I am enjoying reading the conversation between Ali and Sam about Syria, but don’t have anything to add to it myself. I would, however, like to point to this recent interview in Haaretz with cultural theorist and philosopher Judith Butler. Butler, whose work I am not personally familiar with though I know its reputation and influence, has written foundational works on gender and society in the past decades (her work was very influential on Saba Mahmood, for those of you who have read Politics of Piety). She is also a liberal American Jew who teaches at Berkeley. What is of interest here are especially her comments on how she understands the BDS movement in America, and her take on the one-state, two-state debate. If anyone has time to read the whole piece, I’d be interested to know what they think.
Trying to understand what Syria wants is not the world’s easiest task. Quite to the contrary, in fact, Damascus’s intentions are downright puzzling. The last few months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the US and Syria with the restoration of a US Embassy in Damascus and the very recent appointment of Robert Ford as the US Ambassador. These large overtures to the Assad regime are most certainly intended to try to lure Damascus away from the “Tehran orbital” of the Middle Eastern “cold war” and place them firmly in the pro-western camp. The US also clearly wants to attempt to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel over the Golan in the hopes of cementing that transition into “our” camp. Great. But are diplomatic overtures enough? And more importantly, does Bashar al Assad want to be on our side?
I asked these very questions two weeks ago after picking up Gershom Gorenberg at the airport and driving him back to Middlebury. His answer was that yes, Syria wants to find a way into the Western-backed bloc along with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, etc. I hope this is the case, but evidence lately certainly seems to point to the contrary. Last week, Damascus played host to a star-studded summit of the West’s favorite personalities: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah (the Secretary General of Hezbollah), and Khaled Meshaal (the chairman of Hamas’ Damascus-based politburo). This doesn’t seem to be the message one would send to the US, Europe, Israel, etc. if one was serious about peace and switching sides. Moreover, recent tensions along the border with Israel have increased lately with sharp rhetoric from both Damascus and Jerusalem(read: Lieberman). See my tete-a-tete with Ali for more on that. The escalation of bellicose words coupled with Damascus’ apparent contentment with supplying arms to Hezbollah and Hamas sends the signal of intransigence or plain and simple disinterest in pursuing peace with Israel and defecting to the West. Even this past week, when senior US diplomat Robert Burns visited Damascus, Assad “denied all American claims that that his regime was providing military aid to terrorists in Iraq, or to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups.” C’mon Bashar.
Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the only side to the story. Tonight, Haaretz is reporting a genuine desire on Damascus’ part to re-invigorate a peace process with the Israelis. So, the answer is most simply that there is no certain answer.
What is unambiguous, however, is the rising importance of Syria in the region. Tehran sees Syria as a valuable strategic ally and asset for gaining a foothold in the Arab World, which is largely apprehensive about Tehran’s rhetoric and regional ambitions. Moreover, Syria’s longstanding ties in Lebanon are a perfect conduit for transferring arms and resources to Shi’a groups like Hezbollah. The US and its bloc equally recognize the huge gains in courting Damascus. A peace agreement between Syria and Israel would undoubtedly result in a crippled if not severely weakened Hezbollah and Hamas, and a total cessation of arms flowing to Iraq (assuming continued bolstered ties with the US). A weakened Hamas in turn would aid hopes for Palestinian reconciliation and possibly provide a true Palestinian partner for peace with the Israelis. Indeed, it is imperative that any comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East involve Syria as a central player. As for now, the thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus is an essential step; however, a deep breath and fresh thinking on both sides of the Israel-Syria border would be instrumental in helping the Syrians find a way to move a little closer to the US-backed sphere without compromising their perceived security.
A fairly uninspiring blog I read, The Beirut Spring, ran an unusually interesting post about the use of language in Lebanon – specifically, the use of Arabic – and how that is tied to identity, among other things. This is of distinct interest to me for two reasons: first, as an Arab-American I form a strong link between language and identity (one has better access to a community via language than otherwise, etc); second, in my time abroad I picked up on some serious strains between Arab countries on what it meant “to be Arab.” I was told matter-of-factly by many Egyptians that Lebanese are barely Arab, and language was way up there on the laundry list of reasons.
I didn’t quite agree with the article – or at least, I didn’t feel that it reached a useful conclusion. This is mostly because it is a pretty partisan blog so there wasn’t much in the way of discussion on the topic, and I was wondering if I could get some of that here. What would not retaining formal Arabic training mean in Lebanon? Does it mean anything at all? Let’s remember that Lebanon has gone through similar language-related crises, such as proposed alphabet reforms under Said Akl, which have sparked controversy. Also, what could this mean for other Arab countries?
My computer died this week, so I’m operating from backup and scrambling to keep up. But this story did grab my attention. The English typing Egyptian blogosphere (here’s looking at you Arabist and Beheyya) have both been paying close attention to the return of Muhammad ElBaradei to Egypt and to his nascent campaign for presidency. I’ll leave it to those of you who actually know something about Egyptian politics to explain the details of why this is interesting, but a few things strike even me right off the bat: Egyptian politics has been caught in a rather stale face-off between Mubarak’s military absolutist rule and the (un)official opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Mubarak is getting on and while there is speculation about him trying to get his son to get the president gig, last I checked there was also simply a great amount of uncertainty about what is going to happen when he leaves the stage. Until now, he has been quite adept at undermining potential opposition movements and candidates (after all, Egypt is nominally a democracy) but ElBaradei presents a special challenge for the Mubarak regime. ElBaradei has street cred not only in Egypt but also internationally due to his 12 year tenure heading the IAEA, during which he and the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize (for Wikipedia’s take on the man see here), and did a pretty good job of not letting himself be used politically in the case of Iran and its nuclear aspirations. Of course, the US, especially under Bush, was not happy with ElBaradei as he didn’t give them what they wanted in terms of isolating Iran, and so I’m not sure what Obama’s administration is going to do, if anything, in terms of working behind the scenes to help ensure that Egyptians actually get a reasonably fair election in 2011.
