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July 2009 Archives

July 29, 2009

The Economist Debate - Closing Statements

David Frum and I posted our closing statements on The Economist’s website this morning. So far, the the daily polls have been quite consistent, with about sixty percent affirming that “This house believes that Barack Obama's America is now an honest broker between Israel and the Arabs,” and forty percent voting against the motion.  


Since Frum and I posted our opening statements on Tuesday, July 21, the debate has been augmented by articles from some great guest authors: Henry Siegman (president of the US/Middle East project), John Mearsheimer (the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy), James Zogby (founder and president of the Arab American Institute), Michael Singh (the Ira Weiner fellow at The Washington Institute and former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council), and Aaron David Miller (author of The Much Too Promised Land and public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.) 

Once again, I encourage everyone to both follow along with the debate and vote. Below is an excerpt from my closing statement:

Assuming then that Obama's America, while maintaining and respecting the America-Israel special relationship, wants to play an honest broker role, a key question arises in this debate and elsewhere: are such efforts doomed to failure by American domestic politics, traditionally heavily favouring uncritical pro-Israel positions? I would argue not. A popular American president, who is determined, and can articulate how a particular Middle East policy serves American national security interests, while explaining how that policy also helps Israel (even if the Israeli government of the day disagrees), will eventually carry the day.
Yes, lobbies play an important role in American politics, and the Israel issue is not immune to that—far from it. But even the best-funded lobbies don't win every time. And, the so-called Israel lobby is neither homogenous nor omnipotent. There is also a changing environment. The American Jewish community is overwhelmingly liberal and is now finding new vehicles to express nuanced and progressive positions that are supportive of Israel, but not "Greater Israel". Notable are the successes already notched up by J Street, established fifteen months ago and active in online campaigning and political lobbying (full disclosure: I serve on J Street's advisory board).
So, an honest broker role that acknowledges the specificity of the American context and retains the special relationship is politically possible. It is not, though, by any means politically cost-free.


Continue reading here.


July 23, 2009

Economist Debate

Economist LogoI am currently engaged in an online debate at The Economist with neoconservative journalist and former Bush speechwriter David Frum. The style is typical of a proper debate, with opening written statements for/against, rebuttals, and closing positions. The motion is, “This house believes that Barack Obama's America is now an honest broker between Israel and the Arabs.” I’m supporting the motion.

I encourage everyone to take a look. Below is an excerpt from my opening statement. Rebuttals will be posted on Friday, July 24.


"I will argue that within the context of that US-Israel special relationship, the United States can still be an honest broker, should play such a role and has done so on several occasions in the past, and that President Obama's America is beginning to occupy that political space.

Mr Obama is a friend of Israel. It is, however, a different type of friendship from the Bush years, more grown-up and grounded in reality, healthier for both parties. One should understand that the honest-broker effort under Mr Obama will be undertaken while maintaining the special relationship, not replacing it. He will, for instance, be especially sensitive to Israel's legitimate security concerns (but not its territorial expansionism).

An appropriate analogy might be a sister-in-law's role during a couple's dispute: there is clearly a closer tie to one side, but that does not preclude a sufficiently effective evenhandedness. Let us say that Mr Obama's America is now being enough of an honest broker."

July 20, 2009

The "Swiftboating" of Human Rights Watch

 This piece appears on Huffington Post.


Last week witnessed a concerted attack against the credibility of the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), seeking to link supposed fundraising activities in Saudi Arabia with that organization’s criticism (“bias”, according to its detractors) of Israeli practices in the occupied territories, also claiming HRW is soft peddling on Saudi violations. It started in a Wall Street Journal piece, the Israeli prime minister’s office and spokespeople weighed in, and then AIPAC and the rightwing blogosphere got onboard. The attack on HRW has now been ratcheted up according to today’s Jerusalem Post.


The former right-wing Israeli Government Minister, Natan Sharansky (also an ex-Prisoner of Zion, President George W. Bush’s favorite author and occupation apologist) claims that HRW “has become a tool in the hands of dictatorial regimes to fight against democracies.” Ron Dermer, director of policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office adds: “We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity". 


The apparent trigger for this assault on a group that represents the global gold standard in human rights monitoring, analysis, and advocacy, was a visit by HRW’s Middle East-North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, to the Saudi kingdom. I happened to find myself on a panel at The Century Foundation discussing the Middle East with Whitson just days before this storm broke—I went back and watched tapes of that panel discussion. To accuse Whitson of being soft on the Saudis or somehow singling out Israel for criticism is quite astonishing as I’m sure you’ll agree if you take ten minutes to listen to her presentation—of that, more in a moment.


According to reports Whitson was hosted one evening in Riyadh by prominent businessman and intellectual, Emad bin Jameel Al-Hejailan, for a private dinner which included business leaders, civil society leaders, and well-connected Saudis. It was not a fundraising event. HRW was certainly not fundraising from the Saudi government. Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent quotes Whitson—“We have never raised any money from the Saudi government or any other agency in the world.” That HRW does not take government money is something that is already well-known.


HRW does, of course, receive contributions from individuals and foundations—something that does not prevent them from producing releases and reports critical of the states from whence donors hail.


