Thursday, July 29, 2010

Norman Finkelstein (Interviewed by Nael Shama)

Einstein once said: "Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth." Among the few scholars who dared to question the authority of the biased US intellectual community's vision of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict is political scientist and writer Norman Finkelstein.

Norman Finkelstein was born in 1953 to Jewish parents who survived the holocaust. His mother's memories of the atrocities she had witnessed, and her routine outrage at the perpetrators of any crime against humanity, instilled in him genuine sympathy with all human sufferings - irrespective of race, color and faith - and a deep longing for justice.

Finkelstein finished his undergraduate studies at Binghamton University, and earned his Master's and PhD degrees from Princeton University. Soon after, he became a vocal critic of Israel's brutal policies, and a staunch supporter of the rights of Palestinians.

He authored a number of books on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust, such as Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History and, most recently, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. His books have been translated into more than 40 foreign editions.

The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, first published in 2000, is Finkelstein's most provoking and controversial book. Using thorough investigation, an outstanding ability to dissect the subject and connect the scattered dots, plus his brilliant sarcasm, he disdainfully denounced the holocaust industry for using the memory of a brutal genocide to serve present-day ideological and material purposes. When it came out, the book was described by The Guardian as "the most explosive book of the year." The book opened the gates of hell for Finkelstein who was ostracized by Israel and many Jewish organizations in the US.

Finkelstein initiated another heated debate in 2003 when he described the then recently published book (The Case for Israel), authored by the pro-Israel scholar and Professor of Law at Harvard University, Alan Dershowitz, as "a collection of fraud, falsification, plagiarism, and nonsense." Dershowitz denied the accusations and threatened libel action over the charges of Finkelstein. Another controversy ensued concerning the definition of plagiarism and proper methods of citation in academic studies.

Finkelstein's daring, sharp and controversial views, which in most cases contradict with the mainstream views of the American intellectual community, did not come without a price. In June 2007, he was denied tenure at De Paul University, allegedly because his "personal and reputation demeaning attacks" on a number of scholars – including Dershowitz - were inconsistent with De Paul's "Vincentian" values. The incident did cast serious doubt across the United States on the integrity of academic institutions, and their immunity to political pressure.

Finkelstein: Israel May Target Nasrallah's Deputy

Q: Let me first delve into the repercussions of the Gaza aid flotilla confrontation. Many aid ships are expected to head for Gaza in the coming months. What kind of change could this "aid offensive" lead to in light of Israel's determination to block their entrance into Gaza?
I think things are becoming now a little bit confusing, and there needs to be clarity on exactly what goals people are trying to accomplish. And there needs to be, I think, a common plan. There are many individual initiatives being set up, and it is unclear whether the goal is to break the siege of Gaza, or different organizations and different states using the Gaza siege for their own separate agendas. And I don’t think that’s helpful.
The goal obviously has to be to fully end the siege of Gaza, to allow for – as several human rights organizations have said – Gazans to live a normal and dignified life, to allow them to enter and leave Gaza as they want, the ability to have exports to restore the economy, and just to have a normal life to the extent it is possible. That’s the goal. But I'm not confident that goal can be reached in the form of so many different initiatives, so many different flotillas, and the fact that it is becoming unclear whether it is the interests of the people of Gaza that are served, or whether it is different states and different organizations using Gaza for their own agendas.

Q: When you say "states with different agendas," are you referring to the Turkish role?
I think the Turkish initiative was very authentic, but one of the problems with success is that everybody wants to imitate it. And they want to imitate it not necessarily for the same original motives.

Q: You said that Israel is "acting like a lunatic state," certainly in light of Israel's blunders in Lebanon (2006), Gaza (2008/9), the assassination of Al-Mabhouh in Dubai (2010) and most recently the attack on the aid flotilla. How can the international community best deal with such a lunatic state?
I think the main challenge is to simply enforce the law. And there are many aspects of the law which have gone unenforced. First, Amnesty International has said that there should be a comprehensive arms embargo imposed on Israel and Hamas, because they said Israel is a consistent violator of human rights, and under international law and domestic American law, it is illegal to transfer weapons to a country which is a consistent violator of human rights. So that’s one law which should be enforced.
Secondly, there is the issue that remains pending, namely the resolution of the United Nations for an independent investigation of the crimes that were committed in Gaza {during the 2008/9 Israeli offense}. That law too should be enforced.
And, more generally, it is now been 43 years since Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, and in my opinion, it is no longer a legal occupation under international law. It is no longer what is technically called a "belligerent occupation." It has become an illegal occupation, because the fundamental characteristic of a belligerent occupation is that it is supposed to be transitional until the end of war hostilities.
Israel has no intention of ending this occupation. Israel is intending to annex crucial parts of the West bank, and effectively control the whole of it, so it is no longer a belligerent occupation. It is an illegal occupation. And so the law should be enforced there, and Israel should be forced to leave the occupied territories.
And then there is one other outstanding issue, and that’s the issue of the nuclear weapons, and there, I think again, we should follow what the international community has said. Since 1995, the IAEA has called for the Middle East to be turned into a "weapons of mass destruction free zone," and I think that should be enforced as well.

