Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Coalition comments

Watching a British election from abroad is strange and never more so than now. If ever Britain seemed foreign, this would be the time.

I have mixed feelings about watching the Lib Dems entering into coalition with the Tories. Although I’m a largely detached member of the party and less tribal these days, I do identify myself as on the left. So watching the deal being struck between the two has been uncomfortable to say the least.

But it seems that at least some of the constitutional objectives of the Lib Dems have been secured. Fixed term parliaments will go a long way to ensuring a more level playing field between parties, by removing the prime minister’s right to call an election. They also managed to get a referendum on the electoral system. OK, it’s only a referendum – and a free vote at that, which will mean the right-wing Tory press will oppose it for all it’s worth. But it’s still an improvement over Labour’s abandonment of the Jenkins inquiry.

And let’s face it: even if we did get a more proportional electoral system (which I know AV is not) the reality would be that the horse-trading that has taken place over the past week would become commonplace after every election. In such circumstances ideological purity may be a nice thing, but in terms of government formation it’s unlikely to happen (hence my preference for sitting as a critic on the side!).

Beyond the constitutional commitments, I’m less convinced that there is much overlap between the two parties on issues such as public spending, immigration and foreign policy. I’m particularly concerned that that Vince Cable won’t be able to make much headway against the banks in terms of regulation. And already the Lib Dem amnesty on illegal immigration has been watered down along with support for the euro (which after Greece would anyone in the party still be advocating entry?!) along with partnership of a party that has its friends with some of the more undesirable elements of the homophobic and anti-semitic east European Right.

And finally, why exactly did the party focus so much on one particular education policy of the pupil premium? Surely it should have had a broader remit to review the curriculum, teaching methods, etc?

Either way, for the first time political discussion around the Burton dinner table will no longer be divided and enter uncharted territory; both father and son will have some sympathies for the same government.  I just wonder whether this means that the Telegraph will be replaced with the new house newspaper, the Guardian?!
Rich man, poor man

Israel’s accession to OECD membership on Monday may be seen as a defeat for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It lobbied hard to prevent Israel’s entry. If nothing else, it demonstrates the importance of picking those battles that are winnable. That the OECD member states were largely silent in the months before the decision was ominous.

At the same time, Israel’s diplomatic victory may be double-edged. Alongside it were also the successful candidacies of Slovenia and Estonia on the same day. To these three may be added that of Chile, which joined earlier in the year. This may do much to downplay that success.

Although both Slovenia and Israel may have similarly high levels of per capita income (around $24,000 – although the Israeli one may not be entirely accurate given the exclusion of the full West Bank population), the same cannot be said for Estonia and Chile. Both these two countries are middle-income countries, with per capita levels of around $14,000 and $9000 respectively.

In other words, the inclusion of middle-income countries may well undermine the status of the OECD as the ‘rich countries’ club – and therefore make membership much less desirable. As a suggestion then, the BDS might consider reversing its opposition to Israeli membership and instead campaign for the entry of other middle-income countries as well.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Observations on Hamas
I attended a lively discussion on Italian journalist Paola Cardini’s new book, Hamas: From Resistance to Government, last night. Providing comment and questions were Amirah Hass (Ha’aretz) and Joharah Baker (MIFTAH).

While the presence of women on the panel was encouraging, it was unfortunate that Cardini didn’t provide a brief overview of her book. The nature of the discussion assumed that the large crowd who attended had already read it. Fortunately for me, I knew something of the topic to be able to follow; I can’t say the same of my colleague who accompanied me.

I took some notes, but only those about those aspects of Hamas that most interested me. First, there seems to be uncertainty about whether Hamas has really made a clean break and transition from resistance to government and the implications of this for it as a party/movement. There was no consensus among the panellists about whether Hamas has become one or the other or remains stuck between the two. In part this may reflect Cardini’s observation that Hamas militants themselves didn’t expect to win power in 2006. Although they campaigned in those elections, they expected that they would only have a larger share of the vote and mandate to seek reform within the Palestinian Authority and parliament. Hass questioned this and noted the internal debate within the party prior to 2006 to reject the military (and suicide bombing route) prior to the campaign as evidence that they were aware of the different role they were about to play.

While the panellists noted that there is some degree of internal participation within the party regarding policymaking (despite its more authoritarian and conservative policy output), that has changed since the mid-2000s. The main components that provided internal deliberation prior to the 2006 elections were the party in the West Bank, Gaza, the prisoner population and abroad (especially in Damascus). Although decisions were previously decided on majority vote between the different sections, political developments since 2006 has transformed the relative strength of different sections. Given Hamas’s position in Gaza it therefore has greater administrative clout that means its position is relatively stronger to that of the leadership in Damascus; meanwhile the military wing is demanding a greater role.

