Who is Leopoldo Lopez?

Oslo Freedom Forum – Leopoldo López from OsloFreedomForum on Vimeo.

Above: Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez speaks at the 2009 Oslo Freedom Forum organized by his first cousin, Thor Halvorssen

It is hard to argue that many of those involved in anti-government protests in Venezuela don’t have legitimate grievances — widespread insecurity and media repression cannot be ignored — or that the government’s charges against opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, including “terrorism,” have been filed with sufficient substantiation.

But who is Lopez, and is there any evidence that his own methods are more democratic than those of the government he paints as corrupt and aims to topple through extra-constitutional means?

So far, US and international media has generally portrayed Lopez as an outspoken “maverick,” alluding only in passing to his oligarchic pedigree and hardline right-wing politics. Lopez has been involved in coup attempts that aimed to oust Hugo Chavez since the late president was first elected. Lopez’s leadership of the current round of protests after a hard fought election won by Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, appears to be an extension of those efforts.

I wrote about Lopez in my investigation of Thor Halvorssen and his Potemkin Village-like Human Rights Foundation. Halvorssen is a former right-wing campus activist who has leveraged his fortune to establish a political empire advancing a transparently neoconservative agenda behind the patina of human rights.

Among Halvorssen’s main PR megaphones is Buzzfeed, whose correspondent Rosie Gray flew to Oslo in 2013 to write a fawning profile of him and his Oslo Freedom Forum. (Gray has not disclosed whether Halvorssen covered her travel expenses or provided her with resources like food and lodging). Michael Moynihan, another writer who was flown to Oslo to participate in Halvorssen’s confab, published an editorial in the Daily Beast this week praising “the handsome, telegenic, and Harvard-trained Leopoldo Lopez” and slamming President Nicolas Maduro as “Mussolini-on-the-piazza.” The Daily Beast followed up with a translated version of the dramatic and carefully staged speech Lopez delivered before he turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities, which Halvorssen promptly promoted on Twitter.

Besides being the son of a CIA asset who channeled money from Venezuelan oligarchs to the Nicaraguan Contras, Halvorssen happens to be Lopez’s first cousin — Leopoldo is the son of Thor’s oil executive aunt. Through his human rights apparatus, he has played a critical role in marketing Lopez to an international audience.

In 2009, Halvorssen showcased Lopez at his Oslo Freedom Forum, presenting him beside figures like Elie Wiesel and Vaclav Havel as a “human rights leader.” I wrote about the unusual spectacle for Electronic Intifada:

In 2010, Halvorssen invited his first cousin, the Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Lopez, the Harvard-educated mayor of a wealthy district in Caracas, was among the politicians who signed as witnesses in the new government after Chavez was briefly ousted in the failed US-backed coup in 2002.

Lopez is the son of a former oil executive — Halvorssen’s aunt — who allegedly funnelled profits from the state-run oil company into his new political party, leading to corruption charges that placed his political ambitions in peril, as the Associated Press reported in February (“Leopoldo Lopez, Opponent Of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Faces Corruption Charges In Venezuela”).

Described by the US embassy in Venezuela as “vindictive, and power-hungry” but also as “a necessity,” Lopez received large sums of financial support from the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy.

At the 2009 Oslo Freedom Forum, Lopez was a presented as a “human rights leader,”appearing at an event that had been graced by Nobel Prize recipient Elie Wiesel and Nobel nominee Vaclav Havel. He stirred his audience with lofty rhetoric about peace, democracy and the coming wave of freedom, casting the Venezuelan opposition as “David against Goliath.” “We know that we will overcome,” Lopez proclaimed, “we know that change will come in Venezuela.”

Noting that Lopez’s appearance at the Oslo Freedom Forum was covered far more heavily in Venezuelan media than in Oslo, where it was virtually ignored, Manifestaccused Halvorssen of using his human rights confab for the purpose of “whitewashing Leopoldo Lopez … to establish a real contender for the Venezuelan presidency.”

The magazine described the Oslo Freedom Forum as a cleverly crafted “Washing Machine.”



“Time is running out”: The fierce urgency of tomorrow

I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.”
–Golda Meir

Since the dawn of the peace process, serious men and women have warned that time was running out on a two state solution. If dramatic, urgent measures were not taken and painful compromises not made, the apocalypse would soon be upon us all. Though the peace processors rarely stated what the End of Days would look like, its form was always implied: The failure to establish a Palestinian state somewhere in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip would bring Israeli apartheid into the open, plunging the Jewish state into a crisis of legitimacy that would result in its rapid unraveling.

The transformation of an ethnically exclusivist Jewish state into a multi-ethnic confederation or democratic bi-national state is absolutely unacceptable to all parties involved in the peace process. That includes the Palestinian Authority, whose legitimacy rests on the notion that it will eventually become the steward of an autocratic Arab state with the consent of Israel and support from the US and EU. So as the facts on the ground render Palestinian statehood a fantasy, the peace processors must continually wind back the alarm clock on apartheid, indefinitely postponing the date with destiny to preserve the status quo and secure their paychecks.

