Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jerusalem Post: Good news is hard to come by

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Good news is hard to come by

Postive stories from the region are few and far between but they do exist and they do inspire some hope.

Palestinians and Israelis spend a lot of time blaming each other. Sometimes, we can’t even remember what started the argument because the bad things that consume our attention happen so fast. So, it might be nice, once in a while, to look at things that are good. And each side does have some good in them.

Although Israelis refuse to recognize the Goldstone Report, Israel’s government has quietly begun prosecuting a few soldiers who violated the rights of Palestinian civilians. That’s good news, though maybe not the way many Palestinians would want.

One soldier is expected to be prosecuted for killing two civilian women during the 22-day long Operation Cast Lead. News reports say the IDF “disciplined” another officer who ordered an air strike near a Beit Lahiya mosque that resulted in 15 dead and 40 others wounded.

Okay, it’s far from what the Goldstone Report determined were war crimes, but it does represent some form of justice.

Under pressure from US President Barack Obama, Israel will now permit many food and personal items to enter the blockaded Gaza Strip, banning only anything related to weaponry and building materials that could be used for the tunnels or manufacture of rocket launchers.

That it banned any kind of food, soap and even many medicines was not a good thing. But that it lifted the ridiculous bans is a positive move forward.

On the Palestinian side, no one built a monument for Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man accused and convicted of planning the PAN 103 bombing over Lockerbie Scotland. Megrahi was released last year on “compassionate grounds” that he was suffering from prostate cancer and was not expected to live long.

That he has lived longer may be a testament to great strides in medicine, but not much consolation to satisfy the anguish of the relatives of the 270 bombing victims.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has given interviews not only to Palestinian columnists like Fadi el-Salameen, the publisher of the moderatevoiced PalestineNote.com Web site, but he has also spoken at length about peace to Israeli journalists and American Jewish writers including Alon Ben-Meir, whose column “The Fayyad difference” (July 16) was published in The Jerusalem Post.

In the article, Ben-Meir said of Fayyad: “First, he stressed that militant resistance and violence have run their course. Committing acts of violence against the Israelis simply plays into their hands, offering justification for continued occupation and enabling Israel to link national security with occupation.”

Salameen reported at the moderate- voiced Maan News Agency based in Bethlehem that Fayyad ordered the creation of a committee with broad representation to investigate all government agency appointments to ensure extremists who embrace violence are not among those nominated to the positions.

I ADMIT it is not easy to find positive news stories in the region. It is so much easier to find stories of Israelis and Palestinians killing each other, calling each other terrible names and vowing to reject a fair and just peace based on two-states.

But we have to keep trying. Positive stories do not generate the same passion as fear-mongering and name-calling or the political blame game. Those stories need our help.

That’s why I am asking if you hear of a positive story, share it with me. I want to know. I can’t promise to write a whole column about it, but it would be nice to include a collection of positive stories in one column just to prove that good news is still out there and that hope is not completely dead.

There is a silver lining in every dark cloud, something good that we can salvage from the overabundance of bad. I’ve even found that silver lining in the darkness that surrounds me.

A group of extremist Palestinians in the United States have set up a hate Web site targeting me.

Why? Well, I am a Christian Palestinian.

My wife and son are Jewish.

I support compromise and oppose violence.

They really, really hate that I write for both PalestineNote.com and The Jerusalem Post – which is another reason why I love writing for both.

As you can imagine, I get ugly emails from Arabs and Jews every day complaining about something I’ve written. I can’t even repeat the things they call me. Fortunately, though, the hate site has also energized a lot of good people to contact me and express support.

Good words go a long way to encourage even the most challenged hope for peace.

But thanks to the haters, their attention has helped me sell a lot of copies of my humor book I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America. In the end, “hate” can make “good” look that much better.

The writer is an award-winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. www.YallaPeace.com

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yalla Peace: The Israel question

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Yalla Peace: The Israel question

Extremists in America force many
to examine its policies more closely.

