Responding to the appointment of George Mitchell as Barack Obama’s Mideast envoy, Abe Foxman has achieved something remarkable: He has outdone Marty Peretz in the tasteless-comment competition among the self-appointed cheerleaders of Israel. And Foxman did it without using words unprintable in this respectable blog.
Peretz, still listed as editor-in-chief of The New Republic, greeted the beginning of the Israeli air campaign in Gaza in December by describing its message as: “Do not f— with the Jews.”
The comment starkly revealed the psychology of a good many Diaspora hawks. No matter how successful they have been, no matter how successful Jews in general have been in America and other Western countries, they still feel a deep insecurity, a loathing for their own imagined weakness. When they think of Israel, they think of a Jewish boxer with a star of David on his trunks, womping a gentile. They have the pleasure of the spectator at the boxing ring, vicariously throwing the punch without having to take the pain of the blows. Meawhile, their own children go from high school to college, rather than to army service. Whenever another Jew questions the sense or the ethics of behaving in this fashion, they accuse him of self-hate. (Haim has already done a fine job of tearing apart this kind of thinking, so I won’t try to add more.)
Now comes Foxman. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League was asked by the Jewish Week’s Jim Besser to comment on President Obama’s appointment of Mitchell to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Here’s the response:
“Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed,” said Abraham Foxman […] “But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed’ – it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support.
“So I’m concerned,” Foxman continued. “I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East.”
Thanks, Abe. Heaven forfend that American policy should be afflicted with fairness. That Foxman would think this way is in itself merely disappointing, not shocking. It’s zero-sum thinking: even-handedness means a gain for Arabs, therefore a loss for Israel. It does not include the possibility that fairness will lead to peace, which will be better for Israelis and Palestinians (though perhaps damaging to Diaspora organizations whose fundraising depends on constant anxiety that Arabic-speaking cossacks will storm Israel, misimagined as shtetl.)
But expressing the thought, on the record, for publication, is an arrogance of record-setting proportion. Excuse me, he says to the president, you’re not supposed to be fair. You’re supposed to do our bidding. Really, to be that tasteless without four-letter words is impressive.
It’s a very small defense of Foxman that he was almost certainly taken by surprise by Mitchell’s appointment. Beforehand, discussion of who’d get the new post focused on Dan Kurtzer and Martin Indyk. Mitchell was Obama’s January surprise.
Mitchell’s experience includes negotiating an agreement to end the Northern Ireland conflict, which seemed as intractable as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In itself, the appointment hints that Obama is extremely serious about reviving peace efforts. Like a number of other Obama appointments of former senators and congressmen, it suggests that the president is aware that to carry out his agenda, he’ll have to work with Congress, rather than ignoring it or trying to overpower it. (Note to AIPAC: the game just began, and you are close to being in check.)
Foxman isn’t the only one worried. Shmuel Rosner, the neoconservative former Ha’aretz correspondent, writes in the New Republic about what really scares him in Mitchell’s 2001 report on the Second Intifada. It’s not the call to freeze settlement. Rather, say Rosner, it’s this:
The report says that “we were provided with no persuasive evidence that the [Ariel] Sharon visit [to Temple Mount in 2000] was anything other than an internal political act; neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising.” This was, arguably, the most devastating rebuke of Israel’s claims–what most Israelis believe today, and what the Bush administration eventually came to believe –that Arafat wanted, initiated, planned, and executed this terror campaign.
In other words, what scares Rosner is that Mitchell challenged the accepted Israeli narrative since 2000: that the failure of the Oslo process was entirely due to Palestinians’ unwillingness to make peace, that Arafat planned and initiated the uprising when he couldn’t get what he wanted through negotiations, that peace is therefore impossible. To bolster his own version of events, Rosner brings two remarkable proofs: Most Israelis believe otherwise, and the Bush administration believes otherwise.
Most Israelis believe otherwise because 1) it was politically expedient for both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon to claim that the intifada was premeditated, rather than to admit any errors of their own; 2) that explanation fits the uprising into the old narrative of timeless emnity; 3) every group in a conflict tends to see the other side as united and their own side as divided.
As for the Bush administration – uh, Shmuel, you want to think about that for a moment? Those folks aren’t in power any more. (Sing hallelujah, sisters and brothers, sing hallelujah.) And one reason they were so unpopular was their allergy to facts.
Examined coolly, the events in 2000 fit much more easily into Mitchell’s perspective. Sharon visited the Mount for internal political gains. Israel used too much force in dealing with demonstrations the day afterward. Deaths at Haram al-Sharif ignited violent protests, to which Israel responded in a manner akin to the Chelmites who tried to put out a fire by throwing logs on it: A show of force that ignited more fury.
Rosner doesn’t like this possibility. It means we might have made mistakes. It holds out the frightening possibility of peace. It demands of both Israelis and Palestinians to revise their stories of the past and their expectations of the future. This demand is precisely what’s needed to move forward.
Mitchell is expected here very soon. Before he arrives, I have two reading suggestions for him. First, check Mouin Rabbani’s article on how the Gaza War has rended Mahmud Abbas irrelevant. Rabbani’s writing is fire and ice: a mix of his usual restraint and righteous fury at Abbas’s behavior:
The reasons for Abbas’s demise are few, and they predate the Israeli attack on Gaza… Key to this is Abbas’s relationship to his people: simply put, it never existed. Arafat saw the Palestinians as the ace in the deck to be played when all else failed, and understood that his leverage with outside actors derived from their conviction that he represented the Palestinian people. If he consistently failed or refused to properly mobilise this primary resource, he at least always held it in reserve.
Abbas has by contrast been an inveterate elitist, who seems to have regarded the Palestinian population as an obstacle to be overcome so that the game of nations could proceed – there are after all only so many seats at the table where great statesmen like Abbas, George Bush and Ehud Olmert together create the contours of a new Middle East.
Second, check Yossi Alpher’s article on the absurdity of using siege tactics to convince Palestinians in Gaza to overthrow Hamas:
This economic-warfare strategy against Gaza has failed totally; indeed, it has proven counterproductive. Now is the right time for all involved to reconsider its usefulness and thereby raise a major contribution to long-term cease-fire efforts.
Yes, that means Mitchell faces a very difficult challenge. In order to promote Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he may need to promote internal Palestinian talks, aimed at creating a unified leadership with popular legitimacy.
Doing that will be just of one of the things that will inspire resistance from the government here and from the Diaspora hawks. Expect further competition for most tasteless comment.
Unlike Abe Foxman, I wish Mitchell success. Our futures might depend on it.