Increasing even-handedness in the Middle East

There are some preliminary signs of positive changes in America's approach to the Middle East, and few things are as important as ensuring that continues.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published January 30, 2009 10:37AM (EST)

It's now rather clear that the debate in the U.S. over Israel and the Middle East is becoming increasingly more balanced and open, and there are even some very preliminary though encouraging signs that the Obama administration will take a more even-handed approach.  As I wrote about the other day, the truly excellent report by 60 Minutes' Bob Simon, focusing on the destructive impact of expanding West Bank settlements, was a startling departure from the rules governing what normally would be aired in such venues with regard to Israel. 

As one would expect, there were angry reactions and recriminations aimed at Simon and 60 Minutes from the same groups that, for years, have been stigmatizing even-handed discussions of Israel as illegitimate, or worse.  But now, there is an important counter-weight to those efforts:  J Street, which is well on its way to ending the monopoly that right-wing groups have long wielded in the U.S. when it comes to purporting to speak for Americans Jews and defining the allegedly "pro-Israel" position.  J Street has launched a project praising the Simon/60 Minutes report, and has organized a letter-writing campaign to CBS in support of that segment, to balance the campaigns of criticisms from the right-wing "pro-Israel" groups.  You can read about J Street's position here, and participate in their letter-writing campaign to CBS here (the full, lengthier and more detailed statement sent by J Street via email is here).

Obama's decision to name George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy (as opposed to, say, the hopelessly biased Dennis Ross) may turn out to be one of the most significant steps he will take.  Consider the reaction that decision has generated.  

On PBS's News Hour this week, Jimmy Carter (who, with his success at forging an Israel-Egypt peace agreement, probably did more for Israel's security than any foreign leader in the last century) said that Obama's "choice of an envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is absolutely superb, and it shows that he's going to take a more balanced position between the Israelis and their neighbors."  J Street's Executive Director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, "enthusiastically" praised the selection of Mitchell, saying that it "signals the President's serious intention to inject new thinking and fresh perspectives into America's efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."  Even Noam Chomsky, while questioning Obama's commitment to changing American policy in the region, said that "George Mitchell is, of the various appointments that have been made, the most decent, let's say. He has a pretty decent record."

Meanwhile, advocates like Abe Foxman are actually criticizing Obama for Mitchell's appointment on the revealing ground that Mitchell is too "even-handed" -- an absurd criticism that, unsurprisingly, is defended by people like The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, in a piece entitled "The Case Against Even-Handedness."  Notably, AIPAC has said nothing regarding their position on Mitchell's appointment.

Only time will tell whether the appointment of Mitchell presages real change in U.S. behavior, but whatever else is true, the presidential appointment of a Middle East envoy with a real history of even-handedness, and who therefore prompts praise from the likes of Jimmy Carter, J Street and Noam Chomsky, and anger from the ADL and The New Republic, is a significant and encouraging departure from the suffocatingly one-sided approach that has been so destructive for both the U.S. and Israel.

Signaling a similar sea change was the rather bitter dispute that broke out yesterday on a Davos panel featuring, among others, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Shimon Peres.  The leaders of the two traditionally close nations argued angrily over the Israeli attack on Gaza, with Erdogan accusing Peres of shrillness because he has a "guilty conscience," and then storming out after accusing the panel's moderator, The Washington Post's David Ignatius, of extreme bias in according Peres far more time to speak than the other panelists (Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations and Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary general), all of whom were critical of the Israeli attack on Gaza.  For his confrontation with Peres over Gaza, Erdogan arrived in Turkey yesterday to a "hero's welcome."

It's important to underscore the supreme importance of significantly changing the U.S. approach towards the Middle East.  One sometimes encounters the claim that the issue of U.S. policy towards Israel is separate, or even a distraction, from domestic efforts to restore Constitutional values and the rule of law, rein in limitless surveillance powers, and limit the influence of the permanent military and intelligence factions inside Washington.  But those issues aren't separate.  They're inextricably linked, and progress in the latter is impossible without real changes in the former.

It's precisely our endless and direct involvement in all of the various Middle East conflicts that plays a vital role in enabling the prevailing climate of militarization and the ever-expanding Surveillance State in the United States.  It's clichéd at this point, but nonetheless true, to point out that it is our involvement in foreign conflicts and the maintenance of external threats that uniquely justifies infringements on core liberties and the expansion of state power.  A nation involved in foreign wars will inevitably act like a War Nation at home. That's just a universal truth.

