Black-Palestinian Solidarity: Acknowledging the Past, Understanding the Present, and Imagining a Productive Future
By Salma Khamis

Columbia University students in favor of prison divestment, April 2015. Source:

This post is part three of a three-part series. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.

It is worth noting that Black-Palestinian solidarity and the gradual establishment of transnational ties between the two separate movements are not recent phenomena, the product of social media hashtags, and online campaigns. Rather, Anna Isaacs traces the development of this sentiment of transnational solidarity to as early as 1967. Historically enjoying a robust base of progressive Jewish support, activists behind the American Civil Rights Movement tended to recognize the validity of the Israeli state and thus sanction its right to protect itself against so-called Arab aggressors. With the atrocities brought about by the 1967 War, however, this image of Israel as a struggling state fighting for its right to survive began to waver and civil rights activists began recognizing parallels between the injustices committed against Palestinians and those that they face here in the United States.

Within the present context, drawing parallels between the two movements has certainly moved far more into mainstream discourse than it ever was before. Aided by increased access to information from both regions about one another, and thus increased avenues for communication between them, the establishment of transnational solidarity has definitely benefited as a result. As early as 2009, Jimmy Johnson was warning of Israel’s global exportation of law enforcement strategies. In a comparable 2011 study, Max Blumenthal called attention to the disturbing pattern of cooperation between Israeli and American police forces. Dating back to post-9/11 era of counterterrorism in the U.S., this legacy of Israeli-American cooperation in law enforcement is presented by Blumenthal as one of the root causes behind the brutal violence endured by protestors involved with the Occupy movement, from Oakland to New York City.

More recently, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was murdered by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, images of brutal police suppression of the resultant protests prompted observers to point to similarities to the Israeli state’s treatment of (and habitual violence against) Palestinians in Gaza. Further strengthening the validity of these transnational parallels, barely a week after the events in Ferguson, evidence emerged revealing that both the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department received training from Israeli security forces. Soon thereafter, both the Black Lives Matter movement and a number of Palestinian activists issued official statements of solidarity for one another’s demands for justice.

In response to these emergent narratives of Black-Palestinian solidarity, Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu has presented a series of intersections between Ferguson and Gaza, both in terms of their respective historical and contemporary features. From similar tactics of historical land dispossession, to the present-day perpetuation of (decidedly unquestioned) state violence; Palumbo-Liu demonstrates a stark congruence between the experiences of Black communities in the United States and those of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Wary of asserting absolute equivalence between the two systems of oppression, however, Palumbo-Liu closes with a sobering piece of advice for those working to reinforce transnational links of solidarity: “Certainly the two situations are different, and demand different strategies and tactics in response. And yet one should not discount the moral and indeed inspirational value of gestures that reach across those differences to claim solidarity.”

It is precisely this sentiment with which I approach the question of Black-Palestinian solidarity among student activists. As demonstrated above, both movements have traditionally enjoyed a vibrant and often productive legacy on college campuses across the United States. This legacy encompasses a variety of important achievements: successfully enacting tangible reform in university policies, making their demands for justice unavoidably visible among their communities, and resisting the hegemony of oppressive narratives about their respective experiences simply by virtue of maintaining a sustained presence on college campuses, despite mounting opposition.

With that said, as college activists’ aspirations for justice continue to thrive beyond the limits of their individual campus communities, they are often met with the increasingly difficult task of bringing about justice on a larger, more impactful, scale. Whether it is students organizing for the divestment from oppressive systems of mass incarceration in the United States that disproportionately target racial minorities, or their peers making similar calls for the divestment from corporations whose activities directly facilitate and profit off of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the ruthless violation of Palestinian human rights; both groups are united under two core motivations.

Primarily, these students are not prepared to sit idly by as numerous industries thrive off of the oppression of the communities they respectively represent. Secondly, and more importantly, they recognize the efficacy of reallocating university endowments as a strategy for dismantling the oppressive systems of state violence of which these industries are a part. Consequently, one can only imagine how productive an alliance between these two groups could be in their unanimous call for ethical university endowments that do not facilitate the perpetuation of global state violence in its various manifestations, but instead contribute to the realization of justice for oppressed communities the world over. By grounding themselves in a narrative that acknowledges the countless parallels between systems of racial injustice in the United States and Israel’s colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories, student activists associated with either movement will be better positioned to achieve each of their respective objectives. Working within a holistic framework of transnational justice that acknowledges the fundamental similarity between all oppressive systems, whilst still accounting for the contextual nuances defining each of their different manifestations all over the world; a movement of Black-Palestinian student solidarity could pave the way for a whole new era of transnational college activism that is as revolutionary as it is entirely realistic.

On-Campus Activism for Palestinian Liberation and Building on Transnational Ties
By Salma Khamis

Loyola SJP chapter leading an on-campus solidarity protest. Source: SJP Loyola (Facebook)

This post is part two of a three-part series. To read part one, click here. To read part three, click here.

Having endured a longer legacy on college campuses than the Black Lives Matter movement, students organizing for Palestinian liberation have had quite a turbulent history of activism in the American context. Most commonly housed under different chapters of the national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization, students organizing for Palestinian liberation tend to be primarily concerned with the recognition of Israel as a colonial force that perpetually violates Palestinian human rights and breaks international law in its occupation of the Palestinian territories and denial of Palestinians’ right of return. Furthermore, activists point to Zionism’s racist implications on the Palestinian population and how it contributes towards the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories; the disproportionate access to resources and social services afforded to Jewish Israelis over Palestinians; as well as the institutionalized use of excessive force against Palestinians by Israeli police and military apparatus.

