Saturday, August 15, 2009

Identity, Nationalism and the Recovery of the Secular

Despite all the energy that has been spent in its dissection, “identity” remains an elusive entity – both as concept and practice. Historians argue unendingly over when the notion became an ingredient in political mobilisation, and political scientists wonder about its unique power to move masses to great acts of destruction.

The power of “identity” has waxed and waned over much of modern history and its current trajectory cannot be accurately predicted. In the last quarter-century though, “identity” has been an important, even an incendiary presence in world politics. It may be currently on low ebb, but all the portents suggest that “identity” could soon again rear its head with renewed malevolence.

As an aspect of life as really lived, “identity” is heavily infused with affect and emotion, and not easily addressed through rational processes of thought. “Who am I?” is a question that every thinking adult asks himself at least once in a lifetime. Perhaps because it involves the quest for an anchorage that will outlast finite individuals, the search for “identity” often remains unfulfilled.

Apart from the finitude of human existence, every individual has to cope with the constant awareness that the putative god of his beliefs has created only a limited expanse on planet earth for his habitation. The primary question of identity – “who am I?” – is typically conjoined with another one: “where do I belong?”

This is a quest in part for a physical milieu, a territorial expanse on god’s finite earth, where an individual can assert a rightful claim, mandated by his creator. And to establish this divinely ordained right, he also has to be sure that all who share his living space, share and honour his sense of identity too. “Where do I belong?” is a question not merely about the physical milieu, but also about the social network within the individual subsists.

Nationality provides an answer, contingent and deeply flawed, to both these deep questions of “identity”. And in the manner that it has been constructed, nationhood also comes with the affirmation of a strong territorial claim. A “nation” is in other words, the exclusive territorial domain of persons who share an “identity”, however that may be constructed.

The fusion of identity – understood as a primordial sense of belonging together -- with an exclusive territoriality conforms to the construction of the “nation” as a quasi-religious ideal, rather than a living entity continually being created and recreated by breathing, struggling and finite humans, trying their best to live in solidarity and mutual understanding. People who emerged out of colonialism in the latter half of the 20th century and constituted themselves into “nations”, swore an implicit oath, that they would allow no room for the identity battles that had blighted Europe’s pioneer nations for a century-and-a-half, and led to two so-called “world wars”. Both world wars were fought to resolve issues of identity and territorial conquest and involved deaths in the millions. But despite their appellation, neither involved the willing consent of more than a minuscule fraction of the world’s population.

Nationalism had already revealed its face as predatory imperialism by the time India began its career as an independent nation. The threat that newly independent nations faced as decolonization gained momentum following World War II, was of an inward collapse of nationalism and its transformation into a doctrine of exclusion and differential rights in highly diverse and plural societies. Despite the traumas of partition though, India began its life in freedom with the explicit resolve that it would not allow the baneful amalgam of identity and territoriality to blight the existence of its citizens.

That pledge has of course been repeatedly breached, though never with quite the same tragic and potentially fateful repercussions, as in the Ayodhya moment. For close to a decade, “Ayodhya” ceased being a physical location and a locus of popular faith. It became instead, a metaphor for all that could possibly go wrong in a post-colonial State, all that could threaten the coexistence of cultural diversities on the basis of a civic compact.

This book deals with that fevered phase of Indian politics from a variety of perspectives. It brings together the contributions of distinguished scholars, who joined the war of ideas that Ayodhya spawned. Written in the heat of battle, these contributions succeeded in opening up new vistas and enlarging the strategic options available to those committed to defeating the menace that stalked the land with little challenge from mainstream politics.

Ayodhya was the moment in independent India’s history, when a fresh identity was actively sought for a nation troubled by a history of colonialism and a bloody partition. Alongside the ghosts of history yet to be laid to rest, immediate worries from the sphere of politics were emerging. The early promise of the “developmental State”, which assured all citizens of equal opportunity and a chance for material advancement in the space of a generation or two, had been belied. Though there had been some efforts at retrieving State authority after a profound crisis in the mid-1960s, the conceit that the activist State could improve the lot of the poor by directing the use of resources from a high perch, was done in by an elite rebellion and a succession of economic crises through the 1970s.

The “Ayodhya” moment in Indian history begins in the early-1980s and the fever mounts and convulses the entire body politic in the years that follow, arriving at a final catharsis late in 1992.

Ayodhya then becomes a simmering menace, a background issue in every subsequent electoral contest, consigned there by deliberate design. After enacting its tableau of destruction, the political party that had made the issue its own, was following a different tack. It took an electoral debacle in 1993, almost exactly coinciding with the first anniversary of the demolition at Ayodhya, to cause this shift of strategy. That was when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had grown enormously in national vote share all through the years of Ayodhya, grasped the galling reality, that the “identity” it was seeking to graft onto the diverse people who called themselves “Indians”, repelled just as surely as it attracted. The numerical balance, far from working to the advantage of the party that was invoking the faith of a putative “majority”, was rapidly turning adverse to its electoral calculations.

Ideological purity in the quest of the new Indian identity, defined as “Hindutva”, was swiftly abandoned. The BJP now determined that it was better served by an active courtship of regional parties, which shared none of its belief in a unitary cultural inheritance that the whole nation must necessarily subscribe to. This was a compulsion born out of electoral politics, since the BJP’s appeal outside the Hindi-speaking region remained limited, despite the effort to construct a broader coalition of social forces on the strength of its seemingly irresistible appeal to “Hindutva”.

Despite the restraints imposed by the policy of cohabitation, the BJP did try on various occasions to push through its unilateral agenda on Ayodhya. The most fateful such attempt was in the early months of 2002, when a campaign was crafted in the time-worn pattern, of mobilising the faithful in diverse parts of the country and getting them to converge at Ayodhya to claim the hallowed spot as the inalienable patrimony of the Hindu faith. The fervour was conspicuously lacking this time around, despite the deliberate effort to fuse the mobilisation with the growing backlash against “Islamic terrorism”, which began with the attacks on U.S. territory on September 11, 2001.

This involved importing the terms, the concepts and the entire discourse of the global superpower into the native idiom, making the so-called “war on terror” one of India’s central concerns. The years since the Ayodhya demolition had been a period of awakening for the Indian middle-class, now freshly aware of its undeniable destiny as a serious player on the world arena. Primordial bonds of Hindutva were momentarily forgotten, as the main elite preoccupation shifted to the negotiation of honourable terms of entry into global councils, if not as an accredited superpower, then at least as a reliable understudy to one. This required, in place of the primordial bonds that were actively sought just years before, a common commitment to civic virtue as the source of unity.

It was this civic pretence of the globalising Indian elite which collapsed with the last great atrocity of the Ayodhya campaign through March 2002, as rioters ruled the streets in Gujarat, killing, maiming and destroying at will, as the agencies of the State sat back in mute witness and officials tasked with enforcing the law partook gleefully in the pogrom.

Many of the essays in this volume originated as lectures in the months and years after the demolition that shook the nation. They continued as public interventions by concerned scholars – historians, economists and political scientists – who saw the Ayodhya campaign as a betrayal of all the values, scientific norms, and social commitments they had lived by. Some of them, written in the days after the Gujarat pogrom, bear reference to this greatest threat to the idea of secular India since the Ayodhya demolition.

From a scholarly point of view, these essays represent significant new explorations into the social and political processes through which “identity” is crafted. The term “Hindu” which seems so obvious in terms of its application to the religious majority in India today, is in reality, an identity that has evolved over time through the use of multiple symbols and campaigns.

Among the many challenges that secularism as a principle and a practice in India faced, was its supposed indifference to native cultural idioms. Ayodhya was nothing if not a campaign of outrageous inversions and logical effrontery. Thus, the BJP, which in every other party’s estimation, embodied the menace of communalism, was in its own self-image, a resolute votary of secularism -- only it purported to be the true and unspoiled face of secularism, unlike all other parties, which had chosen the term as a façade to disguise their hostility to the unique cultural inheritance of the Indian nation.

Secularism against primordial culture – that was the first of the challenges that the principle has to face. The received notion that social identities are as old as history has a powerful influence. Scholarly works that draw attention – as the historian E.J. Hobsbawm has done -- to the “shifting, fuzzy and ambiguous” nature of the criteria utilised in identity fixation, and lay bare the “artefact, invention and social engineering” that underlie the crystallisation of modern political identities, invariably elicit a reaction of outrage or disbelief. Certain claims of identity are considered so intrinsic to social existence, that any interrogation of their foundations would be dismissed without so much as a pretence at reasoned argument. It is this seemingly axiomatic, self-evident character of the “Hindu” appellation, and its apparent centrality to the existence of the vast majority in India, that contributed in great measure to the ideological appeal of the BJP.

The essays here draw out how the term “Hindu” referred for long, to an ascriptive identity and was used purely as a territorial marker, devoid of significant religious or cultural content. The constitution of Hinduism as a religion indeed, takes place in medieval times though arguably on an incomplete basis. The “Hindu community” is projected as a political entity, a viable collective with identifiable and shared beliefs and customs, only in modern times. This was one among many strands of thinking that propelled political mobilisation during India’s freedom struggle. As during medieval times, this assertion of a new religious orthodoxy, led to multiple social fissures and vigorous movements of resistance against the totalising and hegemonising tendencies it laid bare.

The hegemonic identity that Hindutva sought to craft was itself suggestive of origins in an ill-remembered chapter of 20th century history. And in its successful portrayal of a religious minority -- which had suffered systematised and institutionalised discrimination since independence -- as the beneficiary of undue official favour, the Hindutva political formations successfully emulated another feature of the brutal fascist interlude in Europe.

Despite the lapse of many years since they were written, the relevance of these essays remains undiminished, since the political pathogens that engendered that phase of crisis and struggle have not been banished. They have only mutated and acquired another form.

The battle to reconquer the birthplace of a founding hero of the Hindu faith lost its resonance once the offending monument that had supposedly usurped the hallowed space was effaced. A last effort to rekindle the fervour, ended in the bloodbath of Gujarat in 2002, and though this has seemingly brought the BJP local electoral advantages that it continues to milk till today, it suffered an intolerable degree of public odium both globally and on the broader political arena.

Hindutva political formations have ever since the days of Ayodhya, had wavering electoral fortunes, now winning, now losing. But in no national election has it won substantially more than a quarter of the votes cast nationwide. With all the alliances it has struck, mostly based on political convenience, its total share of the national vote has never remotely approached 40 percent. It assumed power in 1998 after an election which every other political formation did its best to lose. Unable to manage an alliance of diverse parties with nothing other than political convenience to bind them, it went into another mid-term electoral contest in just over a year. By then it had rearranged its strategic alliances and also created a nationwide mood of triumphalism after a successful military campaign against the efforts by Pakistan to rearrange the political topography of Jammu and Kashmir.

Towards the end of its first full term in national authority, the party of incendiary identity politics faced an opposition in disarray and a public mood of seeming euphoria -- orchestrated by a compliant corporate media -- over India’s successful debut in world councils as an emerging superpower. That cocky confidence was seriously dented through the election campaign and decisively demolished when the votes were counted. The next nation-wide general elections brought the Hindutva party an even more severe drubbing. On a superficial viewing, it might seem that the circumstances in national politics are greatly more settled, that identity politics has lost its currency and been subsumed under a new civic compact.

A nation, above all, has to be cohesive and to provide all its inhabitants with an equal sense of belonging. The moment an older social formation, such as an imperial colony, transforms itself into a “nation”, there is an implicit recognition that rules of status and hierarchy no longer apply. In their place, will come a new definition of how people associate among themselves, purely on the basis of a shared sense of identifying themselves with the highest ideals of nationhood.

Early constructions of the “nation” in the wake of the French Revolution, saw it as a solidarity of individuals based on an identity of political beliefs. But an alternative construct of the “nation” as an identity of primordial belonging was never far from the surface. Indeed, this construction has often overwhelmed the more generous understanding based on belief and commitment.

Yet, primordialism is never quite primordial; and traditions are rarely traditional. Identities are invented, as are traditions. The past is never dead. Indeed, as famously stated by an American novelist, it is not even past. It is constantly being created and recreated in the light of contemporary concerns. And identities are invented and reinvented as different social groups contend for power and influence in the modern political arena.

A nation remains viable so long as it is able to negotiate a viable civic compact between its diverse groups. But economic adversity invariably has a tendency to strain the best crafted civic compact. And the most enlightened civic compact that a modern liberal-democratic state has been able to put in place, is fundamentally premised upon the principle of respecting and safeguarding “cultural autonomy”. In periods of expanding economic opportunity, “identity” questions remain subdued since there is seemingly room for everybody to seek his place in the sun. “Identity” in fact remains unimportant, since the nation looks capable of credibly delivering on its promises of equality and opportunity.

In junctures of shrinking economic opportunity, “identity” is often offered by national states as an alternative anchorage for citizens to cling onto, when the promise of equality seems evasive. But this ceases to be a credible assurance, when “identity” is the basis for inequality – as with the religious minorities in India. National states often prove unable to influence deeper processes at work within civil society and to correct deep-seated patterns of discrimination. And majoritarian political groups can whip up their own brand of political turmoil by portraying “cultural autonomy” as an effort by privileged minorities to stay outside the mainstream of the nation while partaking of all its benefits.

An excavation of historical facts that strips away layers of ideological debris, would perhaps reveal that the basic concept of “cultural nationalism”, evolved in a negative dialectic with the popular, revolutionary striving for the democratic reform of the state. Lenin warned prior to the First World War, that the doctrine of “national cultural autonomy” was a distraction from the real task of consistently reforming the state in a democratic fashion – at least to the limits possible in a capitalist order – since that alone could ensure peace among the nationalities. Lenin used the term “nationalities” in a manner that was closely akin to ethnic groups, but his intent was clear. If the “State” was to be preserved against the fissiparous potentialities of “national” identities, it would need to be reformed in a thoroughly democratic fashion.

War and the willing participation in it of the putatively socialist parties of Europe – with the distinguished exception of the Bolsheviks – meant that “cultural nationalism” prevailed over the revolutionary democratic impulse. This is a history though, that does not begin with the First World War. Its antecedents could well be traced back a century and more.

Since it commenced its career as a full-blown idea in India, the politics of identity has mutated rapidly, from a state of bipolar opposition between two religious communities to one of proliferating multipolarity. It seemed for a while that the effort to knit together a country of diverse faiths, plural identities and syncretist traditions under the banner of Hindutva, would yield rich political dividends. But for those attuned to underlying social realities, it may have been apparent that these gains would be ephemeral.

The unitary “nation”, which both the Congress and the BJP promoted as a governing notion in their distinctive ways, has today become a wild congeries of conflicting interests. And the “State” which was supposed to embody the “nation” and its spirit, stands reduced to a shell. The coercive power of the State continues to play a vital role in confining the scope of dissent within clearly defined bounds, but there are large zones of the public domain where the State has ceded its monopoly of legitimate violence to locally dominant group. For the vast majority of the people of India, the apparatus of the State today is an alien presence, and the procedures of governance which were supposed to establish a framework of equal opportunity, are seen to serve no purpose other than the defence of privilege.

Hindutva, in its effort to construct a hegemonic identity for all Indians, unleashed a multitude of little identities. Conceptually, political thinking has responded to the proliferation of identities by devising the doctrine of casteism, which is considered quite distinct of communalism. Part of the rationale for this conceptual separation is the immediacy of recent political experience. The menace of Hindutva mobilisation, conveniently represented under the shorthand description of “mandir politics” began to acquire its most menacing proportions towards the end of the 1980s. Launched in full force in 1990, the ideology of “Mandal politics” which asserted quite a different viewpoint – that Hinduism, far from providing a common basis for action to retrieve the spirit of nationalism, was in fact a dagger in the soul of democracy – blunted the appeal of the mandir campaign.

The opposition seemed for a while to be fundamental – a Mandal versus mandir polarisation was undeniably one of the principal forces driving politics in the first half of the current decade. But the Mandal proponents turned out to be a fractious crew, yielding ground steadily to the advocates of the mandir.

The lower caste coalitions that cut at the foundations of Hindutva have proven all too prone to fission. And many of the breakaway groups, which remain anchored in specific configurations of caste loyalties in their pockets of influence, have made common cause with the BJP in a supposed quest of good governance.

When the polarisation was at its sharpest between Mandal and mandir, there may have been a case for viewing casteism and communalism as analogous principles that by a fortuitous twist, happened to be espoused by opposing social groups. Mandal seemed for a while to provide an opportunity for a broad-ranging coalition of the underprivileged castes that would infuse a new momentum into participative democracy. But in subsequent years, it has fallen away in another variety of sectarianism, that is easily portrayed as different only in degree rather than kind from communalism.

Yet there are basic differences. As a marker of social differentiation, the religious divide pervades all of national life, whereas a caste grouping, construed strictly in the sense of the endogamous grouping or the jati is a localised phenomenon. A caste conflict in one region remains confined there – it may have repercussions in other parts of the linguistic culture area, but scarcely beyond. Inter-religious strife in any one region, in contrast, strikes up malignant resonances in others. The experience of the Ayodhya campaign was all about how the violence against the religious minority in one part of the country could engender a contagion effect, spreading rapidly to others. But Gujarat in 2002 was about how a horrific pogrom remained a localised affair, engendering if anything, only a deep revulsion and a determination to prevent similar violence in other parts of the country.

Yet fundamental asymmetries in the use of State power to redress injustices remain. The Indian State has for too long tolerated the application of violence by agents in civil society against the minorities and those excluded from the high table of the “nation”. This has led to the widespread belief that the “nation” understood in terms of a civic compact, belongs to a relatively few, that its civic institutions do not work for the protection and benefit of the powerless.

The “global war on terror” has brought new threats. In the days of Ayodhya, ethnic and religious groups suffered discrimination and exclusion since they were held guilty of disregarding the primordial identity that made the Indian nation what it is. The stigma cast on these groups is now different in kind: from being in denial of what made India unique as a nation, they are now deemed to be in disregard – for cultural and historical reasons -- of the civic compact appropriate to the citizens of a rapidly emerging superpower. Hence, their proclivity to engage in terrorism, wanton acts of destruction targeted at the vital nodes of civic life in urban India. Needless to say, the State, that sat back in blissful indifference through the horrific violence of the Ayodhya days, is now known to apply the most draconian laws against terrorism, with little regard for due process.

A necessary basis for upholding the secular character of the State would be its ability to preserve its monopoly of legitimate violence in matters concerning the relations between religious communities, and of course, castes.
Secularism celebrates diversity, pluralism and tolerance, while nationalism as it has been handed down since its origins in the French Revolution, privileges homogeneity, conformance and solidarity against all who fail to meet the definitions of belonging.

Secularism in India is sui generis -- it is not a principle that has been institutionalised in politics but one that has to be fought for, a principle that is in continuous process of definition and refinement. It is a fight in which all resources have to be summoned from history, politics and the social sciences. The essays in this volume seek in some degree to do precisely that. They may not exhaust all the creative responses that came forth from the secular ranks to the challenge of communal politics, but they present a very representative cross-section. And though crafted in response to the very specific challenges that were posed over the last two decades, they will remain valuable resources for the struggles that lie ahead.

