The advocacy of a Legitimacy War approach to the Palestinian National Movement for self-determination and a just peace is basically committed to Hegelian categories of conflict, shifting its energies away from Marxist forms of encounter based on material assessments of the balance of forces. Put less obscurely, the Palestinian shift toward Legitimacy Wars is a recognition that in this kind of conflict, the decisive battles are generally not won by the side with the superior weaponry and technology but rather by the side that prevails in the realm of ideas and symbols of just cause, especially those bearing on nationalist claims of rights based on international law and universal standards of morality. Since the outcome of the colonial wars, the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the failure of Western interventions, the tide of history is flowing favorably for indigenous forces able to win control over these normative heights. This does not imply a renunciation of violence or a guaranty of victory, but it does signify a massive shift in the balance of forces in favor of the side that most successfully uses soft power instruments in conflict situations.
Such a Hegelian view of historical process intends only to claim an altered emphasis, and does not imply a disregard of material circumstances. When Marx was active, his insights into the political economy of the day were brilliantly conceived, calling attention to the revolutionary vulnerabilities of industrial capitalism to a mobilized working class. Both Hegel and Marx, responsive to the alleged truth claims of science, purported to have discovered the laws governing change in the human condition, but only truly identified at most what were historical dispositions, and their claims of ‘determinism’ exaggerated what we are able to discern in the present about what will happen in the future. In the context of the Palestinian Legitimacy War there is only a sense that victory is likely to produce positive political results, but not a guaranty. The political outcome depends on many unknowable features of context, especially how the side losing a Legitimacy War responds.
The battlefields of a Legitimacy War are mainly symbolic and non-territorial. Their relation of forces cannot be measured, but should not be understood only as a battle of ideas. It is rather the conversion of ideas into people power in various forms along with a downplaying of relative technological proficiency. In relation to the Palestinian struggle, such soft power militancy is exhibited by such developments as the growth of the BDS Campaign, the decision by the Swarthmore Chapter of Hillel to defy institutional guidelines of its central body by allowing a forum to speakers critical of Israel, the decision of prominent Dutch companies to cut commercial ties with Israeli settlements because such relationships are understood to be problematic under international law, the decisions by the Association of Asian-American Studies and the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. In effect, a cascade of societal expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian quest for fundamental rights.
This surge of support for peace with justice has evoked a variety of dysfunctional Israeli responses, including vituperative dismissals and a variety of efforts to change the subject. Nothing is more suggestive of Israel’s loss of composure in this new atmosphere than the decision of its leaders, Netanyahu and Peres, to boycott the funeral of the globally sanctified figure of Nelson Mandela, presumably in retaliation for his frequent statements of support for the Palestinian struggle, and maybe for fear that Israel’s long record of collaboration with apartheid South Africa might finally be scrutinized in a transparent manner if they had showed up. Yet the symbolic impact of this deliberate disaffiliation from such a universal show of reverence for this beloved man has been lodged in the moral consciousness of humanity.
Israel’s more calculated responses to these various developments in the Legitimacy War are revealing. For instance, a Foreign Ministry representative, Yigal Palmor, complains that the ASA endorsement of the boycott of Israel’s academic institutions is part of a campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state of Israel and that it is morally misdirected as it fails to target states with the world’s most horrendous human rights records. The first response is significantly deceptive: the ASA boycott, and indeed all related initiatives, have been directed at Israel’s policies, and do not question the legitimacy of the Israeli state, although elsewhere there are serious questions raised about the insistence by Israeli leaders that others acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. Such a demand is oblivious to the human rights of the Palestinian minority that consists of more than 1.6 million persons who have been living in a societal environment that includes numerous discriminatory laws regulating their behavior.
As for the contention that there is no idea of boycotting other states with horrendous human rights records, such an argument incorporates two kinds of misleading contentions—first, it deftly avoids the substantive accusations as to whether Israel’s treatment of Palestinians within the academic environment is as prejudicial as claimed by boycott advocates and whether the closeness of Israeli academicians and institutions to the military and political activities of the state is not sufficient grounds for singling out Israel. Add to this the failure of Israeli apologists to address the central ASA contention that singling out Israel is justified because of the existence of ‘significant’ American links to Israeli policies long violating fundamental Palestinian rights and contributing to violations of international law.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, weighed in with a familiar riposte, ‘why Israel?’ Dermer advanced the familiar claim that Israel is the only democracy in the region: why should the ASA “as its first boycott choose to boycott Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, in which academics are free to say what they want, write what they want and research what they want.” (NYT, Dec. 17, 2013) Such an argument is questionable and unconvincing for many reasons, including the increasingly dubious claim of Israel to deserve the mantle of democracy considering its own chosen identity as an ‘ethnocracy’ (to borrow the label recently affixed by the respected Jewish leader, Henry Seigman). Also, acknowledging the existence of scholarly freedoms in Israel is besides the point. It does not even attempt to respond to the ASA main contention of prejudicial treatment of Palestinians in its educational system and the degree of collaboration of Israeli academic institutions with the state in relation to unlawful occupation policies and activities and the formulation of military strategy.
Harsh Israeli critique is combined with a dismissive attitude, claiming that the ASA boycott resolution, and indeed the wider BDS campaign, has had and will have no practical impact on Israel’s economic wellbeing and political stability, and that the resolution has no binding effect on even the members of the American Studies Association. What is at stake in such a debate is the meaning of ‘practical.’ Similar arguments were made in the context of the comparable campaign against apartheid South Africa and against those of us who favored boycott and sanctions in response to the barbarous policies of Pinochet’s Chile. In relation to both South Africa and Chile, the argument was also made that such acts of hostility only hurt the most vulnerable people in the targeted society rather than weaken its regime, although in both instances the most credible representatives of the people were unreservedly supporting maximum pressures deriving from external initiative of this character.
I remember being told in the late 1970s in a private meeting of a small group with the then president of the World Bank, Robert McNamara, that loans to the Pinochet regime were justifiable as denying funds to Chile would adversely affect the poor without harming the government. McNamara was claiming to be deeply opposed to the behavior of the Pinochet policies, and upholding the continuity of the World Bank relationship to Chile solely on humanitarian grounds. This interpretation by McNamara did not seem credible at the time. It was directly contrary to what we were being told by several leading diplomats and economists who were prominent in the Allende government, and led us to arrange this private meeting with the objective of persuading the World Bank to suspend financial assistance to Chile given the horrendous behavior of the Pinochet government.
The larger point here is not about the material impacts of such moves of disaffiliation and disapproval. We had no illusions that if the World Bank withheld a loan from Chile it would precipitate the collapse of the Pinochet regime. What we did believe, however, that such a step would strengthen the perception of delegitimacy, possibly influencing American foreign policy and certainly encouraging to the mounting opposition in Chile, but mainly important as a symbolic move. In a similar vein, we can reflect on why it is proper to celebrate the endorsement of this ASA resolution goes back to the essentially Hegelian nature of a Legitimacy War. A symbolic victory is not merely symbolic, although symbols should not be underestimated. The ASA outcome is part of a campaign to construct a new subjectivity surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is the sort of act that lends credibility to claims that a momentum is transforming the climate of opinion surrounding a conflict situation. Such a momentum is capable of breaking down a structure of oppression at any moment. Unlike a hard power encounter between arrayed military forces, the course of a Legitimacy War cannot be assessed in advance, partly because the defeats endured by the established order are intangible, will be denied up until an abrupt change of course. As Thoreau observed long ago, “It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Hard power realists who rule over the peoples of the world, imperiling our destiny, tend to be dangerously shortsighted when it comes to seeing the course and effects of Legitimacy Wars.
Such a concealment of elite reassessment in South Africa seems relevant to notice. The transformative reassessment was kept secret until revealed in the startling announcement to the South African public of Nelson Mandela’s totally unexpected release from his Robben Island prison cell. It was a stunning reversal of strategy by the South African leadership. It seems appropriate in this context to recall Gandhi’s familiar comment about the cycle of struggle: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”
Of course, this is not a time for optimism about reaching a just end to the long Palestinian quest for realization of their fundamental rights. It is a time when genuine hope becomes plausible thanks to Palestinian successes in waging a multi-front Legitimacy War. The eventual political outcome remains obscure, and depends heavily on whether and how interests are reassessed in Washington and Tel Aviv. Such a process of reassessment is certain to be shrouded in secrecy until it is crosses a threshold of decision, and only then will it be revealed. This will occasion many expert explanations of why it had to happen! Pundits are far more convincing when operating in a retrospective mode than when attempting to predict or prescribe.