Hitchens, Gandhi and me

"The Hitch" says Palestinians need a Mandela, not a Gandhi

My column in last week's magazine focused on the need for a Palestinian (and an Israel) Gandhi figure, to renounce terror on both sides and end the destructive "cycle of violence" and mutual fear and distrust:

"...neither side has ever come even close to producing viable leaders committed to non-violence and able to articulate an authentically Gandhian vision for ending the conflict. On the Palestinian side, Yasser Arafat's approach can be summed up in his warning about having an olive branch in one hand but a gun in the other. On the Israeli side, Yitzhak Rabin, the joint architect of the Oslo Accords, will always be remembered by the Palestinians as the man who also ordered Israeli troops to "break the bones" of protesters during the first intifada.Those considered to be peacemakers fall hopelessly short of being a latter-day Gandhi or a Middle Eastern Martin Luther King. Waiting for such figures to emerge, even in the Holy Land, could be like waiting for Godot."

Now Christopher Hitchens has emailed me to say that I may be focusing on the wrong role model - it is a Nelson Mandela that the Palestinians need, not a Mohandas Gandhi. He writes:

"Edward Said used to talk and write about the need for a Palestinian Mandela. I think that might lead you - and such Israelis and Jews as will listen - in a better direction than Gandhi. But the ANC wasn't pacifist in name or in fact, despite the Mahatma's early input."

The Hitch - and the late Professor Said - have a point. Given his long, and much-deserved, walk to political sainthood, it is easy to forget that Mandela was never a Gandhian pacifist and had militant roots. After the banning of the African National Congress in 1960, it was Mandela who argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC.

Is there a Palestinian Mandela today? The one plausible candidate is secular Palestinian politician and former Fatah militant leader, Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail. He is the man who has played a major role in mediating between Fatah and Hamas and he is the man behind the "Prisoner's Document" which calls for negotiation with the state of Israel in order to achieve lasting peace.

Liberal Jewish blogger Richard Silverstein singles him out for similar reasons:

"Now, I am not saying that Barghouti believes in non-violence or that he is by any means a holy figure or even the perfect leader. All leaders, both Palestinian and Israeli seem immensely flawed.But Barghouti is someone who could unify both Palestinian factions. Someone who, like Mandela, spent years in the jails of the enemy, who speaks his language, understands his psychological identity, both its strengths and weaknesses. Until he is released from prison, we will not know whether Barghouti is just another corruptible thug, or a powerful leader with a vision for ending the conflict and securing his people's future."

In January 2007, the then Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared he would sign a presidential pardon for Marwan Barghouti if elected to the Israeli presidency. However, since becoming president, there has been no sign at all that Peres plans to fulfil this pledge.

Talking of Israeli politicians, if the Palestinians need a Mandela, who is the Israeli De Klerk? Sharon (and even Olmert perhaps?) could have tried to lay claim to the mantle of the peace-making Afrikaner leader - but Netanyahu? You must be having a laugh...

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.