Below, I have compiled news clippings dating back to 1981 that demonstrate the unusually fluid conception of time in the minds of the peace processors. Time may have run out long ago, but for them, it is never too late to negotiate.

Continue reading

A Response to JJ Goldberg of the Forward

Picking up where Eric Alterman left off, and defending his thousands of words of error-laden invective, JJ Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward has turned out an indignant non-review (see the latest Alterman flubs here) of my book that reveals its chapter titles but fails to discuss their contents. Goldberg warps the responses of Alterman’s many critics, failing to provide links, and concludes with a distorted account of an exchange I had with Ian Lustick, mangling my quotes to falsely to suggest I had demanded the mass departure of Jewish Israelis from historic Palestine. Goldberg might have once been a sharpshooter in the Israeli Border Police, but in his attempt to reinforce Alterman’s attacks, he badly misses the mark.

Echoing Alterman, Goldberg expresses outrage with the titles of the chapters in Goliath but makes no attempt to present what I actually wrote in them or why they are titled as they are. For instance, he bemoans the name of my chapter, “This Belongs To The White Man,” but does not mention that the title was merely a reference to the notorious statement by former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said the following about non-Jewish African asylum seekers in Israel: “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims, who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”

Ignoring the hard facts presented in Goliath, Goldberg has spent the years since Israel elected the most right-wing government in its history projecting his political wishful thinking onto the country’s pro-settler leadership, imagining everyone from Benjamin Netanyahu to Shaul Mofaz (check out this howler) as potential peacemakers, which is not unlike describing Rob Ford as the political future of Canada.

Goldberg has labored to sustain his trance-like optimism in the face of the reality of record settlement construction as well as other harsh realities. After the Egyptian military staged its coup, an act that has led the U.S. to cut military aid, Goldberg warned that any reduction in military aid to Egypt would “kill Mideast peace hopes,” writing that “America’s billion-dollar-plus annual aid package to Egypt does not exist for Egypt’s benefit, but for Israel’s.” Apart from this strange formulation, as though Egypt only exists for the U.S. as a function of his notion of what its policy should be toward Israel, he completely neglected to mention the U.S. at all, as though the U.S. has no independent interests or principles of our own at stake.

To clarify Goldberg’s distortions for readers of The Forward: Goldberg claims I did not “tell[] of the thousands of rockets bombarding Negev towns for years” before Operation Cast Lead. However, I wrote on the first page of my book that “Hamas’s armed wing…fired dozens of rockets” in November 2008.

Similarly, Goldberg claims I did not “mention the hundreds of Israelis killed by…suicide bombers.” In fact, I devoted an entire chapter of the book to Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a remarkable Israeli academic whose daughter, Smadar, was killed by a suicide bomber. I discuss at length her and her husband’s experience after their daughter’s murder and how they became two of their society’s more outspoken opponents of the Israeli occupation. I go on to detail Israeli society’s response to suicide bombings during the Second Intifada in my chapter, “The Big Quiet,” explaining how it influenced the rise of hafrada, or Israel’s policy of demographic separation.

Goldberg further takes issue with an exchange between Ian Lustick and me during an October 17 discussion of Goliath at the University of Pennsylvania. But, not providing the link to the video, he produced a badly mangled version of my remarks.

Here is the context to the exchange in question: Lustick had remarked that Israeli society could increasingly be described as “fascistic,” suggesting that Israel had possibly crossed a moral Rubicon, then asked me to take on the role of God and decide whether to destroy “Gomorrah,” even though there were some “good” people living inside it – people like the Israeli dissidents, critics and reformers I profile extensively in Goliath.

My response proposed a direction for preserving the presence of Jewish Israelis in a future Israel-Palestine while stripping away the violent, inhumane mechanisms of demographic engineering, endless dispossession and the walls that have pitted Israeli Jews against the Arab world. My prescription was essentially a rejection of Ehud Barak’s explicitly colonial view of Israel as a Europeanized “villa in the jungle.”

Philip Weiss of the Mondoweiss.com website transcribed parts of my answer and summarized the rest. Here is the relevant part of transcript, which Goldberg omitted. (The full exchange arrives around 38:00 in the video):

“As for the Jewish Israelis… These are Israelis who are attracted to Europe, who do not feel that they are part of the Arab world. And it’s that attraction to Europe, that manifestation of Herzl’s famous quote, that the Jewish state will be ‘a rampart of civilization against barbarism,’ which has led to the present crisis and the failure of Zionism. Because there is absolutely no way for Jewish people in Israel/Palestine to become indigenized under the present order, and that’s really what has to happen. You have to be willing to be a part of the Arab world, because you’re living in the Arab world. If you don’t, then you have to maintain this system and continue to harden the present system.”

My meaning is plain: That the walls must come down — the separation wall, the legal walls of ethnic discrimination, and the psychological walls — as a basis for true peace.

