Archive for October 20th, 2008

An Unfortunate Speech

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Last night, I went to a dinner for Jewish philanthropists in the Akron area. The central attraction of the evening was a talk from a former broadcast news journalist who covered Israel in the early 1990s. She was here as a guest of the community, and the event was private — not open to the press — so I’m not going to use her name or identifying details. But part of her talk was a thinly-veiled critique of Barack Obama and his positions on Israel, and I don’t want to let it go without comment.

Her general topic was media bias against Israel, and on that point, her presentation was strong.

It’s not, she said, that there is a broad conspiracy against the Jewish state. More often, she said, you have inexperienced journalists — some of whom are “parachuted” into the most complex geopolitical stories of our time, with no sense at all of the history. Ignorance is a factor, she said. Also, the competitive pressures of 24-7 deadline journalism. She critiqued her industry, persuasively, without casting it to the wolves.

To bolster her argument, she cited two recent examples of media bias against Israel. In one, a seasoned journalist, interviewing a prominent Palestinian, let her state as fact that the Palestinians, under Rabin — when the peace process was in full swing — were not engaging in terrorism. In fact, when Rabin was prime minister, Palestinian terrorists began blowing up buses in the public square — but this journalist never challenged the assertion.

In the other case, CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour — in a multi-part series about religious extremists — equated Arab terrorism and Israeli efforts at self-defense as morally equivalent, as part of a cycle of violence — a common problem with media coverage of the conflict.

It was near the end of her speech, when she turned to politics, that she veered into objectionable territory. She seemed cognizant of the need not to make any overt political endorsements. She couched her words carefully, noting that she herself was conflicted over whether to support McCain or Obama. Yet when she spoke, there was little doubt as to her preference.

There were three areas, she said, where the candidates stances on Israel were materially important.

The first: McCain said he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; Obama would not.

She said this without providing any historical context or explanation, so I’m happy to fill in what she left out.

The U.S. embassy is in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem — Israel’s capital. There has been pressure from some quarters to move the embassy to Jerusalem, largely for symbolic reasons. Republicans have run with the issue and used it to make political hay. In 1995, Congress passed a law mandating that the embassy be moved. When George Bush ran in 2000, he promised to finally move the embassy to Jerusalem. (Bush said, specifically: “As soon as I take office, I will begin the process of moving the United States ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital.”)

Only — here’s the thing — it’s a bad move. As Douglas Bloomfield wrote in a July Jerusalem Post article (“Washington Watch: Blowing Smoke over Jerusalem“):

Moving the embassy has never been a high priority for any Israeli leader in meetings with American presidents. They see it as a political football in an American game they prefer staying out of.

All recent prime ministers have understood that an agreement on Jerusalem is critical to any peace settlement with the Palestinians – and that symbolic action like American politicians trying to force the embassy move can only make an agreement more elusive.

Perhaps that’s why, when actually in Office, George Bush — like Clinton before him — has signed a waiver every six months, delaying the 1995 Congressional mandate to move the embassy. Bloomfield writes:

McCain voted for that law, but hasn’t pressed the issue except on the campaign trail, and he hasn’t objected once to Bush’s waivers of his own 2000 campaign promise.

If this was such an important issue for McCain, why didn’t he challenge Bush on these waivers? Why didn’t he stand up and loudly trumpet this cause, for the good of the Jews, in all those years in the Senate?

Bloomfield writes that McCain knows full well the embassy move will not happen.

John McCain should know better, and so should pro-Israel voters. The GOP nominee-to-be must think we’re a pretty gullible bunch of nudniks if he expects us to believe that he will move the US embassy to Jerusalem “right away” if he is elected president.

Why would McCain make an issue of it, then? As Aaron Keyak writes for HuffingtonPost (“McCain’s False Promise to Move U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem“):

McCain’s empty promise to move this embassy is a shameless attempt to use hypocritical campaign rhetoric to win over the pro-Israel and Jewish communities. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is certainly a legitimate issue for the state of Israel and its supporter to raise. However, it is crystal clear that not only is this not a priority for successive Israeli governments, but that the politics of the Middle East makes any promise of an immediate relocation a false one.