Does HRW’s fundraising from private sources in the US prevent it being critical of American human rights violations (and I obviously acknowledge the differences between the US and Saudi Arabia)? Apparently not. Yes, donors have agendas, but as long as the organization adheres to standards of fact-checking and objectivity, its credibility is sustained.


Sadly, these attacks on HRW demonstrate no such objectivity or credibility—they come from a narrow and misguided right-wing Israel advocacy agenda. One group that has been plowing this terrain for some years is Gerald Steinberg’s odiously named “NGO Monitor,” in the attacks on HRW he is being joined by bigger guns. Steinberg accuses HRW of being “linked to the terrorist campaign” (of Hamas …etc), and whines that "Human Rights Watch is an organization with a budget of $40 million a year; they are a superpower”. Poor Mr. Steinberg, his supporters in the anti-HRW campaign over at AIPAC only had an “$80 million purse” at their disposal.


Ms. Whitson at HRW is not rolling over, this was her response: "Please, if there is something we got wrong, if one of the incidents or attacks we described is wrong, I would love to hear it. Because the Gerald Steinbergs of this world, and I guess now the Sharanskys of this world, love to give blanket denials, love to give blanket dismissals. But let's get down to the facts and let me know, did we get the fact wrong on any of these cases."


Whitson had also been accused of using HRW’s criticism of Israel and the hits that it takes on that score in order to curry favor with potential Saudi backers. According to reports, Whitson discussed HRW’s work on both Saudi practices and on the Israeli occupied territories among other issues. Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic blog shares a thoughtful exchange on this with the executive director of HRW, Ken Roth.


I would suggest that Human Rights Watch is not at fault here, but rather those whose agenda is to smear its good name. The event held in Riyadh that has come under scrutiny is undoubtedly replicated by HRW in similar venues around the world and is crucial to their work in sensitizing elites—especially in countries where violations occur—to a broad human rights agenda, including its applicability to the venue in question.


The most perfunctory fact-checking debunks the claim of HRW having an anti-Israel obsession as being patently absurd. As Ali Gharib of IPS has pointed out, of more than 30 releases in June and July (so far) about the region, Israel was criticized three times, Saudi Arabia five times, and Iran on nine occasions.


And here’s how cuddling up to the Saudis and perhaps even seeking private Saudi money led to self-censorship by Sarah Leah Whitson in her criticism of Saudi Arabia at that TCF event: Whitson attacked the lack of due process in the recent Saudi terror trials. She described Saudi Arabia, along with Syria and Libya, as being on the less free side in terms of “the most basic human rights” violations in the region. She attacked Saudi Arabia’s lack of a penal code, and Whitson had this to say about women’s rights in the kingdom: “Saudi Arabia is the absolute worst. Women are treated as legal minor, as children.” Two of HRW’s recent releases are about women’s rights and domestic worker abuses in the kingdom.


So, why this coordinated attack on HRW all of a sudden? It pains me to say it, but this is all about Israel. The Israeli prime minister’s office was shameless enough to announce that it has decided to wage a battle with human rights NGOs and started with Human Rights Watch. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, (apparently without irony) accused HRW of having “seriously lost its moral compass.”


AIPAC then promoted the attack on HRW. The timing is not a coincidence. Human Rights Watch, similar to other global, respected human rights NGOs, obviously follows developments in the occupied Palestinian territories and obviously had something to say about Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza six months ago. Their recent Gaza report focused on the use or, rather, misuse of drones during these military attacks. Amnesty International has been similarly critical of the use of drones, asserting that Israeli forces did not employ insufficient care in preventing civilian casualties.


Or maybe, just maybe, something troubling from a human rights perspective might be taking place in Gaza and the rest of the occupied territories. This is a case of “shoot the messenger” on steroids. What happened to Gaza during Operation Cast Lead is being revealed not only by international sources, but also by Israeli sources, including this latest report from Israeli combat soldiers of the Breaking the Silence group, a collection of testimonies by Israeli combatants who served in Gaza.


Unfortunately, Israel did not—as was recommended by Israeli human rights groups including B’tselem—conduct its own credible state inquiry into the Gaza events. By leaving the Israeli Defense Forces to conduct their own cursory, closed, and, ultimately, not credible investigation, Israel has sent the signal to the international community, and notably to the human rights NGO community, that it will not do the job - that they will have to.


The logic of Israel’s continued occupation is such that the steps Israel is taking to maintain and entrench its presence in the territories are leading to ever-greater human rights violations. Often these practices are exposed, obviously human rights’ NGO’s do a lot of that exposing. In that context, one can expect the attacks on the human rights community to be ratcheted up. As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, there is “an increasing tendency by the Israeli government and by hawkish Jewish organizations to respond to criticism of Israel’s human rights record by lashing out against human rights groups.”


Attempts to defend the indefensible do not make for pretty viewing, even when beloved Israel is the subject (for another example see The Israel Project’s recent defense of settlements in the West Bank).  Surely, one can both be a supporter of Israel and it’s security while at the same time, defending human rights by, for instance, advocating an end to the conflict, a two-state solution, and an end to the occupation. Surely, supporting Israel cannot be about undermining efforts to advance human rights around the world. That is not just fundamentally wrong, it strikes me as being fundamentally un-Jewish, and goes beyond the pale of what is legitimate or ethical.

