Saving Peace from the Peace Activists

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December 18, 2009

Things have been tough in the UK for the Israeli government. The British government has advised importers to label Israeli goods brought in from the Occupied Territories, including the Golan Heights; pro-Palestinian activists got an arrest warrant issued for war crimes against opposition leader Tzipi Livni; and the new EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, (also British), caused a row in Jerusalem by daring to talk about the “occupation.”

But wait, what was that middle item? It seems different from the others, and it was. The arrest warrant was an activist-inspired act…and it backfired.

Livni cancelled a planned trip to England for fear that the arrest warrant would be executed upon her arrival. Israel raised a great cry with the British government and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband vowed to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again.

This was a serious setback to efforts to promote some kind of accountability for Israel’s actions in Gaza, and was thus a much bigger development than might be initially thought. It’s a great example of the damage that ill-conceived activism can do.

The arrest warrant was based on a principle in international law called universal jurisdiction. Under this principle, countries can arrest and prosecute perpetrators of major violations of international law, even if that country was not itself involved in any way with the incident in question.

It is a principle that Israeli officials have great concern about. More than once, Israeli officials have been advised against travelling to certain countries for fear of arrest. Earlier in 2009, a case was raised in Spain under universal jurisdiction against former Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for the 2002 bombing of a Gaza apartment complex. The case was dismissed, but it illustrates why Israel has such concern over this legal principle.

The threat of applying universal jurisdiction is a major, though often unspoken, lever used by both diplomats and NGOs to press Israel for accountability and adherence to international law. It is especially useful with Israel because it, unlike for example, the USA, can more reasonably expect that their officials could be arrested and they travel frequently to Europe, which is where the principle is most likely to be applied.

The United Kingdom is a particularly important site for universal jurisdiction. It was there that, under this principle, Augusto Pinochet was arrested in 1998. In 2005, retired Israeli general Doron Almog was forced to remain on his plane and eventually turn around and return to Israel for fear of arrest. [An interesting aside is that the first real case of universal jurisdiction, though it wasn’t called that at the time, was applied is generally understood to have been the Eichmann capture and trial.] And now, thanks to the foolhardiness of activists, the British government is acting to make sure this threat is permanently removed.

Universal jurisdiction, like many principles of international law, isn’t well conceived. It’s a heavily politicized process and as a result, it’s rarely been used successfully. But the threat of its use can help encourage accountability—better to adhere to the law or do domestic and credible investigations than risk being tried in a much less friendly environment in Europe. Universal jurisdiction’s presence underlay much of the activity of Israeli NGOs that have been pushing for credible investigations of Operation Cast Lead.

I’m deeply opposed to Israeli officials being arrested or tried based on universal jurisdiction. When such trials are held for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, I’ll reconsider. But the presence of the threat is an important tool and that tool has now been blunted by over-zealous radicals so they could gather in a pub, toast themselves over pints of bitter and congratulate themselves for having gotten an arrest warrant issued against Livni.

Activism cannot be guided solely by passion. Most people the world over want the Israeli/Palestinian conflict resolved, and most reasonable people want it resolved in a way that is as just as possible and that allows Israelis and Palestinians to move forward with something resembling normal lives. To some of us, this issue raises strong emotions.

But if those emotions guide our actions we are very likely to make matters worse, as the British activists did here. In part, this rises from a basic viewpoint where one side is the “good” and the other the “evil.” Those poles, which are represented as supporters of Israeli settlements on one side and of the so-called “Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions Movement” on the other, end up doing a great deal of harm to their own side by allowing the other to paint their opposition as myopic radicals.

But activism without a serious political and strategic analysis can be just as damaging. We saw an example of that this week in the House of Representatives with the passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) with an overwhelming majority.

Almost all of the Jewish community (with the exception of Americans for Peace Now (APN), whose lone voice of reason in a wilderness of absurdity is to be commended) united behind this AIPAC-driven legislation. That was true despite the fact that IRPSA runs counter to current White House tactics, and is opposed by virtually every serious analyst across the political spectrum, right to left. Indeed, many of the bill’s supporters admit that the legislation is not going to improve the situation. The arguments for it are all empty (it is to help the Iranian resistance, which is in absolute opposition to the bill; it will give more tools to the President, who is equally opposed) and numerous House offices I spoke to told me they know it is a very bad bill, but voted for it because it was going to pass anyway and it helps them curry political favor for other issues, including the peace process.

Indeed, a panel of four experts testifying before a subcommittee the day of the vote all agreed, for a variety of reasons that this was a bad bill. As with APN, they would support a good, well-thought out piece of legislation that would put effective pressure on Iran. But IRPSA won’t do that.

Even J Street supported IRPSA for political reasons they are better equipped than I to explain, although I understand them while disagreeing with the calculus.

So here is a bill pushed by AIPAC that will, virtually all experts agree, harm the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet it goes through because political activists, Jewish and not, came together to push it because they are scared and want to do something to stop Iran.

Diplomacy without an overall strategy doesn’t work. Neither does activism. Supporters of Israeli settlements have no vision of an endgame other than perpetual occupation and perhaps some wistful daydreams about mass expulsion of Palestinians. Supporters of Palestinians have pipe dreams of shutting off the flow of American support to Israel or a massive European boycott of Israeli goods. These are mere dreams, with no basis in reality. When activists act to advance such agendas, they work counter to their own purposes.

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