Friday, September 6, 2013
Hiding The Ball On Israel
I’ve generally been identified with conservative critiques of identity politics, political correctness and “diversity,” though my reservations about them are grounded in a concern for how they work against traditional liberal ideals: Community; social equality; racial and ethnic neutrality; a common culture with common standards and shared values; the sanctity of free speech; cultural uplift.
But the orthodoxies that have come to encrust the journalistic right wing are substantial too, and aren’t exactly helping the intellectual revival of conservatism or improving the electoral viability of the GOP. I say this aware of the risk of alienating some of my conservative friends such as the Weekly Standard, which said Coloring The News should have won a Pulitzer.
One of the places where conservative political orthodoxy ---particularly its neoconservative variant ---is thickest is the US debate on Israel. I’m not a Middle East expert, and I defer to those journalists and scholars who are. But I do know my way around complicated ethnic conflicts where religious nationalism plays a major role from my years in South and Southeast Asia. (A book on civil war in Sri Lanka and substantial research and reporting on Burma.) And I know a bit about dysfunctional political and journalistic debates with race and ethnicity at their core from my two books on the American media, the aforementioned Coloring The News and the one on the New York Times, Gray Lady Down.
So I think I’ve have the perspective and experience to weigh in on problems in the American discourse on Israel. The discourse is often dysfunctional. And at points, it is even deranged.
It is a discourse riddled with intellectual dishonesty and double standards, with more sacred cows and straw men than any other political debate I’ve seen. Perfectly legitimate criticism of Israel, or completely valid questions about the nature of the US-Israel relationship that seek to identify discreet American interests, are unwelcome; those who voice them are often vilified, run out of town (Washington DC, usually) on ideological or political third rails.
Reasoned discussion has long given way to bullying and demagoguery, with the fear and intimidation at points descending to the level of McCarthyism. In fact, when it comes to Israel, the debate can take on decidedly un-American qualities, witness the unfounded charges of anti-Semitism flung from the shadows at Chuck Hagel last winter during his confirmation for Secretary of Defense. Anonymous smears and character assassination are the norm, with little to no professional damage incurred on the part of the assassins. A crush of pieties and platitudes overwhelm plain truths; historical candor represents a threat, especially if it challenges preferred historical myths.
Controlling the debate is an overly expansive definition of anti Semitism that mirrors the “racism” and “nativism” invoked in other political contexts but is often even more overwrought. There’s also a level of ethnic hypersentivity that has encouraged language policing where historical “anti-Semitic tropes,” are seen lurking in words and expressions that are largely lacking in ill-intent and would be fine to use in any other political context where plain English is preferred.
And I’m saying this as a supporter of Israel, although like many Americans I am a bit perplexed at how a secular democracy like the US came to be the chief benefactor of a nation which has become, functionally speaking, a religious ethnocracy ---a country where, I might add, significant portions of the population believe in a Biblical mandate to land captured in the Six Day War and which has repeatedly humiliated American presidents, vice-presidents and diplomats in the process of brokering a peace with Palestinians despite the $3 billion in annual aid the US provides. I’m also weary of all the spin, what the Israelis call hasbara, which often makes me feel like I’m being played, even gaslighted. (Lobby? What lobby? Congressional intimidation? What Congressional intimidation?) Is it possible to support Israel and still think the way we Americans talk about her is profoundly skewed---and in desperate need of correction, both in tone and substance? I hope so.
My sense of being played is fed by journalism that shows a failure—or refusal-- to acknowledge certain sensitive angles in a context where they should be acknowledged, as well as a failure to connect the dots where the implications of doing so may raise inconvenient questions about the pro-Israel party line. Propaganda is as much a matter of what is left out as of what is actually being said, Orwell thought. In other words, acts of omission can be just as manipulative as those of commission; what’s missing can be just as important as what's there. Of course, we’re not talking propaganda per se. But we are talking about the avoidance of things that really should be included in the discussion or analyses at hand—and often underscore their importance by their omission. At the very least it represents disingenuousness, in the service of an agenda.
