Curious about the strategy behind Mark Perry's meetings with Hezbollah, I sent him some follow-up emails. My basic query was whether in talking to Hezbollah, they may want to include some Israelis in the process, precisely because the Lebanese Shiites' actual enemy is their neighbor, not the United States. It seems to me that until Lebanese political figures are not just willing, but interested in speaking to Israelis who consider themselves Zionists, they are simply doing the same thing Israelis did to Palestinian groups for far too long (and are still doing with Hamas) which is basically live by denial. Which leads not just nowhere, but to self-righteous and self-perpetuating violence upon each other, and everyone in the way.
Anyway, Perry took some time to respond thoughtfully. I'll wait to respond with similar thought next post. But what he offers seems important to me, not at all superficial, and something even Zionist-friendly thinkers like me need to take seriously in positive ways. Here it is:
From Mark Perry:
I very much appreciate your recent emails and your thoughts. I have been turning over what you have said in those emails. At the same moment, I have been thinking through a coherent response to a number of your points. I find your views reflective of the kind of language that we use: "simply trading ideas is not enough to lead to peace," " a great deal of latent resources sit waiting to be liberated by both sides," and " the inequitible sharing of resources comes from the stagnant dynamics that drive all bureaucracies." All of that is true, and is resonant with our views, but leaves undetermined what tactics should be adopted that constitutes doing more than "trading ideas," "liberating resources" or reinvigorating "stagnant bureaucracies."
Very recently we have been working diligently to codify our views on human conflict and political engagement. Our Asia Times pieces are an attempt at that codification. The process of articulating what we mean and what we do has been difficult but has its rewards. We are in the process, I believe, of articulating a better understanding of successful political engagement, a more accurate comprehension of recent history, and a more substantive knowledge of the causes, conduct and consequences of violence and conflict.
At the same moment, we are attempting to translate those views into a program that will successfully transfer human action from the military to the political sphere. I do not know that I would now be prepared to go beyond what we say on our website: we aim to identify and understand the different strands in political Islam, correct misperceptions about them, and create a better language that can pull this conflict between Islam and the West out of the military sphere and place it in the political sphere.
That said, it is easier to talk about what we are not, than to delineate exactly what we are. We are not peaceniks, we are not a group dedicated to reconciliation, we are not even a forum for an exchange of ideas on conflict resolution. Each of these semi-disciplines begin with a premise that violent conflict is immoral or counter-productive or can be subverted through "people-to-people" exchanges. We do not believe this. " Our goal is not to end violence, but to circumscribe it within well-defined limits," we noted in our Asia Times piece.
As I would not go beyond the description given on our website of who we are, so I wouldnot go beyond this simple explanation of our philosophy as contained in our Asia Times pieces: "Talking and listening are more than a metaphorical construct, a repetition of the Sermon on the Mount, or a faith-based reconciliation program by another name; it is, rather, an attempt to palliate fears, put the individual back at the center of history, and negate the intellectual apartheid that robs words of their content." In the current conflict, we seek to "deny the efficacy of those in the West who would refuse Islam the richness of its diversity at the same time that it rejects Islam's rhetoric of the West's collective guilt."
In your communications with me, you have asked specific questions, and so I would answer them. You may find them, in some instances, particularly dissatisfying.
You have noted: "Compared to Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah are perhaps moderates. From your interaction that may be absolutely clear to you, given that you have met with their leadership and heard more than the bulk of the world. But if you compare them to the PLO from even as far back as the 1970s, they strike me as fairly extreme. Or at least that which they repeatedly share with the foreign world, especially their primary enemy, Israel."
We believe the West has misread the political spectrum of the Muslim world. It is not simply that Hamas and Hezbollah are moderates compared to al-Qaeda, they are moderates compared to the almost all of the rulers of the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Ben Ali of Tunisia -- and many others -- are not moderate. They are autocrats. They have gained their offices in service to the United States and they retain their offices through alliances with the police and security services trained, maintained and supported by the United States. We call these rulers moderates because they support our interests, we call their opponents terrorists because they oppose our interests.
We understand that this position is viewed as extreme -- our answer is that the critique of our position results from a superficial understanding of what constitutes "legitimacy." Legitimacy cannot be conferred, it must be earned. Democratically elected governments have legitimacy: the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia (and many others) were not elected. They have no legitimacy; that is to say, they do not have the support of their people. We believe that an accurate reading of history shows that governments that lack legitimacy are eventually and inevitably swept aside. Mubarak, Abdullah, Ben Ali (and many others) owe their position to our patronage and not to the support of their own people. They should pack their bags. They're finished.