Goldberg claimed without evidence that “Lustick appear[ed] stunned,” when Lustick nodded in acknowledgement of my answer and did not express any perceptible displeasure; nor did he state any to me. In fact, what I said was intended to support what Lustick wrote in his recent essay on the “Two State Illusion” for the New York Times, Lustick offered a remarkably similar vision of an alternative future allowing Israeli Jews to live in peace in the Middle East; in which ultra-Orthodox Jews and Mizrahi Jews of Arab descent – groups routinely derided by liberal Zionists like Goldberg as retrograde and politically burdensome — could emerge as their society’s bridge builders, forging practical alliances with Palestinians:

“In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as ‘Eastern,’ but as Arab. Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution for translating what they have (numbers) into what they want (rights and resources). Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater Land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or a regional formula more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism.”

I mentioned in my reply to Lustick that his question related to a debate that was raging among many of my leftist friends and acquaintances in Tel Aviv. As I detail in the final chapter of Goliath, “The Exodus Party,” a number of my human rights-minded Israel friends have chosen to exercise the secondary, “emergency” passports that provide multitudes of Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis with EU citizenship, and they have moved to places like Berlin and London. Then there are others, like the Israeli journalist Haggai Matar, who are seeking means of assimilating themselves into the wider culture of the Middle East.

Goldberg has claimed, “Outside the far-left and anti-Israel blogosphere, ‘Goliath’ has been ignored.” But it is Goldberg who has ignored reviews by figures like Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s military and political correspondent, and Akiva Eldar, the Israeli journalist and author who served as chief political columnist for Haaretz for 35 years — writers who could hardly be described as “anti-Israel.” Eldar wrote that, “a significant part of [Goliath’s] strength lies in the effect that is naturally created when a foreign correspondent describes the reality of your life and surroundings. Thus, as if from a bas relief, details are raised to which the local eye has become so accustomed that it no longer notices their existence.”

I hoped to engage Goldberg in a discussion about his critiques of my book and about the future of Israel-Palestine. Unfortunately, that debate will apparently not take place. When Atlantic editor Robert Wright invited Goldberg to engage with me on the online political debating forum Bloggingheads, Goldberg declined, as Alterman did before him.

Goliath visits Los Angeles, November 4

On November 4, I will be discussing “Goliath” in Los Angeles with UCLA’s Gabriel Piterberg, the author of the excellent intellectual history of the Zionist movement, “The Returns of Zionism.” I will post a complete schedule of book tour related events in the coming days, including several more Los Angeles-area appearances. LA event

Here’s the complete video of my discussion of Goliath and Israel-Palestine at University of Pennsylvania with Ian Lustick (read Phil Weiss’s coverage of the event here):

Another Problem From Hell? Adelson and Wiesel Laud Rwanda’s Kagame at NYC Genocide Panel

At New York’s Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln launched his presidential campaign, I witnessed pro-Israel Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson laud the “military genius” of Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame while a crowd consisting mostly of Jewish Americans cheered. Organized by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the popular TV personality and failed New Jersey congressional candidate whose hapless campaign was bankrolled by Adelson, and hosted by NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, the bizarre event centered a discussion of the “strong protecting the weak” from genocide. 
The evening’s guest of honor was Elie Wiesel, the 85-year-old Nobel prize winning author who Boteach compared to Nelson Mandela and hailed as “the prince of the Jewish people.” Wiesel joined Adelson in celebrating Kagame, lending his reputation as the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor to a man accused of propelling the worst genocide since World War Two and described by leading Rwanda expert Philip Reyntjens as “probably the worst war criminal in office today.” 
When Wiesel urged the audience to speak up against injustice, a young human rights activist named Rob Conrad rose from the crowd, attempting to interject facts about Kagame’s role in supporting the M23 rebel militia that has fueled the genocide in the Congo, relying on child soldiers in a conflict that has left millions dead. Wiesel watched in silence as Kagame’s personal security detail ripped the protester from his seat, covered his mouth and manhandled him all the way to the exit door. The Congolese human rights activist Kambale Musavuli told me he was removed from the event by Rwandan security before it even began, raising questions about whether NYU’s Bronfman Center shared its list of attendees with Kagame’s personal detail. 
After Boteach delivered a lengthy treatise on shared Israeli-Rwandan values, highlighting countless UN condemnations of both nations’ human rights violations as a positive trait, me and Alex Kane of Mondoweiss attempted to question him and his fellow panelists (no questions were allowed from the crowd during the event). Besides being the man Boteach described as “the very conscience of the six million martyred in the Holocaust,” Wiesel has been the chairman of Elad, a pro-settler organization that is orchestrating the demolition of Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem to build a biblical theme park. And Adelson was perhaps the most generous patron of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career. We wanted to know what could be done to protect Palestinians from the individuals and ventures they supported. Naturally, they did not want to answer, though Adelson volunteered a dark fantasy to Kane: “You should have your mouth duct taped!”