Q: So Israel is lunatic and aggressive but it is also slowly becoming a pariah state. Could this dangerous mixture drive Israel to take another wrong move? Perhaps a strike against Iran?
I don’t think the Israelis will launch a strike against Iran, but they will do something to restore what they call their "deterrence capacity." With each bungled operation, Israel becomes more and more worried that the Arab world will not fear it. And as one Israeli General commented a few weeks ago, "it is ok if the Arabs think we are crazy, but it is not ok if they think we are crazy and incompetent." And so Israel is concerned that their succession of bungled operations is conveying the impression that it is no longer a formidable fighting force. And so it will do something in order to restore its deterrence capacity. Exactly what is that I could not say, but I suspect they may do something like trying to assassinate the second person in Hezbollah, someone like Naim Kassem {Deputy Secretary General of Hezbollah}. They wouldn’t touch Nasrallah because they recognize that would unleash a chain reaction, which could have devastating consequences for them, but they would consider assassinating Kassem, or some operation like that.

Finkelstein: The Role of Egypt Has Become So Shameful.

Q: The Rafah Crossing issue has become quite controversial in Egypt lately. On one hand, the Egyptian government claims that Israel should shoulder its responsibilities towards the Gaza Strip, as long as the Strip remains occupied. But on the other hand, keeping the only gate to Gaza that is not under Israeli control closed raises questions about Egypt's participation in the inhumane siege. What are your views on this issue?
I think both statements are correct. Under International law, Israel is the occupying power, and it has the responsibility for restoring normal order and peace in Gaza. On the other hand, it is true that Egypt is a collaborationist regime. The role of Egypt in support of Israel's brutal occupation of Gaza has become so shameful, so appalling. It is simply a disgrace.
I have noticed lately when I meet Egyptians, as I often do in the United States, that when I ask them where they are from, they say: I'm ashamed to say I am from Egypt. This 30-year dictatorship is really quite terrible, and it's quite shameful that it required an action by Turkey to force Egypt to open up the Rafah border, because Egypt understood the message that was being transmitted, namely a non-Arab Muslim state cared more about the Palestinians than an Arab state.

Q: Does this mean that Egypt has recently moved closer to the Israeli position?
Egypt did not move closer to the Israeli position, because there is no space between the Egyptian and the Israeli positions to begin with. There is no way it can move closer. There has been only one disagreement between Egypt and Israel, and that’s over the weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Otherwise, Egypt is just a client state of the United States, and collaborators with Israel.

Q: Doesn’t this delegitimize what Egypt claims to be the "honest broker" role it has been playing between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
Egypt is a client state of the United States. It does not have any independent role whatsoever. And Mubarak is probably the most revolting creature in the Arab world today. I think there is a consensus among everybody here. He is actually kind of a freak.

Q: The US President Barack Obama is increasingly seen in the Arab world as a "man of words, not actions." Since his speech at Cairo University last year, nothing has been achieved on the peace process track. Are you anticipating any change in US foreign policy towards the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in the coming months?
There is no change that’s going to come from President Obama. That’s quite clear, and anybody who invested hope in it – and I was not one of them – should now be free of any illusions. There are two developments which are true: First, there has been a significant shift in American public opinion, both among Americans generally and among American Jews, regarding Israel. And I think it is correct to say that a rift has opened up between large segments of Americans – including American Jews – and Israel.
Secondly, Israel's erratic actions have caused members of ruling elites in the United States to consider whether or not Israel is the strategic asset it once was for the US. And you see a certain amount of questioning that has been occurring among ruling elites about the usefulness of the alliance with Israel. And of course that is going to reflect itself in some gestures by Obama, but those are strictly reactive, that is, he is reacting to developments on the ground, but there are no initiatives coming from him.

Q: And when, in your opinion, could these developments in US society and public opinion be translated into real change in US foreign policy?
It is going to take a long time. It is important for that shift in public opinion to occur, but nothing will come of that shift unless it is harnessed into a political force. And that kind of organizing hasn’t yet begun. There needs to be created a serious lobby, which will take that public opinion and turn it into a political actor in the American political system. And that has not happened yet. If public opinion changes, but people don’t act on that change in opinion, it makes no difference whether it has changed or not. All you have to do is get people to take the next step, and to act on it.

