Restraint or Preeminence in U.S. Grand Strategy?

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey participate in a Press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington (REUTERS/Larry Downing).

On October 17, the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy hosted two of the most prominent thinkers on American grand strategy to discuss whether Washington should remain forward-leaning in its posture, or if it should adopt a more restrained approach to global engagement.

The event was moderated by Brookings Foreign Policy Fellow Jeremy Shapiro, and featured a debate between Brookings Foreign Policy Senior Fellow Robert Kagan and Barry Posen, Ford International Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kagan argued that the United States has an enduring responsibility and capacity to shape the world order and must remain actively engaged abroad to prevent the international order from collapse. Posen, on the other hand, warned against American overreach in foreign policy and urged Washington to embrace restraint, focusing on its own national security interests and limiting engagement – particularly military - abroad.

In their discussion of the Middle East, both scholars sought to define American regional interests with greater precision. Posen argued that “affective” relationships, such as those with Israel, do not explain the U.S. defense budget dedicated to the region or contingency plans for the region. Posen also disputed the view that oil is the primary driver of U.S. regional policy, suggesting that threats to major suppliers could be managed with a less robust regional security commitment than Washington has traditionally maintained.

Kagan argued that President Obama is more intellectually inclined toward Posen’s strategy of restraint than most of his predecessors, and yet he too has been drawn into the Middle East. “It can’t just be pure stupidity that has had the United States involved in the Middle East as consistently as it has been for almost 70 years now, taking the place of the previous powers that had been involved in the Middle East,” he said.

Posen discussed U.S. efforts against the Islamic State group (also called ISIS or ISIL). He noted that President Obama’s rhetoric on ISIS has gone beyond what is prudent, describing the strategy as one of “containment that’s augmented by the promise of future counter-offensives and destruction.” Washington’s current strategy, Posen argued, has demobilized allies by enabling them to skirt responsibility for the crisis.

Posen and Kagan differed in their interpretations of the track record of American interventions in the region. Posen criticized American understanding of the causes and effects of intervention, saying that it is easier to oust a government than to generate internal consensus or transform a country into a stable democracy. By contrast, Kagan argued that the U.S. has never invaded a Middle Eastern country with the purpose of rearranging domestic politics.

There was little discussion of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, though Posen identifies these two threats as major items on which the U.S. should remain engaged. More information about Posen’s arguments can be found in his new book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Cornell University Press, 2014). Kagan’s argument for continued pre-eminence and engagement in grand strategy can be found in his influential May 2014 New Republic essay “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.”


  • Katherine Elgin
Image Source: © Larry Downing / Reuters

ExxonMobil and Apartheid South Africa have ‘no right to exist,’ Gitlin says


The Doctoral Students’ Council of the City University of New York is considering a resolution to endorse academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The body will take that up tomorrow afternoon.

A couple weeks ago, the university posted this video of a panel opposing that resolution. One of the speakers was Todd Gitlin, the author and activist who right now is fasting in an effort to get his alma mater Harvard University to divest from fossil fuels. At 26:30 or so, Gitlin sought to explain his standard for divestment from ExxonMobil, South Africa, and Israel:

I’ve spent a good deal of the last 25, going on 30 years involved in divestment campaigns. I was in the mid-1980s a leader of the faculty for full divestment at the University of California, we were divesting from corporations with dealings in South Africa. And I was also the head of Harvard-Radcliffe alumni and alumnae…against apartheid, campaigning to elect pro divestment representatives to the Harvard board of overseers.

And over the last year and a half probably my prinicipal political activity has been involvement as an alumnus in the Divest Harvard movement, which seeks to get Harvard University to divest from fossil fuel corporations.

I suppose I could be tasked with just picking and choosing my reasons for divestment. Well yes, but I have a reason. The state of South Africa, the apartheid State of South Africa was an illegitimate state, it had no right to exist. And the position of the African National Congress and those of us who supported it was not that the Boers should be driven back to Holland and the Brits back to Britain and the Indians back to India, but that there should be a unitary multinational, multiracial democratic state. And that happened.

The position of the divest Harvard fossil fuel campaign now in progress is that the fossil fuel corporations like Exxon Mobil and Shell and so on are illegitimate, they have no right to exist, no right to use the– it’s more than the public atmosphere, it’s the global atmosphere, it’s the intergalactic atmosphere for the refuse, the murderous refuse, the destabilizing refuse that is the product of their economic operations undertaken for the sake of profit.

In all those cases, the divestment is aimed at institutions that have no right to exist.

This is my challenge to the BDS movement– is to be honest. They are essentially saying that the state of Israel is like the Apartheid State of South Africa and like Exxon Mobil, that it has no right to exist. They should come out and campaign for that, that’s really what they want.

I’d point out that no one in the BDS movement has called on Jews to leave Israel/Palestine. Most I know in that movement are very openly for a multiracial multinational democracy, which Gitlin wanted for South Africa. Also, most I know in that movement regard the idea of a Jewish state as discriminatory and illegitimate. Although ascertaining an entity’s “right to exist” seems like a high bar to set when deciding whether to sell some stocks, I wonder whether Israel doesn’t meet Gitlin’s own standards.

An open letter to Birthright participants past, present, and future


An open letter to Birthright participants past, present, and future:

My name is Hannah Friedstein and I am a past Taglit Birthright participant. I am writing this primer on Birthright to demystify its themes and binaries that exist in the understanding of the Birthright and its objectives. My goal is that you will ultimately gain a new and critical perspective and examine your role as a Birthright participant in Israel, for it is anything but neutral.

Israeli vs. Jewish

As you consider being a Birthright participant, I want you to ask yourself, what is your connection to Israel? Birthright tells you that coming to a Jewish nation state will strengthen your Jewish identity. They are saying that your relationship to a “Jewish” nation state will strengthen your relationship with your spiritual traditions. Is this really true? There are Jewish people all over the world who do not have the means or desire to travel to Israel. Are they any less Jewish? Do you feel a spiritual connection to this piece of land, and if so, why? One of Birthright’s main objectives is to maintain solidarity with Israel to “ensure continuity of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity”. Can blind support of a nation that has disobeyed international law ensure and strengthen your Jewish identity? Not necessarily. Does being Israeli mean to be Jewish? Not necessarily. In the state of Israel, at least 20% of its citizens are not Jewish.

Zionism vs. Judaism

A photo the author took outside a Hebron checkpoint when she stayed in the West Bank after her Birthright trip. (Photo: Hannah Friedstein)

A photo the author took outside a Hebron checkpoint when she stayed in the West Bank after her Birthright trip. (Photo: Hannah Friedstein)

The effort to create and maintain a Jewish state is a political movement, not a religious movement. Modern Zionism is a political movement that calls for a “Jewish” state, not a nation for all its citizens. It traces back to the 1800s and its earliest believers were quite secular. Many Jews opposed Zionism for they believed only God could give them a Jewish state. If we take a closer look at Zionism’s goal, it is a movement of ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. The slogan for this movement shows that the Palestinian people are not even a thought — “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Zionism creates an illusion that there was no issue of displacement of the Palestinian people.

Anti-Semitism vs. anti-Zionism

Supporters of Israel tend to equate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism to silence resistance and opposition to Israeli policies. The great linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky commented on this phenomena here. These false accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone who does not support Israeli policies are used in order to achieve the goal of distracting individuals and groups from the problems of illegal occupation. Opposition to the creation of a Jewish state does not mean denying human rights to Jews in that territory. It means opposition to a state that denies the rights to certain racial groups over others.

My Testimonial

I was offered a free trip to Israel because of my privilege constructed by Zionist ideals. I am not a Zionist. I have no connection to Israel as a Jew and did not find my long lost Judaism in the land formerly known as Historic Palestine. What I did find was a hotbed of racial discrimination and a skewed view of Palestine. While riding our tour bus from northern Israel to Jerusalem, we drove through the Occupied Territories. It was easy for us to get in and out of occupied territory because we were a clearly labeled Israeli Birthright tour bus. All of a sudden, my Israeli tour guide turns on his microphone and announces to the bus to close the curtains on the windows so that Jerusalem, our destination, will be a surprise. I was skeptical of this motive and peaked outside the curtain to find us passing the separation barrier and our bus passing through a military checkpoint. Why would our tour guide want to hide certain aspects of Israel from us? Why are we not getting the whole story when we’re on Birthright? It is simply not convenient for Birthright to show its participants that Israel is a place worth dropping everything and moving to while such racial discrimination is taking place.

I acknowledge that this “birthright” is a false construction created by those who wish to perpetuate racial exclusivity and ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. My hope in going on this trip was to engage in a dialogue on serious issues that would not otherwise be touched upon in my 10 days in Israel. My main objective of Birthright was to extend my stay and travel to West Bank, Palestinian land currently under Israeli control and authority. Birthright became aware of my plans and almost took me off the trip. But why were they so concerned about me going to Israeli occupied territory?

My journey as a Palestine solidarity activist was not an easy one, but at the end of the day my ethnic identity allowed me into Israel without an issue. Palestinians who were forced from their homes are not allowed to return because they are not Jewish. The binaries I attempted to clear up above are strategically used by Birthright to shut out anyone who is for equality of all peoples, not just Jews. Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East yet free speech is not something that is encouraged. I was called a racist and an anti-Semite, among other things by Birthright representatives. These types of accusations belittle the actual issues of racial discrimination that do exist against the Jewish people today.

