Friday, July 9, 2010

Is President Obama Caving in?

July 8, 2010...8:10 pm
Post Columnist Milbank Calls Obama-Bibi Meeting A “Surrender”Jump to Comments

by James M. Wall

Barack Obama swept into the White House, thanks, in part, to his political and oratorial skills.

He should have learned during his campaign for the US Senate that what he says about race relations at a Southern Illinois county fair will be reported in the African American wards in Chicago.

So what happened to those skills when he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu at the White House this week?

One day after what he described as an “excellent” White House meeting with Netanyahu, President Obama turned his back on the rest of the world, and focused tightly on confronting “the anxiety some Israelis feel toward him.”

The President was determined to reassure the Israeli public. But did he pause, even for a moment, to consider how his answers would sound to that part of the Israeli public that desperately wants him to stand up to Bibi?

Did he think how demeaning his answers were to Americans who want their president to be their president, and not pander to the prime minister of a foreign nation?

Did he stop to think that his answers would be harmful and offensive to the Arab/Muslim world? Worse yet, did he care?

Obama was interviewed by Israel’s Channel 2 network reporter Yonit Levy one day after his meeting with Netanyahu.

The story of the interview appeared in the Jerusalem newspaper, Ha’aretz.

Obama responded to Levi’s question by saying that some of the anxiety may stem from the fact that his “middle name is Hussein, and that creates suspicion.”

“Creates suspicion?” Please, Mr. President, the name Hussein is one you have previously said you carry proudly. What purpose is there in linking “Hussein” to “suspicion”. That is Fox News talk and we know what you think of Fox News.

The name Hussein “creates suspicion” only to small minded people who hate and fear Muslims. It is beneath Barack Obama to fall into that Fox News bigoted mindset by pandering to an Israeli television audience, most of whom know pandering when they see it.

Unfortunately, the President was just warming up. He went on to brag about the fact that two of his top staff members are Jewish:

Ironically, I’ve got a Chief of Staff named Rahm Israel Emmanuel. My top political advisor is somebody who is a descendent of Holocaust survivors.

The advisor, whom he does not name, is, of course, David Alexrod.

And I am reasonably certain that Alexrod would not have approved of the President Obama’s final comment on this topic:

My closeness to the Jewish American community was probably what propelled me to the US Senate.

That closeness did have a lot to do with the start of your national career, Mr. President, but it is not something you brag about when you claim to be working for a “peace agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Barack Obama has been in this political business long enough to know that what is said on Israeli television, does not stay on Israeli television. You are not in Las Vegas anymore, Mr. President.

Bragging about key advisors being Jewish and commenting like a political reporter about the start of your political career would not have impressed Israelis from the hard right political wing of Israeli politics.

Nor were they impressed by the President of the United States pandering to the Israeli prime minister who has yet to give the President even the slightest concession in negotiations with the Palestinian leadership.

Netanyahu made that clear even before he left on his triumphant return to Israel. Reuters reported:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled on Thursday he would not extend beyond September a 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in settlements in the West Bank.
“I think we’ve done enough. Let’s get on with the talks,” he said, when asked in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York whether he would extend the limited freeze he put in place to coax the Palestinians into peace negotiations.

Bibi Netanyahu does not have the slightest intention of making concessions to the Palestinians. Why should he? He has the US Congress in his back pocket. The American public remains under the sway of a decades-old Hasbara campaign that has created a false narrative that Israel is our only friend in the Middle East.

That narrative has been around a long time and its grip on American consciousness is appalling. It is a narrative that should be very much in President Obama’s mind as he confronts Netanyahu’s hard line stance.

Geoffrey Wawro explains how Israel’s power over the US has grown dramatically in his book, Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East:

Already in 1948, the Truman administration regretted the arrogance and brutality of Jewish ethnic cleansing in the Arab parts of Palestine but did nothing about it because of Cold War rivalry and fear of what Truman called the “pressure boys” of the Israeli lobby.

Each subsequent administration cried foul–”Henry, they can’t do that to us again,” Nixon wailed to Kissinger in 1973–but failed to crack down on Israeli foul play because of the same worries that creased Truman’s brow. (page 606)

The American media has, of course, long been under the control of Israel’s Hasbara (Hebrew for propaganda or explanation), but of late there have been signs that change may be on the way.

How else to explain a surprising column written by the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank, under the heading, Netanyahu hears no discouraging words from Obama.

A blue-and-white Israeli flag hung from Blair House. Across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Stars and Stripes was in its usual place atop the White House. But to capture the real significance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit with President Obama, White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender.

That is what we might refer to as an “ouch” opening paragraph. Read on, there is more:

Four months ago, the Obama administration made a politically perilous decision to condemn Israel over a controversial new settlement. The Israel lobby reared up, Netanyahu denounced the administration’s actions, Republican leaders sided with Netanyahu, and Democrats ran for cover.