* This interview was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 28&29, 2010.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mr. El-Baradei: Are you Losing the Momentum?

The return of Mohamed El-Baradei to Egypt and his readiness to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in the upcoming presidential elections was like throwing a pebble in the stagnant waters of Egyptian politics. It stirred political debate, mobilized many hitherto apolitical and raised hopes for the possibility of change towards democracy and the rule of law in the country that has been weighed down by authoritarianism and corruption for almost six decades.

Recently, however, there has been a growing feeling that the initial fervor that accompanied the beginning of El-Baradei's adventure has been dwindling. El-Baradei and his close associates have probably overlooked, or misinterpreted, a number of points.

First, the disparity of power between the Egyptian regime and its opponents is vast. After long decades in power, the Egyptian regime has become well-entrenched in Egyptian society. By controlling the security apparatus, the media, and dozens of government agencies that operate in all fields of public life, the Egyptian regime has risen to a colossal, octopus-like entity, thus perceived by many as metaphysical and unassailable. Moreover, in Egypt's centralized political system, the president enjoys draconian powers, by virtue of the constitution and a deep-rooted cultural heritage.

Opposing, the state - this gigantic, unmerciful establishment that has many carrots and sticks at its disposal - is not less challenging than swimming against an invincible current. Even the unprecedented pressure exerted by the United States – the world's only superpower and the provider of massive economic and military assistance to the Egyptian regime – bore little fruit. To deflect George W. Bush's feverish push for political reform in the years 2004 and 2005, Mubarak only introduced cosmetic changes to appease his paymasters, but he ultimately kept his strong grip on power.

In battles with stronger foes, El-Baradei must remember, weaker parties should make use of all weapons at hand.

Secondly, youth comprises the vast majority of Mohamed El-Baradei's constituency. He directly addresses them and insists on the leading role they can play in the battle for change. But in contrast to his quiet, gradual, and calculated style, the young demand a bolder and more aggressive approach. There are signs that many of his staunch supporters are beginning to find him uninspiring, hence unworthy of leadership.

Momentum is one of the weapons needed to maintain unity of any movement. Political leaders cannot be divorced from their followers. After all, what is a leader really worth without followers? And what is left of a movement that vows change if it loses its momentum? This is not an invitation for El-Baradei to substitute wisdom and reason with the impulsiveness and spontaneity of youth, but incorporating rather than alienating one's base of support is undoubtedly a must.

Counting on the unquestionable support of masses of young Egyptians would not be possible unless these peoples' concerns, thoughts, aspirations and emotions are listened to, and acted on.

Thirdly, drama is crucial to success in the game of politics. Drama is not equal to theatrical performances that capitalize on hollow rhetoric or pure demagogy. It is rather the personal embodiment of a leader's moral and political blueprint, using a creative mishmash of gesture politics, elements of surprise, and a sensible dose of excitement, in order to raise awareness and foster acquiescence.

As the modern history of the Arab world vividly demonstrates, too much personalization is catastrophic, but too little of it is suicidal. Lackluster leaders are quickly forgotten, however qualified and devoted. Even in democratic societies, the impact of leadership is enormous.

In the Arab world, moreover, the dynamics that govern the relationship between leaders and people are peculiar. The masses of unsophisticated people do not really grasp the deeper meanings of notions such as "democracy," "secularism," and "pluralism." They would yearn for freedom and dignity, and wish for an improvement in their living conditions. But they would not decode the intricacies of politics, or understand its underlying philosophical foundations. Without passion, leaders' chances of success are minimal.

That’s why King Hassan II of Morocco explained: “I am obliged to personify power as strongly as possible, for people do not obey a program or a plan. They obey men, a team of men, and it is all for the best if that team is embodied in a chief and symbolized by one face, one voice, one personality."

Perhaps out of inattentiveness to these vital realities, El-Baradei frequently stresses that Egypt "does not need a savior." This posture evokes a serious dilemma: unless El-Baradei's followers see him as a savior and a leader, they will quit following him. If the link between leader and people is cut, then the very act of leadership is likewise cut from its roots. El-Baradei would be shooting himself in the foot.

El-Baradei needs to incorporate the politics of spectacle into his program of action.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 15, 2010.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Thank God South Africa is Hosting the World Cup!

Press coverage of South Africa has been boosted to an all-time high, thanks to the country's hosting of the 19th FIFA World Cup. Documentaries and media reports broadcast round the clock on the world's major TV network do not only refer to the intense soccer competitions that will conquer the hearts and minds of football fans for one whole month, but also to the booming South African economy, its long struggle against Apartheid as well as various aspects of the country's cultural and social life.