July 6, 2009

With Friends Like These

This article also appeared in yesterday's Haaretz

There has been something almost grotesque about much of the mainstream Israeli reaction to post-election developments in Iran. Certainly one shouldn't be surprised that official Israel has viewed the situation as an opportunity to advance its arguments against the Islamic Republic's current leadership. This approach is probably legitimate, and Tehran's leaders most certainly deserve the rebukes. But Israeli discourse, especially among the commentariat, has gone well beyond that, becoming an occasion for bashing the Obama administration's supposed weakness in the face of the Iranian crisis.

Although Israeli political leaders have hinted at such criticism, it is really the analysts and commentators of the press who have set the tone. In so doing, large segments of the punditry class have indulged in an orgy of self-righteousness, while revealing an awful lot about their ignorance of Iranian affairs, of Israel's potential role in influencing developments, and indeed of the limitations on constructive external involvement in this situation.

Leading the attack have been Ari Shavit in Haaretz and Ben Caspit in Maariv, both echoing the approach of the now thoroughly discredited neoconservatives in the U.S. While most of America has moved on, the extremes of far-right rhetoric, advocating a more aggressive foreign policy, still resonate in Israel.

The Obama administration has so far managed to avoid the pitfalls of self-defeating grandstanding. And the American public is with its new president. A new CNN poll highlights that only 33 percent feel the president should be more belligerent, while the vast majority approve of Obama's handling of the situation, and oppose direct American intervention, or any U.S. military action. 

President Obama has achieved something that is both difficult and rare in national political life - he has demonstrated an ability to act on the understanding that while Americans may perceive their country as an unblemished beacon of freedom and democracy, the real-world perception of that image is not quite so generous, thereby rendering certain interventions, even rhetorical ones, counter-productive.

Obama appreciates that an over-enthusiastic embrace on his part of the Mousavi protesters would actually work against their interests. As he himself put it: "The last thing I want to do is have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States." And he has maintained this restraint in the face of rightist Republican calls for the president to "do more, do something." Obama is also clearly cognizant of the limitations of what the U.S. can actually do for the opposition in Iran; to make unkeepable promises would be beyond irresponsible, and also endanger the physical well-being of thousands.

The protesters themselves, and the overwhelming body of Iran experts in the U.S., have sided with Obama's line. Azadeh Moaveni, the Iranian author of "Lipstick Jihad," has been quoted as saying, "The protesters in Iran have a perhaps surprising view on Obama's cautious approach - keep it up."

This finely calibrated American approach was described just last week in these pages by Ari Shavit as "the paralysis that seized the king of the world in the face of Iranian evil - he [Obama] stammered and hesitated and apologized." Ben Caspit also bemoaned Obama's "stammering": Where is the wondrous rhetorical ability of Barack Obama?" he asked, calling him a "new version of [Neville] Chamberlain." Caspit, in an op-ed co-written with Maariv colleague Ben-Dror Yemini, did not stop there, also attacking Europe and the West in general, contrasting their supposed silence over Iran with their hyper-activism in responding to Operation Cast Lead and other Israeli misdemeanors in the territories.

Never one to be outdone, the Jerusalem Post's Caroline Glick accused the Obama administration of "effective support of the mullahs against their people."

Unfortunately, this is the kind of hypocrisy, self-indulgence and ultimately stupidity that Israel's punditocracy has been treating us to for the past fortnight.

Let's start with the hypocrisy. Caspit, on the eve of the Iranian election, did not make do with calling on Israelis "to convince friends in Iran to vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - [As] no one will serve Israel's PR interests better," he even offered to "pray that Ahmadinejad will win." Glick, post-election, went even further, arguing that if Israel led international support for Mousavi's supporters but later was "compelled to attack [Iran]," the protesters would understand and remember who had stood by them.

Neither Iranians nor the rest of the world are stupid. They can read. They can recognize Israeli self-interest and the lack of any genuine human empathy today from those very people who just weeks ago were agitating for their country to be bombed, or supported Ahmadinejad's re-election for selfish reasons. They are also aware of the regime of closure, checkpoints and violence imposed by Israel in the territories, including the over 900 civilians killed in January's Gaza operation. How can apologists for the occupation hold any appeal for the Tehran protesters?

Indeed, Israel needs to develop a self-awareness that, unfortunately, one effect of the continued occupation is the silencing of Israel's moral voice on the world stage.

But, most of all, what is happening today in Iran is simply not about Israel or America - it is about Iran. Iran expert Suzanne Maloney, of the Brookings Institution, in Washington, noted that, "No matter how much Americans like to think that they are shaping events in Iran, it's just not true." Israelis, too, should heed Maloney's advice. This is not about Israel.

Or as Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American and author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," said of the neocons and other Iran hawks who had supported military action and aggressive regime change in Iran, but belatedly embraced the Mousavi protesters: "You are offensive, go away."