All posts by Jonathan Cook

Netanuyahu’s Courting of Bolsonaro is the Latest of Israel’s Alliances with Far-right Figures

The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election last week has won Israel a passionate new friend on the international stage. The world’s fifth-most populous nation will now be “coloured in blue and white”, an Israeli official said, referring to the colours of Israel’s flag.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called to congratulate Bolsonaro, a former army officer with a pronounced nostalgia for his country’s 20-year military dictatorship. Critics describe him as a neo-fascist.

According to Israeli media reports, it is “highly probable” that Netanyahu will attend Bolsonaro’s inauguration on January 1.

The Brazilian president-elect has already promised that his country will be the third to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, after the United States and Guatemala. That will further undermine Palestinian hopes for an eventual state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Bolsonaro has told Israel that it can count on Brazil’s vote at the United Nations, and has threatened to close the Palestinian embassy in Brasilia.

One might imagine that Netanyahu is simply being pragmatic in cosying up to Bolsonaro, given Brazil’s importance. But that would be to ignore an unmistakable trend: Israel has relished the recent emergence of far-right leaders across the Americas and Europe, often to the horror of local Jewish communities.

Bolsonaro has divided Brazil’s 100,000 Jews. Some have been impressed by the frequent appearance of Israeli flags at his rallies and his anti-Palestinian stance. But others point out that he regularly expresses hostility to minorities.

They suspect that Bolsonaro covets Israel’s military expertise and the votes of tens of millions of fundamentalist Christians in Brazil, who see Israel as central to their apocalyptic, and in many cases antisemitic, beliefs. Not that this worries Netanyahu.

He has been engaged in a similar bromance with Viktor Orban, the ultra-nationalist prime minister of Hungary, who barely veils his Jew-baiting and has eulogised Miklos Horthy, a Hungarian leader who collaborated with the Nazis.

Netanyahu has also courted Poland’s far-right prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, even as the latter has fuelled Holocaust revisionism with legislation to outlaw criticism of Poland for its involvement in the Nazi death camps. Millions of Jews were exterminated in such camps.

Israel is cultivating alliances with other ultra-nationalists – in and out of power – in the Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

The conclusion drawn by Jewish communities abroad is that their well being – even their safety – is now a much lower priority than bolstering Israel’s diplomatic influence.

That was illustrated starkly last week in the immediate aftermath of a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27. Robert Bowers gunned down 11 worshippers in the worst antisemitic attack in US history.

Jewish communities have linked the awakening of the white-nationalist movement to which Bowers belonged to the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric towards immigrants and ethnic minorities.

In Pittsburgh, huge crowds protested as Trump paid a condolence visit to the Tree of Life synagogue, holding banners aloft with slogans such as: “President Hate, leave our state.”

Equally hard to ignore is that Israeli leaders, while they regularly denounce US and European left-wingers as antisemites for criticising Israel over its abuse of Palestinians, have remained studiously silent on Trump’s inflammatory statements.

Chemi Shalev, a commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noted the disturbing impression created by Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, escorting Trump through Pittsburgh. Dermer looked like a “bodyguard”, shielding the president from local Jewish protesters, Shalev observed.

Meanwhile, tone-deaf diaspora affairs minister Naftali Bennett, leader of largest Israeli settler party, the Jewish Home, milked the local community’s pain over the Pittsburgh massacre to Israel’s advantage. At an official commemoration service, he compared Bowers’ bullets to rockets fired by Palestinians, describing both as examples of antisemitism.

In an online post before the attack, Bowers singled out the synagogue for its prominent role helping refugees gain asylum in the US.

Trump has rapidly turned immigration into a “national security” priority. Last week, he sent thousands of US troops to the border with Mexico to stop what he termed an “invasion” by refugees from Central America.

Drawing on the histories of their own families having fled persecution, liberal Jews such as those at the Pittsburgh synagogue believe it is a moral imperative to assist refugees escaping oppression and conflict.

That message is strenuously rejected not only by Trump, but by the Israeli government.

In a move Trump hopes to replicate on the Mexico border, Israel has built a 250km wall along the border with Egypt to block the path of asylum-seekers from war-torn Africa.

Netanyahu’s government has also circumvented international law and Israeli court rulings to jail and then deport existing refugees back to Africa, despite evidence that they will be placed in grave danger.

Bennett has termed the refugees “a plague of illegal infiltrators”, while the culture minister Miri Regev has labelled them a “cancer”. Polls suggest that more than half of Israeli Jews agree.

Separately, Israel’s nation-state law, passed in the summer, gives constitutional weight to the notion that Israel belongs exclusively to Jews, stripping the fifth of the population who are Palestinian citizens of the most basic rights.

More generally, Israel views Palestinians through a single prism: as a demographic threat to the Jewishness of the Greater Israel project that Netanyahu has been advancing.

In short, Israel’s leaders are not simply placating a new wave of white-nationalist and neo-fascist leaders. They have a deep-rooted ideological sympathy with them.

For the first time, overseas Jewish communities are being faced with a troubling dilemma. Do they really wish to subscribe to a Jewish nationalism in Israel that so strongly echoes the ugly rhetoric and policies threatening them at home?

• First published in The National

Bolsonaro is a Monster Engineered By Our Media

With Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil’s presidential election at the weekend, the doom-mongers among western elites are out in force once again. His success, like Donald Trump’s, has confirmed a long-held prejudice: that the people cannot be trusted; that, when empowered, they behave like a mob driven by primitive urges; that the unwashed masses now threaten to bring down the carefully constructed walls of civilisation.

The guardians of the status quo refused to learn the lesson of Trump’s election, and so it will be with Bolsonaro. Rather than engaging the intellectual faculties they claim as their exclusive preserve, western “analysts” and “experts” are again averting their gaze from anything that might help them understand what has driven our supposed democracies into the dark places inhabited by the new demagogues. Instead, as ever, the blame is being laid squarely at the door of social media.

Social media and fake news are apparently the reasons Bolsonaro won at the ballot box. Without the gatekeepers in place to limit access to the “free press” – itself the plaything of billionaires and global corporations, with brands and a bottom line to protect – the rabble has supposedly been freed to give expression to their innate bigotry.

Here is Simon Jenkins, a veteran British gatekeeper – a former editor of the Times of London who now writes a column in the Guardian – pontificating on Bolsonaro:

The lesson for champions of open democracy is glaring. Its values cannot be taken for granted. When debate is no longer through regulated media, courts and institutions, politics will default to the mob. Social media – once hailed as an agent of global concord – has become the purveyor of falsity, anger and hatred. Its algorithms polarise opinion. Its pseudo-information drives argument to the extremes.

This is now the default consensus of the corporate media, whether in its right wing incarnations or of the variety posing on the liberal-left end of the spectrum like the Guardian. The people are stupid, and we need to be protected from their base instincts. Social media, it is claimed, has unleashed humanity’s id.

Selling plutocracy

There is a kind of truth in Jenkins’ argument, even if it is not the one he intended. Social media did indeed liberate ordinary people. For the first time in modern history, they were not simply the recipients of official, sanctioned information. They were not only spoken down to by their betters, they could answer back – and not always as deferentially as the media class expected.

Clinging to their old privileges, Jenkins and his ilk are rightly unnerved. They have much to lose.

But that also means they are far from dispassionate observers of the current political scene. They are deeply invested in the status quo, in the existing power structures that have kept them well-paid courtiers of the corporations that dominate the planet.

Bolsonaro, like Trump, is not a disruption of the current neoliberal order; he is an intensification or escalation of its worst impulses. He is its logical conclusion.

The plutocrats who run our societies need figureheads, behind whom they can conceal their unaccountable power. Until now they preferred the slickest salespeople, ones who could sell wars as humanitarian intervention rather than profit-driven exercises in death and destruction; the unsustainable plunder of natural resources as economic growth; the massive accumulation of wealth, stashed in offshore tax havens, as the fair outcome of a free market; the bailouts funded by ordinary taxpayers to stem economic crises they had engineered as necessary austerity; and so on.

A smooth-tongued Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton were the favoured salespeople, especially in an age when the elites had persuaded us of a self-serving argument: that ghetto-like identities based on colour or gender mattered far more than class. It was divide-and-rule dressed up as empowerment. The polarisation now bewailed by Jenkins was in truth stoked and rationalised by the very corporate media he so faithfully serves.

Fear of the domino effect

Despite their professed concern, the plutocrats and their media spokespeople much prefer a far-right populist like Trump or Bolsonaro to a populist leader of the genuine left. They prefer the social divisions fueled by neo-fascists like Bolsonaro, divisions that protect their wealth and privilege, over the unifying message of a socialist who wants to curtail class privilege, the real basis of the elite’s power.

The true left – whether in Brazil, Venezuela, Britain or the US – does not control the police or military, the financial sector, the oil industries, the arms manufacturers, or the corporate media. It was these very industries and institutions that smoothed the path to power for Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Trump in the US.

Former socialist leaders like Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela were bound to fail not so much because of their flaws as individuals but because powerful interests rejected their right to rule. These socialists never had control over the key levers of power, the key resources. Their efforts were sabotaged – from within and without – from the moment of their election.

Local elites in Latin America are tied umbilically to US elites, who in turn are determined to make sure any socialist experiment in their backyard fails – as a way to prevent a much-feared domino effect, one that might seed socialism closer to home.

The media, the financial elites, the armed forces were never servants of the socialist governments that have been struggling to reform Latin America. The corporate world has no interest either in building proper housing in place of slums or in dragging the masses out of the kind of poverty that fuels the drug gangs that Bolsonaro claims he will crush through more violence.

Bolsonaro will not face any of the institutional obstacles Lula da Silva or Chavez needed to overcome. No one in power will stand in his way as he institutes his “reforms”. No one will stop him creaming off Brazil’s wealth for his corporate friends. As in Pinochet’s Chile, Bolsonaro can rest assured that his kind of neo-fascism will live in easy harmony with neoliberalism.

Immune system

If you want to understand the depth of the self-deception of Jenkins and other media gatekeepers, contrast Bolsonaro’s political ascent to that of Jeremy Corbyn, the modest social democratic leader of Britain’s Labour party. Those like Jenkins who lament the role of social media – they mean you, the public – in promoting leaders like Bolsonaro are also the media chorus who have been wounding Corbyn day after day, blow by blow, for three years – since he accidentally slipped past safeguards intended by party bureacrats to keep someone like him from power.

The supposedly liberal Guardian has been leading that assault. Like the right wing media, it has shown its absolute determination to stop Corbyn at all costs, using any pretext.

Within days of Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership, the Times newspaper – the voice of the British establishment – published an article quoting a general, whom it refused to name, warning that the British army’s commanders had agreed they would sabotage a Corbyn government. The general strongly hinted that there would be a military coup first.

