Friday, November 3, 2006

Questions That Must Be Asked

Caveat to the reader: The following article deals with a very important broad issue, the relation of progressive secularist political forces to political Islam. However, the question is examined in the highly specific and narrow context of the Israeli left. Unless the reader is highly interested in both the broad subject and its local, particular Israeli expression, he or she might find the discussion a bit dense.

Did the Israeli Communist Party Get into Bed with Hezbollah?

A recent stream of articles here in the country reflects serious differences of opinion on the left in shaping a strategy towards political Islam as represented by the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah. It is not necessary for the purpose of this first analysis to document every expression of the debate.
Activists such as members of the “Nitzotz” group and the independent journalist, Yosef Elgazi were incensed over the praise showered on Hezbollah by Il Itihad, the Arab language daily of the Communist Party during the recent war in Lebanon. The Nitzotz group even accused the CP of “getting into bed with the Hezbollah.” The main point of the criticism was to object strenuously to defining the Hezbollah role as one of opposition to imperialism. They considered it appropriate, therefore, to condemn the Hezbollah attack that ignited the hostilities and denounced the Hezbollah shelling of civilian targets in Israel. The position of the editors of Il Itihad was clear. It was Israel, with U.S. support that was waging an unjust war against Lebanon and the Lebanese people. Hezbollah’s role was basically defensive and not on par with the Israeli aggression.

I attempted to deal with the more theoretical aspects of the Hezbollah issue in my article entitled “The Emir of Afghanistan,”. The essence of my argument was the necessity to recognize that Islamic political forces struggling against U.S. imperialism do fulfill a progressive role. This is generally true despite the nature of their internal regime and their ideology.

A Case in Point – Blaming Hamas for Everything

On the basis of the review by Yosef Elgazi of Naim El-Ashab’s book on Hamas (Ha’gada Ha’smolit - Hebrew website – October 26, 2006), it is clear that the book contains much important material for understanding Hamas and its path. Even so, the book and the review – and I am certain that Elgazi interprets its content faithfully – raise some very important questions.

The contents and the reasoning of the book are presented, it seems, in a manner designed to prevent the possibility that the reader might support Hamas in the ongoing conflict with the main groupings in the Palestinian national liberation movement. But there is a problem with this methodology by which the secular leadership and/or the left are defined as “the good guys” and the Hamas are presented as the “bad guys.” Evidence mobilized to prove this simply misses the main point. The Hamas has very few supporters on the left and among secular nationalists. However, at the same time those on the left and many serious analysts are intensely interested in the reasons for the increasing strength of the Hamas, as opposed to the ongoing serious decline in the strength of the left and the Communists among the Palestinians. Of course, this phenomenon – the rise of political Islam and the dwindling strength of the left is not merely a local one. The strategic options of the left towards political Islam, especially when the latter is in opposition to a pro-imperialist government, are of general concern. This question appears in a particularly acute form in circumstances wherein the left has shown a tendency to line up with the more secular regime against the Islamic forces, as appears to be the case in Egypt.

It seems that it is appropriate to ask the very same difficult and complex question in the local arena. Why did the left lose its hold on the very social strata which were its strongest social base? Were the Communists, and/or the entire left co-opted, in fact, into the controlling bloc of the regime, led by Fatah? Or in other words, did the Communists or the entire Palestinian left, present an alternative to Fatah and its policies? Of course, for us, the positions of the left and its ideological background are closer to our own convictions, but we cannot escape the need for a serious discussion of the failures on the left and the success of Hamas.
Indeed, it is Israel which is mainly responsible for all the developments among the Palestinians under occupation. Israeli policies and machinations have a direct influence on the rising tensions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. But this is not the whole picture. We must, to the degree possible, closely follow the role and the “contributions” of each side to growing tensions and the inability to solve the crisis related to the establishment of a united Palestinian government. We do not have all the information required to determine the main culprit. But we can warn against superficial declarations and simplistic analysis. Here is an example of such a position:

“Today, the refusal of the Hamas government to recognize the validity of the U.N. decisions and the accords signed between the PLO and Israel cause the starvation of the Palestinian people, enable Israel to evade serious negotiations with the Palestinian side and impose unilateral actions. ” (see, Elgazi on Naim El-Ashab )
This distorted statement is a perfect alibi for Israel. This kind of convoluted reasoning is supposed to explain the lack of progress in the negotiations. Does any set of policies, for example those of the Hamas government, justify in any way the starvation of the entire civilian population? The additional claim that Hamas and the other manifestations of political Islam constitute a single reactionary, monolithic bloc is exceedingly unhelpful. Elgazi (El-Ashab) continues:
“Hamas, which wants to hang on to its rule at any price behaves like the Islamists…in Iran and Sudan and like the Taliban…changes in Hamas policy are designed to weaken the vigilance of its opponents…”

This argument to the effect that any form of moderation which is expressed by new social movements is only “tactics”, is designed to prevent new thinking and to maintain old, confrontational strategies.

