Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Education of Peter Beinart: Two Cheers

There is no doubt that Peter Beinart’s widely acclaimed, powerfully argued, and eloquently written article in the May 12 issue of the New York Review, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” is a major contribution to the growing effort within the American Jewish community to help save Israel from itself—and, for that matter, to help save true liberal values within American Jewry itself from the ignorance, moral blindness, or outright dishonesty of the Jewish “Establishment,” otherwise known as the Israel Lobby.

There is also little doubt that the power and influence of Beinart’s essay derives in good part from the fact that it amounts to a dramatic and public renunciation of his previous views—after all, little more need be said than that he was the managing editor and editor in chief at Martin Peretz’s New Republic for nearly ten years. It is good that after dwelling in that darkness for so long,  Beinart has finally seen the light—or rather, some of it. The problem, however, is that Beinart is not an historian or scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so he has still not fully freed himself from crucial parts of the conventional Israeli-American mythology that no serious and unbiased student of the conflict would accept today.

I refer, in particular, to his acceptance of the myth—in both his original article and even more so in his subsequent exchange with Abraham Foxman in the June 24 New York Review-- that it was Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians, not Ehud Barak and the Israelis, who were primarily responsible for the breakdown of the last serious efforts to negotiate a two-state peace settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Camp David negotiations in the July 2000, and Bill Clinton’s later compromise proposals.

Indeed, Beinart’s error may be especially damaging, precisely because it comes from someone who in other respects is severely critical of Israel and its yes men in the United States. It is evident that Beinart is unfamiliar with the extensive journalism, scholarship and memoirs by key participants on what really happened in 2000 (see here for an early analysis, subsequently confirmed and extended by many others)

According to Beinart, Barak was “apparently” willing to “relinquish much of the West Bank” and that Arafat “deserves history’s scorn for not responding more courageously to the chances for peace at Camp David and the much better ones put forward by Clinton in December 2000.” There is indeed a case that Arafat erred, particularly in his initial response to the Clinton proposals; however, Barak’s alleged willingness to reach a fair compromise was, precisely, more “apparent” than real.

Camp David.  Most studies and memoirs about what really happened at Camp David agree that Barak appeared to be willing to consider offering the Palestinians a small demilitarized state in most of the West Bank. However: Barak refused to negotiate with or even personally meet with Arafat at what was supposed to be a “summit” conference (!); he put nothing into writing and therefore at the end of the day he had made no concrete or verifiable offers; meanwhile, he continued to expand the Israeli settlements and military occupation in the occupied territories; he intended to maintain Israeli sovereignty and control over all of Jerusalem, including Arab East Jerusalem and the major Muslim mosques on the Temple Mount; he intended to retain most of the West Bank water aquifers; and he intended on continuing direct Israeli military control over the Jordan Valley.

Thus, if Arafat had accepted Barak’s apparent notion of a fair compromise, the Palestinians would have gained only a tiny, impoverished, and water-starved Palestinian “state,” divided into at least three regions separated from each other by Israeli territory, armed forces, roads and settlements, and denied a capital in East Jerusalem.

The Clinton Plan. In a last-ditch effort to save the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from complete collapse, in December 2000 Bill Clinton suggested a number of principles, or “parameters,” as he called them, to settle the conflict. Beinart is correct that Clinton’s broad proposals offered a “much better” chance for peace than Camp David, but his placing the blame for their failure solely on Arafat sorely misreads the much more complicated reality.

To begin, the Clinton plan, while more forthcoming to the Palestinians than Barak’s offer, or non-offer, at Camp David, was still vague and problematic for both sides. The key features were these:

    *The Palestinians would get 94-96% of the West Bank, but it was widely understood that what would remain in Israel’s possession included the largest Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders, located on some of the best agricultural land and largest water aquifers in the West Bank.

    *Jerusalem would be divided, with the Palestinians gaining sovereignty over the Arab sections of East Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount mosques; the Israelis would have sovereignty over all the Jewish areas of Jerusalem, including Judaism’s main religious sites.

    *There would be no “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 conflict. Instead, they would be offered economic compensation, the right to return to the new state of Palestine, or settlement elsewhere.