In the mid-1960s, Martin Luther King began devoting far more of his efforts and attention to emphatically (even radically) opposing the war in Vietnam than almost any other issue.  As a result, he was criticized, even by his own supporters, on the ground that his anti-war efforts were a distraction from, even at odds with, his work on racial equality and social justice.  In an April, 1967 speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York, he addressed that criticism and explained why efforts to change American foreign policy and to reform its domestic practices were, in fact, inseparable:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud:  Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King?  Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. . . .

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land. . . .

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops. . . .

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world -- a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Even those who recognize the existence of that rarest of entities -- a just war -- should acknowledge that constant involvement in an endless series of wars, as our Middle East policies currently ensure, causes "America's soul to become totally poisoned."  It's just not possible to make real progress in the domestic aims of restoring the Constitution and reversing our military and intelligence expansions if we are simultaneously enabling and blindly supporting Israel's various wars (and therefore dragging ourselves into those wars), while we ourselves continue to wage our own never-ending conflicts in the Middle East.  All of those issues aren't merely related but are completely intertwined.

E-mail from J Street, 1/29/2009

All week, 60 Minutes' Bob Simon has been under attack for supposed "anti-Israel bias" for this past Sunday's accurate and thoughtful report on the danger that Israeli settlements pose to the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace. If you haven't yet seen the segment, view it here.

CAMERA (the Orwellian-named Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) alerted their activist network - flooding the 60 Minutes' offices and their advertisers with angry phone calls charging media bias. [1] Jewish community leader Abe Foxman fired off a letter calling the piece "a hatchet job on Israel." [2]

Journalists - as well as rabbis, professors and elected officials - know that if they raise questions about what Israel does - they'll often get attacked as anti-Israel. It's one way the forces of the status quo constrain debate and discussion on what's really best for Israel and the United States.

It's time for a reporter like Bob Simon to know that those of us with balanced views value balanced reporting - and we know how to write letters too! If he's getting an earful from CAMERA and others, then the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should be showing him support.

Click here to view the segment and send Bob Simon a note of support for his accurate and thoughtful report on Israeli settlements and the occupation.

We hear plenty from American media about the threats that Israel faces from terrorism, rockets, and a nuclear Iran.

While those threats are real and should be covered, Americans also need to hear about another threat that is just as real: that time is running out for a two-state solution with the Palestinians in part due to Israeli settlements and the occupation of the West Bank. Without a two-state solution soon through assertive American diplomacy, Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic homeland is at risk.

During Sunday's 60 Minutes segment, anchor Bob Simon interviewed pro-settlement activist Daniella Weiss who readily admitted that she thinks "settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel. This is the goal. And this is the reality."

Simon also restated what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been saying for years [3] about what would happen if the two-state solution peace process falls apart.

"Demographers predict that within ten years Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Without a separate Palestinian state the Israelis would have three options, none of them good. They could try ethnic cleansing, drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank, or they could give the Palestinians the vote. That would be the democratic option but it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Or they could try apartheid - have the minority Israelis rule the majority Palestinians, but apartheid regimes don't have a very long life."

Simon also interviewed Israeli Foreign Minister and Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians Tzipi Livni who said that evacuating the settlers in the West Bank is "not going to be easy. But this is the only solution."

But groups like CAMERA are opposed to mainstream media reporting that Israeli extremists, in addition to Palestinian extremists, undermine efforts to achieve a two-state solution. CAMERA resorts to claims of anti-Israel bias - when the reality is that Israeli extremists on the West Bank make real peace and security for Israel and the Palestinians more difficult to achieve.

We can't let fringe groups like CAMERA define what it means to be pro-Israel through intimidation and fear tactics.

Bob Simon should receive support from the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement for his accurate and thoughtful assessment of the threat that Israeli settlements pose to the two-state solution peace process.

Click here to write a note of support to 60 Minutes' Bob Simon.

Thanks for all you do.

- Isaac

Isaac Luria

Online Director

J Street

January 29, 2009


[1] "CBS's 60 Minutes Scapegoats Israel," Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. January 26, 2009.

[2] "ADL Letter to CBS News' 60 Minutes," Anti-Defamation League. January 26, 2009.

[3] "Olmert to Haaretz: Two-state solution, of Israel is done for," by Aluf Benn, David Landau, Barak Ravid, Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz Correspondents and AP. Haaretz. November 29, 2007.



J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. J Street was founded to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israel conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. We support a new direction for American policy in the Middle East and a broad public and policy debate about the U.S. role in the region. Learn more at our website by clicking one of the links above.

Glenn Greenwald

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