Given the funding, institutional support, and strength of pro-Israel groups and organizations all over the country, however, activism for the Palestinian cause is often met with virulent opposition, the likes of which is rarely if ever launched against any other student political campaign of a comparable nature. Nevertheless, students have been able to achieve limited gains with respect to raising social awareness of the Israeli occupation on college campuses. Moreover, despite the extent of the opposition met by pro-Palestine student organizers, the most important of their functions has been their sustained facilitation of spaces for dialogue and activism on Palestinian human rights, politics, and culture on university campuses. Speaker events and annual campaigns such as Israeli Apartheid Week, for example, challenge the predominant narrative in American political discourse regarding the Palestinian population and their right to self-determination. However, as with the Black Lives Matter movement, students’ activism often has little bearing on the impactful reform of institutional and national policies vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation and the merciless violation of Palestinian human rights.

In response to this ‘impact gap,’ recent activism for Palestinian liberation tends to coalesce around the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement. As a means of non-violent protest to the ongoing occupation, BDS seeks to impart pressure on the Israeli state by boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning corporations and institutions that facilitate, legitimize, or profit from the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and violation of Palestinian human rights. In turn, this has prompted students to petition their respective university administrations to divest from these corporations that, either through their direct activity or that of their subsidiaries, contribute to or profit from the Israeli occupation.

Increasingly, a similar tactic is gaining ground among activists working for racial justice on university campuses. These activists are attempting to bridge their aforementioned ‘impact gap’ by calling for their institutions to divest from corporations that benefit off of the widely-documented Prison Industrial Complex. Drawing on evidence that categorically proves the racial prejudices underpinning the United States’ ever-increasing prison industry, activists decry the unjust policing of racial minorities, and the vast amounts of profit associated with, and thus incentivizing the continuation of, this system of mass incarceration. By organizing to pressure university administrations into reorienting their investment policies away from private companies that accrue substantial profit from either managing, supplying, or securing prisons; activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups concerned with racial justice have begun pursuing similar tactics of non-violent protest to those once led by SJP groups.

Herein lies the central issue: how can on-campus activists make the most out of this convergence of protest tactics among students working for Palestinian liberation and American racial justice? What thematic parallels can be highlighted in the narrative surrounding both movements that would contribute towards the widening of each of their respective bases? Can we work backwards from these two movements’ shared employment of institutional divestment as a protest tactic to trace further commonalities between their initial causes for protest?

Black Lives Matter and On-Campus Activism for Racial Justice
By Salma Khamis

Angela Davis, as featured in the “When I See Them I See Us” video produced by the Black-Palestinian Solidarity campaign. Source:

This post is part one of a three-part series. To read part two, click here. To read part three, click here.

The US-Middle East Youth Network was designed to provide students across both the United States and the Middle East with the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue on issues pertinent, not only to their respective regions, but also to the interaction that occurs between them. In doing so, USMEYN seeks to recognize the powerful potential that arises out of the intersection of three key factors: politically and socially conscious students from the Middle East and North Africa, their American counterparts, and the space and skills provided by university campuses across both regions to both sharpen and express this consciousness. I pride myself in being affiliated with a platform that creates a space for the intersection of all three of these factors and that yields impactful, transnational dialogue in return.

As important as the facilitation of this dialogue has been, however, it has prompted me to reflect on what the intersection of these three factors would look like on the ground. If there really is much to be gained from university students’ cooperation across both regions, why have we yet to see this take shape in a tangible way? What would this cooperation even look like? What possible results can we expect to see from its fruition? Is there really much to “cooperate” on in the first place? By narrowing my focus onto two specific student movements, I argue that there is much to be gained from the cooperation of both U.S. and Middle East oriented student activists. Not only is my contention supported by the historical precedence of transnational activism between the two regions, but also by the commonality between their respective goals and tactics for bringing about sociopolitical reform.

Black Lives Matter and On-Campus Activism for Racial Justice:

One of the main issues defining the nature of contemporary student activism on university campuses has been the Black Lives Matter movement. Founded in 2012 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement was assembled to combat the dehumanization of Black lives throughout American society. Be that through the deliberate mass incarceration of Black bodies, the racial discrimination rampant throughout American political and social discourse, or the discriminatory provision of social services across racially segregated communities in the U.S.; the Black Lives Matter movement assembled to call attention to the persisting legacy of slavery, how it continues to affect Black individuals and communities throughout the United States, and the myth that is a post-racial American society.

On-campus activism has been central to the movement. Just as colleges formed the bulwark of progressive activism in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the South African Apartheid Movement, so too have they returned with a vengeance as outlets of sociopolitical activism. Particularly following the incidents at the University of Missouri in October of 2015, student groups across the United States have been mobilizing in an effort to protest an array of racially discriminatory practices on their respective campuses. Especially given the fate of former University of Missouri President Tom Wolfe, students have been emboldened by the possibility of enacting tangible reform at their own institutions. Open, unapologetic dialogue about issues of racial justice has surfaced and, yes, despite the occasional superficiality of university administrations’ responses to this new environment of dialogue and action, the value of even breaching these issues in lecture halls and on-campus events, protests, and publications cannot be overstated.

With that said, however, not all student groups working for racial justice on campus are limiting their purview to the systematic racism prevalent throughout their own universities. Student activists are also mobilizing to address the system of endemic racial oppression as it functions on the national stage, taking up issues like prison reform and police brutality and thus situating themselves, and their activism, within the larger national debate on racial justice in America. As impactful and symbolic as the inclusion of college students is in this national conversation, however, it goes without saying that little can be done to address issues of racial justice that play out in the larger and more complex national context through on-campus protests alone. The question thus emerges: what can politically and socially conscious university students do to bridge the ‘impact gap’ that exists between university campuses and national policy reform? That is, how can the impact of these students’ activism be directed towards the dismantlement of nationwide systems of racial oppression and injustice?