Arafat’s initial response to Clinton was certainly a blunder, for it was generally negative, especially in its continued insistence on the right of return. However, that was not Arafat’s final word, for he softened his position in the ensuing months and made it clear that he was willing to resume negotiations on the basis of Clinton’s ideas.

Barak was smarter—though in reality no more forthcoming than Arafat and probably less: he wrote to Clinton “accepting” his principles but adding a great deal of fine print: namely a 20-page list of “reservations,” especially over Jerusalem. Within a short while Barak’s true bottom line became clear, for he insisted that he would never accept Palestinian/Muslim sovereignty over the Temple Mount plateau and its crucially important mosques—a deal breaker in itself. Had Barak agreed to Clinton’s Jerusalem compromise, the overall evidence and subsequent developments strongly suggest that Arafat would have compromised—in practice, even if not in principle—on the right of return issue.

Let’s give Barak himself the last word about what really happened during 2000; a few years later he wrote—boasted, actually-- that he had given less to the Palestinians—in fact, “not a thing”—than did his predecessor as Israeli prime minister, none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. In short, the major obstacle to a two-state settlement was—and remains--Israel, not the Palestinians, even under Arafat.

None of this is to deny the importance of Beinart’s transformation and his contribution to the improving discourse within the American Jewish community over Israeli policies. But it is too bad that he apparently is unfamiliar with the serious studies of the 2000 breakdown of the peace process, the consequence of which is that in this respect he has perpetuated rather than challenged the conventional mythology.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On the Thought of Leslie H. Gelb

For over forty years Leslie Gelb has been at the very epicenter of the American foreign policy establishment: he has been a high official in both the Defense and State Departments; a diplomatic and national security correspondent, foreign policy columnist and Oped page editor of the New York Times; and from 1993-2005 the President of the innermost elite foreign policy institution outside of the government itself, the Council of Foreign Relations. In 1956 C. Wright Mills published his famous book, The Power Elite, which argued that there was an interlocking inner elite that dominated the making of American foreign policy. If Mills were alive to update his analysis, he might well list Leslie Gelb as the head of the Power Elite.

That’s a pretty scary thought, for Leslie Gelb is not a great thinker. It’s not just that his position on major issues is so often wrong-headed, but that he makes such startlingly obvious analytical mistakes. What follows are three examples.

The Vietnam War

In 1981 Gelb was the principle author of a book called The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked. The book made a big splash when it came out, for until then there was a widespread consensus that Vietnam had been a disastrous failure. Not so, Gelb argued. In three crucial ways the “system” had really worked: the policy process was democratic, the policy itself was rational, and it was actually successful (!)

Democratic? The U.S. “system” is based upon the Constitution, on checks and balances, and on the premise that government policies will emerge from a process of open and honest debate. This system was violated at every turn, beginning with the lies Lyndon Johnson told about the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” the alleged North Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships peacefully minding their own business off the coast of North Vietnam—lies he had to tell to convince Congress to give him a blank check to take the nation into war. Despite Gelb’s rather odd defense of presidential leadership during the war—presidents did not get their way “principally by lying to Congress and the American people,” he wrote (emphasis added)—in fact Johnson and Nixon routinely ignored, deceived, demagogued, and manipulated public opinion and Congress, which until the very end could not summon the political courage to meet its responsibilities, especially its war-making powers, under the Constitution. And the Supreme Court refused to hear any cases challenging the war as illegal, thus abdicating its most important responsibility: to ensure the constitutionality of government policies.

Rational? During the Vietnam War Gelb was the Director of Policy Planning in the Defense Department; he and other members of the foreign policy establishment somehow became convinced that the outcome of an internal conflict in a tiny country thousands of miles away was crucial to our own national security, justifying a long and devastating war. The explanation for this monumental blunder—one of the most irrational policies in U.S. history—was the domino theory. The domino “theory” wasn’t a theory at all, but simply a dumb metaphor that had little or no bearing on the real world of international politics: In the child’s game of dominos, if you knock over the first one the others must also fall--but why should that apply to entire countries? (I have examined the domino theory here.)