We are not supposed to reach the point where such threats – tearing away the façade of western democracy – ever need to be implemented. Our pretend democracies were created with immune systems whose defences are marshalled to eliminate a threat like Corbyn much earlier.

Once he moved closer to power, however, the right wing corporate media was forced to deploy the standard tropes used against a left leader: that he was incompetent, unpatriotic, even treasonous.

But just as the human body has different immune cells to increase its chances of success, the corporate media has faux-liberal-left agents like the Guardian to complement the right’s defences. The Guardian sought to wound Corbyn through identity politics, the modern left’s Achille’s heel. An endless stream of confected crises about anti-semitism were intended to erode the hard-earned credit Corbyn had accumulated over decades for his anti-racism work.

Slash-and-burn politics

Why is Corbyn so dangerous? Because he supports the right of workers to a dignified life, because he refuses to accept the might of the corporations, because he implies that a different way of organising our societies is possible. It is a modest, even timid programme he articulates, but even so it is far too radical either for the plutocratic class that rules over us or for the corporate media that serves as its propaganda arm.

The truth ignored by Jenkins and these corporate stenographers is that if you keep sabotaging the programmes of a Chavez, a Lula da Silva, a Corbyn or a Bernie Sanders, then you get a Bolsonaro, a Trump, an Orban.

It is not that the masses are a menace to democracy. It is rather that a growing proportion of voters understand that a global corporate elite has rigged the system to accrue for itself ever greater riches. It is not social media that is polarising our societies. It is rather that the determination of the elites to pillage the planet until it has no more assets to strip has fueled resentment and destroyed hope. It is not fake news that is unleashing the baser instincts of the lower orders. Rather, it is the frustration of those who feel that change is impossible, that no one in power is listening or cares.

Social media has empowered ordinary people. It has shown them that they cannot trust their leaders, that power trumps justice, that the elite’s enrichment requires their poverty. They have concluded that, if the rich can engage in slash-and-burn politics against the planet, our only refuge, they can engage in slash-and-burn politics against the global elite.

Are they choosing wisely in electing a Trump or Bolsonaro? No. But the liberal guardians of the status quo are in no position to judge them. For decades, all parts of the corporate media have helped to undermine a genuine left that could have offered real solutions, that could have taken on and beaten the right, that could have offered a moral compass to a confused, desperate and disillusioned public.

Jenkins wants to lecture the masses about their depraved choices while he and his paper steer them away from any politician who cares about their welfare, who fights for a fairer society, who prioritises mending what is broken.

The western elites will decry Bolsonaro in the forlorn and cynical hope of shoring up their credentials as guardians of the existing, supposedly moral order. But they engineered him. Bolsonaro is their monster.

Why Liberal Jews in Israel and the US have made Lara Alqasem a Cause Celebre

An American student of Palestinian descent detained in Israel’s airport for nearly a fortnight has become an unexpected cause celebre. Lara Alqasem was refused entry under legislation passed last year against boycott activists, and Israeli courts are now deciding whether allowing her to study human rights at an Israeli university threatens public order.

Usually those held at the border are swiftly deported, but Ms Alqasem appealed against the decision, becoming in the process an improbable “prisoner of conscience” for the boycott cause.

The Israeli government, led by strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan, claims that the 22-year-old is a leader of the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Activists like Ms Alqasem, he argues, demonise Israel.

Two lower courts have already ruled against the student. Israel’s supreme court has postponed her deportation until Wednesday while it reconsiders the evidence. But refusing to go quietly, Ms Alqasem is attracting increasing international attention to her plight.

So far Israeli officials have shown only that Ms Alqasem once belonged to a small Palestinian solidarity group at a Florida university that backed boycotting a hummus company over its donations to the Israeli army.

Under pressure, Ms Alqasem has disavowed a boycott of Israel, citing as proof her decision to enroll in a masters programme in Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Given the blanket hostility in Israel to the boycott movement, Ms Alqasem has found a surprisingly wide array of allies in her legal struggle.

Members of the small Zionist-left Meretz party visited her and demanded she be allowed to attend the course, which began on Sunday.

Ami Ayalon, a retired head of the Shin Bet, the secret police that oversees security checks at Israel’s borders, warned that the agency was now “a problem for democracy” in repeatedly denying foreigners entry.

Vice-chancellors of eight Israeli universities sent a letter of protest to the government and 500 academics at Hebrew University submitted a petition decrying Ms Alqasem’s incarceration.

The solidarity has been unprecedented – and perplexing.

Israeli officials control entry not only to Israel but also to the occupied Palestinian territories. For decades, foreigners with Arab-sounding names – like Ms Alqasem – have been routinely harassed or turned back at the borders, with barely a peep from most on the Israeli left.

And over the same period, Israel has stripped many thousands of Palestinians from the occupied territories of the right to return to their homeland after living abroad. These abuses, too, have rarely troubled consciences in Israel.

So what makes Ms Alqasem’s case different? The answer confers little credit on liberal Israelis.

Israel’s universities are worried that the academic boycott has highlighted their long-term complicity in Israel’s occupation and is gradually eroding their international standing. Joint research projects with foreign universities are in jeopardy, as is their lucrative income from programmes they wish to expand for overseas students.

The universities want to co-opt Ms Alqasem as a poster girl for academic freedom in Israel.

They hope she will provide cover for their guilty secret: that they have stood by, or actively assisted, as Israel made a mockery of academic freedom for Palestinians under occupation. Research shows that Israel’s universities have strong ties to the nation’s military, which regularly attacks Palestinian places of learning and limits Palestinians’ freedom to study by enforcing strict movement restrictions.

Jewish liberals in Israel and the US, meanwhile, are concerned at the entrenchment of the Israeli far-right’s rule. In recent weeks, a wave of Israeli and American Jewish activists have been detained and questioned at the border over their politics.

Those liberals desperately need to draw a red line, halting the expansion of racial profiling into political forms of profiling that undermine their own status. If the courts uphold the fundamental rights of Ms Alqasem, their own rights will be more secure too.

That was why progressive Jewish leaders in the US added their own voices last week, signing a petition calling for Ms Alqasem to be allowed to study in Israel.

But the case has shone a light not only on the self-interested opportunism of Israeli liberals but also on the hypocrisy of leaders of progressive American Jewish communities.

Ms Alqasem was identified as a boycott activist via a McCarthyite website called Canary Mission, which has murky ties to the Israeli government.

Since it launched in 2014 under the slogan “If you’re racist, the world should know”, the site has built an online database profiling thousands of US academics and students, including Jewish ones, critical of Israel.

Its aim is to terrify US academia into silence on Israel. The site explicitly threatens to send letters to prospective employers accusing its targets – those who show solidarity with Palestinians – of being antisemitic.

Until recently, this blacklist had passed largely unremarked outside pro-Palestinian circles. But since its role in helping Israeli officials bar Jewish and non-Jewish activists became clear, interest in its provenance has grown.

This month the Forward, an American Jewish publication, unmasked several of Canary Mission’s major donors. They include the communal funds of Jewish federations representing liberal communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The trail leads back to a shadowy registered charity in Israel called Megamot Shalom, which aims to “protect the image of the state of Israel”.

Simone Zimmerman, an American Jewish peace activist who was detained at the border by Israeli officials in August, lamented that the American Jewish establishment’s secret support for Canary Mission “reeks of hypocrisy and betrayal”.

Supposedly liberal Jewish institutions in Israel and the US wish to be seen battling racism and aiding good causes, including the rights of a Palestinian-American student after she repudiated a boycott of Israel.

But covertly they support and finance projects intended to silence criticism of Israel and enforce the oppression of Palestinians they say they want to help.

Ms Alqasem has been turned into a pawn in the struggle between Jewish liberals and Israeli ultra-nationalists. Israel’s continuing violations of the wider rights of Palestinians – to enter and freely move around their homeland, and to receive an education – are simply not part of the discussion.

• First published in The National

Breaking the Silence about Israel’s Occupation of Hebron

Ido Even-Paz switched on his body camera as his tour group decamped from the bus in Hebron. The former Israeli soldier wanted to document any trouble we might encounter in this, the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.

It was not Hebron’s Palestinian residents who concerned him. He was worried about Israelis – Jewish religious extremists and the soldiers there to guard them – who have seized control of much of the city centre.

Mr Even-Paz, 34, first served as a soldier in Hebron in the early 2000s. Today he belongs to Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers turned whistleblowers who leads tours into the heart of Israel’s settlement enterprise. After 14 years of operations, however, Breaking the Silence is today facing ever-more formidable challenges.

Hebron, 30km south of Jerusalem, is a microcosm of the occupation. A handful of settlers moved here uninvited five decades ago, drawn in part to what Israelis call the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Palestinians the Ibrahimi mosque. The Herod-era building is erected over the putative burial site of Abraham, Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Since then the settler ranks have swollen to nearly 900 – aided by the Israeli army.

Despite their relatively small number, however, their territorial footprint has been expanding relentlessly, and now covers some 2 square kilometres.

The settlers and military, says Mr Even-Paz, have worked hand in hand to hijack the freedoms of some 230,000 Palestinians and turn Hebron’s once-vibrant commercial centre into a ghost town. All of this has happened with the apparent blessing of the Israeli government.

War crimes witnessed

When Mr Even-Paz arrived in Hebron as a teen soldier at the height of the Second Intifada, he was keen to distinguish himself as a combat soldier by fighting Palestinian “terrorists”, and impress his father, a retired career officer.

His political awakening, however, didn’t begin until much later, in 2008, as Israel launched a massive assault on the Gaza Strip. Later he discovered the more than 1,000 testimonies recorded by Breaking the Silence, in which Israelis acknowledged that they had participated in or witnessed war crimes during their military service.

“Those stories were exactly like mine. I thought I’d done nothing significant during my military service, that it was boring. I started to realise it was the very mundanity of the occupation – its round-the-clock oppression of Palestinians – that was the core of the problem.”

He believes the problem of the occupation is systemic rather than the result of misconduct by individual soldiers.

“Whatever a soldier believes when they begin their military service, there is no way to behave ethically in the occupied territories,” he says. “It’s a system in which Palestinians are always treated as inferior, always viewed as the enemy, whoever they are.

“Every day the job is to inflict collective punishment. We were told explicitly that we were waging psychological war, that we were there to intimidate them.

“In the middle of the night we raided families’ homes, chosen randomly, waking up frightened children. We violently broke up Palestinian protests. I arrested Palestinians every day to ‘dry them out’ – to teach them a lesson, to make them understand who is boss.”