According to Birthright I have a right to a piece of land given to me from my birth as a Jew. But I can identify as Jewish without ever stepping foot in Historic Palestine. I am a Jew that stands in solidarity with the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. I am a Jew who believes in human rights and equality for all. I am a Jew who sees the opportunity to voice a call for human rights by Palestinian Civil Society. I almost had my “right” to Israel taken from me by the organization because I am an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine, but there are millions of Palestinian refugees who have been denied their right to return to their homes since 1948. If you take anything away from this letter it is that you should not feel pressured by your religious identity to identify with a geographic plot of land or to discriminate against others. It is important to emphasize that to be Jewish does not mean to be Israeli. That to be Jewish does not mean to be Zionist. That to be Pro-Palestinian does not mean to be an anti-Semite.

Thanks for reading,

Hannah Ruth Friedstein

Students for Justice in Palestine
UMass Amherst ‘14

Allegations of anti-Semitism used to cover up anti-Palestinian hate crime in Brooklyn


On the evening of October 7th, after a basketball game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Israeli team Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Palestinian-American Nerdeen Kiswani was attacked by a group of Maccabi Electra fans. The 20-year-old Hunter College student was punched in the stomach, and a Palestinian flag was torn from her hands.

Among her attackers was Leonard Petlakh, a professor of Jewish history at her own school, and the executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association). According to witnesses present during the assault, along with video evidence, Petlakh and his accomplices were plotting their attack on the young woman.

Kiswani published a Facebook status at 10:14pm on the night of the attack, recounting the horrific event. Her Palestinian flag was torn from her hands and she was punched in the stomach. She wrote “I was shaking and screaming and told them what happened [but] they pushed me to the side and let him go even though it was on camera.” Kiswani adds that several witnesses told the guards they explicitly saw the attack, but the guards did not listen and let Petlakh and his accomplices go. “I’m shaking,” she recalled. “They got 6 guards on me for a flag, a Zionist punches me in the stomach [and] I get cursed out by tons of white middle aged men. I’m the only visibly Muslim woman there.”

This is not the first time Kiswani has been targeted by police. She said

the number of times I’ve been assaulted by police for being near a protest [and] for existing as a Muslim Palestinian woman in this city is insane. I brush it off all the time. But this time when there’s witnesses and I get assaulted by a middle aged man in front of hundreds of people I honestly didn’t believe they’d look at me like I was crazy and let him go. … It’s exhausting being a Palestinian Muslim woman in this world. … Cops only exist to protect certain kinds of people, especially in NYC. I’m not one of those people.

Security escorted the assailants from Barclays without any questioning. When witnesses alerted nearby police of the assault (and of the inaction of the security staff), the NYPD reacted similarly; instead of listening to what they had to say, they threatened the witnesses with arrest.

Nerdeen filed an assault complaint against the group of attackers. On October 21st, on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, a coalition of activists and human rights groups held a press conference to publicize details of the attack.

I got in touch with Nathan Sheard, Campaign Organizer for the peace organization CODEPINK’s Communities Organizing to Demilitarize Enforcement campaign, who spoke at the press conference. He expressed CODEPINK’s support for and solidarity with Kiswani and condemned “all forms of violence rooted in oppression and bigotry.” Sheard said that while he “wish[ed] there were other methods of recourse beyond depending on the mechanisms of a state itself complicit in violence against Palestinian and Muslim peoples both here and in Palestine, we recognize that solidarity does not mean telling those directly affected what Justice should look like.”

On behalf of CODEPINK, Sheard expressed “hope that the people of New York and those sworn to represent them will fulfill the obligations to which they have committed, and take action to make it clear we will not tolerate the violence of hate and two-tiered system of protection.”

National Lawyers Guild attorney and human rights advocate Lamis Deek, representing Kiswani, also spoke at the press conference, as did representatives from Jewish Voice for Peace and the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

Deek told The Brooklyn Paper “My client Nerdeen Kiswani, was the true victim, of not only Mr. Petlakh, but also his gang of thugs. Mr. Petlakh felt that he could and would get away with claiming he was the victim when he was the aggressor. What he and his friends displayed that night was anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian hatred against Ms. Kiswani.”

As horrible as Kiswani’s story is, she was not the only Palestinian solidarity activist reportedly targeted that night. Several other pro-Palestinian advocates, protesting outside Barclays, reported being sexually harassed by Israel supporters.

Fabricating a Hate Crime to Cover Up a Real Hate Crime

The story did not end here. After he and his accomplices physically assaulted a young Palestinian woman, Petlakh told the police that, later in that same night, he himself was allegedly assaulted in a hate crime. He falsely accused 25-year-old journalist and Palestinian solidarity organizer Shawn Carrié of punching him for being Jewish.

Many news sources quickly jumped to inaccurate and dishonest conclusions. Haaretz, the Jewish Daily Forward, the New York Daily News, all accused Carrié (whom they refer to as Shawn Schrader, but who goes by Shawn Carrié) of a “hate crime.”

Haaretz cites Petlakh claiming that, “as he left the [basketball] game,” he was verbally harassed before being punched. Petlakh’s account completely distorts the order of events and implies that he was attacked purely out of hate. No mention is made of the assault on Kiswani.

Many of these publications quote Petlakh encouraging readers to “volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces,” and draw exclusively from his testimony. They also heavily cite Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), who jumped the gun, immediately and erroneously assuming that Carrié’s alleged punching of Petlakh was racially motivated, and demanded that authorities punish the activist more harshly. Cymbrowitz claimed Carrié “was part of a group of anti-Israel protestors whose intentions turned hateful and violent.” No mention whatsoever is made of the group of pro-Israel protesters who assaulted a young Palestinian woman, among others.

Not a single source, in fact, makes any mention of the attack on Kiswani. The NY Daily News does note that, during the basketball game, one of Petlakh’s accomplices accosted a stranger who was waving a Palestinian flag, sparking an argument that continued outside.

The Palestine Solidarity network noted the irony that a group of middle-aged white males would proudly post a video of their own assault on a young woman of color, and then blame her for their crime.

In the video, ludicrously titled “Anti Israel provocation at Barclays Center,” you can see how Petlakh and his accomplices initiate the conflict. The men were clearly targeting Kiswani, and their assault was premeditated. The young woman is simply standing there, holding a Palestinian flag, while the men point at her on camera, speaking about her in Russian. According to two different translators with whom I consulted, the men call Kiswani a “beast” and “creature” before saying “take the flag; you want to.”

Petlakh teaches a course on Russian Jewish history at Hunter College, and is the first Russian-speaking Vice President of the American Zionist Movement. Perhaps he and his accomplices did not expect viewers to understand the racism they were spewing on camera. Regardless, posting video evidence of you and your friends dehumanizing a young Palestinian woman before plotting to assault her may not be construed as the most prudent of decisions.

At 0:21, one of the men, who appears to be Petlakh himself, approaches Kiswani and violently pulls the flag from her hands. At 0:29, you can see that the man assaulted Kiswani right in front of young children, presumably Petlakh’s. The man who assaulted her then calls out “Can I get an usher?”—doubtless knowing that, given the egregious degree of racism and Islamophobia in US society, the usher will believe his story over hers. When the guard arrives, you can hear him ask “What’s the problem?” A bystander replies “He took her private property” and Kiswani says “He assaulted me.” The guard asks whether the flag belongs to her, and the assailant admits that it does, insisting “I didn’t want to have a political statement.” Much like Israel itself, the pro-Israel attacker thought it was okay to physically harm another person because he didn’t agree with her politics, let alone with her right to hold a flag in a public place.

(In case the attackers realize posting evidence of their crime is perhaps not the best idea and decide to take it down, I have archived the YouTube information here and the video itself here—which I have renamed, much more accurately, as “Anti-Palestinian provocation at Barclays Center.”)

The conflict, initiated by Petlakh and his accomplices, continues after the video ends, yet even this short clip clearly contradicts Petlakh’s testimony—the only testimony cited in any of these news stories. In order to understand what happened off camera, a journalist would have to interview witnesses. Not a single news publication interviewed a witness, however; Petlakh’s allegations, doubtless impartial given his complicity in the assault, are taken at face value, as fact.

I spoke with several activists who attended the event, one of whom witnessed the attack on Kiswani. They spoke of incredible hatred, verging on violence, directed toward them, as they protested in what Dave Zirin described as the “fenced-off pen on the narrow strip of sidewalk,” in “an outdoor space built with public funds was deemed a privatized, no-free-speech zone, enforced by armed public employees.”

Zirin spoke of the pro-Israel counter-protesters who showed up. “All male, mostly young and carrying Israeli flags, they showered the demonstrators with profanity … and raised a middle finger.” When he tried to interview one of the Israel supporters, the man replied “F*ck them, f*ck your questions and f*ck you. Get the f*ck away from me before I bury you”; when Zirin asked how the man wanted to be identified, he responded “My name is ‘f*ck you.'”