I am afraid that it is not coincidental that these are exactly the basic “talking points” of Bush and his administration. This dogmatic assertion, which may be aptly termed the myth of a world wide monolithic Islam is the basis for the argument that Hamas = Taliban”. This kind of simplistic thinking ignores historical experience which anchors the various Islamic forces in concrete circumstances and stresses their specific social and political background. For example, the political horizons of Hamas are shaped by its links, and the links of its supporters, with the Palestinian national movement.

The contention that there cannot be serious changes in the policies of political Islam contradict the vital and correct arguments promoted by the peace movement, here in Israel and everywhere for that matter. The peace movement and other forces against war justly argue that wise and realistic policies can avoid deadly military confrontations and create beneficial options for cooperation and mutual respect. On the other hand, the propositions advanced by Elgazi-El-Ashb conform perfectly to the theories of a coming “clash of civilizations.” If this is indeed the situation, it is hard to see any role for the left. However, political Islam, fortunately, does not and cannot exist “outside of history.” It is not immune to positive influences, just as it is adversely affected by threats of intervention. These threats lead invariably to the enhanced strength of the most reactionary elements which tend to thrive in an atmosphere of tensions and aggression.

In Support of a Policy of Positive Neutrality

The scope and value of Amira Hass’ journalistic contributions to the exposure of the brutality of the occupation and the struggle of the Palestinian people are widely recognized. Her writing is based on a deep understanding of the broad picture and exceptional professional accuracy.

However, she tends to add on to her analysis a sort of mantra to the effect that ‘Oslo is to blame’; ‘Arafat is to blame’. Presently, the version is always the ‘corruption of the Palestinian Authority and Muhammad Abbas’. According to Hass, it is the Authority and Abbas who are to blame for the clashes with Hamas, which are ‘right out of Yassar Arafat’s book’. They also bear responsibility for the failure of the talks on a national unity government, since they are acting in the interest of the Israeli occupiers. (Amira Hass, Ha’aretz, October 4, 2006).
Thus, in direct contrast to those blaming Hamas for the continuation of the occupation, Amira Hass argues the exact opposite, i.e., that the clashes are the result of the Fatah initiative to maintain the occupation. “These armed messengers have a joint interest with Israel. To return and go back to the situation wherein a Palestinian leadership collaborates with Israel, under a pretense of negotiations, while Israel continues the occupation.” (above-quoted Ha’aretz article). My sense is that Amira Hass sides with Hamas in its dispute with Fatah, as a result of her antipathy to Fatah. But, in so doing, she ignores the fact that Hamas is not totally “innocent” of interests and its own self-centered motivations.

Dr. Maya Rosenfeld (Ha’aretz, October 24, 2006) rejects Amira Hass’ arbitrary assertion to the effect that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have actually become out and out collaborators. Rosenfeld argues that Hass ignores the fact that despite the retreats and the difficulties, the struggle of the Palestinians for their rights continues. Rosenfeld criticizes Hass because “the Palestinian effort to establish a unity government which would receive international legitimacy is not considered an act of opposition to Israeli rule, but readiness to accept an Israeli diktak.” (see above-quoted article by Rosenfeld).

I suggest that we refrain from supporting either side in the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Fatah. It is sufficient to emphasize that nothing can justify the resort to violence by either side. Moreover, there is indeed an objective need to reach an agreement to establish a unity government based on the two main forces. It is clear that in these circumstances that Fatah alone cannot represent the Palestinian public and it should not consider ignoring the central role of Hamas. But, it is certainly impermissible for Hamas to interpret its electoral victory as evidence that it has a mandate to reject difficult political concessions and the need for flexibility. In conclusion, unity it is much more than a mere slogan. Unity is in the interest of the Palestinian people – and also in the interest of those fighting for Israeli-Arab peace.

P.S.: Back to Lebanon

As I write, the United States and Israel are preparing new intervention to prevent gains by Hezbollah in the internal Lebanese political arena. Washington is trying to convince public opinion that the crisis of the Siniora government is essentially an international conspiracy between Syria, Iran and the Hezbollah. But it is clear that the Hezbollah is doing quite well right now via a purely domestic political process. The latest version of U.S. style democracy, it appears, is to threaten military intervention when and if a pro-U.S. government is in danger of losing its parliamentary majority.

These events illustrate the hypocrisy of the demand that Hezbollah prove itself at the ballot box. Hezbollah, basing its demands for greater representation on a crisis in the Siniora cabinet is demanding a cabinet shuffle or new elections. Hezbollah, we understand, is demanding elections and as we know, this is an old terrorist trick.