A seismic shift in American politics has occurred over the past decade that has created a gap so wide and so bitter that America is a nation of growing polarization where issues once embraced by both sides are now being challenged.

In the shift, the far right has embraced Israel as a means of separating itself from Democrats, causing many Americans to question what, until then, has been unquestioned loyalty.

Although Israelis have always enjoyed support from both mainstream political parties, the extremists in America who are using support of Israel as a litmus test are forcing many to examine its policies more closely.

Israel has become a flagship platform issue for far-right groups like the Tea Party, which has come under attack from groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which has accused it of being plagued by bigots and racists.

For the first time, many Americans are saying they support Israel, but question the occupation of the West Bank, its exclusive claim to Jerusalem and the conduct of its military.

CAN AMERICANS support Israel’s security and still criticize its policies? It’s a question now being raised in the heated race for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, where the public’s rock-solid support for Israel is coming apart at the seams.

Joe Sestak is the Democratic candidate who defeated longtime Israel champion Arlen Specter in last May’s primary. Specter had switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in a state that is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Sestak is no left-wing extremist and represents the American mainstream. He supports Israel, but he is critical of some of its policies, including its use of “collective punishment” – a policy that challenges international laws and human rights.

While Pat Toomey, his Republican opponent, has made Sestak’s questioning of Israel a priority attack issue, Sestak has stood firm, insisting he supports Israel but making it clear not all of Israel’s policies are acceptable. He has responded to Toomey by tying the Republican to the hated bankers on Wall Street and the nation’s economic decline.

Toomey’s allies, like the Emergency Committee for Israel, have accused Sestak of donating to a Hamas “front group,” pointing an accusatory finger at his speech to a dinner hosted by the Council on American Islamic Relations.

The accusation is outrageous. Sestak was accompanied to the dinner by Pennsylvania Governor and Democrat Ed Rendell, who is Jewish, showing there is no place for Islamaphobia in American politics.

Yet Islamaphobia is the cornerstone of right-wing ideology. The more groups like the Tea Party wrap themselves in Israel’s flag, the more Americans start to question Israeli actions, including the killing of a dual American-Turkish citizen aboard the Gaza flotilla in late May.

For many voters, Israel is becoming a point of division. The election will be decided on other, more important issues, such as the deteriorating economy and the need for jobs.

The Sestak-Toomey fight over Israel will force voters to take sides. Sestak may have issues with Israel, but is popular on many other mainstream American issues that are more important.

IN THE past, most American voters have not distinguished between Israel’s interests and the interests of the US. They have supported Israel even when its policies have crossed the line.

That has come from the imbalance in how Arabs and Israelis manage public relations. The Arabs fumble through public relations on emotion and chance.

Israel manages public relations through a sophisticated strategy that is well funded.

American perspectives are built on decades-long exposure to sophisticated pro-Israel marketing strategies in the news media and entertainment. The book Exodus set the tone in the American mindset in the 1960s and has been reinforced by years of solid PR.

But that glass ceiling is breaking across many fronts as issues that hit close to home trump even the best PR efforts.

Earlier this year, Gen. David Petraeus said that American policies regarding Israel have put the lives of American soldiers in jeopardy.

In prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he stated, “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in Centcom’s area of operations and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”

The more American extremists embrace Israel, the more they undermine its standing, regardless of who wins the Pennsylvania election.

The writer is an award-winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. www.YallaPeace.com

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Yalla Peace: Fire them all

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Yalla Peace: Fire them all

That the differing cases of Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr yielded the same result exemplifies a failure to make the necessary distinctions amid the nuance of American Arab thought.

When Pope Innocent III ordered a crackdown on Christian heretics called the Cathars in 1210 CE, he applied a reasoning that was not so reasonable: “Nulla salus extra ecclesium” or “Outside the Church there is no salvation.”

The Cathars were living among the Christian faithful in a French city called Beziers. During the assault, when the pope’s general was asked how the soldiers would determine who was a believer and who wasn’t, he responded, “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” More than 100,000 people were slaughtered, mostly Christians not part of the Cathars.

