Hussein Ibish
Ibishblog (Blog)
June 21, 2009 - 12:00am

A recent exchange with several people for whom I have respect and affection regarding the question of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian national strategy and interest raises a crucial point that needs much more serious examination in the conversation among Arab-Americans and their supporters regarding the role of outrage in political life. It boils down to this: being upset is not a strategy, and outrage, however moral, is not a political program.

I am all for outrage. Righteous anger is absolutely essential to political life. If we are not upset by injustice and the wrongs and ills of our societies, we will not devote time, money and other resources to political struggle. Personally, I would never have become politically engaged had I not experienced profound and visceral outrage borne of countless personal experiences and the overall disgraceful situation facing the Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab peoples I grew up surrounded by in Beirut. I don't know too many people who have developed a keener sense of umbrage at injustice or a deeper commitment to creating positive changes for the better, although these are qualities I obviously share with countless millions around the world. Outrage, therefore, is what brought me to political life, and what I think will bring most people who become engaged, as I think everyone ought to be.

However, there are serious limitations to the practical application of outrage. Having served its purpose as an indispensable motivating factor, outrage must quickly be coupled with a clearheaded and dispassionate analysis of how outrageous circumstances came to develop and are maintained. This means separating, at an early stage, one's emotions (which should not be jettisoned, but rather enhanced and refined by the facts) from our willingness to look at reality clearly, honestly and self-critically. This process takes time and is often painful, but it is absolutely essential. However, even this is not sufficient as an additional process that is even more significant to becoming an effective political actor is required. Motivating outrage and illuminating analysis must combine to produce a serious, practicable strategy for accomplishing realizable goals that take into account all the factors that help to shape political realities. This is the most difficult and painful step of all, for it requires unsentimentally assessing all the relevant factors in play, especially the factor of power, and distinguishing between achievable and unachievable goals, and effective and ineffective methods of pursuing them. It means making a clear distinction between words and deeds that advance an achievable goal and those that are counterproductive. It means determining a realizable objective, keeping one's eyes on the prize, and not being distracted by any considerations extraneous to achieving the aim. This does not mean abandoning principles at all, it means working seriously to advance them in the real world and pursuing success as opposed to failure.

For supporters of Palestine, this process of honest political reflection is particularly painful, especially because the array of power in all relevant equations is not favorable. However, Palestinians do have their own forms of power, particularly as regards the question of ending the occupation, if they apply them wisely. It would be wrong to see the Palestinian people as powerless objects of history rather than subjects fully engaged in shaping their own reality, however constrained their options sometimes may be. At the same time, it is self-defeating and foolish to believe that Palestinian national ambitions, even those that can be defended as moral, just, and rooted in international law, are not constrained by certain irreducible realities for which there is no practical remedy.

As I have observed several times recently, the outcome of the 1948 war is, as a matter of fact, irreversible. The state of Israel is a fait accompli, and there is no realistic prospect for the refugees to return en masse to Israel proper. Outrage, moral principles, invocations of international law, steadfastness, etc., are not strategies for achieving this result. Indeed, no one has ever forwarded a practical strategy for implementing the right of return on a mass scale, because it is perfectly obvious that the Israeli state is unshakable on this issue and that there is no plausible exercise of actually existing power that could change this fact. As I have observed elsewhere, the right of return is a vital principle of international law that should be upheld as a principle. I believe that Palestinian negotiators should press for Israel to recognize the right of return in principle, that Israel should apologize and accept its responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem, and allow for a measure of return of refugees, even under the rubric of family reunification, that constitutes a limited application of the right.

However, expecting that there will be a mass return of refugees is, quite simply, unrealistic and if Palestinians make that an irreducible demand in their negotiations with Israel, these negotiations will fail and the occupation will continue into the indefinite future. It is clear that Palestinian negotiators have understood this for many years, but the public has yet to be properly prepared to accept this reality. The hegemonic Palestinian narrative brilliantly dissected by Hassan Khader in al-Hayat a few weeks ago reinforces unrealistic set of attitudes and expectations that complicates the development of a sound national strategy and inhibits the kind of clearheaded, honest and self-critical analysis I described above. The idea that this painful and unfortunate, but undeniable and unshakable, state of affairs can be overcome through the cultivation of outrage, unity, moral lectures, or even boycotts and sanctions, is not only unrealistic, it is quite fantastic. Outrage, fantasies, wishful thinking, and repetition of slogans and deeply seated beliefs are not strategies. Anyone who thinks that the state of Israel is going to agree to dissolve itself or take steps that a virtual unanimity among Jewish Israelis regards as tantamount to the dissolution of the state because Palestinians and their friends insist on it or because of what will certainly for the foreseeable future remain extremely limited sanctions and boycotts (which most Western governments and institutions will not participate in) is frankly kidding themselves.

None of these are strategies. They reflect only the first element of what is required to produce an effective political position: outrage. Clearheaded analysis is missing, as none of these positions honestly accept the obvious fact that the Palestinian national movement does not have and will not be able to acquire the power or leverage to coerce or convince Israel to take this step. Most people who engage in absolutist discourse on the right of return seem either not to understand the concept of an actual, practical political strategy or reject the idea as some kind of debasement of a sublime moral principle. Under such circumstances, strategy is quite out of reach. The idea that underlies so much "one-state" rhetoric that Israel is an incredibly fragile, temporary entity that is about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that all that is required to overcome it is determination, steadfastness and moral principles is a particularly self-defeating, if unquestionably appealing, fantasy. Wishful thinking is the very antithesis of clearheaded, sober and serious political analysis.

Those who place all their hopes in boycotts and sanctions are not being honest with themselves about what parties are likely to participate in broad-based sanctions and boycotts against Israel (going beyond settlements and the occupation) and how much effect such measures are likely to have in convincing Israel to take measures most Israelis would regard as an existential crisis. Hamas asks Palestinians to put their faith in armed struggle. The boycott and sanctions movement asks them to put their faith in social, economic and cultural pressure. In fact, these are the twin pillars of Arab and Palestinian resistance to Israel since 1948: armed struggle and boycott. I can find no reason to suspect that either of them will be any more successful or less counterproductive in the next 60 years than they have in the last 60 years. Outrage is not a strategy, and neither are steadfastness, unity, or measures like armed struggle and boycotts that have proven their ineffectiveness over many decades. They are not political responses. They are emotional reactions. This is understandable, but it leads nowhere. The Palestinians, the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian national interest cannot afford further decades of wishful thinking and outrage as a substitute for a real political strategy.


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