I’ve noticed that two influential neoconservative columnists---David Brooks of the New York Times and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal---who have had a difficult time in the last month or so acknowledging the Israel angle in their analyses, even though it is both logical and necessary for them to do so. In fact, neither uses the “I” word at all. I find it reductive on the part of some critics of Israel who see it as being behind everything its American neoconservative supporters say and do. But in these two columns, where the Israel factor should be more out in the open, Brooks and Stephens seem to be hiding the ball. What’s up with that? As the crises in both Egypt and Syria continue, it’s a question worth asking. A pattern is emerging in which Israel’s role, not small in either, is being obscured.
In an August 1 column headlined “The Neocon Revival,” Brooks wrote nostalgically of neconservativism, which he says, reached its zenith of ideological vigor and political influence during the 1980’s but still represents a force for rebuilding the GOP today:
“Neocons came in for a lot of criticism during the Iraq war, but neoconservatism was primarily a domestic policy movement. Conservatism was at its peak when the neocons were dominant and nearly every problem with the Republican Party today could be cured by a neocon revival.”
Brooks is right to say that neoconservatism was a vital intellectual force that brought a lot to the table back then. I certainly recall being attracted to its bracing intellectual and moral astringence. It saw the need for hard choices in a tragic, imperfect world where there was little room for sentimentality. I found it especially appealing in its recognition of potent and often unpalatable truths that liberals often denied.
But Brooks is certainly reversing himself from 2004 when he suggested that the mere use of the phrase “neocon” was an ethnic slur and that “If you ever read a sentence that starts with 'Neocons believe,' there is a 99.44 percent chance everything else in that sentence will be untrue.” Such reversals of categorical statement no doubt, will be addressed in his forthcoming book on “Humility,” after a course he taught at Yale.
My real complaint though is the intellectual dishonesty involved in characterizing neoconservatism as a primarily domestic movement. For better or worse, neoconservatism has become most identified as a school of foreign policy. And it’s a foreign policy school that has left a far bigger and much more controversial footprint on American politics than anything it has achieved in its domestic heyday---which Brooks exaggerates anyway--- with Israel very much a part of that, though not all of it to be sure. In effect, Brooks is trying to set the lines on the court in a way that favors the game he wants to play, making it intellectually convenient for him not to deal with the elephant in the neoconservative living room.
It’s not that Brooks is ignoring the elephant altogether. His elliptical reference to neocons coming in “for a lot of criticism during the Iraq war,” is a nod to accusations that the neocon motivation for going to war against Saddam was overly influenced by their devotion to Israel. As Joe Klein put it at the onset of the Iraq War, the idea of a producing a stronger Israel “was a fantasy quietly cherished by the neo-conservative faction in the Bush Administration and by many leaders of the American Jewish community.” In fact, Klein said, it was “the casus belli that dare not speak its name.” Klein took this analysis even further in 2008 when he suggested that the neocons had plumped for war on behalf of Israel which “raised the question of divided loyalties,” in effect “Using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel.“ And it got even uglier when, as Israel began lobbying the US to join it in confronting a nuclear Iran, he wrote:
I believe there are a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who are pushing for war with Iran because they believe it is in America’s long-term interests and because they believe Israel’s existence is at stake. They are wrong and recent history tells us they are dangerous. They are also bullies and I’m not going to be intimidated by them.
Many neocons rejected Klein’s broadsides as a form of scapegoating. Among them was Brooks, who pointed to the many non Jews in the necon war “cabal,” in the 2004 column, calling people who thought like Klein “full- mooners.”
But for Brooks to ignore that Israel’s security was not a factor at all in the bid to get Saddam, which he is doing by making such a glancing, offhand reference to “the Iraq War,” especially after he defined neoconservatism as “primarily” domestic, seems ideologically and ethnically protective on his part. It’s a reference that lets him cover his ass but at the same time exposes it. He may not like that necon concern for Israel was a factor in their war thinking. He might also be right that too much emphasis has been put on it. But to refer to it so obliquely makes me feel he’s trying “to get over.”
