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Annual Strategy Report: A Strategy for the New Period

3rd Annual National Organizers' Conference Strategy Paper


May 2004

by Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies New Internationalism Project & Co-Chair, U.S. Campaign

and David Wildman, Human Rights Office, General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church & Steering Committee, U.S. Campaign

When the U.S. Campaign was created, Oslo's Camp David and Taba renditions had only recently collapsed, the second intifada was only months old, and the issue of Palestine and the Israeli occupation was still largely marginalized (when not excluded altogether) within much of the U.S. peace and justice movement. The reoccupation of Palestinian cities and the new pattern of closures, roadblocks, checkpoints, fences to surround and divide Palestinians were only just beginning, the Apartheid Wall did not exist, and Jenin was simply the name of a little-known town in the northern West Bank. The peace movement's work on Iraq focused on opposing sanctions, and September 11th was still widely known as the anniversary of the 1973 coup in Chile. Uncritical pro-Israeli positions were largely unchallenged within the U.S. Jewish community. Inside Israel, Sharon's overwhelming victory over the hapless Barak saw a rise in right-wing power and influence, the marginalization of the peace camp and frightening escalations in anti-Palestinian racism and attacks.

In this entirely new period, much has changed. Oslo's latest incarnation, the "Road Map," has collapsed like its predecessors, but this time many more around the world acknowledge its demise as the final failure of peace processes based on staged, gradual, incrementalist changes. The intifada, now more than three years on, shapes everyday reality across the occupied territories and to some degree inside Israel; the Israeli response is more routinely and more heavily militarized than ever before. Many of the first intifada's stone-throwing children have grown up into armed factions, and while non-violent political organizing continues, the first uprising's society-wide social mobilization has been qualitatively weakened.

In Israel, the abject failure of Sharon's military policy to provide personal safety for Israelis has brought about domestic political uncertainty, and a steady stream of high-ranking political and especially military officials breaking with Sharon and calling for a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians. Globally, a wide peace and justice movement shaped by a decade of anti-corporate/anti-globalization organizing, and energized and strengthened by opposition to Washington's assault on Iraq, has kept the question of Palestine at its center. In the U.S., the issue of Palestine and the urgency of ending occupation have, at least since April 2002, been largely normalized within the broad mainstream peace and justice movements, and the rise of Jewish anti-occupation forces have begun at least a small-scale transformation of Jewish public opinion.

Bush administration strategy on Israel-Palestine has shifted from an initially hands-off position, to an all-sided embrace of Sharon and his most extreme agenda in the context of the "war on terror." With the 2004 U.S. elections looming, John Kerry is largely mimicking the Bush policies, and in both major campaigns the issue of support for Israel is assumed, and is quickly emerging as a linchpin of election strategy.

All of these changes are rooted in Washington's reactions to the September 11th
terrorist attacks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full militarization of U.S. foreign policy, the assertion of the U.S. "right" to dominate the world, the renewed commitments to space-based weapons and "useable" nukes, the continued scorn heaped on international law and international obligations, the diversion of hundreds of billions of dollars away from domestic needs towards the Pentagon - all are part of the Bush administration's drive towards empire and permanent war. The global shockwaves from those U.S. responses continue to reverberate.

In the immediate period, U.S. Middle East strategy is characterized by:

  • the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq
  • the U.S. embrace of Sharon's extremist plans for West Bank annexation in the guise of a "Gaza disengagement” and its consequent abandonment of negotiations
  • U.S. rejection of the Palestinian right of return in more specific language than ever before
  • the end of even the claim of an "honest broker" role for the U.S.
  • the explicit U.S. endorsement of Israel's rejection of international law and UN resolutions
  • U.S. acceptance of Israeli-style assassination and preemptive strikes as justifiable and normal in the context of its own occupation of Iraq and the "war on terrorism”
  • a "Greater Middle East Initiative" ostensibly to build democracy across the region but actually aimed at undermining Arab independence, shoring up U.S. control of the region's oil, and promoting pro-U.S., pro-privatization, pro-liberalization and anti-nationalist movements and governments to challenge or replace existing regimes (however pro-U.S. they may in fact already be)
  • greater public outrage in the region than ever before at U.S. involvement in the Iraq-Palestine dual occupations, and pro-U.S. governments in the region under greater popular pressure than ever to break with their Washington backers

Possibilities of this period:

  • However hypocritical and driven by public perception, U.S. efforts to embrace the UN as a "blue fig leaf" of internationalization in Iraq could legitimize calls for the internationalization of Palestine diplomacy
  • The dramatic impact of the Apartheid Wall on Palestinians provides a continuing visual symbol of the reality of military occupation
  • Significant diminution of public support for Bush's war in Iraq could translate into lessening support for Israel-Palestine position as well
  • Skyrocketing domestic costs for the war in Iraq brings to the front burner other costs of U.S. Middle East policies - such as aid to Israel
  • Extremism in stated and implemented policies of the Sharon government can make criticism of Israel somewhat less politically toxic
So What Should the Strategy of the U.S. Campaign Look Like?

