The Times is featuring a two-part series by Steven Erlanger on the Israel-U.S. alliance and I find it passing strange. But before I begin I want to place this highly critical post in the context of my previous experience with Erlanger’s journalism. He is a fine Israel correspondent in a long NY Times tradition. I’ve never had any problem with his coverage. Which makes the current piece completely out of character for him.
While In New Middle East, Tests for an Old Friendship is touted as an examination of the “impact of recent events on the American-Israeli alliance,” essentially it presents the Israeli government’s overwrought position about the Iranian threat. There can be no coincidence that the Times would run the piece just before Olmert arrives in Washington for talks about–you guessed it–what to do about Iran’s potential nuclear bomb. I’ve seldom read a more down the line presentation, and in effect endorsement of Israeli policy in the Times than this article. To begin with, who did he interview? Almost wholly Israeli rightists: Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Arens and Zalman Shoval. There are a few centrist quasi-doves like Yossi Alpher of Bitter Lemons and Itamar Rabinovitch, thrown in but mostly their comments pretty much echo those of the hawks.
The only truly dovish voices in the article which question Israeli fearmongering about Iran are of Gadi Baltiansky of the Geneva Initiative and Steven Walt, co-author of the “notorious,” The Israel Lobby. It’s quite remarkable really that the Times would present a piece that was so one-sided and even fact-challenged.
Let’s start with the Neville Chamberlain canard that the pro-Israel far right wields as a club against “accommodationists” like me and any Israeli who stops short of calling for outright war against Iran:
“Many Israelis feel that the free world under the leadership of the U.S. is facing a similar situation to Europe in the 1930s, when they watched the rearming of the Nazi Reich,” said Yuval Steinitz, a senior member of Parliament’s foreign and defense committee. “No one could predict the global catastrophe 10 years later, and Iran may be the same.”
I find it remarkable that the Times’ editors would allow such blatant distortion into the paper without challenge. Sure, they can argue that it was Steinitz’s opinion to which he’s entitled. But why not either interview someone with a different view of this historical mis-analogy or at least present a caveat saying many observers question the analogy?
Here’s the factually-challenged passage:
Both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories are armed, radical, Iranian-backed Islamic groups sworn to Israel’s destruction. And each has been empowered and legitimized by elections that Mr. Bush demanded, and Israel’s summer war involved fighting both of them.
Now keep in mind that this is not a quotation from an interviewee. This is a statement made by Erlanger himself. As a usually good journalist, he certainly is aware of the multitude of statements made by Hamas representatives on its relations with Israel. He must know that while the Hamas charter is “sworn to Israel’s destruction” and the rejectionist wing of Hamas led by Khaled Meshal is as well, the same cannot be said of the majority of Hamas’ political leadership in the Territories. Search on “Hamas” in this blog and you will find a number of posts about such leaders and their moderate statements. In other words, this phrase is one that cried out for qualification. Yet there is none.
One can even argue about this view of Hezbollah. There is rhetoric and there is action. There is of course much Hezbollah rhetoric about destroying Israel. But Hezbollah’s actions show a certain pragmatism on this issue. Nasrallah is not so stupid as to believe in his group’s own rhetoric. Does someone who wishes Israel’s destruction call in the middle of a war for negotiation with it? If he is sworn to Israel’s destruction would he, after Israel announced a 48-hour lull in air attacks, stop rocketing northern Israel during the same period? To be clear, I am not singing Hezbollah’s (nor Hamas’) praises though many readers willfully misread me as doing so. These groups are not pure as driven snow, peace loving entities. But neither is Israel. Unfortunately, peace is not made between angels. Rather it is made between hard men (and women) who have fought long and hard to kill each other. There are as many extremists on the Israeli side who utterly reject Palestinians and Palestinian nationalism as on the Arab side.
Then there is this rather extraordinary glimpse into the ludicrous delusional thinking that went into Israel’s strategy for fighting Hezbollah last summer:
The Israelis say Washington was disappointed in their performance against Hezbollah. They are right: inside the White House, said one senior official there, who agreed to speak about internal deliberations on condition of anonymity, “Bush and Cheney believed that this would be another Six-Day War, or on the outside, two weeks.”
“They believed it because that’s what the Israelis said,” the official said.
Oh, I see. You believe everything Israel tells you without question? You don’t ask your own intelligence apparatus to evaluate the claim? It shows the unbelievably pathetic nature of the Bush-Olmert relationship and the willful denial that passes for rational discourse between them.
And doesn’t that “another Six Day War” comment bring to mind another current U.S. war? Wasn’t it Bush or Rumsfeld who predicted sure, certain and swift victory in Iraq? Wasn’t it Bush who proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” a few months into our campaign against Iraq? So it’s not only that Cheney-Bush believed what Olmert told them; they believed what they wanted to believe; or as Paul Simon sang: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
And then there’s the little matter of Philip Zelikow’s recent speech in which he urged the Bush Administration to make urgent efforts to find an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians for the sake of the U.S.’ larger Mideast interests. Apparently, the speech raised warning flags all over the rightist encampment. “God, do you mean that the U.S. would actually pressure us to stop building and expanding settlements? Why the very idea!”
“For the Arab moderates and for the Europeans, some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is just a sine qua non for their ability to cooperate actively with the United States on a lot of other things that we care about,” he said.