Army treated as sacred

Yet in Israel, the military is regarded as an almost sacred institution. Breaking the Silence casts a long, dark shadow over claims that Israel’s is the most moral army in the world.

Hebron is ground zero for much of the group’s work, where military service is a rite of passage for Israeli combat soldiers. The group’s tour attracts some back later in life, either after they grow troubled by their earlier experiences enforcing the occupation or because they want to show family members what their service was like.

Some go on to testify to the group, says Ori Givati, Mr Even-Paz’s colleague on the tour. “When they come with us to places like Hebron, the memories flood back. They recall things they did that they can now see in a different light.”

With the spread of phone cameras in recent years, the dark underbelly of the occupation in Hebron has been ever harder to conceal, confirming the soldiers’ testimonies.

Palestinians have captured on video everything from terrified small children being dragged off the street by soldiers into military Jeeps to an army medic, Elor Azaria, using his rifle to execute a prone Palestinian man by shooting him in the head from close range.

‘Separation policy’

Israel has carved Hebron into two zones, part of its “separation policy”. H1, the city’s western side, is nominally under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, except when Israel decides otherwise.

H2, a fifth of the city and home to somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Palestinians (the number is contested), is where settlers and soldiers rule. They are supported by a much larger neighbouring settlement of 8,000 religious Jews, Kiryat Arba, hemming in Hebron’s eastern flank.

The chain of settlements form a spear of territory thrusting into Hebron’s throat from the main body of H2 and Kiryat Arba.

“The idea is to make life so intolerable the Palestinians will choose to expel themselves,” Mr Even-Paz says. “Unemployment among Palestinians is about 70 per cent in H2, so the pressure is on the residents to move into H1 or out of Hebron entirely.”

In their place, the settlers have taken over. Carefree-looking couples wander with push chairs, men and boys hurry to seminaries, bored teenagers study their phones on street corners, and families lounge at bus stops for the frequent services connecting them to Jerusalem and elsewhere.

Everything, says Mr Even-Paz, from water and electricity to rents and public transport, is subsidised to encourage Jews to move here.

Amid the surrounding Palestinian homes, all of this “normality” takes place in a controlled environment that is anything but. It is enforced by heavily fortified checkpoints, razor-wire, watchtowers, army patrols and rooftop sentries watching every move.

Many of the settlers have licences to carry army-issue rifles and handguns.

Two systems of law

As elsewhere in the occupied territories, Israel has imposed two systems of law. Palestinians, including children, face summary arrest, military trial and draconian punishment, while settlers operate under an Israeli civil law that involves due process and a presumption of innocence – though even this is rarely enforced against them.

“They know they are untouchable,” says Mr Even-Paz. “The army’s rules of engagement mean soldiers can’t enforce the law on Israeli civilians.

“Soldiers are not allowed to respond if the settlers commit a crime or assault a Palestinian. They are even under orders not to shoot back if a settler opens fire at them.”

Not that such a scenario has occurred often. Many soldiers are religious settlers themselves, and even the secular ones sympathise with Hebron’s settlers.

“When I served, they brought us hot drinks on a cold day, and iced drinks on a hot day. During Shabbat [the Sabbath], they invited us to come and eat in their homes. They became like family to us.”

But that welcome has turned sour since Mr Even-Paz joined Breaking the Silence. Settlers have thrown eggs, water-bombs, coffee grounds and mud at him. Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence, was recently punched in the face during a tour of Hebron, and another guide had paint poured over her.

It’s not just settlers targeting the group.

Accused of treason

Government ministers routinely accuse Breaking the Silence of treason and of aiding supposed efforts by Europe to damage the army and Israel’s image. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the past called for the group’s members to be investigated by the police.

He also refuses to meet any foreign dignitary who has dealings with Breaking the Silence. That policy resulted in a highly publicised snub last year to the German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel.

In July, the parliament passed a law barring Breaking the Silence from schools, even though visits by “loyal” soldiers are a mainstay of the curriculum.

Now the army and settlers appear to be working hand-in-hand to stymie the group’s tours.

In fact, 10 years ago, the army issued an order banning the group’s trips to Hebron, though Breaking the Silence eventually won a costly legal battle to have them reinstated.

But in recent weeks the settlers have markedly intensified efforts to break up the tours. The army, meanwhile, appears to be exploiting the upsurge in settler violence to crack down on Breaking the Silence, on the pretext that restrictions are necessary to “prevent friction”.

‘Sterilised area’

The same rationale was originally used to implement the system of restricted access for Palestinians to areas of Hebron coveted by settlers. In 1994, shortly after the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships signed the Oslo peace accords, a fanatical settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire in the Ibrahimi mosque, killing and wounding some 150 worshipping Muslims.

It should have provided the moment for Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s then prime minister, to remove the small settler community from Hebron. It was a necessary first step in proving that Israel was serious about the Oslo process and creating a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

Instead, Mr Even-Paz observes, Israel entrenched the settlers’ rule, crafting the situation visible on the ground today.

For more than 15 years, Israel has forbidden entry for Palestinians to what was once Hebron’s main throroughfare and central shopping area along Shuhada Street. Now it has been rebranded in Hebrew as King David Street, and declared what the army terms a “sterilised area”. The closure severs the main transport routes for Palestinians between north and south Hebron.

Most of the Palestinian inhabitants have been driven from the city centre by endless harassment and attacks by settlers, bolstered by arrests and night raids conducted by the army, says Mr Even-Paz.

The few Palestinians still residing in the area are literally caged into their own homes – their doors welded shut and their windows covered with bars. The bars are there for their own protection because settlers throw stones, eggs and soiled nappies at their windows. The families are forced to enter and leave via the rooftops into back streets to shop, work and meet friends.

The dozens of stores that once drew shoppers from throughout the southern West Bank have been sealed up long ago. The army, according to our guide, has turned a blind eye to the settlers requisitioning some for their own use.

Shadowed by soldiers

As we moved into the settler-controlled heart of Hebron, we got a taste of the new official policy of intimidation and harassment against Breaking the Silence.

It started early on when an officer approached to tell us we were not allowed to move without a military escort. Soldiers and Jeeps shadowed us closely.

Our group hardly looked combative. It included European staff from a human rights organisation; curious holidaymakers; a group of young friends brought along by an Israeli leftist they were visiting; and a young Jew from Brooklyn who was in Israel to understand the occupation and his Jewish identity more deeply.

The last, who asked to be identified only as Todd for fear that his entry into Israel might be blocked next time by the authorities, said it was his first time in the West Bank.

“I feel an obligation to understand what’s going on because it’s done in the name of Jews. But it is very hard to see this up close. It hurts.”

The only crossing point on Shuhada Street still open to Palestinians, Bab al-Khan, is littered with half a dozen checkpoints, which only Palestinian children returning from school appeared willing to pass.

Even that route is under threat. Settlers have occupied two Palestinian homes either side of the road in an attempt to force the army to close the street to Palestinians entirely, says Mr Even-Paz.

Way ahead blocked

The confidence of the settlers today – and their support from the government and among a significant section of the Israeli public – was starkly on show during the recent Sukkot holiday, or Feast of the Tabernacles.

Every few minutes a truck converted into open-backed tour bus offered a free lift for some two dozen Israeli “tourists” at a time, taking them from the Tomb of the Patriarchs up the Palestinian-free Shuhada Street to the settlements.

But while these Jewish visitors had the run of the place, our escort of heavily armed soldiers soon blocked the way ahead.

Half-way up Shuhada Street, before we could reach the last two, most extreme illegal settlements, the military commander issued an order that we were denied further access to “prevent friction”.

As we stood at the side of the road contesting the ban, Israelis on the tour buses plied past, staring at us like unwelcome gatecrashers at their party.

“It seems there are only two kinds of people not allowed to walk through the centre of Hebron,” Mr Even-Paz observed. “Palestinians and Breaking the Silence.”

• First published in The National

As Gaza’s economy collapses, so does any hope of peace

The moment long feared is fast approaching in Gaza, according to a new report by the World Bank. After a decade-long Israeli blockade and a series of large-scale military assaults, the economy of the tiny coastal enclave is in “freefall”.

At a meeting of international donors in New York on Thursday, coinciding with the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, the World Bank painted an alarming picture of Gaza’s crisis. Unemployment now stands at close to 70 per cent and the economy is contracting at an ever faster rate.

While the West Bank’s plight is not yet as severe, it is not far behind. Countries attending the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee were told. Gaza’s collapse could bring down the entire Palestinian banking sector.

In response, Europe hurriedly put together a €40 million aid package, but that will chiefly address Gaza’s separate humanitarian crisis – not the economic one – by improving supplies of electricity and potable water.

No one doubts the inevitable fallout from the economic and humanitarian crises gripping Gaza. The four parties to the Quartet charged with overseeing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN – issued a statement warning that it was vital to prevent what they termed “further escalation” in Gaza.

The Israeli military shares these concerns. It has reported growing unrest among the enclave’s two million inhabitants and believes Hamas will be forced into a confrontation to break out of the straight jacket imposed by the blockade.

In recent weeks, mass protests along Gaza’s perimeter fence have been revived and expanded after a summer lull. On Friday, seven Palestinian demonstrators, including two children, were killed by Israeli sniper fire. Hundreds more were wounded.

Nonetheless, the political will to remedy the situation looks as atrophied as ever. No one is prepared to take meaningful responsibility for the time-bomb that is Gaza.

In fact, the main parties that could make a difference appear intent on allowing the deterioration to continue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ignored repeated warnings of a threatened explosion in Gaza from his own military.

Instead, Israel is upholding the blockade as tightly as ever, preventing the flow of goods in and out of the enclave. Fishing is limited to three miles off the coast rather than the 20-mile zone agreed in the Oslo accords. Hundreds of companies are reported to have folded over the summer.

Intensifying the enclave’s troubles is the Trump administration’s recent decision to cut aid to the Palestinians, including to the United Nation’s refugee agency, UNRWA. It plays a critical role in Gaza, providing food, education and health services to nearly two-thirds of the population.

The food budget is due to run out in December, and the schools budget by the end of October. Hundreds of thousands of hungry children with nowhere to spend their days can only fuel the protests – and the deaths.

The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, headquartered in the West Bank, has no incentive to help. Gaza’s slowly unfolding catastrophe is his leverage to make Hamas submit to his rule. That is why the Palestinian Authority has cut transfers to Gaza by $30 million a month.

But even if Mr Abbas wished to help, he largely lacks the means. The US cuts were imposed primarily to punish him for refusing to play ball with US President Donald Trump’s supposed “deal of the century” peace plan.

Israel, the World Bank notes, has added to Mr Abbas’s difficulties by refusing to transfer taxes and customs duties it collects on the PA’s behalf.

