Bibi Is On “The Wrong Side of History” When He Opposes Arab Uprisings

by James M. Wall

Professor Fawaz A. Gerges explained why Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu tried to use his considerable political muscle in a failed effort to keep Hosni Mubarak in power.

Gerges, who teaches Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, described the Arab uprising for BBC New Middle East :

Regionally, Israel is the biggest loser. It has put all its eggs into the basket of Arab dictators and autocrats, like Egypt’s deposed Hosni Mubarak. Israel fought tooth and nail to support Mr Mubarak, who played a key role in tightening the siege of Gaza and the noose around Hamas’s neck.

Few members of the US Congress would agree with Professor Gerges. A large majority of the Congress sees nothing wrong with automatically approving an annual $3 billion contribution to the government of Israel, the responsible party to that “siege of Gaza”.

A recent debate in New York City’s New School featured two Democratic Party antagonists on the Israel/Palestine issue: Brian Baird, the former Washington state congressman, and Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner.

Philip Weiss described the debate for Mondoweiss:

The conversation was deftly moderated by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who was not afraid to call Weiner out when the congressman said there are no Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, or when he said that all the settlements are in Israel.

The chief response to the debate so far (besides the predictable at the National Review) has been shock at Anthony Weiner’s contempt for international law and Palestinian humanity.

A politician who has distinguished himself on healthcare reform and economic justice issues in the US, resorts to “It’s war, and war is hell” arguments when Baird, a clinical psychologist by training, describes the destruction of schools and innocent families and U.N. compounds by Israeli bombing, and the collective punishment of millions of people denied lentils, toothpaste, building materials, and the freedom to move beyond a territory less than the size of New York City.

Weiner’s obvious lack of information about the West Bank and Gaza was in sharp contrast to Baird’s informed passion over the issue. This wide gap between Weiner and Baird  illustrates why there is such a desperate need in this country for Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy.

Eltahawy is a columnist based in New York who writes for Canada’s Toronto Star, Israel’s The Jerusalem Report and Denmark’s Politiken. Her opinion pieces have been published in The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune.

Before moving to the U.S. in 2000, Eltahawy was a news reporter in the Middle East for many years, and worked in Cairo and Jerusalem as a Reuters correspondent. She has also reported for various media from Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China.

Eltahawy was all over the media during the Egyptian uprising, on one occasion confronting Alan Dershowitz on CNN.

In an appearance with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Feb 1, Eltahawy talked about her conversation with Dershowitz, and about her effort to convince American media to stop calling the uprising in Egypt a “crisis”.  It was not a crisis, she pointed out. For Egyptians, it was an opportunity.

Two months before the Egyptian uprising the US Congress experienced its own major upheaval. Republicans took over the House while Democrats experienced a reduction in its control of the Senate.

Where Israel is concerned, parties don’t matter much. Both Republicans and Democrats march to the drumbeat of the Israel Lobby. There were, however, a large number of new members elected in 2010.

Which explains why AIPAC was concerned about those Republican first-termers, many of them backed by the Tea Party. AIPAC  knew that these tea partiers were extreme fiscal conservatives who were determined to attack the federal budget from top to bottom.

In a recent Huffington Post essay, MJ Rosenberg described how AIPAC dealt with the problem:

Shortly after the election, AIPAC produced a letter for all those new Republican members to sign in which they pledged that, no matter what else they cut, Israel would be exempt. And almost immediately, 65 of the 87 Republican freshmen signed on. (More signed on later).

Among the signatories are some of the most vehement supporters of cutting virtually every domestic program. These are people who support cutting jobs in their own districts and proudly point to their devotion to the principle that shared sacrifice means everyone. But not Israel.

In its lockstep response to AIPAC,  Congress appears incapable of grasping the full significance of the Arab uprising. They need to listen to Rashid Khalidi, who calls the uprising a “sea change”.

In a recent Nation column,  Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, describes that “sea change” as a major shift in perceptions about Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners.

Suddenly, to be an Arab has become a good thing. People all over the Arab world feel a sense of pride in shaking off decades of cowed passivity under dictatorships that ruled with no deference to popular wishes. . . .  Before, when anything Muslim or Middle Eastern or Arab was reported on, it was almost always with a heavy negative connotation.

Now, during this Arab spring this has ceased to be the case. An area that was a byword for political stagnation is witnessing a rapid transformation that has caught the attention of the world.

