Thursday, June 09, 2011

M.F. Husain and the mob censorship of art

Delhi High Court grants a reprieve for artistic freedom
(Written after the Delhi High Court ruling of May 2008, quashing criminal proceedings launched against M.F. Husain in various courts of the country)

Few realms of artistic or scholarly excellence were spared the fallout of India’s bitter communal polarisation of the 1990s and beyond. Circumstances were especially hazardous for artists and scholars who drew their inspiration from the rich syncretism of Indian folk traditions. And as events have proven, few were more vulnerable than Maqbool Fida Husain, whose work has been an ongoing and intense engagement with popular culture.

Whether Husain is observant or otherwise of the faith he was born into is immaterial. For the cultural police squads that arose on the wave of neo-nationalist zealotry, the name he bears was sufficient cause to question his entire body of work. No person whose overt social identity was quite so alien to the intrinsic and primordial cultural character of the Indian nation -- as it was then portrayed -- could be permitted the audacity to produce a body of work suffused with the iconography of the Hindu pantheon.

The epigraph to the landmark judgment by the Delhi High Court, dismissing the summons issued Husain to answer criminal charges in cases filed from literally all parts of the country, quotes the legendary Pablo Picasso on the necessarily subversive quality of art. “Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared”.

Picasso was not, most assuredly, making a case for keeping art in sequestration from the lay public and preserving it as a domain for the specialist. That indeed, would be a spirit impossible to reconcile with his work. More particularly, it would be contrary to Husain’s own creative ethos, which as he explained in a recent interview with the weekly magazine Tehelka, is all about art for the people: “I never wanted to be clever, esoteric, abstract. I wanted to make simple statements. I wanted my canvases to have a story. I wanted my art to talk to people” (Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 4, Dated Feb 02, 2008).

Clearly, in Husain’s creative universe, there are no ignorant or unwashed masses needing tutelage.

Ignorance perhaps is not so much the issue as the cloistered mind and a sensibility that allows finer perceptions to be overwhelmed at the slightest sniff of political opportunity.

The arguments for and against Husain have been rehearsed endlessly ever since he became the focus of Hindutva ire in the mid-1990s. That the right to free speech does not constitute the right to cause offence or to inflame social sensibilities is of course a well accepted principle of liberal jurisprudence. But when does an act cease being a rightful exercise in free speech and begin to be a provocation? Does the nude depiction of figures from a religious pantheon, in a manner that is integrally connected with classical iconographic traditions, constitute an offence to social sensibilities? Campaign groups arguing Husain’s case, seeking to end his hapless years of exile from India, have been arguing precisely that.

The riposte, as in many such matters, has come from the ideological obermeister of the Hindutva flock, Arun Shourie.
Prefacing his damning remarks with some semblance of compassion, Shourie recently wrote of Husain: “He is a kindly man, and a prodigiously productive artist. There is no warrant at all for disrupting all his exhibitions”. Indeed, Shourie allows Husain the further concession that his depictions of Hindu goddesses “in less than skimpy attire” could pass muster on grounds of sensibility and inspiration, if only it did not leave unanswered a crucial question: “How come in the seventy-five years Husain has been painting, he has not once felt inspired, not once, to paint the face of the Prophet? It doesn’t have to be in the style in which he has painted the Hindu goddesses. Why not the most beautiful, the most radiant and luminous face that he can imagine? How come he has never felt inspired to paint women revered in Islam, or in his own family, in the same style as the one that propelled his inspiration in regard to Hindu goddesses?” (Arun Shourie, “Hindutva and Radical Islam: Where the twain do meet”, The Indian Express, Delhi, Friday, December 28, 2007).

An artist in a free society is at liberty to choose the motifs that he would like to represent, the cultural lineages that he draws from, and the forms and idioms that he would like to emulate, develop and (if possible) enrich through his practice. In suggesting that Husain should have remained bound by the cultural symbols and traditions of the faith he was born into, or that in the midst of his aesthetic wanderings, he should occasionally have visited Islamic motifs, Shourie betrays a familiar, totalitarian mindset. He also dishonours Husain’s engagement with his craft and with the people of India in such epic political adventures as Rammanohar Lohia’s Ramayan Mela of the 1960s.

Besides, there is an answer to Shourie’s question that is so evident, that it could not possibly have escaped the comprehension of even one so culturally obtuse. Simply put, there is nothing like an equally vivid tradition of iconography in any other cultural tradition that Husain may have been exposed to. To hear Husain narrate the story of his early years as an artist of the people is to realise how deep has been his empathy with the diverse folk traditions of the country. “In 1948”, he recalls in the recent interview, “I exhibited my work publicly for the first time in the Bombay Arts Society show. I had already been painting and practising for years. .. I took the classical images of the Gupta bronzes -- the tribhanga form; the sensuous and erotic colours of Pahari paintings -- its deep maroons, blacks, haldi; and the nine rasas. I wanted my format to be classical, yet retain the innocence of the folk. (Francis) Souza came and asked me excitedly, from where have you got this? I didn’t tell him, I said, you go search it. This is what lies at the heart of the artistic enterprise. .... It is in picking from what has gone before. In India, there have been so many high periods -- Tanjore, Chola, Gupta… Centuries of seeing lie behind that. You cannot reinvent the wheel -- your individuality, your creative eye lies in what you pick”.

But wait, the moral precept of Hindutva is as Shourie very lucidly explains, “deceit towards the deceitful” and “wickedness towards the wicked”. The practical implications of this moral symmetry are clear. If Muslims have the liberty to engage in street protests and demand the withdrawal of cartoons denigrating the prophet of their faith, Hindus enjoy a like privilege.

Muslims worldwide mobilised in February 2006 against a Danish newspaper’s deliberately provocative publication of a series of cartoons representing the figure of the prophet of Islam as an accomplice in terrorism. Far from being an exercise in the right to free speech, the Danish newspaper was by its own boastful claim, engaged in an effort to rub in the superiority of western culture. Clearly, this was the ideological or unarmed component of the “global war on terror” that was then ostensibly being waged between the forces of civilisation and barbarism.

A key issue that emerged from the controversy was that of intent. In all such matters involving rival perceptions of the right to free speech and expression, intent matters. The Danish newspaper had made no secret of its intent to cause offence.

Husain in contrast has never had any intent except to connect to the people in a purely aesthetic form.

Another implication of Shourie’s moral symmetry was laid out by a spokesman for Hindutva, who reacted in fury to the industrialist Vinay Bharat Ram’s defence of Husain. Would “pseudo-secular intellectuals”, asked the agitated propagandist for Hindutva, show the same “breadth of vision and understanding towards the work of an unknown Hindu artist called Kailash Tewari from Bhopal”. This unknown hero, it transpires, was in June 2007, asked to take down an exhibition for its inflammatory representations of the people of another faith. Asked about the incident, the aggrieved painter argued: “My exhibition titled The Face of Terror depicts the truth. I am not talking about Muslims, but unfortunately all terrorists turn out to be Muslims”. (This specific link is available at; it can also be accessed through the website set up by body of non-resident Indians, with the specific intent of taking down M.F. Husain:

Thus the many hued richness of Husain’s work, with its characteristic imprint of playfulness, its homage to diverse traditions, and its signature qualities, which are now perhaps the most widely recognised in Indian art, is equated on a moral plane, with the output of a paintbrush hack with political motivations and abundant reserves of social bigotry. It could be said that this is the reductio ad absurdum of Hindutva aesthetics.

The judgment of the Delhi High Court, delivered May 8, 2008 by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, in the matter of Maqbool Fida Husain versus others, dismissing the summons issued Husain in a diverse number of cases filed by individual litigants, is valuable in bringing the focus back on intent and dispelling several of these absurd moral equivalences. There were two grounds on which the petitioners from places as far afield as Pandharpur (Husain’s home village in Maharashtra), Bhopal and Delhi, had filed petitions for the criminal prosecution of Husain: “obscenity” which warrants prosecution under articles 292 and 294 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), “causing offence to religious sensibilities”, which is covered under articles 295 and 298, and “creating ill-will among communities on religious grounds” which is covered under article 153.

Since “intent” is the point under discussion, it might be good to first take up the charge of “causing offence to religious sensibilities”. Justice Kaul has clearly held that the charge under these sections of the IPC must establish the intent to cause such offence. In other words, the untitled painting rendered by Husain at some point in the distant past, which passed into a private collection and was brought out to the public domain in 2006 under the title “Bharat Mata” as part of an art auction for the victims of the Kashmir earthquake of October 2005, does not establish any such intent. As Justice Kaul observes in paragraph 107 of his judgment: “the impugned painting cannot form the basis of any deliberate intention to wound the religious feelings of the complainants since the figure, on the basis of the identity alleged, represents an anthropomorphic depiction of a nation as also that to hold a person liable under the above said section, mere knowledge of the likelihood that the religious feelings of another person may be wounded would not be sufficient.”

When it comes to the charge of “obscenity” though, the test of intent does not apply. From an extended review of case law on “obscenity”, Justice Kaul concludes that “Knowledge is not a part of the guilty act. The offender's knowledge of the obscenity of the impugned matter is not required under the law and it is a case of strict liability”. In other words, whether he had the intent or not, whether the knowledge existed or not, if an act, an utterance, a song, or a representation by an individual meets the criterion of “obscenity” in a social framework, that individual is liable to strict punishment.

Within this strict standard though, Justice Kaul points out in paragraph 70 of his landmark judgment, that “to fall within the scope of ‘obscene’.. the ingredients of the impugned matter/art must lie at the extreme end of the spectrum of the offensive matter. The legal test of obscenity is satisfied only when the impugned art/matter can be said to appeal to an unhealthy, inordinate person having perverted interest in sexual matters or having a tendency to morally corrupt and debase persons likely to come in contact with the impugned art”.

The complainants against Husain had sought to buttress their charge of “obscenity” on the basis of “the nudity of the figure depicted in the painting and the identity of the figure alleged as ‘Bharat Mata’”. But Justice Kaul concludes in paragraph 72 after weighing all the evidence, that “the alleged identity of the figure has no bearing on the alleged obscenity of the said painting. The alleged ‘Bharat Mata’ painting in issue was at no given point in time either given a title or publicly exhibited by the petitioner. The petitioner had no involvement in any manner with the said on-line auction for charity”.

All these are significant contributions to the right to free expression. But where Justice Kaul perhaps makes his most significant jurisprudential breakthrough for this age of the worldwide web, the internet and all its possibilities of instant communications, is in the matter of jurisdiction. A nonagenarian artist with no greater ambitions than living out the rest of his years in peace and tranquillity, has for over a decade been venomously targeted and forced to flee the milieu that he has loved and flourished in, merely because political circumstances have made his variety of celebratory, eclectic art a taboo. And the wide diffusion of his work through the new modes of communication available, has made it easier for politically motivated individuals to target him.

In this context, Justice Kaul warns that the “criminal justice system”, “ought not to be invoked as a convenient recourse to ventilate any and all objections to an artistic work”. This makes the role of the magistrate who first receives the complaint, not merely “discretionary” but “obligatory”. The magistrate is obliged to “scrutinise each case in order to prevent vexatious and frivolous cases from being filed” and to ensure that litigation is not used as “a tool to harass the accused, which (would) amount to a gross abuse of the process of the court”. Where private complaints are involved, they should typically not be admitted without prior investigation.

There has been a wealth of rulings decreeing that where a multitude of cases arises from a single incident, requiring the respondent to appear in different jurisdictions, the cases should be centralised in one single judicial forum for ease of disposal in accordance with principles that will be consistent internally and would serve as firm precedent. Such a practice would also spare the respondent from undue harassment. By invoking separate jurisdictions and often, different clauses of the law, the forces of social bigotry have ensured for long that Maqbool Fida Husain has become a marginal presence in Indian social life. The May 8 ruling by the Delhi High Court, hopefully, represents the death sentence for this particular strategy for the incessant harassment of artistic creativity.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Second Wind for U.S. Imperialism - Now with Chinese Support

Henry Kissinger, On China, Allen Lane, London, 2011, pp xviii + 586, ISBN 978-1-846-14346-5.

Any work on China today would be a marketable proposition and the author here, with his long record of active engagement with the subject, is most unlikely to suffer critical neglect. Despite the capacious title, suggestive of a compendium of diverse writings drawn from various times, this book is obviously written as an integral whole and has the specific focus of understanding China’s emerging profile in strategic affairs.

It is a story that Kissinger begins by delving into the far reaches of history, where he finds the origins of the “singularity” of China, its “special feature” in having “no beginning” and its unique historical identity, less “conventional nation-state than a permanent natural phenomenon”.

These references to China as a historical entity need to be understood in context, since a similar mysticism often attaches itself to conceptions of India. Nationalist ideologies in their formation, often call upon storied myths, ostensibly from a distant past, to establish a unique claim to identity and existence. Chinese exceptionalism is undoubtedly a factor in its contemporary existence as a nation-state, but there are few nations that are not constituted on some notion of uniqueness. These may influence their conduct in global strategic affairs, though in the growing complexity of today’s geopolitics, “original” constructions of national identity are likely to be less influential than pragmatism and cold calculations of economic advantage.

Kissinger’s primary concern is in addressing the likelihood of conflict –today more real than the possibility of convergence – in the U.S. relationship with China. It is a relationship that is seen as central to the world economy. Evidence comes in the term “Chimerica” coined by the historian Niall Ferguson, a tireless advocate of the need to structure the world in accordance with an imperial logic that embodies what he sees as indispensable western values.

Put very simply, Chimerica refers, in Ferguson’s words, “to the combination of the Chinese and American economies, which together had become the key driver of the global economy” in the first years of the 21st century. “With a combined 13 percent of the world’s land surface and around a quarter of its population, Chimerica nevertheless accounted for a third of global economic output and two-fifths of worldwide growth from 1998 to 2007”.

Early hopes that a global order – a Pax Chimericana to follow the Pax Americana -- could be constructed on these foundations, have since faded. Ferguson himself has written the obituary of Chimerica, since it led as he says, to an untrammelled growth in global economic imbalances, a shocking abdication of fiscal responsibility by the U.S., and the gaming of the system by the Chinese monetary and fiscal authorities.

Kissinger’s worries, considerably different, are stated towards the latter chapters, which go from a consideration of contemporary times, into a prognosis of the future world order. The U.S. and China, he observes, have been “not so much nation-states as continental expressions of cultural identities”. The two are yet to work out a “joint concept of world order” and in working towards this shared vision, Kissinger identifies two divergent strands in the Chinese strategic establishment.

There are the extreme voices, which believe that nothing less than the resurrection of China’s historic role as the cultural and political hegemon in Asia – and indeed the world – will serve to restore the faltering world order. Counter-posed to these are the mellower voices, derived from the Mao Zedong legacy, which foreswore hegemonic ambitions as a matter of principle, and Deng Xiaoping, who arrived at a like conclusion from practical worries about China’s desperate poverty during his time at the helm.

Kissinger is yet unclear about which of these tendencies will triumph. But he believes quite unambiguously, that the future of the Asian landmass and indeed of the world, will depend on how this question is sorted out. What remains to be dealt with, “is to move from crisis management to a definition of common goals, from the solution of strategic controversies to their avoidance”. In the next phase, China and the U.S. should “develop genuine strategic trust” and from there, “evolve a genuine partnership and a world order based on cooperation”.

Symmetry in attitudes would obviously facilitate a constructive dialogue and in this regard, questions could be posed about the current mood within the U.S. strategic community. The two doctrinal strands within China that Kissinger identifies have their counterparts in the U.S. and the divergences there are in fact, becoming ever sharper as economic difficulties multiply and political consensus crumbles. The Project for the New American Century, drawn up towards the end of the 20th century by a far-right group that had decisive influence over the Republican Party for quite some time, is the template for one mode of engagement, based upon a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism and the imposition of a hegemony through the ruthless application of hard and soft power.

There are other, more pragmatic schools of thought, which are now emerging into the light after a long eclipse -- as the U.S. pursued the so-called “global war on terror” in accordance with a doctrine of maximum force.

Kissinger does not directly address the possible implications of domestic discord within the U.S. for strategic engagement and the evolution of a new idiom of cooperation with China. He seems to fall back on pragmatism as the final arbiter, which will prevail as the limits of U.S. power – of both the hard and soft variety – become increasingly evident. He calls upon a large number of historical precedents to bolster the case, beginning with the active U.S. effort to mediate a peace between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists during World War II.

The communist triumph led to great acrimony in the U.S. strategic establishment and a depletion of expertise as individuals with knowledge of China were compelled to leave official positions, unable to bear the heat. This led, in Kissinger’s narration, to an imbalance of skills – and perceptions -- within the U.S. State Department. The continuing presence of a number of redoubtable experts on the Soviet Union, when the China group had been evicted, meant that policy remained resolutely focused on containment and deterrence of the Soviets, to the exclusion of other lines of potentially fruitful engagement.

Anti-communist dogma moreover, was an enveloping force. The rigid and uncompromising mood was symbolised best by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ refusal to shake hands with the Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai, at the Geneva conference on Vietnam in 1954. Kissinger argues with a wealth of quotations, that plausible arguments were continually being advanced for breaking out of the envelope. These drew on more complex calculations, invariably involving the need to gain strategic advantage over the Soviet Union. These possibilities though were thwarted by the intrusion of another dogma of the early Cold War years: that President Tito of Yugoslavia was an exception and communist nations would all in the ultimate analysis, stand together on issues of consequence.

On the other side, as Kissinger tells it, was Mao’s implacable will – “domineering and overwhelming” – and his determination to reinvent China through unending revolution. Most revolutions, Kissinger argues, are “institutionalised into a new system of order” once they are successful. But Mao’s revolution “had no final resting place” and his China was “by design, a country in permanent crisis”.

Soon after the successful consummation of the revolution, Mao plunged into a war in the Korean peninsula, equipped with no more than a cursory guarantee of backing from the Soviet Union and unmindful of the very real threat of nuclear retaliation by the U.S. In 1954, barely a year after the formal armistice that ended the Korean war – and again in 1958 -- he plunged into a confrontation with the U.S. in the Taiwan straits. And in 1962, he launched China into another war, this time with India.

All the while, the relationship to the east remained frozen in suspicion as Japan’s economic reconstruction proceeded rapidly, and the supposed socialist solidarity with the Soviet Union was being shredded by territorial disputes and legacies of history.

Through these escalating confrontations abroad, China under Mao was undergoing a series of internal convulsions – from the “Hundred Flowers” campaign and its very rapid reversal, to the “Great Leap Forward” and the near cataclysm of the “Cultural Revolution”. The dramatic opening to the U.S. happened soon afterwards and it is a process that Kissinger is uniquely positioned to describe, having been among its most active agents.

Mutual overtures between the U.S. and China had been underway for a while. The U.S. used Romania and Pakistan as intermediaries, while Mao himself sent out word through the American journalist Edgar Snow, a close friend from the Long March of the 1930s. Though these initial signals were either missed or misread, the dialogue could not for long be postponed. The U.S. was neck-deep in the Vietnam quagmire and China emerging, clearly disoriented, from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and a bitter power struggle that saw the ouster of Mao’s designated successor and ideological heir, Len Biao.

From the U.S. point of view, the rapprochement was about outflanking the Soviet Union and fashioning a face saving exit strategy from Vietnam. Though Kissinger does not say so explicitly, the clear inference that his narration points towards, is that Mao was towards his twilight years, keen to end the state of unending strife that he had made a virtue of through his revolutionary days. His priority at the time, may have been to bequeath to his heirs a stable geostrategic location that would enhance China’s opportunities and afford it the possibility of realising its historic destiny. And in making the retreat from the perennial revolution a reality, China counted upon an aphorism devised by imperial strategists seeking from the 18th century on, to fight back the erosion of centralised authority within the “Heavenly Kingdom”: that the friendship of far neighbours could be used to offset the difficulties posed by hostile near neighbours.

There was ample evidence moreover, of a serious rift between China and the Soviet Union. Kissinger does not mention it, but that was the decisive condition which influenced much of China’s global strategy through the 1970s and 80s, when the Cold War gained a renewed intensity with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, the revival of decolonisation struggles in Africa, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a new turmoil in West Asia.

China itself played the role of armed gendarme in this Cold War configuration by launching a twenty-nine day long military incursion into Vietnam – broader in terms of the deployment of men and material than even its intervention in the Korean war -- that reduced all the border cities in that country to smoking ruins.

