, to be sure, prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly linked to the Sovi­et Union) – Egypt, Syr­ia, Iraq, South Yemen, and Alge­ria – were wary of a polit­i­cal­ly inde­pen­dent PLO. They sought to con­tain it and deploy it to serve their par­tic­u­lar inter­ests, spon­sor­ing splin­ter groups to divide and weak­en the resis­tance move­ment and lim­it­ing its access to arms. Then, as now, the Pales­tini­ans had no reli­able allies in the Arab world.

Since the 1980s Iran, Syr­ia, and Hezbol­lah, have con­sti­tut­ed what some have called an “axis of resis­tance” in the Mid­dle East because they oppose the region­al sta­tus quo, includ­ing U.S. impe­ri­al dom­i­nance. The Iran-Syr­ia-Hezbol­lah axis nec­es­sar­i­ly clash­es with Amer­i­ca and its allies, most promi­nent­ly Israel, Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, Jor­dan, and Yemen. But, no ele­ment of this axis has ever elab­o­rat­ed a viable pro­gram to coun­ter U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. The Mid­dle East is far more com­plex than a term like “axis of resis­tance” (or “axis of evil”) sug­gests.

Since the 2003 U.S. inva­sion of Iraq and even more so after the erup­tion of the Syr­i­an civil war in 2011, the Unit­ed States has come to con­sid­er Sun­ni jihadi Islamists – al-Qa‘ida in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la, the Nus­ra Front (Jab­hat al-Nus­ra, al-Qa‘ida’s Syr­i­an fran­chise), the Islam­ic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) and the Sinai Province (IS’s Egyp­tian affil­i­ate, for­mer­ly Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) – as its high­est pri­or­i­ty adver­saries in the Mid­dle East. The U.S. has unof­fi­cial­ly coor­di­nat­ed attacks on IS with Ira­ni­an-trained Iraqi-Shi‘a mili­ti­as and not pre­vent­ed and prob­a­bly coor­di­nat­ed with Ira­ni­an, Syr­i­an, and Rus­sian air­craft oper­at­ing again­st IS in Iraq.

Reduc­ing Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics to a sim­plis­tic dichoto­my of “Islamists” vs. “sec­u­lar­ists” is equal­ly unhelp­ful. This does not account for the cur­rent con­fronta­tion between the Sun­ni camp led by Saudi Ara­bia and the Shi‘a camp led by Iran. Nor does it explain the rival­ry between Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar with­in the Sun­ni camp or the close alliance of “sec­u­lar­ist” Egypt and “Islamist” Saudi Ara­bia and their align­ment with the Unit­ed States (and implic­it­ly, Israel).

Turkey, a NATO mem­ber, has recent­ly announced that it has become more engaged again­st IS. But Turkey regards both IS and the Nus­ra Front as allies again­st its large Kur­dish minor­i­ty, fear­ing that Turk­ish and Syr­i­an Kurds have become over­ly embold­ened by the U.S. pro­tec­torate over Iraqi Kur­dis­tan that has per­mit­ted it to approach the sta­tus of an inde­pen­dent state. Turk­ish airstrikes have report­ed­ly been con­cen­trat­ed, not again­st IS, but again­st north­ern Syr­i­an posi­tions of Kur­dish mili­ti­as, even though they have been the most effec­tive ground force com­bat­ting IS.

The inad­e­qua­cy of the “Islamist”-“secularist” bina­ry was sharply exposed in July, when the Nus­ra Front cap­tured eight mem­bers of Divi­sion 30, a unit of so-called mod­er­ates trained by the Unit­ed States to fight IS in Syr­ia. In ear­ly August, the Nus­ra Front assault­ed Divi­sion 30’s head­quar­ters, killed five of its mem­bers, and cap­tured sev­er­al more. Divi­sion 30 announced that that it, “will not fight Jab­hat al-Nus­ra” and that, con­trary to Amer­i­can strat­e­gy, it will fight again­st the regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-‘Asad. Remain­ing mem­bers of Divi­sion 30 have tak­en refuge in Kur­dish held areas of north­ern Syr­ia, and the Unit­ed States has retreat­ed from the project of devel­op­ing a pro-Amer­i­can rebel armed force in Syr­ia.

