Why Americans don’t understand the Middle East (Round 2)

By Stephen M. Walt

November 24, 2012

Foreign Policy

Now that the dust has settled in Gaza, permit me a brief comment on the way the conflict was covered here in the United States. I normally leave media commentary to people like Glenn Greenwald, Brad DeLong, or Jon Stewart, who do a terrific job of puncturing the foibles of mainstream reporting and commentary. But occasionally an article strikes me as so symptomatic of What’s Wrong with American Journalism that I can’t resist a few words of my own.

Case in point: Helene Cooper and Mark Landler’s New York Times article from a few days ago. The title of the piece was “Obama, Showing Support for Israel, Gains New Leverage Over Netanyahu,” and the article suggested that the combination of Obama’s reelection, Netanyahu’s support for Romney during the campaign, the Gaza fighting, and the upcoming Israeli election would suddenly give Obama a lot of new-found influence over the Israeli leader.

There were two fundamental problems with this piece. The first is that it is almost certainly wrong. Netanyahu is going to get re-elected anyway, so he hardly needs to curry favor with Obama. In fact, quarreling with Obama has increased Netanyahu’s popularity in the past, so where’s the alleged leverage going to come from? Over the past four years, Obama has backed Israel over the Goldstone Report, the attack on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara, and the Palestinian statehood resolution at the UN. He’s also stopped trying to get Israel to halt settlement building. Obama was already re-elected when the latest round of fighting broke out, yet the administration reflexively defended Israel’s right to pummel Gaza as much as it wanted. If you’re looking for signs of new-found leverage, in short, they’re mighty hard to detect.

Do Cooper and Landler think Netanyahu will be so grateful for all this support that he’ll suddenly abandon his life-long dream of Greater Israel? Or do they think Obama will be so empowered by re-election that he’ll put the rest of his agenda on the back-burner and devote months or years of effort to the elusive grail of Israeli-Palestinian peace? After pandering to the Israel lobby throughout the 2012 election, does Obama now think it is irrelevant to his political calculations? Hardly. We might see another half-hearted effort at pointless peace processing (akin to the Bush administration’s token gesture at Annapolis), but who really believes Obama will be able to get Netanyahu to make the concessions necessary to achieve a genuine two-state solution, especially given all the other obstacles to progress that now exist?

The second problem with the article were the sources on which Cooper and Landler relied. The article quotes four people: Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, and Robert Malley. All four are former U.S. officials with long experience working on U.S. Middle East policy, and mainstream reporters like Cooper and Landler consult them all the time. There are some differences among the four, but all share a powerful attachment to Israel and both Ross and Indyk have worked for key organizations in the Israel lobby. All four men have been closely connected to the post-Oslo “peace process,” which is another way of saying that they have a lengthy track record of failure. I know Washington is a pretty incestuous hothouse, but are these really the only names that Cooper and Landler have in their smart phones?

I’ve no objection to Cooper and Landler getting quotations from Miller, Indyk, Ross, or Malley, of course, but Americans would be far better informed if reporters from the Times got outside the familiar Beltway bubble on occasion. So as a public service, here’s a list of some other people that Cooper, Landler and their associates could call when they’re looking for fresh thinking on this very old topic.

1. Yousef Munayyer, The Jerusalem Center

2. Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies

3. Noam Sheizaf, +972 Magazine, Israel.

4. Matt Duss, Center for American Progress

5. Mitchell Plitnick (formerly Jewish Voice for Peace and B’tselem)

6. Jerome Slater, SUNY-Buffalo

7. Sanam Anderlini, International Civil Society Action Network & MIT.

8. Charles Manekin, University of Maryland/The Magnes Zionist

9. Sara Roy, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University

10. M.J. Rosenberg (formerly AIPAC, congressional staff, and

Media Matters for America).

11. Henry Siegman US/Middle East Project and University of London

I could go on, but at least that’s a start. And if reporters need some former U.S. government officials to make the story sound authoritative, why not try Chas Freeman of the Middle East Policy Council or William Quandt at the University of Virginia?

My point is not that any of the above names have a monopoly on wisdom or truth; it’s just that they are less likely to rehash the same-old, same-old thinking that has kept U.S. Middle East policy stuck on the hamster-wheel for the past two decades or more.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he served as academic dean from 2002-2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served as master of the social science collegiate division and deputy dean of social sciences. He has been a resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and he has also been a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Does America really ‘share values’ with today’s Israel?

In the late sixties or early seventies, when I served as the executive head of the Synagogue Council of America, the coordinating body for certain social action and interreligious activities of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform national rabbinical and congregational organizations in the United States, I had a private conversation—one of many—with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was considered the leader of modern Orthodoxy in the United States, if not the world.

Rabbi Soloveitchik had just completed a high-level seminar attended by a select group of rabbis and Christian ministers. I asked him if he would agree to lead another such a seminar on the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel and the concept of “kedushat haaretz” (the holiness of the land), and how these are to be differentiated from concepts such as “blut und boden” (blood and land) at the heart of German fascism and other totalitarian regimes.

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