Getting Real About Peace with Pakistan

Perhaps it is the environment of the Non-Aligned Summit that induces mood swings of great amplitude in India’s top political leadership. Perhaps there are other forces at work, quietly and unobtrusively, compelling shifts of strategy and direction in the engagement between India and her troubled western neighbour.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on the sidelines of a regional summit in June, he made little effort to be polite. All he had to talk to Pakistan about, was the use of her soil by militant groups engaged in terrorist violence against India, he said, to great consternation, verging on outrage in Pakistan over his suspension of normal diplomatic niceties.
Though expectations were low, the Indian Prime Minister managed to turn his mid-July meeting with his Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit in Egypt, into a virtual feast of concord. Landing back in India, Manmohan Singh has found the glow fading rapidly, as he has confronted outraged cries of betrayal by the main opposition party and a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm within his own fold.
The art of diplomacy is built in part, on turning a delicate phrase to obscure the true intentions of both sides. But it has taken a special clumsiness in language to make a good outcome appear a near disaster. A key formulation of the Joint Statement that came out of the Prime Ministerial meeting at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Shaikh, is the supposed removal of the linkage between the “Composite Dialogue” the two nations have been engaged in, and their own battles against terrorism.
The “Composite Dialogue” has had a fitful career since it began more than a decade ago, but there is no disguising the fact that it has failed to address even the more tractable among the disputes that have bedevilled relations between India and Pakistan. That it has nevertheless acquired a mystique quite independent of its actual yield of political dividends, is a consequence of a peculiar kind of mindset in Indian thinking on Pakistan. Dialogue has become an end in itself and a reward for Pakistan showing sufficient seriousness in tackling militant groups using its soil for attacks on India.
The unstated premise here is that terrorism is India’s special concern and Pakistan’s special responsibility. And if Pakistan faced up to its responsibilities, India would be magnanimous enough to talk, though with little assurance of yielding any ground.
With this spurious linkage removed, Pakistan will now presumably continue to combat terrorism even if the rewards it obtains in terms of the returns on the composite dialogue are meagre. And the Sharm el-Shaikh statement does record significant forward steps, as well as a convergence of perceptions between the two countries in bringing to justice the perpetrators of last November’s terrorist outrage in Mumbai
There is in other words, a perfectly reasonable construction that can be placed on this aspect of the Sharm el-Shaikh joint statement, which undermines all claims that it constitutes a betrayal of India’s long-standing position. The political hysteria rather seems to be born of a quite different cause, indeed, with an aspect of it that mentions what has for long been unmentionable in Indian strategic circles.
An official statement issued after a high-level political engagement between national governments, cannot afford to leave stray sentences around, unattached by either logic or syntax with its main body. For this reason, it is difficult to give any credence to editorial comment, which has tended to portray the reference to the trouble in Balochistan province of Pakistan, as something devoid of long-term consequence. Immediately after affirming that the two governments would “share real time, credible and actionable information on any future terrorist events”, the statement records the Pakistan Prime Minister as having “mentioned” that certain “threats” existed in Balochistan and other areas. The implication, clearly, is that India could do something about these.
To nobody’s surprise, this one line in the statement has shocked and horrified the Indian intelligence community. Beyond all the simulated outrage over the supposed delinking of the composite dialogue from action against terrorism, this is the line that could have fateful political consequences in the years ahead.
The template for high-level political engagement between India and Pakistan has for years seemingly been cast in stone. India has held fast to the course of blaming Pakistan for every terrorist outrage that occurs on its soil. And Pakistan has said quite simply, that credible movement forward in the “core issue” of Kashmir would bring about a miraculous cessation of terrorist activity in India. Never before has the lethal political contest between the countries’ intelligence agencies, seeking to outdo the other in the pain it can inflict, been mentioned in a political communiqué. The Sharm el-Shaikh declaration alters that reality.
When India and Pakistan agreed, on the sidelines of the Havana Non-Aligned Summit of 2006, on a joint institutional mechanism to combat terrorism, there were scarcely concealed grimaces within the intelligence agencies, which saw the prospect of information sharing with counterparts across the border, as a fatal infringement of their autonomy. That mechanism has had expectedly, a rather dismal track record ever since. The Sharm el-Shaikh statement resurrects that process and idea and explicitly acknowledges that terrorism is both a shared concern and responsibility. That really is its long-term significance. Whether long-term dividends will flow from this new approach however, depends decisively on how far intelligence agencies on both sides of the bristling border can be compelled to accept new norms of political accountability.