And the final implicated party, Egypt, is reticent to loosen its own chokehold on its short border with Gaza. President Abdel Fattah El Sisi opposes giving any succour either to his domestic Islamist opponents or to Hamas.

The impasse is possible only because none of the parties is prepared to make a priority of Gaza’s welfare.

That was starkly illustrated earlier in the summer when Cairo, supported by the UN, opened a back channel between Israel and Hamas in the hope of ending their mounting friction.

Hamas wanted the blockade lifted to reverse Gaza’s economic decline, while Israel wanted an end to the weekly protests and the damaging images of snipers killing unarmed demonstrators.

In addition, Mr Netanyahu has an interest in keeping Hamas in power in Gaza, if barely, as a way to cement the geographic split with the West Bank and an ideological one with Mr Abbas.

The talks, however, collapsed quietly in early September after Mr Abbas objected to the Egyptians. He insisted that the Palestinian Authority be the only address for discussions of Gaza’s future. So, Cairo is yet again channelling its energies into a futile attempt at reconciling Mr Abbas and Hamas.

At the UN General Assembly, Mr Trump promised his peace plan would be unveiled in the next two to three months, and made explicit for the first time his support for a two-state solution, saying it would “work best”.

Mr Netanyahu vaguely concurred, while pointing out: “Everyone defines the term ‘state’ differently.” His definition, he added, required that not one of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank be removed and that any future Palestinian state be under complete Israeli security control.

Mr Abbas is widely reported to have conceded over the summer that a Palestinian state – should it ever come into being – would be demilitarised. In other words, it would not be recognisable as a sovereign state.

Hamas has made notable compromises to its original doctrine of military resistance to secure all of historic Palestine. But it is hard to imagine it agreeing to peace on those terms. This makes a reconciliation between Hamas and Mr Abbas currently inconceivable – and respite for the people of Gaza as far off as ever.

• First published in The National

The Neoliberal Order is dying: Time to Wake Up

In my last blog post I argued that power in our societies resides in structure, ideology and narratives – supporting what we might loosely term our current “neoliberal order” – rather than in individuals. Significantly, our political and media classes, who are, of course, deeply embedded in this neoliberal structure, are key promoters of the very opposite idea: that individuals or like-minded groups of people hold power; that they should, at least in theory, be held accountable for the use and misuse of that power; and that meaningful change involves replacing these individuals rather than fundamentally altering the power-structure they operate within.

In other words, our political and media debates reduce to who should be held to account for problems in the economy, the health and education systems, or the conduct of a war. What is never discussed is whether flawed policies are really the fleeting responsibility of individuals and political parties or symptoms of the current neoliberal malaise – manifestations of an ideology that necessarily has goals, such as the pursuit of maximised profit and endless economic growth, that are indifferent to other considerations, such as the damage being done to life on our planet.

The focus on individuals happens for a reason. It is designed to ensure that the structure and ideological foundations of our societies remain invisible to us, the public. The neoliberal order goes unquestioned – presumed, against the evidence of history, to be permanent, fixed, unchallengeable.

So deep is this misdirection that even efforts to talk about real power become treacherous. My words above might suggest that power is rather like a person, that it has intention and will, that maybe it likes to deceive or play tricks. But none of that is true either.

Big and little power

My difficulty conveying precisely what I mean, my need to resort to metaphor, reveals the limitations of language and the necessarily narrow ideological horizons it imposes on anyone who uses it. Intelligible language is not designed adequately to describe structure or power. It prefers to particularise, to humanise, to specify, to individualise in ways that make thinking in bigger, more critical ways near-impossible.

Language is on the side of those, like politicians and corporate journalists, who conceal structure, who deal in narratives of the small-power of individuals rather than of the big-power of structure and ideology. In what passes for news, the media offer a large stage for powerful individuals to fight elections, pass legislation, take over businesses, start wars, and a small stage for these same individuals to get their come-uppance, caught committing crimes, lying, having affairs, getting drunk, and more generally embarrassing themselves.

These minor narratives conceal the fact that such individuals are groomed before they ever gain access to power. Business leaders, senior politicians and agenda-setting journalists reach their positions after proving themselves over and over again – not consciously but through their unthinking compliance to the power-structure of our societies. They are selected through their performances in exams at school and university, through training programmes and indentures. They rise to the top because they are the most talented examples of those who are blind or submissive to power, those who can think most cleverly without thinking critically. Those who reliably deploy their skills where they are directed to do so.

Their large and small dramas constitute what we call public life, whether politics, world affairs or entertainment. To suggest that there are deeper processes at work, that the largest of these dramas is not really large enough for us to gain insight into how power operates, is to instantly be dismissed as paranoid, a fantasist, and – most damningly of all – a conspiracy theorist.

These terms also serve the deception. They are intended to stop all thought about real power. They are scare words used to prevent us, in a metaphor used in my previous post, from stepping back from the screen. They are there to force us to stand so close we see only the pixels, not the bigger picture.

Media makeover

The story of Britain’s Labour party is a case in point, and was illustrated even before Jeremy Corbyn became leader. Back in the 1990s Tony Blair reinvented the party as New Labour, jettisoning ideas of socialism and class war, and inventing instead a “Third Way”.

The idea that gained him access to power – personified in the media narrative of the time as his meeting with Rupert Murdoch on the mogul’s Hayman Island – was that New Labour would triangulate, find a middle way between the 1% and the 99%. The fact that the meeting took place with Murdoch rather than anyone else signalled something significant: that the power-structure needed a media makeover. It needed to be dressed in new garb.

In reality, Blair made Labour useful to power by re-styling the turbo-charged neoliberalism Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party of the rich had unleashed. He made it look compatible with social democracy. Blair put a gentler, kinder mask on neoliberalism’s aggressive pursuit of planet-destroying power – much as Barack Obama would do in the United States a decade later, after the horrors of the Iraq invasion. Neither Blair nor Obama changed the substance of our economic and political systems, but they did make them look deceptively attractive by tinkering with social policy.

Were the neoliberal order laid bare – were the emperor to allow himself to be stripped of his clothes – no one apart from a small psychopathic elite would vote for neoliberalism’s maintenance. So power is forced to repeatedly reinvent itself. It is like the shape-shifting Mystique of the X-Men films, constantly altering its appearance to lull us into a false sense of security. Power’s goal is to keep looking like it has become something new, something innovative. Because the power-structure does not want change, it has to find front-men and women who can personify a transformation that is, in truth, entirely hollow.

Power can perform this stunt, as Blair did, by repackaging the same product – neoliberalism – in prettier ideological wrapping. Or it can, as has happened in the US of late, try a baser approach by adding a dash of identity politics. A black presidential candidate (Obama) can offer hope, and a woman candidate (Hillary Clinton) can cast herself as mother-saviour.

With this model in place, elections become an illusory contest between more transparent and more opaque iterations of neoliberal power. In failing the 99%, Obama so woefully voided this strategy that large sections of voters turned their back on his intended successor, the new makeover candidate Hillary Clinton. They saw through the role-playing. They preferred, even if only reluctantly, the honest vulgarity of naked power represented by Trump over the pretensions of Clinton’s fakely compassionate politics.

Unstable politics

Despite its best efforts, neoliberalism is increasingly discredited in the eyes of large sections of the electorate in the US and UK. Its attempts at concealment have grown jaded, its strategy exhausted. It has reached the end-game, and that is why politics now looks so unstable. “Insurgency” candidates in different guises are prospering.

Neoliberal power is distinctive because it seeks absolute power, and can achieve that end only through global domination. Globalisation, the world as a plaything for a tiny elite to asset-strip, is both its means and its end. Insurgents are therefore those who seek to reverse the trend towards globalisation – or at least claim to. There are insurgents on both the left and right.

If neoliberalism has to choose, it typically prefers an insurgent on the right to the left. A Trump figure can usefully serve power too, because he dons the clothes of an insurgent while doing little to actually change the structure.

Nonetheless, Trump is a potential problem for the neoliberal order for two reasons.

First, unlike an Obama or a Clinton, he too clearly illuminates what is really at stake for power – wealth maximisation at any cost – and thereby risks unmasking the deception. And, second, he is a retrograde step for the globalising power-structure.

Neoliberalism has dragged capitalism out its nineteenth-century dependency on nation-states into a twenty-first ideology that demands a global reach. Trump and other nativist leaders seek a return to a supposed golden era of state-based capitalism, one that prefers to send our children up chimneys if it prevents children from far-off lands arriving on our shores to do the same.

The neoliberal order prefers a Trump to a Bernie Sanders because the nativist insurgents are so much easier to tame. A Trump can be allowed to strut on his Twitter stage while the global power-structure constrains and undermines any promised moves that might threaten it. Trump the candidate was indifferent to Israel and wanted the US out of Syria. Trump the president has become Israel’s biggest cheerleader and has launched US missiles at Syria.

Faustian pacts

The current power-structure is much more frightened of a left insurgency of the kind represented by Corbyn in the UK. He and his supporters are trying to reverse the accommodations with power made by Blair. And that is why he finds himself relentlessly assaulted from every direction – from his political opponents; from his supposed political allies, including most his own parliamentary party; and most especially from the state-corporate media, including its bogus left-liberal elements like the Guardian and the BBC.

The past three years of attacks on Corbyn are how power manifests itself, shows its hand, when it is losing. It is a strategy of last resort. A Blair or an Obama arrive in power having already made so many compromises behind the scenes that their original policies are largely toothless. They have made Faustian pacts as a condition for being granted access to power. This is variously described as pragmatism, moderation, realism. More accurately, it should be characterised as betrayal.

It does not stop when they reach high office. Obama made a series of early errors, thinking he would have room to manoeuvre in the Middle East. He made a speech in Cairo about a “New Beginning” for the region. A short time later he would help to snuff out the Egyptian Arab Spring that erupted close by, in Tahrir Square. Egypt’s military, long subsidised by Washington, were allowed to take back power.

Obama won the 2009 Nobel peace prize, before he had time to do anything, for his international diplomacy. And yet he stepped up the war on terror, oversaw the rapid expansion of a policy of extrajudicial assassinations by drone, and presided over the extension of the Iraq regime-change operation to Libya and Syria.

And he threatened penalties for Israel over its illegal settlements policy – a five-decade war crime that has gone completely unpunished by the international community. But in practice his inaction allowed Israel to entrench its settlements to the point where annexation of parts of the West Bank is now imminent.

Tame or destroy

Neoliberalism is now so entrenched, so rapacious that even a moderate socialist like Corbyn is seen as a major threat. And unlike a Blair, Obama or Trump, Corbyn is much harder to tame because he has a grassroots movement behind him and to which he is ultimately accountable.