Of course, we now know that after we lost the war the domino theory was proven wrong, but there was never any reason to think that if South Vietnam “fell” to communism one country after another must—must--also fall, including all of Southeast Asia at a minimum, and in many versions of the “theory,” well beyond that. “If we don’t fight them over there, we’ll just have to fight them at home,” the saying went--evidently such a trenchant analysis that it has been updated and applied in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Successful? Gelb wrote: “American leaders were convinced that they had to prevent the loss of Vietnam to communism, and until May 1975 they succeeded in doing just that….the commitment was made and kept for twenty-five years.” (p. 353) It is true that the U.S. did succeed in preventing the collapse of the South Vietnamese government until 1975, but it was hardly our intention to pay so great a price for this success. Nor was the objective to succeed only until 1975; it was to succeed indefinitely. The collapse of 1975 reflected the fact that American policy had been in a continuous process of failing for twenty-five years, just managing to stave off collapse on a number of occasions by resorting to a variety of unlawful, reckless, and eventually unsuccessful escalations.

Adolph Hitler was convinced he could conquer Europe, and until May 1945 he succeeded in doing just that.

The Israel Lobby

Gelb wrote a critical review of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. In denying that the Israeli lobby has anything like the power attributed to it by Mearsheimer and Walt, he wrote that “the record clearly shows that when Israel crosses certain important lines, as when it expanded Jewish settlements….Washington usually expresses its displeasure in public and, even more so, in private.” And on the issue of the creation of a Palestinian state, Gelb writes that “Washington has quietly sided with the Palestinians for a long time.” (emphases added). Moreover, Gelb admits that “It’s true…that the lobby has made America’s longstanding $3 billion annual aid program to Israel untouchable and indiscussible.”

What? There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the Mearsheimer/Walt argument, in particular that they understate the degree to which U.S. policies are a function of the genuine support of American officials for Israeli policies, rather than of the coercive power of the Israel lobby. I made that argument myself, here). However, if Gelb is right, he has knocked the props out from under that argument: if U.S. officials privately oppose certain Israeli policies but are afraid to publicly oppose them, let alone to even contemplate the use of our most important means of leverage to bring about changes in those policies, that constitutes dramatic evidence that goes a long way to confirming the Israel Lobby argument, not refuting it.

The Israeli Attack on the Gaza Flotilla

Gelb now blogs on The Daily Beast. On May 31 he wrote a widely-quoted column that conceded the Israeli action was “badly mishandled,” but which defended Israel’s right to blockade Gaza. He has two arguments. First, “Israel had every right under international law to stop and board ships bound for the Gaza war zone,” the proof being that “the United States and Britain were at war with Germany and Japan and blockaded them… [and] I can't remember international lawyers saying those blockades were illegal.” Thus, the legality of the Israeli blockade is perfectly obvious, according to Gelb: “Only knee-jerk left-wingers and the usual legion of poseurs around the world would dispute this.”

Gee, I don’t know. A blockade is an act of war, so surely its “legality” is related to the legality of the war itself. If that were not so, then Nazi Germany’s submarine warfare against Britain in World War II—effectively, a blockade—would have been no less legal than the US/British blockade of Nazi Germany, despite the fact that Germany was engaged in a war of aggression and the British in a war of survival.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza goes far beyond the importation of weaponry: it prevents the entry into Gaza of thousands of non-military products and is designed to make the lives of the civilian population miserable, thereby crushing or intimidating all opposition to its continuing occupation and brutal repression. Common sense tells you that’s a different matter—morally even more than legally--than the allied blockade of Nazi Germany. Anyway, we don’t have to rely merely on common sense or accepted moral standards: the United Nations, the most important source of current international law, has repeatedly declared that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal.