By Kate West

More often than not, disability rights and issues of accessibility for persons with disabilities (PWDs) are excluded from conversations on peacebuilding and peacekeeping in the Middle East. Perhaps this is because it is a less conventional “frame” through which to view the concept of peacebuilding; nevertheless, these are critical issues to consider if we are to facilitate lasting, sustainable models of peace and development. Efforts to mainstream issues pertaining to people with disability are relatively recent (World Institute on Disability 2014).

Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens comprise 20.7% of the total population of the country; of this number, nearly a quarter (25%) lives with a moderate to severe disability (Jerusalem Post 2013). That’s 425,000 individuals who often lack the knowledge, resources, and legal recourse to advocate for themselves.

Although PWDs in every country face challenges, disability in the Arab world is particularly problematic. This is because for the most part, these societies have not yet moved beyond the medical definition of disability to embrace a social one. Whereas the medical definition perceives disability as a problem to be fixed, the social model understands disability as a neutral condition. In this model, disabled individuals are designated by their physical and or mental difference, but this difference is neither a positive nor negative; it is simply distinct. While the medical model designates “normalization” of the disabled as a remedy, the social model advocates changes in the interaction between the individual and society.

Despite nominal improvements in Middle Eastern governments’ policies toward disabled individuals, social and institutional barriers still largely deny them fair and compassionate treatment. This is where grassroots civil society organizations (CSOs) have come to play a critical role for the Arab society in Israel. Exclusion for one is exclusion for all, and perhaps it is persons with disabilities living in Israel’s Arab communities that understand this best. This is why Arab CSOs lobby at the local and national levels to ensure that Israel, a signatory on the UN’s Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is enforcing the Convention to the fullest extent in employment, education, and the social sphere.

While it is not a common approach, framing disability rights as human rights, particularly in the context of Israel/Palestine, has succeeded in building a broad coalition of stakeholders, invested in civil society sustainability, peacebuilding, and cross-cultural community collaboration.

According to the Center for Disability Studies (2010), approximately 16% of all disabilities are war and conflict related. In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, such disabilities can be made more difficult by increasingly complicated and rapidly changing political circumstances. In the West Bank, road closures, the subsequent restriction of movement of people and goods, tensions with Jewish settlements, and the continued presence of the separation wall along the Israeli/Palestinian are all cited by CSO Diakonia as contributors to a decline in the quality of daily life for residents (2013). When used as leverage for facilitating dialogue between actors on both sides of the Green Line, however, disability advocacy can be used to increase peacebuilding efficacy and authenticity.

The benefit of using disability advocacy in such a way is that disability itself is universal; regardless of how narrowly or widely an individual chooses to define the term, disability touches every community and country in the world. When disability rights are promoted and respected, these conversations can facilitate space for broader dialogue about human rights in general. Social inclusion and accessibility are issues that all sides—Israeli, Palestinian, and international bodies mediating the Conflict—can get behind.

If peacebuilding is defined as a process that facilitates the establishment of durable peace and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing root causes and effects of conflict through reconciliation, institution building, and political as well as economic transformation (Alliance for Peacebuilding 2013), then disability advocacy is a more effective, inclusive model for peacebuilding.

A principal reason for the continued conflict in Israel/Palestine is social inequity. Usually, however, social inequity is defined in strict terms: Jewish and Arab. Organizations and governments, by overlooking disability rights as a building block for peace negotiations, are missing out on a golden opportunity to facilitate dialogue and increase cooperation. Social equity must mean equity for all—Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, persons with disabilities and those without. In the currency of peacebuilding, disability advocacy has buying power.

Historically, disability is an issue that has been relegated to the margins, not just in the Middle East, but globally. However, it is this very marginalization in peacebuilding spheres that creates an opportunity for robust human rights work to be undertaken with minimal threat of the issue becoming politically charged. It is this marginalization that can pave the way to a durable peace by introducing social inclusion and addressing social exclusion.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will by no means be solved through disability advocacy alone, it can nevertheless serve as an important and innovative tool to promote cross-border communication and collaboration, and to facilitate meaningful relationships with a broad spectrum of government and non-government actors in pursuit of equity and access for all.

By Annabelle Timsit

Militants in Gaza. Source: proisrael/Flickr

The sound of sirens and the rush to bomb shelters will once again disrupt the peace of Israelis and Palestinians alike this summer in the Negev and in Gaza. This time, however, the blame is less easily placed. Though Israeli citizens have been told to direct their judgment towards Hamas, the past year has seen a diversification of actors and agendas within the Palestinian territories, which makes understanding the renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence even more complicated. The root of the problem? The rise in power of Daesh-affiliated Salafis in Gaza.

When I was in Israel two weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with a former IDF soldier, who told me in hushed tones that the situation in Gaza was one that Israel had never faced before, and was ill-equipped to face now. The situation he is referring to is not only happening in the Palestinian territories. In the Arab world there has been a steady increase in the number of violent extremist groups claiming an affiliation with Daesh and perpetrating attacks in its name. In Gaza, it is clear that these groups believe they are acting in accordance with Daesh’s mission. The most prominent one in the Palestinian territories, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, issued a statement as early as February 2014, asserting that it was “committed to helping ISIS and bolstering its ranks.” The relationship between these groups and Hamas, however, seems to be full of surprises.

Contrary to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim, Hamas is not ISIS and ISIS is not Hamas. As evidenced by the recent round of Hamas-led strikes against Salafis operating in Gaza, the two groups are far from bosom bows. Though Hamas began by giving its tacit approval to the spread of Salafi propaganda in the Gaza Strip, relations have been getting worse since the infamous Ibn Taymiyyah mosque siege of 2009, during which an armed Islamist organization declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the Palestinian territories. Twenty-four people were killed and, since then, many Salafis have been locked up in Palestinian cells. The spread of Daesh in Gaza, however, is a whole other ball game, one that Hamas militants are not willing to risk playing around with. Whereas Hamas’s interests lie in the immediate vicinity of the Strip (reclaiming Palestine and eradicating the Jewish state from the maps), Daesh’s worldview is regional. It seeks to unite the borders of most of the territories we know today as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. Clearly, the two groups are in very different leagues.

There is no reason to believe that Daesh has established an official branch in the Gaza Strip, and certainly no reason to believe that they will in the near future. However, with tensions at a breaking point, much of the infrastructure destroyed since last summer, and unemployment high amongst Palestinian youth, there is cause for concern that recruitment amongst these Salafi factions – which have financial and political connections in the Sinai Peninsula, adjacent to Gaza – will be met with an unreasonably high rate of success, further complicating the chance for stability in the region and delaying the rebuilding of the Strip.

Out of the ashes, a phoenix rises – and in the fight against this more violent and intransigent force, the Israeli government and Hamas seem to have struck an uneasy truce. According to Haaretz sources, the two have reached a point where Israeli attacks against Hamas forces are forms of “symbolic retaliation” and where the government actually seeks to strengthen Hamas control in the Strip (as long as it maintains the ceasefire) while trying to operate new channels of mediation with Hamas negotiators. There is no reason to believe that this will mean a long-term truce between the two parties, but opening channels of communication (even to fight a common enemy) can only lead to better chances of mediation in any future peace deal.

The old adage says, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” When one looks at the current situation in the Gaza Strip, however, the opposite seems to hold true; to defeat an enemy far more dangerous than Hamas, the Israeli government seems to be ready to form an “odd partnership” with its long term foe. It remains to be seen whether this tenuous partnership will be enough to fight the all-powerful tidal wave that is the Islamic State.

By Kate Moran

A woman in Madrid, Spain protests the Syrian Civil War and Western military intervention in the country. Source: Adolfo Lujan/DISO Press.

Any pundit worth their salt is familiar with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. Signed between the British and French governments in the aftermath of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, this secret treaty aimed to demarcate their respective spheres of neo-colonial influence in the Middle East. It was this agreement that led to the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine and, in the views of many, was a critical component of Israel’s ultimate declaration of state in 1948.

Historians, politicians, and laypeople alike all invoke the language of Sykes-Picot to either voice their justification for, or opposition to, the legality of Britain’s decision to allow for the existence of a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine. Yet, few consider the implications of this agreement for the rest of the region. Indeed, Sykes-Picot remains relevant today and, in light of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, can provide an historical context for understanding how broader political and economic trends in the post-War period have shaped current social realities.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Britain and France rejected Arab leaders’ bid for Syrian independence. Not soon after, the Sykes-Picot Agreement officially partitioned the Middle East into roughly what we know it as today. Territories ceded to French control included Syria, which would remain under European mandate until 1944.

Though the vestiges of colonialism are by no means the only forces at play in the Syrian Civil War, the legacy of meddlesome European—and later, American—intervention cannot be ignored. Sectarian violence is a feature of the conflict often talked about, but rarely with acknowledgement of the ways in which Syria’s colonial past influences this dynamic.

Part of the reason the Middle East seems so endlessly mired in conflict is because its history is likewise enmeshed in it. The geographical boundaries of the region are almost entirely arbitrary; the interested parties of the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Middle East with little to no regard for indigenous social structures like ethnic and tribal affiliations. How can a country and its people—much less an entire region—be expected to identify with, and adhere to, boundaries that they themselves did not determine? Perhaps if the Arab world had been given even minimal say in what their newly-formed, independent republics and states would look like, we would see far less sectarian division today.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has once again pushed Syria’s colonial past to the fore. Now more than ever, sectarian violence increasingly characterizes a country with one of the region’s richest and most extensive histories of religious and cultural heterogeneity. The Islamic State’s Sunni fighters, in capturing cities, occupying territories, and cleansing these areas of “unorthodox” (read: non-Islamic State sanctioned) elements; seem to be attempting to rewrite the history (and map) of the modern Arab world. Their defiant and brutal acts of violence are undertaken with complete disregard for the arbitrary boundaries first established in the 20th century.

Yet, the Islamic State is equally colonialist in its division of, and dominion over, the Middle East. It too is an imported government structure, and therefore is just as unsustainable as the French and British mandates were in the post-war years of the 20th century. It too displays blatant disregard for historically and culturally significant social constructs. It too is seeking to “whitewash” the Arab world, only under the guise of religion, rather than capitalism or imperial ambition.

Make no mistake: the Islamic State’s legacy is one that will leave its mark, just not the one that it intends. Its brutal campaign to “retake” the Arab world in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam will fail. In 20, 30, or perhaps 50 years, the Middle East of today will no longer exist. The region’s colonial legacies—those of Europe, the United States, and even the Arab world itself—will eventually run their course. And when all is said and done, the best form of governance for the Arab world—one cultivated in consideration for, not in exception of, social divisions—will emerge. This form will be the most lasting legacy of the Middle East. Although, at first glance, maintaining these divisions may appear counterproductive to achieving regional stability, in fact, they are the only way that such stability can be achieved.

Rather than conceptualizing ethnic and cultural diversity in the Middle East as a prerequisite for government dysfunction, it would behoove the West, and those who care at all about the Middle East beyond its geopolitical strategic value, to understand this diversity as an impetus for inspiring effective governance. Most importantly, these divisions will inspire social unity when extricated from a colonial framework of suppression and homogenization.

The Syrian conflict is a complicated muddle of individual, national, and international interests. The Islamic State will not be defeated overnight, and solely blaming the European occupation and colonization of the Arab world for its current woes is both shortsighted and unproductive. Rather, understanding this history might help those in positions of influence to make better-informed decisions about how and when to intervene in the region, and how the current sociopolitical realities have been shaped. In this way, we might begin to understand how we might best help—even if it means staying out of it.

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By Salma Khamis
"I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.” – Prime Minister Netanyahu. Source: Caleb Smith/Flickr

The Internet was positively ablaze all two weeks ago following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United States Congress. Analysts from across the political spectrum produced extensive literature on the potential geopolitical implications of Bibi’s controversial speech. What does it mean for the Israeli elections? What does it mean for Obama? What does it mean for the Republicans? What does it mean for Iran? Hell, what does it mean for everyone else in between?

To clarify, this article will not attempt to posit more speculative theories on whether or not the speech will have any consequences on its vested stakeholders, nor will it analyze the potential magnitude of said consequences. Instead, I argue that our knowledge of Geneva negotiations is in and of itself sufficient to determine the long-term effects of Bibi’s speech: minimal.

First of all, as highlighted by a fellow USMEYN colleague, the presumed surprise and shock-factor value of the speech was grossly exaggerated by attendees and observers alike. By committing to address the United States’ Congress, despite Obama’s lack of approval (and attendance), Netanyahu had already signaled the orientation of his remarks. Observing American politicians’ and news outlets’ outcry makes me wonder what they had expected from Bibi? A congratulatory spiel on the strides in global diplomacy made by the United States and Iran as they move ever closer to a deal on nuclear proliferation? Or, better, a renouncement of the extent to which he has thus far portrayed the threat of “militant Islam” on Israeli and global security? Lo and behold, the Israeli Prime Minister did not choose the U.S. House of Representatives as the site from which to declare the conversion of his entire ideological and electoral platform, merely a few weeks before his voters back home head to the ballot!

Setting those fanciful expectations aside, allow me to indulge in a healthy dose of realpolitik. Israel’s stance on an American-Iranian nuclear deal has not exactly been the world’s best-kept secret. Since the 2002 discovery of Iranian nuclear facilities, Israel has been a fervent advocate for total Iranian disarmament. Granted, the provocative nature of Iran’s conservative wing didn’t render Israel’s fears of a nuclear-armed Iran entirely unsubstantiated. However, they must be viewed through the trajectory of an ever-changing geopolitical landscape and, as such, its relevant priorities.

On the one hand, the global allegiances governing the Syrian conflict have been very clearly defined, pitting some of Israel’s neighbors against its officially declared stance on Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On the other hand, the advent of European recognition of the Palestinian state, coupled with the increasing number of anti-Israeli human rights allegations, displays an unprecedented implicit strengthening of the mainstream Palestinian cause. Combine all of that with the developments unfolding in Iraq with the Islamic State, as well as the previously unobserved definitive positioning of several Gulf monarchies, and Israel’s amplification of its age-old victim rhetoric comes as no surprise.

Similarly unsurprising is the fact that a large portion of said Israeli victim rhetoric finds its roots within a highly religious trajectory amplifying historical Jewish persecution. It is within this trajectory that we can place the undeniably influential Jewish American lobby and its role in determining American foreign policy as it pertains to the Middle East. However, having pitted himself against the U.S. President, Netanyahu forced Jewish members of Congress to choose between two opposing allegiances: the Jewish lobby and the Democratic Party (only one Jewish congressman is a Republican). As a result, six out of the thirty Jewish members of Congress announced their boycott of the speech, somewhat detracting from the religious ground upon which the aforementioned victim rhetoric once stood.

The tactical nature of Democratic/Republican attendance insinuates that Bibi’s address was a political issue. As such, it should be considered as one feature within the grander scheme of a series of complex geopolitical circumstances, as opposed to yet another event within the trajectory of traditional allegiances governing the Arab-Israeli conflict to this day.

That said, how does this victim rhetoric (so clearly demonstrated in the speech) have the potential to affect ongoing Geneva negotiations? First of all, both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif signaled clearly to a curious international media that they were both indeed still “working away, productively.” These statements, issued directly following the Bibi speech, affirm both Kerry and Zarif’s adamant assertions of continued negotiation despite Israeli criticism. This proves at least an outward dismissal of any attempts to derail progress towards a final US-Iran nuclear deal.

In addition, the language that emerged out of the Oval Office afterwards complimented these sentiments. President Obama reportedly said that Netanyahu “didn’t offer any viable alternatives” to hinder Iranian nuclear armament. Regardless of whether or not Netanyahu is even invested in offering alternate solutions to the threat he perceives a nuclear-armed Iran to pose, having offered none means little will change in the discussions unfolding in Geneva.

It is interesting to note, however, the way in which the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech was received in Iran. While much of Iran’s media seemed to offer similar coverage to its American counterpart on the left (focusing on the White House’s disapproval and the boycott and/or disappointment of key members of Congress), an intriguing alternate conspiracy-laden storyline infiltrated the country’s conservative establishment. This storyline reads as such: the U.S. and Israel are engaging in a conspiracy whereby, by presenting Israeli rejection of the Geneva negotiations, they are forcing Iran to follow through with a deal (that is perceived to be essentially harmful to the Iranians) out of Iran’s conventional commitment to anti-Israeli foreign policy. Granted, this is not the official position of neither the Iranian government nor the Supreme Leader, but stands to represent grievances regarding the Geneva talks on the Iranian right, similar to those voiced by the Republican Party in the United States.

Thus a new question emerges: can the conservative factions on either side of the negotiating table harness enough leverage to truly influence the talking points governing their respective representatives in Geneva? Has Bibi contributed to an observable increase of this leverage? As of today, little can be said of decreasing either American or Iranian incentive to continue working towards a deal. Perhaps Netanyahu did provide both the Republicans and the hardline Iranian conservatives the rhetorical ammunition with which to synthesize their disapproval of the actions undertaken by their respective foreign ministers. However, I struggle to see the prospect of this ammunition having any lasting effect on the tangible foreign policy concerns on either side.

That isn’t to say that the aesthetic of a spirited Netanyahu practically dictating an alternate American foreign policy to a standing ovation of democratically elected US representatives won’t do him well in today’s elections. Arguably, that doesn’t stray too far from the purpose of the speech in the first place.

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By Joshua Shinbrot

Benjamin Netanyahu (Left) and Isaac Herzog (Right) Source: Facebook

A Close Race

On March 17, the Israeli people will choose their new government in an election with an outcome that is not yet predictable. After averaging polling data from 12 different sources, the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slightly trails the Zionist Union Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. Yet, which party will overtake the other is currently unclear.

Likud? Zionist Union?  What’s the difference?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: Facebook
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: Facebook

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) leads Israel’s Likud party. Along the political spectrum, Likud sits to the right of center. Throughout this campaign season, Netanyahu has sought to position himself as a man capable of securing Israel from threats as varied as Iran, Palestinian Terrorism, ISIL, and the international delegitimation effort. In one comical campaign ad, Netanyahu arrives at a family’s home in place of a babysitter and refers to himself as the “Bibisitter.” He proceeds to tell Israelis that this election is a choice about who will look after their children.

Regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Netanyahu government does not currently see the Palestinian Authority as a capable partner. Moreover, Netanyahu believes that the current security situation significantly limits his ability to engage in unilateral withdrawals similar to those executed by Ariel Sharon. The disastrous result of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and its subsequent fall into the control of Hamas terrorists provides support for Netanyahu’s view. Certain members of Netanyahu’s coalition have supported settlement activity in recent years and they are likely to continue to back settlement activity if they remain in power.

The Netanyahu family is well known throughout Israel. During his military service, Benjamin Netanyahu served in an elite commando unit. His older brother, Yonatan was killed in action during Operation Entebbe, a famous rescue of Israeli hostages. This perception certainly does not harm the Netanyahu team’s desire to portray Bibi as a man truly capable of maintaining Israel’s security.

Tzipi Livni – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook
Tzipi Livni – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook
Isaac Herzog – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook
Isaac Herzog – Zionist Union Party Leader. Source: Facebook










The Zionist Union is a joint ticket comprised of Israel’s Labor party (currently led by Herzog) and Tzipi Livni’s Hatenua party. Along the political spectrum, the Zionist Union sits to the left of center.

If elected, Herzog and Livni intend to rotate the post of Prime Minister, with Herzog serving the first two years and Livni serving the last two. One of the party’s more ambitious goals is to set the final borders of Israel. They hope to achieve this through a diplomatic solution reached in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, but they are willing to pursue other avenues if negotiations with the Palestinians do not bear fruit. According to the party platform:

“The arrangement shall be designed with the support of moderate Arab states and the international         community, and based on the following principles: demilitarization of the Palestinian state; keeping the West Bank settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty; strengthening Jerusalem and its status as the eternal capital of Israel; and guaranteeing religious freedom and access to the holy places of all religions while maintaining Israeli sovereignty.”

Who will win?

While most polls show the Herzog and Livni’s center-left Zionist Union party narrowly beating Netanyahu’s center-right Likud, there is no guarantee that Herzog will assume the post of Prime Minister. In fact, even if Likud does not win the election, there is still a chance that Netanyahu and his party may remain at the helm of power. In Israel, the ability to form a government is often more important than the ability to win elections. Forming a government requires building a coalition of parties that consists of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. As the world saw in 2009, Tzipi Livni’s party won the greatest number of seats in Knesset.  Yet, Livni was unable to form a majority coalition. Netanyahu’s Likud technically lost the 2009 election: that year, Likud won the second greatest number of seats. However, unlike Livni, Netanyahu was able to form a majority coalition, enabling him to take power. Due to the number of small religious and right wing parties in Israel, many doubt Herzog and Livni’s ability to form a government even if they do win the election. Despite this challenge, new dynamics that are unique to this election have the potential to work in favor of the Zionist Union.

Israel’s Arabs Join Together

Traditionally, several Arab parties attain a small number of seats in Knesset each Israeli election cycle. This year, for the first time in Israel’s history, the various Arab parties have joined together with Hadash, Israel’s communist party, and will run on one ticket. Approximately twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arab Muslims, Christians, Bedouins, and Druze. In the past, voter turnout has been lower among Israeli Arabs than among Jewish Israelis. The unity of Arab political parties with Hadash could have transformative implications in the Israeli political process that may inspire greater Israeli Arab participation in elections. My average of twelve polls predicts that the Joint List between the Arab parties and Hadash will win approximately 12 seats in Knesset.  That is likely the same number of seats that will be won by centrist party Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s modern orthodox, nationalist party, The Jewish Home. Currently, The Jewish Home is in coalition with Likud and it is unlikely that the party would form a government with the Zionist Union. The Joint List is expected to win more seats in Knesset than the powerful, ultra-orthodox Shas party, which has been a part of every governing coalition since the party’s creation except for three (including the present government).


The Joint List. Source: Wikipedia
The Joint List. Source: Wikipedia

While the Arab parties have joined together to run on one ticket, questions still remain about the extent to which these groups have put aside their differences. One of the Joint List members is Hadash, Israel’s communist party. Hadash has a different social agenda from the United Arab List, a party that has strong support among Arab nationalist and Bedouin citizens of Israel. Ta’al, a party that normally runs jointly with United Arab List, is Islamist. It will likely find it difficult to advocate its strong religious views in a coalition that involves a communist party, given the communist tendency to suppress all religion. As a result of these internal differences, it is possible that these parties may be running together not out of ideological unity, but merely as a result of the practical consideration that Israel’s increased electoral threshold would likely lead to significant vote wastage if the parties were to run independently.

Moreover, the power of an Arab party with twelve seats would be largely linked to its ability to join a governing coalition. By helping to form a governing coalition, the Joint List would be able to negotiate key posts in the government for several of its ministers. However, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on March 3, Joint List spokesman Raja Zaatry said, “there was no chance it would join even a left-wing government at this time.”

Arab Party Will Not Join Government

Refusal to join any Israeli government has consequences that are twofold. First, it will limit the influence of the Joint List, as none of the party’s ministers will be appointed to the cabinet. Second, if Joint List chooses not to join a government, it will be practically impossible for the Zionist Union to form a form a majority coalition even if it wins more seats than Likud. Given its support of a settlement freeze and recent criticism of Israeli construction in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that the Zionist Union would form a coalition with Israel’s smaller, right wing parties. Consequently, without Joint List support, it may not be possible for the Zionist Union to capture the minimum 61 seats needed in Knesset to form a government.

Who will decide the election?

Another new party running in this election is Kulanu and it is projected to win approximately 9 seats. The party’s leader, Moshe Kahlon, used to be a member of Likud, but has formed a new party and is committed to reducing housing costs. Recently, Kahlon, working with Netanyahu, lowered cell phone costs in Israel. He has not yet determined which party he will align with and it appears that Kahlon’s party will determine whether it is the Zionist Union or Likud that can form a government. However, if the Arab Joint List truly decides not to join any government then it will be numerically impossible for the Zionist Union to form a majority coalition.

Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot
Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot

The chart above depicts my categorization of the listed parties into blocks. Likud’s block is projected to control about 50 seats and the Zionist Union block has 42. Parties that have not yet committed to supporting the Likud or the Zionist Union will control approximately 28 seats. The Arab Joint List controls twelve of those seats.  If the Arab Joint list does decide to enter into a coalition with the Zionist Union, Herzog’s chances for forming a coalition are greatly improved. A chart depicting that outcome would look like this:

Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot
Chart created by Joshua Shinbrot

It would still be possible for Netanyahu to form a government in this scenario. Yet, the requirement that Netanyahu attain the support of both Kulanu and the religious United Torah Judaism party would be a difficult threshold to cross. However, if Likud is able to win enough votes to secure at least 22-23 seats, they will likely be able to form a government even if the Joint List aligns with the Zionist Union. In that scenario, the support of Kulanu alone will probably be enough to bring Likud to the 61-seat threshold.

A National Unity Government?

Together, both Likud and the Zionist Union will receive considerably less than half of the seats in Knesset. It is at least theoretically possible that Likud and the Zionist Union may choose to come together and form a National Unity government. This move would not be unprecedented. Shimon Peres (Labor) and Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) rotated the post of Prime Minister in a unity government they formed in the 1980s. It is worth mentioning that the transition from Peres to Shamir in 1986 is often blamed for a significant deterioration in the peace process.

Today is certainly not 1986. Since 1986 Israel has signed a Peace Treaty with Jordan and the Oslo process began transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an existential conflict to a political conflict. However, the Zionist Union and Likud have different attitudes towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace. While both parties are skeptical of the capabilities of their Palestinian counterparts, Netanyahu believes that the security situation prevents the Israelis from significant withdrawals at this time. He also does not believe that a diplomatic solution is currently possible.

The Zionist Union believes in imposing a settlement freeze, except in the major blocks, and pursuing a peace plan that uses the 1967 Green Line as its basis. A Zionist Union led government is also likely to be more amicable towards Israeli unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank. If there were to be a national unity government, Herzog and Netanyahu would likely divide their time as Prime Minister. A major ideological difference on unilateral action such as those regarding settlement building and unilateral action in the West Bank could easily make for a highly problematic transition.

By Annabelle Timsit

30,000 marchers gathered in Paris to protest Israel’s war against the Hamas in the Palestinian territories of Gaza. Source: looking4poetry/Flickr

2014 saw a 91% increase in anti-Semitic acts (physical and verbal attacks and/or threats) perpetrated against Jews in France. The most significant rise in these attacks recorded that year happened in correlation with geopolitical events taking place thousands of kilometers away, in Israel and the Gaza strip. These two seemingly unrelated events, namely the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and the intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are actually a reflection of an increasing “importation” of the conflict into France that is threatening the survival of the world’s third largest Jewish community.

This phenomenon is part of a progressive deterioration of French-Israeli relations that began shortly after World War II. After the Algerian War ended in 1962, the official direction of French foreign policy seemed to be a restoration of French-Arab relations. While this decision did not immediately translate into a worsening of relations with Israel, it did make a full endorsement of the new Jewish state a risky political move.

Relations deteriorated to the point of no return in 1967 during the Six-Day War. When Abdel Nasser announced the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba on May 22, France warned all countries involved that the first to open fire would be considered the conflict’s initiator. On June 5, Israeli forces triggered hostilities and, that same day, the French government announced an embargo on arms to belligerents, which primarily affected Israel. On November 27, 1967, De Gaulle gave a famous press conference which harbored many of the dangerous anti-Semitic currents that we would see arise in anti-Israel criticism in years to come: he asked himself if, “Jews, hitherto scattered, but that had remained what they had been at all points in times, that is to say an elite people, sure of themselves and domineering”… “would not once again convert into ardent and conquering ambitions the very moving wishes they spent nineteen centuries forming.” The French government now portrayed Jews as aggressive antagonists with territorial ambitions.

This importation of the conflict had huge security ramifications in France; after the impressive but unexpected victory of the Israeli army in the 1967 War, Palestinian combatants realized they could not rely solely on Arab states. They opted for a strategy that internationalization of the conflict, using violent means of international terrorism to bring attention to their plight. Unfortunately, Europe was the theatre for much of that initial violence. In January 1975, for example, two rocket attacks targeted Israeli planes stationed at Orly airport in Paris. In 1980, the attack against the Copernic synagogue on the night of Shabbat caused 4 deaths and 46 injuries. The violence took place on both sides, as Israeli forces did not hesitate to retaliate on French soil, going as far as assassinating Palestinian officials, such as the representative of the PLO Mahmoud Hamshari during Mossad’s covert Operation Wrath of God.

The post-1967 situation illustrates the point at which the events of the Middle East began to directly reflect on the Jewish people as a whole, more specifically on the Jews of France. After 1967, the actions of the Israeli state were no longer seen as concerning Israelis; they now concern Jews around the world, and therefore French Jews were made to pay with their lives when decisions made in Israel affected Palestinians. The huge rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France and many other European countries, the resurgence of anti-Semitic extreme-right political parties in Parliaments in Greece and Hungary to name a few, and the rise in Islamist terrorism against France and its supposed ‘support’ of Israel are all symptoms of a much larger disease that has been growing in French society for 50 years.

The term “importation” itself did not emerge until the Second Intifada. Since October 1, 2000, more than 7,660 anti-Semitic acts were committed in France, according to concurring sources within the Protection Service of the Jewish Community and the Interior Ministry. The repeated hikes in violence linked to unrest in the Palestinian territories led the media to conclude that what affected Israeli Jews now had a direct effect on Jews all over the world and in France especially, hence the ‘importation’ of the conflict.

Coupled with the growing anti-Israel stance of the French government, this phenomenon is indirectly related to demographic issues. Indeed, the most pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes within any Muslim population outside of Gaza and the West Bank can be found in the Middle-East North Africa (MENA) region. The historically large French Muslim population from the MENA region and its issues of social and religious integration as well as social marginalization has led to a tense situation. The “no-go zones” mistakenly referred to earlier this month by Fox News, while not a reality for most French people, have become very real indeed for Orthodox Jews wearing kippas. For anyone doubting this reality, the new Time video of a Jewish man walking around the less developed neighborhoods of Paris and getting repeatedly insulted, spit on and followed for 10 hours should be evidence enough. What is all the more revealing however is the number of times he gets “Vive la Palestine!” screamed at him.

When Menahem Begin visited France in 1967 he gave a speech where he said, “we have nothing and no one to replace France, especially not in Europe. Our Europe is France. If we lose France, what is left? Germany? God forbid!” Yet today the thought that so horrified him may very well become true. As of 2013, 31% of French people think that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France”, 33% feel that “Jews think they are better than other people” and 26% think “people hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.” The ADL rates France as the most anti-Semitic country in Western Europe. Netanyahu issued a statement last month specifically encouraging French Jews to emigrate to Israel for their safety, a request which caused an uproar in the French political class but which resonated with the friends and family of the 7,000 French Jews who ‘made aliyah’ last year. If the Charlie Hebdo attacks of the past month and the desecration of hundreds of Jewish tombs in a cemetery in Sarre-Union a few days later have showed us anything, it is that as the Israeli-Palestinian continues to stagnate thousands of kilometers away, France’s Jews are suffering in the here and now and the trend is only getting worse.

By Annabelle Timsit

Prime Minister Netanyahu concludes his third address before a joint meeting of Congress. Source: Caleb Smith

Much like the snowpocalypse that was supposed to hit Washington a few weeks ago, Bibi’s speech to Congress came and went, but had very little overall effect. Far from the cosmic seizure some predicted in US-Israeli relations and bipartisan relations in Congress, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech came off as a skilled orator’s very successful use of the world’s best reelection platform, namely the United States Congress, rather than as an earth-shattering attempt to change the course of the Iran nuclear peace talks. The speech boiled down to some admittedly scary predictions of a nuclear Iran, a religious warning not to ignore the past, and some very complimentary remarks towards the ever-enduring US-Israeli relations, but with very little substance. That doesn’t mean it was a bad political move, however.

The main criticism leveraged against his speech was the lack of content or of any substantial alternative to talks with Iran. Short of calling it a “very bad deal” and warning the Congressmen and women of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Ayatollah (whom he equated with the Nazi regime of WWII), he didn’t offer any options other than maintaining nuclear restrictions on Iran until it stopped promoting terrorism, trying to annihilate Israel, and attacking its neighbors in the Middle East. This begs the question: if nuclear restrictions could stop Iran from doing these things at any given point in time, why are we still in this dire situation?

Another criticism levied against him was his use of Congress as a reelection platform. It is no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu faces a tough reelection campaign at home. Some (including the leader of the Labor opposition, Isaac Herzog) have criticized him for using the Republicans’ invitation to speak before Congress to showcase his tough stance on security and his good relations with the US administration. In all fairness, however, the line is often blurred when an incumbent faces a reelection. Where do official duties end and campaigning speeches begin?

Those who expected anything different were naïve at best and ignorant at worst. If Israel had a viable solution to the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran, it would have presented it to the P5 +1 nations (or had the US present it for them) a long time ago. If Netanyahu came to the US to boost his reelection campaign, then the images of his standing ovation in Congress will indeed accomplish just that; he can go home and reward his PR team. Those, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who found his speech “condescending” because of its lack of respect for US intelligence, are grasping at straws to criticize him without appearing to do so. As Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) said after the event, “Every speech contains passages which remind the audience of facts they already know, and conclusions with which they already agree…That is not condescension; that is oratory.”

The Israeli prime minister will now wait and see if his rhetoric scared enough Congress members to override a presidential veto of legislation which would beef up sanctions against Iran should it fail to sign an agreement. Obama previously warned that any such legislation could kill the talks. Bibi’s clear lobbying efforts for just that outcome will certainly weaken an already fragile relationship with the Obama administration. With President Obama’s term ending in a year, it wasn’t very likely he could have exerted enough influence to prevent Bibi from accepting the Republicans’ invitation in the first place.

The speech caused some bruised egos, as its boycott from close to 60 Democrats in Congress showed, and it definitely caused a rift in the relations between the direct Israeli and American leadership for now. Apart from the “near tears” of Nancy Pelosi and the fact that Obama will probably be cheering for the other side on March 17th, however, Bibi’s speech accomplished little and changed nothing.


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