So on Tuesday, Obama, routed and humiliated by his Israeli counterpart, invited Netanyahu back to the White House for what might be called the Oil of Olay Summit: It was all about saving face.

The president, beaming in the Oval Office with a dour Netanyahu at his side, gushed about the “extraordinary friendship between our two countries.” He performed the Full Monty of pro-Israel pandering: “The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable” . . .

For that small number of readers for whom “the Full Monty” might not be a familiar movie and play title which has given rise to a term now widely used, suffice it to say that not only does Milbank’s column evoke the image of surrender, he also manages to slip in a term that five years ago would never have made it past the Post’s Hasbara copy desk.

That my friends, is progress toward peace, real peace, not the peace going nowhere around a negotiating table, but progress toward peace that has begun to shatter the Hasbara grip on American politics.


Possibly related posts

Sunday, July 4, 2010

PC(USA) Moment of Truth

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is meeting presently in Minneapolis, among other things, to decide what to do with the Middle East Study Committee's report.
James Wall, a former editor of the Christian Century, has been following the ISraeli/Palestinian conflict closely for years. Here is his assessment of the stakes the descendants of John Calvin are facing this week. (JRK)

July 4, 2010...3:04 pm
219th Presbyterian Assembly Faces Its Moment of Truth

by James M. Wall

Presbyterian General Assembly delegates are in Minneapolis this week for their national gathering–held every two years–discussing, praying, arguing, and finally voting, on a wide variety of issues that will determine how the heirs of John Calvin will face the future.

This 219th General Assembly runs from July 3 through July 10.

In a nice bit of timing, John Calvin’s 500th birthday is celebrated on the final day of this year’s Assembly.

At some point during this week, the delegates (commissioners) will vote to approve or disapprove–parts or all–a report from their own Middle East Study Committee (MESC), a report two years in the making. written by a cross-section of church members, officials and clergy.

The MESC vote will be a moment of truth for the 219th Presbyterian General Assembly. Decisions made in Minneapolis will tell the world where the Presbyterian Church, USA, stands on Israel’s military occupation of 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

The question before the PCUSA delegates will be simple:

Do we place our moral stamp of approval on the status quo, and call for more dialogue with our American Jewish friends, or do we say to the world that the status quo is immoral, unsustainable and a blatant rejection of the finest traditions of the Jewish faith.

What brought the PCUSA to this moment of truth?

If you want to be ready to fully understand this background and what will be happening in Minneapolis this week, it helps to have a crib sheet.

The Israel/Palestine Mission Network provides the crib sheet on its website, complete with daily updates during the Assembly.

Noushin Framke is writing a daily blog on the IPMN page. Here is a sample from the first day of the Asembly:

Just got back from the moderator election – went so late cuz there were 6 candidates and then we had a hanging chad/diebold issue – voting machines were not working and it took a while to fix the issue – it is not 11 pm and they just adjourned.

Cindy Bolbach from Arlington, VA elected as new moderator – an elder [laity], not clergy – she sure has a keen sense of timing and humor – I like her; she gets it – reminds me of Bea Arthur! and to the question of what about civil unions, she said i am for it but this church is not! Yup – well said.

Jeff Halper [Jewish activist who runs the anti-house demolition NGO in Palestine] did a great talk today on “Is it really apartheid?” He just gets better and better. I recorded the audio – i will see if I can post it on the site soon. [Italics added]

These Assembly meetings can be invigorating and tense. At its previous national meeting in 2008, the General Assembly ran into strong opposition from supporters of Israel inside and outside the denomination who forced the creation of a Middle East Study Committee (MESC). At the time, this was seen as a delaying tactic described as a victory for supporters of Israel.

Two years later the delay is over and the 219th Assembly is in session. The MESC has done its work and is ready with its report.

Members of the Committee were appointed by the three most recent PC (USA) moderators.

The Middle East Study Group spent the past two years in meetings and study sessions, supplemented by trips to Israel/Palestine, where committee members met with both Israeli and Palestinian religious and secular leaders.

The MESC Report will bring eight recommendations to the Minneapolis meeting

A special GA committee, “Committee 14″, will assume legislative control of the MESC report, formally presenting it to the entire Assembly, where it will either be adopted, modified, or rejected.

Delegates who arrived in Minneapolis determined to support the CMES proposals have the additional backing of almost all of the living moderators, both lay and clergy of the PCUSA who presided over the denomination from 1976 through 2010.

These previous moderators sent a “Support Letter for the Middle East Study Committee”, signed by 17 previous moderators, endorsing the findings of the MESC Report and asking delegates to support the recommendations.

