Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nicholas Kristof: How to Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Anyone who regularly reads the New York Times surely understands that Nicholas Kristof must be one of the nicest persons in the world. His heart is always in the right place, his values and principles are of the highest, and his intentions are invariably beyond reproach. How come, then, so far as I can see nobody—at least nobody holding real power, anywhere—seems to pay any attention to him? Am I suggesting that his naivete makes much of what he writes irrelevant, a mere wringing of his hands?

Yes. His column in today’s Times, “Leading Through Great Loss,” is classic Kristof, I’m afraid—so ill-informed or naïve about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as to border on absurdity.

Here’s a few examples:

*“When militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel, then Israel has a right to respond, but with some proportionality.” Proportionality is important, but it is not the main problem with Israel’s wars against the Palestinians. While it is a cliché that is repeated by just about everyone (including Obama) that “Of course Israel has a right to defend itself”—sometimes followed, as with Kristof, a “but,” and others with no qualifications at all—it reflects a profound misunderstanding of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the general principles of the right of self defense. In short, if you are an aggressor, a repressor, an occupier, and your actions lead to desperate acts of resistance, you cannot avail yourself of any right of “self-defense.” Sure, if Israel ended the occupation and repression of the Palestinians but Hamas continued to attack it, then—and only then—it indeed would have the right of self-defense.

*Kristof describes the repeated violations of informal and even formal ceasefires between Hamas and Israel to a pattern of “mutual escalation,” or even more wrong-headedly, to “Hamas extremism and violence after the 2005 Gaza withdrawal.” That is factually false, in several ways. The details are too complicated to go into here, but (1)there was no true Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza, and (2)even if there had been there was certainly no Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and (3) Israel has been far more the instigator of the periodic escalations than the innocent responder.

* Kristof writes: “It’s true that [a two-state peace agreement] is not achievable now, but the aim should be to take steps that make a peace deal possible in 10 years or 20 years….the mutual distrust is so great that it may take years to lay the groundwork, so let’s get started.”

Breathtaking. That’s what innocents have said for the last forty years or so, failing to recognize that the very purpose of Israeli policy is to maintain the occupation and prevent a genuine and fair two-state settlement. Hasn’t Kristof heard of this? Isn’t he aware that the more the Israeli government encourages further Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the more impossible becomes a two-state peace agreement?

Kristof’s general conclusion: “Aggression one side boomerangs and leads to aggression on the other.” It’s all symmetrical and “mutual,” there are no rights and wrongs, there are no painful facts.

Can’t we all just get along?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is the New York Times Finally Coming Clean on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? Yes and No.

Seven years ago I published a long journal article describing the many ways in which the New York Times distorts and obfuscates the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  ("Muting the Alarm over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The New York Times versus Haaretz, 2000-06, International Security, Fall 2007)

Since then, I have continued to point out (mostly in this blog) the more egregious Times' distortions and obfuscations.  Lately, though, I've more or less stopped doing so, in part because in some ways the Times' coverage and opinion pieces on the conflict have improved--though not nearly enough--and in part because there is now a much more widespread recognition of the continued biases in Times' discussions of the conflict.

This morning's Times, at first glance, seems to have broken new ground in honest reporting--for its lead story is on the killing (by burning alive) of a Palestinian boy, in "revenge" for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.  It's an important story, and maybe a real breakthrough at the Times--though it is also well to bear in mind that even the Israeli right has condemned the unspeakable nature of the killing, and that no less than the mother of one of the Israeli kidnapped teenagers killed earlier this month has movingly expressed her outrage at the "revenge" killing.

In short, it didn't take much courage for the Times to lead with the story and, in effect, highlight the failures--euphemism--in Israeli society that are the context for the crime.

Still, I would have been more heartened by what seems to be a new Times willingness to deal with the realities of Israel's behavior, were it not for Roger Cohen's oped in the same issue.  Cohen, though no rightist on the issue, likes to be "balanced" and symmetrical, typically wringing his hands and blaming both sides, equally, for the ongoing conflict.

He does so again in today's column. I will address just one point.  Balancing his criticism of the Netanyahu government, Cohen also blames Abbas for his unwillingness "to make the painful decisions necessary to attaint a two-state peace," especially the relinquishing of the  Palestinian  "right of return."

Serious observers of the conflict know that this is not the case.  I have written in the past about the myth of Palestinian intransigence on this issue.  Since I have nothing new to add, I will simply quote myself:

"The evidence is overwhelming that in the context of a fair two-state settlement along the lines of the international consensus, Arafat, the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority have all been ready to settle for a symbolic resolution of the issue."

"In brief, as early as the 1980s, there were a number of signals from Arafat and the PLO that in the context of an overall two state settlement that included Israeli and international recognition of Palestinian or some other form of Muslim sovereignty and control over the al-Aksa mosque in the Old City, the PLO would agree to a compromise settlement of the refugee problem."

"Then, at the Taba negotiations at the end of 2000, according to Yossi Beilin, the leader of the Israeli negotiating team, 'almost full agreement was reached with respect to principles for resolving the problem.' (Path to Geneva, p. 247) Since then, the nature of these principles have become well-known: (1) some acknowledgment from Israel of its responsibility for the Palestinian expulsion or flight in 1948; (2) an unlimited right of the refugees and their families to return to the Palestinian state; (3)large-scale international economic compensation and assistance to the refugees, wherever they choose to settle; and (4) a token return of some families to Israel, subject to Israeli agreement."

"In 2008 Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas engaged in secret negotiations over a possible two-state settlement, the general terms of which have now been widely reported. In particular, in early 2001 the British newspaper Guardian reported that Julian Assange’s Wikileaks documents—also known as “the Palestinian Papers”-- revealed that during the negotiations the PA leaders 'gave up the fight over refugees….Palestinian negotiators privately agreed that only 10,000 refugees and their families…could return to Israel as part of a peace settlement.'”

"Finally, in 2012 the twenty-two members of the Arab League unanimously reiterated the language of the 2007 peace plan, which does not mention a Palestinian “right of return” but rather states that “a just resolution of the refugee problem” should be “agreed upon.” This carefully chosen language, effectively granting Israel a veto on the issue, would certainly not have received such support if Abbas and the Palestinian Authority had objected."

To be sure, Cohen does allude to Abbas's true position, writing that he doesn't want to give up "the comforts of his position and the ambiguity of concessions not formalized."  But surely Cohen should understand that since Netanyahu has no intention of agreeing to end the Israeli occupation and allowing the creation of an independent Palestinian state, Abbas cannot be blamed for not wanting to make a politically explosive concession and get nothing in return.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Shlomo Avineri Speaks Out

Shlomo Avineri is a former Director of Israel’s Foreign Affairs ministry, a long-time professor at Hebrew University, and perhaps Israel’s most acclaimed political scientist—certainly the one who is most likely to be quoted in the New York Times. In the Israeli political spectrum, Avineri is usually described as a “centrist,” maybe even “center left.”

Given the state of Israeli political culture and discourse, that means he often can be found occupying a position half-way between obtuseness and rationality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-- on the one hand he favors a two-state settlement but on the other he has sometimes blamed the Palestinians, include Mahmoud Abbas, for the failure to reach such a settlement.

But the attack two days ago by six Israelis, who burned alive a sixteen year old Palestinian boy, evidently is another matter. “This is a wake-up call,” this morning’s Haaretz quoted Avineri: “a line has been crossed.” To be fair, lest this be considered a somehow inadequate response, or to suggest that until now Israel’s violence against Palestinians had fallen short of crossing the line, Avineri did add: “This is absolute evil.”