On the surface, it seems as if tomorrow's Egyptian elections will be a dreary formality. Although the official campaigning period for the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, has been going for two weeks, the streets of Cairo are noticeably silent. The only overt evidence of political gamesmanship is the paraphernalia of the ruling party’s candidates plastered in the city’s central squares. Campaigns here tend to be lackluster because they don't usually matter.
On October 19 of last year, the op-ed page of The New York Times contained a bombshell: a piece by Robert Bernstein, the founder and former chairman of Human Rights Watch (HRW), attacking his own organization. HRW, Bernstein wrote, was “helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” The allegation was certainly not new: HRW had been under assault for years by American Jews and other supporters of Israel, who argued that it was biased against the Jewish state. And these attacks had intensified in recent months, with a number of unflattering revelations about the organization.
There is broad consensus on the board of Human Rights Watch in support of its Middle East work in general and its Israel-Palestine work in particular, contrary to the suggestion of "a civil war" over Israel ("Minority Report," May 13, 2010). As the co-chair of HRW's advisory committee on the Middle East and North Africa and long-time (now emerita) member of the board, I have been a part of virtually all conversations about our work in the region in the last twenty years.
Almost before the celebrants at Barack Obama’s inauguration had gotten over their hangovers some 15 months ago, the president designated George Mitchell as his special envoy in the Middle East. I wrote then and several times since that he would be a flop, poor man. After all, it’s not the case that he had been a great success in any of his other high-minded missions, including the investigation into steroid use by baseball heroes.
The following is adapted from a talk delivered at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 2010. One of the greatest ironies of the past decade's debates over political Islam has been that, on the whole, the most passionate and emphatic rejections of radical Islamism in this country came from President Bush and his supporters—that is, conservatives. This is peculiar because the various forms of radical Islamism represent the third major form of totalitarian ideology and politics in modern world history.
The current crisis in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship should propel both leaders to reassess their basic policies toward Palestine. They must redefine their targets, to think realistically but also creatively. Ending the conflict between Israel and Palestine is not an attainable goal. What is attainable is a clear and dramatic decrease in tension in the conflict—a goal that would, indeed, serve the necessities of American foreign policy on Iran, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
They are not unconnected. They are not unconnected at all. Now, presumably the president didn't want to provoke the rage of the Palestinians. (Although, then again, he might just have anticipated it.) But Palestinian rage is very easy to provoke. Snap your fingers and, there, you have it. You don't even have to rent a mob. It comes free will, so to speak. The fact is that Obama did more than snap his fingers. He sent out very top members of his administration to beat up on Israel and they did.
One of the odd things about people with very left-wing views on the Middle East is that they're obsessed with the political influence of American Jews yet almost completely unfamiliar with the actual beliefs of the subject of their obsession.
Yes, many—likely most—Israelis want this or that part of the city to go ultimately to the Palestinian Authority, a larger portion more forthcoming than less… But none want any of it to go to Hamas. Who will be the legatee, however, is not something that Israel has the ability to decide. Some Israelis want the whole of Jerusalem to remain under their sovereignty. That is neither feasible nor desirable. The opportunities are very small, indeed. The Arabs are enraged, although they are easily enraged and have been enraged for decades. Since the mid-1800s, Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority.