Category Archives: Middle East

Reclaiming the Language of Human Rights to Advance Peace in the Middle East

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

While speaking in Europe last week on political Islamism, the Iran agreement, and American national security interests in the Middle East, I continually emphasized the importance of reading multiple points of view to combat today’s editorialization of the news. 

To do this effectively, you must literally examine the “accepted” meaning of words used to describe Israel’s behavior in the Palestinian conflict. Far too often, benign sounding words like “human rights” have been transformed into rhetorical weapons to advance a political agenda – in academia, the media, or in Congress – whose goal is to undermine America’s relationship with Israel, and Israel’s very legitimacy as a nation-state.

When I am in meetings at US congressional offices or when I lecture, I assume everyone does not share the same understanding of “international law, occupation, war crimes, Zionism, two states and human rights,” and I take pains to clarify their meanings in context.

This was highlighted by two articles I read this week while in Europe: one by Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Israel and Palestine, and the other an academic analysis by Dr. Donna Robinson Divine, titled “Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” published by Indiana University Press.

Shakir used the accepted politicized language of Middle East NGO’s – while Divine examined and challenged the current use of these words as they have come to be understood in the halls of academia, where the fashion is to bad-mouth Israel and give a nod to the BDS movement.

Two generations of American college students are now in positions of influence across the spectrum of American society, government and business, who were raised on a terminology of the Middle East that has become the default starting point for international discourse, but is in fact a cleverly transformed lexicon to undermine Israel’s right to exist, advancing a political agenda where various aggrieved peoples must join forces (intersectionality) to undermine the racist Western civilization and its Jewish outpost in the Middle East.

To argue or challenge the meaning of these words labels you as a racist, immoral or beyond the pale of worthy discourse. You don’t even have the right to free speech, as evidenced by speaker after speaker being disinvited or screamed down in the halls of universities. I know first hand.

Divine says that: “Much of the academic discourse on the Middle East conflict has distorted the truth by transforming even the very idea of what constitutes a “fact”… How the change took hold in academia is best understood by focusing on the vocabulary that purports to show why the establishment of a Jewish State was an international crime… Students learning only this language graduate with a vocabulary that identifies Israel not simply as a force hostile to Palestinian interests, but also as a major source of evil for the world.”

For the vast majority of people who are unaware that the vocabulary of human rights has been co-opted to demonize Israel, you fall right into the hands of organizations like Human Rights Watch.

Shakir claims that Human Rights Watch takes no position on BDS, an international movement whose goal is the delegitimization of Israel through an economic boycott.

Yet he sees no contradiction in using the benign sounding words of human rights advocacy to claim HRW’s mission is “to defend the right of people to boycott… [that] telling businesses to stop engaging in activities that abuse rights in the occupied territories, is neither a call for a consumer boycott nor a boycott of Israel itself.”

Leaves you scratching your head.

“Human rights” organizations operating in Israel and funded by European governments accuse Israel of some of the worst abuses in the world, while using moral equivalence to claim impartiality by equating the actions of terrorist groups – like Hamas that target civilians or the Palestinian Authority that financially supports convicted terrorists – with Israel, which takes pains to avoid civilian casualties.

Ten years ago, HRW founder Robert Bernstein took to task the transformation of his organization from an unbiased sword to one where “Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.” Nothing has changed for the better since he wrote those words, except that both the United States and Israel now identify BDS and its defenders for what it is: antisemitism hiding in the clothes of anti-Zionism.

It is time to realize that language matters for those who care about the US-Israel relationship and its importance to American national security interests. Semantics is the coin of the realm in diplomacy, and words are the ammunition of the lawfare campaign to destroy Israel.

A number of years ago, I sat with a senator and her chief of staff (COS) describing the complexities and conflicting narratives of what the occupation of a disputed territory means according to a non-politicized definition of international law. The COS thanked me, and I asked why.

What I learned was that many pro-Israel organizations have adopted the words of their adversaries, undermining their case to present a contextually correct understanding of the complexities of the conflict. Terms such as occupation, 1967 border, war crimes, collateral damage, disproportionate force and settlements need more than a 280 character tweet.

Organizations that are trying to advance peace in the region need to think about reclaiming the language of human rights, and learn to explain how it is used today as a weapon against Israel. Otherwise, those peace advocates will be fighting a continually uphill battle in Congress, on college campuses and with the American public, against an adversary with a decided advantage that has won the tools of debate.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate and House, and their foreign policy advisers. A regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and i24TV international, he is a contributor to The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.

Could a Mass March on Jerusalem Ignite the Middle East

According to Zalman Shoval, “No security fence or even a concrete barrier can stop an organized mass attempt to breach the Israeli border along a much larger front than merely the Gaza border.”

What if 100,000 Palestinians march en masse from the West Bank toward the 1949 armistice line that separates the Palestinian Authority from Israel? This week at the United Nations, Joint List MK Haneen Zoabi said, “We need millions of Palestinians to march on Jerusalem.”

According to former Israeli ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval, “No security fence or even a concrete barrier can stop an organized mass attempt to breach the Israeli border along a much larger front than merely the Gaza border.”

The PA is worried that Hamas’s “Great March of Return” in Gaza may upstage and eclipse it. Palestinian political movements compete for who can be the most anti-American and anti-Israeli. So it is logical that the PA will stage their own march, only this time from the West Bank into Jerusalem, Hebron, or Bethlehem.

To complicate matters, what if many of the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose political allegiance is overwhelmingly to their Palestinian brothers in the disputed territories, join the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank in protests and violence within Israel. A civil war within Israel could truly ignite the region.

Twice in the past two weeks, a well-coordinated and financed operation by Hamas sent thousands of Gazans to challenge the security barrier between Gaza and Israel. Hamas’s strategy is to use civilian shields embedded with terrorists and activist supporters to breach the Israeli international border, provoking a violent Israeli response. This will culminate on Israel’s Independence Day or to the Palestinians, “The Day of Catastrophe” (Nakba). The PA will not want to be outdone.

A mass demonstration that crosses the Green Line, whether from the West Bank or Gaza, will inevitably lead to significant violence and casualties. The Israeli-Gaza security barrier has been attacked on a daily basis for years with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), sniper fire, infiltrations of terrorists attempting to kidnap Israeli soldiers, and attempts to build tunnels for terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian communities.

Hamas and the PA’s strategy is based on the expectation that a sympathetic international media can be manipulated into believing these are peaceful protests in the style of Gandhi, and that they will report on the disproportionate Israeli response against the victimized Palestinians, including terrorists posing as journalists. It has long been a strategy of Hamas to use human shields, firing rockets from civilian areas, hospitals and schools, in the hopes of winning propaganda points with the maimed and wounded Palestinians purposely placed in harm’s way.

As American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris said, “It’s basically all about Gaza’s innocence and Israel’s guilt… Hamas threatens and harasses Israel, but it is only Israel’s response that warrants close attention and scrutiny.”

It must be repeated to the American audience that Hamas’s goal is not a “two states for two peoples” solution. The stated objective is an unlimited right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

A recent Palestinian survey by An-Najah University PA reported that 71% of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza reject Israel’s existence even within the 1967 lines. To Hamas and the PA, the two states are both Arab and Muslim.

What would happen if 50,000 Palestinians and their anti-Israel NGO supporters took over the Temple Mount, the most religiously sensitive piece of real estate on the planet? What if terrorists embedded within the civilians start throwing firebombs onto the Western Wall platform? The conflagration could be the spark that starts the next Middle East war. This scenario is not unrealistic. Palestinians last summer stormed the Temple Mount in protest over Israel installing metal detectors after Palestinian terrorists opened fire on the Temple Mount.

So does Israel have a strategy to prevent a mass march toward Jerusalem, or from anywhere in Areas A and B toward the Green Line? First, Israel needs a sophisticated strategy to manage the public relations and perception issues that are faced when a sovereign state is seen as an occupier, even if it borders and is attacked by a terrorist entity. There is little dispute that Israel is treated by the international community according to a standard not applied to any other nation. However, Israel can do a better job minimizing live fire as this plays directly into the Palestinian hands for their propaganda purposes.

Believe it or not, Israel may have been given a gift, as its adversary is clearly signaling in advance what it is planning to do. It is up to Israel to come up with an effective plan to deal with tens of thousands of Palestinians crossing the ‘49 armistice lines from both Gaza and the West Bank simultaneously. This has been years in the making.

America will stand with Israel for the time being, but it should also be reaching out to its Arab allies in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States to put pressure on the PA not to embark on this strategy, as it can easily get out of control and turn into a third intifada.

The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post , The Hill , and The Forward.




Can Egypt be the Path to Peace for the Middle East?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

After the disaster of the Morsi regime, during which the MB tried to turn Egypt back to the dark ages, Egypt has now come to a fork in the road.