It’s also ignores the neocon historical record, in which Israel does have a definite centrality. It was “an interest of the Jews to have a large and powerful military establishment in the United States,” Irving Kristol wrote in 1973. Democratic Party efforts to weaken the defense budget were “a knife in the heart of Israel.” Kristol’s intellectual and political heir William Kristol took the centrality of Israel to an almost metaphysical level just this Thanksgiving. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Kristol declared that:
“The US and Israel are “joined at the hip in a brotherhood that is more than a diplomatic or political or military alliance. Everyone senses that the ties are deeper than those of mere allies. Israelis know that if the United States fails, so shall Israel. Americans sense, in the words of Eric Hoffer, “’as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish the holocaust will be upon us.’”
And Brooks certainly mentions Israel whenever can do so in a flattering light and has been lauded for it, especially by the ethnic Jewish press. According to the Algemeiner, which put Brooks on to their “Jewish 100” list, “Brooks uses his pulpit to promote, under-the-radar, fundamental universal Jewish values. As a regular op-ed columnist in The New York Times, a newspaper whose stance on Israel is oddly hostile or misinformed, Brooks serves as a counterweight. You can find him going to bat for the Jewish state, and he has even said in the past that his love for the country is one of his core values.”
But here, Brooks sees no Israel, hears no Israel and speaks no Israel. His formidable powers of delineation, which often offer his analysis on other topics an impressive granularity, don’t clarify here, they obscure. Despite being at the center of much of neoconservatism’s political and ideological action---even if it's not the center, as some conspiratorialists would tell you--- Israel is MIA.
Like Brooks, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens has gotten a nice bouquet from the Algemeiner too where one columnist, a self described owner of a “Zionist PR agency,” put him on a list of the “Top Ten Living Spokespeople for Jews and Israel.”
In an August 19 column, “A Policy On Egypt: Support Sisi” Stephens shows why. He seems to be very purposefully avoiding the “I” word too, ducking all mention of the Israel angle in the contest between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. And according to credible news reports he is also dodging a backstage effort to stymie a US diplomatic bid to forestall the bloodshed there when the military went after Brotherhood and other Islamists after its coup.
The thrust of Stephens’ column was that the threat to suspend $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt, as voiced by the Obama administration and Senators such as Patrick Leahy, Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham, might be more about projecting an attitude than “realistic and desirable” policy.
Attitudes can be “gorgeous” but a policy cannot be, Stephens exclaims:
An attitude has no answer for what the U.S. does with or about Egypt once the finger has been wagged and the aid withdrawn. When Egypt decides to purchase Su-35s from Russia (financed by Saudi Arabia) and offers itself as another client to Vladimir Putin because the Obama administration has halted deliveries of F-16s, will Mr. Graham wag a second finger at Moscow?
This is a fair point to argue. But by framing the question of Egyptian military aid US in a strictly bilateral fashion as he does, Stephens can ignore the Israel factor, despite the fact that the only reason we even have such the kind of robust—and expensive--- bilateral relationship with Egypt to begin with is the peace treaty Egypt and Israel signed as part of the 1979 Camp David Accords, the Islamist abrogation of which was an underlying Israeli fear. The bilateral framing also allows him to ignore how both AIPAC and the Israeli Foreign Ministry were putting a behind-the-scenes full court press on lawmakers in Washington to maintain the Egyptian aid flow, even as Stephens was preparing his column. In fact, this framing lets Stephens skip the direct mention Israel altogether. Instead he makes an allusion to dreams for “Peace in the Holy Land,” and elliptical references to the need to “settle the diplomatic landscape” so that “the neighbors know what’s what.”
Of course, Stephens could be writing as a consummate insider, and from the kind of overly insular point of view that makes him feel like he doesn’t have to acknowledge the background factors because we are all so familiar with them. And he could think Israel’s role in the Egypt situation isn’t central enough to warrant the space in the limited space available.