Khalidi writes that this “sea change” shift in perception shows

how superficial, and how false, were most Western media images of this region. Virtually all we heard about were the ubiquitous terrorists, the omnipresent bearded radicals and their veiled companions trying to impose Sharia and the corrupt, brutal despots who were the only option for control of such undesirables.

In US government-speak, faithfully repeated by the mainstream media, most of that corruption and brutality was airbrushed out through the use of mendacious terms like “moderates” (i.e., those who do and say what we want). That locution, and the one used to denigrate the people of the region, “the Arab street,” should now be permanently retired.

Khalidi cautions us to be aware that this shift in perception of the region remains “very fragile”

Even if all the Arab despots are overthrown, there is an enormous investment in the “us versus them” view of the region.

This includes not only entire bureaucratic empires engaged in fighting the “war on terror,” not only the industries that supply this war and the battalions of contractors and consultants so generously rewarded for their services in it; it also includes a large ideological archipelago of faux expertise, with vast shoals of “terrorologists” deeply committed to propagating this caricature of the Middle East. . . .

They are the ones who systematically taught Americans not to see the real Arab world: the unions, those with a commitment to the rule of law, the tech-savvy young people, the feminists, the artists and intellectuals, those with a reasonable knowledge of Western culture and values, the ordinary people who simply want decent opportunities and a voice in how they are governed.

Khalidi concludes with this sober reminder:

Things could easily and very quickly change for the worse in the Arab world, and that could rapidly erode these tender new perceptions. Nothing has yet been resolved in any Arab country, not even in Tunisia or Egypt, where the despots are gone but a real transformation has barely begun.

Who in the region benefits from holding on to the false views of Arabs?  First in a long line is the current government of the state of Israel and its many friends in America.,

During the Egyptian uprising Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu put heavy pressure on the US to keep Hosni Muburak in power. Netanyahu instructed his supporters in the US Congress to warn President Obama that Mubarak’s fall would lead to dire consequences for the region.

In an effort to break from the policies of the current right wing Israeli government, many liberals have rallied around the banner of J Street, the “pro Israel, pro peace” alternative to the Israel Lobby.

At this year’s third annual Washington Conference, J Street attracted more than 2000 enthused participants who cheered speakers, some of whom were critical of Israel. However, right on cue, when the final conference statement was released, it cast its vote for an Israel determined to control the region by military power alone.

Just weeks after the start of the Arab uprising toward freedom and justice, J Street repeated the mantra: Nothing must be done to threaten that ten year guarantee of military aid from US taxpayers to Israel.

That guarantee comes from a Bush era contract that runs from 2007 to 2018, a total of $30 billion from the US to Israel, at $3 billion a year. That would be $3 billion a year from a US economy that is woefully cash-strapped.

Many of my liberal friends swear by J Street.  They see it as the only hope for peace. I have to agree that J Street is an attractive alternative to AIPAC. Nevertheless, it advocates a militaristic alternative which in the present hopeful climate, is self-defeating.

The Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy rejects that militaristic alternative. The organizers of the J Street conference had to know of Eltahawy’s passionate views about Middle East governments that exercise tight control over the Arab populations.  So it is very much to J Street’s credit that it gave Eltahawy a place on its program.

When Eltahawy laid out the history and the significance of the various uprisings by a new generation of Arabs she was greeted enthusiastically by the J Streeters.

Finally, we move from the young prophetic voice of Mona Eltahawy to the wisdom of Israeli activist Uri Avnery, still going at 87, who began his March 5 column:

Of all the memorable phrases uttered by Barack Obama in the last two years, the one that stuck in my mind more than any other appeared in his historic speech in Cairo in the early days of his term. He warned the nations not to place themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

It seems that the Arab nations took heed of this advice more than he might have anticipated. In the last few weeks they jumped from the wrong to the right side of history. And what a jump it was!

The picture at the top shows a sign that depicts in Arabic and English, the day of liberation in Egypt. It was taken in Cairo for Reuters by Peter Andrews. The picture ran in the London Guardian.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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11 Responses to Bibi Is On “The Wrong Side of History” When He Opposes Arab Uprisings

  1. Robert H Stiver says:

    What a great read! Thank you, as always, Jim — especially for the candid reporting on J Street, which is nothing more than AIPAC-lite.

  2. Robert Assaly says:

    JA wonderfully comprehensive insight.

    For someone like me who possesses no depth of insight into American politics, rather considers the global picture, I am left with the question of why Mr. Obama would cast a UN veto in diametric opposition to another statement he made in the same Cairo speech, and thus place the US squarely “on the wrong side of history.” Some of the comments responding to your piece addressing the veto only touched on it.