This Assembly arrives for its work after the United Kingdom’s National Methodist Conference held its meeting June 24 to July 1 in Portsmouth, England. Delegates to that Conference approved eleven resolutions in a report entitled “Justice for Palestine and Israel”.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, congratulated the Methodists for adopting “important and forward looking resolutions” and for action by the delegates that

called on the Methodist people “to support and engage with [the] boycott of Israeli goods” emanating from illegal settlements as their response to a call of the WCC in 2009, supported by Palestinian Christians in the “Kairos document” and a growing number of Jewish organizations, both inside Israel and worldwide.

The Conference also called for a full arms embargo as an important step towards a just peace in the region.

In addition to this favorable action from the British Methodists and the WCC, the Presbyterians in Minneapolis, should they support the findings of their CMES resolutions, will find considerable support outside the churches for favorable action.

One recent example of an important media voice speaking out against the Israeli policies comes from New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, who recently wrote from Gaza that Israel’s Occupation is “morally repugnant”.

In a second New York Times column, also written from Gaza, Kristof explored the tunnel system that has been getting around Israel’s blockade by trucking in supplies and materials through tunnels dug along the Egyptian/Gaza border.

After his visit to the tunnels, Kristof wrote that Israel should halt its blockade.

No amount of hasbara propaganda can resist the power of voices in the US, like an aroused church public and enlightened journalists like Kristof who have broken through the hasbara campaign barrier.

There is an encouraging parallel between a journalist of Kristof’s stature and the Presbyterian CMES members who made their own site visits to Palestine where they reached the conclusions that now appear in the CMES report to the General Assembly.

Hasbara as a tactic is losing some of its bite, yet another reminder of the wisdom in the phrase often used by Martin Luther King, Jr., “truth crushed to earth, will rise again”.

For those still unfamiliar with the term hasbara, Jane Adas provides a valuable description of the term in an essay she wrote for the November-December, 2009, issue of Link, a publication of Americans for Middle East Understanding (AMEU):

Hasbara literally means “explanation” and is often translated as “public diplomacy,” but can perhaps best be thought of as problem solving through marketing techniques, like rebranding (Israel as the victim of Hamas’ aggression), product placement (hide the Goldstone Report in the darkest, least-frequented corner of the shop), and promotional lingo (“The side that seems to want peace more will win…” from The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary).

Having identified the problem to be solved concerning Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon as Israel’s failure to explain its case, [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, soon after assuming office in February 2008, formed a National Information Directorate within the Prime Minister’s Office tasked with planning the media campaign for the Gaza operation and headed by “hasbara czar” Yarden Vatikay.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a strong pro-Israeli NGO in California, headed by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, has been a leading hasbara opponent of the MESC report.

Knowing the report was being developed, the Wiesenthal Center launched an all-out hasbara attack on the MESC report, long before the report was written.

The Wiesenthal Center sent out alerts to its own constituency and to members of the Presbyterian Church, especially delegates to the GA, urging them to send e-mails critical of the yet-to-be published report, to the Louisville headquarters of the denominations.

Members of the academic community are often recruited as hasbara “agents” for reasons future psychological studies will have to determine. No doubt “Friends of Israel” faculty colleagues, either from ethnic, academic or religious motivations, are helpful in making Israel’s case in long chats in the faculty lounge or at academic conferences. They may even have traveled together to visit Israel.

I earlier commented on the essay that appeared in the Christian Century before the start of this current General Assembly. The essay was written by Vanderbilt University Divinity School professors Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine.

If the delegates want to read a counter theological argument, supporting the CMES report, delivered without venom, I suggest they read a letter from my Jewish friend and colleague, Mark Braverman, which he has submitted to the Christian Century in response to the Smith-Levine essay.

Here is the opening portion of Mark’s letter:

The intent of the Presbyterian Middle East Study Group Report “Breaking Down the Walls” is clear: “To break down these walls that stand in the way of the realization of God’s peaceful and just kingdom.”

But in their critique of the report published in your June 29 issue, Ted Smith and Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, strike at the heart of this message. They ask us to believe that the report advocates “a historical narrative that points indirectly to a single state—a new social body—in which a Palestinian majority displaces Jews.”

In a shocking distortion of the Study Group’s evocation of Ephesians 2:14, they claim that “’Breaking down the walls’ in order to form ‘one new humanity in the place of two’ evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism and transposes them into a political key.”

“Old habits die hard,” lament Smith and Levine. But it is the habit of crying anti-Semitism whenever Jewish sensibilities are disturbed or the actions of the State of Israel are questioned that we must urgently confront.

Before you vote in Minneapolis this week, you sons and daughters of John Calvin, read the entire text of Mark Braverman”s letter, which is posted here.

Years from now, when you remember this week, something tells me you will be grateful that Mark Braverman, a Jewish author, shared with us his timely reading of Ephesians 2:14.