In the US, the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party prevented the left-insurgent candidate, Bernie Sanders, from contesting the presidency by rigging the system to keep him off the ballot paper. In the UK, Corbyn got past those structural defences by accident. He scraped into the leadership race as the token “loony-left” candidate, indulged by the Labour party bureaucracy as a way to demonstrate that the election was inclusive and fair. He was never expected to win.

Once he was installed as leader, the power-structure had two choices: to tame him like Blair, or destroy him before he stood a chance of reaching high office. For those with short memories, it is worth recalling how those alternatives were weighed in Corbyn’s first months.

On the one hand, he was derided across the media for being shabbily dressed, for being unpatriotic, for threatening national security, for being sexist. This was the campaign to tame him. On the other, the Murdoch-owned Times newspaper, the house journal of the neoliberal elite, gave a platform to an anonymous army general to warn that the British military would never allow Corbyn to reach office. There would be an army-led coup before he ever got near 10 Downing Street.

In a sign of how ineffectual these power-structures now are, none of this made much difference to Corbyn’s fortunes with the public. A truly insurgent candidate cannot be damaged by attacks from the power-elite. That’s why he is where he is, after all.

So those wedded to the power-structure among his own MPs tried to wage a second leadership contest to unseat him. As a wave of new members signed up to bolster his ranks of supporters, and thereby turned the party into the largest in Europe, Labour party bureaucrats stripped as many as possible of their right to vote in the hope Corbyn could be made to lose. They failed again. He won with an even bigger majority.

Redefining words

It was in this context that the neoliberal order has had to play its most high-stakes card of all. It has accused Corbyn, a lifelong anti-racism activist, of being an anti-semite for supporting the Palestinian cause, for preferring Palestinian rights over brutal Israeli occupation. To make this charge plausible, words have had to be redefined: “anti-semitism” no longer means simply a hatred of Jews, but includes criticism of Israel; “Zionist” no longer refers to a political movement that prioritises the rights of Jews over the native Palestinian population, but supposedly stands as sinister code for all Jews. Corbyn’s own party has been forced under relentless pressure to adopt these malicious reformulations of meaning.

How anti-semitism is being weaponised, not to protect Jews but to protect the neoliberal order, was made starkly clear this week when Corbyn criticised the financial elite that brought the west to the brink of economic ruin a decade ago, and will soon do so again unless stringent new regulations are introduced. Useful idiots like Stephen Pollard, editor of the right wing Jewish Chronicle, saw a chance to revive the anti-semitism canard once again, accusing Corbyn of secretly meaning “Jews” when he actually spoke of bankers. It is a logic intended to make the neoliberal elite untouchable, cloaking them in a security blanket relying on the anti-semitism taboo.

Almost the entire Westminister political class and the entire corporate media class, including the most prominent journalists in the left-liberal media, have reached the same preposterous conclusion about Corbyn. Whatever the evidence in front of their and our eyes, he is now roundly declared an anti-semite. Up is now down, and day is night.

High-stakes strategy

This strategy is high stakes and dangerous for two reasons.

First, it risks creating the very problem it claims to be defending against. By crying wolf continuously about Corbyn’s supposed anti-semitism without any tangible evidence for it, and by making an unfounded charge of anti-semitism the yardstick for judging Corbyn’s competence for office rather than any of his stated policies, the real anti-semite’s argument begins to sound more plausible.

In what could become self-fulfilling prophecy, the anti-semitic right’s long-standing ideas about Jewish cabals controlling the media and pulling levers behind the scenes could start to resonate with an increasingly disillusioned and frustrated public. The weaponising of anti-semitism by the neoliberal order to protect its power risks turning Jews into collateral damage. It makes them another small or bigger drama in the increasingly desperate attempt to create a narrative that deflects attention from the real power-structure.

And second, the effort to stitch together a narrative of Corbyn’s anti-semitism out of non-existent cloth is likely to encourage more and more people to take a step back from the screen so that those unintelligible pixels can more easily be discerned as a smoking gun. The very preposterousness of the allegations, and the fact that they are taken so seriously by a political and media class selected for their submissiveness to the neoliberal order, accelerates the process by which these opinion-formers discredit themselves. Their authority wanes by the day, and as a result their usefulness to the power-structure rapidly diminishes.

This is where we are now: in the final stages of a busted system that is clinging on to credibility by its fingernails. Sooner or later, its grip will be lost and it will plunge into the abyss. We will wonder how we ever fell for any of its deceptions.

In the meantime, we must get on with the urgent task of liberating our minds, of undoing the toxic mental and emotional training we were subjected to, of critiquing and deriding those whose job is to enforce the corrupt orthodoxy, and of replotting a course towards a future that saves the human species from impending extinction.

Palestinians Suffer as Trump Tears Up Rules-based Order

Washington’s decision to intensify swingeing aid cuts to the Palestinians – the latest targets include cancer patients and peace groups – reveals more than a simple determination to strong-arm the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table.

Under cover of a supposed peace effort, or “deal of the century”, the Trump administration hopes to solve problems closer to home. It wants finally to shake off the burden of international humanitarian law, and the potential for war crimes trials, that have overshadowed US actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – and may yet prove treacherous in dealings with Iran.

The Palestinians have been thrust into the centre of this battle for good reason. They are the most troublesome legacy of a post-war, rules-based international order that the US is now committed to sweeping away. Amputate the Palestinian cause, an injustice festering for more than seven decades, and America’s hand will be freer elsewhere. Might will again be right.

An assault on the already fragile international order as it relates to the Palestinians began in earnest last month. The US stopped all aid to UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency that helps more than five million Palestinians languishing in camps across the Middle East.

The pressure sharpened last week when $25m in aid was blocked to hospitals in East Jerusalem that provide a lifeline to Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, whose health services have withered under a belligerent Israeli occupation.

Then at the weekend, the US revealed it would no longer hand over $10m to peace groups fostering ties between Israelis and Palestinians.

The only significant transfer the US still makes is $60m annually to the Palestinian security services, which effectively enforce the occupation on Israel’s behalf. In short, that money benefits Israel, not the Palestinians.

At the same time, the Trump administration revoked the US visa of the Palestinian ambassador to Washington, Husam Zomlot, shortly after shuttering his diplomatic mission. The Palestinians have been cast fully out into the cold.

Most observers wrongly assume that the screws are simply being tightened to force the Palestinians to engage with Mr Trump’s peace plan, even though it is nowhere in sight. Like an unwanted tin can, it has been kicked ever further down the road over the past year. A reasonable presumption is that it will never be unveiled. While the US keeps everyone distracted with empty talk, Israel gets on with its unilateral solutions.

The world is watching, nonetheless. The Palestinian community of Khan Al Ahmar, outside Jerusalem, appears to be days away from demolition. Israel intends to ethnically cleanse its inhabitants to clear the way for more illegal Jewish settlements in a key area that would eradicate any hope of a Palestinian state.

Mr Trump’s recent punitive actions are designed to choke into submission the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, just as Israel once secretly put Palestinians in Gaza on a starvation “diet” to make them more compliant. Israel’s long-standing collective punishment of Palestinians – constituting a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention – has now been supplemented by similar types of collective punishment by the US, against Palestinian refugees and cancer patients.

Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, admitted as much at the weekend. He told the New York Times that the cuts in aid were punishment for the Palestinian leadership “vilifying the [US] administration”.

In an apparent coded reference to international law, Mr Kushner added that it was time to change “false realities”. However feeble international institutions have proved, the Trump administration, like Israel, prefers to be without them.

In particular, both detest the potential constraints imposed by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which is empowered to prosecute war crimes. Although it was established only in 2002, it draws on a body of international law and notions of human rights that date back to the immediate period after the Second World War.

The crimes committed by Zionist leaders in establishing Israel on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland occurred in 1948, just as international law was being born. The Palestinians were among the first, and are still the most glaring, violation of that new rules-based global order.

Righting those historic wrongs is the biggest test of whether international law will ever amount to more than jailing the odd African dictator.

That the Palestinian cause continues to loom large was underscored this month by two challenges conducted in international forums.

Legislators from Israel’s large Palestinian minority have appealed to the United Nations to sanction Israel for recently passing the apartheid-like Nation-State Basic Law. It gives constitutional standing to institutionalised discrimination against the fifth of the population who are not Jewish.

And the Palestinian Authority has alerted the Hague court to the imminent destruction by Israel of Khan Al Ahmar. The ICC is already examining whether to bring a case against Israel over the settlements built on occupied land.

The US State Department has said the aid cuts and closure of the Palestinian embassy were prompted partly by “concerns” over the Hague referral. John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, meanwhile, has vowed to shield Israel from any war crimes trials.

Sitting on the fence have been the Europeans. Last week the European parliament passed a resolution warning that Khan Al Ahmar’s destruction and the “forcible transfer” of its inhabitants would be a “grave breach” of international law. In an unusual move, it also threatened to demand compensation from Israel for any damage to infrastructure in Khan Al Ahmar funded by Europe.

Europe’s leading states anxiously wish to uphold the semblance of an international order they believe has prevented their region’s descent into a Third World War. Israel and the US, on the other hand, are determined to use Palestine as the test bed for dismantling these protections.

The Israeli bulldozers sent to Khan Al Ahmar will also launch an assault on Europe and its resolve to defend international law and the Palestinians. When push comes to shove, will Europe’s nerve hold?

• First published in The National

Why We’re Blind to the System Destroying Us

I rarely use this blog to tell readers what they should believe. Rather I try to indicate why it might be wise to distrust, at least without very good evidence, what those in power tell us we should believe.

We have well-known sayings about power: “Knowledge is power”, and “Power corrupts, while absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These aphorisms resonate because they say something true about how we experience the world. People who have power – even very limited power they hold on licence from someone else – tend to abuse it, sometimes subtly and unconsciously, and sometimes overtly and wilfully.

If we are reasonably self-aware, we can sense the tendency in ourselves to exploit to our advantage whatever power we enjoy, whether it is in our dealings with a spouse, our children, a friend, an employee, or just by the general use of our status to get ahead.

This isn’t usually done maliciously or even consciously. By definition, the hardest thing to recognise are our own psychological, emotional and mental blind spots – and the biggest, at least for those born with class, gender or race privileges, is realising that these too are forms of power.

Nonetheless, these are all minor forms of power compared to the power wielded collectively by the structures that dominate our societies: the financial sector, the corporations, the media, the political class, and the security services.

But strangely most of us are much readier to concede the corrupting influence of the relatively small power of individuals than we are the rottenness of vastly more powerful institutions and structures. We blame the school teacher or the politician for abusing his or her power, while showing a reluctance to do the same about either the education or political systems in which they have to operate.

