Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed

Palestine may be fragmented. But let's remember whose fault that is.

In his commentary anticipating a Palestinian initiative to promote statehood at the United Nations, Aaron David Miller chooses to focus almost exclusively upon the realities of Palestinian political and demographic fragmentation. But rather than providing an explanation of how these divisions have come about, or recommending means to overcome them, Miller instead suggests that on their account Palestinians remain unworthy of freedom.

The fact of the matter is that Humpty Abu Dumpty did not accidentally fall off a wall; he was purposefully shoved off the edge of a cliff, beaten to a pulp, and then bombed to smithereens. As for the king's men, as Miller well knows, they made no effort to put him back together again, instead providing the gang responsible for his torment a steady supply of crack and endless rounds of ecstatic applause. 

Miller's analogy fails on another count as well. Despite the extraordinary traumas of 1948 and 1967 and numerous lesser ones between and since, the Palestinians managed to build and maintain a reasonably coherent national movement that until the early 1990s was perceived as genuinely representative by a clear majority within virtually every Palestinian constituency. The fragmentation that, for Miller, today defines Palestinian existence and should therefore limit Palestinian aspirations, was therefore until fairly recently all but irrelevant.

The most important culprit in this respect has been the Oslo process. Among its many mortal sins, it subordinated the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and in so doing marginalized that majority of Palestinians that does not reside in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, and national to local interim agendas. Oslo not only institutionalized existing differences and gave them political dimensions that previously were all but non-existent; it additionally fostered new divisions.

Among these has been the Fatah-Hamas schism, which Miller characterizes as fundamentally ideological. Yet there is ample evidence these two movements no longer differ all that much in their political programs, and are primarily involved in a struggle to control the PA and its dwindling resources. This conflict additionally needs to be seen in the context of the West's open encouragement of Palestinian political fragmentation and even civil war, and its active obstruction of national reconciliation.

Put differently, fragmentation is a symptom of Palestinian dispossession, and Miller surely knows better than to promote it as its cause and suggest that resolving it is a prerequisite to sovereignty.

How then, does one address the Palestine question? Rather than a process to end occupation and negotiate the implementation of Palestinian self-determination on the basis of agreed principles, the Oslo process has been a device to perpetuate occupation ad infinitum. It is tantamount to a never-ending succession of exams administered to the Palestinians by an Israeli headmistress acting under the authority of a besotted American board of education, the purpose of which is to give Palestinians an opportunity to demonstrate they are worthy vassals.

Should Palestinians be required to negotiate their right to emancipation, or is theirs the cause of a colonized people with an inalienable right to self-determination, entitled not only to pursue their rights by any and all means consistent with international law, but also with the support of all who claim to endorse a two-state settlement?

Given the total bankruptcy of two decades of bilateral negotiations under unilateral U.S. custodianship, what would Miller have Palestinians do? It seems excessively partisan to oppose not only what Miller terms Palestinian armed struggle, but also Palestinian popular resistance, and even Palestinian diplomatic initiatives. Is there anything Palestinians might do to undermine Israeli control and achieve their fundamental rights independently of the American supervision Miller would be prepared to support? 

While the Palestinian leadership is going to New York mainly as a tactical maneuver, the value of a U.N. initiative is that it can produce the beginning of a strategic transformation. One in which the Palestinians withdraw from that fraudulent charade known as negotiations and instead focus on rebuilding the national movement while ensuring the internationalization of the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. In this respect, it is high time the United States cease interposing itself as the embodiment and personification of the international community when all but less than a handful of the United Nations' 193 members see things rather differently than Washington does.

Palestinians should act not in order to resume negotiations from a position of strength, but rather to ensure the implementation of what should never have been negotiable in the first place, whether with Israel or its lawyers.



Crystal Clear

Yes, rows of numbers can help predict revolutions. You just have to know where to look.

In "Dark Crystal" (July/August 2011), Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell discusses social scientists' apparent failure to predict the momentous revolutions of 2011 and concludes that "looking at rows of numbers is a lousy, or at least insufficient, way to predict" the occurrence of nonviolent popular uprisings. Hounshell is probably right about the "insufficient" part, but I think he's wrong about the "lousy" part. In fact, my own recent analysis gives us grounds for cautious optimism about the usefulness of quantitative methods for forecasting these kinds of events.

From 2001 until the end of 2010, I served as research director for the Political Instability Task Force, a U.S. government-funded research program that develops statistical models to help forecast and explain various forms of political crisis and change in countries worldwide. In early 2011, in preparation for a workshop organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, I used a statistical technique called Bayesian model averaging (BMA) to develop an algorithm that can use data on a number of social, economic, and political conditions to estimate the probability that a given country will experience an onset of nonviolent rebellion in the coming year. Leaning on prior research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, a nonviolent rebellion was defined for this project as a "campaign of purposive, nonviolent mass events in pursuit of a political objective." Using this definition, occasional demonstrations or strikes do not count as nonviolent rebellion; for protest activity to qualify, it must be both purposeful and sustained. For example, the large-scale and repeated anti-government demonstrations in Syria in early 2011 would certainly qualify as nonviolent rebellion, while the sporadic protests so far in Algeria would not.

These kinds of uprisings are historically rare events with complex causes, and as such, they are extremely difficult to predict with precision. Nevertheless, it turns out that a statistical model -- or, in this instance, a weighted average of several models -- could have done a good job of identifying the Middle Eastern and North African countries that have experienced popular uprisings this spring as among the most susceptible to these events in 2011. When all countries worldwide are listed in descending order according to their estimated likelihood of an onset of nonviolent rebellion this year, Egypt ranks 4th; Syria stands 6th; Libya is 25th; Tunisia is 28th; and Yemen is 33rd. With more than 160 countries on the full list, these rankings land almost all of these countries in the top 20 percent of the global rankings, an admittedly arbitrary but nonetheless useful threshold for identifying most-likely cases from forecasts like these. Crucially, the historical data used in developing this algorithm only covered the period 1972-2009, so the statistical analysis did not get to learn from the supposedly surprising events we're trying to forecast in 2011. In other words, this is not a case of the kind of "hindsight bias" sociologist Charles Kurzman appropriately bemoans in Hounshell's article.

Given how reliable these forecasts have proved to be so far, I think it's worth noting that the country pegged by this algorithm as the most likely candidate for nonviolent rebellion in 2011 is China. China reportedly experiences tens of thousands of scattered protests, riots, and strikes each year, but many observers of that country's politics dismiss those events as background noise in an otherwise well-managed political system. For example, in a March 12, 2011, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Francis Fukuyama points to the "higher quality" of authoritarianism in China and the cohesiveness and nationalism of its military to conclude that "China will not catch the Middle Eastern contagion anytime soon." Without putting too much weight on one number, I think it's fair to say my analysis shows that the country may be riper for nonviolent rebellion than many China watchers believe. Although neither the recent riots in Guangdong province nor the protests in Inner Mongolia would qualify as nonviolent rebellions under this project's definition, they would seem to support the view that the potential for social unrest in that country is substantial.