Middle East Monitor

September 2011
Monthly Media Digest

By Ibrahim Hewitt, Zulaikha Abdullah and Samira Quraishy


Most of the Israel-Palestine media coverage in the USA in September focused on the Palestinian bid for recognition by the UN as an independent state.

In the run up to that event Roger Cohen tackled the ongoing spat between Israel and Turkey over the Freedom Flotilla killings in the wake of the leaking of the UN Palmer Report. In "Israel isolates Itself", he pointed out that "It's hard to imagine any other circumstances in which the slaying in international waters, at point-blank range, of a U.S. citizen by forces of a foreign power would prompt such a singular American silence." This was a reference to Furkan Dogan, one of nine killed by Israeli commandos on the MV Marmara.

Although Turkey's Prime Minister raised this with President Barack Obama, said Cohen, "of course no U.S. president, and certainly no first-term U.S. president, would say what Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said: 'The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable.' He continued, 'if there's an American citizen killed, raising such questions about Israel is a political no-no. So it goes in the taboo-littered cul-de-sac of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, a foreign policy that is in large measure a domestic policy.' That, of course, was reflected in Obama's response to the Palestinian move at the UN.

Instead of apologizing, which Cohen believes would be the right and sensible thing for Israel to do, the coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has pandered to the far-right. 'It's a typical case where coalition considerations trumped strategic thinking, and that's the tragedy,' Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli political scientist, told Cohen. Israel, added Avineri, needs "strategic wisdom". The lack of such wisdom, claims Cohen, has meant that Israel 'is losing one of its best friends in the Muslim world, Turkey'. Nevertheless, Cohen quotes Netanyahu's 'We need not apologize' mantra and points out that the Israeli Prime Minister has 'opted for a needless road to an isolation that weakens Israel and undermines the strategic interests of its closest ally, the United States'. In a damning indictment of the weakness of the US administration, Cohen closes with, 'Not that I expect Obama to raise his voice about this any more than he has over Dogan'.

An Editorial in the New York Times on 14 September was clear that 'Mr. Obama has not handled the Israeli-Palestinian issue adroitly'. Palestinians, said the NY Times, "certainly waited too long to begin negotiations, and Arab leaders failed to offer initiatives that might give Israel confidence that a serious deal was possible. But Mr. Netanyahu has been the most intractable, building settlements and blaming his inability to be more forthcoming on his conservative coalition." The Israeli leader has been "Egged on by Congressional Republicans, he has sought to embarrass Mr. Obama - astonishing behaviour for so close an ally that does not serve his own country's interest."

Such disdain for the US administration by Netanyahu and the effect that his policies have on American interests was highlighted by Thomas L Friedman, also in the NY Times. Writing on 17 September, Friedman's article is brilliant: "I've never been more worried about Israel's future," he wrote. "The crumbling of key pillars of Israel's security - the peace with Egypt, the stability of Syria and the friendship of Turkey and Jordan - coupled with the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel's history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation." Strong stuff; he adds that "This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel's leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America's."

In a nutshell, there we have two generally pro-Israel columnists on the New York Times, Thomas L Friedman and Roger Cohen, plus an Editorial in the same newspaper, pointing out that the pro-Israel Lobby does not always work in the interests of the United States of America. Which makes it even more amazing that a) US citizens largely keep quiet about this fifth column in their midst, and b) the US government acquiesces to Israel's and the Lobby's demands. Surely that's little short of treasonous?

A slightly different take on the conflict was written by Stanley Fish in a NY Times opinion piece. Fish looked at academic freedom, censorship and so on with a focus on the Israel-Palestine issue. Commenting on the protest by the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Centre that a possible dinner at Columbia University for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad would be "illegal" because of Iran's status in the US as "a state sponsor of terrorism", Fish pointed out that actually, it wouldn't be "material support" which is the main issue of such illegality. It is a complex argument, but according to Fish the First Amendment trumps later legislation when it comes to free speech and having Ahmedinejad to dinner and even giving him a platform to speak does not constitute the level of "material support" envisaged by the anti-terrorism legislation. He goes on to look at the whole issue of academia and boycotts/self-censorship of serious discussion on the Israel-Palestine issue. Worth reading if you have the time.

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