Archive for August 2nd, 2009

Thank You, Thomas Friedman

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

The conservative mind is made up. President Obama is anti-Israel. See, for example, John Podhoretz’s latest essay in Commentary, “The Turn Against Israel“:

There is no question that we have entered a new era, one that I expect will be characterized by tensions and unpleasantnesses of a kind unseen since the days when George H. W. Bush was president, James A. Baker III was secretary of state, and the hostility toward Israel oozed from both men like sweat from an intrepid colonial traveler’s brow as he journeyed across the Rub-al-Khali.

It’s pretty wearying stuff, after awhile. I’ve heard Obama talk about Israel. Personally, in a small group in Cleveland, two weeks before the Ohio primary. This is a man who oozes respect for the Jewish state, its history, and its people.

“The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people,” Obama said, last October. “I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries” …

Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it “left a lasting impression on me.”

“Seeing the terrain,” Obama said, “experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.”

Never mind. Podhoretz skewers Obama for telling NPR that part of being a good friend to Israel is being “honest.”

But, of course, honest discourse about Iran [and its nuclear threat] was not the fearless truth Barack Obama wished to bestow upon Israel or the Muslim world.

Rather, his honesty solely concerned the trajectory of the “settlements” …

Nice to read this, then, posted a few minutes ago by the NY Times:

Officials said the United States was pushing for a package of measures ranging from Arab countries’ opening commercial offices in Tel Aviv to their leaders’ granting interviews to Israeli journalists. Another step would be getting Arab nations to allow Israel’s state carrier, El Al, to fly over Arab countries to cut flight times to Asia.

So much for only pressuring the Israelis. Obama’s negotiating team, lead by George Mitchell, is working tirelessly to get Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to take concrete steps they’ve never taken before.

“One of the public misimpressionsis that it’s all been about settlements,” Mr. Mitchell, the administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, said in a rare interview Friday after six months on the job. “It is completely inaccurate to portray this as, ‘We’re only asking the Israelis to do things.’ We are asking everybody to do things.”

Podhoretz, though, has a point to make:

And so the turn against Israel that so many predicted during the 2008 campaign is coming to pass—with a smile, and a nod, and an invocation of a word [honesty] that actually means something very different from friendship. It might even mean its opposite.

What a tonic, then, to read Thomas Friedman’s column this morning in the NY Times. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish columnist who began covering the Middle East for UPI in 1979, does have some advice for  Obama: 1) Don’t get into the historical blame game in the Middle East, because nobody believes they are at fault, and 2) Connect with Israel on a gut level. (I couldn’t agree more. I blogged nearly a month ago, “The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel.”)

[This, also from the Times article, should help address Friedman’s second point: “In coming weeks, senior administration officials said, the White House will begin a public-relations campaign in Israel and Arab countries to better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. The campaign, which will include interviews with Mr. Obama on Israeli and Arab television, amounts to a reframing of a policy that people inside and outside the administration say has become overly defined by the American pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction on the West Bank.”]

But here’s the rest of what Friedman has to say. And, as he’s been covering this topic for literally 30 years — and is one of the most even-handed and knowledgeable commentators on the region — he’s worth quoting in full:

President Obama is not some outlier when it comes to Israel. His call for a settlements freeze reflects attitudes that have been building in America for a long time. For the last 40 years, a succession of Israeli governments has misled, manipulated or persuaded naïve U.S. presidents that since Israel was negotiating to give up significant territory, there was no need to fight over “insignificant” settlements on some territory. Behind this charade, Israeli settlers bit off more and more of the West Bank, creating a huge moral, security and economic burden for Israel and its friends.

As Bradley Burston, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, put it last week: “The settlement movement has cost Israel some $100 billion. … The double standard which for decades has favored settlers with inexpensive housing, heavily subsidized social services, and blind-eye building permits has long been accompanied by a kid-gloves approach regarding settler violence against Palestinians and their property. … Settlers and settlement planners have covertly bent and distorted zoning procedures, military directives, and government decrees in order to boost settlement, block Palestinian construction, agriculture, and access to employment, and effectively neutralize measures intended to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace progress.”

For years, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the pro-Israel lobby, rather than urging Israel to halt this corrosive process, used their influence to mindlessly protect Israel from U.S. pressure on this issue and to dissuade American officials and diplomats from speaking out against settlements. Everyone in Washington knows this, and a lot of people — people who care about Israel — are sick of it.

The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, captured the we-are-untouchable arrogance of the settlers last week when he quoted Rabbi Yigael Shandorfi, leader of a religious academy at the settlement of Nahliel, calling Mr. Obama in a speech “that Arab they call a president.”

So if Mr. Obama has bluntly pressed for a settlements freeze, he is, in fact, reflecting a broad sentiment in Congress, the Pentagon and among many Americans, Jews included. …

What about Mr. Obama? He has nothing to apologize for policy-wise. The president is working on a deal whereby Israel would agree to a real moratorium on settlement building, Palestinians would uproot terrorists and the Arab states would begin to normalize relations — with visas for Israelis, trade missions, media visits and landing rights for El Al. If the president can pull this off, it would be good for everyone.

Put another way: The so-called “turn against Israel” is pure fiction.