Jewish Voice for Peace and Adalah New York were among the protesters outside Barclays, criticizing the Nets for hosting 12 wounded Israeli soldiers and Barclays for collaborating with the organization Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Zirin reported seeing protesters holding signs reading “This Jew says no to Gaza slaughter.” Haaretz is the only mainstream publication to even acknowledge their presence. A critical reader would see this as a reminder that, in spite of Petlakh’s insistence to the contrary, many of the most prominent Palestinian solidarity activists in the US are in fact Jewish themselves.

The Witch Hunt of Shawn Carrié

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this story, nonetheless, is the subsequent witch hunt of Shawn Carrié.

On October 16th, Carrié was over 950 miles away from Brooklyn, in Ferguson, Missouri, reporting on the brutal, militarized police repression of nonviolent civil rights protests, when the FBI showed up and arrested him. Police flew him almost 1,000 miles from Ferguson back to Brooklyn, where he was jailed for 60 hours.

I spoke with Carrié’s lawyer, Lamis Deek. She explained that the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force found Petlakh’s accusations to be completely false and unfounded; Carrié was never even charged with a hate crime. In spite of the fact there was no evidence of a crime that he was never charged with, and in spite of the fact that a police investigation firmly stated otherwise, the District Attorney still stubbornly argued Carrié had committed a hate crime—an accusation the judge called “preposterous.” No mainstream media source took the time to report these crucial facts, yet alone to apologize for its erroneous claims.

I reached out to Carrié for a statement, yet he was unable to comment on the case, for legal reasons.

That police would travel several states over and fly a 25-year-old journalist suspected of punching a man in the nose back to a Brooklyn jail is strange to say the least, particularly considering the incredible lack of interest the police displayed in response to the attack on Kiswani.

Carrié has had work published in Adbusters, The Nation, PolicyMic, Truthout, among other publications. He was also heavily involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In 2013, Carrié in fact successfully sued New York City for a series of beatings and unconstitutional treatment at the hands of police.

In its official statement, the New York City Palestine Solidarity network “strongly condemn[ed] anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all forms of racism,” noting that “phony accusations of anti-Semitism undermine and take lightly the seriousness and danger of true anti-Semitism.” The organization expressed disgust with this “cynical manipulation of the charge of anti-Semitism, which was used to discredit pro-Palestine organizations, particularly Jewish Voice for Peace, and possibly to distract from an Islamophobic hate crime.”

The Palestinian Solidarity network called “the media’s rush to judgment and failure to investigate violations against pro-Palestine demonstrators … irresponsible journalism that contributes to fear and distrust in New York City,” lamenting that “the vastly unequal treatment of victim Nerdeen Kiswani and apparent aggressor Leonard Petlakh at Barclays Center on October 7 is but one example of pervasive institutional discrimination, privileging anti-Palestine groups and individuals.”

“We demand nothing less than full equal treatment of pro-Palestine groups and individuals engaged in activism in New York City and beyond,” the human rights advocates insisted.

Recognizing Palestine—and political reality


After British MPs moved overwhelmingly to recognise the State of Palestine, the governments of Britain and Israel affected indifference in an attempt to undermine the vote’s significance. [1] These dismissals mask a deep and growing anxiety about the direction of political traffic. ‘There is indeed reason to worry’, a senior Israeli diplomat acknowledged. ‘Not because it’s going to be translated into actual government policy, but because it’s a public opinion setter. It does create a trend’.

But trends don’t set themselves, and fortunately for Israel, rather than mobilising to publicise and build on last week’s achievement, significant tendencies within the Palestine solidarity movement are working instead to undermine and contain it.

Ahead of the vote, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the presently dominant strand within the solidarity movement, issued no press release or calls to action to pressure MPs to endorse recognition. [2] In its aftermath, BDS’s leading spokesperson Omar Barghouti informed readers of the New York Times that recognition amounts to ‘yet another act of British complicity in bestowing legitimacy on Israel’s unjust order’, while Nadia Hijab downplayed its significance relative to BDS, which ‘takes no position on statehood’. Times readers were thus presented with denunciations of the vote as anti-peace and anti-Israel from one side, and, from the other, a series of dismissive or contemptuous shrugs.

For Barghouti, recognition of Palestinian statehood by the parliament of a leading European power, permanent member of the UN Security Council and staunch Israeli ally is unwelcome because it is ‘meant to resuscitate the comatose version of the “two state solution”… dictated by Israel’:

Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights and ongoing colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territory, including in East Jerusalem, after all, will turn the putative two-state solution into a Palestinian Bantustan in an ‘apartheid state’ of Israel, as Secretary of State John Kerry has warned. [3]

Prominent Palestinian American commentator Ali Abunimah similarly urges that, ‘while recognising the “State of Palestine” excites and pleases many’,

people should not… [get too] carried away with the aesthetics of ‘statehood’ in what would amount to a bantustan.

Certainly, many of the MPs who voted for recognition also endorse a resolution of the conflict on terms which violate international law and render a Palestinian state unviable: more than one ‘Aye’ voter spoke in favour of the Kerry process, which sought to achieve just this. The vote’s significance, however, was as an indication of where public opinion is at, and the extent to which it has filtered through to the political class. Strategically, its message was simple: a mass movement of Palestinians demanding a two-state settlement based on international law would win broad support in the UK, and in all likelihood across Europe too. Such a movement, that is to say, would stand a good chance of winning.

The bill adopted by MPs was compatible with Kerry’s proposal, but it was also compatible with the international consensus two-state settlement. Given the UK’s consistent voting record for two-states based on the ’67 borders and given the state of British public opinion, there is no reason to suppose that, faced with a mass mobilisation in the occupied territories augmented by an effective solidarity movement abroad, MPs would be wedded to Kerry.

But the bitter irony is, by falsely conflating the unjust settlement preferred by the US and by liberal Israeli elites with the two-state settlement as delineated by international law and endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the international community, advocates for Palestine make the former outcome more likely. If growing international frustration with Israel is not to be co-opted into supporting the Kerry proposal, popular pressure must be directed against both Kerry and the status quo, counterposing both to a two-state settlement based on international law.

One would think, then, that the challenge now for Palestinians and their supporters is to build political and diplomatic momentum for pressure on Israel, while carefully steering it against the US-led political process and towards the international consensus. The reasons that led Israel to play down the recognition vote should lead us to publicise it, congratulate the MPs who supported it, emphasise its significance, entrench it as a pillar of Labour Party foreign policy, and pressure the British government and other European governments and left-of-centre parties to follow suit, while insisting on the distinction between a genuine Palestinian state on the borders defined by international law and the rump statelet envisioned by the US and Israel.

We should, in short, be acting like a movement that aims to win: that takes its victories and seeks to extract the most out of them, rather than snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by helping the US and Israel to isolate and neutralise them:

Palestine faces a future of permanent occupation or partition. Partition can take one of two forms: the Kerry proposal, with Israel annexing the major settlement blocs at the expense of Palestinian viability, or the international consensus two-state settlement endorsed by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly, which designates the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza as the territory for the exercise of Palestinian self-determination.

These alternatives exhaust the realms of political possibility, and a defeat for one is a gain for the others. Except among certain academics and BDS activists, the demand for dismantling Israel has no international resonance. This could be seen from the House of Commons debate itself, where even Palestine’s staunchest supporters made a point of affirming Israel’s legitimacy as a state. By holding fast to a demand that has no prospect of winning a broad constituency, one state advocates not only consign the solidarity movement to irrelevance. By frustrating the two-state solution, they increase the likelihood of palpably worse alternatives. With their gazes riveted on a one-state utopia, they help create a bantustan.


1. Indeed, Israeli officials criticised the UK Zionist Federation and Board of Deputies for campaigning on the vote:

We don’t think their actions contributed to Israel’s interests in this case. We favoured a policy of trying to draw as little attention as possible to this vote, as the Conservatives did, in our opinion very wisely, so it wouldn’t seem like a crucial decision of the entire British parliament.

The ZF and other groups didn’t consult with us and their actions contributed to making this in to a much bigger issue than it should have been.

The lobbyists appear to have been caught between the Israeli government and their own grassroots.

2.  The UK based solidarity groups, chiefly the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have on the other hand been excellent, organising letter-writing campaigns ahead of the vote and, along with Labour Friends of Palestine, publicising the result very effectively.

3. In fact, Kerry warned not that the two-state solution would become a bantustan arrangement, but that the absence of a two-state settlement would lead to a ‘unitary state’ that would either be apartheid or non-Jewish. Given the prevailing balance of power, it is not difficult to predict which possibility would come to pass.

The hidden documents that reveal the true borders of Israel and Palestine


I once believed that Israel has never defined its borders. It was one of those things that “everyone knows”. I was corrected by the blogger talknic. Mondoweiss is privileged to have talknic as a frequent commenter, and many readers here will be familiar with the document to which he pointed me: the letter written by Eliahu Epstein, the representative of the Jewish Agency in Washington, to President Truman and to the State Department, on May 14, 1948.

Epstein’s letter to Truman

In the letter, the Provisional Government of Israel formally requested the United States to recognize the new State of Israel which was about to be declared in Tel Aviv, effective one minute after midnight (6 p.m Washington time) when the British Mandate over Palestine ended. It begins (my emphasis):

My dear Mr. President, I have the honor to notify you that the State of Israel has been proclaimed as an independent republic within the frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947.