Kissinger rather disingenuously describes this military adventure as the “Third Vietnam War”. Deliberately or otherwise, this nomenclatural innovation establishes a continuity between China’s intent in 1979 and the French effort to reclaim the colony it was compelled to vacate during World War II -- which the Vietnamese people defeated in 1954 -- and the U.S. attempt to keep the country safe for global capitalism, defeated in 1975.

Unseen in Kissinger’s narration is the sub-text of the Cold War and the enervation of an already exhausted Soviet bear, in which the Chinese shift towards preserving its hegemonic ambitions in Asia, was actively encouraged by the U.S.
Consequences were quick to follow. Under the oversight of the U.S., then slipping rapidly into a situation of chronic economic deficit, the counterpart surpluses that enabled the U.S. to continue along its pathway towards bankruptcy were held first by Japan (principally), and then by South Korea and Taiwan. None of these countries had any incentive to continue holding these U.S. dollar assets and chose instead, to invest in China. As South Korea, Taiwan and Japan sought to bring their serious payments imbalances with the U.S. under control, China ascended to the status of the largest exporter to the U.S. – and derivatively, to being the largest holder of U.S. government debt.

Early in his work, Kissinger describes a certain self-absorbed placidity as the central characteristic of Chinese civilisation. It was, he said, an attitude that led to seriously offensive references to anybody outside the cultural ambit, as a “barbarian”. The “barbarian” reference recurs in Kissinger’s work, though it has been long known to be a contested interpretation.

In the 1830s, with opium addiction – promoted by a flourishing three-way trade from India – becoming an increasing social concern, the Prime Minister of the Chinese imperial court issued a demand for the banning of the substance. The British foreign secretary, then the deeply egregious Palmerstone, argued that the banning of the opium trade would be an unconscionable curb on the rights of the British traders as long as the Chinese intermediaries continued to engage in it. It was, as a recent history of China by John Keay says, a rationale that would be deeply appreciated by all arms smugglers and terrorists today.

The Chinese imperial memorandum demanding the end of the opium trade was, moreover, thought to be gratuitously offensive, since it flung the deliberate insult of “barbarism” against the British imperial monarch.

The reality is that the term interpreted as “barbarian” in the official translation was understood in the authoritative idiomatic understanding then, as “foreigner”. The tendentious official translation was obviously part of the stratagem of making the case -- for Britain’s domestic constituency, which could be reliably counted upon to react violently to any affront to its monarch – for the Opium Wars by which imperialism sought to impose substance addiction on an entire people for the very pragmatic purpose of global balance-of-payments settlement.

Regarded as a key scholar and statesmen of the 20th century, Kissinger is known in the alternative wisdom, as a cynical practitioner of realpolitik, whose eager complicity in the use of force against Third World targets puts him squarely in the league of imperial adventurers. Though full of information about China, he is fundamentally unable to come up with a prescription that will guide global strategy towards a substantive break from the imperial logic. For all his pretences, he has no real knowledge of the economic substratum of international relations. The continuing accumulation of U.S. dollar assets in China is obviously the most major source of geopolitical instability today. China has relative autonomy in determining how these assets are deployed and it is not evident that the modes that it will choose would be attentive to the need, clearly an imperative in Kissinger’s worldview, to restore U.S. global hegemony to its crumbling perch.

The existential questions that Kissinger poses – of the possibility, if at all, that the U.S. and China would be able to achieve a strategic coherence that would make a new world order possible – could very easily be answered in the negative. The contours of the new world order remain to be determined, not by the Machiavellian deviousness of Kissinger and his ilk, but by the mass struggles of people seeking to build a better future for themselves.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Israel's scowling petulance

There were no standing ovations when U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the annual conclave of the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) in Washington DC. The atmosphere was formal and parts of his speech were met with what was described as “stony silence”. Shortly afterwards, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu rounded off a visit to the U.S. that was, behind the pretence of undying mutual love, all frayed tempers and defiance. His final act, an address to the U.S. Congress, had the more assiduous record keepers counting twenty-nine standing ovations. There was a signal there: he had scored one more than Obama did during his last State of the Union address before the same legislative body.