Key parts of our earlier strategy should remain in place.

  • The focus on U.S. policy, rather than the specifics of Israeli actions, remains more crucial than ever.
  • The framework of human rights, international law and the United Nations remains fundamental.
  • The emphasis on using the tools of democracy, changing policy through changing the opinions of the American people through education remains our top priority.
However, we need to rethink some of the approaches and some of the priorities we have relied on in the past two years. While education remains our top strategic priority, some changes are called for. In this period of extraordinarily high media, official, and public attention to U.S. policy in the Middle East as a whole, we have simultaneously an opportunity, an obligation, and a huge challenge to use this period as a teaching moment to change public perception about the Israeli occupation and U.S. support for it. Previously unacceptable questions regarding the consequences of U.S. support for the Israeli occupation are being asked at the highest level of public and official discourse: Does that support threaten U.S. allies in the region? Is it undermining U.S. efforts to win 'hearts and minds' in Iraq? Was Israeli training responsible for the U.S. torture and brutality at Abu Ghraib prison?

This is a moment in which a bold strategy to transform public opinion on Palestine and U.S. support for the occupation may hold more promise than ever before. We can look as an example to the work of the Iraq anti-sanctions movement throughout the second half of the 1990s, which worked with significant success to transform the image of Iraq. Contesting the official view that murderous economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. in the name of the UN were somehow acceptable because they were "his fault" and because Iraq was really only populated by 24 million Saddam Husseins, the anti-sanctions movement managed to shape a new image of Iraq under Washington's watch – the image of dying children.

To accomplish a shift of such magnitude on the Palestine front will require a huge amount of work, some time, and not a little luck.

If we look to the fundamentals of what it takes to change popular perceptions, creating a media-based strategy as our primary approach holds out the best chance for educating and changing public opinion and thus making a change in policy possible.

Many of our constituent organizations are already doing innovative and sophisticated media work; some are actually focused primarily on the media, and have extensive experience from which we can learn. For the Campaign as a whole, we need to retool and redefine what a national media strategy would look like for our educational work. So far, we have consistently promoted our congressional work as part of our educational efforts, understanding that in this period we were still unlikely to see significant shifts in policy even with the extraordinary work of the Congressional District Coordinator (CDC) network.

In the coming period, that means two things: first, a nationally-coordinated but locally-based media plan. The new strategy would still rely on the CDC network, but the focus could be broadened from the "Washington Wednesday" plan to add some version of a coordinated monthly (or even more frequent) "Media Monday" or the equivalent. The goal would be similar to the congressionally-focused CDC work, but expanding into the media arena at the local level. Second, a new emphasis on linking U.S. support for occupation to domestic costs and consequences. This would take advantage of the new linkages already being made regarding costs of the Iraq war.

What would a nationally-coordinated locally-based media strategy look like?

  • A media campaign would be based on reaching and gaining access to local and regional media. In each city or congressional district, local coordinators would help local activists place op-eds, reach local producers and editors, fight for access to editorial boards of local newspapers, etc. One of the Campaign’s constituent organizations, Palestine Media Watch (PMW), already has a functioning network with coordinators in 40 cities around the U.S.; broadening the Campaign’s contacts to link with that network would strengthen all of our work, through creation of a Media Task Force of the Campaign similar to the Congressional Task Force.
  • The Task Force/PMW network would identify key local and regional media outlets (primarily newspapers but also including the most influential local television and radio outlets) in each area. The CDC "map tool" on the U.S. Campaign website, which currently features reports on the positions of Members of Congress on key issues would be expanded to add a listing of key media outlets, and perhaps including their overall editorial position on the relevant issues.
  • Working closely with the CDC network, the media network would decide on focus issues which would then become the topic for coordinated media campaigns. Once the issue was identified, tactics might include coordinating letters to the editor; a coordinated call-in to radio talk shows; coordinated meetings of religious and community leaders with the editorial board of the most important local newspaper.
  • CDCs and their networks would find their work strengthened as evidence of changing opinion surfaces in the local press. If editorial board meetings result in a shift in editorial position or previously unavailable access to the op-ed pages for an article opposing the occupation, for example, meetings with Members of Congress are likely to have a decidedly different tone.
  • By keeping the focus on local media, rather than attempting to reach the New York Times and ABC News, the potential for real access and follow-up becomes far more viable; local outlets (TV, radio and press) also reach far more people than the national media.
  • With many more people recognizing that the Iraq quagmire is intrinsically linked to the U.S. role in Israel-Palestine we have an important opportunity to broaden not only our own Media Task Force and CDC networks, but to link those networks to the local organizing capacity of the Iraq-centered peace and justice movement, particularly through expanding the Campaign’s role in United for Peace and Justice. That means a more consciously crafted strategy to build contacts and coalitions and on-going ties between local components of the U.S. Campaign (CDC and Media Task Force networks and other constituent organizations of the Campaign) and the local constituent organizations of UFPJ. The substantive media work could often focus on the “dual occupations” link between Iraq and Palestine.
What would a focus on domestic costs look like?

  • Much work has already been done by organizations such as the National Priorities Project in documenting comparative costs to states and cities of specific U.S. policies, particularly including the Iraq war. A similar campaign, keeping the focus on local organizing and local mobilization, could link costs of U.S. support for the Israeli occupation with unmet domestic needs in each area.
  • Specific local campaigns could be matched with specific tactics/strategies of the Israeli occupation. For example, how does the U.S.-funded component of the cost of Israel's segregated "bypass" roads match the federal funds no longer available for rebuilding highways in Georgia? How do the U.S.-paid costs of Israel's closing schools for long curfew and closure periods compare with the cuts in federal education spending in St. Louis? How does the amount U.S. taxpayers pay for Israeli helicopter gunships used to attack Palestinian ambulances balance against the cuts in U.S. healthcare funds in Seattle?
What are the priority areas of work we should be taking on?

Rethinking aid to Israel --
Some of our priority areas should remain in place. Certainly our overall focus on economic and especially military aid to Israel should remain, as that provides the clearest proof of U.S. support for Israel's occupation. Our understanding of aid should include, as it does now, military sales, licensing of corporate sales of military hardware, etc. We should broaden this category to include calling for an end to private and governmental contracts for Israeli training of U.S. troops. The Abu Ghraib atrocities have highlighted the longstanding issue of the Pentagon, since Jenin a year before the war in Iraq, contracting with the IDF for training in "how to occupy an Arab country."

The Apartheid Wall –
The Wall continues to provide the most graphic, visually shocking symbol of what military occupation looks like. Talking about it includes every major aspect of the Israeli occupation – land grab, social dislocation, house demolitions, forced expulsions, militarization, etc. And the U.S. embrace of and continued funding of the Wall keeps the focus on U.S. policy. We need to expose the false claim that the Wall is about “security” and continue focusing on the land grab. One possibility might be some kind of public hearings to identify what Congress is not doing regarding U.S. support for the Wall, perhaps keyed to the decision (likely this summer) of the International Court of Justice on the consequences of the illegality of the Wall.

International protection --
Understanding the call for international protection as a step towards the broader internationalization of the conflict remains a fundamental component of our work. Current regional developments, especially relating to the Iraq war, coupled with the continuing escalation of Israeli assaults, collective punishment, attacks on UNRWA staff and warehouses as well as other humanitarian agencies, increasing house demolitions, etc., all make the call for international protection stronger than ever.

The Campaign's work in this area can be helped by the emergence of the International Coordinating Network on Palestine, which groups together the national and international NGOs working on the issue that are accredited to the Division for Palestinian Rights at the UN. There is also renewed interest among some members of the General Assembly's Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People to consider stronger challenges to Israeli violations and U.S. support for those violations, and to develop closer ties with civil society organizations working on the issue.

There are also new opportunities for mobilizing opposition based on the U.S. embrace of the "war on terror" and its consequent endorsement of assassinations as preemptive strikes against "future threats" (similar to the category Israel invented earlier to justify its attacks). This position puts the U.S. more clearly than ever in the rogue camp of international violators of human rights and other international norms. Linked to the Abu Ghraib scandal is the training of U.S. troops by Israeli military forces, and potentially including training of military and/or private contractor interrogators.

The Bush administration policy of explicitly denying the applicability of international law, including the Geneva Conventions (including Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith’s quote that the Conventions are laws "in the service of terrorists") represents a significant departure from earlier endorsements, however hypocritical, of an international law-based approach.