But given the disproportionate number of weekly columns he has devoted to Israel or to things that have implications for Israel, even when they are quite subsidiary, I’m dubious. Israel was far more of a subordinate concern than a central one for judging whether Chuck Hagel was a suitable nominee for Secretary of Defense. Yet from the time Hagel’s name was first floated in mid-December 2012 to the time Hagel won confirmation in late February 2013—a space of a bit more than eight weeks--- Stephens devoted five of those eight columns to the Hagel fight, his grounds for opposing Hagel almost exclusively focused on what Stephens said was his disdain for Israel and prejudice against American Jews. Suffice it to say that this is a columnist who has rarely passed up the chance to include Israel in his analysis and when he does, it’s worth noting.
The failure to use the “I” word is also somewhat suspicious on another level too since AIPAC has been lobbying furiously in Washington against the withdrawal of aid, working the Hill where its record for using its money and its powers of persuasion have a certain reputation. According to John Hudson of Foreign Policy, which posted the story on the same day as Stephens’ column:
AIPAC, which was credited with helping kill an amendment to cut Egyptian aid in July, (NB: sponsored by Senator Rand Paul in July) is now operating behind the scenes in private meetings with lawmakers to keep alive Cairo's funding, congressional aides from both political parties said. Said one aide: On sensitive issues like this, AIPAC will 'lobby' very quietly, by reaching out to select influential folks on the Hill," he said. "It's not in the Egyptian military's or Israel's interest to have AIPAC loudly supporting Egyptian FMF. (Foreign Military Funding.)
The missing “I word” is again odd because the core of the case Stephens makes to keep aid going lines up almost exactly with the “spin” that Israeli diplomats were employing that week in their worldwide effort to get the major western powers to accept the military takeover---and withhold punishment (aid dollars) for the bloodshed against the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times August 18, Israel was about to intensify its ongoing efforts, both in Washington and around the world, urging western powers “to support the military-backed government in Egypt despite its deadly crackdown on Islamist protesters.” From Rudoren’s report:
“A senior Israeli official,” speaking on the condition of anonymity “because of an edict from the prime minister not to discuss the Egyptian crisis,” said Israeli ambassadors in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels and other capitals would lobby foreign ministers. At the same time, leaders here (in Israel) will press the case with diplomats from abroad that the military is the only hope to prevent further chaos in Cairo. “Israel is in a state of diplomatic emergency,” Alex Fishman, a leading Israeli columnist, wrote in Sunday’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper. “It has been waging an almost desperate diplomatic battle in Washington.”
According to Rudoren’s Israeli source, the official Israeli message would be “You might not like what they see but what was the alternative. If you insist on big principles, then you will miss the essential—the essential being putting Egypt on track at whatever costs. First save what you can, and the deal with democracy and freedom and so on. “ The official paused and then added: “At this point, it’s army or anarchy.”
Stephens’ column, of August 19 echoes both the basic thrust of the AIPAC drive on Capitol Hill and the world-wide diplomatic drive. “Politics in Egypt is a zero-sum game,” Stephens wrote. “Either the military wins or the Brotherhood does. If the US wants influence, it needs to hold its nose and take a side.” Yet there’s no mention of AIPAC’s congressional lobbying or the diplomatic push. Stephens is totally wired into the Likudnik right dating from his days as editor of the Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004. So its highly unlikely Stephens wasn’t in the loop. He could at least have mentioned that the Israel government was saying exactly the same thing.
At the same time Stephens ignored something else that makes his Israel-free analysis suspicious: the country’s behind-the-scenes, some would say underhanded, role in convincing the Egyptians that the US would not follow through on threats to withdraw the $1.5 billion annual US-Egyptian military aid. According to the August 18th Sunday New York Times, available the night of August 17th, the Obama administration had been close to an agreement to avoid bloodshed but that those hopes were undercut by Israeli operatives “who were in contact with the Egyptians in a way that appears to have undermined the American threat of an aid cutoff. “ The piece was headlined: “How American Hopes For A Deal In Egypt Were Undercut.”
This was not small news, involving a major initiative that appeared to be subverted by our most important Middle Eastern ally at a critical moment when violence might have been forestalled. It also represented an illustration of a problem vexing the American-Israeli alliance in other areas: Israel’s penchant for putting its parochial interests above the shared interests of the partnership and to act on those parochial interests unilaterally. Yet Stephens did not see fit to note it even though the Times was available to him for almost 48 hours before the usual time his column went up Monday night.