(The full text is given in the link above, and also appears below.) The resolution referred to, UNGA Resolution 181, recommended the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Zionist leadership had publicly accepted the Partition Plan, and this letter defines the borders of Israel to be those specified in the Plan (see map attached).

As soon as I read the words “proclaimed… within the frontiers…” I knew that I had been fooled by Zionist propaganda. Reflecting further, I realized that the idea of a state without defined borders is actually completely nonsensical. Suppose there were no defined border between Canada and the USA. People would not know in which country they were living; what was their citizenship; whose laws they needed to obey; what currency they could use. It would be chaos. The Montevideo Convention lists the following requirements for the existence of a state: a permanent population; a defined territory; government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. If Israel had really been declared as a state without borders, it would not have been a state at all.

To understand how the Zionist leadership came to make this border definition, and why later  they tried, very successfully, to convince the world that it never happened, we need to consider events in both Tel Aviv and Washington as the end of the Mandate approached.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Israel was reluctant to define its borders. According to an article on the Israel Government website, the Provisional Government of Israel met in Tel Aviv from May 12 to May 14 to consider the draft declaration of independence. It was led by David Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

Partition plan, UN 1947, with '49 armistice delineated

Partition plan, UN 1947, with ’49 armistice delineated

There were heated discussions about the borders. Some said stick to the Partition Plan borders, while Ben-Gurion argued strongly that they should say nothing about the borders, because it was his intention to capture territory outside the Partition Plan borders and include it in the state. His view was accepted by a vote of five to four in favor, with the four other members being absent. This vote is the origin of the story that “Israel has never defined its borders”. Ben-Gurion went home on the evening of May 13 and completely rewrote the draft declaration of independence, removing all references to the Partition Plan.

His motive is clear. He wanted to create the sort of chaotic situation I outlined in my Canada-USA illustration. If there was no defined border between Israel and the rest of Palestine, then all of Palestine could be considered open territory, available for conquest.

On May 14, the Ben-Gurion’s rewritten draft was considered by the National Council, the embryonic parliament of the new state, and was approved unanimously on the second vote: so we know that changes were made. The article does not say what they were, suggesting they were minor in nature. But if we look at the text of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel we see that the references to the Partition Plan have been restored. Indeed, the Partition Plan is placed at the heart of the Declaration:


Being based on the Partition Plan, the Declaration implicitly defines the borders to be those specified in the Plan, but does not say so explicitly. Since the declaration of a new state is a once-only event, whereas borders can be changed later, the absence of a border definition in the Declaration itself is not significant. It was Epstein’s letter that formally defined Israel’s borders.

Epstein’s telegram to Shertok

Later that day, May 14, after Truman had responded to Epstein’s letter by recognizing Israel, Epstein sent a telegram to Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government of Israel. It tells the dramatic story of how, pledged to secrecy and against a deadline, he came to write the letter to Truman:

  1. United States Government has just recognized State in following language:


  1. Informal conversations with White House representatives have made clear that recognition de facto rather than de jure because announced government provisional in nature.
  2. The surrounding circumstances are as follows. Clark Clifford, White House spokesman, phoned Washington friends advising that the State Department, at noon, May 14, will agree immediate recognition in event request therefor received. After careful consultation here with Ben Cohen and Ginsberg, following letter drafted and sent to the President and Secretary of State:

My dear Mr. President: I have the honor to notify you that the State of Israel has been proclaimed as an independent republic within the frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947, and that the Provisional Government has been charged to assume the rights and duties of government for preserving law and order within the boundaries of Israel, for defending the state against external aggression, and for discharging the obligations of Israel to the other nations of the world in accordance with international law.

The Act of Independence will become effective one minute after six o’clock on the evening of 14 May 1948 Washington time.

With full knowledge of the deep bond of sympathy which has existed and has strengthened over the past thirty years between the Government of the United States and the Jewish people of Palestine, I have been authorized by the Provisional Government of the new State to tender this message and to express the hope that your government will recognize and will welcome Israel into the community of nations.

Very respectfully yours,
/s/ Eliahu Epstein
Agent, Provisional Government of Israel.

  1. Wider consultation and prior notifications were precluded by pledge of secrecy demanded by Clifford.
  2. Earlier during the day Loy Henderson phoned to ascertain boundaries of new State. Advised that boundaries in accordance with U.N Resolution.
  3. Circumstances required that I take title for this act and assume responsibility for sending letter.

Clark Clifford was a strong supporter of the Zionist cause and encouraged Truman to recognize the State of Israel as soon as it was declared. In his memoirs he says that he helped Epstein compose the request for recognition, and that it was he who told Epstein “it was particularly important to claim nothing beyond the boundaries outlined in the UN Resolution”.

Loy Henderson was in the State Department, and had been opposing Truman’s recognition. Now that it was going ahead, he also wanted to make sure that Israel was defining its borders. Epstein gave a more detailed account of the phone call to Max Lowenthal, another Truman adviser. Henderson had asked whether the Jewish State wanted any territory other than was granted in the UN resolution. Epstein replied “No, and any territory taken until peace was achieved would be returned to the Arab state”.

It is clear that Israel would not have been recognized by the US if it had not declared on the Partition Plan borders.

The telegram suggests that Epstein was not able to communicate with the Zionist leadership in Tel Aviv before submitting his letter to Truman. Fortunately, both had made similar decisions: in Tel Aviv to base the Declaration on the Partition Plan; in Washington to define borders according to the Plan.

Israel and Palestine

There was no doubt in the 1948-49 period about the location of Israel’s borders. The text of Epstein’s letter, together with Truman’s response recognizing Israel, was released to the world press in Washington on May 15, 1948. Talknic’s website and my own list several occasions on which Israel publicly acknowledged the existence of these borders. All the states recognizing Israel knew the extent of the territory it was claiming.

The words of the Declaration are intended to suggest that the creation of Israel was authorized by the United Nations. This is not correct. The UN does not have authority under its Charter to create or divide states. The Partition Plan was a recommendation only. The Plan envisaged a process, starting at the end of the Mandate, which would lead to the establishment of two states in a series of parallel stages. Because the Plan was rejected by the Arab side, it could not be implemented.

Israel was created as a sovereign state by the decision of the Zionist leadership to preempt the process envisaged in the Plan, and to declare the State of Israel immediately on termination of the Mandate. The borders specified at that time are its sovereign borders: the borders within which Israel claimed and exercised sovereign authority and on which it was recognized by other states.

It is sometimes asked whether the creation of Israel was legal. The answer is that it was neither legal nor illegal, because there is no system of law governing the creation of states. Israel exists as a sovereign state because it satisfied the requirements of the Montevideo Convention, and was recognized as such by other states.

Israel’s Declaration partitioned the land into two territories: the State of Israel, and the remainder of Palestine outside the sovereign borders of Israel, corresponding to the area of the Arab state in the Partition Plan. Palestine was in a sorry state, with much of its population having become refugees, and it had no government because the Mandate had ended, and there was nothing to replace it. It became a non-self-governing territory.

The Jewish National Home policy of the British Mandate had made it impossible for the Palestinians to exercise their right of self-determination in Mandatory Palestine, as confirmed by the report of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (II.176). But, because Israel’s border definition limited the sovereign extent of the State of Israel to that specified for the Jewish state in the Partition Plan, it also defined the borders of the non-self-governing territory of Palestine, creating the possibility that the Palestinians could exercise that right, the right to their own state, in the territory allocated to the Arab state in the Partition Plan.

Borders can be changed, but a state can only acquire territory from a neighbor by legal annexation, that is, by agreement, and with a referendum of the population. Obtaining territory by war violates fundamental principles of the UN Charter. Nevertheless, this is what Israel did.

Israel expands: the 1948-49 war

Israel was founded in the midst of civil war between Jews and Arabs. At 00:01 on May 15, 1948, when the Declaration became effective, Jewish militias were already fighting outside Israel’s sovereign borders, in the territory of Palestine. That same night, forces of the Arab states entered Palestine, and the civil war became a war between Israel and the Arab States. Knowing the location of Israel’s borders gives a better understanding of the nature of this war. Israel was not invaded by five Arab states. Most of the fighting was in Palestine, outside the borders of Israel, and no Jordanian forces entered Israel. The Arab League told the UN that they were entering Palestine to protect Arabs from Zionist attack: Israel told the UN that its forces were operating in Palestine, outside its borders, in order to protect Jews from Arab attack. The UN did not identify either side as an aggressor.

Having achieved recognition by declaring the partition lines as its border, a few days later, on May 20, the Provisional Government decided that “Israel would not respect the partition lines”. On June 3 Ben-Gurion said, in a report to the Provisional Government, “the entire expanse of the State of Israel allocated to us under the terms of the UN resolution is in our hands, and we have conquered several important districts outside those boundaries… we will remain constantly on the offensive, which will not be confined to the borders of the Jewish State”, thus confirming both the existence of the borders, and his intention to capture territory outside them. As the war progressed Israel continued to gain territory, until the fighting stopped with the Armistices of 1949.