So too, governments and officials who are elected have legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, Hezb-a Tarir in the Gulf (and elsewhere), and Jamaat e-Islami in Pakistan are strong parties whose officials have stood for election and won. They have more legitimacy in their societies than the rulers of those societies. If there is one thing that we agree on with the neo-Conservative philosophy it is that democracy should be spread through the region. There should be elections in all of the nations of the region, today, now, and the United States should live with the results. The pain that will come with this transition will be severe. The parties that are elected will not always agree with us, many of them will cut relations between their nation and ours. It may well be that such elections will be attended by violence, by the defense of the old order by force of arms. Even so, the triumph of political Islam is assured whether or not these elections take place. The triumph and rootedness of Hezbollah in Lebanon is a case in point: their victory in the recent conflict happened because of their legitimacy in Lebanese society -- not in spite of it. It is a terrible and perhaps fatal mistake for the United States to work to undermine this legitimacy and to describe such parties as part of an al-Qaeda inspired global intifada against our "values" and "freedoms." These parties do not oppose our values and freedoms, they oppose our policies.
As you note: "So why aren't members of Hamas and Hezbollah, as similar parties within the PLO in the late 1970s did, talking to Israelis? The rhetoric emanating from Iran's leadership about Israelis heading out somewhere else like Alaska, just reinforces the sense of existential threat. Within the context that it comes from a nation that seems intent not just on building a nuclear weapon but training neighbors and supporting highly aggressive attitudes, if not actions, against Israel, obviously creates a huge climate of fear in Israel."
Large numbers of Americans are seemingly obsessed with the fate of Israel. I have never quite understood why. Israel is a vibrant and sophisticated modern society that is perfectly capable of defending itself. To say that we have a moral requirement to defend Israel is to deny its people their history: they fought for their country without our help. We lifted not one finger in 1947 or 1948 to help Israel. To claim that, as some have, that Israel is conpensation for the Holocaust is to do violence to the tragedy the Jewish people suffered in World War II. There can be no compensation -- and if Israel is that compensation it is not big enough. But then, the whole world is not big enough. In 1954, Menachem Begin opposed the acceptance of reparations payments from Germany for the Holocaust. He was right to do so.
I mention all of this because I have found we Americans often conflate the history of Christian anti-Semitism with the fate of Israel. I find it particularly hard to accept that Israeli Jews would argue vociferously (as I heard them do on a number of interview news programs recently) that they stand with us in a "defense of Western values." What values, exactly, are they talking about? Are we defending our century's old traditions of religious tolerance? We need to be clear on this: the civilization that gave us Bach and Brahms and Beethoven also gave us Auschwitz. The great Reformation of Christianity that provided a protest against Papal authority was attended by countless pogroms led by the followers of that great anti-Semite, Martin Luther. There is no doubt that there is anti-Semitism amongst Arab and Muslim leaders. Some of it is virulent. It must be opposed, rejected, expunged from Arab societies. It must not be tolerated. But it cannot be bombed out of existence. And, for the record, I have heard (as recently as last week -- in an interview with Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman), the most virulent anti-Arabism ever express in public. It is common amongst rightwing parties in the Knesset.
That said, I believe that I can speak for all of those associated with Conflicts Forum: we do not seek, support and will not condone discussions with those who would advocate the destruction of Israel. We have, in fact, spoken many times and continue to maintain strong communications with Israel's political leaders and they understand full well who we are and what we are doing. Many of them are our most ardent critics. They certainly have that right -- as they believe the future of their country is at stake. We understand and appreciate their concern. Even so, our advice to them has been consistent: take a look at the map and then understand -- you should not view your nation as an American outpost but should conduct your foreign policy as if we did not exist. To do otherwise would be criminally negligent. The continued obsessive worries about Israel expressed by our leaders and people should not lull you into a sense of security. Our concern is focused on ourselves. We are fair weather friends. We have good friends in Israel, we visit them often, and we listen closely to their views. I am not at liberty to discuss those contacts, except to say that they are continuing, substantive, and quite hopeful. We would note, also, that members of the American Jewish community consult with us on our dialogues and serve on our board of advisors. Israel is capable of conducting talks with its enemies -- and have little need of our services for doing so.
I am an American, and more concerned with the future of my society and its relationship with political Islam than I am with Israel's. The founder of our organization, Alastair Crooke has the same feelings when it comes to Great Britain. We have found it far more useful for us to engage our own societies than to intrude, or advise, the leaders of Israel. In fact, we believe the most recent interplay between Israel and Hezbollah bespeaks the violence that American intrusion in Israeli politics can play: our neo-Conservatives believe that Israel is "the front line" in the global war on terrorism. But it is not their children in Haifa and I wonder whether the most conservative supporters of the Hezbollah war truly love Israel -- or simply hate Arabs. I will never forget the outrage of the American Jewish community when Yitzhak Rabin, with whom I had a personal relationship, signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. And I will not forget his speech before a group of conservative Jews here in Washington (and I believe this quote is nearly verbatim) -- "if you want to criticise our policies then come in serve in our armies. Otherwise, shut up."
Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamaat e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezb-a Tarir are not anti-Semitic organizations. While Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel, Hamas leaders have made it clear that "our charter is not the Koran, it can be changed." The PLO Charter called for the destruction of Israel. Changing it was not a precondition for talks with Israel. There were no preconditions. Furthermore, the leadership of each of these organizations has made it clear to us that opposition to Israeli policies should not be confused with anti-Semitism. Khaled Meshal has said, publicly, on three separate occasions that "a recognition of fundamental Palestinian rights constitutes a necessary first step on the road to our organization's recognition of Israel." This message has been transmitted successively to the Israeli leadership. Their (Israel's) recognition that Palestinians have just grievances that derive from the establishment of their (the Israeli) state and their statement of that fact will move both parties into a dialogue that, given increased Hamas strength inside of Palestinian society, seems fated.
The position of Hezbollah is quite exact: they realize that they cannot throw Israel into the sea and they have been very careful to not conflate their political program with a program that undergirds anti-semitism. In my three years in speaking with these groups I have never heard, once, any anti-Semitic comment. I will note that the issue of Hezbollah as an anti-Semitic organization became an issue, most recently, when it was clear that the IDF was not doing well in its war. While we do not have contact with Iran, I would make the same claim: the anti-Semitism that seems apparent in the words of their leader does not reflect the view of their government. And if it does then we must ask ourselves whether conducting a military operation against them will shift their views, or reinforce them. Our problem with Iran is political, not religious. If we oppose their enrichment of uranium then we must renounce the NPT, if we are not willing to do that, then we must find a way to allow them to enrich uranium without its translation into a nuclear device. The only way to do that is to engage them diplomatically.
I would say this (and I do not speak here for all of Conflicts Forum): Israel's future is not only not my business, they're probably better off because of that. Israel's future is not our business either, and my bet is that they also realize that. The problem that we face is not Zionism, for that largely political and revolutionary movement (one of the first transnational movements in history) has run its course. Zionism produced a growing and viable society. The problem now, most especially for Israelis, is the growth of militant Judaism in the United States -- a political movement peculiar (that is to say, common) -- amongst diaspora communities. Many of the most conservative pro-Israel American Jews believe they know what is better for Israel than Israelis do. This is a great danger for Israel that, I have been told, is being wrestled with at the highest levels of the Israeli government. In light of recent events, I assume the wrestling match is not going well. I find it ironic, indeed, that American conservatives who are Jews are now evincing disappointment that Israel did not do well in the recent war. I have only one question for them:
Who the hell do you think you are?
As you note: "Also, it seems to me what has been missing from this whole 'peace dialogue' on all sides is the attention of economists and anthropologists who can untangle the weave of societal needs required to bring an enduring peace to these peoples. There is too much talk about politics which are a bit like the icing on a cake. The first thing people may discuss, but rarely the last thing. Deeper cultural and economic dynamics (that support culture) are simply too often missing from the table in thinking about this area."
Our experience is that economic, cultural, religious and social exchanges can never be successful without a substantive and parallel political process whose goal is the resolution of political problems. On the eve of Ariel Sharon's march on the Temple Mount, I was in Bethlehem . There was no room at the Inn -- every hotel room in the city was occupied. (I fortunately ran across a friend who rented me a room in his family quarters.) GDP growth was pegged at 14.5 percent. The West Bank and Gaza were booming. The next morning, as a result of the Sharon initiative, the intifada began. I have noted since that the Palestinian people have been quite willing to sacrifice their economic well-being to continue their resistance to the Israeli occupation. They have done so for fifty years -- and they will not stop just to fill their bellies. They are not alone in that view. Peoples who feel unjustly oppressed (whether justly oppressed or not) will cede their most basic way of life for the dream of nationhood. That is as true today in Palestine as it was in 1962 in Vietnam, or 1948 in China.
I hope that this helps you to understand some of our views. You should not thank me for expressing them, as writing our views out in forums like this helps us to document and perfect our thinking. Those who are a part of Conflicts Forum -- about one dozen people -- are like-minded in their views. We are not motivated by money, nor ideology, and certainly not by religion. We have few ideals and hold few views in common. But those that are held in common are axiomatic: we believe the grounding of political action comes in empathy for the suffering of others, an understanding of their culture, an abandonment of simple formulas and the adoption of engagement as a fit substitute for conflict. We are universally convinced, I believe, that the common notion that violence follows from the failure of diplomacy has, in our time, been sadly and tragically reversed: diplomacy today is the likely result of the failure of violence. Our goal is to set aright that formula. More specifically, Mr. Bush has said that sending young men and women into battle to give their lives for their country is the most difficult thing a leader can do. That's a lie. The most difficult thing a leader can do is to sit across a table from a person who disagrees with him for the avowed purpose of finding a means to forego violence.
I wish you well and appreciate your time.