Gelb’s second argument is this: “It is pretty clear that this ‘humanitarian’ flotilla….aimed to provoke a confrontation with Israel….The organizers have let it slip that their intention was every bit as much ‘to break’ Israel’s blockade of Gaza as to deliver the relief goods.” I can’t improve upon M.J. Rosenberg’s response to that argument: “The activists were like the civil rights demonstrators who sat down at segregated lunch counters throughout the South and refused to leave until they were served. Their goal was not really to get breakfast. It was to end segregation. That fact is so obvious that it is hard to believe that the "pro-Israel" lobby is using it as an indictment. Of course the goal of the flotilla was to break the blockade. Of course Martin Luther King provoked the civil authorities of the South to break segregation.”

Such are the foreign policy analyses and moral thought of Leslie Gelb, for over forty years one of the most powerful men in the foreign policy establishment. It’s enough to make you weep for the future of this great nation

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Does This Count?

As readers of this blog know, I frequently write about the shameful nature of the New York Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Sometimes its distortions, omissions, and factual errors are so blatant as to amount to outright lying, in practical effect if not as a judicial proceeding might find.

Today’s example is not so obvious; maybe I shouldn’t even count it.  Still, here it is.  The fifth paragraph of today’s page one lead story, on the Israeli blockade of Gaza, states that “the Israeli government has said that the blockade was necessary to protect Israel against the infiltration into Gaza of weapons and fighters sponsored by Iran.”

The next sentence should have said something like this: “However, the blockade also sharply limits or totally bans more than a thousand other items necessary for rebuilding Gaza or even vital to ordinary civilian life.” 

Among those items are many food products; clothing items; cooking gas; industrial fuel; electrical appliances like refrigerators and washing machines; cement, iron, wood and other materials necessary to rebuild homes and factories destroyed in last year’s Israeli attack on Gaza;  spare parts for tractors, machines and automobiles; irrigation pipe systems; mattresses, blankets, and sheets; kitchenware–and even lightbulbs, books, music, and toys.

To be sure, in the continuation of the story on the inside pages, Ethan Bronner does discuss the damage to the Gazan population created by the Israeli blockade—or, better said, siege--and now he does juxtapose Israeli claims with reports of international aid groups. 

However, he should have done so, up front and on page one; his failure to do so, deliberate or inadvertent, may leave a seriously misleading impression on readers who are not familiar with or have forgotten the true nature of the Israeli blockade, and who may not read beyond the first page. 

The question is: Is it fair to regard the story as yet another example of the failure of the Times to convey the full realities of Israeli policies?   I think so, but maybe I’ve been oversensitized about the issue.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Irresponsibility of the New York Times, Exhibit Number Who Knows How Many

The middle of this morning’s lead New York Times story on the Israeli attack against the flotilla attempting to deliver aid to Gaza, in defiance of the Israeli blockade or economic siege, includes a brief paragraph stating that the blockade was imposed as a response to the “takeover [of Gaza] by force in 2007” by Hamas, “an organization sworn to Israel’s destruction.” An innocent sounding passage—unless you happen to remember the truth.

The Israeli economic strangulation was intensified following the June 2007 Hamas takeover, but it began in February 2006 as a response to the Hamas legislative victory in free elections. Moreover, shortly after it won the elections, Hamas leaders made a number of private and public overtures to the Bush administration and Israel, indicating it was seeking a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only were these overtures ignored or contemptuously dismissed as “tricks,” but it has now been revealed, through confidential documents corroborated by U.S. sources, that following those elections the Bush administration sought to foment an internal Palestinian coup against Hamas (David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008)—a secret from the American people but undoubtedly not from Hamas, whose full takeover of Gaza just might have been a response to the coup plot.

Thus, the Times’ description of Hamas’s goals ignores the wealth of evidence, known to all close observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that the organization has been steadily moving away from its founding Charter, which indeed calls for the destruction of Israel, towards a more pragmatic, de facto acceptance of a two-state solution based on a return to Israel of its pre-1967 war borders. In fact, Hamas is closely following the path of Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, which gradually moved away from its early radicalism and intransigence towards an acceptance of a two-state solution, but which officially renounced its founding Charter’s call for the destruction of Israel only after Israel began negotiating with it.

In short, the Times story is either seriously and deliberately misleading or is unforgivably ignorant of the real course of events. Not that this is anything new for the Times, which in its coverage and commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict regularly commits crimes against truthful journalism.