Divi­sion 30 train­ers appar­ent­ly believed that the Nus­ra Front would tol­er­ate its oper­a­tions again­st IS, since IS and the Nus­ra Front are rivals in the camp opposed to the ‘Asad regime. The Amer­i­cans had appar­ent­ly not con­sid­ered that the Nus­ra Front would be sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to under­stand that any force that suc­cess­ful­ly fought IS would gain com­bat expe­ri­ence and pres­tige and poten­tial­ly chal­lenge the Nus­ra Front as well. Amer­i­can pol­i­cy mak­ers also appar­ent­ly believed they could build a neo-colo­nial mil­i­tary force that would engage only the ene­my des­ig­nat­ed by the Unit­ed States: IS.

Chi­na and Rus­sia have a grow­ing pres­ence in the Ira­ni­an and Iraqi gas and oil indus­try. Like the Unit­ed States after World War II, they ben­e­fit from not hav­ing been colo­nial pow­ers in the region (or in the case of Rus­sia and Iran, not very recent­ly). But it is easy to imag­ine them adopt­ing a more impe­ri­al role. Iran, Syr­ia, and Rus­sia are prepar­ing a new diplo­mat­ic ini­tia­tive propos­ing a solu­tion to the Syr­i­an civil war. In the absence of a remote­ly suc­cess­ful pol­i­cy, the Unit­ed States may decide to engage this demarche if the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear pro­gram becomes effec­tive. At that point, there may be an intense debate between those U.S. pol­i­cy mak­ers who have encour­aged IS as a force again­st the ‘Asad regime and those will­ing to see ‘Asad or an equal­ly author­i­tar­i­an suc­ces­sor regime as an ally again­st jihadi Islamists – a com­ple­ment to U.S. pol­i­cy in Egypt and Yemen.

Enemies and Friends

Anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic forces of all stripes are the ene­mies of a just res­o­lu­tion of the Pales­tini­an-Israeli con­flict. Iran and Hezbol­lah have played a cer­tain role in sup­port­ing Pales­tini­an resis­tance. But they are nei­ther reli­able nor desir­able as allies. Their bom­bas­tic pro­nounce­ments detract from the strug­gle as much as they may have aid­ed it by appear­ing to align the cause of Palestine with Holo­caust deniers and reli­gious fanat­ics. Their reli­gious ori­en­ta­tion fright­ens some poten­tial allies, not least many Pales­tini­an Chris­tians. Syr­ia and Iran do not wish to see a demo­c­ra­t­ic regime that guar­an­tees the rights of all its eth­nic and reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties in Israel/Palestine any more than Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, and Jor­dan. Their sta­tus as sym­bols of “resis­tance” again­st U.S. hege­mony would be under­mined by res­o­lu­tion of the Pales­tini­an-Israeli con­flict. Iran’s domes­tic oppo­si­tion forces would be embold­ened. The ‘Asad regime’s claim to be “the beat­ing heart of Ara­bism” in oppo­si­tion to Zion­ism and impe­ri­al­ism would become out­mod­ed.

Pol­i­tics is more demand­ing if we must think through each sit­u­a­tion in a detailed man­ner. But work­ing through those com­plex­i­ties pro­vides the best expe­ri­ence for devel­op­ing long-term strate­gies and polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions. As Lar­bi Ben M’hidi famous­ly said in The Bat­tle of Algiers, “It’s only after­wards, when we have won, that the true dif­fi­cul­ties begin.”

*Thanks to Max Ajl, Matan Kamin­er, David Man­del and Zachary Lock­man for com­ments on an ear­ly draft of this arti­cle.

Author of the article

is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. His newest book, forthcoming in early November, is titled Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.