The Times report was produced by a team of reporters that included the paper’s top national security, intelligence and military correspondents in Washington, in addition to Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick. (NB: See the additional reporting credits at the bottom of the story.) This seemed, at least in part, to be an effort to bulletproof the story against any charges of anti-Israel bias.
According to the report, Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain as well as Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the State Department’s top foreign service officer were all involved in a frantic, 11th hour effort in Cairo to get the Egyptian military leaders to agree to release two imprisoned opposition leaders and to let the Brotherhood remain part of the political process, which might have defused what was then a still non-violent standoff. The effort, which was clearly using the issue of continued aid as leverage, was bolstered by 17 personal phone calls from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi. The initiative collapsed when the Egyptians, apparently convinced the US would not make good on its threats, issued a statement announcing that diplomatic efforts had been exhausted, and that the Brotherhood was responsible for any ensuing violence. As the Times put it: “A week later, Egyptian forces opened a ferocious assault that so far has killed more than 1,000 protesters.”
The Times noted that both the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Saudis, were supporting the takeover. But the Israeli role stood out:
The Israelis, whose military had close ties to General Sisi from his former post as head of military intelligence, were supporting the takeover as well. Western diplomats say that General Sisi and his circle appeared to be in heavy communication with Israeli colleagues, and the diplomats believed the Israelis were also undercutting the Western message by reassuring the Egyptians not to worry about American threats to cut off aid.
Israeli officials deny having reassured Egypt about the aid but acknowledge having lobbied Washington to protect it.
When Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, proposed an amendment halting military aid to Egypt, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent a letter to senators on July 31 opposing it, saying it “could increase instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally.” Statements from influential lawmakers echoed the letter, and the Senate defeated the measure, 86 to 13, later that day.
While the Israelis did protest the Times characterization, the Times did not issue a correction or a clarification. The Obama administration did not issue any denial either. A report in the news pages of Stephens’ own paper echoed what the Times reported. “Allies Thwart America In Egypt” was the Journal’s hed.
The reference the Times made to the “heavy communication” between the Egyptian generals and the Israelis could mean that the CIA or NSA was listening in. The fact that the information was attributed to “western diplomats” suggests to me that the information came in a sanctioned leak probably from the US diplomats mentioned in the story or the Euro-diplomat also noted. Whatever its origin, the leak itself speaks to Israeli interference and official US awareness of and frustration with it---part of a pattern that has made many American diplomats and intelligence officers quite jaded about their Israeli counterparts as well as the much-vaunted US-Israel “brotherhood.”
There’s also something unseemly about Israeli officials reassuring the Egyptians that the US would not pull its aid money even as the US was threatening to do so, like siblings scheming with one another over their parental allowances. (NB: the $3 billion in aid the US gives Israel is largely a consideration for its participation in the Camp David Accords.) And there’s something deeply off-putting, at least to this American’s ears, about the AIPAC letter and the defeat of the Rand Paul bill being referenced in the context of all this. You can almost hear the Israeli reassurances: Don’t worry, they’re only bluffing. We’ve got the lobby behind us on this one, so. They won’t pull the plug.” Memo to Mearsheimer and Walt: Here’s one for an updated edition.
To be sure, the effort might have been miscast from the beginning, with no guarantee that the US effort would have prevented bloodshed from happening, even without the Israeli whispering behind our backs. And it’s at least conceivable that the Americans leaked the story to cover for their own insufficient diplomatic muscle, in effect putting undue blame on the Israelis, as some in the American neocon press have suggested.
But the Israeli subterfuge does represents the undercutting, mid-stroke, of a significant American diplomatic initiative---an initiative that might have stayed the violence and, perhaps, kept Egypt on a more politically inclusive track. As such it should have been at least been noted in Stephens’ brief. To do so however, would have required him to concede that our alleged "most important ally in the region" can sometimes operate in a way that brings to mind words other than “ally,” although be careful not to make any references to snakes no matter how appropriate here. You don’t want the language police on you.