In the captured territory between the partition lines and the armistice lines (see map above), Israel applied Israeli law, rather than a military occupation under the laws of war, making the territory in effect (de facto) part of Israel. The armistice lines (collectively the Green Line) therefore became the de facto border of Israel. Needless to say, this was not a legal annexation, as the armistice agreements themselves make clear: “the Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary”. Since Israel has no intention of returning this territory, it is rightly called stolen land.

Israel’s sovereign territory amounts to some 55% of Mandatory Palestine, the stolen land another 23%, with the remaining 22% comprising the West Bank and Gaza. The stolen land includes the cities of  Acre, Ashkelon, Jaffa, Nazareth, Ramle, Beersheba, Lydda, and West Jerusalem, all except the last having being allocated to the Arab state in the Partition Plan as they were major Arab population centers.

Under Chapter XI of the UN Charter a “sacred trust” is automatically created when a state (in this case Israel) administers a non-self-governing territory (parts of Palestine). Under this trust the responsibility of Israel in the stolen land was to recognize that “the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount” and to help them “develop self-government and free political institutions”. In other words, to help the Palestinian people achieve their right of self-determination in their own land.

Israel seriously violated this sacred trust. Making the territory part of Israel prevents its people from developing free political institutions and self-government. The refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return, the destruction of their villages, and their replacement by immigrant Jews, puts the interests of the Palestinian people below those of Jewish immigrants into Palestinian territory.

Chapter XI of the Charter also applies in the West Bank and Gaza, occupied by Israel in 1967. As the administration there is military, it must also obey the Geneva Conventions. Israel has violated those as well.

Palestine’s right to territorial compensation

Nothing has changed the status of the border between Israel and Palestine since 1949, as there has been no peace treaty between the two sides. The partition line is still the declared and recognized sovereign border of Israel. The Green Line is still the de facto border of Israel. And please, everyone, stop calling it the pre-1967 border: it is not a recognized border, and it did not move an inch in 1967. Nor is the territory inside the de facto border ‘Israel proper’. The stolen land is improperly regarded as part of Israel since it was obtained by war in violation of the UN Charter.

Palestine has said that, in the interests of peace, Israel can keep the land stolen in 1948-49. This is a wise decision. The stolen land is fully integrated with the rest of Israel, and this situation is irreversible. It is also a very generous offer. In fact too generous, because Palestine has not even asked for territorial compensation for the loss of much of its heartlands. This is a mistake. Israel has a population of around 8 million. The Palestinian population, including the West Bank, Gaza, and stateless refugees with a right to return, is around 9 million. A peace agreement that left only 22% of Palestine under Palestinian Arab sovereignty could not possibly be considered a viable or just solution which would lead to a lasting peace.

The failure to ask for compensation arises because the Palestinian leadership believes that Israel has never defined its borders. They believe it because it is one of those things that “everyone knows”, and also because their legal adviser has told them that Israel does not have “determinate borders”. Consequently, they do not understand the legal distinction between Israel’s sovereign territory and the stolen land. The same adviser also told them that UN Security Council Resolution 242 “set forth” the boundaries of the Palestinian State. This is another nonsensical fiction. Resolution 242 says nothing about the position of any borders, nor could it, because the UN has no authority to tell a state where its borders are; that is for states to agree between themselves.

I believe that Palestine can make a strong case that, in terms of justice, international law, and viability, it deserves and needs a transfer of territory from Israeli sovereignty in the southern Negev (that is, south of Beersheba, the city itself being within the stolen land). This would achieve three things: provide territorial contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza; provide space for the returning refugees; and enable the Bedouin, if they so wish, to transfer from Israeli sovereignty to Palestinian sovereignty.

This is not a new idea. The Negev was allocated to the Jewish state in the Partition Plan as an area capable of absorbing large numbers of Jewish immigrants, having at the time only a small population of mostly Bedouin. The UN Mediator was the first to suggest, (see his September 1948 Progress Report [One.III.6]), that some of the Negev be transferred to the proposed Arab state, at that time as compensation for the loss of western Galilee. The Arabs, at the failed attempt at a peace conference in Lausanne in 1949 said that they would need the Negev to accommodate the returning refugees, since Israel was not willing to accept them. (See this report of the Conciliation Commission [IV.15]). During the conference President Truman wrote a secret Note to Ben-Gurion deploring Israel’s refusal to provide territorial compensation for areas it had acquired outside the Partition Plan borders.

The expulsion of 750,000 non-Jewish Palestinians and Israel’s de facto enlargement in the 1948-49 war meant that the original reason for allocating the Negev to Israel had become obsolete. Although Israel has been actively developing the Negev for Jewish occupation since 2005, population density is still low. It should be possible to produce a suitable division of territory. To keep contiguous both Israeli and Palestinian territory, there could be a neutral crossing point between the two states, similar to those in the Partition Plan (see them in the attached map, to the south-west of Nazareth and of Ramle).

Negotiation of new borders needs to be handled with respect to the wishes of residents. It would not be legal to transfer people from one sovereignty to another unless the majority of them agreed, and the border lines should be drawn so as to minimize the number of people who consider themselves adversely affected. For example, as far as possible Jewish settlements in the Negev should be kept within Israel. Everyone whose sovereignty is changed should be given dual citizenship

The one-state solution

All this discussion of borders and territories would immediately become irrelevant if there were a one-state solution. I expect this will happen eventually, my own view being that the solution with the greatest chance of success would be a union of the two nations to form a single state, along the lines of the England-Scotland model. But at the moment, the two states already exist, and the only way that they can successfully become one is by a voluntary merger, federation or union. It cannot be voluntary unless the two nations negotiate on an equal basis. So, a one-state solution can only proceed by way of an intermediate two-state solution. The territorial question must be sorted out.

Israel’s deceptions

Israel’s declaration of sovereign borders on May 14, 1948 was a deception practiced upon President Truman and the rest of the world, designed to elicit recognition of Israel. Israel never had an intention to stick to those borders. Since those days, Israel and its Zionist supporters have practiced another deception: that the border definition never happened.

How did such a nonsensical and easily disproved idea become something that “everyone knows”?  And “everyone” includes some surprising people: the historian Avi Shlaim, Professor at Oxford University, said in an interview that “the Armistice Lines are the only internationally recognized borders that Israel ever had”; Francis A. Boyle, Professor of International Law at the University of Illinois is the adviser to the PLO, already mentioned, who said that “Israel does not have determinate borders”; Uri Avnery, veteran Israeli journalist, politician and peace activist, has said that “from its first day, the State of Israel has refused to fix its borders”; Jeremy R. Hammond, editor of Foreign Policy Journal, in his book The Rejection of Palestinian Self Determination (Chapter IV) says, of the creation of Israel, “significantly, no borders for the newly proclaimed state were specified”; John B. Judis, political historian, in his recent book Genesis about Truman, Zionism, and the creation of Israel, discusses the events of May 14, 1948 in Washington (page 317), mentioning that Clifford worked with Epstein on the letter asking for recognition, but shows no knowledge of its content and gives no reference to the text.

Provision of misleading information, such as the article about Israel’s Declaration of Independence discussed above, is one Zionist propaganda technique, but the main one is simple silence and suppression of information.

I may be exaggerating somewhat by describing Epstein’s letter to Truman as “hidden”, since it has been in the public domain since May 15, 1948, but for a document of such historic significance it has a very low profile on the internet. As far as I can determine there is not a single Israel Government or Zionist website which mentions this letter when talking about the foundation of the State of Israel and Truman’s recognition. The full text appears on only three well-known websites: as an unsearchable facsimile of the original in the Truman library; the Avalon project at Yale Law School; and in the Jewish Virtual Library, where it is indexed only as a “Letter from Provisional Government to USA” and nowhere are its contents or significance discussed. Otherwise it appears mostly on blogs, news archives and discussions.

Active suppression also takes place. I have sometimes entered a polite and relevant comment, quoting the first sentence of the letter, into the website Times of Israel, to find that it has quickly been moderated out.

My second document, Epstein’s telegram to Shertok, is both a fascinating piece of history and of great importance since it confirms that the US would not have recognized Israel if it had not defined its borders according to the UN partition lines. This one has really been well hidden. A link to it, as an unsearchable facsimile, first appeared in 2012 in a story on the website of the Israel State Archivist (Document No. 3). Until now, the only other links to it on the internet have been from my own writings, and the only plain text copy of the document on the internet has been on my website.

Summary of conclusions

The Zionist leadership did not want to define the borders of Israel when they declared independence from the rest of Palestine on May 14, 1948, but were forced to specify borders according to the UN Partition Plan in order to achieve recognition by the USA. The territory captured by Israel outside these borders in the 1948-49 war and incorporated de facto into Israel was obtained by war in violation of the fundamental principles of the UN Charter. Since 1949 Israel has attempted, very successfully, to convince the world that this border definition never happened in order to hide the fact that the captured territory is outside Israel’s declared and recognized sovereign borders and is  therefore rightfully part of the territory of Palestine, within which the Palestinian people have the right of self-determination. Although the Palestinian leadership has accepted that Israel can keep this territory in a peace agreement, there is a very strong case for compensation for its loss in the form of a transfer of Israeli territory in the southern Negev to Palestinian sovereignty.