We’ve seen this form of political strategy repeated many times in history since. Most recently, it was former president George W. Bush who launched his war of vengeance against Iraq in 2003, declaring: “You are either with us, or against us.”

In the Hollywood version of the real life story of the rise of the Mafia in Las Vegas, the accused mobsters were sitting in a federal court conference room worrying about who the witnesses against them might be. They went through a list and came across the name of one of their most loyal. But the decision to murder him came down to one final thought, “He’s a stand-up guy, but, why take a chance?” Israel and its allies have viewed the Arab world in much the same light. It’s not how you criticize Israel, but the fact that you criticize Israel at all that is important. Even if you don’t criticize Israel, but are like those who do, well, “Why take a chance.”

LET’S TAKE the differing cases of Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr.

Thomas was a veteran White House correspondent who covered eight presidents. When she became the dean of the press corps, opening and closing presidential press conferences, she often led with question about the unfairness of American foreign policy toward the Arab world and Palestinians.

Last month, a rabbi activist interviewed the 79-year-old journalist outside the White House with a video camera and asked her: “Any comments on Israel?” Thomas’ response was a crude critique: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”

Then she added: “Remember, these people are occupied. And it’s their land. It’s not German, it’s not Poland.”

Where should they go, asked the rabbi? “They – go home.”

“Where’s their home?” Thomas: “Poland.”

“So the Jews can...”

Thomas: “Germany.”

“You’re saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?” Thomas: “And, and America and everywhere else.”

Thomas was immediately fired by the Hearst Newspapers.

In fairness to Thomas, and while her choice of words left a lot to be desired, I think she meant to criticize Israel’s occupation and not to express anti-Semitic feelings.

But contrast her case with that of Nasr, the senior Middle East correspondent for CNN, and a 25-year journalism veteran, who was forced to walk the modern-day Beziers plank of anti-Israel Cathars. Also Lebanese American, Nasr was considered pro-Israeli and not so sympathetic to Palestinian causes, according to CNN colleagues who knew her well.

But when she learned of the death of Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a founder of Hizbullah denounced as terrorists by Israel and the US, she wrote on Twitter (the Internet social networking site that limits comments to a total of 140 letter characters or about 30 words): “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hizbullah’s giants I respect a lot.”

CNN didn’t have to have a meeting with the pope. After a firestorm of protests from many, including Israel’s strongest Jewish American supporters like the Simon Weisenthal Center, Nasr was fired.

Later, and too late, Nasr explained she was referring to Fadlallah’s views toward women’s rights and his opposition to honor killings, a practice in which women accused of infidelity and bringing shame to their families are murdered, often by other family members who are celebrated for the killings and protected by laws.

Neither his progressive views on women’s rights nor his break with Hizbullah over the group’s growing embrace of the fanaticism of Iran’s extremist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was taken into account.

IN THE United States and among American Jews at least, too often there are inadequate discernable levels of distinction when it comes to supporting or opposing Israel.

Moderates, extremists, Arabs and Muslims are often all lumped together.

That failure to understand the nuance of American Arab thought – as exemplified in the cases of Thomas and Nasr, different cases that yielded the same result – works well with the fear-mongering that defines how American Arabs are understood in the new era of post- September 11, 2001 terrorism. You are either with us or against us.

Whether you support peace or not does not matter. If you criticize Israel in any fashion, that’s more than enough. Say something nice about Israel’s bitterest enemies, watch out.

Outside of the pro-Israel debate, there is no salvation. In the firings of Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr, and criticism of other leading American Arab journalists, there is only one fate: “Fire them all, let God sort it out.”

The writer is an award-winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. www.YallaPeace.com

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Yalla Peace: What Abbas must do for peace

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Yalla Peace: What Abbas must do for peace

The PA president should recognize that the battle is in the mind-set of the American public, where the future of Palestine will be decided.