Second, there was discussion about how Cardini could be sure that her interviewees were speaking the ‘truth’ and not using her journalism as a tool to get their message out. This was especially interesting to me, given the near obsession with achieving rigour in academic circles that I’ve been a part of over the past few years. I was mildly amused to hear a distinction drawn between scholarly work which emphasises documentation on the one hand and journalism on the other, which focuses on interviews and face-to-face dialogue. I was amused since I don’t see the distinction as sharp as that. In my own research I used both kinds. I assume that Hass was especially vocal in distinguishing between these two approaches given her own experience of the type of material that she comes across from Israeli academics, where documents are presented in their books devoid of any context. Although she didn’t call it as such, Cardini described the use of triangulation (i.e. comparing and contrasting documents with interviewees’ comments and recollections of specific events), a method with which I concur – and as far as I can tell it’s the only way of doing qualitative work (I faced the same question of how I knew my informants were telling me the ‘truth’ in interviews that were inevitably retrospective during my viva last year).

Third, panellists didn’t share any consensus over whether the embargo on Gaza has strengthened or weakened Hamas. Cardini said that it had weakened the party, since it made delivery of public services for which they (as the government) are now responsible. As a result there was an increasing awareness that they were losing public support and remained in power through repressive means and control of the administrative apparatus. By contrast Hass suggested that on the contrary, the embargo had strengthened Hamas. Being rejected by international donors and rejecting their aid anyway, they had shown their independence, which appealed to society. At the same time, the Israeli siege couldn’t be blamed on Hamas and instead provided a degree of solidarity between governor and governed. Women were relevant in this regard as well, with both Cardini and Hass noting that female support was important for Hamas’s rise. As secular-oriented women themselves, they noted that female participation couldn’t be seen as always progressive and that given the context of Palestinian society the acceptance of a conservative movement such as Hamas should be understood.

Fourth – and this is where I had the hardest time accepting the proposition – Hass talked about the capacity of Palestinians to accept sacrifice and long-term struggle at the expense of any immediate and individual benefit. She based this idea on her own work and study of Palestinians, the sentiment of which could be tapped into by Hamas. This idea of denial permeates both society and the party itself, meaning that Hamas has strong roots within the communities that it can found. As a result they are able to publicly oppose the Israeli occupation and accommodate the impact that it brings in terms of economic blockade, movement restrictions, etc while drawing on social support for their position. Personally, I find this hard to believe: it sounded much too like a self-interested justification. Although the people suffer and cope as best they can, I find it hard to imagine that they do so without some concern; outwardly, Hamas brooks little opposition and is relatively authoritarian both politically and socially. So to what extent the public’s ‘self-sacrifice’ is consensual or pragmatic remains uncertain.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

What's left of the peace camp?
I’m not sure that I learned much from yesterday’s IPCRI meeting on rebuilding the Left in Israel (at least that was the original title, but it was changed to rebuilding the ‘peace camp’ after media protests from as far afield as New York questioning why the Finnish government was paying for such events).

Although all claimed to be speaking in a private capacity, there were representatives from Meretz (Mossi Raz), Kadima (Ran Feingold), the Greens (Rami Livni) and Young Labour (Erez Abu) as well as two Palestinians: Iskander Najjar (al Quds University) and Hanna Siniora (journalism).

The main themes that I got from the presentations was that the Left is in crisis, especially following last year’s electoral defeat. Abu was especially forceful in flagging up the need to rebuild the movement as a whole, including paying greater attention to the social agenda (which Labour has neglected in recent years). Livni made similar points, noting that the Left has largely failed in terms of its ideology, level of activism and organisation and funding (as an aside Gershon Baskin noted that the Right has plenty of dynamism through think tanks and ideas whereas the Left doesn’t).

Beyond these themes, there seemed to be plenty of debate about whether or not the Left – and whether Kadima constitutes a part of the centre-left in this respect – has sufficient numbers in the Knesset to make a difference.

That said, all seem agreed that unity between the different political groups and movements is necessary, although to my mind it was not entirely clear on what basis this should be. Where I wanted specifics I found the presenters to be lacking, largely limiting themselves to lip service references to the ‘two-state solution’. But this was precisely where I wanted them to expand. Indeed, it seemed that only Livni tackled this in part, by highlighting some commonly-held assumptions that he wanted to see overturned as ‘myths’: that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, tackling the issue of right of return for refugees and Jerusalem, Hamas’s influence (or not) among Palestinians and the supposed gaps between the two sides.

During the discussion I asked what each of the Israeli parties thought about the points that Livni raised. Through a combination of political point-scoring and justification none answered my question. Which was a shame, since (at least to me!) if you’re going to build a consensus you should at least agree broadly over these points.

As for the other side (the Palestinians), I was similarly disappointed. Both Najjar and Siniora claimed that all Palestinians were in the ‘peace camp’, but only the latter really distinguished between Fatah, Hamas and intellectuals’ positions. Both also said that growing frustration that peace wasn’t being realised was leading to re-evaluation of the two-state solution in favour of demanding their civil (and later political) rights from the Israelis in a bi-national state. While I would hardly claim to have my finger on the Palestinian pulse, that claim seems to be stretching the truth somewhat; I’m sure there is discussion going on about it, but I don’t yet see it as a generally accepted maxim. Perhaps it was just for Israeli public consumption to encourage a speedier solution?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Choosing between boycotts
It’s a bit slow I admit, but I may as well provide notes on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) meeting organised by the Carter Center that I attended last month. The two presenters, Hazem Jamjoun and Hind Awwad, provided the context for the current BDS movement and its achievements and developments to date.