For more details on the topic of this essay please see my website article The Borders of Israel and Palestine.

Requests to readers

Did Ben-Gurion really turn up on the morning of May 14, 1948 with a new version of the Declaration that did not mention the Partition Plan? Or was it actually he who realized overnight that the idea of creating a state with undefined borders was not going to work? The various drafts of the Declaration are said to be on display in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. Is there an Israeli reader who could go along, take a look and let us know?

How did the Zionists manage to persuade “everyone” that “Israel has never defined its borders”? It would take a major project in social psychology to answer that question fully, but it would be interesting to hear the views and experiences of readers. I will respond to all comments.

A Yom Kippur epiphany


It began as a surprisingly unremarkable day, but Yom Kippur turned out to be especially poignant for me this year. I spent much of the day unable to fast for the first time in years and unable to go to synagogue, also for the first time in years. Marc Ellis’s piece, “Stop the Yom Kippur Prayers if They Don’t Make Sense in the Gaza Rubble” helped me with my ambivalence, as he put into words much of what I had been feeling–namely the hypocrisy of praying next to other Jews who are atoning for their year’s ills but won’t acknowledge what has happened, again, in Gaza.

By late afternoon, I decided to go to synagogue for the Yizkor and final service. One reason for this was to support Brant Rosen in his final Yom Kippur service (mine too, as it turns out, at this particular synagogue) as Rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston. Another reason was to come face-to-face with the conflict that many anti-Zionists like me–at least those who were former Zionists–have had to reconcile in our separation of Judaism from Zionism. It’s less of a struggle for me as time goes by. I see much more clearly that these two are not the same, were never meant to be, yet they became synonymous with the Jewish nationalism that the Zionist movement was trying to grow, with me as one of its ardent members.

Ellis’s essay linked to another piece which also helped me reconcile my torn feelings that day, “Yom Kippur: Why We, as Jews, are Fasting for Gaza,” by Jared Sacks, Benjamin Fogel, Heidi Grunebaum, and Lauren Segal. The authors explained how they dedicated their Yom Kippur fast to raising money for Gaza. More importantly, their essay reminded me of the “prophetic reading recited on the morning of Yom Kippur which in fact denounces people who fast as a substitute for working for social justice.” In light of these essays, I was glad that I attended the afternoon service, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, and grieving–silently–for the deaths incurred in Gaza this year, and really, for the on going occupation. I sang the melodies of my youth, “Shalom Rav” my favorite, relying temporarily at least, on the congregation’s collective voice of singing and chanting.

I remember the High Holidays as a little girl, sitting in synagogue next to my dad, playing with the strings of his tallit, and moments before that, feeling as though I was underneath a giant hot air balloon, watching everyone stand and don their tallit at the same time, the white fabric looking as though it were flying far above me. As a teenager, I chanted haftorahs once a month, an ardent Zionist–I thought I was just a really good Jew–pledging my love daily to Israel and begging my parents to send me on an Israel summer program, which they gladly did. To help pay for the trip, I got my first job working at the local kosher butcher, then called Kosher City, bragging to all the old people who came in, “I’m working here so that I can save up for my first trip to Israel. I’m going on a summer program!”

Half of my twenties were spent living in Jerusalem, studying for my Master’s degree at Hebrew University, writing love poems about Jerusalem, believing–in between my graduate courses–that I was channeling Yehuda Amichai’s Love Poems, “In a Foreign Country,” one of my favorites:

In a foreign country you must love
a girl who is a history student.
You lie with her in this grass
at the foot of these hills
and in between yells and groans
she’ll tell you
what happened here in the past.
‘Love is a serious matter’:
I never saw animals laughing.

Knowing that so many had done this before, as I did now, but not knowing that it was for the wrong reasons, I fell in love with Jerusalem long before I fell in love with anyone else. When I was living there during my twenties, I used to joke with friends that Jerusalem was the only woman I could ever love. This belief was challenged when I fell for Nomi, a Hebrew University doctoral student. Even then, though, when she painted me, she wanted it to be on a map of the world, my upper thigh painted in blues and greens on the Middle East.

My thirties were spent meeting Palestinians, going to the West Bank, learning, really, that there was an entire world and perspective I didn’t know about. My early love for Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman was now replaced by Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Amira Hass, Ilan Pappe and Yizhak Laor’s The Myths of Liberal Zionism. Most importantly, I learned that most of what I had learned growing up, what had been taught to me, was propaganda. I wasn’t special for loving Jerusalem so much; I had simply bought into what others had fed me–remarkably convincing propaganda backed by lobbyists and money to colonize and “Judaize” Palestine.

I’m not writing this to claim victim space. I know that I am not alone as a Jew who has the epiphany of Palestine–the Jew who realizes, slowly and painfully, that everything I had been taught about the mythology that is Israel needed to be deconstructed and rebuilt, that friendships would need to be lost and new ones found, that entering the “other side”–the side I was taught was the “dark side”–actually meant to enter into a commitment to justice and empathy.
Now in my forties, I am learning to love Judaism again, knowing that it isn’t Judaism–its essence–that colonizes, and that I can chant a Hebrew prayer and say, “Free Palestine,” all in the same breath.

In 2010, I went to Israel/Palestine with 20 other Jewish members of the JRC, led by Rabbi Rosen. We traveled together for ten days, staying in refugee camps, meeting with non-violent activists, chanting Shabbat songs in our hotel in East Jerusalem. On one of our last nights, we stayed with Palestinian farmers who work for the Canaan Fair Trade olive oil factory in Jenin. I remember this last night, drinking tea, eating, talking with our hosts. Late in the evening, as the dusk was rolling into night, I looked out the large window. From this particular view, I didn’t see the Occupation Wall. There were no soldiers. The voices of my hosts faded. It was silent. The hills and valleys went on as far as I could see. There were olive trees everywhere. It was green, plush, native. It was quiet and dark. I saw Arab-style homes built squarely into the landscape, lights dotting the hills. Inside the homes I couldn’t see, but pictured, families making dinner, kids doing their homework, a mother tucking her baby into bed. My mind rolled back to pre-1948. I saw–perhaps for the first time, really, finally–Palestine. “More tea?” my host asked me, as I turned away from the window.

Feminist scholars call on Obama to drop the torture-based charges against Rasmea Odeh


An Open Letter to President Obama and the United States Department of Justice

In 2004 award-winning filmmaker Buthina Canaan Khoury made the documentary Women in Struggle about 4 Palestinian women who were former detainees. In her research and through interviews with the women, she documents the physical, mental and sexual torture women experienced during interrogations that led to forced confessions. Rasmea Odeh was one of those women. According to her testimony, she was brutally coerced into confession and served 10 years in an Israeli prison before her release. She was exiled from her Palestinian homeland and eventually immigrated to the United States from Jordan in 1994 as a legal resident where she tried to put her memories of torture behind her. She later became a naturalized citizen.

Rasmea Odeh

Rasmea Odeh

In the US, Rasmea settled in Chicago where she became the associate director of the Arab American Action Network, a social service and community organization in Chicago. There, she established the Arab Women’s Committee, a grassroots collective that promotes leadership among Arab immigrant women, challenges systems of oppression that impact Arab women’s lives, and secures a positive and safe political, economic, social, and cultural environment for Arab women and their communities. In 2013, the Chicago Cultural Alliance granted Rasmea its Outstanding Community Leader Award in recognition of her devotion of “over 40 years of her life to the empowerment of Arab women.”

Now, Rasmea is being persecuted again for not giving account of her time in jail after her torture 45 years ago on her naturalization application in 2004.

On October 22, 2013, the US Department of Justice arrested Rasmea Odeh at her home in the Chicago Suburbs. The Department of Justice alleges that Odeh failed to disclose on her naturalization application that she had served time in Israeli jail — even though her sentence was based on a confession she made in the midst of 45 days of physical torture while in detention. Rasmea faces up to ten years in US prison, fines up to $250,000, and potential deportation and denaturalization.

The Israeli state avoids any blame for the politically motivated abuse and imprisonment of Rasmea. The criminal charges she faces for alleged immigration fraud in the US are also politically motivated. They are based upon naturalization papers she filed ten years ago in 2004 and sprang from an illegal federal investigation of 23 Palestinian and anti- war activists that violates First Amendment rights. They are also connected to a long history of federal authorities using fear and repression to silence Palestinian American activists and intimidate immigrant women from participating in social justice movements.

Rasmea Odeh has suffered enough already. When the Israeli military arrested her, they also arrested her family members shortly after her arrest and destroyed her family’s home. Odeh’s 1969 conviction in Israel was determined by a court system that systematically abuses Palestinians’ due process rights, has a record of torture and sexual abuse of Palestinian women, men, and children, and convicts Palestinians at a rate of 99.74 percent.

