Responding to the New York Times on Israel
David Harris, Executive Dir., American Jewish Committee
March 29, 2010 Published in the Huffington Post
On March 27, the New York Times published a lead editorial entitled "Mr. Obama and Israel."
It was a bare-knuckled assault on Israel. That will bring joy to Israel's critics. But it did a disservice to the realities on the ground.
Of the editorial's twenty-six sentences, exactly one - "He [President Obama] must also press Palestinians and Arab leaders just as forcefully." - is devoted to Israel's neighbors.
That's the sum total given to other side of the peace-process equation. It reads like a throwaway line to cover that flank.
Of course, getting serious about peace, which is the editorial's nominal purpose, requires more attention to those who have rejected every serious overture - from the 1947 UN Partition Plan to the 2009 two-state proposal offered by Prime Minister Olmert.
And it necessitates a more thorough review of the past 14 months since President Obama took office - and of most of the Arab world's failure to respond to Washington's pleas for confidence-building measures.
Until early 2009, let's remember, direct Israeli-Palestinian talks were ongoing. No preconditions on settlements or anything else were set by either side. And, as suggested, Olmert offered a remarkable peace package, including a compromise on Jerusalem.
Now look where we are. The Obama Administration called for a settlement freeze as a way to restart talks. Why? That had never been the case before.
Suddenly, settlements became the centerpiece of the discussion - not as an outcome of the talks, but rather as a precondition for resuming them.
When Washington and Jerusalem finally agreed on terms, including a ten-month freeze on new building in the West Bank that Secretary Clinton called "unprecedented," the Palestinian Authority dug in its heels and insisted on a total freeze everywhere, including Jerusalem, before returning to the table.
Meanwhile, true to form, the PA mainly sat on its hands. Wait, that's not quite accurate. At just about the time of Vice President Biden's visit to the region, it was involved in naming a West Bank square for a terrorist, Dalal Mughrabi, responsible for the 1978 murder of 37 Israelis and an American.
The New York Times overlooks all of this, while focusing laser-like on eastern Jerusalem.
Yes, a big mistake was made during Biden's stop in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was unaware of the announcement of 1,600 new housing units, apologized to the vice president. The torrent of criticism from Washington that followed was striking.
But the truth is that the democratically elected Netanyahu had never pledged to stop building in eastern Jerusalem in order to restart talks. Moreover, the units are in an area that has thousands of Jewish residents and is placed inside Israel on every peace map, not in a new Palestinian state. And since 1967, each Israeli prime minister - right, left, and center - has strengthened the Jewish presence in a city that has embodied the Jewish people's physical and metaphysical center for more than 3,000 years.
The editorial also takes a big swipe at Netanyahu's commitment to peace.
Yet last year, the prime minister voiced his support for a two-state settlement, echoing the position of his immediate predecessors.
He has removed dozens of security checkpoints in the West Bank to ease Palestinian movement, even at risk to Israelis.
He has encouraged economic growth in the West Bank, arguing that peace is not a top-down process alone, but also bottom-up. The more Palestinians benefit from an improving economy - and the recent growth rate has been impressive - the more they are likely to have a stake in a new status quo.
And security cooperation between the Israeli military and U.S.-trained Palestinian forces is improving.
In other words, positive things are happening.
That said, if the prime minister doesn't believe an immediate peace deal is possible, it's not necessarily because of his "hard-line positions," as the Times asserts, but rather because he may deem the chances of reaching an accord now as slim.
With Palestinians divided between Hamas and the PA, and with President Abbas not showing sufficient courage, most Israelis don't see an agreement anytime soon. That doesn't make them anti-peace, only realistic analysts of the situation as it is.
Moreover, recent experience, besides the spurned Olmert offer, doesn't provide much hope.
President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak presented the Palestinians with a two-state deal. The response? A new intifada that claimed the lives of one thousand Israelis.
Barak withdrew Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. The response? Hezbollah filled the vacuum and posed a new threat to Israel.
Prime Minister Sharon pulled all soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. The response? Hamas stepped in and increased its attacks on Israel.
But again, the context and countervailing facts are missing from the editorial.
The Times finds it "refreshing" that President Obama "has forced public debate on issues that must be debated publicly for a peace deal to happen."
Really? Why publicly?
Were the Camp David Accords of 1979, the Oslo Accords, and the Israel-Jordan talks, all of which involved immensely challenging and sticky issues, thrust into the public realm for a "refreshing" debate before agreement was reached? They were not.
And finally, the difficulty that arose during Vice President Biden's visit was not the first tough moment in American foreign policy for this administration.
So far, China has rejected new Iran sanctions, even as the U.S. has told Chinese leaders that this is our highest international priority. New reports indicate that Turkey may do the same.
France's president, speaking at the UN Security Council in September, condescendingly chided President Obama for seeking a nuclear-free world, reminding the American leader that "We live in a real world, not a virtual world ... and right in front of us two countries [North Korea and Iran] are doing the exact opposite."
Scotland, with possible acquiescence from London, released a convicted Libyan terrorist in the Lockerbie bombing that killed, among others, 190 Americans. Despite the special UK-U.S. relationship, there was no consultation with Washington. To add fuel to the fire, President Obama warned Libya to "make sure he is not welcomed back," which is precisely what happened.
Meanwhile, the U.S. restored ties with Damascus. No sooner had a senior State Department official left Syria with what he believed to be progress to report, than the Syrian president invited the Iranian president and the Hezbollah leader for a powwow - the diplomatic equivalent of giving Washington the finger.
And though it has never been reported, there are rumors that Prime Minister Putin sought to convey a message to President Obama in Moscow last year by making the American leader wait for nearly an hour while swimming laps.
The list goes on.
The point is that none of these insults to American foreign policy elicited anything approaching the sustained tongue-lashing Israel received, not to mention the rough treatment the Israeli prime minister got at the White House last week. Not even close.
And, needless to say, none was the focus of such a hard-edged editorial in America's newspaper of record.