Similarly, we are happier identifying the excessive personal power of a Rupert Murdoch than we are the immense power of the corporate empire behind him and on which his personal wealth and success depend.

And beyond this, we struggle most of all to detect the structural and ideological framework underpinning or cohering all these discrete examples of power.

Narrative control

It is relatively easy to understand that your line manager is abusing his power, because he has so little of it. His power is visible to you because it relates only to you and the small group of people around you.

It is a little harder, but not too difficult, to identify the abusive policies of your firm – the low pay, cuts in overtime, attacks on union representation.

It is more difficult to see the corrupt power of large institutions, aside occasionally from the corruption of senior figures within those institutions, such as a Robert Maxwell or a Richard Nixon.

But it is all but impossible to appreciate the corrupt nature of the entire system. And the reason is right there in those aphorisms: absolute power depends on absolute control over knowledge, which in turn necessitates absolute corruption. If that were not the case, we wouldn’t be dealing with serious power – as should be obvious, if we pause to think about it.

Real power in our societies derives from that which is necessarily hard to see – structures, ideology and narratives – not individuals. Any Murdoch or Trump can be felled, though being loyal acolytes of the power-system they rarely are, should they threaten the necessary maintenance of power by these interconnected institutions, these structures.

The current neoliberal elite who effectively rule the planet have reached as close to absolute power as any elite in human history. And because they have near-absolute power, they have a near-absolute control of the official narratives about our societies and our “enemies”, those who stand in their way to global domination.

No questions about Skripals

One needs only to look at the narrative about the two men, caught on CCTV cameras, who have recently been accused by our political and media class of using a chemical agent to try to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia back in March.

I don’t claim to know whether Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov work for the Russian security services, or whether they were dispatched by Vladimir Putin on a mission to Salisbury to kill the Skripals.

What is clear, however, is that the British intelligence services have been feeding the British corporate media a self-serving, drip-drip narrative from the outset – and that the media have shown precisely no interest at any point in testing any part of this narrative or even questioning it. They have been entirely passive, which means their readers – us – have been entirely passive too.

That there are questions about the narrative to be raised is obvious if you turn away from the compliant corporate media and seek out the views of independent-minded, one-time insiders such as Craig Murray.

A former British ambassador, Murray is asking questions that may prove to be pertinent or not. But at this stage, when all we have to rely on is what the intelligence services are selectively providing, these kinds of doubts should be driving the inquiries of any serious journalist covering the story. But as is so often the case, not only are these questions not being raised or investigated, but anyone like Murray who thinks critically – who assumes that the powerful will seek to promote their interests and avoid accountability – is instantly dismissed as a conspiracy theorist or in Putin’s pocket.

That is no meaningful kind of critique. Many of the questions that have been raised – like why there are so many gaps in the CCTV record of the movements of both the Skripals and the two assumed assassins – could be answered if there was an interest in doing so. The evasion and the smears simply suggest that power intends to remain unaccountable, that it is keeping itself concealed, that the narrative is more important than the truth.

And that is reason enough to move from questioning the narrative to distrusting it.

Ripples on a lake

Although journalists typically have a largely passive relationship to power, in stark contrast to their image as a tenacious watchdog, even more fundamental than control over the narrative is the ideology that guides these narratives.  Ideology ensures the power-system is invisible not only to us, those who are abused and exploited by it, but also to those who benefit from it.

It is precisely because power resides in structures and ideology, rather than individuals, that it is so hard to see. And the power-structures themselves are made yet more difficult to identify because the narratives created about our societies are designed to conceal those structures and ideology – where real power resides – by focusing instead on individuals.

That is why our newspapers and TV shows are full of stories about personalities – celebrities, royalty, criminals, politicians. They are made visible so that we do not notice the ideological structures we live inside that are supposed to remain invisible.

News and entertainment are the ripples on a lake, not the lake itself. But the ripples could not exist without the lake that forms and shapes them.

Up against the screen

If this sounds like hyperbole, let’s stand back from our particular ideological system – neoliberalism – and consider earlier ideological systems in the hope that they offer some perspective. At the moment, we are like someone standing right up against an IMAX screen, so close that we cannot see that there is a screen or even guess that there is a complete picture. All we see are moving colours and pixels. Maybe we can briefly infer a mouth, the wheel of a vehicle, a gun.

Before neoliberalism there were other systems of rule. There was, for example, feudalism that appropriated a communal resource – land – exclusively for an aristocracy. It exploited the masses by forcing them to toil on the land for a pittance to generate the wealth that supported castles, a clergy, manor houses, art collections and armies. For several centuries the power of this tiny elite went largely unquestioned.

But then a class of entrepreneurs emerged, challenging the landed artistocracy with a new means of industrialised production. They built factories and took advantage of scales of economy that slightly widened the circle of privilege, creating a middle class. That elite, and the middle-class that enjoyed crumbs from their master’s table, lived off the exploitation of children in work houses and the labour of a new urban poor in slum housing.

These eras were systematically corrupt, enabling the elites of those times to extend and entrench their power. Each elite produced justifications to placate the masses who were being exploited, to brainwash them into believing the system existed as part of a natural order or even for their benefit. The aristocracy relied on a divine right of kings, the capitalist class on the guiding hand of the free market and bogus claims of equality of opportunity.

In another hundred years, if we still exist as a species, our system will look no less corrupt – probably more so – than its predecessors.

Neoliberalism, late-stage capitalism, plutocratic rule by corporations – whatever you wish to call it – has allowed a tiny elite to stash away more wealth and accrue more power than any feudal monarch could ever have dreamt of. And because of the global reach of this elite, its corruption is more endemic, more complete, more destructive than any ever known to mankind.

A foreign policy elite can destroy the world several times over with nuclear weapons. A globalised corporate elite is filling the oceans with the debris from our consumption, chopping down the forest-lungs of our planet for palm-oil plantations so we can satisfy our craving for biscuits and cake. And our media and intelligence services are jointly crafting a narrative of bogeymen and James Bond villains – both in Hollywood movies, and in our news programmes – to make us fearful and pliable.

Assumptions of inevitability

Most of us abuse our own small-power thoughtlessly, even self-righteously. We tell ourselves that we gave the kids a “good spanking” because they were naughty, rather than because we established with them early on a power relationship that confusingly taught them that the use of force and coercion came with a parental stamp of approval.

Those in greater power – from minions in the media to executives of major corporations – are no different. They are as incapable of questioning the ideology and the narrative – how inevitable and “right” our neoliberal system is – as the rest of us. But they play a vital part in maintaining and entrenching that system nonetheless.

David Cromwell and David Edwards of Media Lens have provided two analogies – in the context of the media – that help explain how it is possible for individuals and groups to assist and enforce systems of power without having any conscious intention to do so, and without being aware that they are contributing to something harmful. Without, in short, being aware that they are conspiring in the system.

The first:

When a shoal of fish instantly changes direction, it looks for all the world as though the movement was synchronised by some guiding hand. Journalists – all trained and selected for obedience by media all seeking to maximise profits within state-capitalist society – tend to respond to events in the same way.

The second:

Place a square wooden framework on a flat surface and pour into it a stream of ball bearings, marbles, or other round objects. Some of the balls may bounce out, but many will form a layer within the wooden framework; others will then find a place atop this first layer. In this way, the flow of ball bearings steadily builds new layers that inevitably produce a pyramid-style shape. This experiment is used to demonstrate how near-perfect crystalline structures such as snowflakes arise in nature without conscious design.

The system – whether feudalism, capitalism, neoliberalism – emerges out of the real-world circumstances of those seeking power most ruthlessly. In a time when the key resource was land, a class emerged justifying why it should have exclusive rights to control that land and the labour needed to make it productive. When industrial processes developed, a class emerged demanding that it had proprietary rights to those processes and to the labour needed to make them productive.

Our place in the pyramid

In these situations, we need to draw on something like Darwin’s evolutionary “survival of the fittest” principle. Those few who are most hungry for power, those with least empathy, will rise to the top of the pyramid, finding themselves best-placed to exploit the people below. They will rationalise this exploitation as a divine right, or as evidence of their inherently superior skills, or as proof of the efficiency of the market.

And below them, like the layers of ball bearings, will be those who can help them maintain and expand their power: those who have the skills, education and socialisation to increase profits and sell brands.

All of this should be obvious, even non-controversial. It fits what we experience of our small-power lives. Does bigger power operate differently? After all, if those at the top of the power-pyramid were not hungry for power, even psychopathic in its pursuit, if they were caring and humane, worried primarily about the well-being of their workforce and the planet, they would be social workers and environmental activists, not CEOs of media empires and arms manufacturers.

And yet, base your political thinking on what should be truisms, articulate a worldview that distrusts those with the most power because they are the most capable of – and committed to – misusing it, and you will be derided. You will be called a conspiracy theorist, dismissed as deluded. You will be accused of wearing a tinfoil hat, of sour grapes, of being anti-American, a social warrior, paranoid, an Israel-hater or anti-semitic, pro-Putin, pro-Assad, a Marxist.

None of this should surprise us either. Because power – not just the people in the system, but the system itself – will use whatever tools it has to protect itself. It is easier to deride critics as unhinged, especially when you control the media, the politicians and the education system, than it is to provide a counter-argument.

In fact, it is vital to prevent any argument or real debate from taking place. Because the moment we think about the arguments, weigh them, use our critical faculties, there is a real danger that the scales will fall from our eyes. There is a real threat that we will move back from the screen, and see the whole picture.

Can we see the complete picture of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury; or the US election that led to Trump being made president; or the revolution in Ukraine; or the causes and trajectory of fighting in Syria, and before it Libya and Iraq; or the campaign to discredit Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party; or the true implications of the banking crisis a decade ago?

Profit, not ethics

Just as a feudal elite was driven, not by ethics, but by the pursuit of power and wealth through the control of land; just as early capitalists were driven, not by ethics, but by the pursuit of power and wealth through the control of mechanisation; so neoliberalism is driven not by ethics but the pursuit of power and wealth through the control of the planet.

The only truth we can know is that the western power-elite is determined to finish the task of making its power fully global, expanding it from near-absolute to absolute. It cares nothing for you or your grand-children. It is a cold-calculating system, not a friend or neighbour. It lives for the instant gratification of wealth accumulation, not concern about the planet’s fate tomorrow.

And because of that it is structurally bound to undermine or discredit anyone, any group, any state that stands in the way of achieving its absolute dominion.

If that is not the thought we hold uppermost in our minds as we listen to a politician, read a newspaper, watch a film or TV show, absorb an ad, or engage on social media, then we are sleepwalking into a future the most powerful, the most ruthless, the least caring have designed for us.

