Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Middle East: a blind spot for liberals

Steven Friedman, Business Day

IT IS hard to convince many in the Middle East that liberal democracy can work for them when the headlines from Israel and Palestine signal that liberalism now insists that all people should enjoy equal rights — unless they are Palestinian.

The Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians has been a blind spot for liberals here and abroad for years. Liberals, who believe in the right of all to vote in free elections, did not protest when the winners of Palestinian elections were rewarded with Israeli and US sanctions and military action, a signal that Palestinians can elect who they like as long as the Israelis like them too.

Liberalism believes in the right of all to own property. But liberals do not seem to mind an Israeli state in which 93% of the land is available to only one ethnic group. Liberalism believes in freedom of movement and choice. But the liberal mainstream has no problem with a state that requires Palestinians to stand in line for hours if they want to move around their own city and restricts who they can marry. Liberalism believes states should not discriminate on grounds of race or religions — but liberals hurl abuse at anyone who advocates a common democracy for Israelis and Palestinians.

Because the values liberals want to spread around the world do not seem to apply in Palestine, they risk being seen in much of the Middle East as a cultural bias, not a recipe for freedom.

The double standard has been particularly clear these past few days. Israeli violations of liberal principles have been obvious, whatever your view on whether there should be a state for one ethnic group.

The present violence was sparked when three Israeli teenagers living in the Palestinian territories Israel occupies were murdered. The Israeli government blamed the Islamist movement, Hamas (the winner of the election it refused to recognise), and launched punitive action not only against it but the people of Gaza. It has killed scores of Palestinians, including children, and demolished houses. Palestinians have retaliated but thus far there has not been a single Israeli casualty.

Liberalism believes in the rule of law. This means that civilised states, when their citizens are murdered, arrest the perpetrators and try them in court. The Israeli government has, without producing any evidence that Hamas was responsible, punished it anyway. Its claims are particularly open to question because it has a motive for blaming Hamas. Having insisted that it could not conclude a peace agreement with Hamas’s rival, Fatah, because a deal would not bind Hamas, it recently refused to negotiate any longer with Fatah because it had signed a unity agreement with Hamas (and so presumably could now bind it!). This obvious ploy to avoid peace talks irritated even the Americans; the Israeli government, which relies on US aid, needed a diversion. Blaming Hamas for the killings provided it. Yet mainstream liberals have not challenged the Israelis to produce evidence of their claims: they seem to have no problem with the principle that a person or organisation is guilty of a crime if the head of government says they are.

The rule of law — and basic fairness — also means that only people who committed a crime should be punished. And yet the Israeli government seems entitled to kill or wound scores of Palestinians who are not accused of anything. The mob’s murder of the Palestinian youth has been condemned but apparently liberal opinion believes that it is acceptable to kill innocent people as long as the killers are wearing an Israeli military uniform.

These latest incidents confirm that you don’t need to be radical or Islamist to see Israeli actions as gross human rights abuses. Basic liberal principles are violated by the Israeli state every day.

So why this blind spot? Because most liberals are more influenced by the culture of which they are a part than they would care to admit — and the culture sees Palestinians as terrorists, not serial victims of human rights abuse. The depth of the prejudice is illustrated by the US media’s coverage of the events.

To name but two examples, a CNN interviewer claimed that Palestinians "want to die" because they "live in a culture of martyrdom". An ABC News broadcast told viewers that a devastated Palestinian neighbourhood shown on screen was an Israeli area attacked by Palestinians (it apologised, but the image of the victims as perpetrators surely remained in many viewers’ minds). The effect, of course, is to portray Israelis as victims whose lives are threatened despite the fact that not a single one has suffered harm from present Palestinian retaliation to Israeli violence. In a climate this biased, it is no wonder that liberals cross Palestinians off the list of human beings entitled to rights.

But if this explains liberalism’s blind spot, it does not justify it. Here and elsewhere, liberalism’s message of freedom is often blunted by the cultural prejudices in which it is wrapped. Liberal democracy will seem much more appealing in the Middle East if those who advocate it apply liberal principles to their own prejudices.