In the latest step in the on-going conflict over memory-rights and the Holy Land, Benjamin Netanyahu decided today to include two shrines located in the West Bank – among them the Cave of the Patriarchs – in the list of Israeli national heritage sites. For those of you unfamiliar, the Cave of the Patriarchs is considered holy by the whole Abrahamic tradition and is thought to be the resting place of Abraham and a few others of Biblical note. The stories can be read here, here and here. As is its wont, the New York Times ran a story that you had to know existed to read.
It is easy to appreciate the significance of this move given the rhetoric and the people cheering for it, namely, that ‘…Our existence depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience – it is anchored in…the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land,” to take that wholesale from Ha-Aretz. This is not new, but it is reflective of past policies of landscape and memory claiming that have taken place in Israel and the West Bank more specifically.
We know that historical memory is a touchy subject, but it’s especially touchy in this case because it maintains the tradition of mingling national identity with religion. While it is unclear what real effects will be felt now that they are on a register of Israeli historical sites, it is obvious that the Palestinian reaction has not been welcoming, again pointing to discrimination and an effort to wipe them off the historical map. That the government would budget 500,000 shekels for the ‘renovation’ of these sites struck me as particularly ominous.
If we want peace – two-state solution, one-state solution, whatever – it cannot be achieved by claiming sites of historical memory. It just can’t. If there is to be some modicum of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, it has to be on the basis of shared heritage, not cultural domination. Mark Regev commented that ‘the list was not meant to set borders,’ but it has already violated some of the most important borders, all of this even if we discount settlement activity and the fact that Hebron is smack in the middle of the West Bank. Israeli conservatives (and the Israeli government) should consider that strengthening the Israeli national narrative comes, sometimes, at the cost of prospects for peace with those troublesome Palestinians, who have their own legitimate historical connection to the land.
Look, I do not know what will actually come of this aside from the emotional responses (which are powerful enough on their own), but I cannot help but think of how beautiful this sight could be in the future: Muslims, Christians and Jews worshiping their shared forefathers. Instead, it has been a battleground for the soul of the Holy Land, and looks like it will continue to be so, at least in the near future.
Ok, I admit that after a long day of reading about Islam in the seventh century, or developments in Christology in eighth century Christian Iberia, a little Hollywood eye-candy begins to look attractive to me. What can I say? After all, I enjoyed The Kingdom when I watched it, even though it wasn’t a very good film at all. More recently, I watched and really liked The Hurt Locker—the Oscar buzz is much deserved in my book, despite the accusations, probably justified, that it is inaccurate in many of its details.
So, I was tickled to see over at Ted Swedenborg’s blog (for those of you who don’t know his work, he has written important pieces on the social and cultural politics of music in the Middle East, as well as on Palestine in the 1930s) that Paul Greengrass has made a fictional version of Imperial Life in the Emerald City entitled Green Zone, starring Matt Damon. Guilty Pleasure indeed. Note that Swedenborg is primarily interested in the fashion statement Damon is making by sporting a kufiya.
In his most recent display of poor diplomacy, Deputy FM Danny Ayalon snubbed an American congressional delegation visiting Israel today with J Street.
After the incident last month with Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, I’m honestly surprised (though I shouldn’t be) that Mr. Ayalon had the chutzpah to essentially give the diplomatic finger to an American congressional delegation simply because he doesn’t agree explicitly with the group hosting them in Israel. Moreover, the notion that J Street is misrepresenting itself by identifying as “Pro-Israel” is simply ludicrous. Admittedly, J Street has a specific political agenda, but in plain English in their statement of principles, they declare: “J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland.”
Ayalon’s narrow world view and petty politics are getting old as far as I’m concerned. Its time to get some fresh blood into the most important chairs of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
J Street, a relatively new lobby in Washington, describes itself as Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace. For those interested (and I’m plugging my own group here a bit), check out J Street U Middlebury, an affiliate group here on campus.
I’d like to hear thoughts from more informed people about our new ambassador to Syria, where we are reestablishing ties after withdrawing in 2005 over the controversy of Hariri’s assassination.
My favorite, Stephen Walt, is at it again. Smugly, as is his style, he asserts that he has come across more proof, this time in the form of an interview with Tony Blair, that Israel and the Jews were responsible for leading the largely innocent, and easily-manipulated (um…) United States into the Iraq war: i_dont_mean_to_say_i_told_you_so_but
John B. Judis responds here, pointing out some major flaws in Walt’s (to borrow a term from a Said book I just finished browsing through:) spurious scholarship, such as the fact that a survey of American Jews before the war showed Jews to be LESS in support of the war than the American national average, or the fact that, well, that’s simply not what Blair said: rinse-wash-repeat-0i_dont_mean_to_say_i_told_you_so_but
“I woke up this morning to a world of fun,” said Israeli citizen Melvyn Adam Mildiner whose name was released today by the Dubai police as one of the suspects in the bizarre assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai last month- but here’s the kicker: the picture doesn’t match, and this Melvyn Adam Mildiner has never been to Dubai. See article here:
The passports were fake, according to Al Jazeera’s report: 2010216152630833241.html
Most opinions are that the whole bit was a Mossad-gig; nonetheless, the story continues to get stranger and stranger.