Hazem noted that the Oslo process and second intifada had caused confusion amongst a formerly united solidarity front, resulting in different types of actions and activities both within the oPt and outside. There was a change from around 2005 on when civil society became increasingly disconnected from the PLO and vocal in their demands. The Palestinian leadership soon followed with selective forms of boycott being promoted and initiated from 2007 on.

While Hazem acknowledge the impossibility of an absolute boycott on Israel he argued that Israeli and Palestinian societies have become so separated by the mid-2000s that selective forms of boycott are possible – most especially regarding food sold in Palestinian supermarkets. Hind echoed Hazem’s comments about the BDS movement being a selective rather than all-encompassing one. Its national committee is willing to accept solidarity organisations’ picking and choosing of certain types over others.

I have to admit to being more sceptical about this approach. I asked how there could be coordination and effectiveness if different organisations ‘cherry-picked’ their favoured form of boycott. My feeling was better articulated by Rosemary Hollis in her presentation yesterday, who noted that boycotts can be counter-productive, by punishing the wrong people (e.g. Israeli academics, who are arguably more sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations than wider society). Looking at my notes, I didn’t really get an answer to that question.
No jobs for the boys

I have another observation to make about the boycott movement, namely what forward thinking is actually going on. My sense is very little.

My other question to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement at last month’s meeting concerned the options available to Palestinian workers after this year when they are going to be stopped from working in the settlements. While this may seem like a good idea, I’ve yet to read in any report what the Palestinian Authority, or PA (which proposed the idea), plans to do with the resulting unemployment. If there were other jobs for these workers to take they would presumably have done so by now. But there aren’t and unemployment remains high in the West Bank.

For the BDS representatives, the PA’s answer will probably be these workers’ absorption into the public security apparatus or their employment in industrial zones similar to maquilas that dot Central America. Their distaste for the latter seemed apparent. And, more to the point, the private sector (which presumably would be the main driver of these zones) is in a sorry state at the moment, so the prospect of job creation is quite remote.

But what the BDS would do itself wasn’t that clear either. Instead I was treated to Hazem Jamjoun answering his own question which I didn’t ask. That involved his pointing out that during the 1990s there had been plenty of ‘normalisation’ projects done between Israelis and Palestinians and which downplayed political differences. The BDS was opposed to such actions and aims to stop them.
To and how to engage?

There were two points that I found interesting about the discussion following Rosemary Hollis’s presentation.

The first came from a Palestinian who arrived late and was critical about Britain’s role (or rather non-role) in the Middle East and on the peace process. Actually it was rather hard to follow, if not contradictory. I think I can summarise his points as follows:

1. Britain has historical responsibility for the mess that we’re currently in (the mandate, etc).
2. Britain has present day responsibility for the mess that we’re currently in (association with Washington, Iraq, etc).
3. We’re disappointed that the Middle East doesn’t figure more prominently in British policymakers’ minds (other than as an extension of broadly global concerns).
4. Britain should play a more ‘active’ role in the Middle East – although it wasn’t clear what he meant by ‘active’.

Given Britain’s past performance in the Middle East, why on earth would anyone want the British to become more involved?!

The second came from a Palestinian woman who Rosemary appeared to know. She wanted to know what scope there was for domestic pressure on British policymaking regarding the Middle East. Hollis responded there was very little (e.g. the anti-Iraq war march made little impact). She also noted that there is currently a debate going on in Britain about sanctions against Iraq, but contrary to what many Palestinians may think, this will probably have less impact on government thinking than how British Muslims feel.

In other words, notions of international law and boycotts will have less effect than that of social stability in determining policy. This is to be expected, although I am constantly amazed at the emphasis placed by commentators here on international law and the legal obligations that Israel must uphold in relation to the West Bank and Gaza rather than grappling with the social and political realities of why they won’t – or how those might be exploited to encourage their implementation.
It's the fault of New Labour?

Rosemary Hollis’s presentation of Britain in the Middle East in the 9/11 era felt odd. I’m not used to Britain being presented as a strange and foreign country, but that was certainly the case last night in Jerusalem.

She noted that contrary to what many might feel in this part of the world, the Middle East is not at the centre of Briton’s political attention, either generally or indeed now, during the election. Her main point was to note that British policy has been greatly influenced by the creation of ‘New’ Labour. As well as seeking to rebrand Britain as a force for good in the world (which then shifted to combating evil after 9/11), those at the head of New Labour (as opposed to old Labour) not only saw globalisation as the main driver of change (and so global issues were merely an extension of domestic considerations), but also believed Britain’s imperial past was at an end.

This ahistorical perspective is evident in the failure of British policy in Iraq (e.g. the lack of any historical awareness of Britain’s previous forays in that country) and Blair’s close association with Bush compromising any room for manoeuvre.

In the Q&A I asked whether her emphasis on New Labour meant that might be significant differences in terms of whichever party or parties form the next government. Other than some nuances she couldn’t see much change, since British Middle East policy is largely driven by broader, global concerns (i.e. its relations to Washington, the EU, etc).