    Was the Cairo speech a ruse? A naive error of an unseasoned Prez? Ancient American political history by now? Or….? Do tell.

  3. Martin says:

    Again, Thank you Jim.
    You have not only shown us that we need better Congresspeople, but that we have a major job in helping them understand the big issues. You’ve given us the background to do our job when WE make our voices heard in Washington.
    The CMEP conference is coming up. I’m tucking this column away for that lobbying effort.

  4. Willis says:

    Obama is on the wrong side of history by vetoing the UN resolution on Israel boundaries. His best chance for re-election is to make Palestine an early stop on his re-election campaign and pledge support of the UN position. AIPAC influence in the Senate and House would dry up fast in the ensuing debate. He and like-minded candidates would be elected by a significant majority.

  5. Willis Unke says:

    Obama is on the wrong side of history by vetoing the UN resolution on Israel boundaries. His best chance for re-election is to make Palestine an early stop on his re-election campaign and pledge support of the UN position. AIPAC influence in the Senate and House would dry up fast in the ensuing debate. He and like-minded candidates would be elected by a significant majority.

  6. Ed McCarthy says:

    I am going to dissent a bit, particularly with regard to characterizations of J Street as “AIPAC-lite” and in the end a supporter of Israeli militarism. I attended the conference (I will attend the CMEP conference as well) and lobbied without hesitation for an “ask” which indeed called for approval of the agreed-upon $3 billion a year for Israel. I had to swallow hard to do that but I recognize some realities of J Street’s life: If they are going to continue to make inroads against the AIPAC neanderthals, they have to maintain credibility with both an American Jewish community virtually obsessed with Israeli security, and with an American Congress all too ready to indulge pro-Israeli paranoia on that point. J Street has to pick its fights. Approval of military aid to Israel–the only kind they get these days–is a fait accompli. Those who would make demands for the cutoff or suspension of military aid to Israel are wasting their own and Congress’ time. J Street has limits and shortcomings. So, in spades, do those who think they are helping the Palestinians by putting energy into marginal and probably insufficiently effective exercises like BDS and lobbying Congress for the politically impossible instead of concentrating on building constituencies supportive of American Government action to bring about the only viable solution for the foreseeable future, a 2-State solution as fair to both Israelis and Palestinians as can realistically be expected. AIPAC and its allies in part own Capitol Hill because there has been no capable and focussed effort to challenge the Israeli lobby’s hegemony. We have a President who, unlike his predecessors, took on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in his first term. What he has gotten for his pains has been denunciations from the pro-Palestinian camp and suspicion from the friends of Israel. On both sides, there is manifest an obtuseness and willingness to miss opportunities, in the interest of upholding absolute positions, that comes close to boggling the mind.

  7. lidia says:

    Bibi is a colonizer. Obama is an imperialist. Both behave just like they must. Unless they turn into anti-colonizers and anti-imperialists, it is odd to expect something else from them.

    It is NOT Bibi on the wrong side of the history – it is Zionist Israel and imperialist USA. OK, we’ll manage without them, do not you worry.

  8. Sam Jones says:

    Great article which captures the “shocking” revelation to the American public that Arab peoples, in all their diversity, want things like freedom, representative government, etc. not according to the U.S. model but one they will develop themselves. Also, I have been wrestling with a question since watching the Baird-Weiner debate. Much of the coverage has discussed Weiner’s ignorance when it came to his remarks (e.g. no IDF presence in the West Bank). I’m surprised that there has not been more coverage not of his ignorance but his ideology, namely that he defined the borders of Israel to be the Jordan and the Mediterranean. For someone who enjoyed Weiner’s fearsome defense of 9/11 workers, it was a sad revelation indeed.

  9. Patricia Pynchon says:

    Excellent commentary. Hurrah for Monica–the Palestinians must gain freedom and dignity, and the chance to lead fulfilled lives before we can exult.

  10. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim: Another fine article. I agree with Khalidi that a sea change is taking place all over the Arab world under dictatorships. Let us hope that we can nurture it. Harris Fawell

  11. Bill Gepford says:

    Jim, you are right on target as usual. Again my thanks. As I write I just read that Israel has requested from Congress an additional 20 billion dollars in military aid, The justification in the eyes of the Lobby: Uncertainty in that part of the world due to the Arab protestors rising up against their dictators! All I can say is: good for them! This, even in the midst of our own financial crisis. They are guarnteed to get the money, knowing that our goverenment won’t refuse .Sad, to say the least.

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