As feminist scholars, we call on the Department of Justice to drop the charges against Rasmea Odeh. We extend our deepest support to Rasmea in the face of injustice. We recognize her as a leader in the international struggle to empower women and end violence against women. We recognize the pain and suffering she endured in Israeli prisons and we honor her for testifying before a United Nations Committee in Geneva as a survivor of sexual torture. We honor her decades of feminist activism on behalf of Arab and Muslim immigrant women living in poverty in Chicago. Rasmea built the Arab Women’s Committee and its base of nearly six hundred Arab immigrant women from scratch when she went door to door as a recent immigrant herself and made phone calls to house-holds with Arabic-speaking names from the white-pages. She developed an infrastructure for disenfranchised Arab immigrant and refugee women to obtain social services and support and she established English as a Second Language courses through which immigrant women perform plays, write their immigration stories, and form deep friendships, sisterhood, and solidarity. Because of Rasmea’s work, immigrant and refugee women who came to the US from countries facing war and political crises–like Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Syria, and beyond—now have a place to seek support, gain empowerment and community, and call their home.

Rasmea’s story encompasses some of the most urgent feminist struggles of our times– violence against women and the use of sexual violence as a tool of colonization and war; the impact of racism and anti-immigrant policies upon women; the criminalization of women of color; and the use of intimidation to thwart feminist activism.

Rasmea’s trial is set to begin November 4, 2014, in Detroit, Michigan.

We call upon all feminist movements to stand with gender justice and centralize Rasmea Odeh’s struggle within all of our movements.

We call upon President Obama and the United States Department of Justice to drop the charges against Rasmea Odeh.


  1. Sarah Abboud, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania
  2. Stéphanie Latte Abdallah, Researcher, CNRS (IFPO)
  3. Diya Abdo, Associate Professor, Guilford College
  4. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Associate Professor, San Francisco State University
  5. Lila Abu-Lughod, Professor, Columbia University
  6. Fida J. Adely, Associate Professor, Georgetown University
  7. Jocelyn Ajami
  8. Nadje Al-Ali, Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
  9. Dina Al-Kassim, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
  10. Deborah Al-Najjar, University of Southern California
  11. Lori Allen, Lecturer, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
  12. Paul Amar, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
  13. Anjali Arondekar, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
  14. Barbara Aswad, Professor Emerita, Wayne State University
  15. Sa’ed Atshan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Brown University
  16. Elsa Auerbach, Professor Emerita, University of Massachusetts Boston
  17. Kathryn Babayan, Associate Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  18. Paola Bacchetta, Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley
  19. Joanne Barker, Professor, San Francisco State University
  20. Janet Bauer, Associate Professor, Trinity College
  21. Leila Ben-Nasr, Ohio State University
  22. Sherna Berger-Gluck, California State University, Long Beach
  23. Amahl Bishara, Assistant Professor, Tufts University
  24. Elizabeth Bishop, Associate Professor, Texas State University
  25. Jennifer Brier, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  26. Victoria Brittain, Journalist and Author
  27. M. San Pablo Burns, Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  28. Louise Cainkar, Associate Professor, Marquette University
  29. Piya Chatterjee, Scripps College
  30. Julia Chinyere Oparah, Professor, Mills College
  31. Andreana Clay, Associate Professor, San Francisco State University
  32. Maria Cotera, Associate Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  33. Ephrosine Daniggelis
  34. Angela Davis, Distinguished Professor Emirita, University of California, Santa Cruz
  35. Lara Deeb, Professor, Scripps College
  36. Christine Taitano DeLisle, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign
  37. Gina Dent, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
  38. Lisa Duggan, Professor, New York University
  39. Zillah Eisenstein, Distinguished Feminist Scholar, Ithaca College
  40. Omnia El Shakry, Associate Professor, University of California, Davis
  41. Nada Elia, Independent Scholar
  42. Hoda Elsadda, Professor, Cairo University
  43. Anita Fábos, Associate Professor, Clark University
  44. Roderick Ferguson, Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  45. Ellen Fleischmann, Professor, University of Dayton
  46. Cynthia Franklin, Professor, University of Hawai’i
  47. Rosa Linda Fregoso, Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
  48. Nancy Gallagher, Research Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
  49. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Professor, Graduate Center, City University of New York
  50. Sherna Berger Gluck, Emerita Faculty, California State University, Long Beach
  51. Layla Azmi Goushey, Assistant Professor, St. Louis Community College
  52. Marame Gueye, Associate Professor, East Carolina University
  53. Elena Gutiérrez, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  54. Elaine C. Hagopian, Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College
  55. Sondra Hale, Research Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  56. Hala Halim, Associate Professor, New York University
  57. Najla Hamadeh, Independent Researcher
  58. Michelle Hartman, Associate Professor, McGill University
  59. Nadia Hijab, Author and Human Rights Advocate
  60. Grace Kyungwon Hong, Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  61. LeAnne Howe, Professor, University of Georgia
  62. Constantine Inglessis
  63. Jacqueline Khayat Inglessis
  64. Joyce Inglessis
  65. Bushra Jabre, The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  66. Lynette Jackson, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  67. Amira Jarmakani, Associate Professor, Georgia State University
  68. Suad Joseph, Distinguish Research Professor University of California, Davis
  69. Mohja Kahf, Professor, University of Arkansas
  70. Ronak Kapadia, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  71. Kehaulani Kauanui, Associate Professor, Wesleyan University
  72. Laleh Khalili, Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies
  73. Sharon Heijin Lee, Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow, New York University
  74. Pardis Mahdavi, Associate Professor, Pomona College
  75. Lisa Suhair Majaj, Writer and Editor
  76. Jean Said Makdisi, Writer
  77. Harriet Malinowitz, Lecturer, Ithaca College
  78. Rania Masri, Associate Director, American University of Beirut
  79. Victor Mendoza, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  80. Hasna Mikdashi, Arab Women’s Studies and Research, NOUR, Cairo
  81. Maya Mikdashi, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Rutgers University
  82. Minoo Moallem, Professor, University of California, Berkeley
  83. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Distinguished Professor, Syracuse University
  84. Scott L. Morgensen, Associate Professor, Queen’s University
  85. Norma Claire Moruzzi, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  86. Susan Muaddi Darraj
  87. Nadine Naber, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  88. Margo Okazawa-Rey, Professor Emerita, San Francisco State University
  89. Jennifer Olmsted, Professor, Economics, Drew University
  90. Geeta Patel, Associate Professor, University of Virginia
  91. Suvendrini Perera, Professor, Curtin University
  92. Jasbir Puar, Associate Professor, Rutgers University
  93. Michelle Raheja, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  94. Aneil Rallin, Associate Professor, Soka University of America
  95. Barbara Ransby, Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  96. Robin L. Riley, Assistant Professor, Syracuse University
  97. Eleanor Roffman, Professor Emerita, Lesley University
  98. Judy Rohrer, Assistant Professor, Western Kentucky University
  99. Rachel Rubin, Professor, University of Massachusetts Boston
  100. Rosemary Sayigh, Researcher and Visiting Professor, Center for Arab and Middle East Studies, American University of Beirut.
  101. Susan Schaefer Davis, Independent Scholar
  102. Laurie Schaffner, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  103. Malini Johar Schueller, Professor, University of Florida
  104. Sarita See, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  105. May Seikaly, Associate Professor, Wayne State University
  106. Sima Shakhsari, Assistant Professor, Wellesley College
  107. Simona Sharoni, Professor, State University of New York, Plattsburgh
  108. Setsu Shigematsu, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  109. Irene Siegel, Assistant Professor, Hofstra University
  110. Andrea Smith, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  111. Samera Sood
  112. Ahdaf Soueif, writer
  113. Rajini Srikanth, Professor, University of Massachusetts Boston
  114. Maria Francesca Stamuli, National Library of Naples
  115. Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Professor, Barnard College
  116. Kim TallBear, Associate Professor, University of Texas, Austin
  117. Sunera Thobani, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia
  118. Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor, The New School for Social Research
  119. Judith E. Tucker, Professor, History, Georgetown University
  120. Karyn Valerius, Associate Professor, Hofstra University
  121. Sherry Vatter, California State University, Long Beach
  122. Maurice L. Wade, Professor, Trinity College
  123. Lee Ann Wang, Assistant Professor, University of Hawaii
  124. Jessica Winegar, Associate Professor, Northwestern University

For more information, visit: Facebook page, Drop the charges against Rasmea now.



Israeli president’s diagnosis — ‘Israel is a sick society’ — doesn’t go viral in the U.S.


Did you hear that the president of Israel said Israel is a “sick society”? Reuven Rivlin, a Likudnik, said this over the weekend. There’s been lots of coverage in Israel, but as Sullivan points out, the declaration hasn’t gotten much attention stateside. I should think it would be viral.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s report:

“It is time to honestly admit that Israeli society is ill – and it is our duty to treat this disease,” Rivlin told the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities on Sunday at a conference titled “From Xenophobia to Accepting the Other.”

“The tension between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel has risen to record heights, and the relationship between all parties has reached a new low,” he said. “We have all witnessed the shocking sequence of incidents and violence taking place by both sides. The epidemic of violence is not limited to one sector or another, it permeates every area and doesn’t skip any arena. There is violence in soccer stadiums as well as in the academia. There is violence in the social media and in everyday discourse, in hospitals and in schools.”

From the Jerusalem Post:

The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment, President Reuven Rivlin said at the opening session on Sunday of a conference on From Hatred of the Stranger to Acceptance of the Other.

Rivlin wondered aloud whether Jews and Arabs had abandoned the secret of dialogue.