The message seemed perfectly clear to Israelis: the Bush administration would demand Israeli concessions on the Palestinian issue to hold together an American-led coalition on Iran. American officials were quick to insist that there was no change in American policy, and that Mr. Zelikow was speaking on his own.
This again shows Israel’s incredibly unrealistic approach to these issues. Israel wants more than anything in the world to take the bomb away from Iran. The U.S. shares this view. The U.S. will attempt to stitch together a global (including Arab states) coalition against Iran. All this, one assumes is what Israel would like to see if it would end with Iran renouncing nuclear weapons. But there’s a rub for Israel. All this might come at the expense of maintaining its current rejectionist stance toward the Palestinians.
The Israelis want their cake and they want to eat it too. They want Iran dead and they want to continue tormenting the Palestinians. It’s nice work if you can get it, but can Israel get it? I don’t think so. That’s the way 8 year olds look at the world: “I want it. It’s mine. I’ll take it.” But that’s not the way so-called mature nations should look at the world, especially ones living in such a dangerous part of the world where any stray spark can light a conflagration.
Leave it to Moshe Arens to present quite clearly and quite bellicosely Israel’s maximalist stance vis a vis Iran. But he inadvertently perfectly characterizes the horrific fallout from a U.S.-Israel military alliance to wipe out Iran’s nuclear capacity:
“Although a small country, we are not a minor party. When people talk about the possibility of a military option, what are they talking about? The U.S. or maybe Israel to take that move, not the U.S. or Germany or France.”
He acknowledged, however, “That inevitably will lead people who are critical of the position of the president to be critical of Israel, because we are seen as a partner in this campaign, and it is not a very big step to say that Israel is leading the U.S., or misleading the U.S., by the nose in this thing.”
Well, Israel is certainly misleading the U.S. and the world in saying that Iran will have nuclear capacity within months to a few years maximum. How else might Israel mislead us in order to further their own misbegotten policy objectives (ie. a military attack)? Besides, we should also keep in mind Aipac’s ceaseless pounding of the Iran war drum in its conferences, publications and Congressional lobbying. This is no insignificant factor in leading the U.S. into Israel’s arms on this matter.
To Yossi Alpher, the sometime dove-pragmatist, I leave the most telling and at the same time odd comment in the article:
The world looks different to nearly all Israelis across the political spectrum than it does to people in most other countries. “Unlike Bush, an Israeli leader looks at Iran through the prism of the Holocaust and his responsibility to the ongoing existence of the Jewish people,” Mr. Alpher said. “It may sound pompous, but at the end of the day it matters, and so we may be willing to do the strangest things.”
Doesn’t he mean “responsibility to the ongoing existence of the Israeli people?” This is a perfect example of Israeli megalomania regarding their relationship to the real Jewish people i.e. not just those in Israel but throughout the Diaspora as well. You can see from Alpher’s unfortunate lapse that there is no difference for him between Israel and the Jewish people. They are one and the same. And for him too the existence of a Jewish people outside Israel is at best irrelevant, at worst meaningless. I do not wish to see nuclear weapons attacking Israel nor its demise. But to make the foolish claim that if Israel were to God forbid not exist that the Jewish people would be doomed is foolish. We existed for nearly 2,000 years without a state or home of our own. If we had to we could do it again. But the key point is NOT TO HAVE TO. In other words, we must ensure Israel’s long term survival through peace, rather than war.
As for Alpher’s comment that “we may be willing to do the strangest things”–that’s one helluva true statement. But just because Israel is willing to do something as “strange” as risk full-theater Mideast war by attacking Iran doesn’t mean that we have to stand back and give them the thumbs up sign.
The best and truest words in this article come, of course, from Baltiansky. Of course, he is quoted at the very end where most NY Times readers will never get to see his wisdom. But hey, at least he’s there:
Israel also pays a price for American policy, which can go against Israeli interests.
“The dilemma is that even this president, a true friend of Israel, after 9/11 divided the world into good guys and bad guys, and we’re one of the good guys, so fine,” [Baltiansky] said. “Syria is a bad guy. But what serves Israel’s interests? Talking to them may be bad for the U.S., but not necessarily bad for us. But whether it’s Hamas participating in elections or Syria, it’s hard for us to say no to the United States.”
Erlanger closes his piece with a somewhat misleading characterization of U.S. attitudes toward Israel:
What matters most to Israel, officials here in Jerusalem say, is the level of support it receives from ordinary Americans, no matter their political party or religion. Despite the anxieties here over Lebanon, Iran and academic essays, opinion polls show that Americans are solidly in support of Israel,
Yes, the majority of Americans support Israel. But not the type of unquestioning support that Israel would like. During the Lebanon war, polls showed that the majority of Americans found our country too close to Israel and wished us to have a more balanced stance toward both sides so that we could play the role of honest broker. And among Democrats who assume control of Congress in January this trend is even more pronounced.
In other words, American support of Israel is not guaranteed and eternal no matter what Ehud Olmert and Aipac would like to believe. Such support relies on Israel being seen as a peaceloving, rational nation. I would maintain that it is rapidly losing that status among many Americans. I do not relish this happening. On the contrary, it is most unfortunate. But it is the price you pay for all those “strange things” Israel does to the Palestinians and its other enemies.