As long as Israel has the US on its side, its government knows it can do no wrong. It plays games with Middle East peace by provoking extremism in the Arab world with excessive policies that fuel anti- Israel sentiment more than they protect Israeli citizens.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may not be the poster-child of moderation, but he is smart enough to recognize that if Israel loses the ball in the US court of public opinion, he will lose the game completely. So he swallowed his pride and again reached out to President Barack Obama, after the Obama administration slammed him harder than any Israeli government.

But Israel made it easy for Obama. Netanyahu’s irrational refusal to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem as a means of returning to peace talks with the Palestinians has put Israel in a strange place in American public opinion, which increasingly recognizes the settlements as obstacles to peace.

Then, there was Israel’s playing right into the hands of the extremists by taking the bait and taking over the flotilla of boats seeking to break its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Although Israel has refused to release a complete list of what the blockade prevented from entering the Gaza Strip – insisting the banned items are intended to prevent terrorism – it’s since been impossible to keep the truth from coming out.

The fact is the Israelis not only have prevented weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, they also have prevented many food items, toys for children, most medicine – allowing some to trickle in at an unreasonable pace – and a long list of items that include other things that have less to do with preventing terrorism and more to do with efforts to “punish” the Palestinians.

I opposed the flotilla strategy to break the blockade because I believe it empowers Hamas and its supporters.

Palestinian national policy should not be defined by activists, including some who openly oppose peace based on two-states; it should be left to the legitimate Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah.

But the legitimate PA government has been ineffective and indecisive, driven more by what the emotion-driven Palestinian public feels rather than by policies and strategies reflecting leadership.

IF YOU do not lead the public, you leave the public to be led by fanatics and extremists who tug at emotions.

Irrational conduct always looks good through the blinded rage of an emotional person. Courageous leadership means doing the right thing and knowing that such leadership will bring the majority of the Palestinian public back from the irrational precipice to one of reason.

They just need a courageous leader. And so far, one has not stepped up to the plate.

That dynamic makes it easy for Netanyahu’s government and the Palestinian activists to avoid peace, although Israel has the advantage as it is the only one that recognizes that the ball game is not in the UN but in the US.

It doesn’t matter what Belgium or Turkey believe. It only matters what the Americans think. They not only hold the key to the future in the Middle East, but they also control the money and their military is actively engaged in several Arab world countries.

What Americans believe will decide whether Israel can continue to sidestep peace and expand settlements in the West Bank while rejecting demands for peace based on the return to the 1949 armistice line, called the Green Line. So what’s a moderate to do? First, the Abbas government should get its act together.

It needs to recognize that it is trailing the Israelis when it comes to defining effective public policy.

Abbas needs to engage the American public directly. He needs to define his core message, which is simple: the Palestinian Authority supports the creation of two states, a land-for-land swap, the sharing of east Jerusalem and wants Israel to step up to the plate and recognize its role in the Palestinian refugee tragedy.

Abbas should hire a high powered public relations firm and stop pandering to the fanatics in the Arab world through the Arabic language media – a pandering that often undermines Palestinian rights because of contradictory pronouncements that confuse rather than enlighten public opinion, including in Israel.

And, more importantly, Abbas should recognize that the battle is not in the Gaza Strip but in the mind-set of the American public, where the future of Palestine, twostates and Middle East peace will be decided.

The problem with Abbas is most of what he does is conveyed to the world through the Arabic-language media, which has little or no impact on the American public. They’re not reading the Arabic media for positive news and only scour through the Arab world media to find evidence of terrorism and anti-American hatred.

And there is a lot of that to be found.

While Netanyahu is bringing his message directly to Obama, Abbas needs to bring his message directly to the American people. He should do a 10-city tour of the US and argue directly what many do not want the American public to hear.

As far as most Americans are concerned, Hamas and its extremist activists represent the face of the Palestinian people and Abbas is negligible.

That can easily change. For the first time in Palestinian history, the Palestinians have a friend in the White House. He may only be there a few years. Now is the time for Abbas to change his strategy and stop playing second fiddle to Hamas and to Israel.

Abbas needs to make the American public his priority.

If he can win over their hearts and minds, Palestine can become a sovereign state.

The writer is an award- winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. www.YallaPeace.com