With regard to Jews he said: “I’m not asking if they’ve forgotten how to be Jews, but if they’ve forgotten how to be decent human beings. Have they forgotten how to converse?” In Rivlin’s eyes, the academy has a vital task to reduce violence in Israeli society by encouraging dialogue and the study of different cultures and languages with the aim of promoting mutual understanding, so that there can be civilized meetings between the sectors of society.

JTA says that Rivlin spoke of abuse he’s received on his Facebook page. Presumably from the right, not the left. This is a country where a settler extremist assassinated a prime minister who was saying he wanted to compromise with Palestinians, 19 years ago.

Rivlin is obviously referencing the teen murders of the last summer and the chants of “Death to Arabs” that resound in the streets of Jerusalem. This is the hardline rightwing society that Max Blumenthal described in his book Goliath, that Shlomo Sand has sought to resign from by stopping being a Jew, and that Nathan Thrall cites in his takedown of Ari Shavit’s usefulness to American Jews as a liberal voice when he’s anything but. And the president of the country is saying this? A Likudnik politician? As Sulllivan says, any American who said this would be instantly marginalized and smeared as an anti-Semite. Witness Blumenthal’s blacklisting by the Times, and the fact that Sand and Thrall appear in English publications. While liberal American Jews hold on to their dreamcastle Israel, with the help of Shavit and his media posse; and the New York Times gives a platform to wingnut Caroline Glick to malign Palestinian leaders. This is a very dangerous situation. Though I imagine if there’s enough controversy over the comments, The New York Times will cover them. Chris Matthews has surely seen Rivlin’s comment but won’t touch it until safe media here have picked it up.

By the way, in a radio discussion on Open Source a month ago, I said that Zionism began in 1894 with Theodor Herzl hearing the chant, Death to the Jews, in Paris, and that it has now culminated 120 years later with nationalist Jews chanting Death to the Arabs in Jerusalem. That is the alpha and omega of political Zionism, which has failed Herzl’s own test, that the stranger will be welcome in Jewish society. Bernard Avishai responded that I was offering a “caricature” of the movement. I don’t think it’s a caricature; it’s a realistic interpretation of the failure of an ideology to create a better society. Rivlin must share something of my view, despairingly. Does he have the makings of a De Klerk, the ability to state to his fellow citizens that the project has failed and must be reimagined?

US-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition Emboldens Iran and Alienates Allies

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a meeting with more than 20 foreign defense chiefs to discuss the coalition efforts in the ongoing campaign against ISIL at Joint Base Andrews in Washington (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque).

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations on September 29, he had a number of concerns on his mind, but one stood out above the rest. He feared that President Obama was downgrading the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program. “To defeat [the Islamic State] and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power,” Netanyahu said in the most quotable line of his speech, “is to win the battle and lose the war.”

Netanyahu had good reason to sound the alarm. An examination of Obama’s recent moves in the Middle East reveals that he has exploited the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in order to increase cooperation with Iran in matters of regional security. Of course, administration officials dismiss any suggestion that they are “coordinating” with the Iranians militarily. In their next breath, however, they grudgingly concede otherwise—acknowledging, for example, that we provided advance notice to Tehran of the anti-IS coalition’s bombing plans in Syria. They also acknowledge opening “a quiet backchannel” to Tehran in order to “de-conflict” Iranian and American operations in Iraq.

Indeed, “de-conflict” is the favored euphemism of the moment. “No, we’re not going to coordinate,” Secretary of State Kerry said in reference to Iran’s client Bashar Assad and the military campaign against IS. “We will certainly want to de-conflict, . . . but we’re not going to coordinate.”

Too clever by half, this distinction is hardly lost on America’s traditional allies in the region, all of whom regard the Iranian alliance system, which includes Syria and Hizballah, as their primary enemy. Middle East media are replete with stories of backroom deals between Washington and Tehran. Given the enormous gap between what the Americans are claiming in public about Iran and what they are seen to be doing in private, even the false reports carry an air of plausibility.

Khamenei the Silent Partner

No less a personage than Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently joked about the hypocrisy. Emerging from a hospital stay for surgery, he said he’d amused himself during his convalescence by keeping track of the lies of American officials who, while disclaiming any appeals for Iranian assistance, were privately begging for help. Even John Kerry, he delighted in adding, had approached the Iranian foreign minister with cap in hand—the very same Kerry who had piously announced “in front of the whole world, ‘We will not request help from Iran.’”

According to Khamenei, Iran has rejected all of the American requests. But Tehran has indeed permitted operational coordination—sorry, “de-confliction”—with the United States. In effect, Khamenei has set Iran up as America’s silent partner in the Middle East, and Kerry himself, at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, testified to the value the administration places on this partnership. Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio about glaring deficiencies in the American strategy against IS, Kerry offered a stunning defense. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on [IS],” he lectured Rubio. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”

Iran, in the administration’s view, should thus be seen as a force multiplier for the United States. This line of reasoning has a long history, as one can detect by reading between the lines of Leon Panetta’s new memoir, Worthy Fights. Panetta, who served Obama both as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, recounts how he and his colleagues on the National Security Council (NSC) fought with the president over the American endgame in Iraq. Urged by the NSC to reach an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for American troops to remain in the country, the president refused. Why? Obama, Panetta explained in a recent interview, nursed “the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on” the role of stabilizing Iraq.

Which others? Panetta did not specify, but Obama undoubtedly assumed that Iran, the obvious candidate, would see Iraqi stability as in its own self-interest. It was a severe miscalculation. The precipitous departure of the American forces, Panetta argues in his book, removed the United States as a bulwark against Shiite sectarianism and led ineluctably to the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis—developments that (as Panetta omits to point out) took place under the sheltering umbrella of Iranian power.

Obama Alienating Regional Allies

Later, when civil war broke out in Syria, Obama’s policy was similarly deferential to Tehran, and with similar consequences. In 2012, he rejected another unanimous recommendation of the NSC: this time, to aid the Syrian rebels. It was the same advice he’d received from America’s allies in the Middle East, who grew ever more insistent as it became clear that Iranian intervention was giving Bashar Assad the upper hand. But Obama held his ground and, in doing so, effectively recognized Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest and hence inviolate.

Of course, Obama has never described his calculus in such terms. But he has hinted at it—by, for example, expressing his opposition to American participation in a Sunni-Shiite “proxy war,” which is nothing if not a synonym for a war against Iran.

Impolitic recent statements by Vice President Joseph Biden testify further to the astounding bias in the Obama administration against America’s traditional friends in the Middle East. Discussing the Syrian civil war, Biden developed at length the theme that “our biggest problem is our allies”—even as, on the ground in Syria, coalition military operations against IS are indirectly strengthening those allies’ enemies, starting with Assad. In the words of an American official quoted in the New York Times, “It would be silly for [Assad’s forces] not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes. . . . Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centers.”

In the past, to assuage America’s allies who were angry at the pro-Iranian bias in U.S. policy, Obama pledged to build up the anti-Assad rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But he never really followed through on his pledge. Now he is playing the same tattered card in order to enhance the coalition against IS. But General John Allen, the commander of the coalition, has made the insincerity transparent by stating that training and equipping the FSA “could take years”—in other words, until after Obama has left office.

What would it take for Obama to change course? Here, Turkey has assumed the lead. If the American leader wants Turkey as a full-fledged ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted, then he must agree to oust Syria’s Assad. This demand places Obama in a difficult bind. If he fails to gain Turkey as a true partner, the coalition against IS will be hollow at its core. But he has explicitly dedicated himself to avoiding the kind of large-scale war that Turkey requires of him.

More to the point, meeting Turkey’s demand would also entail scuttling the administration’s silent partnership with Iran in Syria—a move that Tehran, for its part, would not take sitting down and might counter by, for instance, bringing Israel under attack. Indeed, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently revealed, Tehran has directly warned that efforts by the U.S. or its allies to topple Bashar Assad would place Israel at risk. Hizballah’s October 7 attack on Israeli forces, its first declared such operation since 2006, proves the seriousness of the threat.

Nuclear Negotiations

And Iran has other means of retaliation as well, for instance by adopting an even more recalcitrant position in the current negotiations over its nuclear program. By all accounts, those negotiations are failing. With no agreement expected before November 24, the expiration date of last year’s interim deal, Khamenei can contemplate several possible courses of action. He might, for example, extend the interim deal in return for a reward in the form of further relief from sanctions. That would at least allow Obama to buy time. But what if Khamenei were instead to demand an even more exorbitant reward, or threaten to abandon negotiations altogether?

Either of those choices would deeply complicate Obama’s life, precisely at the moment when the war against IS grows ever more burdensome. Whatever Khamenei chooses, it is he, not Obama, who now holds the initiative.

In brief, our silent partnership with Tehran has simultaneously emboldened Tehran and other enemies and alienated our allies: the very same allies who are vital to subduing IS. In the meantime, that silent partnership not only has done nothing for us, it has considerably weakened our hand—and that of its main proponent, Barack Obama. Yet he shows no sign of considering alternative strategies. No wonder Netanyahu sounded the alarm in New York.

Editor's Note: This article by Michael Doran was originally published on Mosaic Magazine under the headline “The Silent Partnership,” on Wednesday, October 15, 2014.


Image Source: © Kevin Lamarque / Reuters