On this point, reasonable people might disagree. But to simply drop the issue, as this former broadcast journalist did last night — with neither explanation nor comment — suggests to me that something else is going on, something beyond simply educating her audience.

The second big issue she raised was the question of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. McCain doesn’t mind them; Obama, she said, is opposed.

It was when she raised the third issue that her agenda became manifest. McCain, she said, will fight with everything he’s got against Islamic extremism. Obama, she said, considers the Israel issue a “constant sore.”

I wonder if she thought she was speaking to an unsophisticated audience. Perhaps, she thought we might not catch her reference.

In May, Republicans attacked Obama for saying in an interview that Israel is a “constant sore.” Headlines in publications like American Thinker declared: “Obama: Israel a ‘constant sore’ that ‘infects … foreign policy.'” House Minority Leader John Boehner and GOP Minority Whip Eric Cantor slammed Obama for the comment. The right-wing blogosphere piled on. More proof that Obama was no friend of the Jewish state.

Only one problem. As The Washington Post reported in May (“Republicans Twist Obamas Words About Israel“), Obama’s “comment has been taken completely out of context.”

The Post reported:

Obama gave an interview over the weekend to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic in which, among other things, he rejected former president Jimmy Carter‘s characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state.” Here is the passage that has now become controversial. (Key phrases in italics.)

Goldberg:“What do you make of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Israel resembles an apartheid state?”

Obama: “I strongly reject the characterization. Israel is a vibrant democracy, the only one in the Middle East, and there’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like ‘apartheid’ into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.”

Goldberg:“If you become president, will you denounce settlements publicly?”

Obama:“What I will say is what I’ve said previously. Settlements at this juncture are not helpful. Look, my interest is in solving this problem not only for Israel but for the United States.”

Goldberg:“Do you think that Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas?”

Obama:“No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore,does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this, because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.”

It is pretty clear from this passage that Obama is not calling Israel a “constant wound.” Indeed, he specifically says “no, no, no” when asked whether Israel is a drag on America’s international reputation. He is referring to the overall Israeli-Palestinian problem, including continued Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

The Atlantic Monthly interviewer himself felt Obama’s quotes had been so intentionally distorted, he took the rare step of speaking up, describing Boehner’s characterization of the interview as “mendacious, duplicitous, gross and comically refutable.”

And yet this broadcast journalist, speaking to a group of Jews in Akron two weeks before the election, saw fit to reference the quote, without comment, as part of a purported even-handed discussion about the presidential candidates and Israel?

I should have been alerted to the journalists’ motives when, in an earlier dinner conversation, she similarly claimed to be “torn” in her political leanings, but said she was truly concerned by an email she received showing Obama, as a child, in Muslim garb, next to McCain, as a youth, apparently in military apparel. I did a bit of research to try to find this email, but couldn’t.

We know, without question, Obama is not now nor has he ever been a Muslim. The email, it seems to me, is a further attempt at a smear him, and for her to raise it, casually over philo-wrapped fish, raises doubts in my mind about just how seriously to take anything that she says.

And during the discussion, after her speech, she criticized MSNBC for being so abashedly pro-Obama, leaving it to the incredulous audience to shout out: “What about Fox?” To which she replied, with a straight face, yes, but at least, with Fox, they are not passing themselves off as fair and balanced, like MSNBC.

The speaker came to Akron to give a talk, to the Jewish community, and concluded with a subtle, anti-Obama message that, I’m sure, stirred fear among those in attendance. It seemed designed to peel votes away for McCain, and given the kinds of questions people were asking me about Obama afterwards, questions that referenced other false smears about him (“Does he really have anti-Israel advisors?”) (Answer: No), it might just have worked.

Claiming to be a fair and balanced arbiter, one who herself is “torn” between the candidates, only gives her the patina of objectivity, and makes her message that much more devastating.

She knows it works. Just ask her about press coverage of Israel.