Many Egyptians envy South Africa for this unprecedented world attention. Publicity is so important in today's globalized world. It is good for business, tourism and prestige. But, as marketing experts contend, publicity should only be sought when there are positive things to be publicized. Bad products cannot make use of advertisement, however efficient and incessant.

Those with sharper-than-fish memories remember well that six years ago Egypt bid to host the current football World Cup. To Egypt, the race was not so tight. In contrast to South Africa and Morocco, who secured 14 and 10 votes respectively, Egypt got a big goose egg. The public relations disaster, dubbed as the "Mondiale Zero" and seen as a symbol of Egypt's overall civilizational failure, still resonates in public discourses until today.

In contrast to Egypt, so much has been achieved in South Africa - politically, economically and socially - since the end of apartheid and the commencement of majority rule in 1994. Economically, the sustainability of strong growth rates, the significant increase in GDP per capita (from $2,440 in 2002 to $5,411 in 2006), as well as the remarkable drop in inflation rates (from 9% in 2002 to 4.6% in 2006), all reflect the rise of a robust and promising economy. The values of democracy and the rule of law have become deep-rooted, and a reverse of this process - fueled by the blood, sweat and tears of South Africans - seems unlikely.

Corruption, crime and AIDS are the major scourges currently haunting South Africans, and, so far, the government record on these three issues remains mixed, but positive outcomes are expected to ensue in the coming decade.

South Africa is also righteously proud of its historic leader Nelson Mandela. The anti-apartheid activist, who cheerfully spent 27 years in prison to free his people, turned into the greatest symbol of freedom and independence in the African continent.

There is sadly no grand figure like Mandela in Egypt's current history that can provide inspiration and elicit reverence. Egyptian politics renders nothing but the dismal image of an octogenarian leader who, after three decades at the helm, still clings to power and grooms his whiz kid to succeed him, and a bunch of worthless opposition parties that are content with the leftovers of the regime's poisoned banquet. This image evokes either sympathy or contempt.

There is certainly no scarcity of media stories about Egypt. But all pictures - and a picture is worth a thousand words – are detrimental and deeply upsetting. Take, for example, the grotesque picture of a young man's disfigured face that reveals human brutality and repression in their worst modes. Another surrealistic picture would be of the crowds of indignant protestors, who sought refuge on the People Assembly's threshold, overlooking the fact that the ruling party's parliamentarians are among the actors that have initially put them in these miserable conditions. What drives the prey so eagerly back to its hunter?

Equally embarrassing are the inhumane decaying conditions in slum areas, which have dropped from the moral calculus of the government, but will not drop from the interest of international news networks. All these images are very embarrassing, indeed.

Another clip of contemporary Egypt will have to shed light on ordinary people, the millions of weary Egyptians who struggle for the basic needs of life against the backdrop of harsh social and economic conditions. One day in the life of any of these people – at home, work and public transportation – speaks volumes about the country and what little has remained of its glorious past.

On another crucial level, the hospitality of Egyptians is, regrettably, in many ways becoming a relic of the past. In reality, the picture is not as rosy as the advertisements of the Ministry of Tourism try to portray. Walking in the streets of Cairo is mostly not feasible because pavements are hijacked by cafes, street vendors or parked cars. Renting a car is not a safe journey either; driving in major Egyptian cities needs skill, patience and, ironically, inattention to the basics of driving rules, and street signs are either non-existent or misleading. In addition, public transportation is in shambles and riding a taxi exposes one to the gluttony and immorality of taxi drivers. Plus, warnings against sexual harassment are today on any traveler's guide to Egypt. Due to skyrocketing pollution rates (exacerbated lately by the smog cloud), moreover, visitors to Cairo would inhale an overdose of smoke and dust, which would make them think twice before coming back to "drink again from the water of the Nile."

So, unlike South Africa, there is hardly anything so bright to brag about. Had Egypt hosted the World Cup, Egypt's apt organizers would have likely resorted to the conventional use, or abuse, of the Pharaonic legacy, indirectly admitting that to find positive aspects worth propagating, one needs to look thousands of years back for help.

Most Egyptians have already been disillusioned with the sham feelings of superiority they had been injected with since childhood. This is why they realize that there is still a lot to be done to make their country a better place. Therefore, the unrelenting buzzing of the awful vuvuzelas notwithstanding, they are grateful for South Africa's successful and impressive hosting of the World Cup.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on Thursday July 1, 2010 (Page 7).