Step back, and take a look at the whole screen. And decide whether this is really the future you wish for your grand-children.

A “Gentleman’s Agreement”: How Oslo Worked Out as Planned for Israel

There will be no anniversary celebrations this week to mark the signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington 25 years ago. It is a silver jubilee for which there will be no street parties, no commemorative mugs, no specially minted coins.

Palestinians have all but ignored the landmark anniversary, while Israel’s commemoration has amounted to little more than a handful of doleful articles in the Israeli press about what went wrong.

The most significant event has been a documentary, The Oslo Diaries, aired on Israeli TV and scheduled for broadcast in the US this week. It charts the events surrounding the creation of the peace accords, signed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington on 13 September 1993.

The euphoria generated by the Norwegian-initiated peace process a quarter of a century ago now seems wildly misplaced to most observers. The promised, phased withdrawals by Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories got stuck at an early stage.

And the powers of the Palestinian Authority, a Palestinian government-in-waiting that came out of Oslo, never rose above managing healthcare and collecting garbage in densely populated Palestinian areas, while coordinating with Israel on security matters.

All the current efforts to draw lessons from these developments have reached the same conclusion: that Oslo was a missed opportunity for peace, that the accords were never properly implemented, and that the negotiations were killed off by Palestinian and Israeli extremists.

Occupation reorganised

But analysts Middle East Eye has spoken to take a very different view.

“It is wrong to think of Oslo being derailed, or trying to identify the moment the Oslo process died,” says Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. “Oslo never died. It is still doing today exactly what it was set up to do.”

Michel Warschawski, an Israeli peace activist who developed strong ties with Palestinian leaders in the Oslo years, concurred.

“I and pretty much everyone else I knew at that time was taken in by the hype that the occupation was about to end. But in reality, Oslo was about reorganising the occupation, not ending it. It created a new division of labour.

“Rabin didn’t care much about whether the Palestinians got some indicators of sovereignty – a flag and maybe even a seat at the United Nations.

“But Israel was determined to continue controlling the borders, the Palestinians’ resources, the Palestinian economy. Oslo changed the division of labour by sub-contracting the hard part of Israel’s security to the Palestinians themselves.”

The accords were signed in the immediate aftermath of several years of a Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories – the First Intifada – that had proved costly to Israel, both in terms of casualties and treasure.

Under Oslo, Palestinian security forces patrolled the streets of Palestinian cities, overseen by and in close coordination with the Israeli military. The tab, meanwhile, was picked up by Europe and Washington.

In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper last week, Joel Singer, the Israeli government lawyer who helped to draft the accords, conceded as much. Rabin, he said, “thought it would enhance [Israeli] security to have the Palestinians as the ones fighting Hamas”.

That way, as Rabin once observed, the occupation would no longer be accountable to the “bleeding hearts” of the Israeli supreme court and Israel’s active human rights community.

Less than statehood

The widespread assumption that Oslo would lead to a Palestinian state was also mistaken, Buttu says.

She notes that nowhere in the accords was there mention of the occupation, a Palestinian state, or freedom for the Palestinians. And no action was specified against Israel’s illegal settlements – the chief obstacle to Palestinian statehood.

Instead, the stated goal of the Oslo process was implementation of two outstanding United Nations resolutions – 242 and 338. The first concerned the withdrawal of the Israeli army from “territories” occupied in the 1967 war, while the second urged negotiations leading to a “just and durable peace”.

“I spoke to both Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas [his successor as Palestinian president] about this,” said Buttu. “Their view was that clearer language, on Palestinian statehood and independence, would never have got past Rabin’s coalition.

“So Arafat treated resolutions 242 and 338 as code words. The Palestinian leadership referred to Oslo as a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. Their approach was beyond naïve; it was reckless. They behaved like amateurs.”

Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University and expert on Palestinian nationalism, said the Palestinian leadership was aware from the outset that Israel was not offering real statehood.

“In his memoirs, Ahmed Qurei [one of the key architects of Oslo on the Palestinian side] admitted his shock when he started meetings with the Israeli team,” says Ghanem.

“Uri Savir [Israel’s chief negotiator] said outright that Israel did not favour a Palestinian state, and that something less was being offered. The Israelis’ attitude was ‘Take it or leave it’.”

Sympathy with settlers

All the analysts agreed that a lack of good faith on Israel’s part was starkly evident from the start, especially over the issue of the settlements.

Noticeably, rather than halt or reverse the expansion of the settlements during the supposed five-year transition period, Oslo allowed the settler population to grow at a dramatically accelerated rate.

The near-doubling of settler numbers in the West Bank and Gaza to 200,000 by the late 1990s was explained by Alan Baker, a legal adviser to Israel’s foreign ministry after 1996 and a settler himself, in an interview in 2003.

Most of the settlements were portrayed to the Israeli public as Israeli “blocs”, outside the control of the newly created PA. With the signing of the accords, Baker said, “we are no longer an occupying power, but we are instead present in the territories with their [the Palestinians’] consent and subject to the outcome of negotiations.”

Recent interviews with settler leaders by the Haaretz newspaper hint too at the ideological sympathy between Rabin’s supposedly leftist government and the settler movement.

Israel Harel, who then headed the Yesha Council, the settlers’ governing body, described Rabin as “very accessible”. He pointed out that Zeev Hever, another settler leader, sat with Israeli military planners as they created an “Oslo map”, carving up the West Bank into various areas of control.

Referring to settlements that most had assumed would be dismantled under the accords, Harel noted: “When [Hever] was accused [by other settlers] of cooperating, he would say he saved us from disaster. They [the Israeli army] marked areas that could have isolated settlements and made them disappear.”

Israel’s Oslo lawyer, Joel Singer, confirmed the Israeli leadership’s reluctance to address the issue of the settlements.

“We fought with the Palestinians, on Rabin and [Shimon] Peres’ orders, against a [settlement] freeze,” he told Haaretz. “It was a serious mistake to permit the settlements to continue to race ahead.”

Rabin’s refusal to act

Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University in Israel’s south, said the critical test of Rabin’s will to tackle the settlements came less than a year into the Oslo process. It was then that Baruch Goldstein, a settler, killed and wounded more than 150 Palestinians at worship in the Palestinian city of Hebron.

“That gave Rabin the chance to remove the 400 extremist settlers who were embedded in the centre of Hebron,” Gordon said. “But he didn’t act. He let them stay.”

The lack of response from Israel fuelled a campaign of Hamas “revenge” suicide bombings that in turn were used by Israel to justify a refusal to withdraw from more of the occupied territories.

Warschawski said Rabin could have dismantled the settlements if he had acted quickly. “The settlers were in disarray in the early stages of Oslo, but he didn’t move against them.”

After Rabin’s assassination in late 1995, his successor Shimon Peres, also widely identified as an architect of the Oslo process, changed tactics, according to Warschawski. “Peres preferred to emphasise internal reconciliation [between Israelis] rather than reconciliation with the Palestinians. After that, the religious narrative of the extremist settlers came to dominate.”

That would lead a few months later to the electoral triumph of the right under Benjamin Netanyahu.

Demographic differential

Although Netanyahu campaigned vociferously against the Oslo Accords, they proved perfect for his kind of rejectionist politics, said Gordon.

Under cover of vague promises about Palestinian statehood, “Israel was able to bolster the settlement project,” in Gordon’s view. “The statistics show that, when there are negotiations, the demographic growth of the settler population in the West Bank increases. The settlements get rapidly bigger. And when there is an intifada, they slow down.

“So Oslo was ideal for Israel’s colonial project.”

It was not only that, under the pressure of Oslo, religious settlers ran to “grab the hilltops”, as a famous army general and later prime minister, Ariel Sharon, put it. Gordon pointed to a strategy by the government of recruiting a new type of settler during the initial Oslo years.

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sharon and others had tried to locate Russian-speaking new immigrants in large settlements like Ariel, in the central West Bank. “The problem was that many of the Russians had only one child,” Gordon said.

So instead, Israel began moving the ultra-Orthodox into the occupied territories. These fundamentalist religious Jews, Israel’s poorest community, typically have seven or eight children. They were desperate for housing solutions, noted Gordon, and the government readily provided incentives to lure them into two new ultra-Orthodox settlements, Modiin Ilit and Beitar Ilit.

“After that, Israel didn’t need to recruit lots of new settlers,” Gordon said. “It just needed to buy time with the Oslo process and the settler population would grow of its own accord.

“The ultra-Orthodox became Israel’s chief demographic weapon. In the West Bank, Jewish settlers have on average two more children than Palestinians – that demographic differential has an enormous impact over time.”

Palestinian dependency

Buttu pointed to another indicator of how Israel never intended the Oslo Accords to lead to a Palestinian state. Shortly before Oslo, from 1991 onwards, Israel introduced much more severe restrictions on movement, including an increasingly sophisticated permit system.

“Movement from Gaza to the West Bank became possible only in essential cases,” she said. “It stopped being a right.”

That process, Ghanem noted, has been entrenched over the past quarter century, and ultimately led to complete physical and ideological separation between Gaza and the West Bank, now ruled respectively by Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah.

Gordon observed that Oslo’s economic arrangements, governed by the 1995 Paris Protocol, stripped the Palestinians of financial autonomy too.

“The Palestinians did not get their own currency, they had to use the Israeli shekel. And a customs union made the Palestinians a dependent market for Israeli goods and empowered Israel to collect import duties on behalf of the PA. Refusing to transfer that money was a stick Israel has regularly wielded against the Palestinians.”

According to the analysts, those Palestinian leaders like Arafat who were allowed by the Oslo process to return from exile in Tunisia – sometimes referred to as the “outsiders” – were completely ignorant of the situation on the ground.

Gordon, who was at that time head of Israel’s branch of Physicians for Human Rights, recalled meeting young Palestinian-Americans and Canadians in Cairo to discuss the coming health arrangements the PA would be responsible for.

“They were bright and well-educated, but they were clueless about what was happening on the ground. They had no idea what demands to make of Israel,” he said.

“Israel, on the other hand, had experts who knew the situation intimately.”

Warschawski has similar recollections. He took a senior Palestinian recently arrived from Tunis on a tour of the settlements. The official sat in his car in stunned silence for the whole journey.

“They knew the numbers but they had no idea how deeply entrenched the settlements were, how integrated they were into Israeli society,” he said. “It was then that they started to understand the logic of the settlements for the first time, and appreciate what Israel’s real intentions were.”

Lured into a trap

Warschawski noted that the only person in his circle who rejected the hype around the Oslo Accords from the very beginning was Matti Peled, a general turned peace activist who knew Rabin well.

“When we met for discussions about the Oslo Accords, Matti laughed at us. He said there would be no Oslo, there would be no process that would lead to peace.”