As the Israeli Prime Minister headed home, the American Zionist magazine -- Commentary -- smugly certified him the winner in the head-on clash with Obama. Using the simple barometer of the volume of applause won, the magazine with a record of loyal service to Zionism, offered the confident prognosis that the “Jewish state enjoys overwhelming and bipartisan support in this country”.

An “ambush” is how Obama’s major speech, delivered just ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, was described in the Zionist press. Netanyahu had been out-manoeuvred and out-flanked when Ariel Sharon, his bitter rival for Prime Ministership and the title of Zionist champion, had vacated the Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip in 2005. Prior to this, Sharon had exchanged letters with George W. Bush, then U.S. President, to make it official policy that Israel could -– in exchange for the Gaza withdrawal -- unilaterally define its borders with a putative Palestinian state in the West Bank.

The U.S. statement of policy then was vague and hesitant, but regarded as a sufficient endorsement of Zionist territorial annexation. This unilateral imposition of a “final status” settlement on Palestine, though, was thwarted by three implacable realities. Iraq erupted in full-fledged civil war in 2005, making nonsense of the U.S. venture to mould the Arab world in a manner of its choosing through military means. The Israeli gambit in abandoning Gaza, always very difficult terrain, in exchange for a free hand in defining facts on the ground in the West Bank, collapsed when its principal author, Sharon, was rendered hors de combat by a stroke in January 2006. And when elections were held in the Palestinian territories soon afterwards, the collaborationist Fatah was banished and the uncompromising Islamic grouping, Hamas, voted to power.

The Bush-Sharon stratagem went into a zone of uncertainty and was only revived when the discredited U.S. President made a long delayed visit to Israel towards the end of his term. A semblance of peace prevailed in Iraq and Sharon’s breakaway faction from the Likud was still in power. Israel had meanwhile earned global odium with an assault on Lebanon that clearly breached all norms of warfare and brought it little military advantage. Bush was greeted with great aplomb by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, who lauded him as the “superpower president”, whose writ would run through all foreseeable history. Bush’s letter to Sharon assuring him that the West Bank was Israel’s for the taking, was effectively global law.

Obama assumed the U.S. presidency just days after Israel had yet again chosen to test the world’s tolerance for war crimes, with a brutal and barbaric assault on the Gaza. He suffered the public humiliation of his Vice-President, Joseph Biden, when Israel chose the occasion of an official visit to announce new construction projects in occupied territory. Obama had to make his peace with the Zionist lobby in the U.S., while at the same time fulfilling a vow that the Iraq misadventure would end under his watch. The formula he offered, was that Israel should allow a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, subject to necessary land swaps and a fair deal for the people made refugees several times over since the ethnic cleansing of 1948.

There was nothing Obama said that went against the spirit of the agreed statement issued after a meeting between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in November 2010. Netanyahu was furious all the same, rejecting any possible return to the 1967 lines, simply because those were “indefensible” borders for Israel.

At an early moment in Netanyahu’s recent address to the U.S. Congress, a voluble protester was herded out of the visitors’ balcony after causing a momentary stir. Netanyahu recovered from the passing discomfiture to affirm that the atmosphere of freedom he saw in the congressional hall was indeed a boon to all humanity – a far cry from the “fake parliaments” of Tehran and Tripoli.

Israel’s Prime Minister, who leads a parliament that has been described by human rights groups as the most racist in the country’s history, repeatedly invoked the trope of shared values, that made an alliance between Israel and the U.S. an indispensable force for positive change in one of the world’s most benighted neighbourhoods.

Even as Netanyahu spoke, though, evolving realities in the Arab world were making nonsense of his self-serving propaganda. On May 10, observances of the nakba -– or day of dispossession -- by Palestinians in Syria led to a storming of the border fence maintained by Israel in the occupied Golan Heights. Several were killed in the Israeli armed action that followed, though the message imparted by the brutal Syrian regime, then facing a mass uprising for democracy, was not lost. Israel’s best interests lie in crushing the movements for democratic change in the Arab world, except when a peripheral country such as Libya is involved. Arab dictatorships are Israel’s best security guarantee. When the Arab world wakes up to democracy – as Palestine showed in 2006 and Egypt is now demonstrating – Israel would have reason to fear for its continuing existence as nation structured on racist principles, that has nonetheless managed to retain its democratic veneer.

June 2, 2011