A new U.S. line on Palestine - don't bet on it

In perhaps one respect, U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent speech at Cairo lived up to its advance billing as a historic overture to the Islamic world. Hidden within its characteristic eloquence, were frequent admissions of error by the U.S., hitherto the unquestionable bearer of the mantle of righteousness. Obama fortunately is grounded in reality, rather than theological faith. That crucial difference already has made for some changes in the U.S. approach to the question of Palestine.
Beyond bogus analogies with the 1930s and dire imprecations about the futility of “appeasement”, what the Zionists and the U.S. right-wing found least acceptable about Obama’s speech was probably its use of the term “Palestine” at no fewer than two junctures. U.S. presidents in the past have in occasional moods of compassion, acknowledged the problem of “refugees”, though of no particular cultural or political stripe. They have in more recent times, grudgingly accepted that a people known as the “Palestinians” exist, with the undeniable right to constitute themselves into a state. Seldom has a U.S. president mentioned “Palestine” as a historical, a cultural and a putative political entity. And Obama’s reference to this identity was explicit: “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's”.
But where would this identity find the territorial space to overcome years of denial, where could it possibly establish itself and grow, when historic Palestine is now claimed by another people as its god-given right? The historian and political commentator Tony Judt describes Zionism today as “an uncompromising ethno-religious real estate pact with a partisan God, a pact that justifies any and all actions against real or imagined threats, critics, and enemies”. And indeed, to enforce this real estate pact, the partisan God has to lean on the support – financial, military and moral – of a superpower blinded by prejudice.
It was this prejudice that was expressed by Obama’s predecessor in a speech to the Israeli Knesset last May, marking the 60-year anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the creation of the Jewish state. “Israel's population may be just over 7 million”, said George Bush: “But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you”. That was where all reason ceased: the seemingly unbreakable identification of Palestinians with terrorism.
The basic principles of the peace in Palestine were laid out in the “roadmap” to a permanent two-state solution, agreed between all major stakeholders in April 2003. Though a markedly asymmetric document, which expects the Palestinians to live up to virtually impossible criteria, Israel has baulked at accepting it, since it clearly requires the dismantling of all settlements built in occupied territories since March 2001 and the freezing of all further growth, including what is euphemistically referred to as “natural growth”.
Expectedly, within a year of the roadmap being agreed, it was amended through an “exchange of letters” between Bush and the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. The headline news about this round of correspondence between the two soulmates in the struggle against “terrorism” was the Israeli plan to supposedly disengage from Gaza. But its true purpose was to secure the U.S.-Israeli compact on two points: that Palestinians were yet to establish their credentials as a partner for peace and that West Bank territory seized in the 1967 war of aggression would be sliced and carved up by Israel in a manner of its choosing.
In an unguarded moment following this exchange of letters, Sharon’s top aide, Dov Weissglass, spelt out what the purpose of the disengagement from Gaza was: to put the peace process in “formaldehyde” and take the prospect of a Palestinian state permanently off the bargaining table.
With Obama now stating categorically, though with seeming design, that the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”, a question naturally arises about his attitude towards the ones that already exist as “facts on the ground”. Yet even with this element of ambiguity introduced with obvious regard for Israeli sensitivities, the arch-Zionist administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brusquely dismissed the U.S. posture. Indeed, Netanyahu’s principal focus, ever since the Obama presidency began, has been to change the subject and solicit U.S. interest in a military strike to decapitate Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programme.
Israel is counting on the endorsement for its plans against the Islamic Republic, of its secret allies in the Arab world – the conservative oil sheikhdoms, Jordan and the newly-elected Lebanese ruling coalition – which are all deeply worried about the growing strategic clout of Iran. Yet the U.S. is uneasily aware that its own recent misadventures have contributed to this outcome, and that a military engagement with Iran would recoil on it very badly, perhaps dooming it to certain failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, in the moral sense, it would be yet another vivid demonstration of U.S. double-standards and contempt for the Arab and Islamic world, that the fading superpower can ill afford.
In his infamous interview explicating what the hidden purpose of the 2004 Bush-Sharon exchange of letters was, Dov Weissglass remarked that the endorsement of the sole superpower was all Israel needed to go its own way in unilaterally determining future frontiers in Palestine. The point was reaffirmed by Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel during Bush’s visit of May 2008: what the superpower says, goes. Somehow, that arrogant presumption has failed to survive the global tide of revulsion that Israel’s successive assaults on the Palestinians have engendered. Global public opinion though could be denied and fobbed off, but not the shockwaves of the global financial meltdown, which have crippled and perhaps, permanently incapacitated the sole superpower.
Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. When Denis Mitchell, the U.S. President’s special envoy for Palestine, visited Israel shortly after Obama’s Cairo speech, he was at pains to emphasise that despite all the seeming changes in the idiom, the U.S. remained bound by the Bush-Sharon exchange of letters. Evidence, if any were needed, that despite the bad odour that surrounds them, the Israel lobby and the neo-conservatives who have contrived a geostrategic mess of unprecedented proportions, still retain a degree of influence within the U.S.