In the Middle East, what they say is not what they mean, and what they mean is not what they say.

According to The New York Times, U.S. President Donald Trump is “developing a strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would enlist Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to break years of deadlock.”

It would behoove his new foreign policy team to reflect carefully on these words before forging ahead with Middle East diplomacy.

The key to any possible path to conflict resolution in this region is to understand the shifting web of “interests” that motivate the players on this chessboard in the sand.

During meetings in Egypt and Israel this past week, almost everyone I spoke with cautioned against over-reaching beyond what is possible for the region at this time.

The American abstention on UNSC Resolution 2334 has cast a dark cloud. For the first time ever, an Israeli presence over the 1949 armistice line is labeled an internationally recognized illegal act, with the blessing of the United States.

What I heard from those on the ground, including an international observer, is that 2334 will become a major obstacle to a two-state solution, the exact opposite of what the Obama administration claimed was their intent. “Counterproductive” is an understatement in assessing the damage it has done.

Far too many well-meaning intermediaries fail to understand the Middle East’s complexities, the staggering array of contradictory interests, often making little sense to Western eyes.

During meetings with the Egyptian foreign policy establishment I was asked to convey to Congress a number of their concerns.

1. Please explain that the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime of president Mohammed Morsi was not a coup but a democratic revolution.

They insist it was a people’s revolution of 33 million in the streets demanding an end to Islamist suppression and economic incompetence. Although Morsi was elected in a fair election with a coalition of MB and Salafist voters representing 70% of the Egyptian electorate, officials repeatedly reminded me that today the MB would not receive more than 20% of the vote.

However I fear that if the current monthly inflation of 20% in Egypt continues, an Islamist coalition could win the next election, a potentially devastating blow to American security interests.

Egyptians of all stripes still cannot understand president Barack Obama’s hidden outreach to the MB before the “Arab Spring” of 2011, and his continued support of the Brotherhood, looking to them to be the moderating influence in the Islamist world.

2. Egyptians want Americans to understand that Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai is under control, and that the more pressing concerns are the Libyan border and the internal Islamist threats to destabilize Egypt.

We need to understand that the ever-changing interests between Hamas, Egypt and the indigenous Beduin make Western strategic choices in the Sinai fraught with peril. Most outside observers believe that the situation in the Sinai is far from stable.

3. Egyptian officials want Congress to know that the Egyptian military is the strongest in the region and should be an important ally for America.

Yet according to the INSS’s Yitftah Shapir, Egypt has “embarked on an unprecedented break from its traditional military relations with the US,” turning to Russia, France and Germany. They seem to ignore that America already has in Israel a reliable ally that shares its Western democratic values.

However, Egypt does have an opportunity to make a case to challenge Turkey as America’s primary Muslim ally now that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned NATO’s eastern flank into an Islamist authoritarian state.

The unprecedented military, security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Egypt are privately acknowledged, yet the Egyptian people are completely unaware of this cooperation as a matter of policy.

A leading Israeli expert on Egypt said that the Egyptian public opinion makers “hates our guts,” except for the highest government officials and the military, who cooperate against a common enemy. Transient interests should not be misunderstood as a change in the fundamental relationship.

An international official spoke about the endemic antisemitism in the Middle East, which is staggering in scale; remaining a convenient excuse to avoid normalizing relations until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. In the Middle East the terms “Jew” and “Israeli” are interchangeable.

After the disaster of the Morsi regime, during which the MB tried to turn Egypt back to the dark ages, Egypt has now come to a fork in the road.

For Egypt today there may be a small window of opportunity to change course and lead the Arab world into the 21st century for a more stable future.

Now that the MB leadership is in jail, the time has come for Egypt to slowly change the anti-Israel narrative in its state-controlled media.

Going forward, my advice to Egyptians is to bring other Sunni Arab nations who currently have secret relationships with Israel out into the open, as a way to advance the peace process.

Egypt strongly desires to strengthen its relationship with the US, and the answer is to broaden its relationship with Israel. Americans and Congress see the Middle East through their support of America’s most stable ally in the region. Strengthening the Israeli- Egyptian relationship is not a favor to Israel, but in Egyptian interests.

The excuse that Egypt cannot lead unless the Palestinians agree is the failed formula of the past. The Egyptian economy is on the ropes, and the path forward is in part through Israel.

The author is the founder and director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He just returned from his 15th annual seminar in the Middle East with Keshet Insight Seminar’s Yitzhak Sokoloff.