Fighting Words

Two Elections

Why Iraq’s vote is not like Palestine’s.

Might there be any point in comparing and contrasting yesterday’s Palestinian election with the upcoming Iraqi one? Yes, indeed there might.

The first thing I would want to notice is this. The Palestinian people have a much more justifiable grievance against Israel than even the most alienated Sunni slum-dweller has against the Coalition in Iraq. The Arab citizens of former mandate Palestine live, at best, as second-class citizens in Israel. At worst, they live in vile refugee camps in other states. In the middle, in Jerusalem and Gaza and the West Bank, they experience occupation and colonization and annexation. More than that, they have been told that their very presence is an inconvenience, since the land was awarded by God to the Jews. President Bush in his most devout moments has not claimed Mesopotamia as holy to Americans. It’s often said rather glibly that the Palestinians have missed numerous chances for peace (and I couldn’t agree more—see my obituary for Arafat), but it should not be forgotten that for years the leading politicians of Israel refused to deal at all with the PLO, and that some of them refused even to recognize the existence of a Palestinian people in the first place.

Faced with different forms of occupation and dispossession, Palestinians opted for different tactics. Some of them, in Israel “proper,” elected serious MPs to the Knesset, usually men of leftist and secular backgrounds. Others, in the territories, pursued various strategies of civil resistance, very often non-violent as in the case of the highly mobilized first intifadah of the early and mid-1980s. Still others, exiled permanently, resorted to kamikaze-type attacks on Israel but also to attacks on civilians and, most opprobriously of all, to indiscriminate attacks on the citizens of other nations. Many of the criminals in the latter category were paid agents or clients of Arab dictatorships, as was Arafat himself. Sheer disaster began to loom when, under the influence of militant Islam, the kamikaze style was imported especially to Gaza and took the form of suicide-murder, often in Israel itself as well as the occupied areas. But that did not begin to happen until the occupation had persisted for more than a quarter of a century.

Contrast this with Iraq, where the contras of the old regime, and their imported jihadist allies, went straight for violence as a first resort and behaved as cruelly and indiscriminately as they knew how. The offices of the United Nations, of the Red Cross, of senior clergymen, of civilian dissidents and educators, and of newspapers were blown up using city diagrams and secret police information as well as the arsenal of a collapsed regime that had been found guilty under every version of international law. No attempt was made to claim that violence was an inescapable option after a long denial of legitimate protest: The killing had been planned before the first interim government had even found a voice, and it targeted Iraqi and Kurdish democrats from the very beginning. The tactics, and the personnel, were and are taken directly from the program and the cadres of a former despotism and from the enthusiasts for the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Reports seem to suggest that almost 70 percent of the Palestinians turned out to vote. Given the gruesome local exigencies, and the grudging way in which the Israelis allowed freedom of movement, this cannot possibly translate into a 30 percent endorsement of the call for a boycott by Hamas and by Islamic Jihad. One might award them 20 percent at best: roughly the proportion of Sunni Muslims in Iraq who don’t want to have their future (or anyone else’s) determined by ballot. Should one have postponed a Palestinian vote until these violent rejectionist forces were all “on board”?

What about the Palestinians in diaspora who don’t have a say? Good question. But then, what about the 4 million Iraqis and Kurds who have been forced to live outside their country? The current election process allows them to register and to vote overseas: I haven’t heard any of them saying that their first-ever chance to vote should be postponed in order to please the bombers and beheaders, who don’t seem that easy to gratify, anyway.

Then you might notice another thing. Dr. Mustapha Barghouti, whose candidacy has barely been mentioned in our press, seems to have achieved a rather creditable 20 per cent of the Palestinian vote. In spite of the grim pressure for “unity” behind Fatah, and in spite of numerous Israeli restrictions on his campaign, Barghouti carried the flag for a secular civil society. His family (of which the better-reported Marwan Barghouti is a distant member) has long been associated with the Palestinian Left. Who would have guessed, given the routine and cliched culture of our media, that there was even such a force still present under the rubble? (See my obit for Edward Said.)

Two years ago, there was about one suicide-murder every week either in Israel or the territories. So great was the emotional impact of this that some people entirely gave up their reason. You could hear it said on all sides, by various well-meaning know-nothings and celebrities, that the phenomenon was a product of “despair.” What rubbish this was: Anyone who troubled to read the propaganda or view the videos could see that it was the consequence of a sinister religious exaltation, consecrated to “martyrdom” and to an ultimate, fanatical concept of “victory.” Now these bombings have diminished, even dwindled. Why is that? No more despair?

Some Israeli hawks would say that “The Wall,” and some ruthless assassinations, and some better intelligence, have done the job. But few are willing to claim all the credit for these tactics. It is obvious that a strategic number of Palestinians have made the decision to “turn off” the supply of young immolators, at the very least for now. In some sense, evidently, it just wasn’t worth it. Many Palestinians, also, made eloquent statements against the sheer horror of the campaign. It turns out that numerous people do not really mean it when they say they prefer death to life. (We no longer know the name of the senior Hamas leader in Gaza, who these days seems to prefer a reticent anonymity.)

Now apply this to Iraq. I turn on my laptop in the morning and briefly clench my eyes shut because I am afraid of reading about the slaughter of a friend. Not just of an American or British serviceman friend, but of an Iraqi or Kurdish friend. Some mornings, the news has been awful. Last Tuesday it brought the tidings of the murder of Hadi Salih, the international officer of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, who was bound and gagged, tortured, and strangled with an electric cord. His politics were, I would guess from mutual friends, about the same as those of Mustapha Barghouti. In an election, he might well have cast his vote for a party that was against the Coalition. A somewhat “old-fashioned” kind of leftist comrade, in other words, but a huge moral and political superior of the fascists and theocrats who did him in. Now he will never vote. What will it take the affectless “anti-war,” soft-on-“insurgency” Left to see that this is all the difference in the world?

The so-called “insurgency” in Iraq does not have a tithe of the historic justification for the resistance in Palestine. Nor can it ever hope to speak, even by proxy, for an Iraqi majority. (To take just one overlooked example, the majority of Kurds are formally Sunni.) Its conduct is a continuation of a reign of terror that lasted three decades. Its victory would mean misery and death on a colossal scale. It and its murderers must and will be worn down, by sheer, adamant intransigence. The newly elected leader of the Palestinians has said to the suicide-mongers, in effect, Do not be the last ones to die for a mistake. This message will be driven home in Iraq, as well.


An assortment of gay spokesmen have taken exception to those of us who wrote about the late Susan Sontag  and who laid insufficient stress upon her sex life. I affirm my own guilt, here, and for the following reasons. I saw her in all kinds of mixed company but was never admitted into any confidence. Nor was I ever able to make, even had I wanted to do so, an informed speculation. Susan’s attitude, expressed with great dignity and bearing, was that she did not mind what conclusion was drawn, but she did not feel that it was anybody’s business but her own. Her selection of friends was highly various and eclectic, and she was early and brave in helping those who suffered from AIDS, but this was also a logical and moral extension of her earlier commitment to cancer victims. If it’s of any interest, my most vivid memory of her discoursing on physical beauty and sexual charisma was in respect of a man. There might be a case for some kind of “disclosure” in the instance of a public figure who was “in denial,” but it would be absurd and contemptible to place Susan Sontag in that category. She didn’t ask. She didn’t tell, and some of those who wanted to make a noise when she had only just died might profit from studying her good taste and reserve.