The right of return --
The Campaign has always supported the Palestinian right of return as an intrinsic component of international law and a specific right guaranteed in UN Resolution 194. In our first three years we did not make return a major program area because opposition to the right of return was not a high priority within U.S. policy. We now need to consider whether to change that.

The Bush embrace of Sharon's "Gaza disengagement" plan included a sharp departure from earlier officially vague (however disingenuously so) U.S. positions on return. While clearly accepting and providing crucial diplomatic backing for Israeli rejection of the right of return, the U.S. in the past had not staked out a specific independent rejectionist position of its own. This time, Bush stated specifically that the Palestinian refugee "problem" (not Palestinian refugee rights) should be solved by "the establishment of a Palestinian state and settling of Palestinian refugees there, not in the state of Israel." He also referred several times to the "Jewish character of Israel," code for acceptance of the Israeli concerns regarding the racist-termed "demographic bomb."

In so doing, Bush rejected longstanding international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations of 1907, which guarantee all war-time refugees the right to return to their home regardless of the particular reasons they fled and regardless of whether or not they were on the winning side. The position also puts the administration in violation of specific United Nations resolutions, particularly 194, which since 1949 has guaranteed Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and to compensation for their losses, and which the U.S. supported during annual votes from 1949 to 1994.

In the weeks since the mid-April 2004 Bush-Sharon embrace, and particularly since Sharon’s plan was rejected by the Likud Party itself, Bush administration policymakers have had to wiggle and weasel around their earlier enthusiastic endorsement. They now claim that, contrary to the clear meaning of Sharon’s actual draft, the U.S. never intended to give up on negotiations, never intended to usurp final status decisions, never intended to specifically endorse annexation of the West Bank settlement blocs. None, however, have waffled on the U.S. rejection of the right of return.

Many of us have developed approaches to discussing the right of return grounded in international law. That usually means, first, recognizing the right of return as absolute. Any solution based on international law must begin with Israeli recognition of the Palestinians’ right to return to their homes, and with Israeli acknowledgement of the Zionist movement’s culpability for the humanitarian consequences of al-nakba (the catastrophe). Then, and only after such acknowledgment, can negotiations begin on how to implement the right of return. The reality that many, probably most, Palestinian refugees given the right to make their own choices do not want to move back into Israel (in the context of a now more unlikely than ever two-state solution) cannot be used to undermine the right itself. That is, even those Palestinians who may not in fact intend to move back to their village or even back to what is now Israel, are not prepared to abandon their right to do so and to make their own decision.

Our work in support of the right of return also must be rooted in the understanding that in international law this right is individually held; it is not a collective right that can be bargained or negotiated away by political leaders.

Whether or not the Campaign decides to make specific mobilization in support of the right of return a more central part of our action plan, it is clear that the issue must be moved closer to the top of the agenda of our work on international law and international protection. The threat of transfer, or ethnic cleansing as an alternative to the right of return, remains a potential danger, and provides an additional justification for the call for international protection.
What are our immediate and medium-term goals?

We face the need for two separate timetables of action. First, our work between the 3rd National Organizers Conference in early June 2004 and the November 2004 elections will be shaped by the political conditions of election frenzy, in the context of national obsession with war in the Middle East and the virtually indistinguishable policies on Israel-Palestine of the two major candidates. During this period the current work of the Campaign and especially the CDC network in voter education campaigns will continue. The new U.S. Campaign voter guides will move that work to a new level. The Campaign’s work within the United for Peace & Justice coalition will remain a key component of our work, particularly in the run-up to the elections. During the election period a UFPJ petition effort is taking shape that urges the Kerry campaign to promote policies that would provide a real alternative to the Bush policies of supporting war in Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Second, from the end of 2004 throughout the next year we continue our work on international protection, the Apartheid Wall, aid to Israel (including military, corporate and economic components) and perhaps more on the right of return. At the same time, our media strategy takes hold, perhaps defined as working to reverse the current public understanding of U.S. support for the Israeli occupation. We aim to transform today’s popular view that U.S. support for Israeli occupation is a vital, war-on-terrorism alliance with the “only democracy in the Middle East,” into an understanding that U.S. backing for the occupation and its violations of international law and human rights undermine U.S. credibility in the world and represents part of a reckless, dangerous foreign policy that puts Americans, as well as Palestinians, Iraqis, Israelis and the rest of the world, at much greater risk.