The N.Y. Times has written a pitch-perfect article about the winds of change blowing from the White House regarding the Israel-U.S. relationship, on the verge of our new president’s first White House meeting with Bibi Netanyahu. Over the past few years, you rarely see reportage this good on this subject in the Times. And one of the chief reasons this report is so good is it wasn’t written by the Times’ Israel correspondent Ethan Bronner. That’s a sad statement, but true. Instead, it was written by Helene Cooper, who doesn’t seem to have as much of a Zionist axe to grind as Bronner does.
Usually, when the Times covers Israel-U.S. relations there are pro forma statements, acknowledgements of the importance of the Israel lobby and its significance as a political force in American Jewish life. Reporters sound all the necessary notes before they attempt to say anything new, bold or challenging. They quote from the usual suspects, the white male leaders like Abe Foxman, Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, or David Harris and any host of others.
Partly because the subject of this story is that the times they are a changin’ in the Obama White House, Cooper dispensed with most of the standard narrative and rhetoric. She chose to interview some pretty unusual sources considering this was the Times: Rashid Khalidi, Ali Abunimah, Daniel Levy and perhaps most striking of all, Chas. Freeman, who dispenses some serious wisdom. And imagine a N.Y. Times report on Israel that refers to not one, but TWO Palestinian-American figures. Astonishing. During the Gaza war, it took nearly two full weeks before a single Arab voice was heard on the editorial page.
Here is one telling passage on the bracing new ‘eyes’ Obama will bring to the subject compared to the average American president:
“I think this president gets it, in terms of the suffering of the Palestinians,” said Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “He gets it, which is already light years ahead of the average elected American politician.”
Mr. Obama’s predecessors, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, came of age politically with the American-Israeli viewpoint of the Middle East conflict as their primary tutor, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. While each often expressed concern and empathy for the Palestinians — with Mr. Clinton, in particular, pushing hard for Middle East peace during the last months of his presidency — their early perspectives were shaped more by Israelis and American Jews than by Muslims, Mr. Levy said.
“I think that Barack Obama, on this issue as well as many other issues, brings a fresh approach and a fresh background,” Mr. Levy said. “He’s certainly familiar with Israel’s concerns and with the closeness of the Israel-America relationship and with that narrative. But what I think might be different is a familiarity that I think President Obama almost certainly has with where the Palestinian grievance narrative is coming from.”
And while Cooper gives voice to those who expect great things and changes from Obama, she doesn’t gloss over the question marks, the disappointments both in the past and possibly in the future. It’s a bracing, but sobering portrait. The Times at its best, which it almost never is regarding its Israel coverage.
The last and most astute word goes to Chas. Freeman:
Mr. Freeman…said he still believed that Mr. Obama would go where his predecessors did not on Israel. Mr. Obama’s appointment of Gen. James L. Jones as his national security adviser — a man who has worked with Palestinians and Israelis to try to open up movement for Palestinians on the ground and who has sometimes irritated Israeli military officials — could foreshadow friction between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, several Middle East experts said.
The same is true for the appointment of George J. Mitchell as Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region; Mr. Mitchell, who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland, has already hinted privately that the administration may have to look for ways to include Hamas, in some fashion, in a unity Palestinian government.
Mr. Obama’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, while crucial, may only preview the beginning of the path the president will take, Mr. Freeman said.
“You can’t really tell anything by what happened to me and the fact that he didn’t step forward to take on the skunks,” he said, referring to his own appointment controversy and Mr. Obama’s silence amid critics’ attacks. “The first nine months, Nixon was absolutely horrible on China. In retrospect, it was clear that he had every intention to charge ahead, but he was picking his moment. He didn’t want to have the fight before he had to have the fight.”
“I sense that Obama is picking his moment,” Mr. Freeman said.
I’ve written several times here that I sense Obama is refusing to sweat the small stuff in his battles with the Israelis, which may explain why he didn’t publicly denounce the Gaza war, defend Freeman, why he dropped the charges against Rosen and Weissman, and why he restored Uzi Arad’s visa. These are small skirmishes in a much larger war. If he’s waiting for his moment, chooses it wisely, and executes well when the time comes, then all the skirmishes will be forgotten. Then Obama will take his place on the stage of world history as the president who took the bull by the horns and vanquished the age-old monstrous beast that is the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict.
In the title of this post, I invoked that wonderful 1963 Sam Cooke song, A Change is Gonna Come, written in another tumultuous and decisive era, the civil rights movement. My only hope is that all the hope and optimism of that song can come to fruition during an Obama presidency. Just as we then tackled the injustices perpetrated on African-Americans in this country over two centuries and made our country the better for it, we need to conquer the injustices perpetrated over more than a century in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The time has come, the time is now. Will you lead us, Mr. President?