Ghanem said the Palestinian leadership eventually realised that they had been lured into a trap.

“They couldn’t move forward towards statehood, because Israel blocked their way,” he said. “But equally, they couldn’t back away from the peace process either. They didn’t dare dismantle the PA, and so Israel came to control Palestinian politics.

“If Abbas leaves, someone else will take over the PA and its role will continue.”

Why did the Palestinian leadership enter the Oslo process without taking greater precautions?

According to Buttu, Arafat had reasons to feel insecure about being outside Palestine, along with other PLO leaders living in exile in Tunisia, in ways that he hoped Oslo would solve.

“He wanted a foot back in Palestine,” she said. “He felt very threatened by the ‘inside’ leadership, even though they were loyal to him. The First Intifada had shown they could lead an uprising and mobilise the people without him.

“He also craved international recognition and legitimacy.”

Trench warfare

According to Gordon, Arafat believed he would eventually be able to win concessions from Israel.

“He viewed it as trench warfare. Once he was in historic Palestine, he would move forward trench by trench.”

Warschawski noted that Arafat and other Palestinian leaders had told him they believed they would have significant leverage over Israel.

“Their view was that Israel would end the occupation in exchange for normalisation with the Arab world. Arafat saw himself as the bridge that would provide the recognition Israel wanted. His attitude was that Rabin would have to kiss his hand in return for such an important achievement.

“He was wrong.”

Gordon pointed to the early Oslo discourse about an economic dividend, in which it was assumed that peace would open up trade for Israel with the Arab world while turning Gaza into the Singapore of the Middle East.

The “peace dividend”, however, was challenged by an equally appealing “war dividend”.

“Even before 9/11, Israel’s expertise in the realms of security and technology proved profitable. Israel realised there was lots of money to be made in fighting terror.”

In fact, Israel managed to take advantage of both the peace and war dividends.

Buttu noted that more than 30 countries, including Morocco and Oman, developed diplomatic or economic relations with Israel as a result of the Oslo Accords. The Arab states relented on their boycott and anti-normalisation policies, and major foreign corporations no longer feared being penalised by the Arab world for trading with Israel.

“Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan [in 1994] could never have happened without Oslo,” she said.

“Instead of clear denunciations of the occupation, the Palestinians were saddled with the language of negotiations and compromises for peace.

“The Palestinians became a charity case, seeking handouts from the Arab world so that the PA could help with the maintenance of the occupation rather than leading the resistance.

“Thanks to Oslo, Israel became normalised in the region, while paradoxically the Palestinians found themselves transformed into the foreign object.”

• First published in Middle East Eye

Our Broken System has no “Moderate” Devotees

Western politics is tearing itself apart, polarising into two camps – or at least, it is in the official narrative we are being fed by our corporate media. The warring camps are presented as “moderate centrists”, on one side, and the “extreme right”, on the other. The question is framed as a choice about where one stands in relation to this fundamental political divide. But what if none of this is true? What if this isn’t a feud between two opposed ideological camps but rather two differing – and irrational – reactions to the breakdown of late-stage capitalism as an economic model, a system that can no longer offer plausible solutions to the problems of our age?

Neighbouring news headlines this week offered a neat illustration of the media’s framing of the current situation. Representing the “moderates”, German chancellor Angela Merkel made a “passionate address” in which she denounced the outbreak of far-right protests in east Germany and reports of the “hunting down” of “foreigners” – asylum seekers and immigrants.

She observed:

There is no excuse or explanation for rabble-rousing, in some cases the use of violence, Nazi slogans, hostility towards people who look different, to the owner of a Jewish restaurant, attacking police.

Ostensibly pitted against Merkel is Viktor Orban, Hungary’s “extreme right” prime minister. Hungary risks being stripped of its voting rights in the European Union because of Orban’s “rabble-rousing” policies and his anti-migrant agenda.

Shortly before the European parliament voted against Hungary, accusing its government of posing a “systematic threat” to democracy and the rule of law, Orban argued that his country was being targeted for preferring not to be “a country of migrants”.

He is far from an outlier. Several other EU states, from Italy to Poland, are close behind Orban in pursuing populist, anti-immigrant agendas.

Family feud

But does this civil war in Europe really reflect a divide between good and bad politics, between moderates and extremists? Are we not witnessing something else: the internal contradictions brought to the fore by a turbo-charged neoliberalism that is now so ideologically entrenched that no one dares question its suitability, let alone its morality?

In truth, the row between Merkel and Orban is a family feud, between sister and brother wedded to the same self-destructive ideology but in profound disagreement about which placebo should be administered to make them feel better.

What do I mean?

Merkel and the mainstream neoliberal elite are committed to an ever-more deregulated world because that is imperative for a globalised economic elite searching to accrue ever more wealth and power. That elite needs open borders and a lack of significant regulation so that it can plunder unrestricted the Earth’s resources – human and material – while dumping the toxic waste byproducts wherever is most profitable and convenient.

In practice, that means creating maximum damage in places and against life-forms that have the least capacity to defend themselves: the poorest countries, the animal kingdom, the forests and oceans, the weather system – and, of course, against future generations that have no voice. There is a reason why the deepest seabeds are now awash with our plastic debris, poisoning and killing marine life for decades, maybe centuries, to come.

Interestingly, this global elite makes a few exceptions to its policy of entirely open borders and sweeping deregulation. Through its pawns in the world’s leading capitals – the people we mistakenly think of as our political representatives – it has created small islands of opacity in which it can stash away its wealth. These “offshore tax havens” are highly regulated so we cannot see what goes on inside them. While the elite wants borders erased and the free movement of workers to set one against the other, the borders of these offshore “safe deposit boxes” are stringently preserved to protect the elite’s wealth.

International order

Meanwhile, the global elite has created international or trans-national structures and institutions precisely to remove the power of nation-states to regulate and dominate the business environment. The political class in the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Mexico or Brazil do not control the corporations. These corporations control even the biggest states. The banks are too big to fail, the arms manufacturers too committed to permanent war to rein in, the largely uniform narratives of the corporate media too powerful to dissent from.

Instead, global or trans-national institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary, the European Union, NATO, BRICS and many others, remake our world to promote the globalised profits of the corporations.

The United Nations – a rival international project – is more problematic. It was created immediately after the Second World War with the aim of imposing a law-based international order, premised on respect for human rights, to prevent future large-scale wars and genocide. In practice, however, it chiefly serves the interests of the dominant western states through their capture of the Security Council, effectively the UN’s executive.

A few UN institutions – those in charge of human rights and prosecuting war crimes – that have the potential to restrain the power of the global elite find themselves ever more marginalised and undermined. Both the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court have been under sustained assault from US officials, both before and after Donald Trump became president.

Towards the abyss

The internal contradictions of this globalised system – between the unfettered enrichment of the elite and the endless resource depletion of the Earth and its weakest inhabitants – are becoming ever more apparent. Historically, the toxic waste from this system was inflicted on the poorest regions first, like puddles forming in depressions in the ground during a rainstorm.

As the planet has warmed, crops have failed, the poor have gone hungry, wars have broken out. All of this has been an entirely predictable outcome of the current economics of endless, carbon-based growth, coupled with resource theft. But unlike puddles, the human collateral damage of this economic system can get up and move elsewhere. We have seen massive population displacements caused by famines and wars, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. These migrations are not about to stop. They are going to intensify as neoliberalism hurtles us towards the economic and climate abyss.

The political class in the west are now experiencing profound cognitive dissonance. Merkel and the “moderates” want endless growth and a world without borders that is bringing gradual ruination on their economies and their privileges. They have no answers for the “extremists” on the right, who acknowledge this ruination and say something needs to be done urgently about it.

Orban and the far-right want to fiercely resurrect the borders that globalisation erased, to build barriers that will stop the puddles merging and inundating their higher ground. This is why the right is resurgent. They, far more than the moderates, can describe our current predicament – even if they offer solutions that are positively harmful. They want solid walls, national sovereignty, blocks on immigrants, as well as racism and violence against the “foreigners” already inside their borders.

The system is broken

We have to stop thinking of these political debates as between the good “moderates” and the nasty “extreme right”. This is a fundamental misconception.

The deluded “moderates” want to continue with a highly unsustainable form of capitalism premised on an impossible endless growth. It should be obvious that a planet with finite resources cannot sustain infinite growth, and that the toxic waste of our ever-greater consumption will poison the well we all depend on.

The west’s deluded far-right, on the other hand, believe that they can stand guard and protect their small pile of privilege against the rising tide of migrants and warming oceans caused by western policies of resource theft, labour exploitation and climate destruction. The far-right’s views are no more grounded in reality than King Canute’s.

Both sides are failing to grasp the central problem: that the western-imposed global economic system is broken. It is gradually being destroyed from within by its own contradictions. The “moderates” are doubly blind: they refuse to acknowledge either the symptoms or the cause of the disease. The “extremists” are as oblivious to the causes of the illness besetting their societies as the “moderates”, but they do at least recognise the symptoms as a sign of malaise, even if their solutions are entirely self-serving.

Squaring the circle

This can be seen in stark fashion in the deep divide over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, so-called Brexit, which has cut across the usual left-right agendas.

The Remain crowd, who want to stay in Europe, believe Britain’s future lies in upholding the failed status quo: of a turbo-charged neoliberalism, of diminishing borders and the free movement of labour, of distant, faceless technocrats making decisions in their name.

Like a child pulling up the blanket to her chin in the hope it will protect her from the monsters lurking in the darkness of the bedroom, the “moderates” assume European bureaucrats will protect them from economic collapse and climate breakdown. The reality, however, is that the EU is one of the trans-national institutions whose chief rationale is accelerating our rush to the abyss.

Meanwhile, the Brexit crowd think that, once out of the EU, a small island adrift in a globalised world will be able to reclaim its sovereignty and greatness. They too are going to find reality a terrifying disappointment. Alone, Britain will not be stronger. It will simply be easier prey for the US-headquartered global elite. Britain will be jumping out of the EU frying pan into the flames of the Atlanticists’ stove.

What is needed is not the “moderates” or the “extreme right”, not Brexit or Remain, but an entirely new kind of politics, which is prepared to shift the paradigm.

The new paradigm must accept that we live in a world that requires global solutions and regulations to prevent climate breakdown. But it must also understand that people are rightly distrustful of distant, unaccountable institutions that are easily captured by the most powerful and the most pitiless. People want to feel part of communities they know, to have a degree of control over their lives and decisions, to find common bonds and to work collaboratively from the bottom-up.

The challenge ahead is to discard our current self-destructive illusions and urgently find a way to solve this conundrum – to square the circle.